Tuesday, December 6, 2005

The Hike of the Seven Sunsets

My old skiing buddy Kelly and I snuck into the Gold Run Diggings this morning under bright sun and deep blue skies, for a visit to Canyon Creek. We were trespassing over the 800-acres-now-for-sale, one of the more important chunks of open space in all Placer County, for so many reasons; but I digress:

This Canyon Creek, one of many of that name in the Sierra, is a tributary of the North Fork American, having the form of a hanging valley, the North Fork having downcut much faster; so that the creek breaks into a long series of waterfalls and a rather incredible inner gorge, as it approaches the river.

All through the winter there is fine hiking in the main canyon, especially on the north (south-facing) canyon wall. But the most all the waterfall section of Canyon Creek, about a mile in length, faces south. So precious hours of winter sun warm the cliffs around the waterfalls.

We drove a mile into the Diggings and turned left on one of many roads, this particular track leading east into Potato Ravine, a tributary of Canyon Creek, where the trail proper begins.

Near the head of Potato Ravine, on Cold Springs Hill to the west, was the trading post established in 1849. At that time, and all through 1850, gold miners were concentrated on the main rivers and their principal tributaries. For instance, we have the diaries, I think, of several miners who worked this part of the North Fork, in 1849, and it is pretty much a certainty that at least the last two miles of Canyon Creek, itself, would have been claimed and worked over, in 1849 and 1850--for all this reach of Canyon Creek would have been enriched, auriferously speaking, by the proximity of the Eocene river channel deposits.

But in 1851, a momentous step was taken: from Pickering Bar, just down from Canyon Creek on the main North Fork, a group of miners, including one Steven Beers, prospected up Indiana Ravine, finding good color all the way to the rim of the canyon, where a stratum of cemented gravel was met, loaded with gold.

They had found the Blue Lead, that famous stratum of deepest Eocene-age river gravel. The rivers of the "ancestral" Sierra meandered over broad floodplains built of sediments hundreds of feet deep. At the very bottom of these fluvial deposits was the (often, cemented) Blue Lead, blue, because those deep gravels have typically been in a "reducing" environment, for many millions of years. So there has not been the oxygen present to make iron in the sediments turn red.

The miners filed claims and soon a rush was on and the Indiana Hill Mining District was organized, in late 1851 or early 1852, this being the original mining district of what would become known as Gold Run. It had its own Recorder and its own mining laws, regulating the size of claims, etc. The Indiana Hill Ditch was completed in September, 1852, bringing water to the site of the discovery, at the head of Indiana Ravine.

The trading post was at Cold Springs Hill, on the sunny, southwest-facing side of things, where the Indians used to camp, and the settlement, dating from 1849, bore the same name until, in 1854, to set themselves apart from a few too many other localities named "Cold Springs" in California, the miners renamed the place Mountain Springs. This lasted until 1861 or so, when a new townsite was laid out, and named Gold Run.

Kelly and I wasted little time following the trail down those first cool and shady east-facing slopes, and over patches of hoarfrost, pausing to visit sunny Oxbow Bend at Canyon Creek, but soon advancing past the great drain tunnel of the Gold Run Ditch & Mining Company, then on down, over the little stick of a bridge, and finally into the full sun of December 5th, 2005.

Our pace slowed in the friendly warmth, and as we dropped deeper and deeper into the canyon, tramping over fresh new green grass, and the main North Fork canyon itself gradually opened to view, I told Kelly how, last December, Ron and Catherine and I had observed what seemed the earliest onset of the "spring" bloom, finding Brewer's Rock Cress at Lovers Leap (4000' elevation!), blooming on December 16, and California Milkmaids, another Mustard Family plant, blooming at The Terraces, at Canyon Creek, a few days later.

I pointed out some Brewer's Rock Cress on the cliffs along the trail--here, at what I call Gorge Point, it usually flowers around February 1st; and down at The Terraces, the Milkmaids often bloom in early January--haltingly I explained these difficult concepts--and then last year--last December--there came the Miracle: these two species broke into bloom far ahead of time

At the Six-Inch Trail, we scared a band of ten pigeons from their roosts in the shadowy thundering secret waterfall chasm nearby; most were the pure-white racing pigeons, which have been seen around there for maybe three or four years, now.

We dropped away west from the steep trail onto much steeper, cliffy terrain with fine little ledges embroidered in coarse club mosses, and picked our way straight down to Canyon Creek, at the base of the Big Waterfall, recently estimated to be ~150 feet high.

There is quite a varied assemblage of shrubs growing on the steep walls of Canyon Creek's gorge, Manzanita (two species), Deerbrush, Buckbrush, Holly-Leafed Redberry, Toyon, California Bay Laurel (shrub form), Silktassel, Mountain Mahogany, and even that rarity, Flowering Ash.

I have identified eleven different fern species along the Canyon Creek Trail.

There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of different species of wildflowers which grow there.

Many are the handsome old Canyon Live Oaks, and the slender-yet-gnarled Digger Pines, but few are the Kellogg's Black Oaks, which like deeper soils. The larger conifers are confined to the uplands, here, but to the west, as the Calaveras Complex grades into metasediments, conifers of several species appear within the canyon, especially on the north-facing, south canyon wall, with its better soil moisture budget.

Broadly, there is a lot of bare rock on the canyon walls in and near Giant Gap, and what forest exists, is dominated by Canyon Live Oak, with a few ghostly Digger Pines sprouting above the matrix of oak.

In the wintertime, one will often see one of these graceful trees flaring an almost incandscent grey in full sun, with blue-shadowed canyon wall a quarter-mile behind the spired trunks. They have perhaps the largest of all pine seeds among Sierran conifers, and were much enjoyed by the Indians. The 49ers called them "Diggers," and the obvious rhyme was no accident. No, the 49ers are not only known for an overabundance of people from Pike County, Missouri, but they were known for an overabundance of Mexican War veterans; and by far the most of those were of the South.

