Saturday, August 27, 2005

Crossing the Rubicon

I received an interesting letter from Tom Petersen over in Georgetown, which shows that, of course, the North Fork American area is not alone in having lost trails to logging and disuse. Tom has published a nice little book titled "Georgetown Hiking Trails (Trying to Get Lost Off the Divide)," and he writes, "My book is available in Auburn at Winston-Smith books, 933 Lincoln, 823-5940 and The Book Haven, address unknown, also Lincoln (formerly Seva's Books) 888-0229. Or folks can call me at 530-333-4911 for direct mailings." In it you will find the old trails of the Rubicon River, and Otter Creek, and much much more.

Here's Tom's letter:

Hi Russell,

Thanks for the continued e-mails regarding the North Fork area. As a fellow trail nut, it's refreshing to know that I'm not alone in my own trail obsessions.

I especially enjoyed your e-mail about the USFS, (from timber protectors to timber pimps), right on! Having worked for the FS on the El Dorado National Forest I feel compelled to share some of my own insights.

I first became acquainted with the FS in May of 1987 while collecting rocks near Ellicott's bridge when a new ranger stopped and told me it was illegal to collect rocks without a permit. He threatened to cite me but said he wouldn't if I agreed to stop at the Georgetown Ranger station and obtain a permit. Fine. When I stopped in the office and inquired, the office staff broke out in laughter. Ranger Jack Palachi was new and trying to make a name for himself. (Jack is presently in charge of the OHV dept. for the entire state of Colorado.)

I met Jack a week later at a local softball game while our wives were playing on the same team. I complained to him about the lousy condition of our local trails and he was very interested, admitting that he didn't even know where many of the trails were. Jack hired me as a volunteer to do trail logs for $20 a day. Turns out that the Georgetown Ranger Station had lost track of some of their trails and hardly anyone working there even knew many of the trails. For some strange reason I've always loved old maps and finding old trails and at the time couldn't understand why the trails were in such bad shape.

The summers of 1988 and 1989 found me in charge of a YCC crew of 5 high school aged local delinquents working to resurrect every trail I could find in the district. I mistakenly thought that if the trails could be restored they would get used and we could keep the trail system going. How naive I was/am. To my ongoing dismay and frustration, most of those trails are as unused and forgotten as before. The few that have become active have been adopted by illegal OHV riders and I regret even clearing them now. Georgetown has a controversial 25,000 acre Rock Creek OHV park and many riders have grown tired of the regulations and seasonal closures there and shifted their riding into the Rubicon drainage where we worked to hard restoring abandoned trails.

Back in 1988 the USFS was adapting itself to the "Data General" computer that they had bought. The behemoth took up an entire 12X12 room. I spent an entire tortuous week stuck in the office entering trail data for the new system. After I was finished I proudly printed a document listing and describing every non-motorized trail on the district. I offered copies to anyone in the district via the office newspaper. I didn't get a single request.

The computer quickly changed an aspect of the USFS. Job promotions could be found anywhere in the U.S. using the postings on the D.G., so employees became more transitional than ever before. Rather than local folks working their way up through the local ranks, employees jumped from one district to another. Every summer there was a new batch of people working there.

The USFS is organized into different depts. In the 80's timber was king and recreation struggled for considerations. There was very poor communication between depts. I remember being appalled to discover that one of our trails had been used as a boundary line for a timber sale. Slash had obliterated it.

A resource officer overheard me complaining to Jack and offered to use "K-V" funds to restore the trail. I learned that the F.S. had a fund set aside to mitigate logging damage to trails. (In practice this fund usually went into the pockets of resource officers rather than be used as intended.) In this case the money was used to restore that particular trail.

The Georgetown district also suffers from the checkerboard of private lands. In 1989 the local district paid a trail contractor $65,000 to restore 16 miles of trail along the Rubicon River and around the east side of Hell Hole Reservoir. Beautiful job. The very next year Bohemia helicopter logged every other square section and obliterated half of the work. The same logging operation erased all of my YCC crew's work on the historic Steamboat trail on the north side of the reservoir. I left the district in disgust and went to work for the El Dorado Forest trail crew maintaining trails in Desolation Wilderness.

That trail crew also worked on trails in the Wrights Lake area where we witnessed the high grading of pristine old growth Red Fir under the guise of "salvage logging." Along most every trail outside the wilderness area. Shameful greed. I never worked for the Forest Circus again.

A couple of weeks ago my friend Rick and I spent a week in the Granite Chief Wilderness armed with a 1953 15min. topo. And determined to scout out as many old trails as possible in the area of the Five Lakes Basin, Diamond Crossing in particular. Back in 1987 I had been impressed with how nicely maintained the Tahoe NF trails in this area were. No so anymore! Except for the main trail through the basin and the Powderhorn Creek trail, every other trail is in very bad shape. We found and followed with much difficulty every trail we sought; Meadow Lake, Little Powderhorn, Hell Hole, Steamboat, and Lagoon. We didn't see any other hikers the entire week, (although we spent most of our time on obscure trails); the last day we encountered two motorcycle riders trying to cross the entire wilderness, end to end, from Barker Pass to Hell Hole. They were stymied by the huge slide on the Hell Hole end of the trail.

Where have all the hikers gone? I don't know, but I have learned that most of the old trails have lost their need to exist, being superseded by roads. If more people used the trails the trails would maintain themselves. The trail system seems to reducing itself to a very few main trails.

As an end note, the "small i" blazes that you refer to actually represent "candles--lighting the way." Don't know where I learned this but I read about it somewhere in FS literature. I was actually issued a chisel and mallet when I was hired to renew blazes as needed. The FS doesn't blaze trees anymore. We sometimes still find the older single square blazes on our oldest trails. That blaze was too often confused with natural scarring so the improved "double blaze" took its place.

Tom Petersen

Such is a very interesting letter.

Thanks Tom!

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Visit to Four Horse Flat

This morning (Wednesday the 24th) Ron Gould of the North Fork American River Alliance (NFARA) and I met Ed Moore of Tahoe National Forest (TNF) and drove up to Yuba Gap, Lake Valley, Forest Road 38, Huysink Lake, and at last to the pass on the divide between Little Granite and Big Valley creeks, to take a look at the recently damaged sections of the historic Big Granite Trail (BGT).

John Skinner, retired Forest Supervisor of Tahoe National Forest, had spoken highly of Ed, suggesting he was just the man to take the matter in hand.

The damage occurred in the late summer and fall of 2004, during a "10% Exemption" timber harvest in Section 9, T16N, R13E, by Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI).

Ed was suitably astounded by the magnitude of the damage. He and Ron discussed the possibility of having volunteers from NFARA fix the trail under TNF's "Adopt a Trail" program, and this looks likely to happen.

There are still many many flowers in bloom down around Four Horse Flat.

There are also still mosquitos.

We walked south and examined the trail crossing of Little Granite Creek, a problem area, but nothing to do with logging, in fact it is in TNF Section 16.

Ed helped me understand how little time and money TNF has to work on these old trails. There is a curious and unfortunate pattern going on: as population increases in California, and the demand for recreational opportunities increases too, TNF's budget has steadily shrunk.

Ed is a tall lean man who has an aura of the Old West about him and has worked here in the Tahoe National Forest since 1970. I'm very glad he somehow found the time to come take a look at this wonderful old trail. It feels like progress.

Monday, August 22, 2005

TNF Centennial; Iowa Hill Canal

Saturday morning I drove up past Foresthill to Robinson Flat, up in the Red Fir forest at about 7000' elevation, for the Centennial Celebration hosted by the American River Ranger District. Tahoe National Forest came into being in 1905, although parts of it existed previously as the Tahoe Forest Reserve, and the Yuba Forest Reserve.

At Robinson Flat--often named "Robertson Flat" on old maps--a TNF Guard Station was established in 1911, and several small buildings were erected.

At any rate, it seemed a good opportunity to meet TNF employees and others interested in local history, so I made the long drive. I observed many ancient cars, Model A's and I don't know what--roadsters, all kinds of automotive beasts--slowly chugging up the Foresthill Road, and guessed that they too were aiming for Robinson Flat.

A young man in a giant new pickup truck, pulling a trailer loaded with OHVs, passed me along the way, doing seventy miles an hour or more; but I caught up to him in the Foresthill 25-mile-per-hour zone, and then again at Baker Ranch, where he mercilessly tailgated someone who didn't drive as fast as he wished, for miles. He turned off at the China Wall OHV staging area.

At the Flat I found quite a lot of people, and yes, many fine old cars, and many TNF employees. Chairs had been set out, and an attentive audience listened to speeches by various people, the Master of Ceremony being Forest Supervisor Steve Eubanks.

There were some very interesting speeches on local history. Tilly Tillotson charmed everyone with her description of skiing up to the nearby family gold mine in the 1930s, two people on each pair of long wooden skis; and a young woman whose name I didn't catch read a wonderful missive from her grandfather, who was away fly-fishing, and who as Game Warden had often stayed at the Robinson Guard Station in the 1940s.

