Friday, March 31, 2006

Snow Worms, Snow Fleas

It took some persistent Googling to learn much of anything about our Sierran snow worms, or, as I dubbed them, the Kinky Black Snow Worms of the Foresthill Divide.

It turns out, the much more popular "ice worm" dominates web pages having to do with such timorous beasties, all over the world; ice worms, ice worms, ice worms, and the threat to ice worms from global warming, and on and on and on. Did you know there can be more ice worms on one small glacier, than there are humans on earth?

They are in the family, Enchytraeidae.

Back to the snow worms. Like the ice worms, they are annelid worms, related to earthworms, among many other things. In fact, an ice worm is merely a type of snow worm. There are other, even stranger types, which live deep underground, or on ice on the ocean floor, of all things. These worms are legendary.

It happens that algae live in our Sierran snow, and stain the snowfields red and pink, in the summer. And it further happens, that the algae cheerfully converts the sun's rays into food for any number of higher organisms, such as rotifers, protozoans, ciliates, nematodes, and, yes, snow worms.

And, the snow fleas, also called springtails, Achorutes nivicolus.

So, these Kinky Black Snow Worms are part of a complex faunal assemblage, based upon snow algae.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Skiing the Iowa Hill Canal

Monday morning I sped to Colfax and met my old skiing buddy from twenty years back, Kelly, and we drove down down down into the abyss of the North Fork American at Mineral Bar, the river running high and fast and moderately clear. Then, up up up to Iowa Hill and beyond, ascending Indian Canyon beside elongate Roach Hill until we reached the snow-buried Elliott Ranch Road and turned past Sugar Pine Reservoir to the Foresthill Road.

By this tortuous route we avoided I-80.

Hanging a left, a few miles brought us to China Wall, where the 1872-era Iowa Hill Canal crosses the Foresthill-Soda Springs Road. Here the snow-plows stop, and skiers and snowmobilers can park and set out for points east, over a nicely groomed surface. There is about five feet of snow on the ground there, at 5000' elevation.

The place seems to have been named for a dry-laid stone wall made by the Chinese for the Iowa Hill Canal, but I can't say I've ever seen the wall.

If one is at all familiar with Sierran geology and knows about the Superjacent Series, and the "young volcanics," the Tertiary andesitic lahars and rhyolite ash beds, and if one gets up in a small plane and looks down on this area, one sees at once that the Foresthill Divide forms the largest patch of almost-intact volcanic mudflow plateau around. This plateau once extended far and wide, before being dissected by our modern canyons, over the past five million years. It slopes very gently to the southwest.

We snapped on skis at ten in the morning under sunny skies, with an air temperature of over forty-five degrees. The snow was softening rapidly, but remained fast and icy within tree shadows. We slogged slowly up the almost level road, past the turnoff to Italian Bar Trail, past Mumford Bar Trail, up and over a small rise, and then, descending towards the Canal Pass on the Foresthill Divide, Snow Mountain hove into view, and Devils Peak, and Castle Peak. We could also see Sawtooth Ridge, directly across the North Fork canyon, to the north.

At the pass, the huge old Iowa Hill Canal is easy to miss, when driving; one whisks by in an instant. And at just this point, the IHC crosses from the Middle Fork American side of the Foresthill Divide, to the North Fork side. On the North Fork side, about a mile of the old mining ditch has been bladed out into a road; on the Middle Fork side, the ditch is intact, but badly overgrown.

Of course such old mining ditches make almost the perfect hiking trails. It is something of an astonishment that we have not taken pains to open up very many of these old ditches as foot trails. By "we," I mean those of us who live here in the Sierra, and like hiking. They were used as trails, way back when; why not now?

I think I first saw the Iowa Hill Canal in real life, rather than on an old map, in 1978, when I visited Big Valley Bluff, a 3500-foot cliff burgeoning into the North Fork from Monumental Ridge. This is surely one of the most amazing spots in the Sierra; one reaches it from Emigrant Gap, on Forest Road 19. After the snow melts, that is.

Early June ought to do it, this year.

From the Bluff, one looks south across the North Fork canyon, and sees the level line of the IHC entering the canyon at Canal Pass, and running along east past the Beacroft Trail (issuing from another low pass on the Foresthill Divide) and Tadpole Canyon, over a distance of several miles. The instant I saw it, I thought, why, I said out loud, "That ditch should be a trail."

It would be quite a few years before I followed up on that idea, and even tried to set foot on the thing. Every time I went to Big Valley Bluff I would say the same thing. I actually spent a lot of time out there on the cliffs, scanning the Iowa Hill Canal with binoculars. One thing I noticed was a huge brushfield, east of Tadpole.

That would be a problem, I knew.

What inspired me to finally track the Canal down and beard it in its very lair, were the old Tahoe National Forest maps Ron Gould turned up down in some State archive in Sacramento. One of these (1947) showed a portion of the IHC, flanking Tadpole Canyon, as a Forest Service trail!

Then I found that a second old TNF map (1962) showed the same thing: an Iowa Hill Canal Trail, leading east from the Beacroft Pass!

But then—then it would traverse the big bad brushfield—and how in the world could that be?

When Ron and Catherine and I at last explored that area, we found a spectacular bench cut in the cliffs flanking Tadpole Canyon, where the Canal had been carried around in a giant wooden flume, and we also found an old road, long overgrown, giving access to the Canal from near the head of the Beacroft Trail. The Old Chinese Wagon Road. Here, too, a feeder ditch from Secret Canyon crossed underneath Beacroft Pass in a tunnel, now collapsed. And after exploring and reexploring the area many times, the picture finally came clear, and the little old road turned out to be contemporaneous with the Canal, built to aid construction of the flume. As surely as the Chinese did the dirt work of building the Iowa Hill Canal, they also built this road.

Ron and Catherine and I found that, east of Tadpole, the Canal enters a tremendous brushfield, where even the strongest bears cannot pass, except by climbing over the bushes, as one sees from their bruised branches. Our progress was completely and finally stopped. We are not nearly as rough and tough as bears.

We called it the Big Brush. It's mostly Green Manzanita and Bush Chinquapin and Huckleberry Oak. It has miraculous views of the North Fork canyon, and of a huge waterfall over in Big Granite Canyon, below Cherry Point.

Never one to give up easily, I planned to explore that easternmost part of the Canal on skis. For the north-facing Big Brush gets buried by snow every year, and one can see this strangely blank snowfield from many miles away.

The problem is, it's quite a ways to Tadpole Canyon and the Big Brush from China Wall.

I told Kelly, "If we see some really nice snowmobilers, we could ask them for a tow up to the Beacroft." Well. That didn't happen.

But, here we were at the Canal Pass, and there was the Canal itself, offering an almost perfectly level route (the grade is about ten feet per mile!), so I said, "Well, as long as we're here, let's just see how it goes."

And it went very well. We skied east on the Canal road for a mile, and then entered upon the Canal proper, the undisturbed Canal. I had hiked west from the Beacroft to just this point, last July. We had a remarkably easy time of it, mostly skiing up on the berm, occasionally dropping into the floor of the ditch for a few yards before climbing back out to the berm.

No snowmobiles, and no ski tracks. Strange! One of the greatest ski trails around, and no one uses it!

We had good glimpses of Big Valley Bluff, of the waterfalls of Andrew Gray Creek, and soon we saw the waterfalls of Sugar Pine Point, where a strange matched pair of rock-rimmed terraces, one high, one low, each holds a hidden valley, and each hidden valley feeds a very prominent waterfall.

The upper valley's snow, being colder, was not melting quickly, and its waterfall was small. But the lower valley, about a thousand feet above the river, was delivering quite a nice amount of water to its leaping waterfall; it shot out from the cliff top in a narrow jet, and fell in a pleasant parabola an easy two hundred feet.

And of course we enjoyed astounding views of Snow Mountain, Castle Peak, Cherry Point, and so on. The contorted, faulted, folded, early-Paleozoic Shoo Fly Complex metasediments exposed on the cliffs of Big Valley Bluff were amazing, as always. Strata of light quartzite are visible from miles away. It is a chaotic mass of rock, all right. And gigantic: I sometimes think of Big Valley Bluff as the North Fork's El Capitan.

More often than not we were in forest, White Fir, Douglas Fir, and some smatterings of Ponderosa Pine and Kellogg's Black Oak, on promontories more exposed to the sun. Our elevatiion was about 5400 feet.

