Wednesday, December 6, 2006

The Rarest Erratics

[written December 6, 2006]

The rarest glacial erratics are to the west, away from the high country, away from any obvious evidence of glaciation. They are old; but how old?

From about 5,500 feet in elevation and up, one sees abundant signs of the most recent, "Tioga" glaciation, which ended a scant 12,000 years ago. But the Tioga is only one of many. It is thought that, over the past 800,000 years, glacial climates have dominated, with warm "interglacial" climatic episodes (like today's climate) comprising as little as 10% of the total. And it has long been understood that the most recent glaciation of magnitude, the Tioga, was preceded by earlier, more intense glaciations.

By 1975 I was much on the alert for signs of these older glaciations. Such signs are not too easy to find, here on the west slope of the Sierra, where very abundant rainfall and snowfall tend to blur moraines into formless glacial till, and eventually, strip away that till altogether.

When glaciation takes place, there is a "firn line," usually imagined to be a contour line of fixed elevation. Above this elevation, snow accumulates into glacial ice; below this elevation, it may snow and snow aplenty, but it melts away faster than it accumulates, over the course of years.

So there is a zone of ice accumulation above the firn line, and a zone of ice ablation, below the firn line.

Of course, valley glaciers flow down below the firn line; so, for instance, we might reasonably place the Tioga firn line at 5,500 feet, but also reasonably expect to find that the valley glaciers, which formed "distributaries" for the ice constantly building above the firn line, to extend to significantly lower elevations. For instance, Tioga ice may have reached down the South Yuba to near the town of Washington, and down the North Fork American to near Humbug canyon. These locations are down near 2,500' in elevation.

One subtlety about the firn line is that it will run higher on slopes with southern exposures, and lower on slopes with northern exposures. Hence if it is 5,500' on southern exposures, it may be at only 5,000 feet on northern exposures. Now, our coniferous trees can be very sensitive indicators of climate, and microclimate.

Take the White Fir, Abies concolor. Its principal range or locus of occurrence is between 5'000 and 6'000 feet, where it often grows in nearly pure stands. Hence, it occurred to me away back when, the main population of White Fir could be used as a proxy for the lower, western extent of Tioga ice.

And this works out rather well. These White Firs often grow directly on Tioga-age glacial till.

But the White Fir is very sensitive to climate. On warm slopes with southern exposures one may not find any White Fir until one reaches 6,000', but on cold slopes, or especially, down in shady canyons or ravines, one can find the White Fir down to 4,000', and occasionally, still lower.

Blurring one's focus, then, one could take this approach: we lack direct evidence, let us say, of glaciation, at such-and-such a place; there is no till, no moraine, no exposed bedrock, and no glacial striae. We know, let us say, that the *main populations* of White Fir roughly coincide with the Tioga firn line, and we know that prior glaciations were more extensive. But those prior glaciations would have been subject to the usual microclimatic variations in their firn lines, higher on warmer slopes, lower on colder slopes and in shady canyons.

Hence one could take the tack of letting the White Fir once again stand as a proxy for these older firn lines, not in its principal locus of population, but in its western outliers. These more western, straggling populations of White Fir could help mark the extent of the earlier glaciations.

In "Mudflows, Incorporated" I described the sequence of andesitic lahars capping Moody Ridge. The top of the ridge, the top of these mudflows, is just above the 4,160-foot contour. A goodly number of White Firs grow up there, where the gentle slopes of the uplands trap cold air at night. On the adjacent south-facing slopes, however, dropping away into the North Fork, cold air flows away freely, and the White Fir disappears; whereas on the also-adjacent north-facing slopes, the White Fir remains an important component of the forest.

I made these observations in August of 1975, at which time I also found one glacial erratic, only a little below the summit of Moody Ridge, on the northern slopes, facing the freeway, I-80, and Canyon Creek. The erratic was a lone boulder of granite, six feet long, the one and only boulder of granite among ten thousand boulders of andesite.

The bedrock in this area is all serpentine and metamorphic rock of various stripes; whereas the nearest body of granite is ten miles away to the northeast. Hence to see granite is to see something quite out-of-place. There is very little to no granite involved in the ancient Eocene river channels in this area, either (for, the subtropical climate which prevailed then seems to have acted to rot whatever granite boulders there may have been in the sediments, into sand and clay).

Now, I am a cautious man. I could not discount the possibility that one of the andesitic mudflows, which predated the glaciations of the Pleistocene, had itself swept up this granite boulder, and carried it down here to Moody Ridge.

Were I to accept the boulder at face value, as a glacial erratic, I would have to accept that a valley glacier came down Canyon Creek itself, and that this valley glacier was 500 feet thick or more.

I hoped to find other erratics, and bodies of till, but I did not.

It happens that the upland surface of Moody Ridge resumes to the northeast, on nearby Casa Loma Ridge, less than a mile away. Between the two is a gap or pass, which is directly above the Eocene-age "Nary Red" channel. There is, then, a thicker-than-usual section of the "Young Volcanics" of the Superjacent Series here, filling the old Nary Red valley.

It would make sense that a valley glacier, flowing down Canyon Creek, might have helped create this gap, or pass, in the ridge dividing Canyon Creek from the North Fork canyon.

But I am a cautious man. I had noted, in 1975, that in the Gold Run area, these same Young Volcanics had been stripped away, exposing the Eocene river channel of the Tertiary Yuba, below. What erosive mechanism could account for the disappearance of two or three hundred feet of rhyolite ash beds and andesitic lahars? Could my putative pre-Tioga Canyon Creek glacier have been at work in Gold Run?

I never liked *that* idea, but, being a cautious man, I have still not ruled it out. My own instinct was then, and remains now, that the weakness of the volcanic layers, combined with the beyond-normal quantity of groundwater within the broad confines of the Tertiary river valley, had somehow acted to remove the volcanics.

I imagined the Tertiary channel to contain beyond-normal groundwater partly because the underlying bedrock of the Subjacent Series would have itself tended to feed groundwater towards the center of the ancient valley.

But if I apply this rather diffuse model to the Nary Red channel, between Moody Ridge and Casa Loma Ridge, then why invoke glaciers at all? The mysterious pass could be the "same old story" of already-weak volcanic strata further weakened by an excess of groundwater.

And one lone granite boulder could not be enough to demonstrate a robust Canyon Creek valley glacier extending west to, say, between the Alta and Dutch Flat exits on I-80. No, one strange boulder from a strange land is not nearly enough.

There were various other clues, though, which suggested that such a glacier had existed: on the northeast end of Moody Ridge, cliffs of the "cement stratum" of andesitic mudflow are exposed. This a rarity, for, despite the seeming toughness of the Cement Stratum, it is very rarely directly exposed, below and west of the Tioga ice. Higher and to the east this same stratum, or its close analogues, are wildly well-exposed. But here, near the 4,000-foot contour, soil-forming processes outpace erosion, and keep the cement stratum well-hidden. Only the very steepest slopes, subject to mass wasting in the form of minor landslides and slumps, exhibit real outcrops, and these outcrops are typically scattered and small, and do not convince one that one is even seeing the Cement Stratum (the outcrops can easily look like mere boulders, not the massive and undissected lahar itself).

This tendency of the Young Volcanics, even in their most resistant strata, to hide themselves beneath a mantle of soil, is frustrating. Roadcuts are often the only way one can assure oneself just what is what, down here, below and west of the Tioga ice. In particular, the old strata of rhyolite ash, beneath the andesitic lahars, are almost never directly exposed. The rhyolite ash is not only covered by deep soils, but boulders of andesite have rolled down from the lahars above, so all one sees are these andesitic boulders, not the rhyolite itself.

Hence it seemed potentially significant that actual cliffs of the Cement Stratum are exposed on the northeast prow of Moody Ridge, facing directly into the gap or pass above the Eocene channel. I also noted, in 1975, that minor outcrops of the underlying rhyolite ash exist, also facing northeast across this same Eocene channel.

In 1976, while exploring Green Valley, I found huge boulders of this same stratum of rhyolite ash (it is the closest of all the local strata of rhyolite ash, to being a bona fide welded tuff), well above the river, concentrated just where a ravine leaves the steep slopes of serpentine, above, for the moderate slopes of glacial outwash, below. This ravine heads up in this same Eocene-age Nary Red Channel.

But what mechanism could have brought these huge boulders over a mile from their source, into Green Valley?

To me it seemed extremely likely that the rare cliffs of the Cement Stratum, the rare outcrop of the Welded Tuff, and the very very peculiar "region of giant tuff boulders" in Green Valley, all pointed to glacial ice flowing down Canyon Creek, and breaking out of the creek's own proper valley to flow south into the North Fork canyon. It is not impossible that the ice made it all the way down to the river, but if the Canyon Creek glacier were of *that* magnitude, why, the North Fork glacier itself could have reached down to Green Valley.

But I am a cautious man. If there was a Canyon Creek glacier big enough to rip through the Nary Red pass, in effect, creating the pass, and big enough to bulldoze huge blocks of rhyolite ash, fifteen feet through, down into Green Valley, then where are the moraines, and if no moraines are left, from the long blurring of erosion, where is the till? I could find none.

That I could find no till, and I still can't find any to this day, does not mean it is not here. It could be quite well-disguised. For instance: almost all of Canyon Creek to the east and upstream, up-ice, down which my putative glacier would have flowed, is incised into the Young Volcanics. Now, it is reasonable to expect that this ice was flowing from points still farther east, where there is granite exposed. So, if there is till from this glacier, there could be, and maybe should be, granite boulders in that till.

On the other hand, suppose very very few granite boulders were along for the ride, in the Canyon Creek glacier; the glacier would in any case have been quarrying the andesitic lahars, and whatever tills are left, will be made of andesitic material, and, most problematically, these andesitic tills will be resting, quite often, directly upon andesitic lahars, which in turn are subject to deep soil formation, so that one sees a smattering of andesitic boulders embedded in soil, and from experience one deduces that under that soil is the lahar itself.

But one could deduce wrongly; that same smattering of andesitic boulders embedded in soil could quite easily be a glacial till, perhaps only a few feet thick, mantling the andesitic lahar underneath.

Yesterday I went in search of that granite boulder I saw back in 1975. I also wished to use GPS to identify the elevation of the top of the Cement Stratum.

I did not find the boulder, but the steep slope to which it clung was logged in 1977 and 1978, and bulldozed skid trails criss-cross the steep slopes. Countless tons of topsoil have been displaced due to these 1977-78 skid trails. Apparently we Americans are so rich in soil, we can just throw it away.

I walked to the top of the northeast-facing cliffs of the Cement Stratum, and GPS showed the elevation to be about 4010'. Above the Cement Stratum is my Stratum of Big Boulders, and I followed up the spine of the ridge into this higher layer. This Stratum of Big Boulders seems to be, really, just the basal part of the Stratum of Rotten Mudflow, which forms the uppermost lahar in the andesitic sequence, in this immediate area.

I had walked this bouldery spine many times since 1975, but yesterday I was very pleased to find something new: a small granite boulder, perhaps two to three feet in diameter, visibly weathered and old-looking, compared to the Tioga-age granite erratics one often sees farther east and higher in elevation, as for instance near Emigrant Gap.

So. Granite Boulder #2. Of course, there is still nothing to show that it was not brought down with a lahar, that it was a glacier what done it, but I have never yet seen a granite boulder embedded in a lahar, here at Moody Ridge. They do exist elsewhere, for instance, a little west of Blue Canyon, along the railroad, are some granite boulders embedded in a lahar; and although rare, I have seen a few here and there, in the higher elevations.

I was excited to find Boulder #2. I dropped down the north side, off the bouldery spine of the ridge, and followed skid trails down to Moody Ridge Road. I examined hundreds of boulders torn up by the logging, all andesite. And then I found Granite Boulder #3.

It looked very much as I recalled Granite Boulder #1, which I last saw in 1976 or 1977, being about six or eight feet long, and four or five feet thick. However, it was not in the same place, and was pretty clearly in its natural spot, undisturbed by skid trails. It was so well covered in moss I could not be sure it was granite, but, kicking away the moss, I was able to break off a dirty flake a foot across, and then break that flake, and I saw that, yes, it is granite.

Having observed three granite boulders in the near vicinity of the Nary Red pass, I am not so cautious, now, and I declare that:

Once, if not many times, a glacier flowed down Canyon Creek, and once or several times this glacier was at least 500 feet thick, or, more pertinently, its top was at least as high as 4100' in elevation, near Moody Ridge. This glacier (or glaciers) broke through the ridge dividing Canyon Creek from the North Fork, creating the Nary Red Pass, and bulldozing huge blocks of rhyolite tuff into Green Valley. This glacier also broke out of Canyon Creek to the north, deepening the pass or gap near Lake Alta, and leaving the rare outcrops of rhyolite tuff exposed, near that lake. From the degree of weathering of the granite boulders, and the degree of weathering of the rhyolite boulders in Green Valley, and the degree of weathering of the rhyolite outcrops near Lake Alta, and the degree of weathering of the rhyolite outcrops flanking the Nary Red Pass on Moody Ridge, all of which degrees suggesting age but not "great age," I attribute the most recent Canyon Creek glacier to the Tahoe II glaciation, of approximately 65,000 years ago.
If not Tahoe II, then to Tahoe I, ~130,000 years ago, do I turn. It is quite possible that several distinct glaciers broke through these passes, for instance, the Sherwin Glaciation of about 800,000 years ago, or the McGee Creek of ~1.3 million years ago; but I cannot accept that either of these older glaciations could have left these fairly sound and only slightly weathered granite boulders.

Why, one might ask, was this Canyon Creek glacier so eager to break out of the confines of Canyon Creek? I answer, because the valley of Canyon Creek narrows to a gorge between the Alta and Dutch Flat exits on I-80. This would have inhibited passage of the ice, which would have backed up upon itself, deepening until it was able to break through the two divides.

Actually, both passes, the one near Moody Ridge and the one near Lake Alta, are linked to the same Eocene-age (and also intervolcanic), Nary Red Channel. The southern pass connects Canyon Creek to the North Fork American, the northern, "Lake Alta" pass connects Canyon Creek to the Bear River.

After discovering Granite Boulder #3 I walked north to Casa Loma Ridge, and climbed it, searching for more granite erratics, but finding none. I used my GPS to locate the top of the Cement Stratum at about 4020', or about ten feet higher than at the northeast corner of Moody Ridge.

Although I have walked around Lake Alta and explored nearby ridges and swales several times over the years, I have never seen a granite boulder there. If my hypothesis about a Canyon Creek glacier breaking through both passes is correct, there ought to be at least one or two such granite boulders kicking around over that way.

I guess it's time for a fresh look.

OK, that's all for now folks, except, I will provide a limited bibliography, of works I have consulted over the years, below. For some of the best and most recent discussions of landscape evolution here in the Sierra, see the papers by Greg Stock and John Wakabayashi. My friend L.A. James has also made very significant contributions, although I disagree with his interpretation of the Tioga glaciation, among other things.


Bateman, P.C. and Wahrhaftig, C., 1966. Geology of the Sierra Nevada. In: Geology of Northern California, Calif. Div. Mines and Geol., Bull. 190, pp.107-172.
Birkeland, P.W., 1964. Pleistocene glaciation of the northern Sierra Nevada, north of Lake Tahoe, California. J. Geol., 72: 810-825.
Blackwelder, E., 1931. Pleistocene glaciation in the Sierra Nevada and the Basin Ranges. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull., 42: 865-922.
Brewer, W.H., 1966. Up and down California in 1860-1864. Reprinted in: F.P. Farquhar (Editor), 3rd Ed. Univ. Calif. Press, Berkeley.
James, L.A., Harbor, J., Fabel, D., Dahms, D. and Elmore, D., 2002. Late Pleistocene Glaciations in the Northwestern Sierra Nevada, California. Quat Res., 57(3): .
Lindgren, W., 1897. Description of the gold belt: description of the Truckee Quadrange, California. U.S. Geol. Surv. Geol. Atlas, Folio 39; 1:125,000; 8 pp.
Lindgren, W., 1900. Description of the Colfax Quadrangle, California. U.S. Geol. Surv., Geologic Atlas, Folio 66; 1:125,000; 10 pp.
Lindgren, W., 1911. Tertiary Gravels of the Sierra Nevada of California. U.S. Geol. Surv. Prof. Pap. 73, 226 pp.
Matthes, F., 1930. Geologic History of Yosemite Valley. U.S. Geol. Surv. Prof. Pap. 160, Wash, D.C., 137 pp.
Muir, J., 1873a. Discovery of glaciers in Sierra Nevada. Am. Jour. Sci., 3rd series, 5: 69-71.
Muir, J., 1873b. Explorations in the great Tuolumne CaƱon, Overland Monthly. Reprinted in: A. Gilliam (Editor), Voices for the Earth: A Treasury of the Sierra Club Bulletin. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, CA.
Russell, I.C., 1889. Quaternary History of Mono Valley, California. U.S. Geol. Surv. 8th Ann. Rpt., Pt.1, Wash., D.C., pp. 261-394.
Stock GM, Anderson RS, Finkel RC. 2004. Pace of landscape evolution in the Sierra Nevada, California, revealed by cosmogenic dating of cave sediments. Geology 32: 193-196.
Wakabayashi J., Sawyer TL. 2001. Stream incision, tectonics, uplift, and evof the Sierra Nevada, California. Journal of Geology 109: 539-562.
Whitney, J.D., 1865. Geology of the Sierra Nevada. Geologic Survey of California, Geology, Vol.1, Calif. Legislature, CA, 498 pp.
Yeend, W.E., 1974. Gold-bearing Gravel of the Ancestral Yuba River, Sierra Nevada, California. U.S. Geol. Surv. Prof. Paper 772, Wash., D.C., 44 pp.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Mudflows, Incorporated

[written November 15, 2006]

What a glorious season! Indian Summer grading into the storms of winter. The Black Oaks, Bigleaf Maples, Pacific Dogwoods, Blue Elderberries, Thimbleberries, Bracken ferns, and all manner of deciduous plants are blushing into all manner of golds and reds and purples and browns. Wow.

This has been a time of no expeditions down into the canyon, but many short hikes near my home, on Moody Ridge, near Dutch Flat. I have decided to make a precise geological map of Green Valley, a Gold-Rush-era mining camp of huge proportions, down along the North Fork, below Moody Ridge to the south. I actually began work on this map years ago, but now I will collate results, and also use GPS to exactly locate the boundaries of the various Quaternary units and bedrock structures in and around Green Valley.

I decided, too, that I would map Moody Ridge, for a big part of the story I want to tell has to do with the actual incision of the North Fork canyon; when it began, how quickly it proceeded, and so on.

Now, it happens that all the main ridges in this area, about half-way between the great plains of the Sacramento Valley, and the frozen summits of the Sierra, heh heh--in this area, I repeat, at around four thousand feet in elevation--it happens that all the main ridges are "accordant," that is, their summits are all at very much the same elevations, and these summits all slope very very gently to the southwest.

Moody Ridge is one of these accordant ridges. They are without exception relics of the Pliocene-era volcanic mudflow plateau which covered all this region, for many dozens of miles south and north. The plateau extended almost to the Tuolumne River on the south, and on up through the Feather River country to the north. It was pervasive, huge.

But then a gigantic slab of the earth's crust was tilted up like a trap door, a slab four hundred miles long and about one hundred miles wide; and we call this slab the Sierra Nevada.

It is worth noting that the crest of the Sierra itself is self-accordant, as it were, in that the many summits gradually increase in elevation, southward; we go from a paltry 8000' in the northernmost Sierra, to 9000' near Donner Pass, 10,000 feet at Highway 50, 13,000' at Tioga Pass near Yosemite, and 14,000' at the Palisades and Mt. Whitney itself, away down by the great canyon of the Kern, that strange Sierran canyon, unlike all others, which parallels the crest, instead of running away at a right angle.

At any rate, this self-accordant, smoothly-rising-to-the-south Sierra crest suggests that more uplift has occurred in the south than in the north. It is thought that there has been 10,000 feet of fairly recent uplift near Mt. Whitney, but only 4,000 feet, or thereabouts, near Donner Pass. There is some debate about Sierran uplift, its timing, and its magnitude, but I cannot go into the details now.

Here in the Dutch Flat area, the general pattern obtains, and all the major canyons trend from northeast to southwest, as do the long axes of all the ridges dividing such canyons; and Moody Ridge is among these many accordant ridges. If one had a giant ruler and laid it across the North Fork canyon, on a right angle, from Moody Ridge, to, say, the accordant Giant Gap Ridge, across the canyon to the southeast, one would find that that ruler was about dead level.

One can actually fit a plane to these accordant ridges, and thus restore implicitly the surface of the Pliocene andesitic mudflow plateau. I have done experiments with such plane-fittings using software which allows me to create virtual landscapes, based upon USGS Digital Elevation Model data, for this area--very very accurate models in which elevations are known on a square grid of 30-meter intervals. The software requires me to express the planes I use for fitting in terms of their surface normals and distance form the origin. It is a little cumbersome.

The Pliocene plateau sat atop the Sierran slab, and when the slab tilted up, the plateau tilted with it. There appears to have been about 4000' or 5000' of uplift at the Sierra crest near Donner Pass. It occurred over a few millions of years, and is still occurring. We shall have earthquakes which will thrown down many or all our old brick and stone buildings, in towns like Dutch Flat, Colfax, Grass Valley, and Nevada City.

