Saturday, July 22, 2006

To the Teacups

Friday dawned cloudy, and stayed cloudy, and summer thunderstorms were said to be brewing in the Sierra. Hence Ron Gould and I thought it the better part of valor to bid Responsibility a poignant goodbye and strenuously stray in search of Wildness and Beauty.

Ron suggested the Big Granite Trail, where our chances of rain would be high, but I made a bid for the China Trail, out of Lost Camp, and since the Big Granite Trail would end up meaning actual work (it is quite the demanding trail), we wavered a little but left I-80 at Blue Canyon and drove the two odd miles down south towards the railroad, before breaking left past a cluster of old houses onto the road to Lost Camp.

All this area is depicted on the USGS 7.5 minute Blue Canyon quadrangle, including the China Trail, which, however, is unlabeled.

Here a new house is a-building beside the road, and two signs which first appeared last summer remain, telling all the world that this marks the End of County Maintained Road, and moreover, to Keep Out.

This is a historic public road, dating back to the late 1850s, and it is an absurdity to tell We the People to Keep Out, but, hey, this is Parcel County. Parcel mining is an important part of the local economy, and to hell with the consequences.

One of the best ways to mine parcels is by way of the no-pun-intended Minor Subdivision, in which, say, one 40-acre parcel becomes four 10-acre parcels. The actual mining process often begins with a timber harvest. Then comes the subdivision, and then the sale of the new parcels. The new owners rush to nail up as many "No Trespassing" signs as possible, and then commence their desperate worries about Road Maintenance.

Road Maintenance costs money, and any use of the road whatsoever involves some degree of wear-and-tear, so, when the new owner stops and thinks about it, it is only good sense to discourage We the People from using the same road our great-grandfathers used. For goodness' sake, We the People will raise a cloud of dust, and our tires may well bounce a bit of gravel to the side. So, it is only prudent to go to Parcel County itself, and to explain the problem of people who do not own parcels using the very road which gives access to those parcels. Of course Parcel County comes through with flying colors, and an End County Maintained Road sign appears in all its glory, as official as a sign can be.

I have been a little afraid to visit Lost Camp and the China Trail, inasmuch as a major timber harvest has been approved, and at any time Siller Brothers lumber company could set their bulldozers swarming over the historic town site and trailhead.

Lost Camp boomed into existence in 1858, and was a hydraulic mining town from the get-go, a patch of auriferous Eocene-age river gravels capping the ridge dividing Blue Canyon from the North Fork of the North Fork American River (NFNFAR), said gravels only needing water to make men rich.

There is quite a maze of canyons in the area, all tributaries of the NFNFAR: Blue Canyon, Texas Canyon, Fulda Canyon, Sailor Ravine, the East Fork of the NFNFAR, Burnett Canyon, and Wilmont Ravine.

I breathed a sigh of relief when Ron and I reached Lost Camp, and we saw that the bomb had not yet dropped, the logging had not yet begun, and we passed quite a number of side roads before reaching that one particular road left which leads to the China Trail.

This trail is sometimes called the "China Bar Trail," suggesting that Chinese miners worked the river there; this is supported by the 1863 diary of Isaac Tibbetts Coffin, who lived at Texas Hill and used the trail frequently. He does not call it the China Trail, or the China Bar Trail, but does record that Chinese from Dutch Flat were in the business of purchasing mining claims in the area. Perhaps by the 1880s the trail had received its present name.

Lost Camp derives its name from the maze of many canyons, the Gorge of Many Gorges, which baffled mapmakers for decade after decade, and by the late 1850s, had led to a number of stories about Rich Diggings found, late in the fall season, and then lost, for, on the following summer, when the Sure Thing was to be worked down to bedrock, and all lucky enough to be involved would become Rich Men and go back East to the States, to live like barons in New Hampshire or whatever--on the following summer, the Rich Diggings could never, ever, be found.

So when at last an actual town was built, safely above and beyond the Gorge of Many Gorges, it was named Lost Camp, in keeping with the local traditions.

The China Trail once crossed the NFNFAR and climbed to Sawtooth Ridge, which is the divide between the main North Fork and the NFNFAR. The trail was built in 1862 to allow pack trains from Dutch Flat to reach the Texas Hill area, where a number of miners lived. It later became an official "system trail" in Tahoe National Forest (TNF), and like most such official trails, it had already existed for decades before TNF was established, in 1905.