The new District Ranger, Jan Cutts, finished up the formalities by cutting a ribbon with giant scissors, and everyone dispersed to sample the free hot dogs and soda etc., and visit the many booths displaying information. I wandered about, and talked with many people, introducing myself to Mr. Eubanks and to our new Placer County District Five Supervisor, Bruce Kranz, with whom I engaged in a friendly debate about logging and fire protection.

My old friend Tim Fagan was there, with his ca. 1930 Model A, unique in that its paint job is unrestored; all the others gleamed with perfect new paint jobs, but Tim's was dull and blotchy. It is rather nice really, and attracts a lot of attention on that count alone, from his fellow enthusiasts.

I had a chance to talk with Mo Tebbe and Ed Moore of the Foresthill ranger station; quite pleasant. Ed brought out a fine-looking horse set up with packs, a Palomino I think, a spectacular animal.

After a couple hours at the Flat, I left for the Beacroft Trail and the Iowa Hill Canal (IHC).

Here, both the 1947 and 1962 TNF maps show that the section of the IHC east of the top of the Beacroft was a TNF trail, as far as the eastern terminus of the (unfinished) canal. I had made several explorations of this old Canal Trail this spring; it offers wonderful, dramatic, stupendous views of the North Fork canyon, and runs along at about 5400' elevation.

I found two cars parked at the Beacroft trailhead. It was quite warm as I shouldered my pack and set off, loppers in hand. I had explored the IHC East (of the Beacroft); it remained to explore the IHC West. I followed the Beacroft over the pass and down a ways, noting the old TNF "small i" blazes on trees along the trail, and reached a certain level bench cut, just a little ways into the North Fork canyon, where I hung a left.

This bench cut, to the east, is fifty to one hundred feet lower than the line of the IHC, and I had interpreted it, a few months ago, as the basis for a high wooden flume. As I have previously written, there is a confusing situation there, where the IHC crosses the Beacroft; for another mining ditch, the Secret Canyon Canal, joins the IHC from the south, and as one descends the Beacroft, this is the only mining ditch one actually sees. By the topographic map, one *expects* to see the IHC; but no.

I followed along the bench cut, then, to the west, and noted scant remnants of flume timbers, with square nails jutting out, and, passing a brushy section, soon found myself on the berm of the Iowa Hill Canal.

So, to add one more twist to the canal quandary, it turns out that the IHC did not hold its grade across the Beacroft, but dropped fifty to one hundred feet just to the east. The bench cut did not support a "high wooden flume," but rather, a "low wooden flume," built right on the grade of the cut.

I found remarkably easy going on the berm of this gigantic old mining ditch, and much in the way of bear sign and bear footprints--for they step in the same spots time after time, and a series of little hollows results. It is quite curious. In this case, whenever a mass of brush blocked the berm, the bears would either drop into the bed of the canal, or drop to the outside of the berm, to pass the obstruction, and they had beaten quite a trail into the ground. It really looked like a human trail, except that it was too often blocked by low branches.

I found many of the Bush Chinquapin in full seed, unusual spiky spiny golden masses, and also some Tanbark Oak, in its shrubby form. This species makes for a tall tree in the Coast Range and also in more northern parts of the Sierra, but at this latitude is often just a shrub.

Continuing west, I passed only a few difficult sections, and for the most part had very easy going in fairly heavy timber. Large Sugar Pines, Douglas Fir, and White Fir dominated at first; then the slope exposure changed from north to northwest, and this subtle difference brought Ponderosa Pine, Incense Cedar, and Kellogg's Black Oak into the mix.

Fire suppression, tho, has allowed a vigorous understory of White Fir to grow up around these old-time trees, as is so common in so many areas, and in places there was almost a monoculture of White Fir.

Where the IHC East offers incredibly fine views of the North Fork canyon, the IHC West is much more forested, and only occasionally could I see across to Big Valley Bluff, Sugar Pine Point, and so on. I did get a nice look up Big Granite Canyon from one point along the canal, with Castle Peak in the background, seemingly forming its headwaters, tho actually in the South Yuba basin to the north.

As I have often written in the past, so far as glaciers go, Castle Peak, in a sense, really was at the "headwaters" of Big Granite Creek, since so much Yuba ice flowed south into the North Fork, right over the dividing ridge, which was worn down so low that very often one sees right out of the North Fork basin to peaks in the Yuba.

In the forested sections of the IHC West there was very little brush. I sailed right along for more than a mile, I'd guess, noting along the way that I had passed from the bedrock--Shoo Fly Complex metasediments--into glacial till and volcanic mudflow, signaling a "bedrock low" in the pre-Tertiary, pre-volcanic "Ancestral Sierra" landscape. I knew that an old river channel had been drift-mined in that general area, but never reached far enough west to see any of that. The tunnels are below the level of the IHC in any case.

I saw absolutely no signs of logging, and no signs of human presence, except for the giant canal itself. The bears themselves had down some lopping, of a sort; they will tear away at young Incense Cedar and other trees on the berm, which if left unmolested will block the path. The bears top these young trees and rip away side branches with their claws.

I saw many larger trees on the berm, mostly Incense Cedar, which the bears had scratched to mark their territories. One such, maybe three feet in diameter, was very heavily scratched, and had two chunks taken out of the bark, right down to the sapwood, one east, one west, and almost but not quite looking like the "small i" blazes of the old-time TNF rangers. This was near a small quasi-meadowy flat below the canal, which flat suggested that another major bear may drop down into the North Fork canyon there; a somewhat unusual case of bear blazes, as it were.

Returning, I reached the Subie and headed west down Foresthill Road. I had been exploring for two hours or so. As I sailed down the Foresthill Divide, yet another young man in a huge new pickup truck, with OHVs in the back, pulled out directly in front of me from Sugar Pine Reservoir road. He hadn't looked back to see if any traffic was about. Following this truck all the way to Foresthill, I considered making a citizen's arrest, for the young fellow was quite drunk, often almost driving off the road into the ditch, just as often straying into the opposite lane, and without rhyme or reason driving now at forty miles per hour, again, at sixty.

As we approached Foresthill he decided sixty was better, but continued swerving around. He pulled far ahead of me in the 25-mile-zone, maintaining a high speed until slowed by traffic ahead, which he mercilessly tailgated, until turning left onto Mosquito Ridge Road.

I took Ponderosa Way back across the North Fork, where I was too late to meet my family for a swim in river. There were more than fifty vehicles parked on both sides of the bridge on this warm summer day. People were just swarming the North Fork! I was amazed. I don't often drive this road on weekends.

Such was a lovely day at Robinson Flat and on the Iowa Hill Canal.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Some New Old Trails History

For a few weeks or so now I have been pleasantly engaged in renewed efforts to learn the history of trails in and around the North Fork American. So many of these old trails have been ruined by logging, or in some cases, blocked by gates.

It is an interest I have pursued since 1972, when I moved to this area and began hiking every which way. I love history in any case, and California history has always fascinated me. The past couple of years have brought the story into better focus, thanks to Ron Gould, who took the time to seek out old Tahoe National Forest (TNF) maps, and shared digital copies with me.

Ron and I now have TNF maps dating from 1901 (which actually precedes the creation of TNF), 1928, 1939, 1947, 1962-66, 1995, up to the current edition of the TNF "big" map, available at any TNF ranger station. In some cases we have transferred the courses of trails as shown on one of these old maps, to digital versions of the modern USGS 7.5 minute topographic maps, and then uploaded coordinates to our GPS units, and gone out and found and followed the trail in question, on the ground.

We also have a stock of old General Land Office maps, and still other old maps.

Several things led to my renewed effort: last fall, Tom Martin discovered that the Big Granite Trail had been badly damaged by logging; the BGT originally led from Cisco, south and east to a ford (and ephemerally, a bridge) on the North Fork American, thence climbing into Sailor Canyon and the La Trinidad Mine, and on up to the Foresthill Divide. That is, a part of it forms what we now call the Sailor Flat Trail.

This spring, Catherine O'Riley and I finally got up to see the new damage to the good old BGT. It was shocking; the line of the trail was completely obliterated in a couple areas. This 2004 damage followed earlier, more severe damage in 1990. Conversations with Rich Johnson, TNF District Ranger for the Foresthill Ranger District (now retired), suggested that TNF has an easement on the BGT.

So damage to the BGT led to one line of inquiry. Does an easement exist, and if so, how is it worded? Ron and I began trying to find out.

A few weeks ago, exploring lovely Four Horse Flat, Catherine and I found huge old Aspen trees with names and dates carved into their trunks, dating back to the 1940s. These carvings opened another line of inquiry: we saw, among many others, the name of Lee DeBusk. I was able to find Mr. DeBusk right here in Alta, and had a long conversation with him about the old trails.

