Monday, June 13, 2005

Visit to New York Canyon

For various reasons I'd put off visiting the 500-foot waterfalls in New York Canyon until too late in the spring to see them at high flows, but, better late than never.

Still, I can't help but feel irritated that my religiously and often-reiterated Grand Plan, the plan for my hiking buddies to spend their money to rent snowmobiles, so I could ride in all the comfort of a king up to Sailor Flat Trail, and then down it, so ever far as possible, never came to fruition.

Despite months of trying!

At any rate, good old Tom McGuire, who lives in Berkeley and hikes and bikes every which way--California, Utah, all over the place--good old Tom had the brilliant idea to visit New York canyon on Sunday, June 12th, and we simply made it happen. We met early at the Raley's in Auburn, stashed my Subie in the parking lot, and drove Tom's shiny mini-SUV up Foresthill Road to where the snow stopped us, on Canada Hill, elevation, 6600'.

Ron & Catherine and I had been there a few days before; nothing had changed, and I fully expected to walk a couple miles over snow before we would have dropped low enough on the Sailor Flat Trail to get clear of the stuff.

Tom, by the way, is a tall man, well-built, with brown hair in a short pony-tail and a quick smile, an artist and writer and adventurer who somehow lives in the very Hive of Civilization and works in an office for the University.

I always accuse him of being Politically Correct. He might as well accuse me of being a hiker. But he does pronounce manzanita "monzoneetah," in complete disregard for the old-time white-Californian purposeful slur on the Hispanic component of our history, the slur which makes an almost nasal "a" out of almost every Spanish "ah."

So that we now always say Sack-ramento, not Sock-ramento.

Oh well. Many were the 49ers from Pike County, Missouri.

A large party of hikers and runners were gathering themselves for a charge to Robinson Flat, a few miles up the road, and Tom and I quietly marveled that, sturdy and adventurous as they were, they had no clue that a scant two miles away, one of the largest waterfalls in California was spawning rainbows in clouds of spray. We almost had to tell them. But, it is a secret.

Perhaps better for them not to know. I have a feeling that those shapely legs, so artfully exposed, so carefully shaved, were never meant to crash the brushfields of New York Canyon. Permanent scarring would be the certain outcome.

They swiftly disappeared over the snow and Tom and I trudged along after. To my surprise, after passing the first big patch, the road opened up, and except for a minor snowfield at Sailor Flat, and another down the Sailor Flat Road where we'd abandoned Catherine's Land Rover last June, in a fit of prudence, we were able to just plain walk on the road.

We passed the first high hump on Canada Hill and soon reached the second high hump.

"This is where the dividing ridge between the East and West Forks of New York Canyon meets Canada Hill," I explained to Tom, who appeared quizzical and confused. "We could follow this ridge right down to the Chert Dome, and save ourselves at least a mile, if we were brave."

To Tom this was a mysterious and inconceivable idea. I let it drop and we strode along to Sailor Flat, crunched over a hundred yards of snow, and set off down the road towards the North Fork.

Sailor Flat itself is a wet meadow at the head of the road, on the north side of the Foresthill Divide. The name likely harks back to the Gold Rush and a group of sailors who were prospecting the area, or who perhaps had a camp down on the North Fork itself. Similarly, New York Canyon would have been named for a party of 49ers from New York.

A sign informed us that the Sailor Flat Jeep Trail was one and one-half miles in, the North Fork, four miles. It's a ways over three thousand feet descent to the river from that sign. Most but not all people use a 4WD of some kind to drive down to the end of the jeep trail, which is a mite less than 2000' above the river.

The road and jeep trail follow down the ridge dividing New York Canyon on the west from Sailor Canyon on the east.

About a mile down the Sailor Flat road one breaks out of the Red Fir forest into an open brushy area. Here I had noted, on my special Forest Service edition of the Duncan Peak 7.5 minute quadrangle, that a smaller road forking away east at this brushy area was "the" Sailor Flat Trail. So I talked Tom into giving it a try, as it had looked, on the map, to save some distance over the present main road.

It dropped steeply and straightly down to the beginning of the Jeep Trail, and was, in fact, clearly the very same trail, although somewhat disrupted by recent logging in the area.

