Saturday, December 31, 2005

When Rivers Run Wild

I wish you all the happiest and most enjoyable of New Years.

Recent weeks brought many storms and little hiking. Today I finally broke free and dropped into the North Fork from Garrett Road, at Gold Run. This was a marvelous adventure, and involved getting very wet, and crashing through brush, and tip-toeing over slippery cliffs, and peering through wind-whipped fog at distant and tremendous waterfalls.

Geomorphology has been on my mind, geomorphology, and philosophy. There has been much in the way of heavy labor, leaving me tired: I fall asleep early, arise at two or three in the morning, read and write and play music until just before dawn, and then sleep again, for a final hour or two.

Then there is the Native Hardwoods Project: to gather samples of native hardwoods, section them, and polish them, to become familiar with their grains and colors.

So I have been sawing and sanding and polishing Deerbrush, Ceanothus integerrimus (white sapwood, deep red heartwood, extremely hard, grain like fine mahogany); Bigleaf Maple, Acer macrophyllum (reddish brown, strong medullary ray-flecks in quarter-sawn grain, flame, burl, quilted and spalted grain figuring); and California Bay Laurel, Umbellularia californica (light reddish in color, fine-grained, very hard, takes a high polish).

I have also been re-reading Julius Caesar's "Gallic Wars" in the Latin, with an English translation in parallel on each facing page, which I find needful.

I entertain various ideas and schemes for hikes but nothing develops. (To employ the Caesarean literary device of using the present tense for past action.) With all these warm storms, I have wished to visit the cliffs between New York and Tadpole canyons, with a side trip to a hypothetical cliff-top perch almost a mile east, which could offer a view of the 500-foot waterfall in New York Canyon. I have wished.

So the days go by, working, tiring, sleeping, reading, wishing, and polishing wood.

It is strange how much pleasure can be had from something so simple: polishing wood.

Gradually its colors come alive, as the surface becomes smoother, and smoother; one can see into the grain, into the wood, it is partially transparent; there is a wonderful rippling lustre, called chatoyancy, one sees, by turning the piece this way and that.

This morning I arose at 2:30 and made my first, and soon my second, cups of coffee. Rain had started the 29th and gradually increased in intensity all through Friday the 30th. By nightfall a steady downpour had set in, and at 2:30 in the morning, it continued.

I had been learning to play, by ear, Jobim's "O Nosso Amor," from the movie "Black Orpheus," and hours went by, in part, fruitlessly searching the internet for a MIDI file of this song.

Eventually, I thought to check the internet automated stream gage for the North Fork American at Lake Clementine, near Auburn; the number of cubic feet per second is updated every few minutes, as is the depth of water flowing over the top of the dam.

It was 5:15 in the morning. As I scrolled down the page, I saw first that the depth of water flowing over the top of the dam had reached eight feet.

Eight feet, over a width of perhaps a hundred!

Scrolling down further, the cfs column came into view, and I saw the whole succession, from the morning of the 30th, when the North Fork carried little more than 4000 cfs; sunset on the 30th, it had risen to 6000 cfs; and then--then the wild river ran wild.

Suddenly it was 10,000 cfs, 15,000, 20,000, and at 5:15 a.m., 35,400 cfs!

Now this meant that the night's rainfall had been an epochal event, a real rarity in rainfall intensity and duration. This May 19 I had seen the North Fork at 20,000 cfs, when Ron Gould and I slogged right down the Canyon Creek Trail to the river. It was running grey with sand on that day. And the bridge across Canyon Creek, which I had built in 1998 with the help of John Krogsrud, had only barely escaped being swept away; driftwood was found on the rocks at bridge level, when we crossed.

So. On May 19th, when the North Fork ran at 20,000 cfs, the bridge at Canyon Creek had almost washed away. Now, today, at 5:15 a.m., here was the North Fork, roaring along at 35,000 cfs and climbing. There could be only one conclusion.

The bridge was gone.

And there could be no merry romp down the Canyon Creek Trail to the river.

Nonetheless I shot off an email to Ron and suggested a visit to the river was in order. I turned in for my last hour of sleep and then, soon enough, we were talking on the phone, and Ron had the idea to go to Diving Board Ridge.

This remarkable spur ridge flares from the canyon wall between Indiana Ravine on the west, and Canyon Creek on the east. Its crest plunges steeply and then levels off for a long run to the south, into the canyon depths, but almost a thousand feet above the river; so it puts you in the center of the canyon immediately downstream from the great cliffs of Giant Gap, and within direct view of the largest waterfall on Canyon Creek, a 150-footer which lives in a kind of crater all hemmed around by sheer cliffs.

So, when much water is flowing, a special thunder booms out of this monstrous hollow in the solid rock of the canyon wall. The North Fork, with dozens of times the flow, does not make these kinds of deep booms and thuds. The North Fork does not have the magical resonating chamber of the Big Waterfall.

Of course there is also plenty of sounds in higher frequencies coming from the Big Waterfall, hissings, and sharp slapping sounds.

We drove south on Garrett Road until BLM lands were reached and parked on a side road. The rain had slowed and yet everything was drenched and soggy. I had hardly walked ten yards when the red clay jumped up from the very earth and bit me in the butt, or, I should say, there was a graceful skiing motion on the right foot, followed by a rotation of the torso, and a sudden decrease in elevation, and the Red Badge of Clumsiness adorned my posterior.

