Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Birds and More Birds

Often over recent weeks I have wandered the woods near my home, tending to my various paths and trails, and watching the progress of the bloom. The Old Railroad Grade(s) up on top of Moody Ridge have proved an interesting challenge; I have mapped a few of them, but they have been so often cut by more recent logging roads, that it begins to take a healthy dose of imagination to see them at all. Ah, the old railroad grades.

But atop the ridge: In that crowded umpteenth-growth coniferous forest, often dominated by White Fir and Incense Cedar, there is quite an abundance of Rattlesnake Orchids, not in bloom yet, and not much to write home about when they are in bloom; but their patterned dark-green leaves, veined in cream, are spectacular.

There are some amazing ecotones in this area, dramatic contrasts in microclimate, soils, and therefore, vegetation and all that depends upon vegetation.

For instance, the uplands atop Moody Ridge, mostly a remnant of the once universal andesitic mudflow plateau which preceded incision of our canyons, these uplands receive sixty inches of rain per year, have deep soils, and support heavy coniferous forest.

But so soon as one drops onto the south-facing canyon wall, overlooking Green Valley, the forest becomes a mixture of Kellogg's Black Oak and Ponderosa Pine, with a scattering of Douglas Fir, especially as an understory, and also more riparian species like California Ginseng, White Alder, Maple, Dogwood, etc., around springs and seeps.

For, the volcanic strata capping the ridge are horizontal, some layers being quite permeable, others not, and that sixty inches of rain soaks down to impermeable layers and then slowly finds its way to the sides, emerging as springs, or maybe just wetting a generalized area, so that of a sudden there are many more maples and dogwoods than is usual.

I attribute the change from near-pure coniferous forest, into oak-pine woodland, as a function of fire. Over the long term, fires will burn hotter and more destructively on these steep slopes, than in the uplands. These fires have delicately groomed and managed the forest for thousands of years. If all fires were suppressed, this same mixed oak and pine woodland would become a Douglas Fir forest; which it is trying to do, right now. The Douglas Fir which sprouted after the last fire (ca. 1955) are now thirty to fifty feet tall, and more. They will shade out the oaks and pines, given a few centuries without fire.

The Black Oak-Ponderosa Pine woodland of the uppermost canyon walls ends at a razor-sharp boundary at the roughly horizontal contact between the young volcanics, above, and the ancient bedrock, below. This bedrock is serpentine of the Melones Fault Zone. Many plants cannot tolerate serpentine; Black Oak and Ponderosa Pines are good examples. From miles away one can see this abrupt shift in vegetation. Below, in the serpentine, is all manner of brush, and quite a lot in the way of Canyon Live Oak and Bay Laurel (tho somewhat stunted).

Now I have reached my birds.

It happens that every year, Black-Headed Grosbeaks arrives here in the Black Oak woodland, at the exact time these deciduous oaks break their buds and unfold their new leaves. These grosbeaks sing their hearts out for weeks on end, in a sweet fluty warbling which reminds me strongly of the Robin.

The grosbeaks begin singing at first light, more than an hour before dawn. That is when I usually rise and have my first cup of coffee, now as in 1976, when I first became aware of this species; I camped for months, right here in the oak woods, then.

Ah, the Black-Headed Grosbeak; the grosbeak, and young love!

Love! Love, *and* the Grosbeak, you say?

Oh yes. It is quite a sad story; I rescued a baby Grosbeak, fallen unfledged from its nest, and took it across Moody Ridge to the Sons of Norway camp, to My Beloved--to be saved, to be nurtured, and at last to be given freedom, once its wings were feathered. This one little bird, shivering, alone, would be the Symbol of My Beloved!

Of course, it died. Actually, one of her other boyfriends thought it was ready to fly; and who could have foreseen, that the cat was waiting? Thus may bright dreams fall into confusion, and amid the general chaos, a young bird dies.

Ah well, that was then, this is now.

The Grosbeaks arrive, and fill the forest with song, at first, all day long, and then, after a couple weeks, as they sit their nests, they quiet somewhat, and only the few hours near dawn and sunset are blessed by their incredibly sweet voices.

That is about how it is right now, at 4000 feet elevation, on a south-facing slope, in the northern Sierra.

I rarely see their nests, and assume them to be high in the Black Oaks, and hidden from human sight; later in the summer I will suddenly notice a twiggy nest here or there, and never be quite sure whose it was.

The other day, returning from the Railroad Trail, I was lopping a pesky little Canyon Live Oak beside a monstrous old Ponderosa. The little live oak was encroaching upon my trail. One side branch fell away under my attack, and then I saw the nest, at waist height, in the dense spiny foliage typical of the young Canyon Live Oak.

I was about to call my friend over, but then to my amazement I (finally!) saw that a bird was sitting her eggs, a streaky plump Grosbeak female. I walked quickly away.

This surprised me. These birds seem so closely tied to the Black Oaks, I never considered they might nest elsewhere.