Once in a while a minor ravine was met which the Canal had crossed on a flume, and we were faced with steep to very steep slopes. But the snow was soft and our skies bit well and I judged the avalanche hazard slight. A couple times, one could sense that there was about six inches of the most-recent, softer snow, atop a much more consolidated and frozen mass of older rain-soaked snow, below. A bit of a hazard in its own right, that, when combined with steep slopes. But our warm westside snow stabilizes quickly.

As we neared the Beacroft, the terrain became cliffier, and we actually passed the trail itself without noticing, at first, it being completely buried under five or six feet of snow. Then we turned into the little hollow, a small cirque of sorts, I think, despite its low elevation, where the Canal had made a sudden drop of fifty or a hundred feet in elevation. We skied slowly up to the higher level of the Canal, and, huffing and puffing, debated whether to push on to Tadpole Canyon, or make a retreat to the Beacroft Pass and the Foresthill Road.

The Canal crosses many cliffs near Tadpole, and I had my doubts about our safety. Kelly, for her part, had tallied up our mileage and arrived at the lucky seven. So we had a fourteen-mile trip at the least.

The sun had long since hidden itself behind broad sheets of cirrocumulus clouds advancing before the next storm, and bits of wet-looking cumulus were beginning to form below the higher clouds, here, there, and everywhere.

So we did the prudent thing and made for the Beacroft Pass and points west. We stopped to visit the fine clifftops beside the Old Chinese Wagon Road, taking a last look at Big Valley Bluff and the Sugar Pine Point waterfalls and all.

On the road, on groomed snow again, we tried to convince ourselves that the temperature had fallen a few degrees, and the snow was a bit colder and faster, but honestly, it was like skiing on glue, for seven miles. We had been observing the tiny creatures we both call Snow Fleas, all day. Who knows what they are, or what they do. Now we were a little surprised, shocked might be a good word, by the sight of Snow Worms. Many of them.

These thread-like black worms will sprawl on the snow, all bent out of shape, like some tiny tiny twig; I mean, they're an inch long, maybe, or even, an inch-and-a-half long, but quite thin. A thirty-second of an inch? And they move, albeit slowly, and kinkily, as tho crippled. At times we had five or ten in view at once. We saw them under trees and out in the open alike. The Kinky Black Snow Worms of the Foresthill Divide. Yeek. They were probably mating, or at least, thinking about it.

After a confusing series of signs which reported China Wall to be almost every possible distance down the road, we at last reached the place, and, firing up the Subaru, turned onto the Foresthill Road just as the first drops of rain pattered down.

It had been a wonderful day in the North Fork, skiing the Iowa Hill Canal. But there is much more left to ski. The crossing of Tadpole Canyon could be a problem, I doubt any kind of snow bridge is intact down at the level of the Canal. Tadpole's just too big. Probably have to climb and cross much higher.

So. The answer is for someone with, well, the deep pockets, as they say, to rent a snowmobile or three. Then we can explorethe area on skis at our leisure. The remarkable cliffs between Tadpole Canyon and New York Canyon would be quite a place to visit, on some warm April day. And not too far from those cliffs, one can see the 500-foot waterfall, down in New York Canyon.

So, there is High Adventure beckoning.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Birds, Storms, and the Neeshenam

First I wish to thank those who've sent contributions to the North Fork Trails email list. It is gratifying to find that you value my efforts.

Second, the good Tim Lasko tells me that Friends of the River will host a "Swap and Meet River Festival" at the American River Resort, Coloma, CA, on May 20th, from 10 A.M. to 9 P.M. There will be raft races, auctions, films, slides, speakers, a Barbecue, and even live music! Call (916) 442-3155 X203 or go to for details.

Birds and Storms II: thunderstorms and other storms of snow have continued here at 4000', and now there is two to three or four feet of the nastiest snow-sludge imaginable. But a few days back, during a day of thunderstorms, once again I heard the lanky Sandhill Cranes, once again they circled between clouds, hundreds of them, yelping loudly, and I actually saw flocks of them fly directly into clouds, and disappear. But that's not all; at midnight, during another break in the constant snowfall, I heard the cranes again, a smallish flock of a dozen birds by the sound of it. What were they up to, dodging thunderstorms of snow in the Sierra, at midnight? Unbelievable!

And now sleet rattles my windows.

I have a bit of California history for you: Stephen Powers' 1874 Overland Monthly article, "The Neeshenams," number ten of his series on the California Indians. It was these articles which inspired John Wesley Powell (of Grand Canyon fame) to put Powers to work writing a more formal treatment, "Tribes of California" (Washington, Government Printing Office,1877).

Today we call this branch of the Maidu people the Nisenan. Everything below must be taken with a grain of salt; we might imagine Powers to have spent little enough time with the Nisenan, and he himself remarks that they were, above all other Calfornia Indians, the most severely impacted by the Gold Rush. By 1874 their culture was in tatters; they had already been forced out of Placer and Nevada counties, on a trail of tears to what was hoped to be a better life on reservations in the Coast Range; but Indian Agents waxed rich and fat, and the Maidu starved, and then they straggled back home, worse off than ever.

These were the people who once lived at Casa Loma, above Green Valley, spearing salmon down on the North Fork, gathering acorns and manzanita berries in the uplands, and wandering into the high country in the summers. The portrait Powers offers is not pretty, although he must be counted as especially sympathetic to them. Another sympathetic voice was that of Alonzo Delano; his account of the Valley Maidu in 1849-50, in "Across the Plains and Among the Diggings," is quite touching. Many other Gold Rush diarists recorded experiences with the Maidu and Nisenan, and Fairchild's "Reminiscences of Illinoistown" (Thompson & West's "History of Placer County," Auburn, 1881) is terrible in informing us that the men of the "Placer Blades," a quasi-military organization, scalped the Indians, and hung their scalps from oaks along the Old Emigrant Road, running up the divide from Auburn to Illinoistown, in that same winter of 1849-50; for the Nisenan had stolen stock from the miners.

The Neeshenams.

Perhaps this nation ought to be included with the Meidoos, of the Yuba and Feather rivers. Such is the classification of some of the pioneers, but they have seldom traveled through the length and the breadth of the territory, and carefully noted the languages. I prefer to group all the tribes between Bear River and the Cosumnes as a separate nation, with the above name, for several reasons:

1st. As you travel south from Chico, the Indians call themselves meidoo until you reach Bear River; but below that it is neeshenam, or sometimes mana, or maidec, all of which denote "men" or "Indians."

2d. The Meidoo and Neeshenams numerals are a good deal alike, but there is a more abrupt change at Bear River than anywhere else, and south of that stream they remain nearly uniform to the Cosumnes.

3d. South of Bear River the tribes are designated almost entirely by the points of the compass, while north of it they have fixed, specific names.

4th. The customs of the Neeshenams are different in important respects from those of the Meidoos, and especially in that very few of the former observe the great Annual Dance for the Dead.

As to language, the Meidoo shades away so gradually into the Neeshenam that it is extremely difficult to draw a line anywhere. But it must be drawn somewhere, because a vocabulary taken down on Feather River will lose three-fourths of its words before it reaches the Cosumnes. Even a vocabulary taken on Bear River will lose half or more of its words in going to the Cosumnes, which denotes, as is the fact, that the Neeshenam language varies greatly within itself. Indeed, it is probably less homogeneous and more thronged with dialects than any other tongue in California. Let and Indian go even from Georgetown to American Flat, or from Bear River to Auburn, and, with the exception of the numerals, he will not at first understand above one word in four or five, or six. But, with this small stock in common, and with the same laws of grammar to guide them, they pick up each other's dialects with amazing rapidity. It is these wide variations which have caused some pioneers to believe that there is one tongue spoken on the plains around Sacramento, and another in the mountains; whereas they are as nearly identical as the mountain dialects are.

So long as the numerals remain the same, I count it as one language; and so long as this is the case, the Indians generally learn each other's dialects; but when the numerals change utterly, they often find it easier to speak English together than to acquire another tongue. As to the southern boundary of the Neeshenam there is no doubt, for at the Cosumnes the language changes abruptly and totally

Like all others, the Neeshenams name every camp, springs, river, etc., but they very seldom use the name of a camp or village, as other nations do, to denote the inhabitants of it. Whatever Indians live next east of them they call easterners, and if there is a camp a little farther east, they vary the form. Thus they use, Notos, Noton‡ns, and Noto‡ngcows, which may be rendered "easters," "easterns," and "easterners." So contracted are their journeyings and their knowledge, that they do not need a complicated system of names. If there are any people living twenty miles away, they are not aware of their existence. In consequence of this, it was almost impossible for me to learn any fixed names of tribes. There are the Poosoonas, at the mouth of American River, north side; the Quotoas, at Placerville; the Colomas, at Colma; and the WapŸmnies, near Latrobe. Indeed, I wonder if there is any considerable number of tribal names, for they are such a nomadic nation (within small limits) that they exist in a continual chaos. They move their camps so often that they have not even names for them, properly speaking-that is, no name separate and apart from that of the spring, bowlder, tree, creek, or what not, where they happen at any particular time to be camping. Hence, in designating one another, they always use the points of the compass-tosheem, como, noto, tei (north, south, east, west)-in various forms; and those living near Bear River always add cow (place), as T‡wsingcow, Como‡ngcow, Noto‡ngcow, Teingcow.