So, the whole slab is tilted up like a trap door, sloping gently down to the southwest, and a system of "consequent" streams developed on the plateau; geomorphologists might say that the streams (the Feather, Yuba, Bear, American, etc.) are "consequent upon" the gently sloping surface. In other words, they incised their courses directly downhill, to the southwest.

Then came the Pleistocene, less than three million years ago, and glaciation seems to have spurred rapid incision of the canyons, so that they cut through the andesitic mudflow, cut through the rhyolite ash beneath it, cut through whatever river gravels etc. which may have been underneath that rhyolite ash, and then hit the bedrock, and just kept right on cutting, down and down and down.

So that, for instance, right here at the northeast end of Moody Ridge, the North Fork canyon began by cutting through 250 feet of mudflow (4200' to 3950'), then 50 feet of rhyolite ash (3950' to 3900'), then 2,100 feet of the Mesozoic serpentine of the Melones Fault Zone (3900' to 1800').

And all this happened within, let us imagine, the last four million years.

So with simple arithmetic we can express the *average* rate of incision, in, say, inches per thousand years, or small fractions of an inch, per year (nowadays geologists like to express incision in terms of millimeters/year; I like inches per thousand years, myself). We say, the canyon has incised itself 2,400 feet in 4 million years, and find the average rate to have been, then, 7.2 inches per thousand years, or .72 inches in a hundred years.

This is quite a rapid rate of incision. My own instinct is that it is slower than that, right now, and that it accelerates during glacial maxima, of which maxima there have been many, over the past few million years.

Now, the sources of the andesitic mudflows which had built up the plateau, over millions of years time, were volcanos near, or on, the present Sierra crest; so it is natural, and correct, to surmise that these mudflows are thicker near the crest, and that they thin as one gets farther and farther away from the crest.

A geologic map of this whole part of the Sierra confirms that surmise; if one focuses upon the mudflows, which are typically given some kind of orange or tan color on the map, one sees as it were the many accordant ridges, with the dendritic branches of the canyons dividing one patch of mudflow, one ridge, from the next; and the patches are larger and much concentrated in the middle and upper elevations, but become scarcer and smaller down lower in the foothills.

Nevertheless, to this day one can find andesitic mudflows which reached the Sacramento Valley itself. One is exposed along Sierra College Boulevard, near Rocklin, south of I-80.

All the above is prologue, then, to a simple question: given that the northeast end of Moody Ridge is capped by 250 feet of andesitic mudflows, how many different mudflows can be identified within this section?

At higher elevations, where recent glaciation has exposed huge expanses of mudflow, one sometimes obtains quite a good look at multiple different layers of andesitic mudflow. These would probably obtain the status of distinct named "formations," if a precise geologic map were made.

Since I aim to make a precise map here, it behooved me to go out hiking and walking and thrashing through the brush and try to establish exactly how many different mudflows exist, right here.

I was surprised to find only two, or possibly four, different mudflows within this 250-foot section.

From the summit of the ridge, at about 4200', down to about 4100', there is one mudflow, characterized by very rotten boulders of light brown and yellowish and tan andesite, embedded in a matrix of very light-colored, grey and tan andesitic (?) ash.

This stratum, of about one hundred feet in thickness, is well-exposed in a certain roadcut. The rotten boulders were cut in a perfect plane; it is quite amazing and even pretty, in its way, to see all these thousands of spheroidal andesite boulders, in cross-section. I hesitate to even call this stuff andesite, for it is so deeply weathered and rotten now, despite being the highest and youngest mudflow locally, that it simply cannot be the same rock as the very sound and solid boulders of the lower, older strata.

As one drops lower in the upper, rotten mudflow, there begins to be an admixture of real, sound, andesite boulders. And as one nears the base of the stratum, there is a discrete layer containing many large andesite boulders, perfectly sound, and in freshly-broken chunks this rock is seen to be dark grey to black, with small white flecks of feldspar, such as one should see in a proper andesite. These boulders range up to four feet in diameter. There are occasional very small fluvial deposits, or so they seem, within this Stratum of Big Boulders. The Stratum of Big Boulders is only about ten feet thick. It seems to grade directly into the Stratum of Rotten Mudflow above it, yet I am tempted to separate the two into distinct formations.

Immediately below the Stratum of Big Boulders, and extending from about 4100' down to 4000', is the Stratum of Cement. This is a classic andesitic mudflow, identical in appearance to many exposures in the higher elevations, such as on the very summit of Castle Peak, near Donner Pass. Boulders and cobbles of sound andesite, up to a couple feet in diameter but commonly less than one foot in diameter, and sometimes well-rounded, but often quite angular and only slightly rounded off, and all these boulders and cobbles are embedded in a light grey matrix of andesitic ash.

In this Stratum of Cement (for this mudflow looks much like a rough concrete) one can find the remains of branches and limbs of trees, and fragments of leaves and conifer needles. Usually the wood rotted away to nearly nothing and left a hollow, a perfect mold, in the mudflow; but sometimes one can find the punky remains of wood millions of years old, within these hollows.

I speak of the Cement Stratum here on the northeast end of Moody Ridge; elsewhere, and more typically, the same formation, or its close relatives, will not display any fossil organic material whatsoever.

On the other hand, near Donner Summit I myself found a perfectly-preserved impression of a Madrone leaf, in just such a mudflow stratum, a stratum which contained a thin layer of finer sediments; and in these fine sediments are many leaf fossils, mainly, though, fir needles, by their appearance. The Madrone leaf was quite a lucky find. Geologist David Lawler saw that the fossil found a proper home, with the paleontology people at U.C. Berkeley.

Back to the northeast corner of Moody Ridge: below the ~100-foot thick Cement Stratum is a very poorly-exposed stratum which for all the world looks like something intermediate between the out-and-out andesitic mudflow above, and the out-and-out rhyolite ash strata, below: it is a light-grey stratum of volcanic ash, perhaps andesitic ash, perhaps grading towards rhyolite in chemical composition, and embedded in this ash stratum are just a few cobbles and small boulders of sound andesite. The stratum appears to be about twenty or thirty feet thick, maybe a little more.

So, naming this the Intermediate Stratum, I have tentatively identified four distinct mudflows or "formations" in the global andesitic mudflow "cap" at the northeast end of Moody Ridge. Listing them in descending order, youngest first and oldest last, we have, then,

1. Stratum of Rotten Mudflow.
2. Stratum of Big Boulders.
3. Stratum of Cement.
4. Stratum of Intermediate Composition.
rhyolite ash, fluvial deposits, several to many unconformities

I write "unconformity" wherever there has clearly been a break in the deposition, that is, many thousands of years, perhaps even a million years or several millions of years, could fit into any one of these unconformities. During those time periods the uppermost stratum was an erosion surface.

Between the Rotten Stratum and the Big Boulders Stratum I am not sure if an unconfomity exists. It could well be that the Stratum of Big Boulders is derived from, say, a few million years of erosion of the underlying Stratum of Cement. This erosion freed big boulders from their matrix as the fines washed away, and thus slowly concentrated these very slowly-eroding boulders at the surface. Then, as I imagine it, the Rotten Mudflow roared over the erosion surface of the Cement Stratum, and very likely swept up and entrained into its own messy mass many of these boulders. Being dense and heavy, they tended to remain at the bottom of the flow. Hence they remained concentrated, and hence the Stratum of Big Boulders.

Beneath the andesitic mudflows are various strata of rhyolite ash, in this area interbedded with volcano-fluvial deposits, since the Eocene-age Nary Red Channel is quite close by on the northeast. This ancient prevolcanic river channel, akin to those in Dutch Flat and Gold Run, was apparently never entirely blocked up by the rhyolite ash eruptions of the Oligocene and early Miocene, so the river continued to flow, but the erosion surfaces upstream were fairly well covered in volcanics, so most of the cobbles and sediments in the upper strata of the channel are of rhyolite.

However, the andesitic mudflows subsequently filled up the Nary Red Channel valley to overflowing, and that was that.

Well, I haven't been writing much lately, but I have been at least thinking about the North Fork, and its geology, and its trails, and so on. I have studied the geology of the Sierra for about forty years now. So far as my understanding of purely local geology goes, I find myself collating results as it were, re-examining my own observations and my readings and drawing new conclusions, of which I hope to wrote more in the future. For instance, I am about certain that in older glaciations, such as the Tahoe I and Tahoe II, of 130,000 and 65,000 years ago, ice came down Canyon Creek and broke through the divide just northeast of Moody Ridge, directly over the axis of the ancient Nary Red Channel (no coincidence, the dividing ridge was weaker there), and hung down the canyon wall at least a little ways towards Green Valley, all the while quarrying out the gigantic chunks of rhyolite ash which one finds, today, away down on the floor of Green Valley itself.

This patch of rhyolite mega-boulders is drastically out of place and will definitely appear on my precise map of Green Valley. It is one of the more interesting formations down there.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Gold Run

Yesterday I met Todd Leonard, Senior Scientist of SECOR International, Inc., at the Dutch Flat exit on I-80.

Todd had contacted me a few weeks back, wishing for a tour of the Gold Run Diggings with an historical emphasis, and a focus upon mercury; for he was retained by The People Who Own The Famous 800 Acres Now For Sale, to evaluate the degree of mercury contamination of their property, and advise them of what to do.

These 800 acres of old hydraulic mining ground include the last two miles of Canyon Creek, and extend from I-80 on the north to the North Fork American River on the south. It is quite an exceptional property, and my fondest hope is that somehow We The People can buy it and keep it open and wild forever.

The Diggings, with its infinitude of tiny hills and valleys and its more-than-a-thousand infinitudes of glaring white quartz pebbles, perhaps marking the many ways to any number of witches' cottages (how else explain these rocks)--the Diggings, with its fossil leaves so perfectly impressed within those easily-cloven lamina of clay, that every vein visible, fifty million years later; with its petrified wood, so much of which was stolen recently, off one of the scraps of public land which remain to us there--the Diggings makes up most of the 800 acres.

But then there is Canyon Creek, and the Canyon Creek Placer Mine, another one of those old mining claims which comprise the 800 acres. This is all wild canyon, cascades and waterfalls and water-polished metavolcanic rock, with that old-time, Gold Rush trail wasting precious little time delivering one down and down and down and down to the sparkling North Fork. The Canyon Creek Trail is one of the best trails anywhere, and it is for sale. Thousand-foot cliffs and waterfall after waterfall after waterfall, and all is For Sale.

Congress wished the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to purchase this Canyon Creek parcel back in 1978, but it was not for sale, then.

Today it is for sale. It has been on the market, since about 2000. However, since large quantities of mercury were used in the hydraulic mines, way back when, which mines "tailed into" (discharged their mining debris into) Canyon Creek, potential buyers have never closed a deal, fearing what could ensue, if, for instance, California, or the Federal government, were to order the 800 acres to be cleaned up.

