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.

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