Simultaneously, out of the blue, I received an email from one Mike ----, whose great-grand-aunt Josephine had kept a diary, during her summers at the Old Soda Springs, on the upper North Fork, near Mark Hopkins' log cabin. Mike was kind enough to send me his transcription of the diaries, from 1899 to 1916, and suddenly a window opened into the history of one of my favorite areas. Aunt Josie's Diary provides a pleasant puzzle, for she mentions many trails in the upper North Fork which do not appear on the old maps. Aunt Josie would sometimes ride right over the Sierra crest to Squaw Valley and thence to Tahoe, and to help fill in the blanks I used Google to discover what I could about the resorts where she would stay.

Of course Google can turn up amazing things. For instance, I determined that the Indian baskets Aunt Josie purchased at Tahoe City in 1910 were made by a Washoe woman named Dat-So-La-Lee. Those remarkable baskets would be worth thousands of dollars nowadays.

And I found the text of a 1915 book about Tahoe titled "The Lake of the Sky," by George Wharton James (Lake Tahoe, In The High Sierras Of California And Nevada. Its History, Indians, Discovery by Fremont, Legendary Lore, Various Namings, Physical Characteristics, Glacial Phenomena, Geology, Single Outlet, Automobile Routes, Historic Towns, Early Mining Excitements, Steamer Ride, Mineral Springs, Mountain and Lake Resorts, Trail and Camping Out Trips, Summer Residences, Fishing, Hunting, Flowers, Birds, Animals, Trees, and Chaparral, with a Full Account of the Tahoe National Forest, the Public Use of the Water).

The book is dedicated

(--To his friends "Bob"--)
Fearless Explorer, Expert Mountaineer, Peerless Guide, Truthful Fisherman, Humane Hunter, Delightful Raconteur, True-hearted Gentleman, Generous Communicator of a large and varied Knowledge, Brother to Man and Beast and Devoted Friend,
though younger brother of the same craft

Of course California has long been celebrated for its incomparable beauty. George Wharton James begins "The Lake of the Sky" with these words: "California is proving itself more and more the wonderland of the United States. Its hosts of annual visitors are increasing with marvelous rapidity; its population is growing by accretions from the other states faster than any other section in the civilized world."

In the course of decades of research into local history, I had of course encountered the name of Bob Watson, mountain guide extraordinaire. On the crest above Squaw Valley is the Watson Emigrant Monument; and there is Watson Lake, and Watson Peak, north of Tahoe; and on some maps we see, just upstream from Mumford Bar on the North Fork, Watson Crossing, which can only hark back to this same man, tho I have not yet been able to discover the story of this ford.

At any rate. California is a wonderland, yes, and Placer County is a wondrous part of that wonderland, and if we were to conjure up a recipe for the ruination of wonderlands generally, we would say, "open the wonderland up to mining claims; open it up to timber claims; build a railroad to let the world rush in, and give the proprietors every other square mile for twenty miles to either side of the tracks; then add one million, two million, ten million, twenty million, forty million people."

Well; that is a big part of the story of our old trails: the Central Pacific Railroad, later absorbed into the Southern Pacific, was given every other square mile of land in this part of the Sierra. The enabling legislation, the Pacific Railroad Act, was signed into law by President Lincoln in 1862, and then amended in 1864 and 1866. The actual transfer of title was not completed for some years.

In the olden days, it was clear as could be that the trails which cross from public lands into railroad lands were public trails, since in most all cases they pre-dated the CPRR.

This business of deeding every other square mile of land to railroads happened all over California and the United States, so many other areas struggle with similar issues.

Of course the railroad began harvesting timber from the more accessible sections a century ago or more. But the trails persisted, and the areas untouched by logging remained vast, and many many people hiked and rode horses on these old trails, and camped out everywhere; add to that, the Sierra was grazed heavily by herds of sheep and cattle, which herds were often driven right along the old trails.

George Wharton James, in discussing early efforts at fire suppression by TNF, remarks that the shepherds, when confronted by a large fallen tree blocking a trail, would simply set it afire, and continue on their way. This would burn the log off the trail, yes, but it also sometimes started a forest fire.

In 1953 Placer County enacted a Trails Ordinance to protect these historic trails; within minutes, a lawsuit was filed by private landowners, seeking an injunction to prevent enforcement of the Ordinance. In 1954 the Ordinance was rescinded and replaced by a much weaker law.

The Big Granite Trail was one of the sixty-odd trails specifically described in the 1953 Ordinance. None of these sixty are mentioned in the 1954 Ordinance.

Fast forward to 1985: the old railroad lands are suddenly sold to High Sierra Properties, who in turn sold these odd-numbered sections to Sierra Pacific Industries, among others.

SPI is a lumber company, and High Sierra Properties themselves harvested timber on the old railroad lands, so in the late 1980s and through the 1990s and now in the 2000s, very much logging has occurred on lands which had remained pristine and untouched. No care was taken to preserve the old trails: I remember one of the first instances of this new round of logging damage I observed, around 1987, when I tried to find the northern trail to the Lola Montez Lakes.

I am a good map reader. I put myself right where the trailhead should have been, and found a Lodgepole-Fir forest torn up every which way by bulldozers, stumps and slash everywhere, monstrous skid trails, and not one shred of trail intact.

SPI logging in 1990 brought roads into Four Horse Flat and ruined a good part of the Big Granite Trail. The lower portion of the Cherry Point Trail, which drops south from Middle Loch Leven Lake to meet the BGT at Four Horse Flat, had been made into a logging road.

I had only hiked that part of the Cherry Point Trail once before it was logged, around 1983, when I made a circuit from west of Salmon Lake, past the lake, cross-country east to the CPT, down the CPT to Four Horse Flat, thence up the BGT to its current trailhead, in a pass on the divide between Big Valley and Little Granite Creek, thence north to a log deck on TNF lands, where I had parked.

Well, to make a long story short, Ron and I finally obtained a copy of the deed recording the easement on the Big Granite Trail.

It turns out to be somewhat older than I had expected: it is dated to June, 1950, and the TNF surveys and field work which prepared the way dated from 1946. The Southern Pacific Land Company is Grantor, the United States of America is Grantee.

The deed actually describes easements on a number of trails; in fact, we are still missing some pages from the deed, so just how many different trails, and which, remains unknown. These easements cost TNF exactly one dollar. They are described in very general terms, in what are called "aliquot parts" of various sections.

For instance, the Big Granite Trail through Four Horse Flat is described as the "West Half of the West Half of Section 9, ..., Township 16 North, Range 13 East."

The deed concludes, in part, "The width of said right-of-way shall be Twenty feet. ... The Grantor reserves the right to remove all timber from the right-of-way herein described. ... The Grantee shall at all times have the right to enter for the purpose of construction, repair, patrolling, ... ."

Thus at least some of the old railroad sections which passed to SPI were encumbered with trail easements. Yet the Grantor, hence SPI, was specifically permitted to harvest *all* timber from these right-of-ways.

So, there seems to be little legal basis to complain about the damage to the various trails, from logging.

On the other hand, these are trails which Tahoe National Forest ought to maintain; if a trail is damaged, TNF should repair the damage in a timely manner; for, one last note from the language of the deed, "The right of way or easement herein granted shall terminate upon abandonment. Discontinuance of use of said easement for the purpose herein specified for a period of five years or more shall be deemed to be an abandonment."

Of course, if a trail is obliterated by logging, if the old TNF signs marking it are torn down and not replaced, if even the trailhead has no sign marking the trail, it becomes all too likely that a "discontinuance of use" will take place.

Fortunately, there has not been a five-year discontinuance of use on the BGT.

I cannot yet know the particulars, but it seems to me that this 1946-1950 easement acquisition represents an effort by TNF to protect the historic trails and preserve public access. It seems likely that some kind of public outcry led to the TNF efforts, just as, but a couple of years later, public outcry led to the 1953 Trails Ordinance.

It also seems to me that We the Public are doing a bad job, nowadays. When our numbers were far fewer, in 1946, 1950, 1953, we didn't sit around waiting for the Sierra Club to do the job for us, we went to TNF and to the County Supervisors and demanded action; and we succeeded. A little, anyway.

Now, when there are probably fifty people living in the general area, for every one here in 1950, we seem to be dropping the ball.

I will be visiting the BGT with Ed Moore of TNF next week. Perhaps a TNF trail crew can get in there to repair some of the damage.

I myself hope that TNF will be able to purchase Section 9 and Four Horse Flat, the sooner the better, and I believe TNF should be trying to acquire many many of the old railroad sections. I do not accept defeat, tho to be sure I feel defeated, when I see logging roads running right through Four Horse Flat and up Little Granite Creek, roads which did not exist prior to 1990.

It will require efforts by our representatives in Congress to effect these purchases (purchases which can only be made if SPI et. al. are willing sellers).

Such are some recent new findings with regard to the history of our old trails.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Bedeviling Devils Peak

Wednesday morning I met Ron Gould and Catherine O'Riley on my driveway; we had a long drive ahead, up I-80 to Soda Springs and thence to Cascade Lakes, and an ambitious Plan: to circumambulate Devils Peak, also climbing the same, and to explore the Long Valley Trail.

So, wishing to avoid some kind of time-consuming social interlude on the home turf, I shouldered pack and loppers and started the day's hiking early.

