Friday, May 20, 2005

Raging Rivers

At 10:45 a.m. Thursday I met Mike Wall of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) for a visit to the main drain tunnel of the Gold Run Diggings, which debouches into Canyon Creek at the end of the Old Wagon Road. With Mike were his assistants, Amy and Kyle. Mike's objective was to sample the waters of the tunnel for mercury contamination.

I obtained permission to park at Bob & Judy's place out on Garrett Road, since the road to the head of the Paleobotanist Trail is now blocked. Ron Gould awaited us there. A steady light rain fell as we set off into the Diggings, forded strangely huge Potato Ravine Creek, and met the Paleobotanist. The sky was auspiciously bright, and we hoped for the best.

Last Monday Catherine and Leslie and I had seen the North Fork running quite high and somewhat muddy, after a warm storm had started melting the big snowpack in the high country. Canyon Creek had been high, but not exceptionally so; there is no snow to melt, now, in its upper basin.

Tuesday night a light rain set in, becoming a steady heavy rain Wednesday morning. This lasted through the day Wednesday, and all through the night. Snow level, above 8000'. Thursday morning the rain turned to showers. I woke up around four in the morning and checked the North Fork Dam stream-gauge website. The river had climbed to over 12,000 cfs and was rising rapidly. I stayed up for a while and saw it reach 14,500 cfs, gaining over 1000 cfs/hour.

The meeting and water-sampling hike with the NRDC folks had been scheduled for a week, but I began to think in these terms: first, leading them to the Big Tunnel, and then second, abandoning them and dashing down to the North Fork, to see the rarely high flows. At four in the morning I shot an email to Ron and Catherine, with the stream-flow data pasted in, suggesting we take a look at the waterfalls and the river.

By ten in the morning the North Fork had risen to 17,500 cfs.

Having driven up from San Francisco itself, I was surprised that the NRDC folk were at the Gold Run exit on time. So strange, to go from the streets of San Francisco to the wilds of the North Fork, in a few hours.

Mike wished to obtain reference samples upstream from the tunnel system, so we first visited the North and the South shafts in the main pit of the Gold Run Ditch & Mining Co., where they worked through the entire 400-foot section of sediments, right to the bedrock floor of the Eocene South Yuba river. Millions of cubic yards of gravel washed through the shafts and tunnels, to Canyon Creek and the North Fork.

From the pit we broke out of the Diggings into Potato Ravine East and picked up the Canyon Creek Trail. The creek was loud, and very big, and as we reached the Old Wagon Road and had our first good looks at the thing, I said, "The bridge is gone!"

There was some chance it was still there. I asked the NRDC folk if they wanted to get a look at the waterfalls; they did, so it was decided that Ron and I would await them near the bridge, and they would join us after gathering samples, from the tunnel, from Canyon Creek upstream of the tunnel, and also from a point downstream.

It was a joyous moment to see the bridge still there, unmoved, two or three feet above a raging torrent of whitewater. We crossed and took our packs off.

It was still raining lightly and the wait grew long. Ron and I made a quick visit to Waterfall View, and saw, instead of one, four waterfalls breaching gaps in the cliff-top. It was all rain and spray and fog and thunder and a loud hissing which permeated everything.

After about forty-five minutes, the NRDC people joined us, a daring bunch, picking their ways calmly across the narrow bridge and up the rain-slick rocks. We were all wet. Earlier, Amy had slipped into a creek in the Diggings, and wetted her boots. Now all boots were wet. At least, mine were, I might as well have stepped into a creek myself.

Being wet already has its advantages. The worry of getting wet was removed. We could descend the trail laughing at the million grass stalks laden with water, the hundreds of bushes shaking their little deluges upon us.

I was a little surprised at how hardy these NRDC folks were. A rough little trail crossing steep cliffs was nothing to them. We took the cross-country route to the base of the Big Waterfall and paused a while in its spray; it was raining anyway, so why be shy.

Canyon Creek was huge and every waterfall differed very much from its usual appearance. The Big Waterfall is usually a two-stepped affair; now it was one almost unbroken fall, the "step" hidden in swirling whitewater.

Then down the tiny trail past the Terraces, which some recent campers violated by building a fire in the middle of one terrace. Back on the main trail, we stopped at the amazing overlook-spot, where one can look almost straight down to the North Fork, and up the canyon to the Pinnacles and Giant Gap.

The river covered every bit of its channel bank-to-bank, all the rough old gravel bars with their big boulders underwater. When Catherine and Leslie and I had seen it, it was somewhat reddish-brown with suspended clay.

Now the North Fork was an odd grey color, which I deduced was imparted by suspended sand. I expect that a million little sand beaches will appear along the river, as it recedes.

Here the NRDC folk consulted the time and decided to start back up the trail. Ron and I wanted a closer look at the river, so we continued down the trail to its end, and spent half an hour looking around and taking photographs.

At long last the rain had stopped. The sky glowed brighter. I had developed quite a hot spot on my left heel, from wearing my ski boots in the vain hope of keeping my feet dry, this time, and I stripped off boots and socks for a look. A big blister had formed, popped, and drained down. No amount of tightening my laces had stopped that left foot from rubbing up and down at the heel. I took the drastic measure of stuffing my boots in my pack and making the two-and-a-half-mile hike up and out in my bare feet.

I had my doubts about this, for I don't go barefoot all that often, but it worked rather well. No more heel pain, and really it was nice to feel the earth itself, to feels rocks warming slowly in the weak sunshine--yes, we actually had shadows, blurred shadows, yes, but shadows, on most of the hike out!.

Anyhow, it was fine, I just had to be more careful where and how I stepped on that rocky little trail. I liked dead leaves and live grasses, for they cushioned the sharp little pebbles which covered so much of the path.

When we rolled into Bob & Judy's we found that the crafty and able NRDC folk had mysteriously found their own way back through the Diggings and up to the house--quite an achievement, for their first time ever in the area!--and had beaten us by full forty-five minutes.

Hence they could not have rested much if at all, in ascending the trail.

It was a great great day in the great canyon, and quite a privilege to see the North Fork during such high flows. The last such were in the late 1990s.

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