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.

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