A quarter-mile out I met them, jumped into the Land Rover, and off we went.

The drive up I-80 is plagued with construction delays. At the Alta exit the freeway is often reduced to one lane, and traffic backs up a mile down the hill to the Dutch Flat exit, and beyond. We swung around through Alta and Baxter and entered I-80 up there.

Devils Peak (7740') is a steep ridge of columnar basalt. Last year I gathered a sample of the Devils basalt and mailed it to Dr. Brian Cousens in Ottawa, who is investigating the petrochemistry of the most recent Tertiary and Quaternary volcanics of the Squaw Valley/Tahoe/Truckee area. I hope Brian can obtain a radiologic date from the sample. This basalt is similar to some on Boreal Ridge which was once dated to 7 million years old. The dating method involves the ratios of isotopes of potassium and argon.

Less than a mile in from the Soda Springs exit, we hung a right onto the old wagon road which led through Anderson Valley to Summit Soda Springs, on the North Fork. Reaching the Serene Lakes subdivision, we turned right onto Pahatsi, and in a couple of blocks left the pavement behind, and wound through the woods onto an open plateau atop the divide between the South Yuba to the north, and the North Fork American to the south.

Like the Sailor Meadow Terrace, but much more clearly here, this plateau is a child of the "pink welded tuff," a pyroclastic flow originating near Carson City, some twenty-four million years ago. The great depths of the North Fork canyon, a few miles south, and the relative shallowness of the upper South Yuba, to the north, combined to draw great volumes if ice across the divide. Here, as at so many points to the west, the South Yuba icefield overflowed into the North Fork.

The weaker andesitic mudflow which once blanketed the tuff, probably a thousand feet thick at one time, had been scoured away by repeated glaciations; but the pink welded tuff persists, so very tough and tightly consolidated it can resist the irresistible ice.

I wish to emphasize this point: the North Fork robbed ice from the South Yuba. Very much ice. Suppose it is true that the more ice in a glacier, the deeper it gouges; and that the more ice, the more meltwater, too, at the glacier's terminus, and thus here again, the more erosion, the more canyon deepening.

If this is the case (which only seems reasonable), then we have a positive feedback loop: the North Fork, being deeper, robs South Yuba ice; but this extra ice deepens the North Fork even more, and so even more ice is robbed.

Let a series of dozens of glaciations occur, of which only a few have left much tangible evidence in the forms of moraines and bodies of till and outwash. The North Fork deepens at the expense of the South Yuba and more and more Yuba ice is entrained into the southward flow to the North Fork.

There is much more than a positive feedback loop going on here, tho. The South Yuba is often cut into granite, and granite resists ice very well. The North Fork American is almost everywhere cut into metamorphic rock, which does not resist ice well.

So I guess one could say that a positive feedback loop, drawing ever-increasing amounts of ice into the North Fork, combined with a strong contrast in bedrock geology, have conspired to drastically deepen the North Fork. At Kingvale, the South Yuba is at about 6000' elevation. Just a few miles south, below Snow Mountain, the North Fork flows at 3500' elevation.

Well. The plateau has huge flat areas of the welded tuff exposed, and confusing the issue are many giant granite eggs, eggs from the South Yuba which were dropped on the spot as the glaciers melted away, say, twelve thousand years ago.

Some are fifteen feet through.

So it is easy to drive across the plateau and mistake the pink welded tuff itself for granite. It is a light creamy color here.

Passing the road left to Palisade Lake, at the head of the east fork of Palisade Creek--the "palisade" being, again, this same pink welded tuff, where exposed along the sides of this glacial lake; the tuff has a coarse (vertical) columnar structure--we followed along below Kidd Lake and through a fir forest to another patch of welded-tuff-plateau, near the dam separating Upper Cascade and Lower Cascade lakes.

This is the parking area and trailhead (6640') for the Palisade Creek Trail, which descends the west side of the Palisade basin at first, reaching the North Fork in about seven miles.

This is a wonderful trail, forming the uppermost access to the Wild & Scenic River, and actually crosses the river on a narrow bridge, at ~4400', and climbs out of the North Fork canyon to the south, between Latimer Point and Wabena Point.

It has been slightly realigned from its historic route in this northern area. The odd-numbered sections--the old railroad lands--have had timber harvests at varying times. The checkerboard pattern is much in force here. In Section 5, much of the old trail became a logging road. So Tahoe National Forest re-routed the trail, past Long Lake, and over great expanses of glaciated granite, offering great views of Devils Peak, directly above, and the entire upper North Fork. The upper Foresthill Divide peaks are often in view: Lyon, Needle, and Granite Chief.

We left the trail near Long Lake and struck west, aiming for a pass north of Devils Peak, ambling over easy terrain dotted with deep tarns. It is the land of the Red Fir and the Lodgepole Pine, and out in the rocky areas, which are vast, the Jeffrey Pine and Western Juniper reign. Wet grassy meadows are often ringed with Quaking Aspen trees.

The Devils Peak columnar basalt is easily seen to rest directly upon the Mehrten fm. andesitic mudflows. By the (geological) Principle of Superposition of Strata, this means that, unless somehow the strata were overturned, the basalt is younger than the mudflows.

The peak is also a good example of reverse topography: the basalt undoubtedly flowed here down a valley incised into the andesitic mudflows. Only later, in the Pleistocene, would the majority of the volcanic cover be ripped away by the glaciers, exposing the underlying bedrock, leaving only vestiges of the volcanics along the ridge crests.

It can happen that what was once the bottom of a valley becomes the crest of a ridge. Such is Devils Peak. It seems to have split the ice flowing south from the South Yuba like a giant cleaver. My geomorphologist friend, Allan James, was especially concerned, when we visited Devils Peak a couple years back, to find just how high, on the summit ridge, we could find granite erratics; this would make a decent proxy for the height of the ice surface, during the last, "Tioga" episode of glaciation. We found the granite eggs almost all the way up to the base of the columnar basalt cliffs, where they could not possibly find a resting place. And there is no room for giant granite eggs on the narrow summit itself.

So I regard it as an open question, this business of how high the Tioga ice surface was, at Devils Peak. Allan always wants to make the Tioga some kind of girly-man glaciation, so he would set the surface at the level of the highest egg we found, up around 7400'.

My observations at Snow Mountain suggest that some of its summit ridge stood above the ice surface in Tioga times. Perhaps a few hundred feet of Devils Peak also rose out of the ice.

Devils Peak has the distinction of being the only peak in this area which had a name, before the Gold Rush. It is quite distinctive, and can be seen from a long distance. The almost level, knife-edge summit rises into two horn-like knobs.

We passed the old Palisade Trail (road) and reached the Snow Mountain Trail, since the 1930s also a logging road as far in as Huntley Mill Lake. Some of the private lands in this area once belonged to the Nicholls family of Dutch Flat, who owned a bank. Then, around 1990, the Nicholls land passed to one Charlie Jones. He and his wife built a house at Huntley Mill Lake, and now people who try to hike the Snow Mountain Trail discover they are trespassing.

I rambled on about all this to Ron and Catherine as we hiked.

A trail sign made by a local Emigrant Trail historical society stood beside the Snow Mountain Trail where Devils Peak is seen to good advantage, and contains a quote from an 1849 diary, describing a lunch stop on the Donner Trail (a mile away near Kidd Lake), and mentioning Devils Peak by name.

These signs are nearly indestructible, being made from sections of railroad track!

Recently, the Snow Mountain Trail road has been paved all the way in to Huntley Mill Lake. We walked south on the road until an easy route towards the summit ridge beckoned, and made the short climb over logger terrain now colonized by some invasive weed with horrible sticking seeds, like Nature's Velcro, as Ron remarked, tho not in those exact words. Socks and shoelaces and pants became encrusted with dozens, hundreds of these spiky little masses.

We followed the summit ridge back north to the massive blade of columnar basalt, and found easy going to the steep west face to the crest. The view is quite wonderful. The Coast Range of Mendocino and Napa counties was outlined faintly in the summer haze west, while the Sierra crest from Mt. Lola on the north, down to the Crystal Range's Pyramid Peak on the south, stood to the east. Mt. Rose and the Heavenly Valley peaks were exposed, the great sentinel mountains at either end of Lake Tahoe. Farther south we saw little bits of the Carson Pass peaks.

Immediately below us, to the east, the basin of Palisade Creek, and the many lakes along the plateau-like crest of the Yuba/American divide. The broad sunny expanses of granite hid at least two petroglyph sites, visible from our high and palmy perch.

To the west, the upper basin of Big Granite Creek, with Fisher Lake, and various unnamed lakelets and tarns, many hidden from us. We could see well down the canyon to the vicinity of Cherry Point, where the biggest waterfall of Big Granite Creek spills over some of the loneliest cliffs in the Sierra.

The same glassy glossy white patches are slathered over the summit rocks, here and there, as one often sees in this part of the Sierra. I have long suggested that this could be that (hitherto unknown) geological curiosity, Lightning-Struck Eagle Poop.

