Thursday, September 29, 2005

Return to Sawtooth Ridge

Wednesday I was joined by Alex Henderson for a quick trip to Sawtooth Ridge, in search of more fragments of the South China Trail.

I.T. Coffin only called this the "trail to Lost Camp" (from Texas Hill via Burnett Canyon), but does mention Chinese from Dutch Flat in the area in 1863, looking to buy mining claims. Sometimes people call it the China Bar Trail, so perhaps the minor gravel bars at the crossing of the NFNFAR were in fact worked by Chinese, which would be in accord with the general trend, back then.

Of course there's nothing too quick about driving out Forest Road 19 ten miles from Emigrant Gap, taking the fork right onto gravel roads at Texas Hill, winding along beside Burnett Canyon, reaching Sawtooth Ridge, and then finally passing the old Burnett Canyon Trail and Sawtalian Trail and dropping into Willmont Saddle, and then climbing back up to the major fork where Old Sawtooth Road stays high, New Sawtooth Road stays low, and "Bob" has boldly placed four "No Trespassing" signs, bracketing both roads.

Wednesday the drive was slower than usual. A TNF "fuel load reduction" harvest was under way, and trees were being felled above Forest Road 19, near Fulda Flat. We were stopped by a flagman and waited nearly half an hour before being let through. Quite a crew of Mexican workers chattered away in Spanish beside the road. Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI) has the actually logging contract for TNF, and these were SPI employees.

Alex and I took New Sawtooth Road at the "no Trespassing" fork west of Willmont Saddle and stopped at a certain side road dropping away north. Our first foray was non-China-Trail, dropping down to a certain ridge and knoll in SPI Section 25, which cap the cliffs which had stopped my eastward progress when criss-crossing the heavily logged slopes in search of blazes, on Monday.

To the west we could see the China Trail Ridge. Both Knoll Ridge and China Ridge are spur ridges dropping north into the NFNFAR from Sawtooth. Both ridges exhibit quartz veins, repeating a pattern I have often seen in Shoo Fly rocks in this area: concentrations of quartz veins make for more resistant rock, which becomes ridges, following the overall north-south strike of the Shoo Fly strata. When down on the east-west-flowing streams, these same quartz vein areas are the sites of waterfalls and cascades.

Between Knoll Ridge and China Ridge is a "bedrock low" of the pre-volcanic landscape, where I had seen the mine and mudflow cliffs, on Monday. This marks an old valley which once ran roughly north-south, across the present line of Sawtooth Ridge. The basalt flow is associated with this valley but would seem to be off-axis. More study is needed.

We also had a fine view of Giant Gap and could see Diving Board Ridge west of Canyon Creek, and the remarkable view area near the head of the Pickering Bar Trail. With binoculars I could even pick out a little section of the HOUT, on the east side of Big West Spur, in Giant Gap.

Well below us to the west we saw a bit of Rattlesnake Point, which is just west of the China Trail.

We satisfied our curiosity about Knoll Ridge and climbed back up to the road and drove a little west to China Ridge, parked again, and started up towards the crest of Sawtooth, past the blaze I found on Monday.

Here again the old theme was repeated: a bulldozer skid trail had been put directly on the old trail, and the larger trees which would have held blazes were now stumps. However, I trusted to the general trend for trails to follow ridge crests, and was a little surprised to find one intact stretch of trail, thirty yards long, in this heavily logged area.

Thirty yards out of five hundred yards is pretty pathetic.

Alex picked up an old old cowbell at one point, which I took to mean, "Yes, this is the China Trail."

As we climbed higher, we passed out of SPI Section 25 into TNF Section 30, and immediately the logging eased off to insignificance, blazes appeared.

The grade lessened and we walked through a pretty patch of mixed coniferous forest past more and more blazes and an old sign on a tree (the sign itself fallen away and not to be found, but the strips of wood which backed it still nailed to the trunk), and in a few steps we were at Old Sawtooth Road on the very crest of the road.

There I found an old TNF signpost, a four-by-four, on its side, its two-by-six sign boards missing. They would have read something like "NFNFAR, 2; Lost Camp, 4" (miles).

There is a bit of a wide spot on the road there with some new and old fire-rings in the vicinity. I had taken note of this spot on Monday, as I climbed up out of the grassy Mudflow Barrens from the south, to this point. Now I realize that this wide spot was the parking area for the Sawtooth end of the China Trail.

So a little more of the South China Trail has been found. It is one of way too many of our historic trails ruined by logging in recent decades. In the Sawtooth Ridge area alone, a rich complex of trails has degenerated into nothing. And where there was pristine forest there is a welter of logging roads and skid trails.

Here is a partial list of these old trails, with some notes as to their fates:

1. Sawtooth Trail: gradually became a road. Extended west to Helester Point by 1939, extended further west to the Rawhide Trail probably around 1960, tho the 1962 TNF map still shows that section as trail.

2. Government Springs Trail. Upper end obliterated by logging in the 1990s; signs marking trail blasted away by shotguns; private property owners gated road leading to trail in 1992 or so. Otherwise, in reasonable shape, except not maintained at all by TNF.

3. Burnett Canyon Trail. Upper parts of trail on both sides of Burnett Canyon obliterated by logging. Middle part still OK but unmaintained.

4. Sawtooth-Italian Trail (Sawtalian). Abandoned. Upper end obliterated by logging. Lower end obscured by helicopter logging in the 1990s.

5. (South) China Trail. Obliterated by logging in the 1960s and then again in the 1990s. Trail No. 50 in the 1953 Placer County Trails Ordinance; there described as trending southeast from the crossing of the NFNFAR, climbing to Old Sawtooth Road, and following Sawtooth Ridge southwest to a junction with the Pioneer Mine Trail, on the main North Fork; whether by way of the Sawbug Trail, or the Blackhawk Mine Trail, is not stated.

6. Sawtooth-Humbug Trail (Sawbug). Abandoned. Upper end obliterated by mining and then by non-use in the early 20th century.

7. Blackhawk Trail. Still occasionally used.

8. Rawhide Trail. Abandoned. Blocked, since about 1979, at the crossing of the NFNFAR, by new owner of the mine, Harry Mayo. Badly overgrown in places.

Alex and I drove back out the long and winding roads and reached Alta in time for me to pick up my kids from the school bus.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Visit to Sawtooth Ridge; The China Trail

At 7:45 this morning, Monday, I drove east on I-80 to Blue Canyon, under a light rain, to see what is going on at Lost Camp.

Had the Siller Brothers' timber harvest commenced?

About two miles south of I-80, a road forks left past some steep-roofed old houses and other buildings, including the abandoned Blue Canyon school. In a few hundred feet it turns to unadulterated dirt, of the yellow clay type. To my surprise, two new signs had appeared at this point: one, on a post, a yellow diamond, read "End County Maintained Road." The other, a piece of plywood nailed to a tree and painted boldly, read "Keep Out. Privately Maintained Road."

I did not "keep out" but drove right in over the rutted little road, a public road since at least 1858, which, as almost always, seemed to have been recently ripped and regraded for the benefit of log trucks. In a while I crossed the tracks and made my descent past various "For Sale" signs. To my surprise, the road work didn't continue down to Lost Camp itself, but a road right had been freshly graded and a plywood sign marked it as "SUP Heli."

"Heli" for helicopter, obviously.