The jeep trail continues steep and we made quick work of dropping down to a level area where our secret route to the falls forks away left. This route is so terribly secret that I myself can't remember its course from one visit to the next. We blundered through some heavy timber into a Kellogg's Black Oak forest and gradually gradually found ourselves on a major game trail. After a time a little flat, well-covered in Green Manzanita, is reached. One merely has to drop away west into a ravine of sorts, and find the almost invisible human trail which crosses this ravine to a mining prospect, a conical pit about six feet deep and twelve feet across.

If one cannot find this pit, it is best to give up on reaching the falls. There is what Saddam Hussein might call the Mother of All Brushfields between the ravine and a line of cliffs to the west. The crossing of this brushfield is the crux. From the prospect pit, it can be done. Anywhere else, watch out.

We dropped away a little too vigorously and wasted fifteen or twenty minutes looking too far down the ravine for the prospect-pit crossing. Last year I had looked too high, this year, too low. Finally we had to tough it out and climb and climb and climb until at last the proper crossing was found.

Along the way we found another old human trail, crossing the ravine lower down. It, however, was swiftly swallowed by the Mother of All Brushfields.

We thrashed on across to the cliffs, where a nice little ramp leads up out of the brush to a rocky flat, where we rested, snapped some photos, and then continued on a wildly rambling path down, and back and forth, and through some woods, and up, and finally out onto open rocky slopes dotted with hundreds of Mariposa Tulips, much Stonecrop, and much Sierra Pride penstemon, in full bloom. The East Fork was a couple hundred yards below us, and we could look across the dividing ridge to the west side of the West Fork. The Chert Dome was below, almost out of sight.

The East Fork was flowing along merrily but modestly; it was indeed weeks late to see the falls at anything like high flows. We rested again. It was near noon and the sun was very bright and shade was very welcome. We were a couple hundred yards above the top of the big waterfall, at an easy crossing point which gives onto a bear trail most convenient for a cliffy traverse to Chert Dome.

The whole area is threaded by bear trails, and you will sometimes see, in mossy ground, semi-permanent bear tracks, little hollows pressed into the moss over a period of years; for bears seem much given to stepping in the exact same spots, again and again and again.

Add to this that their hind feet land exactly on the spots just vacated by their front feet, and you see how a bear trail can often show very deep footprints, little almost circular shallow hollows, six inches across.

Having rested and dined, Tom jumped and I forded the crystalline stream, and a short climb in hot sun brought us out onto steep cliffs, where, as usual, I lost the almost-invisible optimal path, and we ended up doing a bit of a scramble up the steeps to gain the thing, which led us to a roughly 500-foot descent to Chert Dome.

Most of the area is cut into the Shoo Fly Complex metasediments, here more deformed and twisted than is usual, with quite a bit of thrust faulting and folding and the abrupt juxtaposition of different formations. Masses of grey and white chert are common. One of these, low on the divide between the East and West forks of New York Canyon, forms Chert Dome, at about 4400' elevation.

We hewed to cliff-edge on our way down and were rewarded by a series of different views of main falls. The East Fork approaches a sheer cliff in a narrow gorge and then plunges in wispy rainbowed spray hundreds of feet. Depending on whether you add some upper and lower falls to the tally or not, this waterfall is called 500 feet or 640 feet high.

As we neared the little pass before Chert Dome I spotted some long-trodden bear footprints in moss and we followed them out to a clifftop perch with an exceptionally fine view of the awesome waterfall. I often see these bear trails leading out to cliffy perches with exceptional views.

Tom marveled at the deep bear prints, but, Tom marvels at everything.

Soon we were at our destination, Chert Dome, and took shelter beneath a tiny Canyon Live Oak clinging to the summit, scarcely four feet high but overhanging some rock ledges in just such a way that we could rest in the shade. Otherwise we would have really cooked in that bright sunshine.

We had an unobstructed view of the very amazing and beautiful waterfalls from comfortable rock chairs in the shade.