It is after all a certainty that eagles roost on mountaintops, excrete excrement there, and that lightning strikes such places frequently.

Perhaps, tho, it is some mineral in the basalt which is fusing into a white glass under the thousands of degrees of temperature induced by lightning strokes. Petrochemical investigation is needed.

A long sunstruck interlude on the summit seemed too short, but we had miles of ground to cover outbound, and more miles on the inbound leg of our loop, so ... we scrambled down the giant rock stairs, and I tried a new route, a bit steeper but shorter, which worked well.

Snow Mountain lay athwart our view south; the divide between Palisade Creek on the east, and Big Granite Creek to the west, connects Snow to Devils. Just below Devils in the meadowy ground to the west, the road forks, and the more easterly of the two stays high on an almost level contour until it is rejoined by the lower, westerly, Huntley Mill Lake road.

All we had to do was aim south towards Snow and ramble through the Red Fir woods until we met the High Road.

I should say that the common Mule Ears is abundant now on the dry open slopes, and even at a distance of miles, one can see vast expanses of this plant, tingeing whole mountainsides with a yellow blush.

For a time we were on TNF lands, and the forest was pristine. An even-numbered section. All too soon we passed into Section 7, and stumps appeared. I recall when these stumps were fairly fresh, in 1972. Now they are rotting well.

Below us to the west, Huntley Mill Lake appeared, and the chalet-like house on its west side, built by Charlie Jones.

Between five and ten years ago I called Charlie Jones several times, hoping for a chance to visit his remote retreat, from which an exploration in detail of Snow Mountain and Big Granite Canyon would be possible. I explained my geological and hiking interest in the area. He had opened his property to several geologists, it turned out, who came from Texas and had published papers about the rocks, which he, Charlie, could show me. It all sounded so very wonderful, but it kept on coming down to, "Well, I'll have to get the backhoe out, and load the railroad crossing blocks onto the tracks, to let you in."

For the Snow Mountain Trail has long followed a certain road climbing from near Donner Trail Elementary School to Devils Peak. And of course the road must cross the railroad. In the old days, there was a regular crossing there, but at some point in time, the road was gated closed, just south (above) the tracks.

This was one of the historic trails explicitly declared a "public" trail in the 1953 Placer County Trails Ordinance, and, who knows but that its closure might have prompted the public outcry which led to the Trails Ordinance.

Unfortunately, large landowners filed suit to stop enforcement of the Ordinance, within minutes of its enactment by the Supervisors, and in 1954 it was repealed, and a much weaker version enacted in its place.

At any rate, it never quite worked out to visit Charlie Jones. Now I could look down and see his summer home. A home which I believe should never have been built. This was one of the wildest parts of the Placer County "high country," unsettled, remote, recovering well from moderate logging decades ago--and now, a house?

We snapped some photos of the oddly angled chalet and continued south.

Very fine flowers were in bloom on all sides; much Monardella, or Mustang Mint, swarming with Carpenter Bees and Bumblebees; lovely Lewis's Monkeyflower; species of Lupine, and Aster; it was High Spring, at ~7350 elevation.

At a certain point the long level High Road plunges down to meet the Low Road, and if one leaves the road on the left and contours along, one enters a pass on the Palisade/Big Granite divide. Here the Long Valley Trail is marked by an ancient "small i" blaze on a large fir, and here too one passes into Section 18, even-numbered, public land. The Long Valley and Snow Mountain trails meet a little ways to the west.

Although the trailbed could be seen dropping away east towards Palisade Creek, it was clear at once that the trail received very little use. On the USGS 7.5 minute Soda Springs quadrangle, it is marked "Jeep Trail," and there were signs of occasional 4WD use, probably several decades ago. Once again we were in pristine TNF lands, yet here and there a stump caught our eye, from the last ten to twenty years.

There were numerous tall firs with "small i" blazes along the trail, which crossed some nice meadowy areas. Ducks and small cairns had appeared, which did not look old: who was marking the trail?

At a certain meadow a duck led us astray, and we crossed the nascent stream of Long Valley to the north too soon, eventually recrossing to the south, and finding our blazes and ducks as before. Then the trail proper crosses to the north, and sadly, one passes from Section 18 into Section 17.

Almost instantly the trail was badly damaged and close to obliterated, but someone--who?--had placed many ducks. The trees which had once held "small i" blazes were now stumps with no blazes, only bulldozer scars. We stumbled along over slash and dirt piles, occasionally reassured by an intact bit of trail, and soon enough passed from Section 17 into TNF's Section 8. The logging stopped, the blazes resumed, and the ducks continued unabated. Large Incense Cedars graced the forest.

Dropping more steeply, the trail brought us to some large Aspen trees, their trunks inscribed with many names and dates, just as those others on the Aspen Trail in Four Horse Flat had been. A lush little meadow was skirted and there was the Palisade Trail, a "small i" blaze on a huge Jeffrey Pine facing directly up the Long Valley Trail. There were also blazes on the aspens, and bear scratches.

We went from one aspen to another, examining the names and dates. To my amusement, I saw the same name, Lee DeBusk, I had seen in Four Horse Flat, over on Little Granite Creek, on the Big Granite Trail. At Four Horse Flat there had also been an Anne DeBusk, with a date in the middle 1950s.

For more on the DeBusks, see the Sequel, below.

After a long rest we marched north on the Palisade Trail, pausing again at a lovely tarn near the north boundary of Section 8. I had a bit of a swim in the shallow water, and Catherine even went in.

Proceeding north, we soon passed into Section 5, and saw many stumps; but the impact of the logging has been softened over the last twenty years. A large sloping expanse of granite suddenly appears on the east, where some petroglyphs are located. We made a rough little piece of cross-country travel to reach the granite, whereas if we'd just stayed on the trail, we'd have reached it quite easily.

The designs are scattered over an area a hundred yards long, in several groups. There are star motifs, and bear footprints, and small grids, and circles with arms to one side which, I always think, may represent comets. To the south, Ron showed us one group of parallel lines, with a feather-like, arrowed, pinnate design alongside. Elsewhere we saw parallel double zig-zags; some speculate that these are stylized representations of mountains.

Devils Peak looms right above, and to the south, across the Royal Gorge, one sees another amazing petroglyph site, Wabena Point. Petroglyph sites often seem to offer great views. Sometimes they seem to mark trails; the Donner Trail follows the line of an old trans-Sierran Indian trail, and is marked by petroglyphs across the high country.

These faded designs in stone are thought to have been made by Martis people, between 1500 and 4500 years ago, before the bow and arrow arrived in California. The Martis-era points we would tend to call arrowheads, are in fact spearheads, and the hunting spears were thrown with an atlatl, or spear-thrower.

It was another mile or so north from the glyphs to the Rover, at Cascade Lakes, and we straggled in at sunset. The waxing crescent moon was in conjunction with a planet, likely Mars or Saturn, while both Jupiter and Venus shone brightly nearby. Four heavenly bodies in a row, beads on the Zodiac. We piled into the SUV and Catherine powered her up. I made some exclamation of satisfaction and relief at sitting in a comfortable seat, after a long day on the trail. Catherine went to shift into reverse, and ... nothing happened. The shifter would not budge.

So we went into Fix the Rover mode, found the owner's manual, looked at fuses, turned the thing on and turned it off, and the stubborn thing would not shift one iota out of Park.

Ron noticed that the brake lights would not come on, either, and Catherine knew that there was an interlock between brake and transmission: one could not shift out of Park unless the brake was on.

However, we could not see how to make repairs in the field, without tools.

No cell phone. So, it only remained to walk out to Civilization, under the starry sky and the bright heavenly bodies. Catherine stalked along in a shivering cold fury, promising to rain death and destruction upon the poor Rover, perhaps even abandoning it to its fate. "Let it sit forever at Cascade Lakes, and see how *that* feels!"

Unaware of an old road dropping from Cascade Lakes directly to Kingvale, we headed towards Soda Springs, a few miles east. Ron and Catherine were in shorts and light shirts; I at least had long pants and a long-sleeved shirt. We discovered a road leading down towards the Yuba near Kidd Lake and abandoned Soda Springs in favor of Kingvale. This worked out, tho we had to walk all the way west across Cascade Creek Bridge to the Devils Peak road (Snow Mountain Trail), before we could descend to I-80.

As we finally neared I-80, around 10:30 p.m., a truck came up the road towards us. It turned out to be Charlie Jones himself, with his wife, both very friendly; they let us use their cell phone, to call for help. Answering machines! So they gave us a ride to Kingvale, where a gas station would remain open all night.

A wonderful stroke of luck. I reminded Charlie of our conversations of years past, and he said, "But you never came out to visit," to which I replied, "Because you always said something about having to drive your backhoe to the railroad, to put the crossing in; so ...," and we left it at that.

For now. I should call him and thank him. Giving help to utter strangers late at night! A good man.

Tho I wish he'd never built a house at Huntley Mill Lake.