Painting with a broad brush, one remarks, hence Diggers, and the rhyme.

It is true they dug up many edible bulbs, as from the Brodiaeas.

After lunching at the waterfall, inasmuch as the sun was setting already over those giddily steep cliffs seeming to overhang us on the west, so that an instant chill fell upon us, we took Waterfall Trail south to The Terraces, and as I was pointing out The Spot where the so-pretty California Milkmaids were wont to break into earliest bloom, to my amazement, there they were, already in bloom!

On December 5th!

So this is a New Record, marking the onset of the Spring Bloom. It is just a device to separate it from the rest of "the bloom," to call the beginning of the bloom cycle the "spring" bloom. For one species goes to seed while another just begins, until finally you have things like Fleabane and California Fuchsia blooming in October, and in favorable circumstances, even in November. Or even December.

And now, the species which had always pushed the envelope in any case, these Milkmaids, with their early-January bloom at The Terraces, at about 1900' elevation, on a sunny promontory above waterfalls, with monstrous--monstrous!--dry-laid stone walls supporting grassy lawns of a tiny compass--now these Milkmaids throw caution to the wind and begin blooming in early December?

C'est impossible, etc. etc., and enough said, except that now I begin to finally see that, just as the typical rains of October and November will trigger the growth of new grass--so that Spring seems to begin in Fall, here in California--so also The Bloom starts quite early, and, in fact, it is possible that one might find the earliest of the Spring blooms at the same time as the very last of the Fall blooms. Maybe at a lower elevation; maybe, in fact, there is some one latitude, below which the entire year is spanned by flowerings, above which some kind of decent non-blooming interval creeps in, and then increases, going northward.

Suppose this "latitudinal" model is correct. Perhaps then we can at least intuit that, if Cardamine californica can be found in bloom at 1900' elevation, in early December, the climate cannot be too continental, and full of extremes, but must be more maritime, and more comfortable and life-sustaining.

The Terraces is quite the "sweet spot" in the local spectrum of microclimates; this must be why the miners chose it for one of their principal camps.

For, Canyon Creek was operated as a "tailings claim" for many years, and was fitted up with giant sluice boxes and "undercurrents," why, they blasted broad ledges from solid rock, just to make room for their sluice boxes; and the sluice boxes had to be guarded, in any case, so that thieves would not harvest the precious amalgam of mercury and gold--guarded, twenty-four hours in a day; and the sluice boxes, tended, twenty-four hours, per day--so, camps were needed, and The Terraces is but one such camp, for the sluice-box tenders of Canyon Creek.

The Canyon Creek Placer Mine was not only a tailings claim, working over for a second time the Eocene gravel, which had already passed through the sluice boxes of various hydraulic mines; it was a *patented* tailings claim, under the infamous 1872 mining act, hence, it was private property in the fullest sense, and, today, forms 72 acres of the 800-acres-now-for-sale.

There is BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land to either side of the Canyon Creek Placer Mine, to the east, and to the west. Yet the private parcel contains the creek, the waterfalls, The Terraces, the Canyon Creek Trail, the many other side trails--this one parcel of private land governs everything, from a hiking/recreational standpoint.

The Canyon Creek Placer Mine is entirely within the Gold Run Addition to the North Fork American Wild & Scenic River; in 1978, Congress directed the Department of the Interior (by extension, the BLM), to acquire the private inholdings within the special Addition.

But none have been acquired, yet. They are all parts of the 800-acres-now-for-sale.

From The Terraces we explored the creek below and visited a waterfall, with the usual blasted ledge nearby, with giant iron bolts set deeply in the bedrock, to anchor the sluice boxes from the tremendous forces exerted by the tailings, before taking Lower Terraces Trail back to the main CCT, thence on down to the river, where we had nice sun right at the confluence. Actually, it was a day of many short breaks and side trails and explorations, and again and again the sun would set behind some high something, to our west, such as noble Diving Board Ridge, and the shadows would chase us to some other sunny spot, where we would again rest, only to be chased off yet again.

And so it went. Kelly thought we could name our adventure, The Hike of the Seven Sunsets.

Finally, making the main climb up and out, in shade--welcome shade while making a steep climb like that--Kelly spotted a beguiling bear trail, breaking sharply right, to the east, and I remembered some kind of rocky point over that way, commanding an awesome view. So off we went, and soon climbed right up out of the cold shadows into full sunshine, on a broad expanse of bedrock, with great views of Giant Gap and Diving Board Ridge, Roach Hill, Iowa Hill, etc. etc.

From there we decided to brave a cross-country scramble, straight up the narrow spine of rocky ridge dividing Canyon Creek from the North Fork, to another incredible overlook spot we call the Blasted Digger, after a huge old pine struck partly dead by lightning, long ago.

From the Blasted Digger, a faint trail leads back to the main CCT.

It was a climb of five hundred feet, the entire route following a bear trail, and so plain and easy I felt sure it had been the line of the old Indian trail, before the Gold Rush, and possibly also the Gold Rush line of the CCT, before any blasting was done, to carry the trail across the cliffs, on an easier grade. For this ridge route is often very steep.

Our efforts won us another few minutes of sunshine, blessedly warm, on a west-facing cliff of metavolcanic rock; we were well pleased with our shortcut, and when the sun set for the last time, we just started walking, and didn't stop until we reached the Subaru, about twenty minutes later.

So it was another great day in the great canyon. As we left the place, there were long golden beams of light slanting in to gild forests of live oak and pine, and bless ruddy great cliffs of rock, and cast deep blue shadows, growing ever larger and darker.

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