A day later, I found a second Grosbeak nest directly above the same trail, eight feet above the ground, also in Canyon Live Oak, and also admitting a view directly into the nest (from the hillside above).

It begins to look as tho these Grosbeaks often nest near the ground.

This morning, watching a raft of clouds slowly light up from beneath while the sun broke free from yet other clouds to the east, I heard what I took to be an especially bold series of yelps from a Red-Shafted Flicker. From the Flicker's red feathers the Indians of Central California were wont to make headdresses, for their dances, which would trail to the ground itself, the feathers sewn crosswise into long bands.

A dark crow-sized bird alighted on an oak outside my window, and so soon as I saw its red crest I knew I had a Pileated Woodpecker at hand. I grabbed my camera and stepped cautiously to the door, just as the Pileated made a swoop to another larger oak, nearby. One picture, two, three, none good. The bird flew west and out of view and I hurried in that direction, collaring my daughter en route and whispering urgently of strange woodpeckers in the woods.

These big woodpeckers are not all that rare, but it had been ten years since I'd seen one. They chop out huge holes in rotten tree trunks and branches, with loud hammering sounds which can be heard from quite a distance. We scanned a grove of tall Ponderosa and Douglas Fir: a squirrel, but nothing else.

Then the chopping began.

It was so loud, I expected to spot the thing immediately; but it took a minute to locate him, high in a Black Oak, digging deeply into a dead branch. I took ten photographs and not one came out well.

Googling "Pileated Woodpeacker" + "Placer County" I turned up this interesting missive, apparently from the (birding magazine) the Condor, in 1919. It had been badly OCR'd and I took time to correct many errors, but likely missed some. I am not sure whether to count the "large mountain lake" mentioned as one of the Loch Levens, or Fordyce.

THE Northern Pileated Woodpecker, while not rare, is such a wary bird that its nesting habits in California are but little known. In a search through our various publications dealing with such subjects we fail to find a record of the taking of a single set of eggs of this species in the State. It seems probable that there are fewer California taken eggs of this bird in collections than even eggs of the California Condor. Barlow (CONDOR, III, 1901, p. 163) records a nest with young birds at Fyffe on June 13, 1897. Sheldon (CONDOR, XX, 1907, p. 188) records a nest with young near Big Meadows, Plumas County. The date is not given but it is assumed to be early in July. This paper embraces a partial account of our joint studies of this species over a period of five years (1914 to 1918), and the final culmination of our efforts in the taking of two sets of the eggs. The region worked lies near Cisco, Placer County, California, and it seems probable that the same pair of birds was observed during the five-year period. While working among the dead and dying trees at the upper end of a large mountain lake in June of 1914 the loud cackle of this unique bird was frequently heard. The type of country appeared to be suitable for the residence of the bird and it was then determined to pay especial attention to this species when next we should visit the lake, it then being too late in the season for eggs. Some time was spent in watching the birds feed, as they tore and pried off large slabs of dead bark in their search for various grubs and insects.

In 1915 we reached Cisco early in June and at first opportunity searched for our birds. A hard climb took us to the top of the dividing ridge and a swift descent, to the shores of the lake. One of the first birds seen was the Pileated Woodpecker as it flew from a tree standing in deep water to the thick woods across the lake. We passed near this tree and hid in some brush near by to await the appearance of the bird. It shortly returned and made straight for the tree, alighting on the opposite side from that facing us. We watched several minutes and as the bird did not appear we approached nearer the tree and were chagrined to discover a large hole about twenty feet up, in plain view and on the side of the tree which had first been exposed to us. We clapped our hands and immediately the bird appeared at the hole and flew cackling away. The tree stood about fifteen feet from the shore of the lake and in about five feet of water. At its base the diameter was about eighteen inches, at the nest entrance about ten. The tree was a live aspen. The base was exceedingly slippery and altogether the examination of the nest presented difficulties. Floating near the shore was a long dead trunk with a projecting limb which we decided to use as a raft to approach the tree. We each made an attempt to reach the tree but on both trials the raft turned over and we each got an icy bath. Inasmuch as the hills were covered with snow and the temperature on that day was low we were not particularly pleased with the ducking. We decided the tree raft would not serve and accordingly we made a fast trip back to headquarters, covering the distance in less time than that taken in coming out.

We soon returned with some planks and a lot of spikes with which we made a good raft and succeeded in reaching the nest tree. By driving spikes in the trunk Wells reached the nest and drew out a small young fledgling. The appearance of this object, resembling a skinned Chipmunk instead of a large white egg, certainly disappointed us. The nest cavity was eighteen inches deep and six inches in diameter, while the entrance was three inches in width. The entire excavation had been made in live wood although there were plenty of large dead trees near by. After leaving the nest we watched the old birds, both of which came to the tree and were quite tame as they fed the young, which, by the way, were three in number. The old birds reminded us a great deal of a pair of Flickers in their general movements and manner.