I drove on down to Lost Camp and saw that the regular bulldozer-type logging had not begun. That is, the bomb had not yet exploded; the hammer had not yet dropped; the old-time Ponderosa Pines with their big bark plates still stood guard over a lonely little fork, having to do with, this mine is that way, those other mines are the other way. A rusty old pipe, six feet above ground, had been embedded between two of these ancient trees, to hang deer and other game. A hunters' camp from the days of yore.

I had seen enough.

Next on my list was a visit to Sawtooth Ridge. I drove back to I-80 and went east to Emigrant Gap, where the road south from the freeway turns into TNF's Forest Road 19. This narrow paved road winds around quite a bit before crossing the East Fork of the North Fork of the North Fork American, and climbing to Texas Hill. There the pavement ends. I took the fork right, to Helester Point, the site of an old Forest Service lookout tower on Sawtooth Ridge.

The rain had increased, and had laid the dust, just as I'd hoped. I scarcely noticed the tiny mining ditch Isaac Tibbetts Coffin and friends had dug in the late 1850s, to supply the diggings at Texas Hill; first it was below the road on the right, then above on the left. I passed the unmarked fork left to Dawson Spring and rounded the head of Burnett Canyon.

My course was now southwest near and along the top of Sawtooth Ridge, the divide between the North Fork on the south, and the North Fork of the North Fork, on the north. This the ridge one sees, looking upstream from the foot bridge at Euchre Bar. It runs along between the two canyons for miles; I.T. Coffin called it the "Camel Hump-backed Ridge," and some old maps mark it as Texas Ridge. The ridge has a long series of summits and gaps, knolls and passes. In the stretch I drove, these summits drop from about 5500' to 5000' in elevation.

My goal was an unusual patch of Pliocene-age basalt on the crest of the ridge, a little southwest from Willmont Saddle. I had gathered a sample for Brian Cousens years ago; Brian is studying the youngest of the "young volcanics" in this part of the Sierra. Recently, Brian had my sample dated; it came in at 3.82 million years, which should be taken as the approximate age of the North Fork American canyon.

Today I planned to circumambulate the basalt, no matter how thick the manzanita, no matter how steep the slopes. I would find its easternmost point, its westernmost point, I would measure its maximum elevation, and find its minimum elevation. If possible, I would record exactly what it was in contact with, on all sides: Shoo Fly Complex rocks, or Mehrten Formation andesitic mudlflow, or whatever.

Before I could begin my circuit, more new signs appeared. The old Sawtooth Road stays high, while the more recent, 1960s-era road follows a lower line. At the fork were four brand new "No Trespassing" signs, on both sides of both roads. Taking the high road, I found that someone had dragged many logs to line both the old road, and a new road, with a couple beefy logs standing upright light gateposts.

This was the land put up for sale last summer. I had called Tahoe National Forest to see if anything could be done, but of course, nothing could be done. Rich Johnson remarked that the owners had approached him directly, years before, to see if TNF was interested in buying the 160 acres or whatever.

But nothing was done, and now some yahoo is getting busy with his "no trespassing" signs and will more than likely build some horrible chalet, and a driveway with Real Stone Gateposts (like rich people have).

Actually, the yahoo is named Bob. But I will get to that.

The rain stopped just as I left the Subie.

All went as planned, tho nowhere could I find a plain old bread-and-butter contact between the Sawtooth basalt and the other rocks. This is not too strange; much of the crest of the ridge is slathered over with glacial till which has boulders of both Shoo Fly and Mehrthen; there is no hope in such places. At the base of the basalt, it more or less clearly rested on the Shoo Fly metasediments, but never in a nice, neat, unequivocal way. A backhoe could have sorted things out. To the east and the west, the basalt appeared to be in contact with Mehrten mudflow.

Thus the flow presents the appearance of having occupied a narrow valley incised into the broad plateau of Mehrten mudflow, said valley having managed to cut down through the mudflow to bedrock (the Shoo Fly), but little if any farther. Where now the flow measures two hundred feet deep, it might have been deeper, originally, but, judging by the intact plateau surfaces across the North Fork to the south, not very much deeper; for the plateau, across the canyon, is at 5200', and the top of the Sawtooth basalt is at about 5080'. All things being equal, if the basalt had filled the nascent valley to the brim, it would have been 320' thick.

Near the (hidden) western contact, I found two springs. Broad game trails led to these springs. I used one to cross below the basalt from west to east.

There were some charming "mudflow barrens," places where so little soil had developed that trees could not grow, and there were good-sized grassy areas and good-sized manzanita patches in the barrens. The combination of glacially-scoured mudflow, southern exposure, steep slopes, and a thousand wildfires had retarded soil development.

The base of the basalt is at about 4880' elevation, and the highest points are about 5089' elevation, hence as exposed the flow has a thickness of 200 feet. It extends more than 500 feet along the ridge crest, from east to west. Some questionable exposures of the basalt are also found on the north side of the ridge, at about 4880'. These only confirm that the base of the flow is at 4880'.

There is sometimes a strongly sheeted character to the basalt, much like slate in fact, and nearby outcrops of Shoo Fly slates look much like the basalt. But the basalt sheets strike west-southwest and dip southeast at about 70 degrees. The Shoo Fly slate is almost vertical (a dip of 90 degrees) and strikes south.

The western part of the flow is more blocky in structure and also darker in color. One cannot rule out that there might be two separate flows, but I think it is just normal variation within one flow. Taking a guess, I would imagine the flow came from the northeast and flowed along the strike of the sheeted structures, since the blocky structures also strike in exactly the same direction.

There are some similar flows fifteen miles north near Bowman Lake, and possibly the Sawtooth Flow is 'the same" as these. But more study is needed. These Pliocene basalt flows are worse than fragmentary in the middle elevations of the northern Sierra.

I also visited some fine little Shoo Fly clifftops below the mudflow barrens, with bear trails beaten to them through the Green Manzanita. I could see far up and down the North Fork, to and beyond Giant Gap on the west, and up past Tadpole Canyon on the east. Italian Bar was almost directly below me. I could see the ridge the Sawtalian Trail follows down towards the North Fork, where Ron Gould and I had explored last summer.

I thrashed back up to the summit of Sawtooth and followed along west in mudflow barrens before finally breaking north across the summit to the road, which I followed east to the Subie. I had made a circuit of about 2.75 miles.

It was only one in the afternoon. I decided to go and scout for vestiges of the China Trail, which once connected Lost Camp to the Sawtooth, before Southern Pacific Land Company went crazy with bulldozers taking out the old-growth, in the 1960s.

Then in the 1980s they sold the land, which now belongs to Sierra Pacific Industries; and SPI went in again, in the early 1990s, and of course much more bulldozer work was needed--the canyon of the North Fork of the North Fork is a steep canyon, and a deep canyon, and to get the trees out, well, a lot of dirt must be moved.

Almost all the dirt must be moved, when you get right down to it.

Taking the lower road west, I reached another sigh, red paint on plywood, which read "Bobs--Keep Out." A few stumps surrounded a fire-ring nearby.

Driving past "Bobs" (sic) I eventually reached a road breaking back sharp right, to the east, and parked. The road was blocked with a large log and many fallen trees, to boot.

