Saturday, October 1, 2005

Sawtooth Ridge & the South China Trail, Again

Friday morning I met Jerry Rein of Cape Horn for a quick excursion to Sawtooth Ridge, our objective, to find and follow the lower portion of the 1862-era South China Trail.

This trail led from Lost Camp on the north, south across the North Fork of the North Fork American (NFNFAR), thence climbing south and east to the summit of Sawtooth Ridge.

It is one of the trails formally protected by Placer County in its 1953 Trails Ordinance.

Jerry always says, "I can't go too far, can't go too high, can't go too low: my knee, my shoulder, my wrist, my overall physical condition, will not permit a Russell Hike, Russell. So keep it short and easy and I will be fine." And then somehow, some way, we end up in some drastic canyon, dripping with sweat, just kicking rattlesnakes off the cliffs and breathing Face Flies and crawling under brush.

These Face Flies resemble miniature house flies. They try to get in your eyes, ears, nose, mouth, into whatever opening presents itself: they are there, ready to enter. Fortunately they are not always around. When they are around, a sort of windshield-wiper action of one hand is needed to keep them away from your face.

So. I-80 to Emigrant Gap, south on Forest Road 19, across the NFNFAR, the East Fork of the NFNFAR, up to Texas Hill, right on the fork to Helester Point (a Forest Service fire lookout tower site, on one of the many Teeth of the Sawtooth), east to the head of Burnett Canyon, and then west on the Sawtooth Road, into Section 25, T16N R11E.

This area is shown on the USGS 7.5 minute "Westville" quadrangle.

We reached the fork between Upper (old) Sawtooth Road and Lower (new) Sawtooth Road. From the purple coloring applied to the lower road, and other information on the Westville quad, I deduce that the lower road was cut between 1952 and 1976. The odd-numbered "railroad" sections were logged by Southern Pacific Land Company in the 1960s (I guess--by the well-rotted appearance of the large stumps), and miles of roads and skid trails were bulldozed at that time. Then Southern Pacific sold off its lands, around 1985, and today these same sections are owned by Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI). SPI, I guess, conducted timber harvests out there in the early and late 1990s. There are some clearcuts, and more "selective" harvests, with lots of bulldozer yarding, in which logs are dragged to landings by bulldozers. The slopes are so universally scarred by these roads and skid trails it is actually difficult to find areas which were not disturbed. Within one single section, one square mile, Section 25, entirely within the canyon of the NFNFAR, there are miles of these roads, and many miles of skid trails.

Through this same Section 25, the South China Trail climbs from the river to the crest of Sawtooth Ridge, reaching the crest in TNF lands of Section 30, T16N R12E, at surveyed elevation 5094', a quarter-mile west of the Sawtooth Basalt. An old TNF sign, missing its sign-boards, just a lone 4X4 with peeling dark brown paint, lies on the ground there, just out of view of Upper Sawtooth Road.

The sign would have said "NFNFAR, 2. Lost Camp, 4," or something to that effect.

Like the Big Granite Trail and other old trails, TNF obtained an easement on the South China Trail from Southern Pacific Land Co., in 1950.

There are plenty of old Forest Service blazes up high on the South China Trail, in TNF parts of Section 30, and down low on the South China Trail, in TNF parts of Section 24, T16N R11E. Between these two patches of TNF lands is SPI-owned Section 25, and most of the South China Trail.

Often roads and skid trails were bulldozed directly into the line of the old trail, there in Section 25. Most of the trees which once held TNF blazes were cut down. So, to find and follow such a trail is an exercise in observation combined with good sense. What would have been the logical, the likely route of the trail? And is that scar on that Douglas Fir one of ten thousand scars caused by bulldozers bashing into trees, or dragging logs past trees, or is it in fact a "small i" TNF blaze?

These old blazes are almost always healed over, so only a faint pattern in the rough bark reveals the upright rectangle, with the square above it. The rectangles seem often to be eight inches or so high, by two inches wide, and the squares, two inches on a side. At times they are larger.

One also cannot discount the possibility that an old trail may have had more than one course or alignment.