There are also some curious peculiarities in regard to personal names. One can very seldom learn an Indian's, and never a squaw's, Indian name, though they will tell you their American titles readily enough. It is a greater breach of decorum to ask a squaw her name than it is among us to ask a lady her age. I have often made the attempt, and never yet have learned a squaw's name from her own lips. A husband never calls his wife by name on any account, and it is said that divorces have been produced by no other provocation than that! It is amusing to note the resemblances between feminine human nature in the aboriginal and civilized state. No squaw will reveal her own name, but she will tell all her neighbors' that she can think of! For the reason above given, many people believe that half the squaws have no names at all. So far is this from the truth, that everyone possesses at least one, and sometimes two or three. Hella Neo‡chechit was mentioned as an instance of two; and H‡ywalla Claygle Numnum, of three. As usual in California, a great majority of the names have no significance, being merely such collocations of sounds as are euphonious to their ears. If one has any meaning, it is generally the name of some animal, as Wowkle-a woman's name-which denotes "fox."

Following is a formidable list of villages which once lined the banks of Bear River, from the Sacramento up to the foot-hills-a list which shows that the population must have been dense: H‡meting-W—leyuh, L‡ylekeean, Talac, Intanto, Mool‡mchapa (long pond by the trees), Lidlepa, S—lackeyu, K‡luplo, P‡canche, Shokum’mleppe (wild-potato patch), Bo—shamool (this was near the California and Oregon Railroad crossing), Sho—tamool, Chœemduh, O'pelto (the forks), Pœlacatoo, K‡paka, Yoko‡limduh, and To‡nimbuttuc (little pine). The Sacramento River they call Nepem Sayoo (great river); Bear River, Nem Sayoo (little river); the plains, Tœkudy; the timber land, Ch‡pady; the foot-hills, Yamun; the Sierra Nevada, Nepem Yamun (great hills).

Both in their social customs and in their political organization, the Neeshenams must be ranked on a low grade-probably the lowest in the State. They had the misfortune to occupy the heart of the Sierra mining region, in consequence of which they have been miserably corrupted and destroyed. Indians in the mining districts, for reasons not necessary to specify, are always worse debauched than those in the agricultural regions. And the fact that most observers and writers have seen the Indians of the diggings more than any others, has contributed to bring the whole California race into unmerited opprobrium.

Yet the following facts bear witness to their low aboriginal estate: Robert Gordon, a responsible citizen of Auburn, states that, in 1849, he was surface-mining from Auburn as far up as the North Fork of Feather River; and that a great proportion of the men and women who entered his camp were costumed strictly after the fashion-plates of Eden. This was in a region pretty well up on the mountains, where the aborigines had not yet come in contact with either Spaniards or Americans. Both sexes and all ages moved about his camp, absolutely in puris naturalibus, with that perfect freedom and innocence which betoken unconsciousness of any impropriety. But these na•ve, unswathed mountaineers, according to the same excellent authority, were often of a magnificent physique-tall, sinewy fellows, who would have made the scale-beam kick at 180.

Most tribes in the State lay considerable emphasis on the formal establishment of marital relations, in their way-that is, by purchase-whether those relations are faithfully observed afterward or not. But the Neeshenams may be said to set up and dissolve the conjugal state almost as easily as do the brute beasts. No stipulated payment whatever is made for the wife. A man seeking to become a son-in-law is bound to cater (yaylin) or make presents to the family-which is to say, he will come along some day with a deer on his shoulder, perhaps, fling it off on the ground before the wigwam, and go his way without a single word having been spoken. Some days later, whenever it pleases him, he will come and claim his bride, and lead her away with equal unceremoniousness. An incident which occurred will show the despotic and brutal manner in which these matters are managed. A man living on Wolf Creek, a tributary of Bear River, had performed the simple acts which entitled him to his wife, and the day had arrived when he determined to bring her home. But she loathed him, and when she saw him coming she fled from her father's wigwam, and sought refuge, trembling and weeping, with a motherly old widow who sympathized with her. The widow concealed her as well as she could, then hastened out to confront the pursuers. When they came up she told them the girl had passed that way and escaped from the village. They hurried on in pursuit, but returned after a long search, baffled and angry, and asked the widow's little girl if she knew where the fugitive was. The child innocently told them she was hidden in her mother's wigwam. As soon as they had dragged her forth, they drew their bows and arrows and shot the widow to death in the middle of the village. They were not molested, for the general feeling of the Indians was that the bridegroom owned the girl, and that the widow, in concealing her, was guilty of kidnapping, for which the penalty is death.

The Neeshenams are the most nomadic of all California tribes. They shift their lodges perpetually, if it is only a rod, probably to give the vermin the slip; and always after a death has occurred in one they abandon it. Nomadic habits among savages of a low grade are little better than death to the old and infirm, for they can not readily follow, and the few poor conveniences and comforts which they collect around themselves when stationary have often to be abandoned. In fact, it would be hard for a tribe to devise a better way of ridding themselves of those whom they account burdensome. The spectacle which is sometimes presented among the mining towns, of poor, old, purblind, tattered wretches, perhaps laden with all they can carry, feebly tottering after the stronger ones, is a melancholy and pitiable one, indeed. But let it be remembered that this tribe is exceptionally restless, and that the California Indians generally are remarkable for their home-loving and home-keeping, even if not for their filial piety.

As for their political organization, like the snakes of Ireland, it can be described in three words-there is none. True, they have their hereditary captains, or head-men, in the villages, but their authority is the most shadowy thing in the world.

For murder, there is no punishment but individual revenge. That must be had within twelve moons after the murder, for there is a kind of statute of limitations which steps in then and forbids any further seeking of blood. They consider that the keenest and most bitter revenge which a man can take is, not to slay the murderer himself, but his dearest friend. This, however, is probably only the sentiment of casual Indians, though it would comport well with the subtle, Asiatic character of the race.

For kidnapping, as above mentioned, the punishment was death. It is related that a chief, named Bac‡llimpun, living near Bear River, in 1851, kidnapped a number of women from his own tribe and sold them to the Spaniards for infamous uses. On detecting him in his villainies, the Indians put him to death, and then hacked him into a thousand little pieces. They would throw an eye to one of his fellow-villagers, a finger-joint to another, a toe-joint to another, etc. It should, however, be borne in mind that the California Indians did not torture persons while alive.

For adultery with a foreigner the penalty was also death; and there are few other tribes in the State of whom this can be affirmed. In 1850, a squaw was sacrificed by her people on Dry Creek, near Georgetown, for this offense, committed with an American, though there was really no criminality on her part. The profanation of the loathed foreigner was upon her, and all her tears and cries were of no avail.

They did not mark their boundaries by artificial signs, though they had them defined with the greatest strictness by springs (pokkan), hills (yamun), valleys (hœnumchuka), etc. They did not ordinarily destroy a member of another tribe caught trespassing on their territory, but if he caught fish or game, or gathered acorns on it, they demanded reparations in kind. They were frequently at war with the Piutes, whom they called Mo‡nousies, and whom they greatly dreaded. The Piutes were always the aggressors, and came over armed with savage wooden knives, with which they slaughtered the feeble Californians (they seldom cared to take prisoners), and scalped the dead by cutting off a small round patch of hair on top of the head.

In war, upon coming into close quarters, the Neeshenams sought to stab the enemy under the arm, aiming at the heart. They took no scalps. When going into battle, they frequently waxed and twisted out the fore-hair on their heads into two devilish-looking horns, topped their heads with feathers, and painted their breasts black. I once heard an aged Indian describe with wonderful vividness a fight which his nation had by appointment with the Meidoos, many a long year ago, when they were yet so numerous that their hosts darkened all the plains beside the beautiful Yuba. They fought a great part of a summer-day, and, according to his account, there was a mighty deal of thwacking, prodding, and hustling, though it was not a very bloody affair at all. He killed a Meidoo, then presently he turned his back and ran away himself, and got a spear jabbed into his heel. He described both circumstances with the same simple honesty and remarkable vivacity, which showed he was telling the truth, and which contrasted so strongly with the boastful arrogance of the Algonquin, that never acknowledges defeat. Their male captives they tied to trees and shot to death without lingering torture, and the women they sometimes whipped and sometimes married.