Determining to obtain a set of eggs the following spring, a visit was made on May 19, 1916, to the same mountain lake. Conditions were found to be quite similar to those of the previous year, there being much snow on the ground. The arrival at the lake was made enjoyable by a view of the pair of Woodpeckers flying towards the woods from the same tree in which the nest was located the previous year. An examination of the old tree was made in double-quick time and resulted in finding a second hole located three feet higher up and on the opposite side of the tree. Although two weeks earlier this year than the last we were again doomed to disappointment, for the nest contained three newly hatched young and one unhatched egg. The young birds evidently remained in the nest for about thirty days as they were seen climbing about the trees on June 20. The following year (1917) the locality was visited on May 5 we being determined to get ahead of the birds this time. The season was more advanced than on the three previous years and but little snow was on the ground and the lake at this point had less than three feet of water in it. The Pileated Woodpeckers had abandoned the lake and were making their home in a tree located in the channel of a small stream which flowed into the lake and about three hundred yards from their former site. The nest was found to be about half completed. Visits were made to it on several occasions until May 26, but the birds were not seen again. Apparently they had moved out of the basin entirely, as they could not be located.

While spending the winter of 1917-1918 at Summit, Wells determined to make the most of his opportunities to study the Woodpeckers. Through several friends living at Cisco the birds were kept under observation throughout the winter. It was found that the birds seldom strayed as far as two or three miles from their lake and that only the one pair was in evidence. In 1918, the first attempt to locate the nest was made on May 2, by Wells in company with W. O. Flickinger. On nearing the lake several unfinished cavities were noted, so that the date for eggs seemed about right. There was but little snow on the ground and practically no water in the lake. A search was then made through the aspen grove which in former years had stood in its entirety in from two to seven or eight feet of water, with the result that Mr. Flickinger discovered a fresh hole forty feet up in a live aspen growing close to the lake shore. Enough chips lay at the base of the tree to indicate that the cavity must be nearly finished. The birds were not in evidence; so the nest was examined. It was found to be completed, but contained no eggs. Allowing ten days for the birds to lay a complete set, the nest was visited again on May 12, by Wells and Flickinger. We had great confidence that on this trip we would finally get a set of this prince of woodpecker. When we reached the tree a smart rap on the trunk brought the old bird to the entrance with an anxious expression on her face and we knew this time that we would soon have the eggs. She flew a short distance away and was soon joined by her mate. We hid in the brush and waited about thirty minutes, when the female returned and entered the nest. We thus felt positive that the nest contained a full set of eggs, and Wells accordingly strapped on his irons and climbed the tree. His exultant shout proclaimed that the eggs were there--a set of four fresh glossy eggs. The nest cavity was eighteen inches deep by about six in diameter, while the entrance was nearly four inches across. The nest was visited again on June 1 by both of us, and to our surprise we found that the birds had used the same cavity for a second set of eggs, four in number, which were three-quarters incubated. The short time intervening between the two sets shows that the birds did not lose any time after their first set was lost to them. The locality was again visited on June 30 and we found that the birds had finished another cavity about two hundred feet from the first tree and apparently the female was brooding a third set. We did not disturb the bird. and hope that she successfully raised her brood. Inasmuch as the lake contained no water at this point we made a careful search of the upper end of the basin with the result that twenty cavities in all were located in various trees in what is usually the lake or very close to its shores. Most of these cavities were in live aspens. Apparently this pair of birds has nested here for a great many years, for although we have carefully worked the surrounding country for miles in every direction we have never discovered other birds or their cavities. Inasmuch as the food supply is abundant, and hunters rarely visit the region, it is assumed that the species is simply an extremely rare one for this portion of the Sierra Nevada. The two sets of eggs are identical in shape, size, and other characters. They are small for the bird, being but little larger than eggs of the Red-shafted Flicker. In their glossy surface, pyriform shape and hardness of shell they are distinctively eggs of the Picidae. The average measurements of the four eggs are about 1.29x0.99 inches. Oakland, California, February 24, 1919.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Lilies and Thunderstorms

This morning warmed rapidly and I could no longer delay scouting the Foresthill Road, to find just exactly how close to New York Canyon one can drive, today, Wednesday, May 17, 2006. That is only to say, where is the snow?

There is a 500-foot waterfall in New York Canyon which has been running higher than I myself have ever seen it, for lo these last couple of months, but efforts to interest friends in a visit to the great falls came to nothing.

My son Greg had a minimum day at Colfax High, so I picked him up at noon and we drove by way of Auburn, to take advantage of the marvelously cheap $3.18 gas at Applegate.

It must have been 85 degrees as we left I-80 at the Foresthill exit and began the long drive northeast up the Divide. As we passed China Wall, where the road is closed during winter, snow began to appear in patches. However, it was still sparse and patchy at Mumford Bar Trail, and still fairly sparse at Beacroft Trail, but as we approached Ford Point, a snowfield blocked the road, and it took a bunch of determined runs in the Subie to finally crash through the darn thing. But we succeeded.

Around the corner and up the hill, a fallen Jeffrey pine blocked the road; the Subie's heroics went for naught.