I was sure that this road must lead almost all the way down to the river, to the NFNFAR, where Dave Lawler and I, back in the '90s, had followed the China Trail up, and up, increasingly excited--an old trail! Forgotten, abandoned, but still intact!."

Well, intact, yes, for a couple hundred yards. Then it entered a log deck, and all traces of the old trail were lost.

This trail shows on many old maps. And by comparing the old maps to the modern topographic maps (the 7.5 minute Westville quadrangle), I had deduced that this one logging road must lead down to the log deck Dave and I had stumbled upon.

A couple years ago I had started down this same road, and stirred up a nesting Goshawk, and retreated.

Today, well, today was a real "Russell" hike. First off, I thought to myself, "Russell me boy, no sense in going all the way to the river. Just walk a short half mile, checking whatever large trees still standing for blazes, and then, hop back to the car. No pack, no GPS, no camera, no fuss, no mess, no bother."

So off I went. After half a mile, I spied a ridge ahead. "The trail might be on that ridge, so I'll go just a little farther."

Bushes laden with the morning's rain soaked me a bit. A helicopter was hauling logs over at Lost Camp; I could see it occasionally, and hear it constantly. As I reached "the ridge," I saw a remarkable projection of large slabs of Shoo Fly, projecting into the canyon to the north (the NFNFAR). An amazing place! So I clamber onto the giant slabs and picked my way along. Large veins of white quartz, inches thick, covered many surfaces. I saw a dried snake skin at my feet, and noted an infinite maze of caves and grottos beneath me.

"Snake City," I said out loud, and as if to confirm this observation, a rattlesnake started buzzing behind me--I had stepped over it without noticing it. It was willing to let bygones be bygones, until I stopped and started talking to myself. Then, it moved into action. It was a pretty thing, not much more than two feet long, of a lighter shade than I am used to seeing in North Fork. Light greys and browns. A white rattle. It soon retreated into a grotto.

I continued more cautiously, and reached the very point, after maybe a hundred yards of leaping from slab to slab. Now that I had seen the rattlesnake, those interesting caves and grottos seemed full of danger: bears, mountain lions, all and any kind of thing might leap up at me. Some of the caves were rather large.

I could see the helicopter quite plainly, and the recent SPI clearcut on the Lost Camp divide, and Texas Canyon, and Fulda. Looking below my narrow rocky crest, to east and west, I could see no trail. But now yet another ridge had appeared to the east.

"I will go that far, and no further," I exclaimed, and rapidly retraced my leaps and bounds past the hidden rattlesnake to the logging road.

In another quarter mile, the road forked. I had been looking for blazes and looking for blazes and now, at last, I found a "small i" blaze, right at the fork, in a large pine which inexplicably survived the loggers of two generations. Taking in the lay of the land, I guessed that the lower road had been cut directly into the China Trail, and, sure enough, fifty yards down or so, I found more blazes. But then, a log deck--not the same log deck Dave and I had found, I was still high above the river--and no more blazes.

However, I was more than happy to devote my energies to following the China Trail *up* rather than down, as I had already given up 500 feet of elevation. So I climbed back up to the last fork, and found yet another blaze on the upper roadlet, across from Blaze One. So the China Trail had passed between the two trees, and here, as on the lower fork, a logging road had been cut directly into the line of the trail.

Half-healed skid trails were everywhere. I could not discount the possibility that the trail had switched away from the road right above the blazes, so I began by scouting to the upper side of the road. But no. So I followed the road, hoping to find an occasional blaze.

But no. Eventually I reached another log deck, circled it looking for blazes, and then started climbing more directly up the canyon wall. I struck back west; no blazes; a quarter-mile east; no blazes. Back and forth I went, always climbing; no blazes.

Soon a remarkable cliff appeared on the east, with such a nice easy natural grade at its base that I took extreme care to make sure I had not accidentally found the China Trail.

But no. I had not.

So, it could only be to the west, since the cliff to the east was no place for a trail.

First I climbed straight up to the south, but was stopped by yet another cliff. So I contoured east through logging slash and dogwoods and small firs until I could begin climbing again. Alway, always, looking for blazes. But the large trees which would have held blazes were stumps, now.

While climbing an especially anonymous and cruelly steep slope, using dogwood branches like ropes to pull myself up, I hit a broad game trail.

Game trail? Or was it the China Trail? I followed it of course, and soon reached a spring at the base of andesitic mudflow cliffs, a spring which issued from a collapsed mine tunnel. The spoils from the tunnel, which were Shoo Fly slates, were neatly stacked to one side in a mound about ten feet high and twenty long. The trail continued west, and I thought, "OK, not the China Trail, but it will lead me *to* the China Trail!"

Unfortunately, the trail traversed very steep slopes which had been logged twice, and it was soon obliterated, and I was slipping and stumbling along, when I saw I was nearing a ridge-crest, and my trail briefly reappeared. Reaching the ridge, I was certain that it was the course of the China Trail--but not one single blaze could be found, and, of course, bulldozers had used the old foot trail as a skid trail, so nothing remained of the trail itself.

But I was certain, so I followed it up the crest to the south, and in half a mile, reached the main logging road I had driven in on. Just across this road, on the uphill side, another side road, all overgrown, made the logical continuation of my supposed China Trail. So I gave it a try. A hundred yards in, I found a "small i" blaze.

So. I had had success. I had found portions of the China Trail, as depicted on the old TNF maps, down to the 1962 TNF map, and it followed a ridge crest, as trails often do, over part of its climb from the river to the top of Sawtooth.

I returned to the road and walked a half-mile down to the west to the Subie, fired up the GPS, and took waypoints where the China Trail crossed, and at Bob's Place.

Then it only remained to drive the sixteen miles back to I-80 and the ten miles down to Alta and then, home. The rain began again. It had held off for all my hiking, only raining while I was driving.

It was an interesting yet disturbing day around Sawtooth Ridge and Lost Camp.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Lost Camp Logging?

The word is that helicopter logging is underway "near Blue Canyon" and I interpret this to mean, on the 590-acre Siller Bros. lumber company lands spanning the historic townsite of Lost Camp.

Several steep-sided canyons cross the property, including Blue Canyon and Fulda Creek, where timber was never harvested before, because it was too difficult to build roads into the canyons. Hence, wonderful, huge, ancient trees grew scatteringly on the steep slopes.

They are being cut down right now. Strange, isn't it, that in an area which was already too heavily logged, again and again in the past, the last big trees are being taken, in the year 2005?

Meanwhile, on the uplands between these canyons a far more destructive harvest likely is also in progress. Letters we wrote to CDF about the Siller Bros. Timber Harvest Plan, a couple years ago, did have one positive result: the historic China Trail would not be used as a bulldozer skid trail, and slash would be removed from the trail when logging ended.

I haven't been up to Lost Camp to see for myself, yet.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Gold Run, For Sale--Sold?

Last weekend Catherine O'Riley took some friends down the Canyon Creek Trail, near Gold Run, and upon their return, as they neared the gate, they were flagged down by occupants of a shiny little SUV and challenged to account for themselves: how had they gained access to the Diggings?

It turned out that the SUVers were prospective buyers of the 800 acres which has been for sale for the last six years, or so. So they had a key to gate the rest of us contrive to drive around.

They were confident of their prospects for closing the deal. According to Catherine, they are a family group, scattered across several states, with experience, it seems, in the gravel business. Their plan: buy the 800 acres for $3.3 million, and then sell more than $3.3 million dollars worth of gravel, quarried from the Diggings.