We hard scarcely entered the Diggings when Giant Gap burst into view through the trees, adorned with many lacy streaks of white water, waterfalls and cascades filling every ravine and crevice in the rain-dark cliffs. We whooped and hollered a bit but hurried on through the sticky clays and the millions of white quartz cobbles, following an almost strangely circuitous and indirect route, until finally we reached the rim of the North Fork canyon and the Indiana Hill Ditch, constructed in 1852 to supply the new diggings at the head of Indiana Ravine.

Here we passed the tiny trail down to the Diving Board for a quick jaunt up the old canal to an overlook. There was the North Fork, fifteen hundred feet below, churned almost white in a frenzied maelstrom of rushing water, but clearly carrying much sediment. It was also visibly higher than it had been, on May 19th.

We took photographs and admired the fine vistas into Giant Gap, and across Canyon Creek to the Blasted Digger Overlook, before turning back to the Diving Board Trail.

There used to be huge sluice boxes in both Canyon Creek and Indiana Ravine, to trap the fine gold in the tailings from mines far above; sawn lumber had to be delivered, somehow, to these remote and cliff-bound canyons.

So the Diving Board as pressed into service as a lumber slide, of which there are many in the North Fork canyon, tho probably almost always unrecognized. The idea is simple: lash a thousand pounds of lumber into a big bale, tie a mule in front, and start dragging it right down the canyon wall, letting it slide on its own if possible.

Over the course of a very little time, a groove is worn into the canyon wall along the line of the slide.

Now stop using the slide, and let one hundred and twenty-five years pass.

A groove remains. But trees grow from it, and leaves and dirt have washed into it and partly filled it; no, people only rarely recognize the old lumber slides.

In this case, the slide follows the very crest of the ridge, on a gradient too steep for any reasonable trail, yet perforce men had to go down there, and eventually, wrestle the lumber from the ridge-crest down to Canyon Creek or Indiana Ravine. Hence a trail developed, possibly merely from use.

This is the Diving Board Trail.

We hurried down, pausing only to photograph waterfalls and so on, and reached the final level area, with its absolutely superb views both up and down the North Fork canyon.

While gazing up into Giant Gap we saw that even Bogus Gully had become a river in its own right, huge masses of white water leaping briefly into view. If the bridge had not washed out, and if we had hiked east on the HOUT, well, we might have gone no farther than Bogus Gully. Too much water to cross, by the looks of it.

Near The Eminence, a cliff on the south canyon wall, a narrow streak-waterfall dropped two thousand feet from the canyon rim to the river. A half-dozen others graced the cliffs nearby.

Many photos were taken, but a fog began to settle lower from the canyon rim, and strong winds stirred, and rain began to fall. We crossed to the western, windward side of the Diving Board, and were astounded by the North Fork as it swept in tight curves around the spur ridges at Pickering Bar. Big trees were floating down. Boulders the size of small cabins were underwater and throwing giant rooster tails of white water skyward. It was as though geysers were erupting from the river, in many places. The rain intensified, the wind flailed and whipped the trees and us alike, and soon enough we sought the shelter of the Canyon Live Oaks and the lee side of things.

The Big Waterfall was putting on an incredible show, semi-permanent protruberances of whitewater, marking ledges where tons of water were suddenly changing directions, sent flying away from the cliff. So the whole monstrous mass of white water, a hundred and fifty feet high, was indeed monster-like, with groping arms and pointed knees and elbows of froth, always in motion. Above the falls, a dim grotto in the inner gorge was filled with a blue glow, made from the reflection of white water within and out of our view, on the glistening sheer walls of the chasm; and, perhaps like the sky itself, this reflected whitewater was robbed of other colors, leaving blue.

Or perhaps some sort of blue star was being forged right there within the rock-shrounded chasm, only just out of our view, by elves unimaginable, or fairies, or by dragons, the spirits of the waterfall.

Sheets of rain fell; one could actually watch the wind pushing these wavering rain curtains up the canyon. We grew cold, and a sure cure for that is to start walking uphill. So we slowly trudged up the narrow ridge crest in a pouring rain.

At the Indiana Hill Ditch we bent our steps east and then north, finally dropping down through brush and grassy openings to the Canyon Creek Trail. The rain diminished again, but every gopher hole on the mountain had become an artesian well, and really wherever we looked there were springs of water gushing direct from either rock or soil, it made no difference; the whole world was leaking, as it seemed.

We reached the bridge site and saw what we knew we must see: the complete and utter absence of a bridge. Yes, the good old thing is probably in Folsom right now; it will reach the Delta tomorrow, pass the Golden Gate on Tuesday, and then make for Mexico South.

After a time we wandered south towards the first big waterfall, and eventually met a ridge which let us descend to a fine overlook. Canyon Creek was gigantic and muddy and rampant. Quite scary. We stepped rather carefully on those steep rocks perched a hundred feet above the creek.

Then it was time to start up and out. Along the way, I found other overlooks with remarkable views of the Canyon Creek Trail, across the creek to the east.

We marched back through the Diggings in wet clothes but good spirits. During a time of rarely high flows, we had been able to visit the great canyon, in one of its wildest areas.

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