So we piled into the convenience market at the gas station, where a tall young man stood behind the counter. We were the only customers, and we were hungry, having skipped dinner to hike an extra couple-few miles, and we each chose some selection of snacks and drinks and stayed inside the warm store; tho Ron put in some more calls, from the pay phone outside. No luck.

The young man overheard all our chatter, and spoke up: "I can give you a ride to Alta; I close up at eleven o'clock, in a few minutes."

Saved! We were saved! This fine young man proved to be one Kyle Wells, of Gold Run. His family owns both the Nyack and Kingvale gas stations/stores.

Kyle ran us in close to my place, where we walked the last bit beneath stars which glittered almost as brightly, down at 4000', as they had at 6800'. I took a peek at my sleeping children and then drove Ron down to Weimar to his truck, and Catherine to her place across the Bear in Nevada County.

I was home by 1:15 a.m.

It was another great day in the greater basin of the North Fork, looping all the way around the iconic Devils Peak, visiting petroglyphs, and following abandoned trails.

The Sequel.

Two weeks ago, following my visit to Four Horse Flat with Catherine, and the hieroglyphic aspen trees, I had Googled the surname DeBusk, and found that one Wilbur DeBusk was buried in Colfax Cemetery, having been killed in action in the Korean War, in 1952.

Now, having seen the name Lee DeBusk a second time, I went after him, too, using Google.

All I found was his telephone number--in Alta!

So I called upon the instant, and found myself speaking to the very Anne DeBusk who'd hiked through Four Horse Flat in 1956, or whatever! She said that she had been hoping to speak to me (!), to see if I knew anything of the history of their house in Alta, which, Anne told me, was built in 1867.

But I knew nothing.

I told her about the aspen trees, and asked to speak to Lee. He was tending his garden, but she waved him in to the house, and I spent half an hour on the phone with the man.

I have known several extraordinary hikers. I'm no slouch myself. But Lee DeBusk--he's in a different realm of hiking altogether.

When 17 years old, Lee DeBusk hiked from Weimar to Ely, Nevada.

He followed that up with a hike from Weimar up to the Surprise Valley, near the Oregon border, and from Big Basin, near Santa Cruz, up the coast to Oregon.

Beyond this, he knew every trail in the North Fork, and had followed the river itself from Mumford Bar to Auburn, once. In particular, he knew the Royal Gorge area, as his family had owned the Lost Emigrant Mine, up in the Wabena Creek area, from 1917 down to around 1950.

Lee DeBusk used to hike into the Lost Emigrant Mine from Cisco, on the Big Granite Trail, in the spring, to do the assessment work which kept the claim valid. The hike started and ended in snow, but the North Fork itself would be below the snow by that time. He had cables strung across the river at the ford, and used the various unmarked and unmapped trails which run up the North Fork from Sailor Canyon, to reach Wabena Creek and the last leg of the journey, a 2700-foot climb up what I call the Wabena Trail.

Now, just above the Royal Gorge, the Heath Springs Trail follows the right bank of the North Fork up to The Cedars, a private club. Not too many decades ago, The Cedars closed the Heath Springs Trail to the public. It is littered with noxious "no trespassing" signs.

Yet this trail is really a part of the Tahoe National Forest trails system, and appears on TN maps dating to 1928, 1939, 1947, and 1962.

I asked Lee DeBusk if he was familiar with the Heath Springs Trail.

"Oh yeah, sure," he replied, "my friends and I used to walk down there to hunt bear."

Were there any "no trespassing" signs, back then, asked I.

"None at all; the trail was wide open, everybody used it."

So, I had a very pleasant talk with Mr. Lee DeBusk. He too had served in Korea. He told me how Wilbur, his younger brother, born at the Lost Emigrant Mine, had died, in Korea, fighting a rearguard action in which his company had run out of ammunition; Wilbur had been shot, literally, to pieces.

Such was the gist of my conversation. Oh, there was more; a dozen names of men who had done this or that, somewhere in the North Fork, perhaps at the Lost Emigrant Mine, or at The Cedars; Lee remembered when the ore-bucket cable was in operation, at Wabena Creek. Now all one sees are some thick cables mostly buried in the brush. Lee remembers when it was working, and the name of the man who built it.

I hope to talk wth him more. An amazing man.

And such was a visit to Devils Peak, a walk on yet another mangled trail, a miracle at Kingvale, and a man named Lee DeBusk.

Tuesday, August 9, 2005

Canyoneering in Canyon Creek

I always knew that Gold Run's Canyon Creek was good for more than hair-raising, cliffy trails, rainbows in mist, wrangling wrens, access to the North Fork, and the general elfin glamor of it all.

There is such a thing as "canyoneering," in which gorges with waterfalls and pools are descended, often using ropes. A few days past, such a descent was made in Canyon Creek, from the little wooden bridge, down to the North Fork.

Here's an eyewitness account:

Joe's Report
Did my first Californian Canyon yesterday.. t'was awesome.

6/8/2005 -Ophidiophobia aka O-pho

Rob Cobb, Joe Budgen, Steve Brezovec, Greg Brown

After a early morning start on what promised to be a hot day.
And a prety cruzie walk in.. our descent started about 1000m above
sea level and ended around 300m above sea level... so it was a big
ass walk out... similar in size to a Blue Mountains style, Kanangra
exit.. and just as nasty! Tho, instead of leeches we had to deal
with Rattlesnakes, Hornets, Bees, Mozzies, Bears (-thankfully we
didn't come across any of those) and a lovely little plant called
Poison Oak..

The creek showed the scars of California Gold-Rush fever. Signs of
yester-years' mining attempts, in the way of various metal objects
scattered in random spots throughout the Canyon.. steel plates that
are at the begining of a long journey toward the Pacific Ocean.

During the course of the day we found evidence of only one existing
anchor, so although it showed signs of a limited 'Canyoneering
History' none of us were sure if it had been decended 'in full'.
This kept things interesting for our group, as none of us knew what
lay hidden around the next bend, or beneath the next waterfall.

Our day started off nice and easy with a walk in via old Mining
Trails (dodging small patches of the Poison Oak along the way). Soon
enough we hit the creek and began wading down-stream. Almost
immediately we were confronted with a 20m rappel through a ranging
waterfall into a open 'v' shaped valley.. for the first 20mins the
Canyon remianed open and pleasant, giving no clues to the
seriousness of terrain that lay ahead. Just when it was looking like
it would be 'a walk in the park' the mellow creek tightened-up and
plunged into a deep rock chasm with un-relenting waterfalls.

The chasm was carved out of solid (white) granite. The unforgiving
white-water had carved long sections of Canyon barely wide enough to
swim through.. and boulders created constant obstacles that tested
our (or at-least my) scrambling abilities.

We would drop through raging waterfalls and be confronted by either :
1. A tight swim through narrow corridors of towering rock walls to
the next fall
2. Drop directly into hanging potholes, fight the current to the
safety of a ledge where we would clamber out of the water before it
plunged over yet another drop.

This process repeated itself throughout the day (there were about 10
major waterfalls and several smaller ones, most
requiring rope-work to negioate).

Due to the savage flash floods that pass through this canyon, the
walls were polished 'baby-butt' smooth, with no signs of life.. just
un-living, un-feeling rock.. rock, everywhere you looked. A big
change from the lush green Canyons I had experienced the previous
week in the PNW (and my local Canyons in Australia).

No trees for anchors here. We carried a drill and bolts, fully
expecting that at some stage we would be faced with no choice but to
drill anchors into the canyon wall, a time consuming job (and not
much fun for us -or- the canyon). However, with the aid of some
inventive anchor construction.. sometimes a choc-stone that we could
wrap a sling directly around, other times a 'custom-built' anchor,
made by stacking up a small mountain of rocks in the streambed and
tying a sling around the base.. the day passed without having to
resort to 'bolting'... (so yes.. we
carried a heavy-ass drill and batteries through the canyon for
nothing!).. Tho I estimate Stevee donated about 100-200ft of webbing
to this monster of a creek.

Snakes were the name of the game (Hence the name Ophidiophobia,
which I'm led to believe means "fear of snakes"). We came across a
massive Rattler, drowned in a deep Pothole.. not to mention a whole
bunch of other more friendly snakes that Rob tried to catch and show
me.. I, being terrified of most creatures, am happy to report that
most of them were able to slither off under rocks etc.. before Rob
could wave them in my face...
"You're Australian.. you guys love snakes don't 'cha?"
"Umm NO, I think you have me confused with that guy who hunts

Finally, just as I was thinking there was no end to this beast, 9hrs
after entering the water, our passage through the canyon was
complete.. we busted out into the valley floor. The sunlight (and
heat -did I mention it was 40degC) was fading.. now all that was
left was to pioneer a 700m ascent out of the gorge and back to the
car. So began our uphill battle against Gravity, Poison Oak and
clouds of Mozzies. Our fearless leader displayed some fine scrub-
bashing skills that would put the most seasoned Blue Mtns walker to
shame.. and before we knew it we were back on the old mining trails
that skirt the rim of the canyon.