I am looking at the map I have made on my computer, combining GPS data with a small portion of the digital version of the Westville quad, as I write this. The South China Trail does not appear on the Westville quad, but the North China Trail, below Lost Camp, is shown, albeit a little inaccurately. Earlier USGS maps did show the South China Trail, as do TNF maps from 1939, 1947, and 1962.

My map shows portions of the South China Trail discovered thus far as a black line. Various waypoints I obtained using GPS are marked along its length, and the approximate positions of the few blazes which remain, in Section 25, and the many blazes which remain, in TNF lands near the river, and near the crest of Sawtooth.

Jerry and I parked on Lower Sawtooth Road almost due south of the center of Section 25, at about 4480' elevation, and took a road descending northeast, clearly dating from the 1960s logging, but retaining too much forest cover to have been recorded in the 1976 photogrammetic revision of the Westville quad. In about half a mile we reached Snake Point, a remarkable vista point of jumbled slabs of quartz-rinded Shoo Fly metasediments, jutting northwest into the NFNFAR canyon, riddled with caves, and in another couple hundred yards reached a critical point on the line of the South China Trail (SCT). Here the SCT, climbing from north to south on the "main" logging road, suddenly turns east onto another logging road. There are large trees with blazes on both the north-south section and the east-west section.

We were interested in the lower, north-south section, and followed down the road north past a small log deck, at perhaps 4080' elevation. I had scouted the log deck area a few days ago, finding no blazes, so the road itself seemed the best candidate for the line of the trail. As we walked down the road, I scanned every tree anxiously, and gazed down into relatively undisturbed forest for any smallest sign of a trail.

Patience paid off: we found a good double blaze (one facing up the trail, one down the trail), a couple hundred yards down, and followed the road with more confidence another couple hundred yards, to another, single blaze, facing uphill.

Such a blaze means the trail is making a turn, here, down the slope. However, we were in a perfect storm of skid trails, and large boulders and debris had been bladed off the road onto the very slopes where the trail should have descended.

We began a back-and-forth reconnaissance of the slopes below the Last Blaze. We would range east and west, while dropping slowly. As it happens, we never ranged quite far enough west, missing some critical blazes by scarcely a hundred yards.

Dropping lower and lower to the north, we suddenly passed into TNF lands in Section 24. What a relief! No more logging, no more skid trails, just an ancient forest of huge fire-scarred Douglas Fir, over slopes so easy I was convinced we must be on top of the SCT. I kept on yelling out, begging blazes to appear: "Come on baby, I know you're there, just give me one blaze, just one, I don't care if the trailbed is buried under fir needles and branches, just one, single, solitary blaze!"

Jerry would religiously circle every large tree, scanning its trunk.

We began to hear the river, and were led west by something which one could easily imagine to be "the" SCT, passing huge, five-foot-diameter Douglas Fir. Suddenly the blazes appeared--one, then another, and then there was the trail, switching back down the last steep slopes to the river.

We were at about 3400' elevation, and directly across the NFNFAR from the North China Trail. We could even see the old cabin site near the base of that trail.

Following sensible Forest Service protocol, this switchback section of the SCT was so well-defined it did not require blazes, so there were none, or rather, we only found one double-blaze, on a Torreya trunk, midway down this last lowest section.

There are quite a number of the unusual conifer, Torreya californica, in the NFNFAR. They have the stiffest sharpest needles of any conifer native to California. In the Yew Family, they are sometimes called "Stinking Yew" from the pungent odor of their needles, when crushed or bruised in some way. They do not grow to be very large.

We cleared the old trail of debris as we descended, tho some sections were blocked by logs beyond our strength, where bears had beaten alternate paths. Nearing the river, the last part of the trail was not only overgrown by small Douglas Fir and Dogwoods of various species, but steepened a bit beyond anything above, confusing us, but we finally sorted it out and were led directly to a miner's storage-cabin thing, a wooden structure covered with tarps, with foam mattresses cast onto the slopes below.

This tarp-cabin was directly on the old trail, which continued nearly level to the southwest, downstream to Slate Camp, where Shoo Fly metasediments, more in the way of metasandstone than slate, are stacked up into a big fire ring with stone thrones all around it. Quite remarkable, really. Also, quite messy, with much in the way of garbage scattered about.