There is a curious way of collecting debts practiced by them. When an Indian owes another, it is held to be in bad taste, if not positively insulting, for the creditor to dun the debtor, as the brutal Saxon does; so he devises a more delicate method. He prepares a certain number of little sticks, according to the amount of the debt, and paints a ring around the end of each. These he carries and tosses into the debtor's wigwam without a word, and goes his way; whereupon the other generally takes the hint, pays the debt, and destroys the sticks. It is a reproach to any Indian to have these dunning-sticks thrown into his wigwam, and the creditor does not resort to it, except in case of a hard customer.

That their treatment of superannuated parents is not remarkable for tenderness may be gathered from the following fact: in 1858, there was an immense concourse of Indians at a place called Spenceville, some coming even from the Coast Range-the purpose of all being, as was then supposed, a concerted attack on the Americans. Preparatory to this gathering and what should follow it, numbers of them put to death the aged and infirm of their camps, who would have been an encumbrance, though it was said it was done at the instance of many of the victims themselves.

Being so nomadic in their habits, they have brought the savage field-commissary to perfection. They discovered the substantial principle of the famous Prussian pea-sausage long before the Pickelhauben did. When about to go on a journey, the squaws pack in their deep, conical baskets a quantity of acorn panada, made by processes heretofore described, which is food as condensed a form as they could make it without scientific appliances. They generally start from camp rather late in the morning (the California Indians are poor travelers), and rest once or twice during the forenoon, always by a spring. Taking out this panada, they dilute it with large additions of water, making a cool, thick, rich porridge, which they drink from small baskets. In this manner a squaw will carry enough to last two persons a fortnight, and that while they are dancing-the hardest work an Indian does-nor will her burden exceed thirty pounds. About eleven o'clock, they call a halt for noon; then they do not break camp again until two, three, or even four o'clock, but march until nightfall, when started, or even long after.

As it was from the Neeshenams that Captain John A. Sutter procured most of his laborers, I wish here to make mention of a matter which falls properly within the scope of this narrative. It is related by several men who came here in 1849 and subsequently (there is to this day frequently a slight pique between the ante-forty-niners and the forty-niners, the land pioneers and the gold pioneers), that the captain was accustomed, in clover time, to compel his slaves (as they call them) to go out into the clover-field for their rations. In view of the amount of labor they performed for him, this charge, if true, would be a grave one. But it is a fact abundantly substantiated that Indians who have been reared all their lives in American families, will, if permitted, in the season when the savor of the blossoms is wafted sweet as honey on the breeze, go afield for dinner, in preference to the most lickerish viands ever cooked.

I have been told by the Americans that they themselves had often eaten California clover, boiled and salted, and accounted it altogether a desirable mess of the season. Without doubt, then, this story is a true one; that is, Captain Sutter's Indians preferred to eat clover for a change and a relish, and he simply-let them do it. That he was a kind master to them, let the following document attest. It was shown to me by the owner of it, who had wrapped it in many folds of paper and inserted it inside the lining of his hat, where he had carried it nearly ten years as a sacred treasure. He was said to have been one of the captain's majordomos, and to have had charge at one time of nearly 200 Indians:

"The bearer of this, Tucollie, Chief of the Wapumney tribe, has presented himself before me, with the request to give him a certificate of his good behavior, and it is with pleasure that I comply with his wishes, as I know him over (22) twenty-two years as a good and honest Indian, therefore I can recommend him to the benevolence and kindness of my fellow-citizens, and particularly to those residing in his native country.
Very respectfully,
J.A. Sutter
Special Indian Agent
Hock Farm, August 11th, 1862."

Unlike several tribes in the northwest of the State, these are not misers, but quite the contrary, as are all the southern California Indians. They never hoard up shell-money, beads, trinkets, or anything of merely factitious value, unless it is for the purpose of burning them in honor of some great chieftain on his funeral pyre. In a bountiful acorn-harvest they gather and store up in wicker granaries (sukin) sufficient to last them two or three years; but they use the surplus above the winter's supply to gamble on, and often gamble away even the provisions which are immediately necessary. No Indian is despised so much as one who is close-fisted; nothing is more certain than that, if an Indian comes along hungry, they will divide with him to the uttermost crumb.

The Indians immediately south of Bear River observe the following fixed dances. The most important is the First Grass Dance (Cammin, the generic word for "dance," hence the dance of the year), which is held in autumn or winter, after the rains have fully set in and started the grass. None but a resident of California can appreciate the joyfulness of the feeling which gives rise to this festival, when, after the long, weary summer of drought, the first cool rain commences trickling down on the parched plains and the naked foot-hills, and they clothe themselves again with a soft, pale green. Assembled in the sweat-house together, both men and women, they dance with such extraordinary enthusiasm and persistence that they sometimes fall exhausted, and lie in a trance for hours.

The next is the Second Grass Dance (Y—mussy), which is celebrated in the spring, then the grass takes its second growth, after the dry season is well established, but before the clover has faded from its blossoming glory. Hence this is held in the open air-a fte champetre. Otherwise it is like the first; the dancers being in two concentric circles, the men in one, the women in the other-the former gaudily decorated with feathers, the latter more modestly with beads, etc. It continues three or four days, accompanied with plenty of good eating.

Then there is a dance held regularly in spring, called, Wayda, which is observed to prevent the snakes from biting them during the ensuing summer. Though held for so momentous a purpose, it seems to be quite a sportive affair. A bevy of young maidens dance around two young men in succession, singing a very gay and lively chorus, and ever and anon they make a dash at him, catching him by the shoulders, laughing, stretching out their arms toward him, tantalizing him, etc. The point appears to be, that these girls constitute the two young men mock-priests, to be their champions against the snakes. After the dancing, a couple of old fellows go around among the women with baskets, soliciting presents of bread, fish, and other eatables, wherewith to pay the singers; and when the women are about to contribute, they are frequently seized themselves by the old fellows and dragged along sportively, to the vast amusement of the bystanders. But with all this fun-making and horse-play, they entertain a very genuine terror of rattlesnakes. When an Indian is bitten by one or lacerated by a bear, they exclude him rigorously from camp for certain days, believing that the snake or the bear, having tasted his blood, will follow him to camp and play havoc.

There is not among the Neeshenams any secret society, or any organization other than the family; but there is something analogous to our modern spiritualism, table-rappings, etc. Indeed, spiritualism among the Indians long antedates the wonderful Fox sisters, and whatever we may offer them in this department of science at least, they can show us "a trick or two of that." And, more than that, they make practical use of the spirits to most excellent purpose. When an Indian gets troublesome to manage, the chiefs invite him to the sweat-house some evening, a dance is held, then all the fires are extinguished, and the congregation sit profoundly still in the darkness. Presently, the gates of hell yawn open, and there issues forth a grim spectre, who rustles his pinions and feathers, raps and ramps over the floor, and then addresses the company in the best English, "Good evening, gentlemen." He speaks as many words in that language as he can command well, adds a little Spanish perhaps, then makes a lengthy discourse in Indian, and it always happens to fit excellently well upon the back of the unruly member. Most Indians are profoundly convinced of the genuineness of these apparitions, and that these grim familiars have the gift of tongues, also power to hang them by the neck in the apex of the lodge, or disembowel them instantly, if they do not make presents to the chiefs and look well to their p's and q's. All Americans are rigorously excluded from these proceedings, but a man named Willliam Griffin, understanding the language well, overheard from the outside what was said and done.

There is a social gathering which may be called a soup-party, which answers to our dinner-party. The inhabitants of two or more villages meet at a designated place in the open country, bringing acorn-flour (And nowadays frequently wheat-flour), a little salt, and baskets to cook and eat the soup in-nothing else. Nothing is en regle except the soup, an article something thicker than gruel and thinner than mush. After they have eaten a great quantity of this, the younger people amuse themselves in dancing, while the elders exchange the gossip and scandal of which the Indians are so excessively fond.