Taking a wild guess, this fallen tree leaves one about two miles short of New York Canyon. The thing of it is, if one waits for the snow to melt, the falls diminish. One must contrive to reach the falls earlier in the spring, when there is still much snow in the ~6800' elevation upper basins of the two forks of New York Canyon.

We retreated to the Beacroft, where a solitary SUV was parked. Wise people, backpacking down in the great canyon this time of year! Talk about 'sweet'! The river is high and bold and frothing, the mosquitos are just coming out, flowers are everywhere, and the waterfalls sing mystic rounds of thunder upon thunder and rainbow upon rainbow.

We parked and walked north up to the pass in the Divide where the trail heads, but staying right (right, here, means east; the Beacroft itself blips west a little ways, before turning north into the canyon below), we followed a dim old road through the forest, a road likely built by Chinese in the early 1870s, a road which has seen the forest burn down around it and then return, so all the scars of its making are hidden. It leaves the pass and drops gently northeastward into the North Fork canyon.

This road can be hard to find. It first becomes perfectly clear about one hundred and fifty yards northeast from the Beacroft sign. One aims for the pass itself--unmistakable--but then veers right. A little floundering in dense White Fir timber with some few older giants, Sugar Pines and Jeffrey Pines, standing here and there, will discover the Chinese Road, and once on the thing, one passes a rocky little outcrop on the left, which BTW offers incredible views into the canyon.

This road gave access to one of the wooden flume sections of the historic Iowa Hill Canal. Where possible, the Canal was dug out of the slopes, a monstrous thing, sometimes eight feet across and six feet deep. But where cliffs fall away sheer, no ditch was possible, and a bench cut was blasted from the so-solid rock and a flume built.

Here, at only 5400' elevation, but on north-facing slopes, avalanches were enough of a problem that the expensive flume was anchored tightly to the cliffs, with iron pins and heavy wires and cables.

When we reached the Canal, we passed some large dry-laid stone abutments which I conceive to be loading docks for flume lumber (but why? If a level dock was needed, why not build it from wood, too?).

The instant we set foot on the Canal, we heard Tadpole Canyon, a mile ahead (and half a mile below!). I was not pleased. I hoped to cross the thing, so as to follow the Canal out of Tadpole and into the Big Brush, a vast fire-seared region of the canyon wall, beautifully visible from Big Valley Bluff, but knit so tightly that even bears fear to tread there. The poor things just heave a mighty sigh, and shudder, and turn away. The Big Brush.

No, I was not pleased. To hear Tadpole, so loud, so clear, and so distant, meant we would not, should not, could not cross. We must then be as bad as bears, and never even see the Big Brush.

But who cares, 'twas a lovely day, with bright white storms swelling into intricacy here and there, and the boom of thunder rocking the cliffs from time to time. The largest storm was right above Big Valley Bluff, a 3500-foot cliff across the North Fork from the Beacroft Pass.

The blasted bench cut of the Iowa Hill Canal winds around promontories offering incredible views. This is actually not only a historic mining canal, but an old Tahoe National Forest Trail, abandoned when TNF decided (or Congress decided for them) to cut timber and cut timber and cut timber and to hell with the trails, we live in the Atomic Age!

Unlike many historic trails, this Canal Trail was not ruined by logging; it was just abandoned.

A 1947 TNF map shows this old Canal Trail and shows also a fork, leading away towards the river, nearly three thousand feet below. But this fork is hidden within the Big Brush and I have yet to find it.

I will find it. Someday.

As we neared Tadpole, it sounded louder and louder, and suddenly snow was everywhere, above, below, and right on the Canal. Tadpole Canyon opens to the north and catches only a little sun from fall through winter into spring. Beside these melting snowbanks were only about *one million* Fawn Lilies, fairly low little things with a basal rosette of broad leaves, and flower stalks holding five or ten blossoms, white at the tips, yellow at the bases, each with six petals (or more likely, three petals, and three sepals which look like petals). At any rate, I take these to be Erythronium purpurascens, the purple-tinged species.

These very pretty flowers bloom within days after the snow melts. I saw them there last spring, too, but they were not so profuse. If I say, "a million lilies bloom in Tadpole Canyon," I am not exaggerating, far from it, I may rather impart the wrong opinion.

Better to be safe, to declare, "a billion lilies bloom." There. In Tadpole Canyon. Near the 5400-foot contour.

Now we could see the waterfalls and cascades, and for a moment I was encouraged, but then I saw the one easy crossing, a simple four-foot jump from rock to polished rock, right above a waterfall, so, you'd better not slip ... I saw the crossing, and could tell at a glance the creek was too high.

Nevertheless we lowered ourselves down a little clifflet from the Canal to the creek, and looked the crossing over quite carefully.

No go.

Just upstream, two main forks of Tadpole join. Divide and conquer, that's what I always say!

