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.

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