Among most California Indians it is usual for a man requiring the services of a medicine-man to pay him in advance; but these hold to the principle, "No cure, no fee." The benefit which the man of drugs render his patient generally consists in sucking from him certain sticks and stones, which he alleges were lodged just under the skin, to his great detriment. When it is manifest to all beholders that the sufferer has been marked by Death for his own, and that he can not long survive, his friends and relatives collect around him in a circle, and stand awaiting the final event in awe-stricken silence. As his breath grows stertorous, showing that he is passing through the last grim struggle, one of them approaches reverently and kneels by his side. Holding his hands over the region of the heart, he counts its feeble pulsations, as they grow slower and weaker. When it ceases to beat, and all is ended, he turns to the waiting relatives and silently nods. Whereupon they commence the death dance, with frightful wails and ululations. Every family have their own burning-ground, and as soon as the corpse is cold, it is conveyed thither for incremation. Around Auburn, a devoted widow never speaks, on any occasion or upon any pretext, for several months, sometimes a year or more, after the death of her husband. Of this singular fact I had ocular demonstration. Elsewhere, as on the American River, she speaks only in a whisper for several months. As you go down toward the Cosumnes, this custom disappears, and only the tarred head is observed. It is only fair to remark that the widow is generally more faithful to the memory of her husband than the widower to his wife's, and seldom disgraces human nature by remarrying in a week or two, as he not infrequently does.

Apropos, the following story. An Indian woman, living on Wolf Creek, lost her husband and went to live with her mother, who was also a widow. One day, before the customary period of mourning had expired, during which a widow is forbidden to do any work or attend a dance, her mother requested her to go down into the ravine and gather some clover. She went, accompanied by a young girl, one of her unmarried companions. Going afield with her basket, she was observed by an Indian named Roeno, her husband's brother, who watched where she went and for what purpose. He reported to his father, and by him was charged to follow and strike her dead. He did so, following her several hours, but he had no heart for the butcherly business, and he finally returned home without accomplishing his errand. His father upbraided him bitterly as a coward and an ingrate, for not avenging the insult to his brother's memory. Stung to madness by the paternal reproaches, in a moment of furious passion he rushed away, fell upon the offending widow, and smote her unto death.

When a mother dies, leaving a very young infant, custom allows the relatives to destroy it. This is generally done by the grandmother, aunt, or other near relative, who holds the poor innocent in her arms, and while it is seeking the maternal fountain, presses it to her breast until it is smothered. We must not judge them too harshly for this. They knew nothing of bottle-nurture, patent nipples, or any kind of milk whatsoever other than the human.

A touching story is related of old Captain Tom, of Auburn. His son Dick was an incorrigible rascal, and it finally fell out that he was arrested for something or other, tried, proved guilty, and sentenced to San Quentin for ten years. This was a terrible blow to Captain Tom, for he loved his boy, with all his wickedness. When Dick was manacled and taken away out of his sight, the old man turned his head away and wept. Dick became to him as one who is dead. Nevermore (for ten years to an Indian seems like an eternity), nevermore should his old eyes behold him. The White man had bound his wrists and ankles with iron, carried him away to the uttermost ends of the earth, and buried him alive. He turned sadly away, and went back to his wigwam. Mingling their tears together, he and his family mourned for Dick as for one dead. Then they arose, gathered together all the things that had ever belonged to him, carried them out to the family burning-ground, erected a pyre, and placed them on it. Years ago, a brother to Dick had died while they were living in another place, and his ashes rested where they were burned. They were now brought and sprinkled over the pyre (for such a grievous calamity had never befallen the Indians before, that they should be compelled to burn one's possessions without his body to accompany it). They were sadly troubled to think how they should send Dick's clothing to him in the Happy Western Land-or wherever else he was gone-and they thought, they hoped, if his brother's ashes were sprinkled on the pyre, perhaps his spirit might convey them. With these feelings in their breasts, but with many tears and sad misgivings, they applied the torch, and prayed their son, whose ashes they had sprinkled on them, to waft the clothes and money quickly to poor Dick, in that unknown and undiscovered country to which the White man had conveyed him.


The moon and the coyote wrought together in creating all things that exist. The moon was good, but the coyote was bad. In making men and women, the moon wished to so fashion their souls that, when they died, they should return to the earth after two or three days, as he himself does when he dies. But the coyote was evil disposed, and he said that this should not be, but that, when men died, their friends should burn their bodies, and once a year make a great mourning for them. And the coyote prevailed. So, presently when a deer dies, they burned his body, as the coyote had decreed, and after a year they made a great mourning for him. But the moon created the rattlesnake, and caused it to bite the coyote's son, that he died. Now, though the coyote had been willing to burn the deer's relations, he refused to burn his own son. Then the moon said unto him: "This is your own rule. You would have it so, and now your son shall be burned like the others." So he was burned, and after a year the coyote mourned for him. Thus the law was established over the coyote also, and, as he had dominion over men, it prevailed over men likewise.

This story is utterly worthless for itself, but it has its value, in that it shows there was a time when the California Indians did not burn their dead, as is also established by other traditions. It hints at the additional fact, that the Neeshenams to this day pay homage to the moon, consider it their benefactor in a hundred ways, and observe its changes for a hundred purposes.


At first, all the animals lived on earth, but afterward the clover grew, and then they ate that also. There were no men yet, or rather, all men were yet in the forms of animals. One day the bear and the deer went out together to pick clover. The bear pretended to see a louse on the deer's neck, and the deer bent down her head to let the bear catch it, but the bear cut her head off, scratched out her eyes, and threw them into her basket among the clover. When she went home and emptied her basket, the deer's children saw the eyes, and knew they were their mother's. So they studied a plan of revenge.

On another day, when the bear was pounding earth in a mortar for food, as acorns are now pounded, the deer's two children enticed the bear's children away to play, and persuaded them to enter a cave beneath the great rock Oamlam (high rock) on Wolf Creek. Then they fastened them in with a stone, and made a fire which roasted them to death. When the bear came and found them, she thought they were asleep and sweating, but it was the oil on their hair, and when she pawed them the hair came off. Whereupon, she fell into a great passion, tore them to pieces and devoured them.

Then she pursued the deer's two children to destroy them. She called out to them that she was their aunt and would do them good; but they fled and escaped up the great rock Oamlam, and it grew upward with them until the top of it was very high. The bear went round behind the rock and found a narrow rift where she could crawl up; but the deer's children saw her coming, and they had a stone red-hot, which they cast down her throat and slew her. Then they took this same stone and threw it to the north, and manzanita berries fell down; to the east, and pine-nuts fell down; to the south, and one kind of acorn fell down; to the west, and another kind of acorns fell down. Thus they now had plenty of food of different kinds, and they ate earth no more.

After this, while they were yet on the rock, the deer's children thought to climb into heaven, it had grown so high. The big one made a ladder that reached the sky, and, with a bow and arrow, he shot a hole up through, so that the little one could climb up into heaven. But the little one was afraid, and cried. So the big one made tobacco and a pipe, and gave them to the little one to smoke as he went up the ladder, whereby the smoke concealed the world from him, and his heart was no longer afraid. And this is how smoking originated. So the little one climbed up through the hole into heaven, and went out of sight; but presently he returned down the ladder, and told is brother it was a good country above the sky, with plenty of sweet browse, and grass, and buds of trees, and pools of water, and flowers for them to sleep on. Upon that they both climbed the ladder and went above the sky.

Presently they saw their mother by a pool of water, cooking, and they knew it was she, because she had no eyes. Now, the big brother was a deer, but the little one was a sap-sucker. So these two made a wheel to ride on, that they might pursue their mother, for they were not well-pleased to see her without eyes. But they were punished for this act of wickedness, for the wheel went contrary with them, turned aside, and plunged into a pool of water, so that they were drowned.

This story contains a considerable part of the Neeshenam cosmogony. In common with most California tribes, these Indians regard all animals, including men, as having a common origin and being intimately related. Thus, the bear calls herself aunt to the deer's children, and one of the latter is a bird. In some vague, misty way, the coyote was the first of all; but whether as creator, or simply as a kind of protoplasm, the Indians are not clear. But it is certain that the Neeshenams anticipated Darwin by some centuries in the development theory, only substituting the coyote for the monkey. The fable generally runs that man was originally in the form of a coyote, but the Neeshenam version varies a little. As we have seen above, the moon and the coyote created all things, and man was primarily a simple, straight, hairless, limbless mass of flesh, like an enormous earthworm. By and by, the moon split him at one end, so that he acquired a pair of legs. Then the same beneficent luminary split off a pair of arms from his body, split his toes and fingers, etc.

There is another tradition to the same effect substantially, and that is, that the time once was when men were on the same level with the beasts of the forest, and habitually devoured their own dead, as the coyote is said to do.