So Greg and I forged a way up the canyon, crushing lilies right and left, climbing up one cliff and down another. We returned down to creek level and lo!, a good jumping place was found. Then it only remained to traverse a steep slope infested with Huckleberry Oak, which we used like ropes to hold ourselves from falling down into the pounding cascades below, and swung along with some difficulty until we could reach the second fork, crossing it as well, and then make distance north, back to the Canal proper.

This all went more easily than I could have hoped, and soon we reached the Big Brush.

Astounding. To see the 200-foot waterfall near the base of Big Valley Canyon, and the 200-foot waterfall in Big Granite Canyon, below Cherry Point, and the waterfalls of Sugar Pine Point cliffs, and the waterfalls of Andrew Gray Creek, and to see the storms themselves blossoming ever higher above Big Valley Bluff.

"Good thing we have a south wind and that that storm's to the north," I mused, as we rested in the shade of a little White Fir on the Canal berm. Then I turned and looked south, and where the sky had been clear minutes before, dark clouds swelled in angry hordes.

"We had better start back, 'cause we're about to get rained on," I remarked, and Greg was all for this plan, as he needed to get home earlier rather than later.

And so soon as loppers were in hand and pack on back the rain began pattering down. But it was great, really great! First, it cooled us, it cooled the World itself.

Second, it made that tantalizing rain smell, probably as it struck the sun-warmed cliffs nearby. At any rate, the rain-smell was intense and we much enjoyed our hike in the warm rain.

Reaching Tadpole again, we decided to ford it this time, and save ourselves the trouble of swinging like monkeys from Huckleberry Oak branches. I proposed we take off socks but wear our shoes, which worked well, and with stout staves in hand we cautiously crossed the rushing little river. It was so very cold. So very, very cold. One step, two, five, ten, and we are across! Hurray!

Then the pain hit. I screamed a mighty scream of agony and nearly collapsed, as some kind of Prussian military saber was lanced though each leg and twisted cruelly. Or so it seemed. But I bit my scream off and began a rapid hobble up the talus slide to the Canal above. This helped distract me.

We rested for a bit, and then continued in light rain, back down the Canal to the Chinese Road, then up to the pass and back down to the car.

In thinking about the stone loading docks where the Chinese Road meets the Canal, it occurs to me that they would have built the floor of the flume first, and then driven their wagons right along it, like a road; perhaps my "loading docks" are simply the places where the transition was made, from road to flume, by the lumber wagons.

It was, oh, a very beautiful day in the great canyon.

Monday, May 15, 2006

West of Canyon Creek

This morning I at last returned to the North Fork canyon, south of Gold Run, to verify that, yes, the HOUT exists west of Canyon Creek.

The day dawned cool and cloudy and in an instant I suddenly felt compelled to hike, not just those mild little mile-or-two hikes on old railroad grades here on Moody Ridge, which I have enjoyed in the past week, but a real hike, meaning, a blissful tripping descent to the North Fork, followed by some form of torture climbing back up and out.

So at eight a.m. I began a mild rush, stuffing my pack with a quart of water, a camera, and a sandwich made of two slices of wheat bread and two slices of Swiss cheese. Inspired cuisine!

I drove to the Dutch Flat exit on I-80, dropped down past the Highway Patrol, and used my usual not-so-secret entrance to the Gold Run Diggings (i.e., drive around the gate). Some new "No Trespassing" signs had been nailed up nearby; but they did not affect traction, so my Subie easily crawled around the steep little sidehill, and I was on the Main Diggings Road.

Driving west and south, I was dreaming, not really paying attention, when a woman suddenly appeared on the road ahead, and seemed to wish to flag me down.

It was Martha Arashi, once proprietor of the gas station at the DF exit. I often have seen her husband, Mr. Arashi, a Japanese native who loves to hike in the Diggings with his many dogs. Mr. Arashi keeps quite a variety of dogs, large and small; when I see him in the Diggings, there is always this elaborate dance we perform, without any variation: Mr. Arashi waves wildly for me to stop, shouting incoherently, and pointing to his smallest dog.

The smallest dog, it seems, is extremely, perhaps unprecedentedly liable to being crushed beneath an automobile. None of the other dogs are at risk. But for this one dog, Mr. Arashi imperiously stops my car, and only when it is safely nestled in his aged arms, am I allowed to proceed.

Today was different only in that Mrs. Arashi warned me that Mr. Arashi was ahead, and would expect me to stop so he could rescue his tiny dog from the impending destruction.

Eventually I was past the both of them and their many dogs, and in a few minutes, parked at the Canyon Creek Trail and set out walking.

I wrote a month or so back that we would have some kind of wondrous explosion of wildflowers, when the storms finally stopped. I saw many flowers today, but no more than usual, and perhaps less than I should have seen, at this time of year. Up in Potato Ravine it was Pacific Dogwood, Sierra Plum, Wood Rose, California Hazelnut; but as I dropped from the Indiana Hill Ditch towards Canyon Creek, more flowers began to appear, lush sprays of Alum Root, many Larkspur, and others.

The real flower display was on down the trail and across the bridge; then Indian Pink, Common Madia, Wild Hyacinth, Wallflower, Kaweah River Scorpionweed, Yerba Santa, and Bush Monkeyflower, began to appear in force.