The cost of such a cleanup could run to the many millions. I pointed out to Todd some few of the innumerable sluice cuts in the Diggings, each one of them contaminated with mercury; I told Todd that all two miles of Canyon Creek on the property are filthy with mercury, as is Indiana Ravine; and I went on and on in my usual way, about all the mining history and so on.

I had feared, when Todd contacted me, that I would, in some weird way, end up helping The People Who Own The Famous 800 Acres Now For Sale to sell their beautiful property, to some wealthy "Cedars"-type folk, who will make all kinds of noise about Preserving The Wilderness, behind a long, long wall of "No Trespassing" signs.

However, I found Todd quite sensible, and appreciative of the unique beauty of these 800 acres. He too wishes it to remain open and wild. Why, so do at least some of the current owners of the 800 acres.

Adding even more complexity to all this, the mercury contamination effectively prohibits purchase of the property by the BLM. Somehow, some way, the property must receive a bill of good health, first. That is, We The People could spend millions to clean up the 800 acres, just for the privilege of spending millions more to actually buy the property.

And this does not seem fair.

Todd and his assistant Bert and I walked down the Canyon Creek Trail to Waterfall View, the spot where the 1875-era photograph on my website was taken, and later visited Gold Run Ravine, where a drain tunnel breaks out, from one of the claims to the west. Gold Run Ravine itself served as a sluice box run, and even has some sluice cuts blasted out of the so-solid rock, over fairly long distances. These blasted cuts were likely made in 1868, when almost all the claims at Gold Run were simultaneously losing their "grade," that is, they could no longer discharge directly into Canyon Creek. As the active mining surfaces lowered in elevation, they approached the same elevation as the creek itself. Tailings do not flow uphill, not well, anyway. So, when grade, or slope, was lost, mining must stop.

These sluice cuts in the bed of Gold Run Ravine would have earned the owners of the claims upstream the ability to work only about ten feet deeper into the gravels; that would be less than one mining season's work (the hydraulic mining season ran from about November to May). They had already worked off 150 feet of gravel above the 1868 working level, and another 200 feet remained below, deeper and richer yet, if only "grade" could be had, if only a sluice box could lead away, downhill, from those mysterious depths.

The only solution to the problem of grade was the construction of the giant drain tunnel into Canyon Creek, in 1873, by the Gold Run Ditch & Mining Company. But that's another story.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Government Springs

Car troubles have kept me at home in recent weeks, where I have been much devoted to my guitar, learning the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim; and, finding that one piece, Insensatez, had been derived from Chopin's famous little Prelude in E Minor, Op. 28 #4, I was led to acquire the sheet music for the Prelude, and to adapt it for guitar.

Now the car is fixed, and so yesterday I took a hike with Alex Henderson, that Dutch Flat philosopher with whom, long ago, I patiently investigated the question of just how far a Frisbee might fly, if thrown with great vigor and force directly down Main Street. We were never quite satisfied with the answer, feeling that, if a Frisbee could just maintain a level and straightforward attitude, a truly manly state of mind, it might succeed in passing the Hotel altogether, and reach the Oddfellows Hall, or even the Runckle Bakery.

And those are both historic buildings!

At any rate, Alex and I drove up to Emigrant Gap and thence on Forest Road 19 to Texas Hill and the road to Sawtooth Ridge. As always, deep philosophical questions occupied us. Could it be, that for all this great length of time, for all our long and noble history, we humans have been wrong, and very much mistaken, and that we should never, ever, refer to the "speed" of light, but only to its slowness?

In such fashion we drove past Burnett Canyon and followed the Sawtooth Road south to a fork where a shotgun-blasted Tahoe National Forest (TNF) sign may once have said, Go Left to Government Springs; we went left, and in half a mile another shotgun-blasted TNF sign marked another left, but a metal gate blocked our way so we parked and started down the trail to Mumford Bar.

These sparkling clear and sunny October days are ideal for hiking.

This was Alex's first time on one of the Upper Canyon trails; we strode merrily along down the narrow track, down and down and down and down, switching back and forth in an ancient forest of Canyon Live Oak, and when finally we stopped to rest, we were still a thousand feet above the river, yet we had already hiked the equivalent of the Euchre Bar Trail.

I had planned to explore a little side-trail which, I remembered, broke away west a little below our resting-spot, and soon we reached the thing and followed it along, over a rock outcrop which had pretty clearly been hacked out to make the trail, and on to a larger outcrop laced with quartz veins. We could see signs that the quartz had been hammered and samples broken off; possibly this happened in the 1860s, when the riches of Virginia City and the excitement at Meadow Lake made many men wonder whether they might become millionaires overnight, too; all it took, after all, was finding a rich gold vein.

I had hoped that this little westward-trending trail had led to the river itself, a mile or two downstream from Mumford Bar; but no. It appears to have been constructed merely to access the quartz veins. Nowadays bears like to use it, and we saw a couple of small conifers torn down and broken, as bears are wont to do to small trees along their favorite trails. They will grab the tree about five feet above the ground and just snap the trunk.

Alex deeply appreciated the depth of the great canyon, so deeply that he decided the better part of valor was to descend no further, but only to ascend, ascend, ascend. There is a kind of terror which can strike, when following one of these fine old trails to the river; one cannot forget that here, at least, what goes down must come back up. And that climb back up and out can be a bit of a pain. It's that climb Gene Markley and his gorge-scrambling gang used to call the Bath of Fire.

So the question becomes, just how bad is the Bath of Fire, on such-and-such a trail?

It's a pretty long and hot and bad bath, on the Government Springs Trail to Mumford Bar.

On these south-facing slopes of Sawtooth Ridge, the soils are thin and rocky, and sometimes an almost pure stand of Canyon Live Oak, Quercus chrysolepsis, covers the canyon wall. The bedrock is meta-sandstone and slate of the early-Paleozoic Shoo Fly Complex, but here and there on the steep slopes, vestiges of glacial till persist.

In these usually small areas, the soils deepen and consequently are richer and better-watered, so a smattering of Kellogg's Black Oak will mix in with the Canyon Live Oaks. Often the till is almost unrecognizable, in that it itself is made of Shoo Fly Complex rocks; so there is nothing much to tell the till apart from the ordinary run of rocks littering those steep slopes, except that the till rocks are often somewhat rounded.

Many a wildfire has swept these slopes, and almost every single Canyon Live Oak is a multi-trunked stump sprout from wildfires sixty or a hundred and sixty (or whatever) years ago. In contrast, the Kellogg's Black Oaks, which will also stump-sprout vigorously if their trunks and tops are killed in a wildfire, are nearly all sprung from acorns, and are single-trunked trees less than one hundred years old. I am not sure how to interpret this difference in growth form between the two species, on the same canyon wall.

It is notable, and perhaps pertinent to the above, that the larger Canyon Live Oaks are often found rooted directly on rock outcrops. It may take a much hotter fire to completely kill the Canyon Live Oaks, than the Kellogg's Black Oaks.

For, a really hot fire can kill the root systems of these oaks, in which case, they cannot stump-sprout.

The crest of Sawtooth Ridge, here, has the usual couple-few hundred feet of Miocene-Pliocene andesitic mudflow capping it, below which is the Oligocene-Miocene rhyolite ash layer, marked by Government Springs itself and by other springs (for there is always a perched aquifer on such ridges, and whatever water soaks into the andesitic mudflow, emerges eventually in the rhyolite springs--for the rhyolite acts as an aquaclude, preventing the water from soaking down through it).

Below the rhyolite ash (usually included in the Valley Springs Formation, although it is clearly more than one "formation") are the Eocene-age gravels of an ancient river; and below these gravels, the much much much more ancient bedrock, the Shoo Fly Complex metasediments.

It was here, by Government Springs, that Dutch Flat gold miner and photographer I.T. Coffin had his "Big Spring Mine," which tapped the Eocene river channel via one or more "drifts," horizontal tunnels. The pay gravel came out ore-cart-load by ore-cart-lode, and was washed through a sluice box with spring water stored in a small reservoir. Coffin worked the Big Spring Mine in the 1880s and 1890s. Earlier, from 1858 to 1864, he had lived in Burnett Canyon.

Alex and I walked slowly up the gently graded trail, and once back at the car, we enjoyed some almost cold brown ales and some spicy potato chips, and counted it a Job Well Done, and a Good Hike, even tho we had never reached the North Fork; for what can there be to complain about, in wandering the elfin sunlit oak woods, following bear trails which maybe just maybe could be old human trails, and watching and watching all the sun-spangled shimmer of gold and green leaves trembling against the deep blue depths of the great deep canyon? No, we had nothing to complain about.

So it was another great day in the canyon.

We intend to do something about the damnable slowness of the speed of light, but thus far we lack any actual plan of attack. Philosophy does not always come easy.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Four Horse Flat

Yesterday Ron Gould and I drove up past Lake Valley and Huysink Lake to the head of the Big Granite Trail (BGT), and dropped down through Four Horse Flat to the upper junction of the Old (west) and New (east) trails. Ron wanted to get a look at the first mile or so of these trails south of the Flat, to weigh the need for another work party, probably in late October.

The old maps show the BGT following down the west side of Little Granite Creek, but an at least somewhat newer trail parallels this older route, across the creek to the east. The two trails converge on the east side of the creek, a mile or so south of Four Horse Flat; thus there is an Upper Crossing and a Lower Crossing, of Little Granite Creek.

The Upper Crossing is overgrown with Mountain Alder and is about invisible. The Lower Crossing is obscure, as well.

A fresh cool wind dragged dark clouds and light showers over us for half an hour.

At any rate, walking in a light rain or mist, we made the loop, and Ron saw a number of places which need some work. We explored around the site of an old cabin and hunters' camp near the Lower Crossing. Nothing is left of the cabin, but there is an interesting table, involving a hand-hewn slab of Incense Cedar 4" by 20" by 48".

On the way back up the New Trail, we saw an Aspen with the dates 1950, 1951, and 1952 carved in the bark. So we find that the New Trail is at least 56 years old.

The showers abruptly ended and the clouds scudded away, leaving a deep blue mountain sky, and afternoon sunshine slanting in through the huge old trees along the trail

Back in the Flat, we amused ourselves with trying to sort out the exact route of the historic Cherry Point Trail (CPT), where it crossed the Flat from east to west to join the BGT. There seem to be two or more trail alignments, marked by various huge old Aspen trees with names and dates carved in them.

Several of the trees had what I took to be Basque names , and one tree at least had some Basque art, tho I could not quite see what the art actually was--an owl, perhaps. And a head. We saw the names Viscaino Uriarte and also, simply, Barbieri. My guess is that these names date from the 1950s. Perhaps they herded sheep, that is what the Basque are especially known for.

In which case, the sheep themselves would have beaten multiple trails into the sometimes-wet, sometimes-dry meadow of Four Horse Flat.