Mercury? They can handle it, the SUVers assured Catherine. Their main problem? "Fascist" environmentalists who want to preserve the Diggings unchanged.

The SUVers vision for the future of the Diggings? After the gravel is quarried away, they will make a series of ponds, stock them with fish, and have some kind of high-faluting fishing club.

I don't know what if anything can be done to avert this disaster. When the North Fork American Wild & Scenic River was first defined for study purposes, it extended above the Royal Gorge into the precincts of another wealthy club, called The Cedars. The Cedars objected strenuously, and The Cedars' political influence is legendary.

So the North Fork W&SR was chopped off at its head, and Bizz Johnson, our local Congressman, said (more or less), "Behold! What is taken away, up there, is now restored: behold the Gold run Addition, a major portal for public access to the wonderful North Fork of the American River!"

The Addition extended the W&SR "corridor" a mile north into the Gold Run Diggings.

And Congress, in 1978, directed the Dept. of the Interior (i.e., the BLM), to purchase all private inholdings within this wonderful Gold Run Addition.

But nothing has yet been purchased. And of the three historic trails giving access to the North Fork from Gold Run--the Canyon Creek Trail, the Pickering Bar Trail, and the Fords Bar Trail--only one is open to the public, the Pickering Bar Trail, and in twenty-seven years, not even a sign has been erected, pointing the way to this historic (and quite steep) trail.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Letter to Tahoe National Forest

Below, a letter to TNF Supervisor Steve Eubanks. It is too long, or not long enough, I can never tell. The gist of it is, that I want to see a lot more land acquisition in TNF, in particular, around Sugar Pine Point and the Big Granite Trail. And I want to see a number of road closures, and a drastic reduction in the areas open to OHV use.

TNF is engaged in an OHV study right now. I will write something up about that soon. You should know that motorcyclists and OHV enthusuasts are aggressively pushing for as much land and trails open to them as possible. It appears that they are purposely ignoring OHV closures, on the few trails which now have such closures, to force TNF to consider such trails as existing OHV routes.

September 14, 2005

Steven Eubanks
Forest Supervisor, Tahoe National Forest
631 Coyote Street
Nevada City, CA 95959

re: old trails, land acquisition

Dear Supervisor Eubanks,

It was nice to meet you at the Centennial Celebration up at Robinson Flat.

Over recent years I have written to you on several occasions. I am not aware that I have ever received a response. Mostly, my letters have had to do with preserving historic trails, and asking Tahoe National Forest (TNF) to pursue land acquisitions.

I will come to specifics, but please bear with me while I review some generalities.

I have been very pleased with the progress made in acquiring private inholdings in the North Fork American river canyon; but I want to see much more land purchased. In some of my previous letters, I recommended purchase of private lands near Blue Canyon, around the historic townsite of Lost Camp, where the north end of the "China Trail" begins. I remain hopeful that these lands will pass into TNF ownership, although it may be too late for me or my children to enjoy the benefit of that acquisition, within our lifetimes; for Siller Brothers Lumber Company has had a Timber Harvest Plan approved, on 590 acres of land at and around Lost Camp, which will drastically alter the landscape, the forest, and the entire look and feel of that area.

The way I see it, it is now, just as it always has been, the responsibility of TNF to protect its historic trails. Obviously such protection is complicated by the vast private inholdings within TNF. This is as obvious now as it was in 1905. At one time, let us say, before 1960, TNF was more active in maintaining and protecting these old trails.

I should say that I also oppose OHV use on most all such trails. I take the approach that any trail which ever appeared on TNF maps or USGS maps is a public trail which should remain open for foot use. Whether equestrian or mountain bike uses should be allowed on such trails, must be decided on a case-by-case basis. But in the ordinary course of things, OHV use, in my opinion, should rarely if ever be permitted on such trails.

An exception might be when such a trail has actually been changed into a road.

Currently, there is much concern over the Bush Administration's revision of the Clinton-era "Roadless Area Rules," a revision which would allow new roads to be constructed, and would, as I understand it, allow or encourage timber harvests and motorized uses in what fragments remain of relatively pristine parts of our National Forests. I am not only opposed to this change in policy, so far as our own Tahoe National Forest goes, I want quite the opposite to happen.

I want some, or say, many, existing roads closed altogether; I want much less OHV and motorized uses; I want timber harvests reduced, if anything, and I want timber harvest practices to even more stringently protect soils, wildlife, scenery, and (foot) trails.

Let me provide some concrete examples of such road closures.

I want the road out to Big Valley Bluff, forking away south from Forest Road 19, closed to all motorized uses, at a point at least .25 mile north of the Bluff. I also want Forest Road 19 itself closed, between the road to Big Valley Bluff, and a point north from there, near Mears Meadow.

I want the Sawtooth Ridge Road closed at Helester Point, with no motorized uses permitted south of there, on Sawtooth Ridge. I want all private inholdings on Sawtooth Ridge to become TNF acquisition targets with a high priority.

I want the roads between New York Canyon and Tadpole Canyon, north of the Foresthill-Soda Springs Road, closed at least .5 mile south of the cliffs above the terminus of the historic Iowa Hill Canal. I want the same closure to apply to snowmobiles and other OHVs.

I want the road leading north from the Foresthill-Soda Springs Road, on the ridge dividing Wildcat Canyon from Wabena Canyon, closed to motorized uses, where it passes into Section 31; and this Section 31 must become one of the highest priority TNF acquisition targets.

I want the road (FR 38) on the divide between Big Valley and Little Granite Creek closed where the Big Granite Trail forks away, and I want all private inholdings in that area, including SPI-owned sections 7, 9, and 17, and CHY lands in Section 8 and elsewhere in the basins of Big Valley and Little Granite Creek, to have the highest priority for TNF acquisitions.

I want the private inholdings within the main North Fork American River canyon, east of the Mumford Bar Trail, acquired, and the road giving access to some of these lands, following the line of the Iowa Hill Canal, closed at the Foresthill-Soda Springs Road.

The unifying principle motivating such recommendations is that I want more wild and beautiful lands in Tahoe National Forest, not less; I want foot trails, not roads; it almost amounts to saying, I want to turn back the clock about fifty years or so.

This must seem silly. It is not at all silly. Simply because we, or those before us, made mistakes on a grand scale, and built roads and harvested timber and ruined trails every which way, does not mean we have to accept the ensuing conditions as permanent.

Now, I might almost believe that there has been a conspiracy afoot in Tahoe National Forest, to ruin historic trails. I might believe the same about CDF, which oversees timber harvests on private lands. I cannot put my finger on it, but again, at some time, around 1960, say, TNF went from protecting the old trails, to ignoring them.

As an example of this relatively new and terrible mindset, I observed, in the office of TNF archeologist Bill Slater, a nicely printed legend on his wall; an "official" Forest Service legend of symbols, used to record archeological and historic resources.

But there was no symbol whatsoever for "trail." I mentioned this to Bill, and he replied, "Why of course there is a symbol-look, here, see that? 'Linear feature'?"

And yes, at the bottom of the professionally printed legend someone had scrawled, by hand, "linear feature." And Bill explained that a trail is just a linear feature.

OK. It so happens that CDF also has adopted the custom of calling a trail a "linear feature."