The Monkeyflowers are spectacular, one small bush holding a hundred blooms, and so extravagantly large and luscious that such a bush can be seen at a distance of a quarter-mile, tho only two feet in diameter. There is something exotic and orchid-like about their light salmon blossoms.

By nine in the morning I was at the Terraces, well down below the Big Waterfall; these camping terraces were made in the 1870s, about, for the miners who tended the huge sluice boxes lining Canyon Creek. The terraces are supported by very impressive dry-laid stone walls, made from slabs of metavolcanic rock, often weighing in the hundreds of pounds. Lush little lawns invite one to just take a nap or something. But I scanned the cliffs across Canyon Creek. From the Terraces, no sign of the HOUT can be seen. Not only that, the area is rife with waterfalls and the creek is walled with sheer cliffs, near the Terraces. There would be no easy transition onto the HOUT.

I used the old miners' trail from the Terraces down to the creek, which trail ends in some neat stone stairs, and found an easy crossing upstream. Canyon Creek has dropped considerably, most all the snow having melted in its upper basin. Picking my way across cliffs, I climbed slowly while also making distance south, trying to find a traverse across a very perilous section. I kept getting forced higher, and sweat streamed down my face and soaked my shirt.

Finally a chance offered to advance farther south, and soon enough I struck the HOUT. It showed signs of having climbed from down near the creek (I was two hundred feet above, at least), but that seemed an impossibility; still, I will check that part, someday. Today I simply followed the HOUT south and west.

It was interesting to see this century-old trail, actually the line of the Giant Gap Canal, never constructed but surveyed, and "grade broken." To the east of Canyon Creek, it had seen some human use, since 1901 or whatever, and someone had actually lopped the brush back in places, twenty or thirty years ago.

Here, there was no sign of any human use whatsoever. Bears, yes; humans, no. No lopped branches. But it was wonderful, quite easy going, and again and again I was pleased and even astounded by the fine views I had of Canyon Creek and the North Fork and Giant Gap. All of the trails were visible: the main CCT, the Big Waterfall Trail, Upper and Lower Terraces trails, and even the HOUT itself, well east, at various points, including Bogus Spur.

It was much of the same character as the usual HOUT, east of Canyon Creek: a narrow path, a foot or two wide, bolstered here and there by dry-laid stone walls, and with some signs of blasting, at rock outcrops.

There were some lovely violet native onion flowers at one fine cliff-etched patch of trail where I paused to rest and take photographs.

The North Fork was flowing high and fast and a little murky, betokening the rapidity of the snowmelt in this warm weather. I could look straight down to the confluence of Canyon Creek and the North Fork, and see the last waterfall from above.

I was near the base of Diving Board Ridge, and in just the area where I felt, from past and distant observations, that a route might be found to the summit. I saw what seemed surely an old human trail leading up and away from the HOUT, in the most favorably open region. But I advanced and turned the corner of the main eastern spur of the Diving Board.

Immediately, passing from east-facing slopes to south-facing slopes, I was met with a tangle of buckbrush and poison oak. I spent ten minutes lopping until the sweat must have been squirting from my pores--it felt that way--just to get past one bad buckbrush threaded with a million poison oak stems and a trillion lush poison oak leaves. Finally, I could step past the thing. But to no avail: another mass of buckbrush waited just beyond.

So. Stopped by buckbrush. It has happened before.

I wandered back along the HOUT, looking for but not seeing the human trail which had seemed so obvious on the way out. The clouds were thinning and real sunlight began to warm things up. I decided I had seen enough, and at a likely-looking spot, began the climb to the Diving Board.

Soon I struck what must have been the very human trail I had noted before, and followed it up on easy grades.

Of course there were any number of game trails in the area as well. In such circumstances, if the human trail switches back, one is liable to lose it altogether; for game trails often emanate from switchbacks, and one is fooled, and follows the game trail instead of taking the hard left or right which is required to hold the line of the human trail. One bush, too, is enough to hide the true trail.

So, what with one bush and another, I lost the thing, but had easy going up and over various rock thrones and outcrops, and struck the human trail again, higher; lost it again; and then struck that very human trail which is a continuation of the lumber slide coming down the crest of Diving Board, and therefore I was only a few yards from the summit, where I rested in the shade and ate half a horrible sandwich.

I stripped my sweat-soaked shirt off and scarcely bothered to whisk the mosquitos away. The orange biting "deer flies" began to pester me, tho, so I started the climb up and out, shirtless, wet and yet not shiny, for every bush seemed to attached cobwebs and leaves and debris of all kinds to my torso, and I became increasingly dotted with gritty little things. I meditated on these gritty things as I climbed: spider legs, to be sure, but mostly just some kind of dirt.

At the Indiana Hill Ditch I crossed into the Diggings through a little pass onto a secret trail, which is not so secret now, with "quad" tracks leading right to the pass itself.

