Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Royal Gorge

Leon Turnbull wrote that he visited the Royal Gorge recently, and he posted some photographs of the waterfalls on his website; the URLs are below; enjoy!

The Royal Gorge is on the North Fork American, away up by Snow Mountain, where an astounding 4000 feet of relief is found between summit and river. Leon's "Petroglyph Falls" are directly below Wabena Point, which in turn is across the river from the East Summit of Snow.

I do not know when or by whom the Royal Gorge was named. Snow Mountain was called Eagle Cliff, for a time, anyway, in the 19th century.

The names of the various waterfalls in the Royal Gorge, where the whole North Fork plunges over cliffs into deep pools, are uncertain. I have heard old-timers call the lowest, farthest-west falls "Wabena Falls"; they are just upstream from the confluence of Wabena Creek. And the uppermost falls, just below the confluence with Palisade Creek, are often called Palisade Falls, but I have some scant evidence suggesting they may have been called Snow Mountain Falls, in 1893.

Gene Markley and his hardy band used to scramble the Royal Gorge, and undoubtedly developed their own set of names, which I would like to know.

At any rate, Leon wrote:
Just thought I'd let you know,
my brother-in-law and I made a great backpacking trip down into the Royal
Gorge in mid June. We hiked from the Troy Rd at Kingvale, and cut across in
front of Devil's Peak to hit the Palisade Creek trail. We had a little bit
of snow to hike through at the top, not too much though. We camped down at
Palisade Falls. On the next day, we scrambled down the gorge as far as
Petroglyph Falls. It was not really difficult, but kinda slow going. On the
way back, we decided to walk right up beside river. Even though the river
was high, it was much easier to do it this way. There was only one
difficult spot where we had to scramble up away from the river.

My photos and write-ups are on my web page:

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Tom McGuire's Big Granite Canyon

Take a look at Tom McGuire's write-up of our expedition into Big Granite Canyon a few weeks back, to visit the big waterfalls there. There are a number of pictures.

Begin forwarded message:

Subject: Destination: Tahoe National Forest / Big Granite Creek Waterfalls

Amigos! For your vicarious thrill of the week!

“What, you’re tired and broken and beaten? Why, you’re rich! – You’ve got the earth!”

- Robert Service


Friday, June 23, 2006

Smart's Crossing

Dutch Flat was once the largest town in Placer County, surrounded by loud-roaring hydraulic mines, and well-loved by a thousand Chinese (who had both a Joss House, and a fancy headquarters for the Chee Kong tong), and high enough in the Sierra to enjoy an occasional heavy snow. I sometimes remark that it is a town where ghosts outnumber the living, a fact of which both the ghosts and the living are fully aware! It's enough to drive a psychic crazy.

It is true that, now as then, a kind of perpetual dream grips the place, with its tall sighing pines and poplars, and Victorian houses, and winding streets.

Truth is stranger than fiction, and in 1870 one could find the Opera House pressed into service as a roller-skating rink, with red-shirted miners and their wives thundering around the broad floor. And the red-shirted roller-skating hydraulic miners of Dutch Flat did not stop there, oh no; they contrived to have roller-skating costume balls, with prizes and everything.

Why, London itself did not get its first roller-skating rink until 1877 or so; but Dutch Flat has long been ahead of the world.

Once upon a time it was a favorite resort, and the several hotels would fill every summer with visitors from the Bay Area, who arrived by train. Off they would go, into the canyons to angle for trout, or out to Lovers Leap to marvel at the view, or up into the high country. By following The Old Emigrant Road north and east towards Alta, one could turn onto an ancient wagon road, which led past more mines and through a million curves, to a bridge over Bear River, thence climbing to Liberty Hill, yet another hydraulic mining town, on the far side.

This bridge was named Smarts Crossing, for the Smart family of Dutch Flat, who operated a sawmill across the Bear at one time. I think of Addie Smart, a vivacious young feminist and artist of the 1890s, who came walking up out of the Bear River canyon carrying the rattles of the largest rattlesnake ever seen in these parts, which she had despatched herself.

This afternoon my kids and I drove as far down Addie Smart's family's rocky old road as we dared, and walked the last third of a mile to the Crossing. Usually, in these canyons, bridges span narrows, where an inner gorge traps the river into a deep pool, and such is the case at Smarts Crossing. The pool is quite deep and very dark, with a waterfall at its upper end, a more or less permanent Water Ouzel nest clinging to the rocks beside the falls, and cliffs on both sides, from which to jump or dive. It is quite a magical and beautiful place. Many many a a time I have lounged there with friends on a summer afternoon, swimming briefly from time to time (I can't tolerate the cold water well), and practicing rock-climbing on the sheer cliffs. If one falls, one gets wet, but not hurt.

Kids and adults who act like kids have been diving and jumping from the 21-Foot Rock (I measured it myself) for many a year; one can't doubt but that the Indians, the Nisenan and their predecessors, also jumped from the 21-Foot Rock and lounged on the water-polished bedrock above the deep deep pool.

It must have been a favorite for Dutch Flatters of hydraulic mining days, for there were no mines of consequence upstream from Smarts Crossing, altho just downstream Stump Canyon enters from the Liberty Hill Mine, to the north. So the water would have been clear at the Crossing, but muddy for mile after mile downstream, with all the mine tailings.

Smarts Crossing lies within Section 26 of Township 16 North, Range Ten East. Being an even-numbered section, Section 26 would otherwise be public land, not granted to the Central Pacific Railroad by President Lincoln, as were the odd-numbered sections, to twenty miles either side of the right-of-way; would be public, except, many a mining claim was patented therein, so the section is a patchwork of public and private lands.

One triangle of Tahoe National Forest land lies at or quite near to Smarts Crossing, itself, and to the good old swimming hole; another irregular, multi-angled parcel wraps into and around the Elmore Hill Diggings, which are directly across the Little Bear River from the famous Polar Star Mine. These mines mark the line of the Dutch Flat Channel, a tributary of the Eocene South Yuba which joined the latter master stream at Dutch Flat itself, coming from Liberty Hill. So the Eocene channel crosses the canyon of the Bear at quite a slight angle.

The main Tertiary South Yuba flowed north into Dutch Flat from Gold Run, Iowa Hill, Yankee Jims, and Michigan Bluff, to the south. It then continued north of the Bear, exposed again at Christmas Hill, Little York, You Bet, Red Dog, Waloopa, etc.etc.

Now, the old wagon road down to Smarts Crossing, which required some fancy cuts and dry-laid stone walls for its approach to the inner gorge at the pool, and the bridge (gone since the late 1930s)--the old wagon road, today, forks north off Drum Powerhouse Road, just shy of the signs telling us that the main road is now a PG&E road.

This road, by the way, is a favorite with local residents who like a nice level walk or bike ride; for miles, it is cut directly into the line of the historic Miners Ditch, one of the three huge canals which served the hydraulic mines of Elmore Hill, Dutch Flat, and Gold Run. It offers to view three different fault-bounded "terranes," exposed in cross-section, as it were, by both the main canyon of the Bear, and by the roadcuts themselves. After driving (or walking, or biking) past the PG&E signs, one first sees rock of the late-Paleozoic Calaveras Complex, rock of the same sort exposed at Smarts Crossing, tough metavolcanic stuff. It is also exposed to the south, in Giant Gap.

Then, continuing east up the Bear, a fault is crossed, razor-sharp and near vertical, and one passes into the late-Paleozoic Melones Fault Zone serpentine, or as sometimes called, the Feather River Peridotite. This serpentine "belt" is about a hundred miles long, and at right angles, about, with all the major canyons. It crosses the North Fork American at Green Valley.

After a couple miles of serpentine, the main trace of the Melones Fault is crossed, and one enters the curious "screen" of Mesozoic metasediments separating the serpentine from its nearest-neighbor, in a more global sense, the early-Paleozoic metasedimentary Shoo Fly Complex (of discrete formations). Rocks in the screen vary between a funny strong black slate, and bodies of limestone grading into limy muds, and weaker slates.

And at last, near the powerhouse itself, where big Pelton wheels are housed in a sturdy industrial building of the 1920s or so, one gets clear of the rocks of the Mesozoic screen and enters the Shoo Fly Complex proper. But I do not recall that its rocks are actually well exposed at the powerhouse; they extend for miles and miles up to the head of the Bear, where it is cut off by the larger South Yuba canyon.

