Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Giant Gap Odyssey

Just as I was trying, last week, to inspire several friends to make a Sunday odyssey into the mega-waterfall in Big Granite Canyon, I learned that another odyssey had already been planned, for that same Sunday. This other odyssey meant hiking from Green Valley west to Canyon Creek, through famed Giant Gap.

Of course the Giant Gap Odyssey took precedence, after all, it actually *had* precedence, except that misty calendar of appointments in my aged and misty mind had somehow misplaced it.

Ron Gould, his kayaking friend Steve, Catherine O'Riley, Tom McGuire, and I were to meet at 9:30 Sunday morning and blaze down the Green Valley Trail towards a blaze of incipient glory. I convinced my son Greg to abandon his GameBoy for a day and join us. Greg has been on some truly epic hikes in recent years, and it's a wonder he isn't permanently jinxed, afraid to set foot on any trail at all. Plus, his older sister is "cool" and she hates hiking. It was a near thing, but Greg joined us.

This hike of seven miles follows the Green Valley Trail, the Giant Gap Canal Trail (or HOUT), and the Canyon Creek Trail to make a semi-circumambulation of Moody Ridge. It is a rough old piece of walking with some genuine rock-climbing thrown in for good measure. Around 1900 a mining engineer of probable Dutch Flat origins (Russell Dunn) tried to interest the City of San Francisco in the North Fork American River, for its principal water supply. He had a detailed brochure printed, with an etching of the engineers' camp in Green Valley on the cover, but more importantly for the purposes of our Odyssey, he hired some men to "break grade" through Giant Gap.

A narrow but discontinuous trail, often only a foot wide, if that, resulted.

They drilled and blasted many a cliff, and stacked up many a stone, along the line of the proposed Giant Gap Canal. The Canal would drop a scant ten feet per mile, while the North Fork itself drops more than 100 feet per mile, through Giant Gap. Hence grade stood about 100 feet above the river at the west end of Green Valley, but more like 300 feet above the river near Canyon Creek.

Two tunnels were made in the worst, cliffiest part of Giant Gap, below Lovers Leap. The East Tunnel seems to have fallen but a few feet short of penetrating its narrow rock-spur or rock-blade; the West Tunnel goes all the way through its rock-blade.

In this cliffiest section, to blast a bench-cut one foot wide could mean moving a thousand tons of rock. So the men breaking grade often contented themselves with ad hoc trails dropping steeply down, and then climbing steeply back up, to the line of the Canal. Thus they would pass the impassable cliffs.

The project was abandoned. Work stopped. A century went by, and then Ron Gould and I started exploring the old canal trail in earnest. It was difficult to imagine that the thing could actually traverse Giant Gap. The cliffs are so very steep. A century of vegetative growth, punctuated by wildfires, a century of rockslides large and small, and monstrous storms washing sediment down the canyon walls, had effectively disguised very much of the--what shall we call it?--The Grade.

So by fits and starts we found it and followed it farther and farther until at last it could not be denied that some kind of trail-like thing went all the way through.

In early July 2003 Ron and I made the first complete traverse of Giant Gap on The Grade, from west to east, finishing with the over-2000' climb out of Green Valley.

This time it would be east to west, finishing with the steep, but only 1400', climb up Canyon Creek.

It was sunny and clear and warm on the south-facing serpentine slopes above Green Valley. Blue penstemon and golden mini-sunflowers and fragrant purple Mustang Mint lined the trail. In an hour we were at the river, at the very end of the west branch of the GVT. Hydraulic mines in an impressively large glacial outwash terrace were just above us, and a deep pool stretched away west towards the great promontory of Lovers Leap, to the west.

The high flows of May 19th had rearranged things there, scouring a fresh cut into a sandbar left from the January 1997 flood event, ten feet above the level of the pool, and smashing up the willows bordering the pool, bending them over and tangling driftwood in their willowy tresses. We found the shade of a White Alder and Tom and Greg stripped down and swam and played in the cold fast water.

The North Fork was crystal clear, high and fast and cold for this late in the year.

After a good long break we set off west along river right, over large boulders and around or over little serpentine bosses and spurs. The line of the Giant Gap Canal was soon above us, but impassable; the serpentine being too fractured, and too many sections of The Grade had slipped away or been buried in scree, over the last century.