I also find, in conversations with TNF employees, that they share a misconception about these historic trails. They wish to paint the old trails as purely practical: such-and-such trail was just how the miners got from Point A to Point B; now we have roads, so the trails have been abandoned.

Of course there were practical uses, having an economic basis, on these old TNF trails. But there was a tremendous recreational use of these same trails, long predating the existence of Tahoe National Forest.

Setting aside Native American uses, which extend back thousands of years-and not a few of our old trails are, at least in part, vastly, incredibly old-purely recreational uses began very early on. One thinks, in this area, of the for-pleasure excursions of famous author Alonzo Delano, from Grass Valley up to the high country around the Sierra crest, with Lola Montez, or, on another occasion, with Chief Weimar of the Nisenan Maidu. These multi-day excursions took place in the early 1850s.

Or, consider the 1870 and later Soda Springs Hotel, in the upper North Fork American, filling with guests every summer, who rambled all over the mountains, and down the North Fork into the Royal Gorge, or up the North Fork and across the crest to Squaw Valley and Lake Tahoe. There are many records of such early recreational uses of the historic trails which later became formal parts of the TNF trail system.

People walked and rode and camped and hunted and fished far and wide. What became Tahoe National Forest was a vast park of almost pristine wilderness, afflicted with overgrazing, yes, and in some places, marred by timber harvests and mining operations.

When such a vast and beautiful park is ruined by inches, over a period of a hundred years, there is all too little public outcry.

Almost the first day I moved to this area, in 1972, I encountered problems with TNF's historic trails. I did not realize the magnitude of the problems, at first. I thought that with the rapidly increasing population of California, and the crowded trailhead parking area in the High Sierra, farther south, that-obviously!-recreational uses would come to the forefront in Tahoe National Forest.

But around 1985, the Southern Pacific lands were sold off, and what has happened since then has been the criminal destruction of historic trails, from timber harvests. I recall the first instance I observed of this new round of destruction, in 1986 or so: the trail leading down to Lola Montez Lake from the north was obliterated by bulldozers making skid trails.

Since then, I have directly observed the same pattern of destruction, on the following historic trails: Mears Meadow, Monumental Creek, Big Valley (north-south), Big Valley (east-west), Sugar Pine Point, Big Granite, Cherry Point, Long Valley, and Big Bend-Devils Peak. The last-named trail may have been ruined before 1985.

All these seem to have involved timber harvests on private lands-the old "railroad" lands-at least, for the most part. Some TNF lands were also involved.

Now, Timber Harvest Plans cross the desk(s) of one or more employees of Tahoe National Forest. It seems to me that TNF should have gone directly to SPI, and CHY, or whoever, and demanded that the trails be protected.

Far better still if TNF itself had acquired the old railroad lands, when they were cheap. But that is water under the bridge.

What is not water under the bridge is the continued, ongoing destruction of historic TNF trails. This is also occurring in Eldorado National Forest.

I spent quite a bit of time, over the past few years, trying to find out how and when and why the Big Granite Trail had been so badly damaged, south of Forest Road 38, in Section 9, T16N R13E. I saw that someone, presumably from TNF, had put up new signs, helping hikers past the damaged sections of trail. I made many calls, but did not, then, discover who in TNF had actually cared about the Big Granite Trail.

I found out, this summer, that it was now-retired Bill Haire who saw to the signs.

It turns out that the initial severe damage took place in 1990, during a Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI) timber harvest.

Hoping to repair the damage to the Big Granite Trail myself, I inquired with TNF about its "Adopt a Trail" program, but met with a strange obfuscation on the part of the employee with whom I spoke, deriving in part from the impending change in Ranger District boundaries. She hung up on me in mid-conversation, and I left it at that.

About a year ago, in 2004, SPI bulldozers returned to the scene of their earlier crime, and ruined still more of the Big Granite Trail, while executing a "10% Exemption" harvest.

Once again I got on the telephone, to Rich Johnson. I wrote letters to CDF and to Governor Schwarzenegger, for I could not and cannot believe that in 2004 we are willing to throw away historic public trails in the interest of cutting down a few trees.

The Big Granite Trail (BGT) gives access to the North Fork American River, which, of course, is a Wild & Scenic River. TNF has an easement on the BGT, dating to 1950.

Now, CDF had done nothing to protect the BGT. Complaints to CDF about the Siller Brothers' THP at Lost Camp, in which the historic China Trail was actually marked as a skid trail, resulted in very minor changes to the THP, protecting the trailbed itself. I had found, then, that CDF wished to quibble: the ancient China Trail, from Lost Camp down to the North Fork of the North Fork American River, was not a "National Historic Trail," hence could not be offered protection as a historic trail.

This absurdity is so shameful I can scarcely believe that CDF personnel can look in their mirrors in the morning. They seem to have quite a happy club, there, the archeologists at CDF, a club in which they and the Registered Professional Foresters nobly protect Native American sites, and share information. But while they are having such fun, they are driving the last nails into the coffin of our wildlands, our trails, our scenery, our recreational heritage.

So, I am not very pleased with CDF and their Forest Rules. However, there seems to be some slight tendency towards beginning to protect the old trails.

This is coming a little late, inasmuch as every historic trail between Blue Canyon on the west, and Serena Creek on the east, within the basin of the North Fork American River, has been damaged if not entirely ruined, by timber harvests.

Now, after my complaints to CDF about the 2004 damage to the Big Granite Trail, they made an inspection, on July 12, 2005, in the company of SPI's RPF, Carl Bystry. I hear that Carl Bystry is a fine man and a straight shooter. But when asked, during the July 12th inspection, whether SPI would mind if a group of citizen volunteers repaired the damage to the BGT, I am told he replied, "We [SPI] do not want them in here. We would be all the happier if they stopped using the trail and never came back."

I am sure, Supervisor Eubanks, you know that the 1950 easement granted to the United States from Southern Pacific Land Co., on the BGT, specifies that the easement shall become void from non-use of the trail, for a period of five years.

Knowing that (if Carl Bystry is correct) SPI does not want The Public to use the historic public trails crossing SPI lands, how easy it is for SPI to drive bulldozers up and down and across these old trails, obliterating them, and thus keep The Public off the trails for five years, and be free from the encumbrance of an easement, whether deeded (as in the case of the BGT), or prescriptive (as in other historic public trails).

I am not much given to conspiracy theories. Here I must wonder: are the old trails being purposely obliterated, by SPI?

The 1950 easement also specifies that all timber may be harvested from the right-of-way. How neatly this provision meshes with accidentally-on-purpose obliteration of the old trails!

Incidentally, the last reasonably intact portion of the historic Sugar Pine Point Trail, in SPI-owned Section 17, near Sugar Pine Point itself, was not too seriously damaged in the 2004 10% Exemption harvest. It was only blocked by a bulldozed pile of slash and brush, where it leaves the pass immediately north of Sugar Pine Point itself.

However, a consequence of re-opening the roads in that area, for SPI's 2004 10% Exemption harvest, was that OHV use increased, or actually began for the first time, on those roads. And as a result, motorcycles began using the Big Granite Trail itself, and followed it all the way down to the North Fork American River itself, this summer (2005). They damaged the narrow old trail in various places.

