Saturday, October 15, 2005

The Sawbug, Revisited; Mumford Bar

Sawtooth Ridge divides the main North Fork to the south, and the NFNFAR (North Fork of the North Fork American River) to the north. It parallels the two canyons and has a higher "upcountry" part to the east, and a lower "downcountry" part to the west, where the ridge terminates, at the confluence of the two streams, above Euchre Bar.

One can drive into the area from Emigrant Gap. Maps are useful, at least, the "big" Tahoe National Forest map. One will end up on the Sawtooth Ridge branch of Forest Road 19, also called Texas Hill Road.

Many old trails thread Sawtooth Ridge. Some are now roads, like the Sawtooth Ridge Road, along the crest. Others have been obliterated by logging, like the south part of the China Trail. Others have been abandoned.

The Sawbug Trail leads from a minor pass on Sawtooth Ridge, at about 3900' elevation, down to the North Fork at Humbug Bar, about 2000' elevation. It forms part of what once was the main trail back to Texas Hill and Monumental Canyon from Dutch Flat, by way of Euchre Bar. For there were suspension bridges at both Euchre Bar and Humbug Bar, in the olden days.

A Dutch Flat gold miner and photographer, I.T. Coffin, used the Sawbug to get back and forth between Texas Hill and Dutch Flat, in 1863.

It is a nice old trail, and makes a long west-descending traverse of the south-facing slopes of Sawtooth Ridge, which may equally be described as the north canyon wall of the North Fork.

These sunny slopes are covered in a forest of Canyon Live Oak, with occasional conifers and Kellogg's Black Oak in areas of deeper soil, and groves of Knobcone Pine near the crest of Sawtooth.

With various friends I made a series of expeditions in search of the Sawbug. It shows on the ca. 1900 USGS topographic map, the Colfax Folio. Finding it from the top down didn't work. Three failed trips. A trail was found, but it led to some hard-rock prospects. This false trail proved to be scarcely a quarter mile east of the genuine Sawbug.

From the bottom, from the North Fork, up, proved difficult also. Most of the trail is without switchbacks, just one long descending traverse. But at the bottom, there are a few switchbacks. These confuse the issue. And at the top, there is a series of tunnels, driven into a quartz vein running right up and down the steep slopes, and the trail simply disappears.

One looks at the tunnels, at the old equipment, at the repeatedly fire-scorched oak forest, and it becomes easy to explain *why* the Sawbug disappears: first, the slopes are steep, and a certain amount of loose rock and dirt is always working its way downhill, especially after fires; and this stuff can bury a trail. Next, the tailings and debris from the tunnels themselves could have similarly washed down over the trail; finally, with no one to lop branches and brush back, what portions of the trail might exist, might also be invisible, overgrown.

Several attempts had been made to sort out the top section, which makes the last four or five hundred feet of climb to the crest of Sawtooth. Gradually a trail emerged just to the east of the north-south line of tunnels.

Last week, Ron Gould and I returned and finally found the rest of the "lost" Upper Sawbug. It proves to be a series of switchbacks to the east of the mines; a descending eastward traverse, away from the mines, is followed by a descending westward traverse leading back to the mines. There are several of these. Finally one long eastward traverse leads to a long westward traverse to the Bear Bed Tunnel; from here the Sawbug drops gently to the west, down to Humbug Bar.

So that was very gratifying. The Sawbug is finally back on the map, as it were. It took about ten visits, over three or four years, to get it right.

Even this "right" may be, in part, wrong; for I find it suspicious that the trail returns, again and again, to the very mouths of the tunnels. Would the miners have said, "Here's a switchback intersecting a quartz vein, how convenient, we'll drive a tunnel here," *or* would the "true" Sawbug have vanished beneath rock waste from the tunnels, and an ad hoc trail accessing the series of tunnels, have evolved into "the" Sawbug?

That, in any case, is a long-abandoned trail. A very nice old trail, I must say. But there are other nice old trails. Last Wednesday, I returned to Sawtooth Ridge with Ron and Catherine O'Riley, to walk the Government Springs Trail down to Mumford Bar.

This trail heads up well up Sawtooth Ridge to the east, miles east of the Sawbug. At a broad pass on the ridge, Old Sawtooth Road forks away to the south. A TNF sign at the fork has been shotgunned beyond legibility. It may have read, "Government Springs." For, its twin is found a half-mile west on Old Sawtooth, also shotgunned, but one can still see some partial letters which show it once read "Government Springs," and probably also, "Mumford Bar."