The shadows were growing very long as we trudged up the Big Granite Trail to Ron's truck. It was fun puttering around on these once well-known, now-obscure old trails.

Monday, September 4, 2006

Visit to Snow Mountain

Saturday morning Gay Wiseman and I threw packs and sleeping bags into the Subaru and drove up I-80 to Soda Springs, thence to the Serene Lakes subdivision (at Ice Lakes, also known as Serena and Dulzura, supposedly so named by Mark Twain), thence on Pahatsi Road west to Cascade Lakes, where we parked.

Our goal was the West Summit of Snow Mountain. It had been ten years, no, closer to twenty years since I had last visited Snow Mountain, on skis with PARC's Eric Peach, in one eternally long spring day, beginning and ending near Kingvale on I-80. My first visit had been in 1972, also by way of Kingvale and the old Devils Peak road.

Although its summit barely exceeds 8000' in elevation, Snow Mountain is blasted by powerful winds, and what little forest clings to its bald crown (Western White Pine, Mountain Hemlock, etc.), is stunted and gnarled and the limbs often "flag" to the northeast. The mountain has the form of a long ridge, trending east and west, and on the south, a long line of ragged cliffs falls away 4000 feet into the Royal Gorge. The East Summit, being a few hundred feet below the storm-ravaged crest, has the only real forest on the mountain, a grove of Red Fir. I camped there once, almost accidentally, abandoning my first choice because it was haunted by bears, but there was no escaping the bears of Snow Mountain. When dawn's first light struck the East Summit, I realized I had slept within a few yards of a bear bed.

The Main Summit has a few little towers of rock rising above the main crest. There are some deep beds of talus on the summit, and I have always suspected that Tioga-age ice, of the most recent glaciation, ending 12,000 years ago, never covered the summit of Snow. No, in my imagination I could see the summit ridge poking up above a sea of ice. Under such conditions the summit would be exposed to severe frost wedging, hence the deep beds of talus; and with no ice flowing directly over the summit, the talus was never scraped away.

I have seen rattlesnakes on the Main Summit, where the deep talus conceals an infinitude of rodents, and also, on the Main Summit, I found two Indian hunting blinds, rough circles of rock stacked up, with chips of obsidian, quartz, basalt, and chert within the circle. I have only seen the like in the Great Basin, also on windswept summits. Perhaps Bighorn Sheep once frequented Snow.

From the Main Summit the ridge drops gently west until the many West Summits are met, a series of rock knolls at about 7600' elevation, the most westerly offering wonderful views of Big Granite Canyon, Big Valley Bluff and Sugar Pine Point, the main North Fork canyon, and more. Gay and I wished to visit these West Summits and, also, find and follow the "jeep trail" shown on the USGS 7.5 minute Royal Gorge quadrangle, said trail crossing the summit ridge from north to south just east of the rocky West Summit knolls, and dropping away south into a large flat. I had never tried to follow the jeep trail beyond its crossing of the Summit Ridge.

We marched south on the Palisade Creek Trail from Cascade Lakes, and veered west onto the old trail to the north end of Devils Peak. Or rather, sometimes we were on that trail, and other times we lost it, for it is not maintained and is overgrown in places, but it was easy going over glaciated granite, passing just north of two deep tarns, before reaching the pass on the Palisade-Big Granite divide. Here all signs of the old trail disappear in the aftermath of timber harvests of fifteen or twenty years ago. Once again, it was the sudden sale of the old railroad lands which triggered the harvests which destroyed the trails.

The trail history in this area is complicated. Somehow we've arrived at today, in which most of the old trails, the historic Tahoe National Forest trails, have been ruined by logging or closed off to the public in some way. So. Here we are. And just a few decades ago, the trails were intact. Or mostly so ... by the late 1930s a sawmill was erected back by Snow Mountain at Huntley Mill Lake. So roads had penetrated as far as the lake, seven decades ago. This road paralleled, and sometimes coincided with, the historic Snow Mountain Trail.

Various trails linked to the Snow Mountain Trail; the Long Valley Trail connected down to the Palisade Creek Trail, east of Huntley Mill Lake; the Big Bend-Devils Peak Trail intersected near the north end of Devils Peak, as did the Palisade-Devils Peak Trail, which Gay and I followed. So. All four of these trails have either been ruined by logging, or have been abandoned, or have become roads. The final indignity was the construction of a house at Huntley Mill Lake.

I wish the house would be torn down and every vestige of its existence removed, and the whole region around Devils Peak, Snow Mountain, Cherry Point and Sugar Pine Point and the Loch Levens, etc., be managed for the preservation of wilderness and open space and non-motorized recreation. To do this will require much land acquisition. But it is worth it.

I had dreaded visiting Snow Mountain for fear of this one house. But there has been another dread. With Ed Pandolfino and Terry Davis, seven or eight years ago, I was involved with a group trying to identify areas in Placer County suitable for Wilderness designation. The North Fork American River Roadless Area was our largest potential Wilderness. We were unsure whether to include Section 13 of T16N R13E, up on Snow Mountain, within the potential Wilderness boundaries, for fear that timber harvests might have marred the area; and I was supposed to hike in and see for myself. But I never did. I dreaded to see the ancient giants of Snow Mountain's north slopes reduced to stumps.

These two dreads have kept me away from Snow Mountain, never an easy destination in any circumstances, for those four or five miles one sees on the map somehow propagate into, well, almost any number of miles.

So. Gay and I hit the logged forest in the pass and just blundered through stumps and slash, and skirted wet meadows and alder thickets, westbound, until we reached the Devils Peak road, and turned south.

Devils Peak is a funny edge-up axe blade of a mountain, made of columnar basalts from two separate flows. I was pleased, on this hike, to scan the mountain carefully enough to distinguish between the two flows, a discernment always beyond me in times past. But from the west the two flows are fairly easily seen. The upper, younger flow makes up both of the two main summits and almost the entirety of the summit ridge to the north as well, but as the axe blade falls away to the north, the lower, older flow takes over. It makes a kind of secondary, lower summit at the north end of Devils Peak. The lower flow is characterized by long thin columns, mostly vertical, and a darker, browner color. The upper flow is also columnar, but the columns are larger and blockier and less regular, and are also of a slighter lighter and grayer color.

A ridge a few miles long connects Devils Peak and Snow Mountain. In this area, the shallow upper South Yuba basin could not by any means contain its ice-fields, during glacial maxima, and ice a thousand feet thick overflowed south into the much deeper North Fork American. This tremendous escape of ice from the Yuba into the American occurred over at least ten miles of the dividing ridge. Devils Peak, however, split the flow; a more easterly lobe of ice in Palisade Creek, a more westerly lobe in Big Granite Creek. Only the upper few hundred feet of Devils Peak protruded above the ice.

A sedimentary feature sometimes observed in glaciated regions is the so-called "crag and tail." A mass of resistant bedrock, forming a knoll or peak, is flowed over by a glacier. On the up-ice side the knoll or crag is abraded, and to either side it is steepened; but on the down-ice side, a mass of bouldery till may extend quite ways, protected by the crag. This is the "tail."

Devils Peak presents the case of a crag-and tail where the peak itself is the crag, of course, and the ridge of andesitic mudflow extending south to the bedrock high of Snow Mountain is the "tail." But the Devils Peak tail was not detritus deposited by the ice, merely mudflow protected from deep-scouring erosion by the crag of Devils Peak.

The height or depth of the ice surrounding Devils Peak is marked by the many glacial erratics, nearly white granite boulders up to twenty feet in diameter, quarried from the higher terrain to the north and east, towards Castle Peak and the Sierra crest. These granite boulders can be found right up to the summit axe blade of Devils Peak. It is not impossible that the entire mountain was under ice, but the erratics, fresh, unweathered granite boulders, can only be found up to about 7500', and the summit of Devils is at 7704'.

We marched along under partly cloudy skies, joking that, since we'd elected to leave the tent at home, we were now bound to get rained on. Immediately west of the main summit of Devils we left the main road to Huntley Mill Lake for the "high" road on the left, which, although somewhat longer, keeps one away from the horrible house at the lake.

At a second fork we kept to the lower of two roads, and watched Snow Mountain slowly grow near, and soon found ourselves on the old Snow Mountain Trail, with numerous blazes marking the large Red Fir and Western White Pine along the way.

Someone has been outlining the blazes in blue spray paint. Most of the blazes are not standard "small i" Forest Service blazes, but simple squares about four to six inches on a side. An unusual blaze began to appear, peculiar, one imagines, to this one old trail: a large "X" cut with a saw, each diagonal about eighteen inches or two feet long.

At about this time we entered Section 13, where I found what I had feared, stumps. However, thank God for small favors, the missing trees looked to have been all yarded with helicopters, not bulldozers, so if the slash and stumps were burned, the terrain would appear as wild as it ever was.

The Snow Mountain Trail climbed through rocky and meadowy terrain, with more and more of the X-blazes appearing, and fewer of the other types of blaze, until at last we reached the crest of the summit ridge, near point 7680', one of the West Summits.

We paused to explore, and found awesome views, north to the Sierra Buttes, south to the Crystal Range, with some excellent looks west into the North Fork canyon. All the terrain around the Loch Leven Lakes was in view, as was Big Valley, Castle Peak, Devils Peak, and even Mt. Rose.

Most all of Snow Mountain is made of the Tuttle Lake Formation, a series of volcaniclastic sediments, thousands of feet in overall thickness, now tipped up on edge, beds of sandstone made of volcanic ash, let us say, interlayered with beds of mudflows, and debris flows, and all these disparate types themselves intruded by coeval mafic magmas, of andesitic mineral composition, some of these intrusive igneous rocks cooling slowly, and becoming something like a diorite, and elsewhere, lenses and sills and pipes of andesite, which andesitic magma, at times, intruded soft wet sediments (it was coeval--remember?), and interacted explosively, producing a bizarre rock called peperite.

These Tuttle Lake Fm. rocks were deposited, and formed, in an ocean basin, near a line of volcanos. How they ended up here in the Sierra Nevada is not especially well understood. They are about the uppermost rocks in a quasi-stratigraphic column whose base is the (early Paleozoic) Shoo Fly Complex, separated by an unconformity from the overlying (middle-late Paleozoic) Taylorsville Sequence, over this are thin beds of Triassic conglomerate and limestone, separated by an unconformity with the (Middle Jurassic) Sailor Canyon Fm., and over this last somewhat conformably lies the (Middle Jurassic) Tuttle Lake Fm.; the whole ball of wax seems to have been rotated ninety degrees east and welded to the edge of North America, 145 million years ago.

There are spectacular glaciated exposures of these interesting metamorphic rocks all over Snow Mountain. The Tuttle Lake Fm. is only slightly younger than the Sailor Canyon Formation underlying it, to the west, about Middle Jurassic, say, 160 million years ago.