Soon I was walking through the great big huge pit of the Gold Run Ditch and Mining Company, four hundred feet deep and half a mile across, from which who knows how many cubic yards of gravel were washed into the tunnels and sluice boxes, to thunder away into Canyon Creek, and more sluice boxes, and at last, the North Fork.

The sun was now fully out, and the Diggings seemed an amorphous glare of light and heat, so I kept my head down and walked steadily along, soon climbing back up into Potato Ravine Pass and my car. It was noon. A short but sweet trip into the great canyon had verified that, yes, grade had been broken on the Giant Gap Canal, west of Canyon Creek, and, moreover, there seemed to be an old human trail connecting this new part of the HOUT, to the Diving Board itself. The course of this supposed trail is not entirely clear, yet.

Such was a morning near Gold Run.

Monday, May 8, 2006

A Logging Railroad

Arriving on Moody Ridge in 1975, I walked a few yards past ancient Kellogg's Black Oaks, down the Green Valley Trail, to where a spring issued from a rusty old pipe into a wooden trough. The creamy rhyolite ash of the Valley Springs Formation was visible. Such springs are ubiquitous, found throughout the Northern Sierra, two or three hundred feet below the flat crests of the ridges dividing major canyons. When blessed by sun, there is always Indian stuff around these Druidic springs. I said as much, and in reply, my girlfriend reached down and picked up a perfect arrowhead of dark chert.

To the south, the brushy sun-baked serpentine of the Melones Fault Zone fell away 2000 feet to the North Fork American. In the hot flat light of a summer's midday, the canyon was uninspiring. But I returned in a few days, riding my Honda Dream, following Moody Ridge Road up to the flat andesite mudflow uplands atop the ridge, and spotted a broad bear trail beaten through dense manzanita. I parked and set out on foot. Dropping a couple hundred feet, I struck an old human trail in the oak woods, leading from one spring to another, with several Indian grinding rocks scattered around.

Scattered artifacts along this old trail suggested a more recent history of desultory mining and firewood and timber harvests, during the 19th century. I used to follow this old trail west, and grab a game trail climbing gently, breaking out onto a strangely level old logging road atop Moody Ridge, which led to other oldish roads, linking together to lead me to Lovers Leap, a mile or so away.

But soon the tall trees of the old Towle Estate lands were laid low, as the lands sold to a gang of real estate developers and loggers; first they stripped off the heavy timber, leaving a horror of stumps and slash and skid trails, and in a few short years, Moody Ridge had been illegally subdivided, the usual "no trespassing" appeared, and my old route of old roads, to Lovers Leap, was no more.

Since then, I have discovered other old trails, and yesterday, wandering the woods on top of the ridge, I found an ancient road running perfectly level, clearly over a hundred years old, cut in many places by more recent logging roads and skid trails. I had followed this old level road ten years ago, but not until yesterday I did recognize it for what it really is.

This "old level road" is a narrow-gauge logging railroad roadbed! It almost certainly dates from the 1870s and will likely have been made by the Chinese road gang who worked for the Towle Brothers Lumber Company. For, I had heard tell of an old Towle logging camp at the head of the Green Valley Trail, and a fellow student of local history, Doug Ferrier, had once remarked that he felt sure a certain road on Moody Ridge was originally a Towle narrow-gauge line.

This narrow-gauge railroad is quite hard to recognize, for it is cut in many places by skid trails and other newer roads. It is also badly overgrown, in a densely overstocked coniferous forest, with many many young Incense Cedar and Douglas Fir and White Fir dying for lack of light, and yet they will stand dead for decades at a time, unable to fall for the other trees all around them. They are often thirty or forty feet high.

So, to follow this old logging railroad is to fight through thickets of dead trees and to duck under, or clamber over, numerous larger fallen trees.

Yesterday, after realizing that it must be a railroad, I scouted the thing more thoroughly than ever before. To the west it led to Lovers Leap Road, and from there who knows. But back east, as I followed along, I noticed new subtleties. At a certain point it forked, the left hand climbing gently into a shallow valley on the crest of the ridge, the right holding level to cross this same valley, in the kind of tight arc only possible for narrow-gauge roads.

A few stumps from the Towle-era logging remain; these are almost invariably Incense Cedar stumps, charred black by a series of wildfires. In rare cases, portions of pine stumps remain, also, but these are just the pitchy cores of giant trees, unpalatable to termites and such. Pine stumps more commonly disappear within a few decades. They become infested with ants, with termites and giant boring grubs, and are then torn to pieces by hungry bears.

I crossed the little valley and held the logging railroad southward, passing another fork right, until odd mounds of dirt began to blur its course. I saw a modern logging road to my left and realized that bulldozers had bladed off the mounds of dirt onto the logging railroad, probably during the 1976-77 logging. I carefully maintained the level line of the railroad, guided by a few remnants of its grade, until I was stopped by a knotted thicket. Slamming into it with loppers and might and main, I broke through onto the nearby logging road.