Smarts Crossing Road passes through a welter of parcels, including, I think, the aforementioned triangle of TNF land, before reaching the Bear, and the historic and prehistoric swimming-hole.

And so it was that, when one of the private parcels along the old road finally changed hands, in the early 1980s, a gate was installed, "no trespassing" signs nailed up, and people who wished to swim were turned back at gunpoint.

Thanks the efforts of various local residents, including the famous Bill Newsom, and his old friend, attorney Ed Stadum, a class-action lawsuit was filed against the property owner, on behalf of We the People, asserting that the Smarts Crossing Road was a public road, and could not be gated closed.

And we prevailed, in the Superior Court of Judge James Garbolino, in Auburn. The gate was removed, and the "no trespassing" signs came down.

Thus it came as a shock when PG&E itself installed its own gate across the Smarts Crossing Road, in 2004 as I recall. The reason? Some campers, down at the Crossing, had been rousted form their sleeping bags by a sudden rise in river level, PG&E having made a sudden discharge, up at the powerhouse; and they wished to protect the Public from danger, and themselves from liability. Hence the gate, and offensive signs ordering there be No Camping. Even down at the Crossing itself, a PG&E signs orders one not to approach the river!

Not to approach the river! At the one swimming hole above all other swmming holes, within easy reach of Dutch Flat!

No, no, no, no, no!

Several people complained, and the record of Judge Garbolino's decision was mailed to PG&E, and after a time, it was announced that the gate would be unlocked.

What was not announced was, that the gate would remain, and so also, the offensive signs. My kids and I let ourselves through (the gate is secured with a chain), and found the road below rough going, and seldom traveled. Brush is beginning to overgrow the old road quite badly. We thrashed on down a half-mile with many a shocking clunk and scrape as the low-slung little Subie crawled through the miry, boulder-strewn roadbed, parked a quarter-mile shy of where we usually park, fearing worse conditions, and walked the last bit to the river.

It is always one of the most horribly cold swims, Smarts Crossing. Perhaps it is the "reservoir water" function, but here the reservoir is not Drum Afterbay, a tiny thing which cannot let water stratify into colder bottom layers, but Lake Valley Reservoir, up at about 6000' in elevation. Hence the coldness, I suppose, and it never really relents.

So. Public access to the old public road is again hampered. Selfishly, I like that, for it means I share Smarts Crossing with fewer people. More perspicuously, I abhor the partial closure. It follows a pattern so widespread, it scarcely even shocks us at all, any more, but inch by inch and mile by mile we are losing access to The Commons, and that is quite a terrible thing.

So the divine Smarts Crossing, which I always had to mention in the same breath with Lovers Leap, whenever first describing the wonders of Dutch Flat to an "outsider," to one who has not rubbed shoulders with a thousand ghosts for lo so many years, yes, the divine Smarts Crossing is at risk, threatened in many ways, actually.

For just one thing, PG&E seems to believe it has the right to operate the Bear River itself as though it were its own private canal, despite the fact that it passes through fairly much in the way of public lands, and that many people visit it to swim and hike and fish or whatever.

Also, the very parcel which occasioned the original gate, farther down the road from the new PG&E gate, now belongs to a certain well-known real estate developer: if one or more houses were built along the old road, it would mean the very kiss of death, i think, to sustained public use; and add to that, Tahoe National Forest is considering the sale of these funny old left-over, unpatented mining claims, which are all that remain of our public lands within Section 26.

When, if anything, Tahoe National Forest should be trying to purchase the private inholdings in Section 26!

It seems strange that after all the effort expended on the 1984 lawsuit, with so very much time by attorney Ed Stadum donated, free, gratis, to the cause, after all that, Smarts Crossing could be lost forever.

Moreover, applying geology's founding Principle of Uniformity to this complex instance in which the very soul of a town, Smarts Crossing, is tottering, poised on the brink of destruction; well, we immediately deduce that, if it is happening here, it is happening elsewhere, and we realize that the ancestral Commons, and the very soul of the Commons, is either lost already, or is about to be lost, all up and down California in general, and the Sierra in particular.

I'm afraid Smarts Crossing needs a much stronger advocacy in its support, than it now benefits from, if it is really to be preserved for the enjoyment of future generations, as we would hope.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Sugar Pine Point

Saturday's visit to Sugar Pine Point, with the Redbud Chapter of the CA Native Plant Society, was a success. Something like twenty people showed up at Yuba Gap, raring to go someplace wild (but not too wild) with the "legendary" Russell Towle.

Having much interest in our native plants, it is a treat to go out with so many knowledgeable people. Karen Callahan, John Krogsrud, and others were able to identify about everything we found in bloom, including: three species of violet, a faint purple cloud of tiny Collinsia painting a sunny meadow, various penstemon, Calochortus, Coral Root Orchid, Rattlesnake Orchid, Pyrola, Lewisia kelloggii, and some few others. The bloom is only beginning there, at about 5500'.

Sugar Pine Point is where the ridge dividing Big Valley on the west from Little Granite Creek on the east is truncated by the mammoth canyon of the North Fork American. Here, the canyon runs about 3500 feet deep. The SPP ridge stems from the Yuba-American Divide, and runs south a few miles before being truncated by the North Fork; in fact, it forms a classic example of the "glacially-truncated spur ridge," of geomorphology. To the north it is just west of the Loch Leven Lakes.

For a couple miles it runs along level, south of Pelham Flat, and in this reach of the ridge, all slathered with glacial till and even a few weak moraines, well, beneath the glacial veneer, is the Pink Welded Tuff (rhyolite), in a more or less horizontal stratum maybe fifty feet thick, and here as at the head of Palisade Creek, it withstood the ice rather magnificently.

Usually it is not visible, here, the glacial till covering it. It is Oligocene in age. The USGS's David Harwood described it as "Densely welded pink to lavender rhyolite tuff probably equivalent to the Nine Hills Tuff; contains scattered phenocrysts of clear sanidine and lesser amounts of plagioclase, quartz, and hornblende in fine-grained tuffaceous matrix that contains elongate cavities lined with amorphous silica. Potassium-argon age of the Nine Hill Tuff is 24.3 Ma. Maximum thickness 15 m."

Beneath this Pink Welded Tuff is a less-welded unit of white rhyolite ash. Still less is this visible, being weaker than the Pink Welded Tuff.

Beneath these tuffs are the various upturned formations of Paleozoic metamorphic rock, like the Taylorsville Sequence (of formations), and the (Mesozoic) Middle Jurassic Sailor Canyon Formation. These are well exposed in Big Valley. So there is what is called a "profound unconformity" between the horizontal strata of tuff, above, and the vertical strata of (vastly older) metamorphic rock, below.

I had sort of imagined inflicting a ton of geology on all these plant people, but as it happened, I talked about bears so much it seemed to them, anyway, that bears were my one real subject.

The odd-numbered sections out there have been hammered by logging, and the old trails ruined, the very trails on which people used to go backpacking so few years ago it seems, and one can still read their names on the aspen trunks along the trails, with dates in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, ... and then no more. Bulldozers played briefly on the trails, and they were gone, erased as tho they'd never existed. Very little of the Sugar Pine Point Trail remains intact. Our group made slow going of the descent south on the last bit of this trail, only partly ruined by logging, until at last we crossed into Section 20, public land.

There the trail was intact, and we had easy going.

This one-mile-square Section 20 is now designated the Sugar Pine Point Research Natural Area. It is quite a nice place, with a patch of old-growth Ponderosa Pine forest, and with many huge Sugar Pines, hundreds of years old. One is on south-facing slopes within the North Fork canyon, but all one sees are huge trees in every direction, a wonderland, really, with springs and bear wallows and even a bear den, and a host of thousands of young White Fir clog the forest, threatening to overwhelm the millenia-old balance of fire-adapted species, with one single shade-adapted species.

Bears love it there.

I pointed out their persistent footprints as we followed the ancient trail into the tall trees; bears will step in the same spot time after time, week after week, even year after year, and to varying degrees, then, a set of little hollows develops. It is a subtlety, but easy to learn, and soon everyone was spotting bear trails every which way.

Many a tree there, many a huge old pine five or six feet in diameter, is well-scratched by bears. Mostly, one attributes the scratches to territorial markings; but there are some instances less easily figured, such as the monstrous Sugar Pine down on the Little Slate Ridge, commanding the ultimate view of the North Fork canyon, a pine once broken down in some mighty storm of those long-vanished days when men were men, before the money-grubbing Europeans who styled themselves Americans wreaked all their havoc on the Sierra. It is four feet in diameter and maybe forty or fifty feet tall. Having lost its head, side branches became, oh a century ago or more, giant muscled arms two to three feet thick themselves.

And only, I say, only because the good old bears of Sugar Pine Point like to make the climb of thirty feet to these monster branches, only for that reason, the entire trunk of the mighty pine is scratched every which way.

I've never seen the like. Apparently the bears roost up there and enjoy the view. I sometimes think that it must be during those months when snow covers everything, but a sunny interlude will bring bears outside their dens, and the only way to get comfortably clear of the snow, is to climb this ancient broken pine, and take the sun in its giant boughs.

It was a grand day of wandering the old forest and the raw sun-blasted cliffs and getting scratched by brush and breaking sweats and, fortunately, it was not all talking talking talking but plenty of good quiet walking walking walking.

Another great day on the verge of the great canyon. My only regret is that we were somewhat hurried, and could not linger on the majestic cliffs to watch the shadows grow and deepen as sunset approached; that is how it really should be done. Then one walks slowly up through the woods, in twilight.

On the 7.5 minute Duncan Peak quadrangle, note the pass immediately north of that spot labeled Sugar Pine Point. One can contrive to park there, and the old trail drops away to the east for a few dozen yards before breaking south towards the Sacred Forest.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

A Distant View

This morning Ron Gould and I drove up to Yuba Gap on I-80 and then in past Lake Valley Reservoir on TNF's Forest Road 19.

Lake Valley is at the head of the North Fork of the North Fork American, and was deeply gouged by ice overflowing from the South Yuba icefield to the north and east. It was once a wet meadow a couple miles long with a small lake at its upper end. Its waters were claimed for hydraulic mining in the 1850s, and brought to Dutch Flat via ditches, being part of the vast Bradley & Gardner water system. To allow for hydraulic mining longer into the summer months, a reservoir was constructed there, early on, perhaps in the 1860s, and then periodically the dam was raised and the reservoir expanded.

As with many such hydraulic mining reservoirs, it passed in later years to PG&E. The dam was raised yet again. Now its waters are diverted to Drum Powerhouse, and discharged into the Bear River.

We wished to find how much snow if any remained on Forest Road 38, which forks left above Lake Valley and winds in to Huysink Lake, named for outdoorsman Bernard Huysinck of Dutch Flat (the "c" was dropped by the mapmakers).

Beyond Huysink, FR38 passes the popular Salmon Lake Trail, and atop the divide between Big Valley on the west and Little Granite Creek on the east, the historic Big Granite Trail, unmarked, forks away left.

It is this trail we will be trying to fix on July 15, with as much help as we can muster. It was first wrecked in 1991, and then wrecked yet again during the fall of 2004. When bulldozers yard (drag) large logs right up the line of a foot trail, a series of trenches and craters often results, and no sign of the old trail remains. Such is the case here. A new trail must be constructed over these damaged intervals.

This old trail drops 3600 feet, over about six miles, to the North Fork American.

Ron and I, however, continued past the Big Granite Trail, well past Pelham Flat, and hung a right to a little pass just north of Sugar Pine Point. I will be leading a California Native Plant Society hike in there this Saturday, meeting at the Yuba Gap exit at 11 a.m. (just south of the freeway itself). There is quite a remarkable patch of old-growth forest there, and some rare plants, like the Wooly Violet.

One of the few surviving fragments of the historic Sugar Pine Point Trail can be found just below the pass on the east, and followed south into the Sacred Forest. The rest of this trail was wrecked by logging.

It takes quite a high-clearance vehicle to navigate these roads, with their many deep water bars cut after the 2004 timber harvest by Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI). I hope we shall have enough of such vehicles on Saturday.

From the little pass we retreated north to the main road, and continued in an easterly direction, gradually bending north before dropping and breaking east again. We were trying to find the road which was cut into Four Horse Flat back in 1991. Eventually we did find it, and we had to walk. Soon we broke out onto the verge of Little Granite Canyon, the creek roaring over beds of granite boulders far below, and Cherry Point almost directly across from us.

Ron spotted a distant waterfall, which we realized must be in Sailor Canyon, miles away across the North Fork to the southeast, and then he caught sight of another one, and we had to dodge back and forth to see between trees, but, lo and behold, there it was: the upper 100 feet of the 500-foot waterfall in New York Canyon.

It was quite a pretty picture, showing off the cliffs near the falls, with the great Southwest Spur of Snow Mountain making a part of the middle ground. We could not see deep enough into New York Canyon to see the Chert Dome. But we could see the line of the Sailor Flat jeep trail, along the ridgecrest east of the falls, and see the Ursine Trail which Tom McGuire and I had used to climb up and out from the Chert Dome, last June.

The falls are still flowing fairly well, tho precious little snow remains at the head of New York Canyon, on Canada Hill, along the Foresthill Divide. We could also see portions of the Iowa Hill Canal, and the Big Brush, across the North Fork near Tadpole Canyon.

We explored just a little farther, satisfying ourselves that that was the road we imagined it to be, and I was intrigued to find glaciated exposures of the "pink welded tuff," a classic high-country component of the "young volcanics," perhaps best exposed at the head of Palisade Creek, near Palisade Lake.

Here the welded tuff was littered with dark inclusions, looking like fragments of slate at times; whether these fragments erupted with the nuee ardente itself, or were later entrained within it, as it spread away from the eruptive center, into lower terrain to the west, I cannot say.

This tuff came from a vanished volcano near Carson City. That these welded tuffs even exist west of the Sierra crest, although originating east of the crest, suggests that the Sierra had not yet uplifted to its present elevation. They are far more given to flowing downhill than to flowing uphill, these white-hot ashflows.

We did not have time to explore further.

It was a nice morning in the North Fork high country. Clouds danced slowly into intricate positions.

We saw many thousands of California Tortoiseshell butterflies.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Visit to Canyon Creek

A couple weeks back I was contacted by forester and botanist Ron Lane, who wrote that he had read about Gold Run's Paleobotanist Trail on my website, had driven out Garrett Road to the right spot, and had been met by a log blocking the road, and a "No Trespassing" sign.

Welcome to Placer County, Ron!

I explained that the hundreds of acres of public, BLM-administered land, next to Garrett Road, was separated from Garrett itself, right there, by a fifteen-foot-wide strip of private property. The (absentee) owner, who is also blocking the Fords Bar Trail, the historic trail from Gold Run to Iowa Hill, placed the sign in such a way so that We the People will think our own public lands belong to him!

This did not sit well with Ron. I was intrigued; a relative stranger to this area, concerned that public access to public land was being lost? So I suggested he contact the BLM at Folsom, and let me know what he found.

Any botanist who lifts a finger to protect public access to public lands is ipso facto high on my List of Favorite People. So I told Ron I would be very pleased to guide him to the Canyon Creek Trail itself, which, in a way, is just the continuation of the Paleobotanist Trail, from the Diggings down Canyon Creek to the North Fork American. And so it fell out, and a couple weeks back he and his wife, Chris, and I walked down to the river and, well, they were properly impressed.

For something extremely special is going on there. Great beauty and drama inhere in the landscape, of cliff upon cliff, gorge upon gorge, canyon upon canyon. And waterfall upon waterfall.

Through the miracles of black powder and primitive rock drills, the trail was hewn from the cliffs themselves, and the effect is dizzying and exhilarating.

Ron was only just getting started. When he learned that this incredible trail is now for sale, and that Congress had told the BLM to purchase these lands, back in 1978, but nothing had been done--for nothing, then, could be done--when he learned these things, he started making a ton of telephone calls and was rather quickly up to speed on the complicated issues at work here.

There is mercury contaminating the property, for just one thing, and the BLM cannot accept title to contaminated ground, even were someone to give it to them outright. So some sort of cleanup will likely be needed.

Whether the cleanup will be at all effective in stopping the flow of mercury down Canyon Creek into the North Fork, is much less certain. Miillions could be spent to little purpose.

Ron then proceeded to invite a number of knowledgeable and important people, to visit this extraordinary place. I was to tag along and be the guide, more or less.

Fewer people showed up than we'd hoped, but Skip Mills of State Parks, and a retired entomologist, Glen, joined Ron and Chris and I for a brief tour of the Diggings proper, and then a descent of the Canyon Creek Trail.

All went well, and we were treated to a very nice display of wildflowers, for the Bush Monkeyflower was still near the peak of bloom, but many many Larkspurs and Two-Lobed Clarkia's had arrived on the scene; these last have four petals of a light purple, and grow by the thousands along the trail. Astounding!

Glen was able to identify quite a number of insects working the flowers, and had a sure knowledge of the native butterflies. I learned that our Sierran Blues feed on Incense Cedar needles in their larval stage, which seems passing strange. He astounded me, down at the Last Waterfall, at the North Fork itself; for we were sitting on steep rocks, above the pool below the falls, and I spotted some Blues about fifteen feet below us. They were sipping from a little seep of water dribbling from a crack in the polished bedrock.

Glen calmly opened his pack and withdrew--a butterfly net!

As usual, my mouth was working about a mile a minute, chattering about this or that, about wanting to wander the Amazon and net giant blue butterflies, when a child, as I recall, but at any rate, seconds after removing his net and unfolding it, he was getting a specimen bottle from his pack.

"This is one of the species my son has been studying," he remarked, as he reached into his net and gently moved the Blue into the bottle.

"Huh? What!! How--how could you have--how did you do that?" I stammered, for it literally was impossible that, sitting still beside me, he could have already netted a Blue.

But there it was!

So, how?

"Oh, I saw one flying right at me, and just turned my net," he explained.

Oh. OK.

It was sheer magic!

I rattled on and on about the Big Granite Trail and how my friends Ron Gould and Catherine O'Riley were, at that moment, sitting at a booth down at the Confluence Festival, signing up who knows how many volunteers, to repair the Big Granite Trail, away up by the Loch Leven lakes. My monologue eventually degenerated into a bitter recital of what I imagine to be the failings of Tahoe National Forest. I can get kind of carried away at such times. I am just looking for someone to blame. It's not productive.

What happened to the Big Granite Trail, happened elsewhere: all the old historic trails, shown on map after official map of Tahoe National Forest, over decade after decade after decade, had been wantonly destroyed by logging, mainly on the "old railroad lands," the alternate square miles given to the Central Pacific Railroad, in the 1860s.

All of them? All the old trails, destroyed?

No, no, not quite. But the Big Valley Trail, the Big Bend-Devils Peak Trail, the Snow Mountain Trail, the Long Valley Trail, the Big Granite Trail, the Cherry Point Trail, the Monumental Creek Trail, the China Trail (south), the Lola Montez Trail (north), and, well, unfortunately, the list goes on: these were all more or less wrecked by logging.

And not at all long ago!

And we have not even reached those trails blocked by gates and "no trespassing" signs, illegally blocked, if one comes right down to it, such as the Heath Springs Trail, which is just the downstream continuation of the Painted Rock Trail. Yes. That private club known as "The Cedars" is responsible for that closure.

But I digress.

Occasionally, Skip got a word in edgewise. He had brought some excellent maps along, showing all the parcels in the Diggings, and on Canyon Creek; and that impressed me from the start, and later, listening to him, I felt that he had cut to the heart of the matter and touched upon just what I myself have been avoiding.

For he suggested, and it is much more than right, it is certain, that I, we, whoever loves that Canyon Creek Trail, and the Gold Run Diggings, ought to be wooing Bruce Kranz, Placer County Supervisor for District Five (which extends from Meadow Vista on the west, to Lake Tahoe on the east--it's huge, District Five)--yes, wooing him, begging him, beseeching him, and most importantly, winning him over, to the idea of land acquisitions at Gold Run, and acquainting him with the history, and the recreational potential, and the trails, and really, all of it.

And that is exactly what I have been putting off. I dread wooing Bruce Kranz. But it is past time to be getting down to business. To imagine that this whole process, of rescuing the Gold Run Diggings and the Canyon Creek Trail from private development, and managing the area for open space, for wildlands, for hiking and equestrian and bicycling uses (but *not* OHV uses), well, it just seems that we must have the County Supervisor on board.

Kranz has a background in State Parks, and may be fairly receptive to all this.

Eventually we straggled slowly back up the trail in the afternoon sun--there was no getting around it--and drove back to the freeway and our cars.

It had been a wonderful day in Canyon Creek and on the North Fork, which, by the way, is running high and fast and cold and clear as can be, it is quite the pretty picture these days.

Wednesday, June 7, 2006

Magic, Mystery, and Rock Art

I received this most interesting story from Joel Baiocchi of Dutch Flat.


I read your missive on the area's petroglyphs. After a while, an old experience broke loose from memory and surfaced to the top of my soup of tissue and neurons called a brain.

I was backpacking in the Los Padres National Forest about twenty years ago. It was my intent to spend a few days at a potrero (locally, the Spanish term for meadow, sometimes with a spring) at the crest of a high and wild ridgeline. Some prior research indicated that because of a reliable spring, it was a seasonal camp for the Chumash; and supposedly there were some petroglyphs in the area, so trying to find those would be an interesting diversion once I arrived.

Also, this was winter solstice. Santa Barbara, where I lived at the time, has an annual summer solstice, a Bacchanalian event for locals and tourists. But it was the winter solstice that, as was true with many ancient peoples, was a somber and imprtant event for the Chumash. The days were getting shorter; would the sun disappear altogether? Legend had it that on the winter solstice, the sun would shine into otherwise dark crevices and light up the drawings of the Chumash.

This area was in a very remote part of the LPNF; it took several hours to drive to the trailhead. I usually hiked the area in the wintertime; the area was dreadfully short of water in the summer, and the flies would chew you alive. But, the higher elevations of the area did get snow in the winter. Not very much by way of measurable in inches, but the worse kind to be out in: heavy, wet soppy stuff that provided no insulation and could really suck the heat away.

So, an unexpected snowstorm moved in. So did darkness (though not unexpected), as I had underestimated the time it would take me to hike in. It wasn't too far, perhaps eight miles, but I had never been there before. I took one wrong turn and ended up on a steep sandstone dead end that my trusty companion, Shasta, an Australian Shepherd, could not navigate, so that cost more time. Eventually we reached the top of the ridge, and lo and behold, in the last vestiges of light, there was the potrero.

The last thing I wanted to do was sleep on exposed ground in a snowstorm. I had a bivy sack, but it was not going to provide much protection. There was a broken sandstone formation nearby, so I decided to see if there was some sort of overhang that might afford some protection. And then I found The Cave.

The Cave was the most remarkable ancient "church" I have ever seen. The man-made monuments one finds in old Europe or Tibet are surely impressive, but they of course are by definition artificial. This was purely a creation of nature. The Cave was about twenty feet up a steep cliff, but was accessed through a natural tunnel leading to a hole in the floor. In The Cave, during daylight hours, one could look out over the meadow, across several wild ridges, and weather permitting, out to the Pacific Ocean.

And the drawings! I am sure my jaw was dropped wide open for an hour. Coincidentally, I had been working with an archeologist on a job, and I could identify some; a huge red-orange blazing sun the size of a dinner plate; condors, the masters of space and time. A horizontal black line, with vertical lines underneath drawn at an angle, representing all-important rain. A fish. Some humanoid figures, but not exactly human. Odd winged cretures. Squiggles and abstract forms that I could only guess at. Pure awe.

After I regained my sense of time and place, I decided that, sacreligious as it might seem, that I was going to wait out the storm in The Cave. Shasta liked it in there and was already sound asleep. I snacked on some nuts and dried fruit, drank some water, rolled out the sleeping bag, and lay down.

Admittedly, I was a little nervous at first; was there some curse that would befall this intruder while I slumbered? But soon I felt comfortable, turned off the flashlight and fell asleep. And had the strangest dream. It was quite hallucinogenic, although I can assure you that I was definitely not under the influence of anything, except perhaps the ancient spirits of the Chumash.

In my dream (or was it a dream?) I was laying on the floor of The Cave, just as I had been. There was the sleeping dog, my pack, water bottle, etc. I began to hear the slow, rhythmic chanting of men in a strange, deep, old language. It sounded like a religious chant, and very faint at first. As their voices began to increase in volume, a curious thing happened. With each verse, if I can call it that, the volume of the ancient tongue increased, and correspondingly, the walls of The Cave began to grow higher. From the base height of, say five feet, to seven feet. To ten, to twenty, to fifty feet high. Eventually, the walls of The Cave were hundreds of feet high, and the chanting of the men was deafening. Brilliant hues of red, orange, yellow, with black accents, were everywhere.

I don't recall how any of this ended. In the morning the dog was still asleep, the skies were steely gray, and snow remained on the ground. We headed back home that day. I have not been back since; it was not so much that the experience was frightening. Rather, how could something like that ever be repeated, or even explained?

Best to leave some things, such as the memory of the Chumash, alone.



Monday, June 5, 2006

Errata, Addenda

Those lovely mats of five-petaled flowers, in whites and blues and pinks, which Tom McGuire and I saw all up and down Big Granite Canyon, are Granite Gilia, not my oddly imaginary "Douglas Phlox."

The reason that the Tuttle Lake Formation of metavolcanic rocks, which make up most of Snow Mountain, are so granitoid in character, so resistant to glacial erosion, is that by and large the Tuttle Lake is not divided into fine slate-like strata. It has strata, all right, but it is just a much more massive type of rock, with fewer cracks and joints. It also has masses of genuine intrusive rock; diorites, which are much akin to granite.

Our granite, which is usually actually granodiorite, but that is hardly the point, is more massive still. Glaciers will tend to flow over it, and round it down smooth, rather than tear it up.

It was likely enough wrong to remark, as I did, that the dark mafic inclusions and lovely swirls and patterns within the granite around Big Granite and the Loch Levens are in any way related to the Emigrant Gap Mafic Complex. We need not invoke a complex of mafic plutons a few miles away to explain these curious dark patches. Having said that, it remains possible that there is some vague connection. But the granite is some several to many millions of years younger.

My daughter Janet, an astute critic, gently remonstrated with me, concerning my portrayal of Tom McGuire. Did I intend, she asked, that my readers imagine Tom to be some kind of shameless rake, adding notches to his belt as one woman after another succumbed to his mighty charms? Like the Musketeers?

No, I did not intend that. Not quite that, anyway.

No, no, Tom is quite the character. If I say Oh my God, Tom answers, O my Goddess.

We were chatting away down there by the big waterfalls, and Tom would mention this or that exciting place he had hiked in the mountains of California, and I remarked, Tom, you know California better than I do!

But, Tom, my good man, have you ever been to Wabena Point?


Then you do not yet know the North Fork American.

It has to do with the petroglyphs. Rock art, thousands of years old. A couple dozen sites are scattered around the upper North Fork. All are sacred ground. If a people lives here for thousands of years, they will know the lay of the land in a way we cannot imagine.

The lay of the land? I mean, the song of the land. And certain crescendos and passions are met, within that song of songs.

That is where the petroglyphs are. Often they are in places which make perfect sense, some patch of Paradise like the Old Soda Springs, in the upper North Fork, where a giant whaleback of granite is incised with hundreds of designs, right beside waterfalls and mineral springs and pools and meadows, and all surrounded by snow peaks.

In ancient Greece, such springs would often become the sites of temples or shrines. And I say that, just as springs mark sacred ground, so also do petroglyphs.

That's what I say.

And just as in ancient Greece, where there were hundreds of little temples and shrines, hundreds of sacred sites, but one and only one Delphi, so also, in the North Fork American, there is only one Wabena Point.

Wabena Point is in the Royal Gorge, on the very tiptop of the promontory dividing Wabena Canyon from the North Fork itself. Snow Mountain looms across the North Fork, rising 4000 feet above the white waterfalls in the Gorge, and Devils Peak is seen end-on, a narrow black spike of rock it seems, with two owl-like ears.

Devils Peak, the one and only summit in this area which had already been named (that is, named by those of European descent), when the Gold Rush struck.

Have you ever been to Chalfant, where giant petroglyphs are inscribed on cliffs of rhyolite ash, facing the ten-thousand-foot slope of White Mountain, away down in the Owens Valley? I have visited many many petroglyph sites in California and Nevada. Chalfant is the only one I can compare to Wabena Point, for sheer magic, mystery, and depth of feeling.

It may take quite a few visits to Wabena Point to really get it. Wait for the shadows to lengthen, do not go there at midday! I have slept out there on the clifftops, and made many a day trip, over the past thirty years. It is not always possible, especially with other people present, to find my own heart and open my own ears to the song. I could long for a thousand years to share what I feel there, those few special times, but longing doesn't make it so. Beware of people who are busy. They have no place on those magic cliffs.

Wabena Point is Delphi, and the North Fork--canyon, river, cliff and waterfall alike--is The Goddess.

Unfortunately, the money-changers are in the temple, and it's long past time to cast them out.

Saturday, June 3, 2006

Again to the Iowa Hill Canal

I met two very hardy hikers at a very early hour, Friday, for the thirty-mile drive up Foresthill Road to the Beacroft Trail and the good old Iowa Hill Canal. Julie and Kathi are fascinating women, quite independent in spirit and bold in their explorations. In fact, they are more than liable to hike poor old me right into the ground.

The IHC was built in the early 1870s, never completed, and it just ends, suddenly, below some little cliffs on the Tadpole Canyon-New York Canyon divide, more or less directly across the North Fork from Sugar Pine Point, and about 2500 feet above the river. Had it ever been completed it would have extended all the way up the canyon to near the Old Soda Springs, and robbed the waters of every tributary entering the North Fork from the south: Wabena, Wildcat, Sailor, and New York canyons, while robbing the North Fork itself for good measure.

We walked north past the Beacroft and then blundered through a patch of timber until we found and followed the Old Chinese Road, which drops NE to the IHC. Some nice clifftops are near, and we admired the view across the NF to Big Valley Bluff. Kathi surprised me by instantly naming all the snow peaks within view (Snow, Castle, Basin, Red Mtn.); for she has made a hobby of visiting the mountains in this area, and knows them well.

We spent some time clearing woody debris off the old road, built 135 years ago, about, by Chinese men from the Canton area. One must also attribute the lion's share of the work on the IHC itself, to these Wongs and Fongs and Lees.

Most all the snow is gone now, from the Canal, and Tadpole has subsided, too, and may be jumped safely where the IHC crossed, which was not the case on May 18, when I was last there. The Plainleaf Fawn Lilies still flower in force.

We reached the Big Brush, which stops one from following the IHC east to its end, or beginning as it were, since it is the upstream end of the thing. Lovely clouds painted the sky in a multitude of colors and textures and forms. We could see Lower Cherry Falls miles away in Big Granite Canyon, the upper 150 feet, anyway, where Tom McGuire and I had screamed and shouted and laughed and danced until finally we subsided into stunned and silent awe, just a few days ago.

After a leisurely hour munching snacks, we retreated back to the Beacroft Pass and entertained vague ideas of visiting New York Canyon, were the road clear of snow, yet.

And the road was clear. But, merrily driving along, I suddenly saw that my Subie was out of gas. Impossible, but true. So we had to cancel further hiking and head back down the ridge to Foresthill. At least now I know my gas gauge can read way below Empty, and the Subie still runs.

Such was a brief but enjoyable visit to the middle-upper canyon, or the upper-middle; at any rate, we were pretty near the heart of the matter, and it is a wondrous heart.

Thursday, June 1, 2006

Adventure in Big Granite Canyon

When it's time to visit the really wild places, I call Tom McGuire and beg him to make the drive, up, up and away from Berkeley, away from his beautiful wife Mary, and towards the North Fork, and Danger, Uncertainty, Difficulty, and all kinds of such-like things.

Tom is a big man, rugged and strong, with a bit of a pony-tail, and a kind of wilding aura of bluff good fellowship and raucous irreverence. There is something archetypal going on there, which evokes for me a timeless persona; Tom could be, I think, the direct reincarnation of one of the Three Musketeers; one of the taller ones, surely, and surely one of the bolder Musketeers, oh yes, but first and foremost he could only be the most hopelessly romantic of the Musketeers. When Tom sees something beautiful, and that is quite often, that thing is always female.


A Western Tanager darts from the shelter of a Lodgepole Pine and hawks some insect from the air itself, in a flashing brilliance of orange and yellow and black and white. "Look at her, Russell," he shouts, "look at her! How pretty she is!"

Tho I patiently explain that it was the male of the species he saw, it matters not. A flower, a bird, a waterfall, a snake, a rock, a tree: if it's pretty, it's female.

Well. Once in a blue blue moon Tom actually heeds my siren song, and so it was with great expectations and much pleasure that I heard his thundering knock shake my cabin, at 7:45 a.m. Tuesday. I'd expected him at 8:00, and was not fully prepared, but rushed around stuffing oddments in my battered old frame pack, and complaining I would surely forget something, all the while showing Tom selected portions of the movie, Black Orpheus, containing the wonderful song by Jobim, "A Felicidade." Portuguese is a lovely language.

Soon we were eastbound on I-80, aiming for Kingvale, thence hooking around west on Old 40, past Donner Trail Elementary, to the Devils Peak (Troy) road, which passes under I-80 bearing south. I was pleased to find that snow did not make us park by the freeway itself; we were able to drive a little ways in, saving at least a quarter-mile.

Parking, we saddled up and trudged over mixed snow and mud up to the creosote-stinking railroad tracks. Crossing these, the road forks immediately, Devils Peak to the left, and the High Loch Leven Lake ski trail on the right. We bore right and climbed over hard snow into a forest of Red Fir and Lodgepole Pine. The instant the ski trail leveled, we broke away left on a contour and slowly approached Nancy Lake from the north.

Our destination was a huge waterfall in Big Granite Canyon, visible from miles south across the North Fork canyon, along the Iowa Hill Canal, out by the amazing Big Brush. We would enter Big Granite by the lowest pass available, at Nancy Lake, which perches on the Yuba/American divide itself, and actually drains both ways, south to the North Fork, north to the South Yuba.

It could be nothing but a killer hike, and must be done in two days if at all. We're not twenty-year-olds any more. On the map it looks simple: a mile south from I-80 puts you at Nancy, another mile and you are well within Big Granite Canyon, another mile to Warm Lake, and another mile, to the waterfall.

It is passing strange. To the west are the Loch Levens, lovely alpine lakes in a glaciated granite terrain, among the most popular hiking destinations in all Tahoe National Forest.

To the east is Devils Peak, climbed by dozens if not hundreds every year, and the popular Palisade Creek Trail.

But within Big Granite Canyon itself, there are no trails. I have visited it a half-dozen or so times since 1972, but, well, I'm me. However many times, it has never been enough, and I remain far from knowing this Big Granite Canyon at all well. I need to camp there for a week at a time at various seasons, and explore everything. Almost no one goes there. From the Loch Leven side, heavy brush can easily stop anyone from entering. From the Devils Peak side it is not much better. There are many small lakes and tarns in this glaciated topography, many a meadow too, but, oddly, strangely, perversely, no one goes there.

And yes, on the map, the hike down Big Granite to the giant waterfall looks trivial. A few miles, four or five at most, with a descent of 2000 feet in elevation from Nancy Lake, which is poised at 6700', and voila, as they say.

The first mile and a half of our route was over snow, with all due prayers that on the following afternoon it would still support our weight; then came the rock-hopping meandering descent, threading among and over a wilderness of granite domes and pavements, meandering east and west off our optimal line to avoid heavy brush; by the time we would reach the giant waterfall, I hoped we would be in a country so rocky and open that nary a single mosquito could dare set wing. None molested us on the way in.

Once south of Nancy, we looked for a way to break west into the next sub-canyon; there is quite a complex geometry of tributary canyons, forming the head of Big Granite Canyon itself. Nancy's own canyon looked too narrow and forested to be a good route, hence, we abandoned it in favor of sunny open granite to the west. It was wonderful to get off the snow.

We stopped at a lovely round lake with an island, where a regular army of Tanagers were singing and hawking all around, so we named it Lake Tanager. Snow still covered parts of the water, arranged in arcs around the tiny island, from some interplay of wind and currents.

To truly tell the story of our two days in Big Granite Canyon takes too many words, it will be better to sketch.

A series of granite steps in the canyon led us down five hundred feet at a time. This was the easy going; no snow, just picking one's way over open smooth granite, zigging here and zagging there, and views every which way: to the east, blade-like Devils Peak and massive Snow Mountain, well living up to its name; to the west, the brushy Cherry Point ridge, dividing Big and Little Granite creeks; to the south, the great gulf of the North Fork canyon, and beyond that, as through a window, the Tadpole-New York Canyon divide, and the Foresthill Divide.

At the base of each granite step we would find, perhaps, some broad glacial outwash floodplain, densely forested, and our zigs and zags became much smaller: three feet that way, four feet this way, up and over that log, bend low beneath that dead branch, then jump over that puddle of snow-melt in the pine needles; close your eyes and in fits and starts, bull through thready Dogwoods infesting the solemn forest. Occasionally we neared Big Granite Creek itself, rushing along in perfect clarity. Often vegetation was thicker near the creek, and without needing to think about it we just stayed clear, out of any sight, on the Snow Mountain side of things.

The forested floodplains taxed us, and as the day warmed we began to wonder, will we ever reach the waterfall?

There are several old railroad sections strung along the axis of Big Granite Canyon, which thank God now belong to Tahoe National Forest, but which, unfortunately, were helicopter-logged around 1991, by Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI), I believe. So, adding to the inherent difficulty of the forested glacial outwash floodplains were piles of logging slash and stumps which reminded me, again and again and again and again, that one of the wildest places left in all Tahoe National Forest, Big Granite Canyon, had been so casually mistreated.

As near as I can tell, the sequence was about like this: 1862-64: President Lincoln gives away every other square mile of our public lands to the Central Pacific Railroad; 1990: Lumber company buys old railroad sections at maybe as much as $100 per acre; 1991: Lumber company strips the heavy timber from the old-growth forest all along Big Granite Creek, leaving thousands of stumps, some on the edge of the creek itself; and 2003, Tahoe National Forest buys the already-logged land for about $1000 per acre.

It was more complicated than that, but this is just a sketch.

I am glad We the People own those sections now. In a century no trace of the 1991 logging will remain. We could accelerate the recovery by burning the stumps and slash. Give me fifty people and one summer and we'll set it right. Well. A hundred people would be better.

To me it is very very important that such wild areas remain wild.

Tom and I talked along these lines as we struggled down the canyon in increasingly warm temperatures. He was astounded that such rugged and wild country could exist, adjacent to I-80. No trails, cliffs every which way, snow-clad peaks like in the Colorado Rockies, granite cliffs and domes like Yosemite, waterfalls--why wasn't it already a National Park, he wondered. Or a Wilderness Area?

Exactly what I've been wondering, since 1972.

We passed Warm Lake, encountering still worse brush than ever before, not really slowing us much, but accumulating more and more scratches and frustration. The miles began to wear upon us. We found ourselves forced near the creek, which had magically increased in size, having received many tributaries while out of our view.

Snow Mountain is a gigantic massif, miles long, to the south falling 4500 feet into the Royal Gorge, and having as it were an East Summit and a West Summit, at either end of the long ridge at 8000', while the true summit is east of the middle, a gentle upland punctuated by a few minor rock towers, among which can be found ancient Indian hunting blinds, rock circles in which they lay concealed, waiting for, who knows, Bighorn Sheep, to approach. There are the flakes and shards of many types of stone in these circles, left from making arrowheads while waiting for game. One sees basalt and chert and quartz and more. I think they may well date to the Martis Culture, of 1500 to 4500 years ago.

As we descended Big Granite, Snow was always in view, but increasingly we saw only the West Summit, or West Buttress as I sometimes called it, falling away in snow-patched cliffs two thousand feet and more into Big Granite. We slowly passed below West Summit, and saw a certain glacially-sculpted spur ridge flaring away to the southwest therefrom; this I knew from my maps to lead almost exactly to the waterfall. The next ridge south, an east-thrusting spur from Cherry Point, 6720', meeting Big Granite Creek at, say, 4720', does lead exactly to the waterfall(s). Finally we could see both ridges, the one behind the other, and knew we were near.

By then Tom had Lost All Hope. He did not confide in me, but staggered along in a haze of exhaustion, lifting his mighty head from time to time to admire a five-foot cascade, and then (as I later learned) he would in bitter irony muse, "Russell was right; there certainly *are* big waterfalls, here."

Meanwhile, I was not confiding, to Tom, my rage at the stumps. I had had no idea that SPI would ever dare push their miserable harvest this far down the canyon (tho I should have guessed, SPI is all about the bottom line, and they even took out huge trees miles further away and down the canyon, beside the Big Granite Trail). I was walking along in a perfect storm of rage. The waterfalls were two or three hundred yards ahead, around a corner; that I knew. And there were *still* stumps? Murder and mayhem were on my mind.

In such fashion we rounded the Southwest Spur of West Summit and were greeted by an entirely new view of things. The world ended, for just one thing. Some kind of monstrous cliff lay dead ahead. Beside us, Big Granite Creek raged though a broad channel hewn from the solid slate of the Sailor Canyon Formation. Quite suddenly it was a Force, and rather scary. It was just screaming down the canyon towards the Edge of the World, in a froth of pure white water. I hurried southeast toward the Edge while Tom lagged near the first really violent cascades; he was still caught within his disbelief, tiredly agreeing with me, in his mind, yes, these are indeed great waterfalls. I began hollering for him to come look, but the river--for suddenly it seemed a river--was too loud.

A trinity of Western Juniper, surrounded by masses of Douglas Phlox, stood just shy of the Edge of the World. I laid my pack down in the shade beneath the junipers, and rushed to see what could be happening. The river spread wide just before it reached the edge, splitting into three channels around bosses of slate, and over a breadth of fifty feet sailed into space. This first falls was perhaps 150 feet high, and near the base a huge rooster tail of water shot out away from the cliff, where some ledge lay hidden.

It was immediately clear that this was not that gargantuan waterfall which Ron Gould and Catherine O'Riley and I had seen, last June, from across the North Fork, on the Tadpole-New York Canyon cliffs.

The missing waterfall could only be farther down.

Another waterfall peeked from a screen of forest a quarter-mile away to the east, but we would have to cross Big Granite to get much of an angle on the thing. This too had been invisible from the TadYork cliffs; it looked to be higher yet, 200 feet at least, descending from the west face of Snow Mountain.

I rushed back to find Tom blithely photographing a foaming cascade, still unaware that we had at last Arrived. I nearly had to drag him away. At last he reached the Edge of the World and could see for himself; then I could stop all my chattering and leave the endless superlatives quite alone; Tom took up the slack. He launched into a tirade of combined religious awe and disbelief: I see that it is a miracle, but how could it ever be true? But it is true! It is here! And no one knows about it! It has no name, no one comes here, no one walks here! But we are here, and it is here! It is Yosemite, but better yet than Yosemite, because no one knows, no one at all!

It must have been near three in the afternoon. We had left the car around nine that morning. We were thrashed. The creek had to be forded, that was clear; else how see the West Snow Mountain Falls, how reach the missing waterfalls, somewhere below? For the Snow side of things suddenly became nothing but sheer cliffs, but the Cherry Point side was passable, if steep.

First we must rest, in the shade of the Juniper Trinity, right above Trinity Falls, or as we agreed to name it, Upper Cherry Falls. So there was a certain amount of lazing around and recovering from the horrors of our long hike, snacking on crackers and carrots, and contriving to rest in various awkward positions, for rocks pushed up through the flowery turf, but after some study one could curl up this way or that and maybe just miss rocks one, two, three, four and five. The sun blazed down from clear blue skies, and the daytime upcanyon wind wafted fine spray back above the falls, cooling us a little.

In an hour we were ready. The creek, the river, flowed over a broad expanse of polished slate, flat as a table in many areas, just above the falls; the broadness meant shallowness, and we essayed a ford. There was quite a nasty tug as one crossed the deepest area, slightly over knee deep, and I felt the current literally slide me inches towards the falls; but one more step led to shallower water, and safety. I breathed a sigh of relief; Tom had had no trouble at all, it seemed, so it was just my nerves. Or was that ford more dangerous than I had imagined?

Well, stupid, what could be worse than fording a fast river directly above a 150-foot waterfall?

The geology here is somewhat interesting and complicated. The granite for which the canyon is named is confined to its uppermost couple-few miles. It would appear to be the same granite as is exposed around the Loch Levens, and also to the east, in Palisade Creek. It is a dirty granite, much veined with dark mafic materials and inclusions. These can make for spectacular patterns in the rock. The mafic stuff may link to the Emigrant Gap Mafic Complex (gabbros and dunites), some miles west.

The granite makes a sharp contact with the Middle Jurassic Tuttle Lake Formation, a suite of both extrusive and intrusive volcanic rocks, formed underwater somewhere out in the Pacific. Here again there is evidence of a link to the Emigrant Gap Mafic Complex; the sills of intrusive rock, like quasi-andesites grading into diorites, are thought to be connected by feeders to the Complex.

Then the whole ball of wax was rotated ninety degrees east, during the Nevadan Orogeny. It was then uplifted and uplifted and uplifted. A mile of stuff, or maybe several miles, was eroded away. Leaving what we see today.

Immediately southwest of the Tuttle Lake Formation lies the Sailor Canyon Formation; sometimes the contact between the two is gradational, elsewhere one sees an unconformity.

Snow Mountain is made mostly from the Tuttle Lake, which has massive, almost granitoid properties in its response to glaciation. That is, it resists, valiantly.

The Sailor Canyon Formation, about a mile thick of slates and metasandstones, is also derived from volcanic sources; the sediments are called "volcanogenic." These strata carry occasional fossils of ammonites, something like chambered nautiluses.

Sometimes the Sailor Canyon shows rhythmic bedding, alternating strata of light and dark, even black and white, rock. This was just the case where we forded: the river ran along strike, crystal clear, and the flat floor of the channel was made of dozens of white and black strata, all turned up on edge as it were.

Miles farther down Big Granite Canyon, other formations are met, all metamorphic.

From a geomorphology standpoint, the different rock types have governed the landscape evolution. The upper canyon, in granite, is broad and classically U-shaped, just what we expect in glaciated terrain.

The transition to metamorphic rock, as one goes from the granite into the Tuttle Lake, is not strongly marked by topography, for as mentioned above, the Tuttle Lake is unusually granitoid in its response to erosion.

The transition to the Sailor Canyon, however, is marked by a sudden drastic deepening of the canyon, and equally suddenly Big Granite Canyon becomes V-shaped, rather than U-shaped.

This V-shape is often thought to mark stream erosion, rather than glacial erosion, but that is not at all the case here. If anything, the ice bore all the harder in those deeper V-shaped depths of Big Granite.

What I am trying to say, in part, is that if one were to construct a laboratory in which to measure the differing responses of granite and slate to glacial (and fluvial) erosion, one could scarcely do better than to build another Big Granite Canyon.

But we already have one, so that problem at least is solved.

The same contrast in response to erosion is seen when one compares the upper South Yuba to the upper North Fork American: the former canyon, floored in granite, is scarcely a thousand feet deep; the North Fork, floored in metamorphic rock, is over three thousand feet deep.

But the two canyons have basins similar in size, and adjacent. And here in the Sierra, climate is much of a muchness: we need not worry that, somehow, the North Fork receives more snow or rain than the South Yuba.

No, the great contrast, the great geomorphological contrast of the Northern Sierra, the contrast between South Yuba and North Fork American, is mostly an artifact of differing rock types.

We see it played out again, in miniature, in Big Granite Canyon, and many other places, actually. The sudden deepening of a canyon, when it passes into metamorphic rock.

Here Big Granite makes an abrupt descent of something like a thousand feet. Of course there are waterfalls; that whole stretch is nothing but waterfalls, and cascades! I had dreamed of visiting it for years, now here I was!

The slopes of slate to either side were dotted with granite eggs, erratics dragged by the ice from farther upcanyon. Two such eggs, four or six feet through, perched atop the falls on the west. We pushed between the two eggs, and descended a short steep cliff to a sunny broad ledge, maybe thirty feet below the top of the falls. It was all thunder and confusion and white water flinging free into the wild wild world, and cold spray wetting us. Amazing. Huge. Awesome.

Below, we could see some sheeted cascades leading to the top of another high falls, but clearly not "The One" visible from the TadYork cliffs. A bit of a scramble put us in Canyon Live Oaks clinging to the cliffs amid patches of sharp slate talus. The instant we were below the top of Upper Cherry Falls, we met Poison Oak for the first time. But it was a strange mixture: Western Juniper and Jeffrey Pine growing beside Canyon Live Oak and Bay Laurel.

But mostly, rock upon rock, cliff upon cliff.

Our new vantage brought us our first good views of West Snow Mountain Falls. They were a series of high waterfalls, not really much separated by pools, and we were much inclined to call the whole sequence, one big waterfall. In which case, Snow Mountain Falls must measure around 600 feet high. They are absolutely incredible! The cliffs they descend seem made from Tuttle Lake rocks, but one can see vast belts of Sailor Canyon strata sweeping across this vast amphitheater. Flowering Pacific Dogwood and Bigleaf Maple dotted the forests and cliffs.

To the south we could look across Snow's giant Southwest Spur to the headwaters of both branches, east and west, of New York Canyon. But we could not see deep enough to see the 500-foot waterfall there. From Cherry Point, two thousand feet above, yes. But not from down here by Cherry Falls.

Picking our way down, we were amazed by all we saw; Middle Cherry Falls, looks to be about a 100-footer, and once we reached it, we could see the top of yet another high waterfall, below.

The lay of the land convinced me it must be The One. The Big One. We had descended two hundred feet, now we must give up another hundred. So what! More cautious picking of ways down loose talus, more leaping from rock to rock. Soon we were there, and forced our way to the very top of the falls.

Oh my God.

Instantly we saw we must descend another hundred feet, to a certain promontory blessed with flat grassy terraces, from which we would see Everything.

This was the matter of a minute and now the enormity of it all came crashing down.

Here was a 200-foot waterfall, big and broad and white as snow; at its base it was joined by 600-foot West Snow Mountain Falls, their waters swirling briefly through and elliptical pool before plunging into yet another waterfall; below that, another, then another, another, another, another.

To get to the base of the Big One, to that strange strange Confluence of Waterfalls, would mean dropping another two hundred feet, and hoping we could somehow climb back up near the river itself. Ha. This was beyond us. We had hiked many a hard mile and dropped two thousand five hundred feet. Every foot would be won back at some cost. Another two hundred was just not in the cards.

We were absolutely awestruck, to the point that Tom even lapsed into silence. Once the cheering and screaming was over, what could one say? We agreed that no matter how we told the story, or how many photos we shared, no one, no one at all, would grasp what was really going on here. It was way way beyond all that.

We decided to call The Big One "Lower Cherry Falls." The highest falls on Big Granite are concentrated near the base of a certain spur ridge running right to the summit of Cherry Point. Moreover, the falls were "cherry." So it worked in a couple ways, that name.

We spent quite a while down there, and on our return, hewed closer to the mad river, and found a way to approach the base of Upper Cherry. Climbing steeply from there, we crossed cliffs rife with wild onions, mostly in bloom, purple thready pincushion flowers, and quite lovely.

The sun was lowering in the west as we reached our ford. The creek seemed higher, and faster. No problem, Tom affirmed; I'll wear my shoes this time, have better grip on the polished rock. So we girded our loins and rolled our pants up high (actually, Tom just took his off), and waded in.

I had supplied myself with a staff, this time, and was taken aback when I could get no purchase at all on the polished rock; the staff would just skitter and slide away. It was about worthless.

A few feet apart, we stepped cautiously into the deeper section, and immediately pulled back.

The sharp tug of a couple hours before had become an irresistible force. Several times one or the other of us would try one single step into deeper water, but each time we pulled back.

I reached out my hand to Tom; a firefighter friend had taught me that most rivers can be forded, when linked together. But he wanted none of it. He was about to just ford the damn thing and get it over. I suggested we look for a safer ford, upstream, not so close to the falls, and turned and began making for the bank, twenty feet away. I heard nothing, saw nothing, but once I reached the bank and turned around, Tom was lunging towards me, drenched. He had committed to one step into deeper water and been instantly overturned. It was a miracle he was not swept down and over the falls. Somehow he found his footing and got clear of the deeps.

We were thoroughly shaken.

Moving upstream, we eventually settled upon another broad spot, and forded without incident, except, we both felt that the river had grown, and grown very dangerous, and was flowing much faster.

Of course it was; warm days melt snow, and the river had been rising slowly all day. I felt stupid to have forgotten that pattern, which so often governed when I could cross some river or another when backpacking in the High Sierra, as a young man. The same creek one could quite easily ford early in the morning, after a cold night had slowed the melt, might become impassable and deadly by four in the afternoon. So one's route had to take such facts into consideration.

Returning to camp, we found that Big Granite had risen a few inches at most; but those few inches meant a big difference. We resolved not to ford it again, and congratulated ourselves on our timing: had we come here two weeks ago, we could never have forded it at all, and thus never reached the Cherry Point side of the river, and thus never seen West Snow Mountain Falls, nor Middle Cherry Falls, nor Lower Cherry Falls.

It was pleasant to relax, and have some simple food, and watch the shadow of Cherry Point climb higher and high on Snow Mountain, until at last the only light left was across the North Fork on the Foresthill Divide, and then even that was gone.

We slept beneath the stars, on either side of our Juniper Trinity, both of us a little fidgety and restless, awaking often to mark how little the glittering stars had shifted.

The rest of our story is not much to tell. In the morning, we packed up and went upstream a third of a mile to where a giant Incense Cedar had bridged the river; leaving our packs, we crossed, and descended again to Lower Cherry Falls, this time watching as the morning light gradually lit it up brighter than bright, foot by foot, from top to bottom.

All good things must end and so around ten we started the climb of two thousand five hundred feet, back to Nancy Lake.

It was a long trudge up and out, tho oddly maybe a little faster than our descent, for we started up from the log bridge around eleven in the morning, and reached my Subie at 3:48 p.m.

On the way up we each scared the same juvenile Golden Eagle into flight from pines high on granite domes. It's fun to hit the domes while down there, they offer great views.

Lake Tanager was entirely free of snow, after twenty-four hours.

Nearing the top, we hit the snow and had maybe a mile and a half of it before breaking clear down by the railroad. This mile and a half was hard to endure, being already exhausted, and we slogged slowly on. However, my prayers were answered, we had little problem at all with breaking through the snow. It held us up well. But, it being later in the day, it was slushier, and our shoes and socks were soaked. The instant I reached the car the shoes and socks came off.

We were utter wrecks. Ruined. But we had dared a seemingly simple thing: a trailless descent of Big Granite Canyon, to some of the best waterfalls in this part of the Sierra. We had succeeded, although we had taken chances we should not have taken (fording Big Granite, right above the falls--so dumb!).

It was a miraculous trip. Very difficult. Very rewarding.

Such were an incredible two days in North Fork country. Wow.

These waterfalls are well worth visiting, but are very hard to get to when they are at all big. Just as with the remarkable 500-foot waterfall in New York Canyon, if one waits until the snow is gone, well, the falls have diminished drastically from their spring peak.

If anyone considers visiting Cherry Falls, I recommend a day hike or two into Big Granite Canyon to familiarize yourself with the terrain. Even to go only as far as Warm Lake, from back north of the tracks near I-80, would be a rather huge day hike. If you were very fit and strong, and knew your route perfectly, you could try to do Cherry Falls as a day hike, on a long summer day. But it would be one hell of a hike.

Tom and I suffered to visit these falls; I am still very sore, a day later. But, oh wow, oh my God, they are things of great wonder and beauty and power!