Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Tripping Up the HOUT

Tuesday morning dawned clear and cold, with icicles here at 4000', and it seemed a mite early to be rushing off to meet Catherine O., lo and behold before my second cup of coffee; but I so rushed, and soon enough we reached the Canyon Creek Trail, in Potato Ravine, near Gold Run.

Word had reached us that a new bridge was built at the old crossing, and we were eager to see, eager to cross into that wonderland of gorges within gorges, waterfalls every which way, 2000-foot cliffs, and so on. Did I mention flowers? Many, very many; but for all that, a retarded, light-starved biota, dressed like February tho it's getting late in April.

Why, we saw a poor starved bat winging around at noon, hoping against hope for an insect, after six long weeks of storm.

Give us a week or three of hot weather, and there will be an explosion of flowers like this world has rarely seen.

Right here in River City. I mean, the American River Canyon.

We saw Houndstongue, Mosquito Bills, Blue Dicks by the thousand, by a thousand thousands, Tufted Poppies, some few Brewer's Monkeyflower, Blue Bush Lupine, Brewer's Rock Cress, much in the way of yellow Biscuit Root, False Rue Anemone, Canyon Nemophila, Bride's Bower, Brown Bells, and more.

Canyon Creek was raging high and fast, thundering along in a menace of surging white water, and the bridge had already, only days old, been glancingly kissed by the high waters of two days past. Kissed, and left in peace. It was wet with spray and we crossed without incident. A fine bridge, tho endowed with a hazardous central crack, a problem with the blocking, as I see it.

The creek thundered along under blue skies and rapidly warming temperatures, so soon, layers were shed, and I went bare-chested down the sunny trail, admiring the many waterfalls.

The first big waterfall, a few hundred yards below the bridge site, a fifty-footer, maybe, will show four separate channels when the creek is high enough; it was barely that high today, quite a rare sight.

All the creek was thundering, yes, but the waterfalls were thunder upon thunder, with big bombs thrown in for good measure, and thrown constantly, so that there was a stuttering thudding which shook the very earth, as massive concussions of water slammed into solid metavolcanic rock of the late-Paleozoic Calaveras Complex. These deeply-seated thuds punctuated the constant thunder upon thunder. Then too the cliffs beside the trail will throw the sound back upon you, so there seem to be waterfalls on all sides.

We picked our way down the Rockslide, still hazardous, especially to anyone below, say, at the Big Waterfall, which is where we went next, abjuring the trail for the open moss-bound clifflets and terraces, all threaded with game trails. The rapid descent of a few hundred feet brought us near the base of the falls, which were of course spectacular in might and majesty, with so much water, but still tombed in shadow. In minutes, or half an hour, rainbows would glow in the billowing spray.

But we aimed for the HOUT, and the deeper and the farther east, the better. So we left the spray-drenched area near the falls and dropped to the Terraces and Lower Terraces Trail to return to the main trail, and the secret entrance to the HOUT.

The High Old Upriver Trail is a thread of a thing. It was hacked into the canyon wall about 1900, along the line of survey for a proposed Giant Gap Canal, diverting the waters of the North Fork to Crystal Springs Reservoir, and San Francisco. All this is explained in a treatise published at that time, found today in the State Library at Sacramento; a treatise, then, by the projectors of this Giant Gap Canal, and addressed to the Supervisors of the City of San Francisco.

The treatise stated that the projectors had already "broken grade" from Green Valley on the east, to Auburn on the west. The Canal was surveyed in with a slope of ten feet per mile, very flat. A fall of one inch in five hundred and twenty inches is scant indeed.

On Lower Terraces Trail I found myself alone. Catherine had discovered some flowers, and had whipped out her camera, and the Whole World came to a halt while she was at such work. So I stood and waited.

It occurred to me that right there, right exactly where I stood, was the projection of the line of the HOUT, towards the Terraces and Canyon Creek. I had never seen evidence of any continuation, west of Canyon Creek. Gazing up the HOUT, and then down, I saw that I stood somewhat higher than I had ever stood before, in years past, when I would strain to see some plausible figment of a trail, across Canyon Creek.