With a climb of 2200 feet ahead of us, up to the Foresthill Road, I began wondering about the Dividing Ridge again. It would have to save us a mile, maybe a mile and a half. The climb would be no different, elevation-wise. The only question was, how bad would the brush really be? For in the course of about ten visits to New York Canyon I have come to respect and fear the many brushfields. There have been times in which I put myself way, way out into one, and thought, "Oh well, it's terrible, but only a couple hundred yards to go, and it won't, at least, get any worse!"

And then it does get worse. Much worse. But once in the middle of one of those nightmare patches, it is hard to wave the white flag and sound a retreat.

Well. I ran the Dividing Ridge idea past Tom, and although he seemed reluctant, trooper that he is, he agreed to a try.

He marveled that I would even consider such a thing.

We followed back up the same cliff-edge route we'd just followed down, and then contrived to climb steeply to the crest of the Divide, and follow the crest itself on up. We noticed that a bear trail also followed the crest, in places quite well-defined, and marked with scat of the spring fashion, all black and grassy. A climb of several hundred feet brought us to a certain pass on the ridge I had visited a couple years ago, with Gus Wiseman. Some giant Sugar Pines grow there, and suddenly the ridge crest rises very steeply above, in cliffs.

We rested in the forest shade and I scouted the pass for a bear trail leading to the east face of the cliffs above. I knew from my last visit that on the west of this pass, the brush was extreme. And we had seen that east face from below; steep, but passable, we had guessed.

Soon enough a bear trail of the highest order was found. By this I mean a trail one might mistake for an old human trail. It had a distinct and broad trail-bed and wound up through brush towards that exact eastern area we had deemed passable. It could not be seen unless one was actually on it, with all the Huckleberry Oak.

Following it, we broke out into rocks and the trail became, if possible, even better-defined.

Tom, a word-smith, dubbed it the Ursine Trail. We followed it up and up and up, past one terrace-like summit to the next steep and cliffy rise to the next little summit, and so on. Occasionally we may have lost this wonderful Ursine Trail, as we had a couple of out-and-out rock climbs, where a bear would have taken a more sensible line.

After a climb from the Chert Dome of over 1500 feet, we reached a large step or broad pass on the crest of the ridge, hundreds of yards long, and near level, but filled with Green Manzanita and Huckleberry Oak.

Exactly what we had feared.

The Ursine Trail seemed to split into multiple lines which entered the heavy brush at many points, not one of which looked at all good.

After a long reconnaissance of the area, east and west, hoping for a long way around of some kind, we gave up and entered the sea of tangled stiff branches. Here we could often only walk on top of the brush. Towards the southern end we reached signs of logging from twenty years ago, and found a road which wound up on the eastern side of things. Another road stayed more west, and as it offered the more direct line, we followed it over snow until it ended and then zig-zagged up through fir forest and snow to the crest, on the next step higher.

From there it was easy going, although we were again and again deceived into thinking we had topped out and finally made an end to that endless climb from Chert Dome. The snowfields became larger and larger and at long last we reached the Foresthill Road.

Tom marveled at this, apparently never having really trusted my "theory" that one single ridge leads from the Chert Dome up to Canada Hill. Since he has been on two hikes into New York Canyon with me now, on both of which I managed to lose the way and have trouble finding that damn Prospect Pit crossing of the Nameless Ravine and the Mother of All Brushfields, I suppose he can be forgiven for doubting my theories of route.

We were not much more than a quarter-mile from his shiny little SUV and soon reached it, to find the earlier party of the shapely shaven legs gone, and one kindly-looking man resting on the tailgate of his SUV, reading a book.

It proved he was waiting for his wife and others, who had set out that morning from Squaw Valley for a run over the upper 30 miles of the Western States Trail. It was now a little after five in the afternoon. I had a feeling of foreboding that his wife and the rest might have had considerable difficulty, and that the kindly bookish man would have along wait, maybe past sunset, before they'd arrive.

Tom and I settled into the comfortable seats for the long drive down to Auburn. He marveled at how good it felt to get off his feet. It had been a long and wonderful day in New York Canyon. The Ursine Trail would be my own route of choice to hike down to the big waterfall from Canada Hill, if only there was a way around that one brushfield.

More exploration is needed, as usual. The best things in life are free, but not always easy.

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