After half a mile of boulder-hopping, we reached a spring close to the west edge of the Melones serpentine, where the serpentine is in faulted contact with metavolcanics of the late-Paleozoic Calaveras Complex. I think of this spring as a child of the fault zone, where the rock is, relatively speaking, more fractured, and more able to hold and convey groundwater. Here a tangle of California Grape vines and blackberry canes grow beneath the shade of White Alders.

And here in this tangle we climbed away from the river and followed a ridiculous half-trail up and up and then across steep slopes and then up and up and then across, winding in and out and back and forth, but finally rising to the sublime level of The Grade. Here, in the Calaveras Complex, it is a noble thing, a broad ledge blasted from solid rock.

Soon we reached blind and unfinished East Tunnel and took another break. There was no point in hurrying ourselves. The sun was terribly bright, and we took advantage of shade when possible. In the shade of East Tunnel we rested and snacked.

Almost so soon as we found The Grade we left it, dropping steeply a hundred feet down and then back up, regaining the level Grade and soon reaching the Big Overhang. This is like a half-tunnel carved from the cliffs. Wonderful views straight down into the sparkling river and across the canyon to the Pinnacles. Kayakers and rafters appeared and disappeared.

Continuing, we reached The Slide, a broad rock-slide and something of a water-course, where The Grade is sketched in, sketched, yes, but diminishes all too quickly: two feet wide, one foot, six inches with two-foot gaps, two inches with four-foot gaps, and then--nothing one can stand on, anyway, although traces continue. One must just forge on out there until nothing remains, and then some easy rock-climbing leads down and across the last sixty yards or so. Below, a polished plunge steepens out of view. So the climbing is easy, but the danger is extreme. Very cautiously we crossed.

Ron had the idea of bringing a rope along, and here as at several other places, various members of our party roped up and were belayed over the scary sections.

We climbed back up to another marvelous little section of The Grade, but were soon forced down, but then back up--or was it further down?--and at last we reached West Tunnel. Here a broad ledge leads along a cliff to the tunnel. The only problem is that this broad ledge has a broad gap which has unsatisfying footholds and untenable handholds. The rope came out again, and after a time we were all in the tunnel, perhaps a hundred feet in length, opening into sheer-walled Tunnel Gully on the west, and offering that tiny glimpse of Big West Spur to the west.

Another long break, and then we were faced with returning across the ledge-with-the-gap, which is a little more difficult in that direction. Once we were all across, another deep descent was required to turn the corner into Tunnel Gully itself, followed by a steep climb up the floor of the gully, and then a short climb up a vertical cliff. Again the rope came into play, and then we were on Terrace Top, west of Tunnel Gully, and with no more rock climbing of any consequence for the rest of the way.

Another long break. I should say that the incredible bloom of spring 2005 continues into the summer. We had seen very much Two-lobed Clarkia, or Brandegee's Clarkia, as this somewhat rare subspecies is called, after Katharine Brandegee, a botanist of this general area from near a century past. We had seen much of what I take to be the Royal Larkspur, often two feet tall, with deep dark blue flowers. And then there were the native onions, and the Mustang Mint, and so many other flowers; Harvest Brodiaea were quite prominent.

So we enjoyed the sight of many thousands of these flowers, scattered along The Grade. Terrace Top was especially fine with flowers.

For a ways west of Terrace Top, The Grade resumed intact, but at Lovers Leap Ravine the old trail suddenly climbs two hundred feet higher, passing a series of cliffy spurs, before dropping to Onion Point. From Onion Point to Canyon Creek there is easy going. We were all tired and plodded along, resting a little from time to time. A haze of cirrus clouds softened the sunshine, and then, as we'd planned, the sun dropped below the canyon rim and we had shade for the steep climb up and out.

The Canyon Creek Trail proved to be a wonderland of flowers, Brandegee's Clarkia growing in patches of a thousand flowers to a patch. Amazing!

We became scattered along the trail up, and Greg and Tom and I reached the Land Rover first, Catherine ten minutes after, and Ron and Steve another ten or twenty minutes after that. It was near sunset. We piled into the Rover and circled back towards Alta and our point of beginning, all well pleased with an unusually difficult hike, difficult but extremely beautiful.

I can't exaggerate the wonders of Giant Gap. This is a gorge among gorges.

It was an especially memorable and enjoyable Odyssey in the North Fork canyon.

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