In the earliest days of the world, while there were yet few inhabitants upon it, there lived a man and his wife, named H’lpmecone and OlŽganee. They loved each other with a love passing the love of brothers, and they were greatly happy in their lives. But at length it befell that the wife, OlŽganee, fell sick, and, though her husband did all that love and tenderness could do, he saw her eyes slowly fade away before his eyes, and die. He dug a grave close beside his camp-fire (for the Neeshenams did not bury their dead then), that me might daily and hourly weep above her silent dust. His grief knew no bounds. His life was now become a burden unto him; all the light was gone out of his eyes, and all this world was black and dreary. He wished to die, that he might follow his beloved and lamented OlŽganee. In the bitterness of his grief, he fell into a trance, and the spirit of the dead OlŽganee arose out of her grave, and came and stood beside her husband. When he awoke out of the trance and beheld the spirit of his wife, he cried aloud in the greatness of his grief, and would have embraced her. She beckoned to him in silence to follow her. Together they set out to seek the spirit land (o—shwooshe koom, literally, "the dance-house of ghosts"). They journeyed on through a great country and a darksome-a land that no man has seen and returned to report-until they came to a river that separated them from the spirit land. Over this river there was a bridge of but one small rope, so very small that a spider could hardly cross it. Here the spirit of OlŽganee must bid farewell to her husband, and go over alone to the spirit land. When he saw her leaving him, in an agony of grief he stretched out his arms toward her and implored her to return.

If an Indian sees a ghost and it speaks to him, in that instant he dies. Hence, the spirit of the woman answered him not, lest he should die, but turned about and came back, and together they returned to this world. Upon reaching it, OlŽganee turned again to go back to the spirit land, but again H’lpmecone cried out, and vainly stretched out his arms to stay her return. Then, at last, she spoke: "You have been to me a husband true and kind. You have gone with me to the border of the spirit land, whither you could not enter; and I have seen and know for myself all your love and your sorrow. I now speak to you these words, that you may die, as you have desired, for no Indian can hear a ghost and live." Then he died in that self-same instant, and together they took their last departure for the land of the spirits.

Thus ends Stephen Power's "The Neeshenam."

Thursday, March 9, 2006

The Strange Fanglomerate

On Wednesday, March 8th, the only sunny day in a million years and my fifty-seventh birthday, Catherine O' Riley enticed me to visit Green Valley, and we stomped and slipped along in a foot of wet snow, through and under groves of manzanita bent low across the trail by recent heavy snows, rounded masses of a hundred pounds or more still hanging on, here and there--and a pleasant sunshine warmed the air, slightly, anyway, and then, down about 3000', we left the snow behind, and I began talking about the Secret Cave and the Strange Fanglomerate, of Ginseng Ravine.

It becomes time to define terms:

1. Ginseng Ravine heads up in the Valley Springs rhyolite ash beds and Mehrten andesitic lahars capping Moody Ridge, and around the perennial springs issuing from the top of the rhyolite ash, grow clumps of the California Ginseng, Aralia californica if I recall, in the Ginseng Family but not itself "ginseng." It does have knotted gnarled roots, which send up brash and ill-smelling six-foot-tall stalks every spring, with large leaves and showy flower-clusters and fruits, in the season. The stalks die back each fall. Ginseng Ravine flows south to meet the North Fork just downstream from the Hotel Site and Joe Steiner's Tunnel (the old George Opel mine), near the center of Green Valley. Ginseng is about two miles long, or less. It is quite steep and has many waterfalls.

2. Fanglomerate. We call consolidated pebbly sediments "conglomerate," but when an alluvial fan somehow becomes consolidated, it is proper to call this sedimentary rock "fanglomerate." I used to call the Strange Fanglomerate, "agglomerate," to distinguish it from ordinary conglomerate, for this strange stuff in Ginseng Ravine is made of very angular, unrounded chunks or "clasts" of serpentine, whereas conglomerate has rounded pebbles and cobbles and boulders, etc. The clasts are supported in a fine-grained grey matrix of sandy sediments.

3. Green Valley. A Gold Rush mining camp on the North Fork, predating Dutch Flat, where two thousand people once lived, and mule trains from Illinoistown brought supplies. Noteworthy for a higher-than-usual incidence of Chinese miners, who were always prominent in the river canyons, anyway; but in Green Valley, they were not only prominent, but persistent, significant Chinese mining continuing down into the 20th century. Green Valley is walled off from the rest of the world by the cliffs of Giant Gap. It is a kind of Yosemite. The rock is mainly serpentine, of the Melones Fault Zone, but there is much glacial outwash. From the I-80 exit at Alta, Casa Loma and Moody Ridge roads are followed to a parking area, where the trail to the North Fork begins, three miles long, about, with over two thousand feet of elevation loss/gain--a strenuous hike.

Very well.

Despite many visits to Green Valley, Catherine had never seen the Secret Cave.

The top of Moody Ridge is about 4100', the North Fork, in Green Valley, 1800', and as I have mentioned, a grove of Ponderosa Pines marks a zone of sweet soil amid the half-poisoned country rock of this part of the canyon, serpentine; and this sweetness derives from glacial outwash sediments, which occasionally buried Green Valley during glacial maxima, over the past million years or two, and in particular, Green Valley seems to have been buried beneath outwash as recently as 12,000 years ago, in the so-called Tioga glaciation.

Although the upper edge of the Ponderosa grove hugs the 2200-foot contour, one does not actually see much outwash until down around 2000'. But one knows, if at all familiar with the response of our native plants to serpentine, that somehow, some way, the serpentine bedrock has been masked, the poison, neutralized; for the Ponderosa Pine, like the Kellogg's Black Oak, will rarely ever grow in serpentine.

Sun-blasted brush and a few Digger Pine line most of the trail. Then, one approaches the Outwash Grove; the tops of the tall pines are still below, but only just below; and at a certain point, a secret trail forks right, back into Ginseng Ravine, to the west, and tho at first it looks like a badly neglected squirrel path, almost immediately it grows into what can only be an old human trail.

I first followed this trail back around 1980 or so. It led to some very strange rock outcrops, serpentine, it seemed, but somehow all fractured and split apart into little chunks or big boulders, and then absolutely welded together. I had never seen the like, and, battering away at it a little here and there, I found it, if anything, tougher than it looked. And it looked plenty tough.

I climbed up on top of one such outcrop, and followed along higher, passing a spring which sprang directly from the frozen matrix of angular serpentine, and then, moving north, I reached a spacious terrace of this strange strange rock, and saw a one-pound coffee can, red with the rust of ages, buried in the ground, almost invisible.

A miner's cache of gold, no doubt! Those crafty, crusty old fellows, always worried someone would steal their poke! Ergo, bury it somewhere, hide it in a hollow oak, put it in a coffee can, and set it below ground level, and scatter rocks and leaves over it ... .

I cleared the debris away, and saw that the "coffee can" extended indefinitely deep into the solid rock; an impossibility, of course, but, there it was! What--the gold had fallen through? What kind of inept miner?! ...

I strode to the edge of the level cliff-top, said cliff facing directly into Ginseng Ravine. The strange fractured serpentine-mass fell away sheer about twenty feet, and below, very steep slopes plunged towards waterfalls and cascades, dimly seen through a curtain of Canyon Live Oak, Bay Laurel, and young Douglas Fir.

I found a way down around the end of the cliff, and circled back to a point below my "coffee can." And there was the Secret Cave, with various old junk lying about, including a ruined table, built with square nails, and then repaired with round nails; and I saw at once there had been two different times of occupation, neglecting possible Indian uses, and that the latter time of the two was likely the Depression. An old Prince Albert tobacco can was in the cave, containing buttons, and a fragment of a 19th-century saw blade, etc.

A trail led from the Secret Cave south a few yards to the very spring I had seen from above; and an old galvanized one-inch pipe was easily cleared of obstructions, and water flowed through the pipe again, clear and cold.

Western Azalea crowded the spring.

And the "coffee can"? It was, of course, a stove-pipe; the miner had managed to punch through the cave ceiling, following a natural crack in the Strange Fanglomerate, fully ten feet up to the surface of the terrace.

For, yes, the Secret Cave is *in* the Strange Fanglomerate. It is a west-facing cave, and a wild and beautiful place.

Catherine and I explored cave and spring, then dropped to the waterfalls below, where there are other impressive exposures of this same fanglomerate.

The fanglomerate, let us say, is 800 feet above the North Fork, or about 2600' in elevation. It has several distinct "strata" ten to twenty feet thick, all sloping south towards the North Fork; these several strata may be the signatures of several intense episodes of erosion, on the canyon walls above.