At this second blank sign a road forks away south, dropping into the North Fork canyon. A gate blocks this road. In about a quarter-mile or so one reaches the springs, and an oldish wooden sign points back east, reading "Mumford Bar Trail, Mumford Bar 3, N. Fk. American River 3."

Here the trail was cut by a logging road, which is being revegetated by Deerbrush, so it is fortunate that people are using loppers and cutting the bushes back, or the trail would be quickly overwhelmed.

Soon one reaches the original foot trail. It winds through woods from which the larger trees have been harvested in at least two episodes, as one often sees on Sawtooth Ridge, one perhaps in the 1960s or 1970s, the other, in the 1990s. It is a nice old trail and I highly recommend it. Its original line is blocked in a couple places up high, so minor detours are needed, but it all sorts itself out well, and a long series of switchbacks leads, eventually, to the river.

It makes a descent of about 2500'.

About half-way down to the river, say, at 4000', a lone, large granite boulder, a four-foot egg of granite, was left by the (receding) North Fork glacier, probably about 13,000 years ago. The bedrock is all Shoo Fly Complex metasediments for miles around; this erratic boulder may have come from near the Loch Leven Lakes, or even from the upper South Yuba.

There may have been, briefly, lateral moraines along the canyon wall, as the North Fork glacier wasted away, and occupied lower and lower positions in the canyon. But the slopes were too steep to preserve those moraines. First, erosion would have smeared them into formless bodies of glacial till, clinging to the canyon wall, and soon enough, these till bodies would break into patches and disappear altogether. Only a rare combination of accidents could have permitted the Erratic Egg to hold its position for so long, while the moraine associated with it smeared into till, and then even the till bled away, downhill, downhill, to the river.

Whatever the rare combination of accidents may have been, the Erratic Egg remains poised. It too will reach the North Fork, someday. One is left with the impression that, although the parent moraine, and child till, have left the scene, that the boulder holds firm must mean, that the shape and position of that part of the canyon wall cannot have changed *very much* in the past 13,000 years. The Erratic Egg may remain right there, thousands of years into the future.

Well. Continuing down the trail ...

One arrives at a spot directly across from the base of the "other" Mumford Bar Trail, which heads up on the Foresthill Divide. The river is at quite a low flow these days.

There are many old Forest Service "small i" blazes up and down the trail. There are also some other, possibly older, blazes. It has much the same feel as the Sawbug Trail: sun-blasted, fire-scorched canyon wall, supporting an ancient colony of Canyon Live Oak. One sees multi-trunked stump-sprouts dating to wildfires two hundred years past. Often a rock outcrop supports an especially large and old Canyon Live Oak, protecting it from the severity of fire on those steep dry slopes.

Just as the Erratic Egg has stood the test of thirteen thousand years, so also have these oak groves. To me they evoke the idea of a vegetational pattern perfectly adapted to rocky slopes often burned in wildfires. The Canyon Live Oaks may have settled in on Sawtooth Ridge within a century of the ice retreat, and held their place ever since. Who is to say how old these trees might really be? They are the stump sprouts of stump sprouts of stump sprouts, and each "generation" of trunks could live for centuries. That is, are we presented with a forest of oak trees five or ten thousand years old, not a mere two hundred years old, by virtue of their stump-sprouting adaptation to wildfires?

One often sees big game trails leading away from the switchbacks on human trails, in these canyons. The Euchre Bar Trail has many of these game-trails-at-switchbacks. So does the Government Springs/Mumford Bar Trail. And one of these, fairly low down in the canyon, descends west and may (also) be an old human trail, dating from the Gold Rush, and the 1850s. I want to explore that trail.

We spent some time trying to find another trail, continuing upriver on the Sawtooth side, as shown on the 1962 TNF map, leading to a spot called "Watson's Crossing," presumably an easy ford, presumably named for famous local guide Robert Watson, of Tahoe City. We found several trails threading the shady woods, but nothing too convincing.

Short on time, we soon gave up on the upriver trail, although in retrospect I think we found it. Then came the long climb up and out, which took two hours.

It was a day of sun and blue skies and blue canyons, butterflies in October, ancient elfin oak groves, and it was another great day in the North Fork canyon.

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