Here is where Ron Gould and I had seen, and been seen by, a river otter, last summer. As Jerry and I reached the river there, we scared some large bird, not a Great Blue Heron, perhaps a large owl, from a tree above the pool, and it flapped strongly away downstream a hundred yards, to a grove of Douglas Fir.

We rested a bit and ate our sandwiches and talked about the blazes we had just found. We were anxious to follow the SCT *up* from those blazes, since we had apparently missed it altogether while zig-zagging down from the Last Blaze on the logging road.

So we gathered our things up and I took my sweat-soaked shirt off and lashed it to my pack and up we went.

At the top of the switchback section, on a terrace of glacial outwash, with fairly heavy timber and faint signs of old-time mining, we found many blazes, leading straight up the slope to the south. We had entered this area from the east, on our way down. Eagerly we followed the blazes up, without much of anything in the way of an actual trailbed--not strange, considering the litter of branches and needles covering the forest floor, and the lack of use of the trail for forty years.

Suddenly we could find no blazes, and stumps were seen a little ways above. We were at the south line of Section 25.

Jerry ranged east, and I stayed west, and back and forth we went, for a long time, without finding anything.

At last I decided to range farther west, to the vicinity of a log deck just south of the section line. When Dave Lawler and I had followed the SCT up from the river, around 1998, we had not noticed the blazes, but instead just relied on instinct and the overall feel of the topography, and had been led right to that same log deck.

Reaching the log deck, at about 3500' elevation, I noted a ridge just above, at right angles to the river, with large Ponderosa Pine stumps. Those were the very trees which would have held blazes, were the SCT to have followed this "ridge route" up the canyon wall.

A skid trail led up the crest of the ridge, and since skid trails are often cut directly into the lines of historic trails, here in Placer County, I gave it a try. Again, patience paid off: a TNF blaze appeared, in a couple hundred yards. Higher, the skid trail split into multiple trails, and the most-logical, most-sensible criterion came into play, and I was rewarded with more blazes, and soon I had left this minor ridge crest and was aiming directly for the Last Blaze on the logging road above. Two more blazes showed I was on the SCT, and then Jerry and I converged for the final few hundred feet up to the road's Last Blaze.

Hence the Last Blaze actually marks a major switchback on the SCT. Above the Last Blaze the SCT runs north-south; below the Last Blaze, it runs more east-west.

This only leaves a section of about a quarter-mile in length, near the center of Section 25, undiscovered. The South China Trail has been turned into a series of logging roads and skid trails over almost every inch of its length across Section 25.

It is possible that the "trail past the old mine" I saw last Monday was a part of the SCT.

Another type of blaze is found out in that area, probably everywhere: a "three-high" surveying blaze, in which three scars are arranged vertically on a tree trunk. I have seen these "three-high" blazes near section lines, and on part of the boundary between Bob's Parcel and TNF lands in Section 30, T16N R12E.

I would like to see TNF acquire the SPI sections on Sawtooth Ridge and on nearby Lost Camp Ridge (dividing the NFNFAR from Blue Canyon), as well as the Siller Bros. lands around Lost Camp, and the Rawhide Mine lands, and Bob's parcel, and the private lands at the head of the Government Springs Trail at I.T. Coffin's old Big Springs Mine.

These acquisitions are needed to restore the historic trail system, and to avert more industrialized logging of the area, and to preserve open space. Ten years ago one would scarcely believe anyone would build a "chalet" or some awful thing on Sawtooth Ridge. But Bob is ready. Who knows, he may be on the point of subdividing his parcel into four forty-acre parcels, each one offering someone a chance to put up No Trespassing signs, build a house, and change open space to "closed space."

I have a special Forest Service edition of the Westville quadrangle which shows the east boundary of Bob's Parcel maybe 400' to the west of where he has placed four No Trespassing signs, bracketing both Upper and Lower Sawtooth roads, near their junction.

Jerry and I were very pleased to have found so much more of the old China Trail. Only a bit is left unexplored.

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