Now, as I understand it, and I may be wrong, these particular sections of SPI land (in Big Valley, near Sugar Pine Point, and around Four Horse Flat) form a part of a broad option agreement negotiated between the Trust for Public Land and SPI, in 2003, for the purchase of thousands of acres of SPI lands. The agreement would expire in 2008.

Money for such acquisitions may be slow in coming and small in amount. I would like to commend these lands to you, as deserving a high priority, as acquisition targets.

Currently, the CHY lumber company has a THP under consideration. I have copy of the THP but have offered no comments yet to CDF, in part because so far as I am aware, all the trails which could be ruined within these lands, have already been ruined, and in part because I am lazy. But I am concerned about new damage to the Sugar Pine Point Trail near Pelham Flat in Section 8, for, although it was already obliterated, in the short section between Pelham Flat and its intersection with the Big Granite Trail, it could be easily restored-and I hope that all that area will be closed to motorized uses, and allowed to return to a wild condition, and that, once again, the Sugar Pine Point Trail will come into use, for hiking and camping.

It seems to me that it is long since time for Tahoe National Forest to take an active role in protecting these old trails. It is time for Tahoe National Forest to contact CDF, and to contact CHY's RPF, and make very sure that no further damage occurs to the trails, and for that matter, that no further damage occurs to the scenic values in that area.

The roads, for instance, created by SPI in 1990, to access Four Horse Flat, and Little Granite Creek, south and east of Sugar Pine Point, made scars visible for miles. I see them from the Sailor Flat Trail, and from the 500-foot waterfall in New York Canyon, and from many places along the Foresthill Divide, and I do not concede that those roads should ever have been constructed, and I cannot wait until they are closed, and ripped up, and revegetated in any way. Were they to be buried beneath a rich growth of Huckleberry Oak, I would be thrilled.

These roads were beginning to blend into the forest, slightly, after 15 years, but the 2004 10% Exemption harvest brought them back into prominence.

I talk with many people working for Tahoe National Forest, and generally, I am impressed with their good sense, and feel that we are lucky to have such able and conscientious people on the job. Again and again, I hear that there is not enough money to keep the old trails open, to place signs, to cut trees from the trail, and so on.

Of course, when I ask the California Highway Patrol why they are unable to keep the big trucks from speeding down I-80 at 70 miles per hour, the CHP tells me that they do not have enough money.

And I am sure that when the mud is finally cleared in New Orleans, we shall find that FEMA did not have enough money, to have made a timely response to the emergency, either.

Of course, one of the problems with TNF employees is that they do not know their own lands. They have transferred here from elsewhere. I was always impressed with Rich Johnson's knowledge of the trails in his ranger district. In fact, Rich knew the Nevada City Ranger District far better than that district's own District Ranger did, a couple years ago.

I had occasion to talk with Dave Michael about the recent damage to the Big Granite Trail, this summer. And Dave said, "I'll have to go out there and take a look." I warned him that he would be lucky to find and follow the trail, after what SPI had done, and asked him to take me along. But Dave went out there on his own. He is a man who knows trails, he knows maps, he knows an old Forest Service blaze for what it is, and nevertheless, he never set foot on the Big Granite Trail.

He did find that the lower part of the Cherry Point Trail had been turned into a logging road. And he got horribly enmeshed in some brush after giving up on finding the Big Granite Trail and striking out cross-country for the ridge above, and Forest Road 38.

More recently, my friend Ron Gould and I accompanied Ed Moore of TNF Foresthill out to see the Big Granite Trail, and Ron and Ed are working on an Adopt-a-Trail agreement. Ron and I hope to repair the worst damage to the BGT this year, with the help of various friends.

In summary, I want TNF to act far more vigorously to protect its historic trails, I want TNF to pursue land acquisitions on a vastly increased scale, and I want TNF to increase the extent of its Roadless Areas and its roadless areas, by closing parts of many roads, and drastically reducing the areas open to motorized uses.

These recommendations fall more within the scope of TNF's Forest Plan, and its future revisions, than with any particular "project." Of course, my remarks also have a direct bearing upon the current OHV study, and although these remarks are often very general, I hope they sufficiently express my desire to see OHV use, and all motorized uses, reigned in and reduced.

The people of Placer County were not pleased by President Lincoln's land grants to the Central Pacific Railroad, in the 1860s. But, their recreational uses, of the wonderful, park-like maze of canyons and mountains and meadows and lakes, continued uninterrupted for many decades. After the Second World War, timber harvests and road construction increased dramatically. I have no doubt but that many people who had known Tahoe National Forest before the War, were so shocked and saddened by the wholesale destruction which ensued, that they simply gave up.

Who would have guessed, that an already unacceptable situation, would or even could become so very much worse? But the sale of the railroad lands around 1985 set the stage for more and more destruction of trails, more and more roads, more and more stumps and clearcuts and log landings and skid trails.

I say, just because Tahoe National Forest was half-ruined in the first decades after WWII, does not mean that it should be all-ruined. To set aside some small area as Wilderness (Granite Chief, say), or protect some narrow strip as a Wild & Scenic River (the North Fork American, say), was never near enough, never near what the land itself, the wildlife, the scenery, the long history of camping and fishing and hiking, really deserved.

Tahoe National Forest does not deserve "The Blame" for all that happened. We the People should long ago have realized the obvious, that the private inholdings, comprised mostly by railroad lands, but also by significant acreages of patented mining claims, and so on, held the seeds of the destruction of our wonderful mountain lands.

Who will want to hike the Sugar Pine Point Trail, through a mess of stumps and skid trails? Who will want to camp in fine old Four Horse Flat, now that SPI roads criss-cross it, and it is littered with stumps and logs and boulders rooted from their age-old beds?

The simple truth is, future generations will want to walk these trails, and camp in these once-beautiful areas, which can be beautiful again. And it seems clear to me that we must act to purchase the private inholdings, and not stop, and never give up.

Thank you for your consideration of these matters.

Sincerely yours,

Russell Towle

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Secret Caves of Nevada Point

Early Friday morning I stuffed a sandwich and other oddments into my pack and stared at nothing for a moment, lost in thought: what was I forgetting to take, for a day with Tom Petersen of Georgetown? My GPS unit? The small binoculars were missing from their usual spot on my dusty, broken, old upright piano; then there were the directions to Tom's house, scrawled into my active notebook: a million miles this way, then almost three miles that way: look for a fire station, then a low stone wall ... .

The telephone rang. My wife had a flat tire, right on I-80, just west of Dutch Flat, with three teenagers in the car, on their way to Colfax High. Emergency! So I grabbed the pack and ran the two hundred yards to my car, and whipped on down the freeway a mile or two to where a CHP vehicle already stood guard. My son nearly had the flat tire off, the spare was handy, and in a few minutes they were on their way again, and so was I.

Fortunately I remembered the directions to Tom's place. At last I turned into his rustic realm amid tall pines and saw a curious kind of gypsy wagon, all covered in shingles, built upon a 1940s one-ton truck. Here was a story, many stories. And rocks, hundreds of rocks gleaned from the hills and canyons, nice flat rocks set as stepping stones and little patios, or forming walls. And a nicely crafted house which scarcely looked like a house. A rambunctious young dog kept on leaping up on me and nipping my hands and shoelaces. Tom himself appeared, a sturdy grizzled artist carpenter hiker musician. A lot like me, but as tho some kind of broadening filter had been applied, in the Photoshop of life.

