Friday, February 10, 2006

The Quintessential Ford of Canyon Creek

Such amazingly warm weather demands descent into a happy and impossible dream, a land of high waterfalls and deep and darkly-echoing chasms, of mossy cliffs kissed by the sun into an early bloom of many flowers, and rainbows glowing in feathered sheets of spray, and then, miraculously, tremendously, the 2500-feet-deep American River Canyon itself, and Giant Gap.

It is Placer County's Yosemite.

Strangely, to visit Canyon Creek, near Gold Run, and to hike the Canyon Creek Trail (CCT), is to trespass; there is a long narrow mining claim, the Canyon Creek Placer Mine, seventy-two acres and a mile long, and it contains about 90% of the CCT.

It is all within the special "Gold Run Addition" to the North Fork American Wild & Scenic River (W&SR), as enacted by Congress in 1978; and within the very text of the legislation, the Department of the Interior is directed to acquire the private inholdings, within this very, very special Gold Run Addition.

For most of the lands in this northward extension of the W&SR "corridor" (ordinarily only a quarter-mile to either side of the river) are owned by the Bureau of Land Management, or rather, by We the People, and the BLM administers the W&SR program in this part of the North Fork, and manages rather large holdings, in the general area.

So. Most of the lands in the Addition were already BLM, in 1978; but there were some critical private inholdings, as for instance, the Canyon Creek Placer Mine.

To this day none of the inholdings have been acquired.

I can't go in to all this now. Whenever I trespass my way in across the private inholdings and down the trail, I am stricken with dread at the thought it could all so easily be utterly closed off, gated every which way, "no trespassing" signs everywhere, even houses built atop Indiana Hill, or in Potato Ravine, near the trailhead.

I can't refrain from sharing one last little detail about this almost-abortive Gold Run Addition to the North Fork American W&SR: the Addition came into being, I was told, because some wealthy landowners in the upper North Fork canyon, called The Cedars, did not want W&SR designation on the couple-few miles of river which cross their lands. The Cedars had already closed the historic public trail from Old Soda Springs, down the North Fork to Heath Springs, and points west. They wanted a purely private paradise.

So an alternative was conceived, in which We the People would trade away W&SR designation on that precious reach above Heath Falls, but We the People would be compensated for our loss, by the Gold Run Addition.

The Addition would become a "portal" to the North Fork American W&SR. For after all, what good is a Wild & Scenic River if no one can see it or get to it?

Three different historic trails dropped to the North Fork from the Addition: the Canyon Creek Trail, the Pickering Bar Trail, and the Fords Bar Trail. Their status is as follows:

1. CCT: quasi-open, not signed, not on the maps, but one must trespass to reach the trailhead or use the trail itself.

2. Pickering Bar Trail: open, not signed, parking area not signed, not on the maps. Is being abused by OHV use in its upper quarter-mile.

3. Ford Bar Trail: gated closed with fences and "no trespassing" signs in 1985, Placer County approved a subdivision at the trailhead, which in turn led to the closure (2005) of another public trail, the Paleobotanist Trail.

The bottom line is that the Gold Run Addition has yet to become any kind of "portal" to the North Fork; instead, public access has been degraded or lost in the decades since W&SR designation, not enhanced. Not only that, but to confine our acquisition objectives to those portions of the 800 acres within the boundaries of the Addition, would leave access to the Canyon Creek Trail at the mercy of whoever ended up owning the rest of the 800 acres; so I have always considered, now more than ever, that the entire 800 acres, with its two miles of Canyon Creek, and its dozens of historic hydraulic mines, should become public property, and be administered as open space, as a primitive area, entirely closed to OHV use, but open to equestrian, bicycle, and foot uses, wherever appropriate.

Yeek. I could go on and on. It is such a complex issue. There is mercury contamination in Canyon Creek and in the Diggings. There is looting of scarce petrified wood and of archeological sites on BLM lands and private lands in the Diggings. There is, suddenly, much increased OHV use. Oh dear what a mess!

But on such a warm and sunny day as February 9th, 2006, all this must be set aside for a visit to Canyon Creek. There was no bridge, not since December 31st, 2005. So Catherine O'Riley and I hoped to just jump the damn thing.

Well. No chance of that. Canyon Creek was in a fine frenzy of surging white water and thundering falls and cascades. It would be quite hazardous to fall into one of the frothing narrows, trying to jump from, and then land upon, wet sloping rocks.

At the bridge site we futzed around in the bright sunshine, considering this bad place to jump, that bad place to jump, this bad place to ford, then that, and even looking at the sluice iron and wondering, if some strangely twisted piece of it could be wedged across the creek, so that, so that, ... .

But no.

So we wandered downstream, not so easy a thing, as a kind of gorge pinches in, and one must climb above. But we found an old trail, choked with brush, and forced our way along a couple hundred yards, and then over some impressive sloping ledges, and finally, as tho planned, we were led right down to the creek, at the one, and the only, easy ford.

It so happens we were only yards above the first big waterfall met, as one goes down Canyon Creek, about forty feet high, and often split into multiple parallel falls when the water is high. There is a strange little side-fall we call The Leaper, which jets from a secret channel up and across a narrow chasm, slapping loudly against the cliff. It was nice to tiptoe carefully over the fantastical water-polished metavolcanics at the top of the falls, over a breadth of brink of perhaps fifteen yards.

We then waded across the creek, knee-deep in fast water, and found the little track which climbs up to the CCT, and finally, finally, were on our way again.

At this point we were still a thousand feet above the North Fork. Below, the trail steepens and is often cut directly into cliffs, an ancient trail, with much in the way of dry-laid stone walls, now so over-knit by moss, that one can scarcely imagine they were built by humans. We began to see Biscuit Root, and Brewer's Rock Cress, in bloom, and soon many California Milkmaids, and Waterfall False Buttercups, and another lovely little early-bloomer whose name slips my mind every single year, but eventually, I remember it.

Give me a few days, I'll think of it.

Yeek! Growing old!

Dropping down a cross-country route through a cliffy area, we reached the base of the Big Waterfall, putting on a spectacular show, whipping up curtains of mist, and spawning a great rainbow. It is about 150 feet high. The cliffs overhang drastically all around this waterfall, and it is quite a hazardous spot, as one often sees giant razor-sharp shards of smashed metavolcanic rock, littering the massive water-polished bedrock along the creek, having fallen down the cliffs above.

And the CCT is directly above, a few hundred feet up. Any rock dislodged along that part of the trail could kill someone down by the Big Waterfall.

There are many hazards in Canyon Creek.

Another old trail leads away from the Big Waterfall, a tiny thread wandering along sun-blasted mossy cliffs, with a sinfully deep chasm just a step to one side; and down at The Terraces, where the miners who worked the giant sluice boxes and undercurrents of Canyon Creek lived and cooked, we had our lunch, grateful for the shade of stunted Canyon Live Oaks.

It must have been over seventy degrees.

What with a late start, and all the confusion of crossing the creek, our original idea, to streak away east on the High Old Upriver Trail or HOUT (rhymes with "shout"), into Giant Gap, was abandoned in favor of a simple trip to the river itself. So on down the trail we marched, with wonderful views, now, into the North Fork Canyon, and the Pinnacles, up in Giant Gap, and of course blade-like Diving Board Ridge, looming over us, to the west, and then, some last waterfalls, thundering, misty, awesome in themselves, and at last there it was.

There is a *ton* of water in the North Fork right now, running high, fast, clear except for very much white water, and about bank-to-bank. There is really no chance to follow along the banks of the river. It would be too dangerous. It would be deadly to fall in.

There are vestiges of glacial outwash sediments across the North Fork from the confluence of Canyon Creek, clinging to the canyon wall just above the scour-line of our modern "Holocene" (last 10,000 years) flood events, said scour-line recently refreshed, when on January 1, 2006, the North Fork came up over 50,000 cubic feet per second, at Auburn.

We admired it all thoroughly and then took a tour on the Low Upriver Trail, which offers views of Lovers Leap and then The Pinnacles, in turn. Retracing our steps, we climbed up the CCT a little ways, and then cut away to get a view of a certain waterfall.

