Wednesday, January 25, 2006

A New Old Trail

Tuesday morning Ron Gould and I drove into Burnt Flat east of Colfax, and took a tour down the Stevens Trail. It was my first time, since the wildfire of 2004.

The day was sunny and clear, verging upon warm.

The Stevens Trail connected Colfax to Iowa Hill, crossing the North Fork American on a bridge near Secret Ravine. The bridge is long gone, but the Stevens is one of the most popular trails in all Placer County. From the Colfax exit on I-80 one proceeds east on the frontage road, Canyon Way, to the parking area. It is about four miles to the bridge site; and there is an idea at large, I hear, to build some kind of bridge there, again.

One can also walk the Stevens from Iowa Hill, west.

All this part of the North Fork is a Wild & Scenic River.

We aimed to explore an old trail beyond Secret Ravine, on the north canyon wall but low to the river, being about 200 feet above. I know I have this trail on at least one of my old maps, but an external hard disk has gone silent, and I can't find it. The Stevens Trail is the fifty-sixth trail described in the abortive 1953 Placer County Trails Ordinance, and its description mirrors an error in mapmaking itself, an error propagated across more than one map, namely, the mislabeling of Secret Ravine as Robbers Ravine.

I had made a few explorations beyond Secret Ravine in years past, and picked up traces of the old trail, without ever reaching the "good part" so plainly visible from the Stevens Trail on the southern, Iowa Hill side of the river. A maze of game trails on steep terrain had made me scout high and low and every which way, finding only scattered remnants of dry-laid stone walls, at what seemed the right elevation, around 200 feet above the river.

It was interesting to see the effects of the 2004 wildfire. It had burned hot near Robbers Ravine, with its pretty waterfalls, and nearly all the trees had been killed, conifers and live oaks alike. But the root systems of the angiosperms were vigorously stump-sprouting, especially notable in the Bay Laurel, with clumps of a dozen or more sprouts spearing six feet high already.

Crossing Robbers Ravine (one is tempted to ascribe the name to the botched 1881 train robbery at Cape Horn, high on the cliffs directly above, but a check of the diary of Steven Allen Curry, a CPRR surveyor, reveals it already had its name in 1865), we broke out onto the sunny open cliffs, with such fine views down the canyon to Mineral Bar and the Iowa Hill Road.

To my horror, a large house has appeared on a ridge crest above Mineral Bar, a house which, like too many others, at Lovers Leap and Bogus Point and Iron Point and Lime Point and above Ponderosa Way, should never, ever, ever have been built. Sensible societies do not sacrifice the best of their scenic heritage to the whims of a few egomaniacs.

This is just what noted educator David Starr Jordan meant, when he suggested a "hilltop ordinance" was needed in Auburn, to protect the scenery. He made the suggestion around 1904!

But this is Placer County, a name fated to suffer anagramation into the word, "parcel," so that I often bitterly ask myself and The World, during one of my interminable internal private rants, "So, which is it going to be? Placer County, or Parcel County?"

And unfortunately, the answer always is, "Parcel County." Supposedly our Republican Supervisors have such a strong belief in private property, they will sacrifice any trail, any swimming hole, any breathtaking canyon view, to the short-term interests of any individual. The sanctity of these private property rights is such that a kind of religion, based, one expects, upon a foundation of shopping malls and subdivisions, holds our Supervisors in its loving thrall.

Oddly, quite strangely, when I pause to think of the thing, these same Republicans cease crowing about the inviolable sanctity of private property, just about the time one asks how legal title to Placer County lands was obtained from its original inhabitants, the Southern Maidu, and the Washoe.

For no legal title was ever obtained, away back when; a few Euro-Californians with consciences made certain that treaties were negotiated with each tribe, exchanging large reservations for a quit claim to their title on all remaining lands. The Indians duly made their marks, and the generals and bigwigs signed the treaties too, and off to Congress they were sent, in 1852.

It was the last chance to put a decent face upon the theft of California from the Indians.

But when the treaties reached our Senate, in far-away Washington, strange to say--who could have guessed such a thing might happen?--the treaties, with their scratchy little marks and squiggles, made by Chief Weimar and so many others, were placed in a sealed secret archive, not to be unlocked for fifty years.

My friend Jay Shuttleworth, who represents the very best spirit of volunteerism in his long-sustained efforts on behalf of the Stevens Trail, my poor poor friend--how it will hurt, when he sees this new house on the hill. Here is scenery celebrated, admired, gasped over, by every person who ever walked that trail. And now Lord Smith has crowned himself King of the Hill and no person who walks the good old Stevens Trail can walk it, now, without paying a perverse kind of homage to this Lord Smith: you avert your eyes.

It is just like going down the old trail to Green Valley, or walking around in Green Valley: one learns not to raise one's head the wrong way, not to lift one's eyes to Moody Ridge, for the Vulture Houses on Lovers Leap Road will strike one dead in one's tracks.

Well, not quite dead. What is hurt is one's faith in human nature, and one's hope that the best and most beautiful places we love, will remain for our children and their children, to love as well. To be caught in the Medusa glare of the Vulture Houses, as they lord it over the Giant Gap of Thomas Moran, and force themselves upon that quintessential scene of all Placer County scenery, is have one's living hoping trusting heart frozen, into an ugly little rock smelling of ashes.

But this is Parcel County.

Again and again the horrible new house reappeared, as we followed the winding Stevens Trail south and east up the American River Canyon.

We were quite struck by the record the recent flood event left; patches of grey sand twenty feet above normal river level, driftwood stuck on cliffs, willows and alders flailed prostrate and skinned of their bark, under the boiling storm of sand and mud and cobbles and boulders. It was very impressive and I recommend a hike on the Stevens if only for that reason, to see the marks of the rarely high water of a few weeks past.