We had considered camping up among the West Summits, but there was no water, save a tiny tarn, almost evaporated, so we decided to keep with the original plan and follow the jeep trail down to the big flat at 7000', to the south. However, the trail had faded away to nothing at the crest. Scouting in the likely direction yielded no more blazes. We set off down the hill, hoping to find the jeep trail at some point.

We had fairly easy going, although big brushfields made us swerve drastically off-course several times. Finally we reached the flat. We were more than ready for a rest; most of the day had been given over to marching, and the sun was sagging into late afternoon, and we wished only to sag into a total recline. We stirred a bear from his afternoon siesta, fifty yards away at the base of a Red Fir, and the dark brown big-fellow went loping away through a brushy patch of woods, raising a tremendous clamor of breaking twigs and branches. The sound slowly faded as our scaredy-bear got farther and farther away.

These big flats, call it the Flat, making a couple hundred acres in TNF's Section 14, are a mixture of wet meadows, dry meadows, forests, and thickets of Mountain Alder. Lee DeBusk, an Alta man who has hiked all these old trails, beginning in his childhood in the 1940s, had told me that the "jeep trail" led to "old Doc what-his-name's camp," at a spring. Doc was a shepherd. A cattle man maybe. The thickets of alder and the wet meadows showed there was plenty of water in the Flat; but where was old Doc's camp, where was the spring, where was the jeep trail?

After a short break we started scouting and, after ten minutes or so, we felt drawn to some huge Red Firs near a certain alder thicket. We found a blaze on a large Lodgepole Pine, and this blaze was outlined in orange paint. Suppose this was the jeep trail? I forged through the alder thicket near the blaze, and soon popped free beside another grove of tall firs, some quite large and ancient. A pair of giants stood a few feet away, and between them, a Lodgepole scarred with many bear claw scratches. I walked over for a closer look, and right behind the bear claw tree, a well-beaten trail led into the thicket.

"Ah ha!" thought I, and followed the trail to a pool of open water, with a slow flow down the thicket.

I should say that the bear-claw tree was quite amazing. It looked as though it had been climbed many many times, by bears, frisky bears delighting in their ability to leave deep scratches in the thin bark. The claw marks were thick for the first twenty feet above ground, and continued up to forty feet.

OK. We had water. But where was Doc's camp? A wide search turned up nothing. We determined to camp along the fringes of a huge open dry meadow, a hundred yards away. There were no more distant views than the stars themselves, which was enough, and we felt lucky to camp in such an obscure and recondite place.

This area forms the headwaters basin, as it were, for West Snow Mountain Falls, which Tom McGuire and I saw this spring, and are about 600 feet high. The Flat is both hemmed in by a terminal moraine and dotted with vestiges of other moraines. Often the slightly higher moraine crests are of the "drained-down" type, so porous they cannot retain ground water, hence cannot grow trees, hence are bouldery quasi-meadows threaded through a million times over by gopher tunnels. In places the moraine vestiges are just beds of raw talus, scattered at random, no cliff or outcrop visible as a source.

We explored that Flat rather throughly that evening and the next morning, and found that we were quite close to Section 23 to the south, which as I understand it is owned by Croman Lumber Company; I have long advocated that this Section 23 should be acquired by Tahoe National Forest; but nothing has ever happened in that way, and yesterday, I found "Timber Harvest Boundary" flagging, near the section line.

In fact, it began to seem that the one blaze I had found in the Flat had only to do with the section line, for I found more blazes of that type, a few hundred yards west.

I found and explored two different possible alignments for the seemingly mythical jeep trail, but was unable to settle on one over the other. We followed the one which ran along level in the Flat for quite a ways before climbing steeply out to the northeast. But we were unable to follow it all the way up. Once on the ridge crest, we made for Point 7680 and took a prolonged break, eating lunch and sketching and exploring the various summits. I took a serious peek at my map and deduced that the jeep trail ought to be scarcely more than a couple hundred yards away, and when we walked over there, sure enough, we found a blazed tree, the blazes outlined in blue paint, and were able to follow the jeep trail down a little ways. The thing is almost completely formless, now, and has been overgrown in many places; not even an old cut branch is to be seen, showing that it had ever been cleared. There are no ruts or anything like ruts. In fact, over the dry meadows, the gophers stir up the dirt so well, that no trace whatsoever would be visible.

It is quite possible that the jeep trail has more than one alignment. We found two X-blazes high on the West Summit ridge, which are difficult to reconcile with the map.

So we had some gratification at discovering at least one small part of the west-side jeep trail. It was time to start back out to civilization, a hike of several hours, which we enjoyed, taking it slow. We stopped for a few minutes while Gay swam at Long Lake.

It was quite a nice camp-out in North Fork country.

Monday, August 28, 2006

The Crocker Museum

Yesterday the M.C. Escher "Art of Illusion" exhibit drew me to the Crocker Museum in Sacramento, and after savoring the works of the master I wandered freely through other exhibits, including the Early California section, where two huge paintings by Charles Nahl flank the pair of curving stairs, on the second floor.

The inner sanctum at this second level contains, presently, among many other paintings, a huge Thomas Hill of Yosemite, as seen from Inspiration Point, perhaps, and beside it, a rather smaller painting of the Old Soda Springs on the Upper North Fork American, up around six thousand feet in elevation. Mark Hopkins, one of California's Big Four, acquired land there late in the 1860s, and, possibly in partnership with Leland Stanford, opened a hotel near the springs.

The current town of Soda Springs is merely where visitors to the North Fork's Soda Springs would get off the train, to ride in a stage coach the rest of the way, over eight miles of dusty road.

The painting is by one Norton Bush, and dates from 1868. Anderson Peak and Tinkers Knob loom in the background, both somewhat exaggerated in size and shape, and in the foreground is a meadow flanked by a waterfall on the left. In the meadow is the Hopkins Cabin, but no hotel; the hotel would not appear until 1870, as I recall. And near the cabin are two people, one a man with a gun.

The text accompanying the Bush painting calls this neat, rectangular, gabled, squared-log cabin the "Mary Hopkins" cabin.

At any rate, the painting makes an interesting record, within the history of the upper North Fork. I hadn't been aware that this painting existed. I have a newspaper record of a "blockhouse" soon to be a-building, near or at the soda springs, around 1864, for gold mining purposes, and I have always wondered whether the Hopkins Cabin, which still stands, might have been this very blockhouse.

The M.C. Escher exhibit only stays until September 3, and I wouldn't know how long the Bush painting will stay up, in the Early California section. I have the Crocker at 216 O St. Sacramento.

Monday, August 14, 2006

More on the South Yuba's Canyon Creek

Retired Tahoe National Forest Supervisor John Skinner writes:


I enjoyed your historic and geologic view of our SF Yuba Canyon Creek. I
hadn't spent much time looking so I was glad youse guys applied your logic.
Will you be back to explore more of the trail? I'm guessing you'll run into
SPI logging in Sec 25, but I'm just guessing. You're right, the Canyon is
seldom visited.

You didn't mention the concrete building at the end of a lower miner's road
just below the narrowing of the canyon. There was a ditch coming next to the
building; so I suspected it was a power generator. Did you see it too? What
do you say it did?

I was surprised when you first passed by the terminus of the old Ridge Trail
right in that sprinkling of old P Pines on the ridgetop between S Yuba and
Canyon Cr. I had left the sign remnants leaning against one of them when I
was in there last fall. An old wildfire had taken out much of the trail's
blazed trees. The previous year I followed that historic trail as it
swithchbacked up the western nose to the ridgetop where volunteers had
rebuilt the trail connecting to Camp 19 by the Bowman Lake Road. The trail
had been surveyed and staked by the FS to let a contract to rebuild the
trail on the old route. Your story about abandoning it in favor of one
without the R/W problem is probably correct. I hiked the new version until
it quit for lack of funds. I hope it gets completed; it's a good location
and this link is scheduled to become another link of the South Yuba National
Historic Trail.

Can't remember if I mentioned one on other historic trail in that same
system? The Doolittle Trail was a pack trail to the Ridge Trail. Its lower
end is about 0.5 mile up the old, easy 4WD road up the river above the
Golden Quartz Picnic Site. This used to be gated above the Picnic Site but
the last two times I was there, the gated was open. There is the last house
up the river just above the campground. You'll hear the dog, but not seen
the house. This 4WD road easily follows the river up for 3.2 miles to still
another placer mine site that has a Glory Hole where they rerouted the river
to drain the hole. At this point the South Yuba necks down to nothing but
stark canyon until 4 miles above it tops out to Langs Crossing on the Bowman
Lake Road. Just above and left of the mine site is the mouth of Falls Creek.
Anglers find their way to here for the last of accessible hiking in this
stretch of canyon. Above the Glory Hole the old historic road crossed the S
Yuba and climbed up the south side of the river to the old townsite of

Meanwhile, back to the Doolittle Trail. The trail begins to the left side of
the 4WD road as you go up. No signs, but there is a round shiny marker
nailed to a tree on the right side of the road. As I remember it, the 100'
road to the left to the TH is about the only spur that takes off to the left
above Golden Quartz. This trail has all of the historic look left including
rock work and at least one water trough. It's pretty good grade and has
about seven switchbacks just before it connects to the Ridge Trail.


Friday, August 11, 2006

Revisiting Canyon Creek

This morning I drove to Colfax and met Ron Gould, and we continued in his 4WD pickup via Grass Valley and Nevada City to Highway 20 and then on to the town of Washington, on the South Yuba river. Our goal was that major tributary of the South Yuba named Canyon Creek. Various maps showed a trail following the creek north towards Bowman Lake, and a few weeks ago geologist Dave Lawler and I had explored the uppermost part of this trail.

Retired Tahoe National Forest (TNF) Supervisor John Skinner had responded to my write-up of the Lawler Expedition with a detailed account of his own search for the west end of this same Canyon Creek Trail, near the Arctic Mine. John had explored the area well, without success.

I was confident that Ron and I would find the darn thing. We have found and followed many an old trail which has dropped off the modern maps, ruined by logging or buried in heavy brush, and we take a sort of simplistic approach, letting the terrain guide us, and often wondering, "which way would a bear go," for bears have good instincts for easy routes.

I was all the more inspired to revisit Canyon Creek because, only a few days ago, the lovely grandmother Michael Onewing and I had made our own way into this rugged area, following Canyon Creek up from its confluence with the South Yuba, and swimming the sparkling pools framed in massy polished slabs of Shoo Fly Complex metasediments. There is many an old gold mine in this area; Michael and I found several tunnels, a stamp mill foundation, and a water-wheel site. But it was the high and mighty steepness of the canyon walls, and the foaming waterfalls spilling into crystalline pools, which drew me back to see more.

