Friday, June 17, 2005

Visit to Secret Canyon

Thursday morning I met Ron Gould for a visit to Secret Canyon, a tributary of the North Fork of the Middle Fork of the American River.

It's really all TNF archeologist Nolan Smith's fault. He sent me a fascinating gloss from the 1879 "Report of Professor R.H. Stretch on the Iowa Hill Canal and Gravel Mines, Placer County, California," in which various tributary ditches were named, including the Secret Canyon Branch.

I will refer to the Iowa Hill Canal as the IHC, the Secret Canyon Branch as the SCB.

In a previous message I described explorations along the IHC east of the Beacroft Trail. This must be about 25 miles northeast from Foresthill. The Beacroft drops north to the North Fork American from a pass on the Foresthill Divide, at about 5500' elevation. Little Secret Canyon drops away south from this pass. Near where one parks to hike the Beacroft, a mining ditch may be seen on the east side of the pass, a ditch which mysteriously disappears into a trench.

The trench is a collapsed tunnel which led under the pass, and the ditch is the SCB.

Unfortunately, the SCB has been much damaged by logging and logging roads. It would have made a fine trail, following an almost level line south and east out of Little Secret Canyon into Secret Canyon, over a distance of three or four miles.

What Ron and I hoped was that the more easterly part of the SCB would have remained intact. So we drove on past the Beacroft to Ford Point and took the rough little road south a quarter-mile until an even rougher road broke away east. Following this, we scratched the Subie pretty well on the flanking manzanita, and drove over so many little pines sprouting from road center that their needles became engrossed within the catalytic converter and began burning. So, in a cloud of piney perfume we bumped along until the bumps became too daunting, and parked.

Dropping straight down the hillside, through a logged area where many larger trees remained, but where bulldozers had scrambled every which way, we caught sight of the SCB below us, blessedly intact, and we were very pleased to see that TNF had kept the logging bulldozers well away from the historic ditch.

Following it east, we immediately came upon a major rockslide of very recent vintage. Every trace of the canal was gone; perhaps a cliff had been rounded by a flume, originally, but it was impossible to say. A rubble of fresh scree and talus extended almost all the way down to Secret Canyon creek, a few hundred feet below us.

I'd guess this rock slide happened no earlier than January 1997. It looks awfully fresh. Or, it may have been breaking away and sliding in many episodes over recent centuries, and the most recent of these was five or so years ago.

We found an easy way to cross above the cliffy slide area, and were soon back on the canal.

It was a modest thing, perhaps four feet wide and three feet deep, tho much filled in by erosion. It had a nice berm, broad enough for easy walking, tho often overgrown.

Rounding a curve, we came upon a completely open section of the old canal. An old trail descended to the canal from the west and north.

Suddenly able to see the forest despite the trees, we found ourselves in a fairly wild part of Secret Canyon. There is heavy timber on both sides, with a scattering of huge old Sugar Pines and Douglas Fir. An understory of White Fir and Douglas Fir, along with many shrub species, more or less plainly indicates the results of fire suppression over the last century. What had once been a more open, fire-adapted forest with scattered large Sugar Pines, Ponderosa-Jeffrey Pines, and Douglas Fir, is evolving into a true fir and Douglas Fir forest.

At any rate there are some really fine old trees of a tremendous size back there in Secret Canyon.

And now the old canal was easy to follow. It was clearly a maintained trail. Where large trees had fallen across the canal, a large chainsaw had cut them away from the berm.

Had we stumbled upon a little-known TNF trail?

Following the canal, we came upon a giant Sugar Pine with a bundle of four or five fifteen-foot-long, eight-inch-diameter riveted iron pipes, of the sort used for mining penstocks a century or more ago. The pipes were lashed onto the base of the giant tree.

And then, a little ways along, we came upon a trail dropping away from the canal towards the creek, where a ramshackle shingled miner's cabin stood on a little flat.

Apparently this is or was a mining claim on TNF lands. We were very close to the "take," where the waters of Secret Canyon had been diverted into the SCB.

We could see another old ditch on the far side of Secret Canyon, about 25 feet higher than the SCB, and being curious, we crossed the creek and climbed up to it.

To our surprise there was a lot of old flume lumber along the ditch, with round nails. Round nails came into general use around 1900. It looked to me as tho this flume lumber was much younger than that, perhaps dating to the 1930s, or even later.

Ron mentioned that this ditch showed on the Duncan Peak quadrangle, and led out of Secret Canyon south to the American Hill Mine. Later I saw that it also shows on the current TNF map, as tho it were an active ditch, drawn as a solid blue line with little arrows along it, pointing downstream.

Both the SCB and this ditch are a little below the 5600-foot contour, there in Secret Canyon.

We followed it about a mile to the west and south, crossing some springy areas where the ditch was flooded into narrow lakelets, and Pacific Dogwoods were still in bloom.

Eventually this American Hill Canal (AHC) turned around the end of a spur ridge, where we again saw signs of logging and roads and skid trails. We went on to the next little ravine, noticing that brush had become more and more of a factor, before retreating.

The ruffled cloudy skies of the early morning had lowered into a featureless gray, from which raindrops began to fall, at rare intervals. The wind had gradually increased and we heard its song and saw groves of conifers bending beneath it. It was just as well to have started back.

When we had crossed Secret Canyon again, and regained the SCB, and passed the broken shingled cabin, and crossed the wonderfully open section, we took a chance on that old trail we had seen.

Over a short distance, it climbed to the very end of a road. Following that road west a few hundred yards, we came upon the Subie. Just as we reached it, a more real rain began to fall.

We had seen signs of recent grading on the Foresthill Road, so we hung a right at Ford Point to see if they had plowed the snow off Canada Hill.

Indeed they had. And there, at 6600 feet, it was not just rain, but snow, blowing in the wind. We drove on up to Sailor Flat and found the Sailor Flat road still blocked by snow, but the main road seemingly open all the way up to Robinson Flat.

Then it only remained to make the long drive back. It had been an interesting day in Secret Canyon, following portions of two mining ditches which make, as it were, one continuous trail.

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