I suppose this fanglomerate is 750,000 years old and dates to the Sherwin Glaciation, to which date and glaciation I also assign the Hayden Hill Terrace, the highest glacial outwash terrace I know of in Green Valley, 600 feet above the river.

My reasoning is somewhat as follows.

In Sherwin times, a glacial outwash plain developed in Green Valley, its surface at the 1800+600 = 2400' contour, while the bedrock floor of the North Fork was then at 2200'. The various ravines on the canyon walls now discharged their sediments, not into the North Fork itself, most likely, but onto the outwash plain. Hence alluvial fans built up; we might also imagine that, during the Sherwin, temperatures were enough colder that frost-wedging and overall erosion of the canyon walls occurred at a much higher rate than at present; so that, like the other ravines, Ginseng Ravine carried more sediment than usual. And most of that "sediment" was angular chunks of serpentine: a constant rubble of angular serpentine slid down into Ginseng Ravine. And, so far as possible, the waters of Ginseng Ravine moved that mass of raw rocky angular seds down towards the outwash plain, at 2400'.

But there all gradient was lost and the rocky seds stopped, and backed up into Ginseng Ravine itself, above the outwash plain, forming a kind of narrow, ravine-walled alluvial fan, about two hundred feet thick and five hundred to a thousand feet long. The top of the alluvial fan pitched steeply down towards Green Valley.

There is an unknown (to me) cementing agent present in ground water in serpentine bedrock, and one of the mysteries of Green Valley is the cemented glacial outwash, seen mostly quite near the North Fork, and always directly in contact with serpentine bedrock.

Whatever this cementing agent is, it is tremendously strong. These cemented outwash seds are true conglomerates, even though some may be quite young, less than 20,000 years old, say.

OK. Clearly the fanglomerate was cemented by the same mystery mineral. Perhaps it is a type of iron arising in a chemically "reducing" (oxygen-starved) environment. It does not turn red, tho, when exposed to air for any length of time, up to thousands of years. So I wonder whether the cementing agent could really be any type of iron.

At any rate. My model is: the Green Valley outwash plain stood at 2400' elevation, 750,000 years ago, and the ravines delivered so much rocky serpentine debris to the outwash floodplain that it backed up into each ravine, forming a steeply-pitching alluvial "fan." The parts of each fan closest to the underlying bedrock, suffused with ground water for thousands of years, became cemented. But the other parts--the "core" of the fan, let's say, and its uppermost layers--were not cemented, so, after the Sherwin ended, and temperatures moderated, and not so much serpentine was being frozen off the slopes above, the waters of Ginseng Ravine cut the unconsolidated, uncemented part of the alluvial fan away, and left the cemented part.

And to this very day the weakling waters of Ginseng Ravine have not succeeded in cutting all the way through the fanglomerate, down to the pre-Sherwin bedrock floor of the ravine.

It is certainly possible that these fanglomerates, found in every ravine in Green Valley, date from one of the younger glaciations, Tahoe I, say, 130,000 years ago, or even Tahoe II, 65,000 years ago; we have no age control whatsoever on these fanglomerates, except, perhaps, some educated guesswork.

For instance, one of the strongest arguments that the Strange Fanglomerate is *not* Sherwin in age, and *must* be younger, is that the cemented fanglomerate filled the pre-existing bed of Ginseng Ravine. What fanglomerate remains in the creekbed is not thick, not deep; the bedrock is only inches or feet below. In fact, parenthetically, the extreme toughness of the mysterious cementing agent is betokened by the fact that, at the creek itself, the fanglomerate has been planed down smooth, each individual clast of angular serpentine reduced to make one, common, smooth, nearly plane surface. This could only occur if the fanglomerate was very well cemented.

But my main point here is that the existing creekbed is almost coincident with the pre-fanglomerate bedrock floor of Ginseng Ravine; another few thousand years ought to finish the job of cutting through the fanglomerate altogether.

So. Think about Ginseng Ravine *before* the alluvial fan was emplaced. It had incised slowly into the canyon wall. At some instant in time, a portion of the floor of the ravine was buried under alluvium. Suppose that instant was exactly 750,000 years ago. Then, whatever else we might know about the rate of incision of Ginseng Ravine into the canyon wall, we can say, "Ginseng Ravine cut this deep, right here, 750,000 years ago," and we would be pointing to where Catherine and I stood the other day, beside waterfalls flowing over polished fanglomerate, staring at other smaller waterfalls spilling over cliffs of fanglomerate across the way, on the east wall of the ravine.

So. Since this special spot, the base of the fanglomerate, coincides with the *present* floor of Ginseng Ravine, we are left concluding that not much incision can have occurred since the fanglomerate was emplaced.

Yet the longer the time, the more the incision.

Hence we must lean towards less time, not more, a younger fanglomerate, not an older.

Yet--yet--the fanglomerate must have armored the floor of Ginseng Ravine in millennia past, just as it armors it still, today, and that may have slowed apparent incision: Ginseng had to expend its energies cutting through the fanglomerate, before any true deepening of the ravine could proceed.

Do you see what I mean? There are conflicting impulses, it seems; on the one hand, we wish to think that not much time could have passed, because the base of the fanglomerate is close to the pre-fanglomerate bedrock floor of the ravine; on the other hand, we wish to think much time may have passed, for the fanglomerate armored the creek, and retarded incision.

One always also wishes to make the fanglomerate old, on account of its remarkable toughness; but this is a false trail; it is just amazingly well-cemented for an essentially young rock. The cemented outwash down at river level is much the same: bizarrely tough and resistant to erosion, yet quite young.

So, I cannot really say that the Strange Fanglomerate is Sherwin in age, or Tahoe I, or Tahoe II; it is about certain it cannot be Tioga in age, but we are left having to say, greater than fifty thousand years old, less than a million. Not very good!

As described in previous emails of years past, this serpentine fanglomerate is not only found in all the major ravines in Green Valley, but also in the Bear River canyon, to the north; so I suspect, extrapolating, we may have half a dozen or more major canyons here in the Sierra, which will be found to contain vestiges of this special cemented fanglomerate. For many canyons cut the Melones serpentine.

I call the fanglomerate strange; in the fullness of time, I might see that it is ordinary.

Catherine and I found a different old trail leading up and out of Ginseng and back to the main Green Valley Trail, which we immediately left and wandered out into heavy manzanita to the east, following an old trail-bed, from a century or more past, which switches back and forth on an easier grade than the present trail, and starts to aim towards the Hotel, more directly; but then we lost the darn thing, and while scouting widely back and forth, unsuccessfully, continued down to the High Ditch, which spans Green Valley from east to west at about 2000 feet in elevation.

We explored east along this fine old mining ditch until we reached surprisingly full and boisterous Moonshine Ravine, and then it was time to turn tail and run for cover, I mean, I had to pick up my daughter from her school bus; so, quickly, under increasingly cloudy skies, we slogged on up and up and out, reaching the top just before a light rain set in.

Another great day in the great canyon. Thank you, Catherine, for saving me from my chores.

Wednesday, March 8, 2006

Paleovalleys and Ignimbrites

English is an Indo-European language, as are two "dead" languages, Latin, and the still older Sanskrit. From the Sanskrit "Agni," (god of the hearth, and mediator between gods and men) we move to the Latin "ignis," fire, from which we get our English "ignite," and also that vastly rarer word, "ignimbrite," meaning "fire rock" or welded tuff; and "tuff" (not tufa) is volcanic ash.

Rhyolitic volcanoes tend to have explosive eruptions in which a "glowing avalanche" of incandescently hot lava particles will spread out, perhaps flowing down a valley, and just so soon as that glowing avalanche stops, it freezes into solid rock. It is a cataclysmic event and will kill everything in its path.

There are basaltic tuffs, andesitic tuffs, and rhyolitic tuffs. In this part of the Sierra we have an abundance of rhyolite tuffs. Some are welded tuffs, some were air-borne ashfalls which did not weld, and were either immediately or subsequently remobilized by water; for a long time we have called all these rhyolite tuffs, the Valley Springs Formation, yet they are clearly composed of several to many different tuffs, spanning millions of years of time, beginning, say, in the Oligocene of ~30 m.y.b.p. (million years before the present) to the Miocene of ~20 m.y.b.p.

Hence we ought to split the Valley Springs into smaller, individual formations.

Strangely, although so close to major population centers and hence, to universities with geology departments, the Valley Springs Formation has not been exhaustively studied. Only now are some of its secrets being unlocked; similarly, only now is the much more recent (<3 m.y.b.p.) glacial era coming into focus; and there is so much remaining to discover here in the Sierra, on so many fronts.