To my surprise, I was exactly at one end of the "strangely level old logging road atop Moody Ridge" mentioned above, which used to form part of my route to Lovers Leap. That is only to say the my "strangely level old logging road" is part of this same Towle Brothers' narrow-gauge logging railroad.

Considering how much logging has taken place on Moody Ridge since the Towle Brothers, 130 years ago, it is a minor miracle that any trace of their old logging railroads still exists.

Back in the 1990s I tried to get Placer County and Tahoe National Forest and the Nevada County Land Trust interested in protecting the main Towle narrow-gauge roadbed, from Drum Forebay on the south to Highway 20 on the north, by way of the Zeibright Mine and Steephollow, etc. etc. Of course I failed. It would have made a wonderful hiking trail, good for equestrians and mountain bikes too, I would have thought. From Highway 80 to Highway 20.

The first mosquitos of the season, here at 4000', flirted with my sweaty face as I ducked and crunched through the forest. Soon there will be a million trillion of them.

Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Erratum; OHV Survey

In The Elusive Boschniakia, I mistakenly named the closed-cone pines a subfamily of the Pinaceae, when I should have said, they form one of several "sub-genera" of the genus Pinus itself.


Several of you have forwarded the following to me, suggesting that I should share it with North Fork Trails. The gist of the thing is, that Tahoe National Forest (TNF) is studying its OHV trail system. This multi-year process will result in a Forest Order limiting OHV use to some yet-to-be-determined subset of TNF roads and trails.

Note the "OHV link"; if you wish, follow the link to an online questionnaire. I used the questionnaire to express my own wish for wild areas and open spaces in which to hike and explore and camp, free from motorized vehicles. I suggested that OHV use must be severely limited, and that TNF should restore the very historic public trails it has (bizarrely) allowed to be destroyed in the course of timber harvests; and I suggested that very much land acquisition is necessary, to protect our open spaces, wildlands, and public access to these open spaces and wildlands.

uninteresting. We are also asking for users' input regarding non-motorized
trail criteria as well. Please take a look at the questions via the
following link and submit your suggestions. This will help us validate our
set of assumptions regarding recreational trails on the Forest. It would
be most helpful, if you could answer the questions by the end of May. This
should not take too much time and your thoughts would be greatly
appreciated. Thanks for your help!

OHV link:

Monday, May 1, 2006

The Elusive Boschniakia


is a picture I took this morning of a strange wildflower called the California Groundcone, Boschniakia strobilacea.

These members of the Broomrape Family are parasitic on the roots of manzanita. They have no chlorophyll, no green leaves. They do, however, flower. Many are just emerging, now, near the head of the Pickering Bar Trail, south of Gold Run.

To reach this spot, at the Gold Run exit on I-80, take Magra Road west, and in a few hundred yards turn left (south) on Garrett Road. Follow Garrett for almost two miles; the pavement ends, keep to the white-graveled road which looks too much like a private driveway, on the left. Stay left when opportunity arises; the graveled driveway leads away right towards a sign which proclaims, "No River Access." The now-ungraveled road of red clay bends around to the east, out of view of the house nearby, and further progress in a car is soon stopped by a large gate.

You are on the rim of the North Fork canyon.

And, you are on public lands, administered by the BLM. Park off to the side and walk past the gate, on down the hill, on the Road of Red Clay. This very road is depicted on the 1866 GLO map of this area, and my guess is that it dates to at least 1852, if not 1851, when gold was discovered at the head of Indiana Ravine.

Red Clay Road winds in and out of small ravines along the canyon rim, and a side road breaks away left (north) into the Diggings; but just stay on Red Clay Road. Cross another ravine.

When a large group of fallen Knobcone Pines is met, blocking the road, you are in fabled Boschniakia Land. Look carefully beneath the manzanita bushes on the north, uphill side of the road.

Incidentally, the very size of the Knobcone Pines in this area is notable. Some are at least two feet in diameter, large for a Knobcone. These pines are fire-adapted members of the Closed-Cone-Pine subfamily of the Pinaceae; their nearest relative is the Monterey Pine, with which they will hybridize, as I have seen for myself on the fog-swept ridges above Año Nuevo Point, north of Santa Cruz.

Passing the fallen pines, the Pickering Bar Trail forks away right (south) in fifty or a hundred yards. To see many more Boschniakia, follow the trail south another hundred yards or so, until they appear beneath the manzanita on the left (east).

These plants look much like small pine cones growing directly from the ground. Some are red, some are yellow.

If one keeps to Red Clay Road beyond Pickering, and fights past another clump of fallen Knobcones, a very remarkable view can be had east through Giant Gap to Green Valley, Sawtooth Ridge, Black Mountain, Quartz Mountain, etc. One sees snow peaks framed by the cliffs of Giant Gap. Quite quite nice. Try to catch this view early in the morning, before ten if possible. The deeper shadows enhance it.

To follow Red Clay beyond the Magic Overlook is to reach Indiana Ravine, and the Secret World, and the Indiana Hill Ditch, and the trail down to the Diving Board Ridge; patient exploration will be well rewarded.