A few flowers were in early bloom here and there, notably, Houndstongue, with its pretty forget-me-not, blue and white blossoms.

At Secret Ravine, about three miles in from where we left Ron's truck, we found a faint fog hovering over the shadowed creek, and frost on the fresh flood sands. There were some thousands upon thousands of ladybugs clinging to tree trunks and so on, in nearly frozen, motionless masses of shiny red hemispheres.

The 2004 wildfire had not crossed Secret Ravine, at least, here at river level.

Soon enough we were repeating the same old exercise: following various roughly level game trails across steep slopes, alert for signs of lopping, or old rock work, or anything to show the line of the trail. Eventually, in somewhat more than a quarter-mile, I should say, we reached the intact portion of the trail. Suddenly we saw signs of lopping, and guessed our compatriots, Evan Jones and Co., had been at work, by the looks of it, two or three years ago. It was quite easy going on a nearly level line in the full sun with incredible views and all I can say is that it is one of the very nicest trails in the North Fork--yet--yet it is reduced to a ghost of a ghost of a trail for that first quarter-mile east of Secret Ravine.

We fully expected to find and follow the main line of the trail back to Secret, on our return, but such was not at all the case. This trail is very seriously disrupted, over a fairly long distance.

There are indications that this old trail--I shall call it, here, the Meta Secret Trail (for it leads up the canyon, beyond Secret Ravine)--was a mining ditch, originally. It is often very suspiciously level. If true, this may supply the answer as to why the trail is so faint, near Secret Ravine itself: that whole section might have been a wooden flume, thus, no very large bench cut was needed, just a few bits of rock wall here and there to bolster the flume.

Then, let a few wildfires come through, and burn the wooden flumes into oblivion, and one has a somewhat discontinuous trail.

That's the good old Meta Secret Trail.

Across the river one sees the Stevens Trail, with huge stone walls, crossing a mossy cliff. It is quite a lovely view.

Unfortunately another Vulture House came into view, away west in the fire area; clearly the firefighters had made noble and successful efforts to save it, despite its perilous position on the canyon rim. Good for the Vulture Family, bad for the North Fork and the rest of us. As a result of the fire and the firefighting, all screening vegetation was gone, and it is just as though a brand new house had been plopped down on the canyon rim.

I became nauseous thinking about the two Vulture Houses lording it over the North Fork and the Stevens Trail.

Also across the river I observed a large bluff-like mass of glacial outwash, forming a terrace about 100 feet high. The whole face looked fresh and raw and recently eroded, and clearly, the North Fork had chewed at the base of the steep gravel bluff, during the recent flood event. However, I was almost certain that that raw steep face had been left by mining, either ground sluicing or hydraulicing, a century and some ago. It is even possible that the Meta Secret Trail began as the very ditch which served that particular mine; in which case, a flume would have crossed the river.

An old tunnel, possibly dating to the Gold Rush itself, had been exposed by the flood. It was driven into the glacial outwash low down towards the bedrock underneath. Probably many tunnels had been driven into the base of that bluff. They have since collapsed or been buried by cave-ins around their entrances. The coarse gold was found on the bedrock at the bases of such glacial outwash terraces, more commonly known as "bars" or "gravel bars."

But these gravel bars are artifacts of the high flows and high sediment loads of the glacial periods; current flood events do little more than nick the bases of such terraces.

We reached an unnamed ravine, with a pretty stream, crossed, and found an old mining ditch trail on the far side, at a slightly lower level. The Meta Secret continued!

After a time, the Meta Secret dropped down to river level, and we saw sunshine just upstream, and worked our ways up to the place, at a sharp bend on the river. We had lunch and, scouting the area, found some miners' camps with much in the way of garbage strewn around, five-gallon buckets and sleeping bags and tarps and just plain garbage. I grabbed an aluminum frying pan and returned to the river.

Wresting clumps of moss from boulders near the water, I washed them into my frying pan and panned the sediments down to black sand. Swirling, some respectable flakes of gold appeared. So Ron and I washed a few more clumps of moss into the pan and found, I don't know, about fifty or a hundred "colors" of gold, among them, some pieces almost big enough to just reach in and pick up. So, it was a little exciting to see all that gold. Probably at least a dollar's worth!

The winter sun, never high, was clearly lowering, we were over a mile east of Secret Ravine, and had another three miles beyond that, to reach the truck. It was time to go, past time, really, and I ended up forty minutes late, picking up my kids at their school bus stop, in Alta.

On our return we followed a higher line at first, following a faint trail climbing west from some ancient cabin terraces. At times this tiny thread of a trail seemed to disappear, but we held the course and found large cairns of slaty slabs where it crossed a rocky spur, and then other ducks and cairns along the way, and found ourselves back on the main Meta Secret just where it had seemed to drop down to river level, on our way in, a couple hours before. So there is actually a fork, at that point, and a steep climb to the left, as one is going in, will make the safest route on to that sunny bend, where Ron and I found so very much gold.

But this left-hand upper trail is extremely hard to see, from the fork. That is, the fork does not by any means look like a fork. It is just the spot, it seems, where the trail suddenly drops to river level.

This last bit of high trail, and the ancient cabin terraces near Gold Strike Bend, may date to the Gold Rush itself, and likely were also in use later, by the Chinese, in the 1860s.

Such was another nice day in the North Fork. I learned some new lessons, too, about how to avert my eyes properly, while walking the Stevens Trail. With a little practice, I may one day walk the Stevens Trail, and find it as beautiful as I did, way back in 2004.

Perhaps if I cup my hands around my eyes, to reduce my field of view?

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