It is a good time, a great time, to be a geologist in the Sierra Nevada. When one visits the web pages of these various professors and graduate students, and, sometimes, undergraduates, one sees they must live Indiana-Jones-like lives of high adventure, in lands of danger and mystery; for, hark, there they go, to the wilds of the Tien Shan mountains in northern Tibet, and they study some violent fault zone of critical import, in forming a model of Himalayan geology.

And then, in the summer, say, they come back to the Sierra and examine ignimbrites, in a certain paleovalley which seems to have run from near today's Honey Lake in the north, down past Soda Springs at I-80, and then crossing the upper North Fork to French Meadows reservoir on the Middle North American; thence joining the main Tertiary South Yuba near Michigan Bluff, and on past Yankee Jims and Iowa Hill to Gold Run and points north.

Since it is a paleovalley, predating our modern canyons, its originally continuous course has been broken not only by erosion (i.e., cut by our modern canyons), but by block-faulting: this paleovalley crosses the main Sierra Nevada fault, at a very shallow angle, just north of Castle Peak. To the west of this fault is the upthrown block: the Sierra. To the east is the downthrown block: Lake Tahoe, the Martis Valley, Highway 89 north of Truckee.

The main Sierra Nevada fault is really a stepped series of roughly parallel faults, all along the east side of the Sierra Crest, from south of Mount Whitney, north to about Yuba Pass. A little farther north, and we leave the Sierra for the southernmost of the Cascades volcanoes, Mt. Lassen. The thickness and extent of the "young volcanics" (of which these rhyolite tuffs form a part) is much greater here, in the northernmost part of the Sierra, and the volcanics often obscure bedrock and faults alike.

Back to the paleovalley. Around 1900, the USGS's Waldemar Lindgren mapped it as originating near Castle Peak; the idea that it may originate near Honey Lake (at Diamond Peak) results from field work by accomplished geologists and petrologists including student Dylan Rood, professor Cathy Busby of UC Santa Barbara, and David Wagner, a State geologist.

I should say that the idea of our Sierran paleovalleys having their headwaters east of the Sierra crest, in modern Nevada, is not new at all, but has yet to be widely demonstrated. The ~16 m.y.b.p. Lovejoy Basalt of the Northern Sierra, also presents the case of a paleovalley extending east into Nevada.

But in this particular "Diamond Peak" paleovalley, a little west of Honey Lake, they find five distinct ignimbrites, composed of nine cooling units. They correlate units 1, 4, and 7 of the Soda Springs paleovalley, with units 3, 4, and 5 of the Diamond Peak paleovalley.

Around ten years ago, I accompanied paleontologist Howard Schorn and geologist Dave Lawler to a site in the Soda Springs paleovalley, where we recovered some finely-detailed plant fossils from the river gravels beneath the ignimbrites. But the stratigraphic relations were not exposed there, in fact, we were finding the fossils in an anonymous creeklet threading through glacial till.

These ignimbrites are broadly similar to the famous Bishop Tuff of the Owens Valley, 35 cubic miles of welded rhyolite ash which erupted in an instant from the Long Valley caldera a mere 750,000 years ago; so our local tuffs are much older.

Rood et. al. remark that the lower three ignimbrites were confined to the paleovalley, while the fourth overflowed here and there, and the fifth and uppermost ignimbrite, the youngest, spread more widely still, scarcely at all confined by the paleovalley.

The sources of these tuff-beds seem all to be to the east, in Nevada, some rhyolitic calderas having been found in the central part of the state, of the same ages. At that time the Sierra had not been uplifted, and the source region of the calderas was higher in elevation than here, so the glowing-hot fiery avalanches of rhyolite ash traveled long distances, down the paleovalleys.

One of these five ignimbrites of the nine discrete cooling units is David S. Harwood's "pink welded tuff," dated to 22 m.y.b.p., as discussed in his USGS geological map of the Duncan Peak and Cisco Grove quadrangles. Generally speaking, rhyolite tuffs are light in color, white, cream, buff, tan, grey. This "pink welded tuff" is well-exposed in the vicinity of Palisade Lake, just west of Soda Springs. The westward continuation of Pahatsi Road, in the Serene Lakes subdivision, to Cascade Lakes, crosses the glaciated surface of this ignimbrite for about a half-mile, atop the South Yuba-North Fork American divide. Huge granite erratics are scattered everywhere, and one can drive right by thinking that the flat glaciated "bedrock" is granite, too; but it is a welded tuff, and it is Superjacent Series all the way, not Subjacent Series, like our granites.

At Palisade Lake this ignimbrite is seen, in cross-section, to have a massive vertical columnar structure; hence, I think, the name of the lake and of Palisade Creek, a south-flowing tributary of the North Fork. Which of Rood et. al.'s nine cooling units Harwood's "pink welded tuff" is, I cannot say.

These ignimbrites, these welded tuffs, are commonest near the Sierra crest, and are not found much if at all as far west as Dutch Flat. Here, the equivalent tuff-beds are sometimes well-consolidated and seem rather welded, but more typically, they are clearly water-deposited, and have sometimes weathered into a grey clay. The Dutch Flat store is built from the possibly-welded rhyolite tuff of this area. No, here in the lower elevations, so far away from the source calderas, our tuffs tend to be weak, so weak as to almost never be exposed at the surface, as outcrops; near the head of the Green Valley Trail is one small exposure, and there are others around Lake Alta, and west, at Chalk Bluffs.

Well, at any rate, I am delighted that new work is being done on our "young volcanics." This same team, Rood et. al., look to be involved in studying the next-younger members of the Superjacent Series, the andesitic lahars and all their variants, down in the Carson Pass area. With modern radiometric dating tools, we should gain a much more sophisticated portrait of our late-Tertiary volcanism.

Birds and Storms

A series of storms has swept across the Sierra, some warm, some cold, and here at 4000', there has been the most annoying alternation between rain and snow.

Currently, I have six to eighteen inches of very wet snow on the ground. For a day the temperature has been thirty-five degrees, an inch of rain has dropped, and the snowpack is a sopping, soggy mass.

It is interesting to observe the birds coping with this. I was building a five-foot-high snow tetrahedron up in the Meadow the other day, and heard that strange warbling chorus of the flocking Sandhill Crane. Clouds swirled over most all the sky, with tiny patches of deep blue here and there. Suddenly the noisy cranes came into view, between tall pines, as I saw them, but a few hundred feet above, actually; they formed ragged V's and I estimated the flock at two hundred birds.

The strange thing was, they were heading northeast, as though crossing the Sierra into Nevada; which is likely enough, I am no expert on cranes, but I have seen these tall birds hunt, in their hopping fashion, in the marshes around Fly Geyser Hot Springs, up in the Black Rock Desert.

To fly northeast on this day! With violent snow showers assaulting the crest! What brave and noble birds! Where is the Plutarch, to record their extraordinary lives!

Then, this morning, under a sullen blanket of fog spewing rain and sleet and rain and sleet, a sudden heavy shower drove some perky-crested Stellar Jays into the shelter of a Canyon Live Oak, a gnarled mass of twisted branches and dense evergreen foliage, clinging to a cliff; several jays made the same abrupt move, into the live oak, and while the sleet pounded down and bounced off the soggy snow, the jays moved stealthily lower into the volume of the foliage. More and more and more leaves acted as tiny shingles above them, and they could pick and choose the dry zones.

In June, when the young of the Stellar Jay emerge from the nest in adult plumage, they exhibit a behavior I have seen in other bird species, and which is likely some deeply-rooted and primeval mechanism. The juveniles will wait, on some pine branch, say, for their parents to bring them food, tasty morsels of many kinds, I think; and as the parents wing into view, the juveniles slightly spead their wings, and beat them rapidly, and squawk excitedly, saying "Here I am--feed me! feed me! feed me!"

I took some corn chip crumbs out to the cement steps, and scattered them over steps and snow alike, and waited inside. Soon a crowd of jays discovered the treasure. I was intrigued to see one jay holding its wings a little akimbo and beating them rapidly. It was the juvenile "feed me" behavior, yet this bird was an adult, a near-yearling at the least.

There did not seem to be much aggression or competition between the half-dozen jays on the steps. But crumbs were plenty.

I saw that the jays preferred the steps to the snow; I suspect they fear exposing their deep blue bodies against white snow to the sharp eyes of some hawk. The darker background of wet cement would guard them from the hawk's keen eyes.