In his house I sipped coffee and admired some really amazing woodwork, in which he had tiled strips of hardwood of different types and colors to make all kinds of wonderful things, tables and chests and piano benches and cabinet doors. This proved to be quite a distraction as I am interested in geometric tilings and want to make some, using hardwoods, in a kind of marquetry process. Tom had already progressed rather fa in this direction. So we talked wood and glue and tools for a while and then climbed into his beat-up pickup for a drive upcountry.

We were aiming for Nevada Point Ridge, dividing Long Canyon, on the north, from the Rubicon Fork of the American River, on the south. This was all terra incognita for me. I had studied my maps and had already deduced that Nevada Point Ridge had a healthy cover of the "young volcanics," as the contour lines revealed a broad, almost flat upland surface between the two canyons, with springs along the sides, surely near the base of the volcanics, surely marking the level of the Valley Springs rhyolite ash.

From Wentworth Springs Road we hung a left on Eleven Pines Road, and dropped into the Rubicon canyon.

We crossed the Rubicon in an area of vertically sheeted granitic rock, on a bridge perhaps one hundred feet above the clear water of the river. A deep pool was just downstream. In crossing the Rubicon we had passed from El Dorado County into Placer County. Two thousand and fifty-odd years ago, Julius Caesar led his hardened veterans of the Tenth Legion south across the Rubicon, which divided Gallia Cisalpina (Hither Gaul; Gaul This-Side-of-the-Alps) from Italy. Civil war followed; but that is another story. However, we sometimes use a similar term here in California: Cismontane California, meaning, California This-Side-of-the-Sierra-Crest.

Climbing up the north canyon wall, we passed a gigantic Canyon Live Oak which Tom said is reputed to be the largest in all Placer County. I said I doubted it, but I can't recall seeing a definitely larger tree of this species.

Very soon we passed from the underlying bedrock, more of the sheeted somewhat mafic granitic rock, into the "superjacent" young volcanics. Since the summit uplands were still high above us this showed that the young volcanics were unusually thick here; at a guess, 500 feet, maybe much more, maybe close to a thousand feet thick, in places. As usual there was no sign of the intervening Valley Springs rhyolite ash; suddenly, we saw Mehrten Formation andesitic mudflows in the roadcuts.

Up on top, we wound through the forest, often heavily logged or even clearcut, and hung a left on a dirt road. Eventually, we came to a gate, which Tom had not seen before, but were able to just drive around it and continue west down the spine of Nevada Point Ridge.

Our first objective was an Indian cave or rock shelter, down by Nevada Point Trail. An archeologist friend had told me about it. We parked at a log deck, on the last bit of intact upland surface at the west end of Nevada Point Ridge.

I should say that, very unfortunately, every other square mile in this entire area was given to the railroad, way back when, and has since passed into the ownership of various lumber companies, notably, Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI). A rich network of ancient trails has been ruined to varying degrees by timber harvests. In fact, I saw almost exactly the same pattern as has afflicted the Big Granite Trail, south of Loch Leven Lakes: an earlier timber harvest, in 1990, first damaged the Big Granite Trail, and forced hikers onto a brand new logging road, before the good old trail with its Forest Service blazes could be regained. Then a more recent timber harvest, in 2004, had added insult to injury, and new damage upon old damage.

The upper end of the Nevada Point Trail has been routed onto a logging road, and within the past two years, a bulldozer has skidded logs directly up and down the historic line of the trail, right past the old blazes, and bladed up a multitude of "water bars," making use of the trail quite difficult.

We abjured the logging road in favor of the newly-damaged old trail, which continues down the narrow spine of the ridge, and, reaching a pass, we held to the south side of things and left the trail, which was dropping steadily towards the Rubicon, instead following a contour around through a nice grove of Kellogg's Black Oak. The crest of the ridge was lost to view above us. We were looking for a line of andesitic mudflow cliffs. First an odd, sunny, barren flat of mudflow was reached, with a scattering of stone flakes, left by the Indians centuries ago. Our cliffs seemed reluctant to show themselves; we dug out Tom's Tunnel Hill quadrangle, and saw that we merely had to exercise patience, and continue wrapping around the south face of the knoll above us.

Suddenly the cliffs appeared, and we reached the cave, at the base of the cliffs, running along almost twenty feet, and eight or ten feet deep, and eight or ten feet high. It was fascinating. The smoke of many fires over many centuries had blackened its roof. The mudflow here was of the "stream-rounded" andesitic boulder type, and apparently the percolation of ground water through this layer had sapped out the length and depth and height of the cave; a stratum of unusually fine-grained mudflow capped the rounded-rock layer, and it was relatively impervious to water, and hence remained more intact.

Boulders of andesite embedded in the mudflow floor of the cave held some mortar holes, some metate surfaces, and, interestingly, some "cupules," which are like miniature, shallow (less than an inch deep), mortar holes. I took some photographs of the plainest cupule, and not until I got home, and looked at this photo on my computer, did I realize that it was part of a faint group of cupules, outlining a partial ellipse.

Such cupules are regarded as a type of petroglyph, and are perhaps more common than is recognized, for they are often faint and blend well with the rock surface. I have seen cupules at a petroglyph site near Yuba Gap, on a sloping surface of glaciated granite, facing up the old Indian trail towards Cisco Butte.

We spent a few minutes at the cave, the only smoke-blackened Indian cave I have ever seen here in the Sierra, before dropping down the steep slopes in search of a spring shown on our map. We found one, not far below, but I was not convinced it was "the" spring we sought.

Striking south at this lower level, we contoured around until we met the Nevada Point Trail at the exact point where it leaves the logging road to resume its historic course. I was shocked and disgusted that the SPI harvest of ~1990 had pushed a road into this steep area, clearly with very little timber to harvest in the first place. What a man with a bulldozer can do, Nature cannot undo for many centuries. And for what? A half-dozen Ponderosa Pines? It is an absurdity and it is, or it should be, criminal.

We chose to skip the road, and follow the historic line of the trail, marked with frequent Forest Service blazes, back up to the ridge crest. It was badly overgrown in places. We lopped some brush and small tree branches away and climbed through various switchbacks until the dread Buckbrush began to appear, in another, steeper, mudflow "barrens," and as I tried to extract this or that thorny branch from the line of the trail, I suddenly realized my left hand was streaming blood. My blue jeans will never be the same. My one pair of blue jeans, forever blood-stained!

Oh well. We forged through more and more buckbrush, doubting after a while if we could even be on the old trail, but a lone large Ponderosa, blazed on both sides, showed we were on track, and we won through to the bulldozed ridge crest. Then a climb of two hundred feet or so, again, stubbornly following the old trail so drastically ruined by bulldozers, brought us back to Tom's truck.

He pulled out a couple of bottles of some excellent home-brewed reddish ale and we rested in the shade for a while.

Then came time for Phase Two, the search for some rumored petroglyphs in Long Canyon.

A certain line of mudflow cliffs on the side of Nevada Point Ridge was adorned by a high and narrow tower of mudflow. Tom pointed it out to me. Rumor put the petroglyphs "near" that tower.

Having just seen a cave with cupules in andesitic mudflow, I was prepared to find another cave, and more cupules; but this seemed wrong, or unlikely: these cliffs faced north, not south, and the Indians liked the sun; these cliffs were high above the meadowy floor of Long Valley; and there was not a speck of the underlying bedrock visible, where one might reasonably expect to find petroglyphs, on some glaciated surface.