Looking back into the dark chasm we had just passed through I
couldn't help but think "I'm damn glad I didn't walk down here and
check it out before hand.. I don't think I would have had the
courage to go through it!" But I'm sure glad I did.. without a doubt
it was some of the finest 'canyoneering' I've ever participated in.

To our surprise we arrived back at the car about a half hour before
nightfall.. (guess I bought the head torch along for nothing as
well!) and promptly set off in search of the nearest Pizza joint..
yet another successful Canyon adventure.

Nth America once again shows the humble tourist that it possess some
awesome adventure.. I am truly amazed at the variety of Canyons on
offer. From the Ultra-lush canyons in the PNW to this polished
granite beauty of Ntrn Calif.. I can only dream of what gems are
hidden amoungst the Colorado Plateau..

Once again a big 'Cheers' goes out to all those involved.

Sounds like an awesome adventure, tho I don't like the idea of bolting Canyon Creek (they did no bolting, fortunately), or of leaving webbing behind.

Why didn't they just take the trail back up from the river?

A true environmentalist would have attempted to revive the poor rattlesnake using mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Once again a fine bunch of metamorphic rock is somehow dubbed "granite," I suppose if it's the Sierra, it must be granite, right?


Friday, August 5, 2005

An Exploration in Sailor Canyon

In 1849 the lure of gold in the Sierra led many sailors to abandon ship in San Francisco. The tenantless hulls were dragged into the mudflats near the wharves and used as warehouses. Continued filling along the shoreline incorporated the abandoned-ship warehouses into buildings along the city streets. Most or all of these unusual and historic warehouses were lost in the earthquake and fire of April, 1906.

Members of a ship's crew would often form mining companies and set up camp together. There is both a Sailor Canyon and a Sailor Ravine, here in Placer County.

The former is a tributary of the North Fork, heading up on the north side of the Foresthill Divide, about 20 miles up the road from Foresthill. It is only a few miles long at best. It is the central of three similar canyons, all parallel, all flowing north to the North Fork, their headwaters between 6400' and 7200' elevation.

From west to east, these are New York Canyon, Sailor Canyon, and Wildcat Canyon.

Traditionally, rocks of the Sierra are most broadly divided into the "Subjacent" and "Superjacent" series. The under-lying, subjacent rock is the "bedrock," Mesozoic and Paleozoic in age, composed of granitoid or metamorphic rocks. Where strata exist, as in metasediments, the strata are rotated to a near-vertical orientation and strike, roughly, north-south. The over-lying superjacent rocks lie in undeformed, near-horizontal beds, and from oldest to youngest we find the Eocene (55 m.y.) river gravels, made famous by hydraulic mining; above the gravels, beds of rhyolite ash and tuff, ~Miocene (20 m.y.) in age, light in color, named the "Valley Springs Formation," tho in fact composed by several to many distinct formations; above the light-colored rhyolite ash, the grey and brown andesitic mudflows of the Mehrten Formation, Miocene and Pliocene in age; and highest and youngest of all in the volcanic sequence, various basaltic lava flows, as at Sawtooth Ridge, only 3.82 m.y. old; and still younger in the Superjacent Series are the various glacial deposits, such as moraines, tills, and outwash terraces.

In the three canyons--New York, Sailor, and Wildcat--the Subjacent Series is all metamorphic, from Paleozoic Shoo Fly Complex metasandstone, slate, and chert, on the west side of New York Canyon, through Middle Jurassic Sailor Canyon Formation metasediments in the middle, and Upper Middle Jurassic Tuttle Lake Formation metavolcanics on the east side of Wildcat. Broadly speaking, the strata of these metamorphic rocks are near vertical, having been rotated almost ninety degrees from their original horizontal positions, during amalgamation to the west margin of the North American continent.

These rocks were uplifted over a long period of time; miles of rock were eroded away. A fairly gentle landscape of an Appalachian character resulted by Eocene time. Sluggish rivers flowed over broad floodplains.

This "Ancestral Sierra" was then buried under a long succession of volcanic eruptions, first by the rhyolite ash, finally and best by the andesitic mudflows. A gently sloping plateau of these "young volcanics" had entombed the ancient landscape, only a few of the higher bedrock ridges rising above the sea of coalescing mudflows.

It is convenient to call these higher ridges of the Ancestral Sierra "bedrock highs."

Bedrock lows, in the meantime, correspond to the bottoms of the Eocene valleys.

A few million years ago, uplift resumed after a long hiatus, adding a few thousand feet of elevation to this part of the Sierra crest; simultaneously, glaciations began; and between increased gradient down to the southwest, from the uplift, and increased flows in the rivers, from the glaciers, brand new canyons were cut into the plateau, right through the Superjacent Series and well down into the bedrock Subjacent Series, below.

Well. With some practice anyone can learn to recognize the superjacent and subjacent rocks in this part of the Sierra. Sometimes the contact, high on the wall of this or that canyon, can easily be seen from miles away.

Now it happens that the west wall of New York Canyon forms a bedrock high, and the east wall of Wildcat Canyon forms another bedrock high. Between these two highs of the Subjacent Series--ridges in the Ancestral Sierra, striking north-south--there is a bedrock low.

The bedrock low contains an Eocene river channel; several mines in the Sailor Canyon area, such as the X-Ray, the Sailor Canyon, the Placer Queen, etc., tapped the gold-bearing gravels of this Eocene channel.

Above these Eocene gravels was, almost if not entirely, a thousand feet of rhyolite ash and andesitic mudflow. Both the ridge dividing New York from Sailor, and that dividing Sailor from Wildcat, are involved in the bedrock low. The ice was able to scour away a huge quantity of the young volcanics, drastically lowering these ridges, even exposing the Eocene channel in places. So this odd situation exists, in which the three canyons almost seem to be one; from a distance, one's eye picks out the bedrock highs to the west and east, and glides over the two low divides.

Tributaries such as these three canyons, which formed at right angles to the course of the North Fork, are called "resequent" streams. Now, the great andesitic plateau, which has been cut deeply by canyons and only persists in scraps on the tops of dividing ridges, had a very gentle slope to the southwest. All of today's major canyons began as rivulets flowing straight down this southwest slope. Then they deepened and deepened.

OK. Such a stream, the North Fork American, say, with its course determined by the slope of the andesitic plateau, is called "consequent upon" the (sloping) plateau. It is a "consequent" stream.

But since it collected runoff from such a large area of the plateau, it deepened rapidly, and side streams developed. These streams were consequent upon the valley walls of the proto-North Fork; but the North Fork itself is consequent, so these are, in effect, "re-consequent."

Re-consequent is hard to say, so geomorphologists call such streams "resequent."

Some tributaries of the North Fork have their upper reaches consequent upon the andesitic plateau, but their lower courses are resequent. Canyon Creek, near Gold Run, is an example, as are Indian Canyon and Shirttail Canyon, to the south.

Well, after--long after--all this, I met Ron and Catherine Thursday morning and we made the long dusty drive across the North Fork on Ponderosa Way, to the Foresthill road, hung a left, and drove the 25 miles or whatever up to Sailor Flat, at the head of the divide between Sailor Canyon and New York Canyon. Our objective was a trail we had noticed on an 1892 General Land Office map. There are several well-known trails in the area: the Sailor Flat Trail, descending the Sailor-New York divide to the North Fork; the Sailor Meadow Trail, descending the Sailor-Wildcat divide to the meadow, with a branch continuing down past the Walker Mine to the North Fork; and others.

But this 1892 trail was not one of these.

It appeared to begin at Sailor Flat itself, at about 6400' elevation, and it dropped away to the northeast into the southernmost reaches of the Sailor Meadow bench or terrace, and then followed the west margin of the terrace, at about 5400' elevation, to the north, passing a tunnel west of Sailor Meadow, and then dropping into Sailor Canyon itself in the vicinity of the La Trinidad Mine.

Strangely, knowing full well the trail could only be overgrown, we all wore shorts rather than long pants. It was quite a warm day.

I had transferred the line of the 1892 trail from the GLO map to my digital Royal Gorge 7.5 minute quadrangle and then uploaded waypoints to my GPS unit. Sometimes this really pays off. In this case, it didn't, or not much, anyway.

We left Catherine's trusty old Toyota truck at Sailor Flat and walked though the flowery meadow into a Red Fir forest, following an old road line, and passing one or more old cabin sites, and a spring. That high on the Foresthill Divide, it was all mudflow. We broke out of the forest onto the rim of a tributary of Sailor Canyon, with wide open slopes of light-colored mudflow below us, encircling the upper basin of the stream. The ridge to the east would seem to be the line of the 1892 trail, so after scouting around for any vestige of an actual trail bed, we made a descending traverse to the east and crossed the tiny stream to our ridge.

It proved to be an easy route, with easily avoided brush. Down and down we went, and at times I thought I saw portions of the old trail. It was steep. Sometimes I could follow it for fifty yards at a time. Then a patch of Huckleberry Oak would force me away, and I would find it again below. My first waypoint was set below, where this little tributary met the main branch of Sailor Canyon. I had my GPS unit in hand and watched as the distance to this point shrank from .8 mile, where we'd parked, to .5 mile, .3 mile, .2 mile. A thousand feet!

Suddenly I noticed that Ron and Catherine were no longer with me. A shout elicited a faint response, somewhere above me. Perhaps they had stopped to shed layers of clothing? I waited and shouted again in a couple minutes. Nothing.

The likeliest scenario to explain this was that they had turned aside into the main branch of Sailor, and topography was blocking communication. If they had been on the ridge crest above me, we could have heard each other.

So I continued slowly down the ridge, stopping to shout once in a while. The far side of Sailor did not look like a good route, down at my level. Surely they would reappear above me, and descend the ridge we'd agreed was the likeliest line of the 1892 trail.

I followed down the ridge with easy going to its end, and stopped to wait for them beside the creek. Lush Lady Ferns and lilies and Mountain Alders and Indian Rhubarb were in the area. A ways above, the Subjacent Series had made an appearance, first the Shoo Fly Complex's Duncan Chert, by the looks of it, and then, maybe, an intervening slab of Triassic metasediments, and finally, as I dropped to the creek, pretty clear-cut exposures of the Sailor Canyon Formation.

Here at the creek, these metasediments were light-colored sandstones with strange little black clasts sprinkled throughout, each surrounded by a concretion, spherical in shape, made of the light sandstone. I photographed these strange concretions. They were two or three inches across, and being harder than the matrix around them, protruded slightly.

Exploring, I found that my supposed trail had, as only makes sense, reached Sailor at a very convenient crossing point, and a faint trail contoured along the far side. I crossed and walked along the trail until the ridge I had just descended was about to disappear from view. There was no sign of Ron and Catherine on the ridge, and my shouts brought no answers. I set up a thick branch as a sign post and balanced a stick across it pointing my way, in case they ever reached this spot, and then followed the trail around a corner into a steep area where no sign of a path persisted and I had to haul myself straight up the slope with the help of Huckleberry Oak branches. I continued contouring to the east and entered some heavy timber.

All signs indicated I was reaching the margins of the great Sailor Meadow Terrace. This was soon confirmed, and as soon as things opened up and the wide flats began, with the huge trees, I stopped and waited again.

In fifteen minutes I heard a shout and realized that they could only be a couple hundred yards away, above and to the south. Clearly they had crossed Sailor higher up and contoured around on a higher line. From the sounds of things, they were heading right for me. I shouted back, "Go North, Young Man," and waited.

However, they never arrived. When next I heard them, they had stayed high, and were entering the Terrace area above me to the east. They were heading north, so I put my pack on and walked north, paralleling them. Slowly we converged. Along the way I found a hawk's leg on the ground, and carried it along, its curved talons needle sharp.

It turned out that Ron and Catherine had crossed Sailor much higher, and had met their doom, struggling through brush and getting stung by yellowjackets and both were now the proud owners of bloody scratches on their legs.

After a break, in which we admired the domed spider webs which appear everywhere in such forests in the summer, the small spider usually geometrically perfectly placed at the apex of the dome, we crunched along over a tremendous welter of dead branches and over many a fallen tree.

There was no chance of finding and following an old trail through this kind of forest litter.

I should say that the forest on the Terrace is a wonderful example of first-growth middle-elevation timber, being a mixture of White Fir, Ponderosa Pine, Sugar Pine, Incense Cedar, and some Douglas Fir, often along the west margin of the Terrace, where the slopes begin to fall away more steeply into Sailor Canyon, to the west.

There is many a fine old pine six feet in diameter in this wonderful forest.

The Terrace needs some nice cool wildfires to clear the dead branches and tree trunks away.

The Terrace is low down in the horizontal strata of the Superjacent Series, and seems mainly to coincide with the stratum of the "pink welded tuff" which forms a part of the Valley Springs rhyolite in the high country, but not farther west. Actual exposures of the welded tuff are not common on the Terrace, which is well mantled in glacial till. Sailor Meadow, its companion to the south, and other meadowy areas in the Terrace are remnants of smallish glacial lakes, now mostly silted in by erosion of till and mudflow from the steep slopes above, to the east.

We reached a narrow ravine dropping away west into Sailor Canyon. It looked the same as the ravine below Sailor Meadow, where the mine tunnel is, and as we crossed it and climbed to the north side, there was the same odd stair-step pattern of slump blocks as exists on the north side of Sailor Meadow Ravine. I began to think that there must be a second tunnel, that years ago when geologist Dave Lawler and I dropped down to the tunnel, we must have somehow, mistakenly, entered this ravine, and found--what?--a different tunnel?

GPS put the Sailor Meadow Ravine two-tenths of a mile north, so we crunched along and soon reached it.

It turns out that the two ravines are identical twins. We dropped down the steep sides with some almost out-of-control slides and skids and, just before reaching the creek, hit the Subjacent Series rock of the Sailor Canyon Formation.

Since the tunnel penetrated Superjacent Series Eocene gravels, and these by definition lie on top of the Subjacent Series, I said, "Since it's Sailor Canyon Formation here on the creek, if there really is a tunnel near here, it can only be upstream."

Ha! The walk of thirty yards was enough to bring me to the tunnel, the same little tunnel Dave and I had visited eight years ago, right beneath a pair of overhanging, huge, river-rounded boulders. A whole nest of such boulders occupied the Eocene channel and were visible on both sides of the ravine, where we were, and nowhere else. Beds of river gravel formed the matrix supporting these boulders.

We had some shade there and took a long break. Many flowers were in bloom: a tall species of Fireweed, some yellow Senecio (?) or Butterfat, and many gorgeous Scarlet Monkeyflowers. These seemed to be the particular possession of a hummingbird who stood guard on a tiny branch nearby, and was often called to chase away invading hummingbirds.

Meanwhile, half a dozen white butterflies with back spots on their forewings were sipping nectar from the Butterfat flowers and nothing else. They were so busy we could bring our cameras up to within inches without bothering them in the least. Later, with the help of the Internet and my Sierra Nevada Natural History, I established that these were Pine Whites, Neophasia menapia. They had lovely slightly furry light purple bodies. I got some great photos.

The caterpillars of this species feed on pine needles, especially Ponderosa Pine.

The afternoon was wearing on, and we made the steep climb out of the ravine to the north, and checking my GPS, I found we were still .75 mile from the spur ridge above the La Trinidad where the 1892 was shown dropping into Sailor Canyon. It was past four in the afternoon, and we were now all well scratched and very well exercised.

Perhaps a little *too* well exercised, since we could not keep from snagging our feet on the dead branches, and made a kind of stumbling shambling corkscrew march through the fine old forest. There is a hidden pond on the Terrace, in the deepest depths of the heavy timber north of Sailor Meadow, which I wanted to show Ron and Catherine. But I could not find it, and we decided to start back up and out.

The shortest and easiest was would have been to follow my little ridge-of-descent. But "easy" is not in our hiking vocabulary. We decided to forge a new path, by way of the Large Lava Rocks marked on the 1892 GLO map.

This was steep but essentially easy going, most of the way, but we hit a patch of Huckleberry Oak mixing with Green Manzanita and had some trouble and some new scratches. Both Ron and I put on our long pants, but as it happened, that one short stretch was the worst of it. Soon the Large Lava Rocks were in view, a kind of castle-like mass rising nearly 100 feet vertically, made of horizontal layers of andesitic mudflow, with about eight feet of andesitic sand in the lower section, and everything above slightly overhung the sand layers. As we neared this noble volcanic mass we found it to be split into two, with a narrow crack or chimney penetrating from west to east. Climbing around the side we reached the summit, a flat expanse of glaciated mudflow commanding a wonderful view of Sailor Canyon, Snow Mountain, Big Granite Canyon, Cherry Point, etc. etc. Only two hundred feet of climbing separated us from the crest of the Foresthill Divide, to the south.

Just above this Cracked Castle of Large Lava Rocks was a cluster of glacial erratics, including a granite boulder about eight feet in diameter, a giant egg of granite. Granite erratics are common on the far side of the North Fork canyon, but on the Foresthill Divide they are very rare, almost vanishingly rare. There are only a few places in the upper canyon from which these erratics could have been quarried by the ice, and carried here: Granite Chief itself, and some smallish bodies of granite near the Old Soda Springs, and also below Lyon Peak.

I was astounded to see the erratic granite eggs there.

We reached the summit and began the somewhat long walk west to Catherine's truck. After a mile on the road, we took a shortcut down the very crest of the divide, thus avoiding the road's southward bend to Robinson Flat, and reached the truck soon after sunset.

We sat and watched the stars come out while savoring some cold beer Ron had so thoughtfully brought along.

I rolled into my driveway a few minutes before eleven o'clock, stiff and sore and dreadfully scratched.

It was an interesting and difficult day in Sailor Canyon, searching for, and perhaps finding a portion of, an old trail. At the end of the day we were none of us sure we had followed any part of the 1892 trail, or even that it really existed.