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.

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