Here we passed some bedrock outcrops which had been rounded and drilled with potholes over 100,000 years ago, at a guess, since we were fully 100 feet above creek level. This amounts to saying that Canyon Creek has incised its bed here at a rate of one foot per one thousand years. This should be about right, since we know that, in the main North Fork, at Sawtooth Ridge, the river has incised ~2500 feet in 3.82 million years (ridge-crest basalt dated in 2004 at U. Reno), which works out to about eight inches per one thousand years.

And we should imagine that Canyon Creek is cutting down more quickly than the North Fork, because its gradient is so very much steeper. Clearly other variables are at work, such as sediment load, and flow volume, as well as gradient. But "100,000 years" seems like an adequate first approximation to the age of these relict potholes, so high above Canyon Creek.

They may be older.

We found and explored a number of little side trails in that area, so scenic by virtue of the rather tall and classically-formed waterfall close by, at the head of a broad valley-gorge, dominated by large sloping planar areas of bedrock. We found an old miners' camping-terrace, which unfortunately had been used some years ago, and there are some backpack loads of garbage which need hauling, up and out; we filled our packs with what we could.

An amazing spot, that terrace-of-the-garbage. It is really Waterfall Terrace, because of the view of the "classic" waterfall, nearby. That is a great swimming-hole, at the base of that fall, I can tell you.

On an oddly warm winter day in Canyon Creek, what with a trail which tends towards steepness, there is a certain subtlety of timing. Diving Board Ridge, to the west, casts its afternoon shadow over the east canyon wall of south-flowing Canyon Creek; and as the afternoon wanes, the shadow climbs higher.

So if one climbs up and out too soon one is in direct sun the whole way.

But if one waits a little, one can stay just within the shadow the whole way up the trail, only rarely breaking free into direct sun.

We waited. At just the right time we continued our climb.

I had related to Catherine, a month or two ago, the remarkable myth found at the very end of Plato's "Republic," in which one learns, among many other things, of the Music of the Spheres.

It so happens that very much of my life in recent decades has been devoted to geometry. Yet, living in the hinterlands, I have no one with whom to discuss this geometry. Alway, tho, I seek ways to trick the conversation onto my subject. It occurred to me that Plato himself could serve that purpose, now.

"In Plato's 'Timaeus'," I began, "Socrates and Timaeus and others are, you know, having a dialogue--"

"About what?" she queried, with eagle eye.

"I don't know, about the Nature of Things. And Timaeus represented the Pythagorean philosophy. And he began talking about the old idea, of the Four Elements, Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. Right?"

"Yes; the Four Elements."

"OK. And then Timaeus started talking about these certain right triangles--and how they could be fused together to build up equilateral triangles, or squares. Right?


And I went on to describe how Timaeus constructs those certain things, those polyhedra, which, due to this very dialogue, have ever since been called the Five Platonic Solids: the Cube, Octahedron, Tetrahedron, and Icosahedron.

The Cube is bounded by squares, and the others, by equilateral triangles.

Oh yeah, and the fifth one, the Pentagonal Dodecahedron, which is bounded by twelve regular pentagons.

And Timaeus said that there were the four Elements, yes, but that each Element had an "essence" which was its ideal form, as it were.

Four Elements, four Essences.

To the four Elements, Timaeus assigned four of the five Platonic Solids, as follows:

1. Earth->Cube.
2. Air->Octahedron.
3. Fire->Tetrahedron.
4. Water->Icosahedron.

These ideal forms, then, the only convex regular polyhedra, corresponded, as Timaeus would have it, to the four ideal Essences.

But wait. What about the fifth Platonic Solid, the Pentagonal Dodecahedron?

Since there is no fifth Element, it must correspond, says Timaeus, to The Universe, and to the Sphere of the Fixed Stars. Or if there were a fifth Element, it would be "ether," hence our word, ethereal.

So the Pentagonal Dodecahedron has a very, very special status. And to its ideal form, there corresponds an ideal essence.

It is the Fifth Essence.

The "quintessence."

So if you have ever wondered about the etymology of "quintessence," well, it's all Plato's fault!

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