The Melones Fault Zone and its serpentine belt cross the South Yuba just west of Washington, and just as in Green Valley, down on the North Fork American, the Shoo Fly Complex lies just east of the serpentine. The 2600' contour crosses the Yuba at Washington, and a few miles up the river, Canyon Creek is met a little above the 2800' contour. This is high enough to nearly ensure that the most recent "Tioga" glaciation, ending only 12,000 years ago, sent ice all the way down Canyon Creek to the Yuba, and all the way down the Yuba to Canyon Creek, or even to Washington.

However, to me the Yuba looks much infested with glacial outwash, and I saw no obvious moraines; but what moraines may have existed could easily have been flattened into formless glacial till in the last ten thousand years, and as the glacier retreated, it could have formed an outwash plain below its terminus, in those same areas which had previously been under ice; so both moraines, till, and outwash, are likely enough all mixed together in this area.

At any rate, enormous masses of glacial outwash had been mined for gold near Washington, as evidenced by huge piles of pure boulders, all the fine sediments having been washed through sluice boxes way back when. And it is a curiosity that here, where the bedrock is Shoo Fly, the Yuba itself is one continuous mass of granite boulders, dragged down-canyon by Tioga ice from the Lake Spaulding area, one suspects.

Similarly, Canyon Creek is so heavily populated with these giant granite eggs, that one rarely sees the Shoo Fly bedrock along the creek itself, especially in that reach which Ron and I visited, a couple miles above where Michael and I swam and basked the other day.

Ron and I drove over the bridge across Canyon Creek, following the Maybert road east, and at the Golden Quartz picnic area, found the road left which hooks back west and then north into Canyon Creek. A locked gate soon blocks this old old road, open to the public for so many years, a road giving access to at least two distinct historic National Forest trails, the Ridge Trail, climbing up the Canyon Creek-Yuba divide and bearing east up to Camp 19, and the Canyon Creek Trail, ascending the creek from the Arctic Mine for several miles before climbing to the Bowman Lake road near the Windy Point cliffs. This gate has probably been there for little more than twenty years, if that.

We trudged along, the road climbing slowly, and noted a brand new trail on the right, which TNF employee Joe Chavez had mentioned to me a year or two ago. Since the historic Ridge Trail had been blocked by the new gate, TNF felt it important to establish a new route. I complained to Joe, then, that TNF ought to be more determined to preserve its existing trails, and not give up on public access, which long since, many decades ago, had attained to the status of a prescriptive right, over whatsoever private lands might intervene.

The brand new trail was marked with a sign informing us that it reached a dead end in two miles.

Passing the gate, the road continued climbing and entered a dense stand of smallish Douglas Fir. It leveled out in an area where a few old-growth Ponderosa Pines stood, mute reminders of the more open forest of days gone by. We recognized that area as a prime candidate for the historic Ridge Trail route, but saw no sign of the thing, and soon the road entered into the main canyon of Canyon Creek proper, hugging steep cliffy slopes, with many an old dry-laid stone wall bolstering the road-bed. In somewhat more than a mile from the gate, we reached the crossing of Canyon Creek, where a massive concrete abutment records the existence of a bridge, once upon a time. We forded the creek by jumping from egg to granite egg, and continued up the right bank of Canyon Creek on the same old mining road.

The creek was absolutely slathered in these granite boulders, yet the roadcuts exposed only Shoo Fly. These Shoo Fly rocks are the oldest in the Sierra, are usually dated to that period of the Paleozoic named the Ordovician, and like most all our metamorphic rocks, the strata are tipped up into a vertical orientation. The Shoo Fly has been subjected to several episodes of deformation, the most recent being the "Nevadan Orogeny" of the Middle Jurassic; or so it is thought. It is this last transformation which tipped all our metamorphic rocks up on edge, as it were, about 145 million years ago.

These metamorphic rocks are divided into fault-bounded "terranes," but very much remains to be understood about these terranes, and how they were added to the western edge of North America, and what the directions and magnitudes of displacements on the terrane-bounding faults actually were. It is really rather exciting that so much is unknown. It makes a rich field for students of geology; students, teachers, all of them: we must map the terranes, and measure them, and date them, and it will not happen overnight.

The day was warming rapidly, yet a fresh breeze wafted up the canyon, ruffling the trees and cooling us a little, anyway. At a certain point we began to see a monstrous tower of granite, farther up the canyon, and I knew we must be approaching a contact between the Shoo Fly and this granite. Directly across the canyon from us was the high ridge of the Ridge Trail, attacked by glaciers on both sides again and again, with passes where ice flowed from the one side to the other; but I regard it as not at all obvious which side gave, and which side received, Yuba or Canyon Creek. The near side of the ridge showed many patches of Shoo Fly, rubbed raw by glaciation, but it takes a bit of imagination and practice to recognize the glacial provenance of such outcrops. The Shoo Fly responds much differently to glaciers than does granite, for the granite is so massive and relatively undivided by joints and strata, that it becomes notably rounded by ice, retains glacial striae well for ten or twelve thousand years,and just about shouts that "a glacier done it." The Shoo Fly is often left looking not too much different than it might, were it exposed only by the agencies of non-glacial erosion, i.e., if a slope is steep enough, as in, say, a canyon wall, some Shoo Fly will crop out in any case, glacier or no glacier. And the Shoo Fly does not retain striae well, not nearly so well as granite, nor does it often retain the smoothed and rounded forms imparted by the glaciers.

The granite is much younger than the Shoo Fly, and as elsewhere in the Sierra, appears to have melted its way into the older rock, leaving a sharp boundary or contact, with the older rocks essentially undeformed, and often scarcely altered at all by the heat. We began to realize that the Mountain View Mine and Arctic Mine, not far ahead of us, were in close proximity to the contact.

It turned out they were both just east of the Shoo Fly, in the granite, where quite an extensive system of gold-bearing quartz veins had arisen. Suddenly it was granite, exposed in the roadcuts, and mine buildings appeared, and tailings piles and all kinds of evidence of intense mining activity. Small roads began to climb away left from our river-road. At the Arctic Mine a large concrete building would seem to have been a powerhouse, but has since been used as a house, and peering through a window we saw a couch and sink and dining table.

We took a break, admiring some fine pools and waterfalls nearby, amid gigantic, nearly house-sized granite boulders. And now it was time to prove ourselves and employ our wonderful trail-finding skills and find the historic Canyon Creek Trail. Heh heh.

It seemed clear enough, as a little old road ramped off the flat with the concrete powerhouse, continuing upstream, and led us over a terraced area having to do with mining and/or old flume-lines, to a rather incredible flat bounded by a huge stone wall, which Ron felt certain was a dam site, and I would agree; tho the body of the dam itself is entirely gone. It may have been made from logs, from large tree trunks bolted together, as one sometimes sees in old photographs of this area. It would have stood about fifty feet high, perhaps more.

Encouragingly, a route continued, and reached a fine viewpoint, but disappointingly, it had nothing of the look of a old TNF trail, even one which had not been maintained for fifty years. We found ourselves directly below the enormous granite tower we had seen from half a mile down the canyon, and now we realized the tower did not stand alone, but framed one end of an impressive gorge with steep cliffs of granite on both sides of the creek. Glacial striae were evident everywhere on these glaciated surfaces. The Tower stood nearly a thousand feet above the creek, and so also did the other cliffs. With a bit of a groan we realized that our putative abandoned TNF trail could only follow a very high line, above the worst of these cliffs. We were too near the creek. We had merely exploited terrain made easy by these old mining and fluming terraces. Now our real work began.

We were quite taken, however, with what we saw of Canyon Creek. It was one waterfall after another, and a little ways up into the gorge there was a very pretty triple waterfall about twenty feet high, and just below it, a more ordinary waterfall perhaps twenty-five feet high. It looked next to impossible to follow the creek itself; well, if one were going downstream, and had ropes, and rappelled down the many waterfalls, one could do it. It was extremely wild and beautiful.

I was reluctant to give up on a possible lower alignment for our mystery trail, so I followed a bear trail closer to the creek, climbing over steep blades and cliffs of granite, while Ron took the sensible course and broke away from the steeps near the creek, hoping to strike something in the woods west, where a trail really ought to be.

I did find a trail, but definitely not "the" trail, and climbed a couple-few hundred feet, with a duck here and there showing me I was on track, and any amount of bear poop tending to support that notion, and eventually, stopping occasionally to rest in some rare patch of shade, the hot sun flaring down on the baking cliffs all around me, I won through to the creek again, at the triple falls we had seen, and saw a way existed to continue upstream, on a system of ledges with Canyon Live Oaks and Bay Laurels. So I forged ahead and made another couple hundred yards upstream, still clearly on a ducked route, and just as clearly, not on our mystery trail.

Where I was, tho, was wonderful. I reached a rather large and deep pool upstream from the Triple Falls, and I named it the Pool of All Pools, for its great depth, and the thirty-five-foot cliff rising sheer beside it from which, I am certain, many a brave or foolhardy young man has made the grand leap of faith. I rested for a while and wondered how Ron was doing. An occasional shout had elicited no reply, but he had been aiming away from the creek; that I heard no reply was to be expected. I had about totally ruled out any chance that our mystery trail could follow a lower line, for the gorge was essentially impassable, and my own little trail seemed at best a fisherman's route. I had climbed a few hundred feet, and saw another few hundred, maybe five hundred feet, of cliffs still above me.

The mystery trail could only be up there. Way, way, way up there. I felt rather thoroughly exercised already. So, I retreated back down my ducked fisherman's route to the Arctic Mine, but followed a slightly different combination of terraces, which eventually fed me onto one of the roads-left we had noticed while walking in, hours before.

And then I saw "the" trail. It was climbing fairly steeply in the down-canyon direction, and hence, would have to switch back somewhere above, in order to follow the canyon upstream. But I was certain that it was really and truly it. It was doing what "the" trail must do: climb high enough to pass above the high cliffs of the Gorge. There was not even the ghost of a sign where it left the main road.

I suspected that Ron had himself struck this trail, the true trail, well above me, and followed it north up the canyon. I waited for a while at the Arctic, and then made an arrow in the road and some silly little stone monuments to tell him I had started back out, and slowly wandered down the old road, taking time to savor the day and the spectacular views.

I crossed the creek again, at the bridge site, and soon enough I was back in the forested area with gentle slopes, where we had expected to find the historic line of the Ridge Trail. There was one little area beside a giant Ponderosa which merited a closer look, and I strolled a few yards above the road, and saw some old broken 2X6's and then a half-burned 4X4 post. I did not even need to read what was left of the sign: here was another historic trail, abandoned by Tahoe National Forest, and abandoned not all that long ago. Here, as Ron and I have seen at too many other places, the old signs are still there, but in pieces, on the ground.

I left the sign fragments propped up against a tree trunk so Ron could not miss them when he came out, and explored a little ways up the old trail, then returned to the road and walked slowly back to the truck. There I contrived to take a nap, lying down right on the rocky road, with my floppy straw hat serving for mattress, and my pack for pillow. No blankets needed. The shade of a Canyon Live Oak kept the cruel sun away from my hot and tired body.

Ron appeared about an hour later, and just as I'd imagined, he had struck the line of our mystery trail, the true Canyon Creek Trail, which after all could only climb and climb and climb to get above the cliffs which bounded the Gorge, and he had followed it a mile or so, until it began dropping slowly back down to the creek.

So, our expedition was a success, and we found, in fact, two historic trails, both abandoned by Tahoe National Forest, in their devoted respect for private property, and disrespect for public rights.

We stopped at dreamy little Washington for a cold one, and then made the long drive back to Colfax. It had been a great day, and merely to see the Tower, and the Gorge, and the Triple Falls, and the Pool of All Pools, would be more than enough reason to visit this area. I suspect that quite a number of other waterfalls grace the Gorge, and also, that very few people ever see them. It is difficult and dangerous ground, the Gorge is.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

The Salmon-Cherry-Big Granite Loop

We were late. Late, for a very important date.

Catherine O'Riley and I drove up I-80 and then, from Yuba Gap, in past Lake Valley and Huysink Lake to the head of the Big Granite Trail, where we saw Ron Gould had already long since parked and set off hiking, on a roundabout route which would go by way of Salmon Lake to Middle Loch Leven Lake, thence down the Cherry Point Trail to Four Horse Flat, thence back up the Big Granite Trail, so recently restored, to the point of beginning.

Our task was to hurry and hurry and hurry, and thus to catch up with Ron, and his dog Otis, at Middle Loch Leven Lake.

But such tasks bore us and we wandered rather slowly along, pausing to photograph flowers and butterflies and whatnot, so that eventually we just gave up on ever reaching Ron, it being simply impossible he would wait so very long.

We kept on flushing grouse from the forest as we walked, and a sudden scary thundering eggbeater whir of wings would explode into action beside us, and the winged monster would zoom away to some more distant pine. The forest is dominated by Red Fir and Lodgepole Pine, with Jeffrey Pine on the sunny granite outcrops, of which there are many, especially around the Loch Levens.

We met people with dogs on the trail, some unleashed, and it can be a little worrisome when the owner of two large dogs just about goes apoplectic calling them to her, while we walked past. Half Labrador, half pit bull, were they?

Escaping the dogs' dire wrath, we eventually reached Middle Loch Leven, after being convinced we had entered some kind of Twilight Zone in which signs would read, "Middle Loch Leven, .4," then ".3" then ".2" then, unaccountably, "1.4," so we would never ever quite get there.

We did somehow arrive at Middle Loch Leven, and there were Ron and Otis. Catherine and I dropped down into the shade at the foot of the lake and had lunch while Otis amused us by swimming, and then coming over right next to us and shaking the water off.

Then The Duck arrived, and Ron put a firm grip on Otis's collar, as he strained forward, eager to tear the poor little thing, with its so-innocent little quack, its pathetic little quack of hunger, tear it, I say, beak from wing from tail from foot. For the pretty little duck sailed right up to us, quacking softly, and we came to realize it was begging for food. It was in fact a Wise Old Duck of the World, almost the furthest thing from an innocent duck.

Otis could only take so much of this pathetic quacking, and that up-close-and-personal, cute and coy flirtation our precious little duck made into a pure business. Eventually Otis lunged so hard he dragged Ron down and then burst free into the water.

The Duck swam slowly away, with Otis a few feet astern, swimming like a hero.

The Duck ever so calmly led Otis on a merry chase out into deep water a hundred feet from shore, and then back in to us (it could be that food would in fact be thrown, after all; and it never hurts to check); and Otis swam and swam and swam.

Such was lunch, watching the antics of Otis and The Duck. She looked to be a Mallard.

Gathering ourselves, we started down the Cherry Point Trail, surprised by how much use it showed, although, upon reflection, we remembered there had been a search and rescue operation in this area but a few days before. It is quite a nice trail. Where it leaves Middle Loch Leven a Forest Service sign reads "Big Granite Trail 3, North Fork American River 8."

We wound down through forest and sunny openings and past springy areas rife with flowers. The skies were blue, the sun was warm, and a breeze kept things fresh. Eventually we reached the lower section of the Cherry Point Trail, which became a logging road during the 1991 timber harvest by Sierra Pacific Industries, the same harvest which wrecked the Big Granite Trail.

At Four Horse we had a try at following the original line of the Cherry Point Trail across the meadow, from one ancient aspen tree to another, but this is not too easily done. We would like to re-open this historic alignment of the trail.

Only during our climb up and out of Four Horse were we seriously bothered by mosquitos; the sun was lowering in the west as we hurried along through the forest, admiring the great work done on the July 15 work party.

We figure it to be maybe a seven-mile loop. It could be a little rough finding the Big Granite Trail down in Four Horse Flat, but we hope to install a sign or two down there and make it easier.

Such was a fun day in North Fork country.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Painted Rock Trail

Below, hiker extraordinaire Julie shares her experiences on the Painted Rock Trail. A few words of introduction: the trail connects Squaw Valley to the Royal Gorge, but the lower several miles have been closed to the public for a few decades now. It remains open from the Soda Springs-Foresthill Road east up the North Fork, on past the Old Soda Springs, and over the crest into Squaw Valley. However, where the trail leaves the road, every possible parking place is marked with "no parking" signs.

I have written extensively about this area in the past. Here I will only remark that one can find parking by driving a quarter-mile past the trail (which is actually, at first, the old wagon road to the Old Soda Springs, and across the bridge spanning the North Fork.

The Old Soda Springs is one of the most beautiful and sacred places in all the North Fork, with its huge petroglyph site, tits meadows and mineral springs, and mountains hovering all around. There was a popular hotel here from 1870 to 1898; and one of the Big Four, Mark Hopkins, built a log cabin there, which stands to this day.

The Cedars is a private club founded about 1903 which owns several thousand acres in the upper North Fork.

A few of us, Kasa , Kathi, and I, have been wanting to visit the Painted Rock Trail for some time. You don't hear about it much, and you can't help but be intrigued because one end of it lands near The Cedars, in The Forbidden Zone, where we are told again and again, there is no parking for hikers. Yes , the trail is a public trail, but no, you may not park near it in order to hike it. Hmmm, what to do... Well, we thought, we could have someone drop us off, but that person would have to be mighty generous with their time to go down the long and rough dirt road, just to drop us off.. All the business about dropping one car off at our destination point, in this case Squaw Valley, was too much to think about. Finally we realized the best plan was to hike in from Squaw Valley on the Granite Chief trail and return the same way. It was my first time into Squaw Valley and I really was surprised at what I saw there, with regards to the very large complex of hotels and condominiums, and sort of a theme park atmosphere. I have to say, I was a little shocked. There are giant trams overhead carrying cars slowly accross the sky to see the views, apparently . The trams and their supporting towers seemed like something from a future, one or another, or from a distant world. Be that as it may, we pulled into a spiff and shiny and mostly empty parking lot and headed out on the Granite Chief Trail. A very well travelled trail with plenty of side spurs to various apartment complexes and whatnot. We passed and were passed by a few folks, jogging, walking their dogs, hiking, and then the populace dwindled away. The thing I liked best about the Granite Chief were the many very large old trees with huge ancient blazes on them. We passed what might be the largest lodgepole pine I have ever seen and quite near it an enormous ponderosa. And these trees looked extremely healthy, just magnificent specimens. With blazes as well. The trail heads up some gentle hills, then crosses some open meadows full of mule's ears, winds up across some mounds of granite and crosses some really lovely creeks for a few miles before joining up with the Pacific Crest Trail. The wildflowers are really at their peak, it seems, right about now. At the PCT we turned right and came out onto an open promentory from which we could see Devil's Peak in the distance, and Needle and Lyon Peak, Granite Chief, and some various others more close by, which Kathi was able to point out and name for us, having climbed most of them at some point.She is an enthusiastic climber of peaks large and small, and can usually name whatever mountains we might be seeing. Below us, we marvelled at the valley which would now be carrying much of what is considered to be the headwaters of the American River. Moving down from the ridge I was aware of the many tiny springs joining themselves to one another, to finally make small streams that bit by bit would add themselves to the river. The springs were always nestled in velvety grassy areas, with fragrant patches of flowers, all sorts of flowers. Considering the almost secret and forbidden nature of the trail as it nears the Soda Springs Road on the other end, I was surprised by how well marked it was off the PCT. Complete with the expected sign warning us to stay on the trail and not to trespass on the property of The Cedars. The top of the trail seemed well used, then less so, then hardly at all. We crossed over some more lovely streams and over smooth granite and brushy ledges, as the trail descended down to the floor of the river valley. In the meadows the path was completely obscured by giant crowds of tall plants and flowers taller then us. From above you would never see the trail, but your feet sort of fall into it and guide you on. Kasa led the way through this jungle-like wonderland, and she seemed to have a good feel for the trail even when it faded into total obscurity a couple of times. Oh, yes, a few people are using it, but the lush plants and large falling trees are easily overwhelming it in places.Following along near the river, it got louder and louder, increasing in flow and even making a couple of small waterfalls. When we came to the crossing we took off our shoes and waded through. It is quite cold up there. Achingly so after about a minute. But so clear and perfect. On the far bank the rocks are pink and blue and gray, and very smooth. A comfortable place to sit for a snack. After this crossing the trail became much more distinct, well travelled, which led us to wonder if the folks from The Cedars like to walk up that far, but not further. And actually, we did meet a group hikers who said they had come from there. They seemed friendly enough, but pointedly, I thought, asked us if someone was picking us up at The Cedars. It turns out they are various family members who get to stay a certain couple of weeks in one of the houses. Other family would have it at particular weeks of the year, and so on.This encounter fueled all kinds of speculation on our part with regards to The Cedars and however it came to be, and whether or not those girls were rich and snooty , or just average folks who were really lucky! ... Soon we started encountering houses off one way and another, and the trail became even more pronounced. We assumed we were in The Cedars, when the trail entered a roadway where we had lunch on a bridge over the river. We returned from this point and when we crossed paths once again with the girls, we learned we had not been to The Cedars. Instead some other names of these clusters of houses were mentioned. Closer examination of maps prooved this to be correct. We had passed the Bailey Place, then entered the Chickering domain, grouped around the Soda Springs. The Cedars, then is further on. That's pretty much the drift of this fascinating hike, except that later in the day, and going the other way, everything looks like a brand new trail. Also, returning to the edge of Squaw Valley and noticing Lake Tahoe on the other side of the ridge, I liked the feeling of imagining the dramatic valley before all this happened to it. It must have been quite a powerful place. Well, that's all, maybe see you on the Painted Rock, Julie