We set out cross-country, crossed the dry streambed (there is a deep layer of glacial sediments in this part of Long Canyon, and in late summer, all water flows beneath the surface), and began a steepish climb towards the cliffs through forest logged again and again and again. Brand new "Timber Harvest Boundary" flagging suggested that SPI believes that more than enough logging is not, in fact, enough.

We had some difficult going through patches of water-loving Dogwood which suggested we might be at the level of the Valley Springs fm., but all was masked by glacial till, with many granitic boulders. Finally a small gully offered easy going on up to the cliffs. These cliffs too had many strata of the "stream-rounded boulder" type of mudflow, with intervening layers of fine-grained andesitic ash and sand. The layers were from four to thirty feet thick. The rambunctious dog, Einstein by name, roved above us and occasionally set loose small avalanches of rounded rock whizzing past us. Nerve-wracking. There were many shouts of "Einstein! Come here!", or "Einstein! No!", but nothing could prevent young Einstein from skipping merrily to and fro across the steep slopes above us.

We reached the tower, and saw a hawk, or perhaps an Osprey, soaring just above. The tower was a mere eight or ten feet thick and yet stood maybe forty feet high on the uphill side, and more like eighty feet above the slopes on the downhill side. It was quite impressive.

The varying layers of mudflow were sapped into recesses or projected as overhangs and ledges, according to how much water percolated through each layer. There were a multitude of quasi-caves and ledges we could not see very well, so we scrambled around on very awkward and dangerous terrain, a million marbles of andesite underfoot. We went high and we went low and we went east and we went west.

But no. No cupules, no decent caves, no designs carved into rocks, nothing.

After a good long time up there we retreated down to the valley floor, five hundred feet below, and crossed the once-meadowy floodplain back to Tom's truck, and more red ale.

Shadows were growing long. We drove up Long Canyon a little ways towards Big Meadow, and turned right onto the Nevada Point road, climbing up to the crest, at about 6000' elevation, through much glacial till, and stopping at a fine overlook, with Hell Hole Reservoir below us, and Mt. Mildred, Steamboat Mountain, and various minor peaks along the Sierra crest visible. Steamboat Mountain has a fine set of cliffs of some volcanic rock, perhaps andesitic mudflow, gently sloping to the south; my guess is that the strata composing those cliffs came from the Squaw Valley Eruptive Center, a few miles to the north.

A long drive west brought is back to paved Eleven Pines Road, and we were soon across the Rubicon, and rolled into Tom's place a little after sunset.

It had been a very interesting day in the basin of the Rubicon Fork of the American River.

Thursday, September 8, 2005

Breece's Ditch

Wednesday morning I met Ron Gould and Catherine O'Riley for a foray up the Foresthill Divide to explore an old mining ditch, Breece's Ditch, depicted on the 1875 general Land Office map as drawing from the confluence of Secret Canyon and Little Secret Canyon, below Ford Point.

We took Ponderosa Way across the North Fork from Weimar (named for Chief Weimar of the Nisenan Maidu, who in 1851 or 1852 "affixed his mark" to a treaty with the United States, trading Maidu title to all the lands comprising the present Placer and Nevada counties, for a large reservation extending from (approximately) the Sacramento Valley on the west, to Chicago Park on the east, Bear River on the south, to the South Yuba on the north--said treaty never ratified by the U.S. Senate, but instead placed in a sealed secret archive, not to be opened for fifty years, by which time it was anticipated that the Maidu would have died off, so that an inconvenient treaty and reservation would not be needed)--and hung a left on Foresthill Road, driving up the Divide to American Hill Road, thence across Little Secret Canyon to a small road dropping towards the confluence, which Ron had discovered a few days before.

We parked and followed a faint trail down to Secret Canyon, where pothunters had dug up an old Chinese (?) mining camp (or, ditch-builders' camp?), and followed the merry creek down to the confluence, where we picked up Breece's Ditch just where the 1875 map had it.

How many mining ditches exist in Placer County? Hundreds certainly, perhaps thousands, if one counts every last one, some purely ephemeral, dug for the purpose of working some one small deposit of gold-bearing gravel a hundred yards away.

Others were monstrous enterprises requiring years of work and thousands upon thousands of dollars. Breece's Ditch was one of these. It seems to have formed the "upstream" tributary to another old canal, Breece & Wheeler's Ditch, which is shown on our modern topographic maps drawing from El Dorado Canyon. The Breece & Wheeler is hundreds of feet lower than the Breece, and it is likely that the latter, after winding across the undulating top of Deadwood Ridge, spilled into some ravine flowing into El Dorado Canyon, whence its waters were diverted again into the Breece & Wheeler.

The old mining ditches make tempting trails. Often they are so badly overgrown with brush one cannot follow them easily. Within the deeper canyons, they contend with cliffs, and were often flumed, that is, wooden flumes carried the water along the canyon wall, sometimes supported by a flat bench cut, sometimes suspended by stout cables pinned into the solid rock by deep-set iron anchors, or by wooden trestle work. At other times pipes made from riveted sheet iron were hung from the cliffs to carry the precious water.

We followed the Breece down Secret Canyon, which fell away farther and farther below us. There was fairly little brush on the berm. Bear sign was abundant, and at a certain huge old Douglas Fir, where the Breece passed beneath a gigantic root, a big bear trail dropped down from Macedon Ridge above, towards Secret Canyon Creek below.

The country rock was all Shoo Fly Complex metasediments, with beds of metasandstone and slate laced through with quartz veins. The creek was quite pretty, flowing over sculptured and polished rock, often fringed with the giant leaves of Indian Rhubarb.

The forest was in a typical state of transition between the old-time open forest of frequent wildfires, dominated by scattered Sugar Pine and Douglas Fir, and the present-day forest of infrequent wildfires, with large expanses of Huckleberry Oak, Mountain Whitethorn, Manzanita spp. etc., and many relatively small White Fir and Douglas Fir.

It seemed to take forever to reach Macedon Canyon, where the Breece turns sharply around a narrow ridge crest and away from Secret Canyon itself, and almost immediately disappears, as it crossed on a trestle supporting a flume. Wildfires long since erased every trace of the trestle. We found the crossing, and took a break.

We had followed not much more than a mile of the Breece, through occasional areas of heavy brush, and across various rocky and cliffy areas which required a little care; another, what, five miles stretched away before us, or ten miles, depending upon how tortuous the turns and windings of its course might be, as it crossed Black Canyon and finally reached the crest of Deadwood Ridge. We were, as usual, scratched, hot, tired, and satisfied. It is a wonderful thing to follow an old ditch down a wild canyon.

Above us, in tiny Macedon Canyon, we should have found the Macedon Tunnel, and we decided to take a look for it, and then climb up to a logging road farther up, catch the very same American Hill Road we had driven in on, and walk back to the good old Land Rover.

According to our plan the Rover would not only start up, but would shift out of "Park."

This all came off as we imagined, tho we never found Macedon Tunnel. Perhaps it has collapsed entirely. We saw some little heaps and ridges which may have been spoils from the tunnel, and yet another old ditch.

It was a very nice day in the headwaters region of the North Fork of the Middle Fork of the American River.