I scanned the correspondingly higher, then, region of the steep canyon wall across the thundering torrent, hidden in a waterfall-infested chasm right below the Terraces.

To my amazement, I saw something. A level line, great for squirrels and mice and lizards, but arrow-straight, level as a lake. It could not be! But, it was.

Eventually, Catherine appeared. We were almost immediately on the HOUT proper, making good time eastward. At a certain projecting point of rock we halted for a snack and I wandered a few yards west, gaining a view across Canyon Creek to the steep walls of Diving Board Ridge. A confusion of cliffs and moss and Canyon Live Oaks littered the steeps. And there! A level line--and a second, at the same level--and now a third--totaling a hundred yards or two. I hurried back for my too-powerful binoculars, sat myself down and rested elbows on knees, and slowly gained control and brought the area into good focus.

A dry-laid stone wall supported a portion of the central level-line.

It was the HOUT, and west of Canyon Creek!

I hurried back to Catherine and relayed the exciting news, and had her look and verify that, yes, it was a dry-laid stone wall.

So that was interesting.

Continuing east, we saw many threads of waterfalls in the shallow ravines scarring the cliffs across the North Fork, making a spectacular show; in some places the little falls were a hundred feet high. I have seen these falls set up strongly during or right after big rain storms, but on a dry and warm and sunny day like today, they seemed exotic, and were.

The North Fork was a monstrous torrent, a heaving, lacy torrent of emerald and snow, full bank-to-bank, almost too bright to look at under the brash and blazing sun, and the "banks" being sculptured bedrock.

In quite a few places, trees had fallen across the trail during the severe storms this winter. We cleared those we could. But the others? Perhaps the already knotty problem of hiking the HOUT should become thorny as well, by permitting all manner of obstacles to intervene, and force one through hoops and into hops.

We finally made the climb around the base of Big West Spur, the Pinnacles rising high above us, across the gorge, and the Pinnacles Waterfall, call her Athena, breaking into existence with a roar of her own, fully formed, from the base of a vast talus field.

The Big West Spur flares into huge almost blade-like sub-spurs which plunge many hundreds of feet into the heart of Giant Gap. So the trail winds in and out around these sharp buttresses. In the ravines, the view becomes intimate, a dizzy plunge of three hundred feet or more into some maelstrom of white water, and then across the way, some one of the many little waterfalls which inhabit the gorge.

But on the blades, the buttresses, the view widens and one suddenly sees for miles.

The last blade is climbed and crossed in a tight and tiny arc and then the trail takes a plunge into an elfin forest of dwarf Canyon Live Oak, clinging to the cliffs in a welter of moss and ferns. Soon a point is reached where a few steps brings one to the edge of a nearly sheer three-hundred-foot drop to the river, and an outstanding view of Lovers Leap, rising maybe 2400 feet from the river, and Lovers Leap Ravine, my name for the ravine heading up on the Moody Ridge uplands, in a broad crease between the island of pre-volcanic, Eocene-age bedrock land surface exposed atop Lovers Leap Spur, and the Miocene andesitic lahars to the west, of the Mehrten Formation. There are many slow springs around the head of this ravine, just west of Lovers Leap itself.

But in a year like this year, on a day like today, when snow still mantles the uplands beside the canyon, and the springs are flowing like seldom before, Lovers Leap Ravine made a spectacular series of waterfalls on its descent to the North Fork, one of the falls being about three hundred feet vertical, I'd say. Quite a display. This is indeed our Yosemite.

We lingered long at this overlook, but deepening shadows and a sudden chill in the strengthening breeze awoke us to the need to start back to the Unreal World, which others call the Real World.

So off we went, and wound our tortuous way west on the good old HOUT, and I talked about the song, A Felicidade, from the movie, Black Orpheus, and Catherine herself proposed to make a movie about food. At last we were at the car and soon enough, on I-80.

A great great rarely fine day in the great canyon.

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