Friday, February 24, 2006

Near Giant Gap


Kathie Schmiechen, a firefighter who once worked for Friends of the River, stood rigidly on the High Old Upriver Trail, or HOUT, one arm raised high and arrow-straight, with palm held flat, in what could only have been some ancient Roman military hand-signal, meaning, I suppose, "Halt!"

In just such posture some antique Roman captain bestrode a bridge, and raised his arm in silent warning to the hoarsely screaming hordes of wildings: "Advance at your peril!"

I halted. I listened.

A chirp--or it may have been a cheep; or a quizzical buzzing, rhythmically repeated; or some friendly, dispersed tittering, away in the sun-sparked Canyon Live Oaks; or a mosquito-bill-thin shrieking buzz, pitched almost above the human ear; or a restless mumbled clucking, away in the manzanita and silktassel.

"A Ruby-Crowned Kinglet," Kathie exclaimed, happy, confident. Then her arm dropped, her gaze turned inward, and a frown creased her brow. "Or it may have been a Wrentit."

There were birds about. Many birds. The sun was shining, the grass was greening, butterflies were flying, flowers blooming, a river always roaring, and snow-flecked cliffs rose two thousand feet above us, across the North Fork, near Giant Gap.

Ed Pandolfino had been teaching Kathie Schmiechen to recognize birds by their songs and calls. I went hiking with Ed once, in the old forests of Duncan Canyon, an upper tributary of the Middle Fork American, and was astounded by his ability to recognize birds by sound alone.

Kathie arrived soon after ten in the morning for a visit to Canyon Creek. My old friend John Davenport, of Gold Run, had stopped by to say hello, as I sat by a picnic table in the Tesoro gas station parking lot, looking at a piece of Bigleaf Maple burl I have been polishing for days on end. The bird's-eye grain is spectacular. John asked me about the big blasted cut in the bedrock near The Oxbow, on Canyon Creek, right by where The Old Wagon Road makes a switchback, and turns downcanyon for its final approach to the twelve-foot by nine-foot tunnel of the Gold Run Ditch & Mining Company.

This 1873-era "drain tunnel" was critical to the continuation of hydraulic mining at Gold Run; only by means of this tunnel could the deeper and richer gravels be worked. Millions of cubic yards of tailings flowed through the giant tunnel, all lined with sluice boxes, a swiftly flowing muddy mess of clay and sand and hundred-pound boulders, and gold, and mercury.

Tons of mercury.

Then the tailings entered the sluice boxes of the Canyon Creek Placer Mine, and continued all the way down to the North Fork in the sluices, interrupted only by the many waterfalls, and at last were discharged into the North Fork proper, so clogging the mighty stream that one could drive a wagon right over the tailings, up the river from Mineral Bar, below Colfax, to Canyon Creek, below Gold Run, a distance of over ten miles.

I told John that the big blasted cut in the bedrock (a volume of approximately 40 feet wide by 100 feet long by ten feet depth), by the Oxbow, was made to accommodate giant sluice boxes, allowing the tailings to follow a straighter, more direct course down Canyon Creek, and also allowing the tailings to make a kind of waterfall fifteen or twenty feet high, which sudden fall served well to smash up the cemented gravel from the Diggings, and release its gold.

Kathie and I advanced into the Diggings and parked near the Canyon Creek Trail. Soon enough we were striding along the Indiana Hill Ditch, which coincides with a small length of the trail. The ditch was finished on September 13, 1852, and delivering water from Canyon Creek itself to the new "diggings" at the head of Indiana Ravine, all staked off into small claims during 1851, and only worked to a limited extent until the ditch arrived, in 1852.

The ditch traverses shady north-facing slopes in Potato Ravine, where the somewhat reclusive shrub called California Hazelnut grows, along with other very mesic-adapted woody plants like Pacific Dogwood, Thimbleberry, Wood Rose, and Huckleberry.

For a while, there, Kathie and I were on BLM land; we had crossed the 800-acres-now-for-sale to get to the trail, and would re-enter the 800 acres almost immediately, in the form of the Canyon Creek Placer Mine, a patented claim; for all the 800 acres is made from old patented mining claims.

The BLM lands are areas never patented.

We found the creek low enough to jump, down by the bridge site, and were soon passing the lovely purple Brewer's Rock Cress and yellow Biscuit Root at Gorge Point, soon, I say, although in point of fact Kathie made her ancient Roman military command many times, as we advanced down the trail.

Eventually, then, we found ourselves at the base of the Big Waterfall, which may be 150 feet high, and which bursts into view from the peculiar Inner Gorge as tho from a cave in the cliffs, a surging mass of whitewater.

The sun was very bright, and the air temperature was climbing into the sixties at the least. Near the Big Waterfall, it was cooler, tho, with droplets of spray wafting a hundred yards down the canyon, conveying a sharper coldness, in tiny dots, to our faces and arms.

It felt good.

We ambled down to the lawnlike flowered Terraces, with the old cook-stove the miners who tended the sluice boxes once used, lying in pieces, then along Lower Terraces Trail back to the main trail, then east on the HOUT.

We crossed Bogus Gully and turned the corner on Bogus Spur to the fine overlook spot, where we had our lunch and admired Sarah Orange-Tip butterflies, among others.

Kathie and I both had things to take care of later in the afternoon, so an early retreat was called, and we made a slow slog up the steeps of the Canyon Creek Trail, visiting the Six-Inch Trail and the Blasted Digger Trail, along the way up and up and up and out.

It was another great day in the great canyon.

No comments: