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!

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