So the trusty old rangers maintained the China Trail, and blazed the grand old trees along it, and drew it on their maps, and placed signs at either end (at Lost Camp and Sawtooth Ridge), and in fact did everything good forest rangers ought to do. And then ... and then the rangers stopped maintaining the China Trail, and the old railroad lands on Sawtooth were hit hard by timber harvests, and the usual welter of stumps and slash and skid trails obliterated the China Trail, on that side of the NFNFAR. Last summer Jerry Rein and I managed to find and follow the exact line of this historic trail, through the devastated area. We even found the old TNF signpost, at the crest of Sawtooth, the sign itself missing, the post rotting on the ground in the manzanita.

Well. Ron and I were perturbed to find that OHVers had been widening the China Trail for their "quads." Many a forty-acre parcel has been divided into four ten-acre parcels around greater Blue Canyon, and the new owners not only like "No Trespassing" and "Keep Out" signs, they like riding their quads anywhere and everywhere.

Ron spotted a distant waterfall through the trees, which we took to be the 200-foot Burnett Canyon Falls, below Texas Hill.

Eventually we dropped below the recent OHV work and followed the old trail, with its Forest Service "small i" blazes now almost unrecognizable on the trunks of ancient trees, down to the NFNFAR, sparkling clear and cold. First we visited Slate Camp (as I call it), just downstream and across the river, where a truly great swimming hole is adjacent to a gravel bar much grown over with various dogwoods and other riparian vegetation, well hiding an elaborate camp with benches and thrones of stacked slate around a slate fire-ring.

It appeared the OHVers had preceded us, at any rate, garbage and bullet casings littered the area. Butterflies swirled around us, especially some which resembled Pine Whites, and flew in a lazy flip-flopping slow motion. Soon they discovered our sweaty clothes and packs, which lay in heaps around us, and I took many photographs.

I have been concentrating more on butterflies this year, and less on flowers, and having made the acquaintance of famous entomologist Art Shapiro of U.C. Davis, I send him my photographs, and he replies with genus, species, sub-species, and gender. Thus he will write, for instance, "The second photo is a female Speyeria callippe Juba."

The non-riparian forest flanking the NFNFAR is dominated by Canyon Live Oak and Douglas Fir, with lesser numbers of Incense Cedar and Ponderosa Pine, but with a somewhat unusual incidence of the California Nutmeg, or Torreya, a conifer. The largest Torreya I have seen in Placer County are near the base of the China Trail. These trees do not have cones, but bear single large seeds which resemble husky green olives. Torreya have very large and brash and stiff and sharp needles, of a glossy dark green, which stink unpleasantly if bruised.

We had the luck to see a Kingfisher, just bombing down the river, only a few feet above the water, so that at first I thought, "Ouzel," but then saw the brilliant blues and white and the crest on the head. And then it was gone, away and down the canyon.

We had seen a new truck at the trailhead, and decided to work upstream towards the Pool of Cold Fire, expecting to find some people along the way, which we did, a friendly young couple fly-fishing in midstream.

The young man warned us about rocks and rattlesnakes. I suppose that this was his Secret Spot, and we were unschooled interlopers. We did manage to stir up a rattlesnake as we boulder-hopped upstream on the left bank, but neither of us saw the thing.

The Pool of Cold Fire stops further progress upstream. The Gorge of Many Gorges begins here. Usually I swim the Pool and then use a complicated route to climb up and around a waterfall, dropping back down to the NFNFAR a little ways above the falls, where some fairly serious gorge-scrambling begins. It is this area some old aficionados of local gorges call The Teacups. The bedrock is all metasediments of the Shoo Fly Complex, mainly metasandstone, the strata nearly vertical, and it is scoured and polished into wonderfully rounded forms along the river,

We both tried on a little swimming in the cold water, but we had no method of keeping our packs dry while swimming the two hundred feet of the cliff-bound pool, and it appeared our rather modest explorations had reached an end. I sat on the gravel and scanned the cliffs across the way. Surely there must be some kind of fisherman's trail, or some old miners' trail, which would ascend those cliffs, and somehow, some way, lead up into the Gorge of Many Gorges? I decided to have a look.

With my usual acrobatic flair I jumped from boulder to boulder across the river below the Pool, and worked upstream to the cliffs. Sure enough, a route was found, which only required a little out-and-out rock-climbing, and once I saw that it would actually work, I went back and begged Ron to check it out. He was reluctant. Worse than that, he said "No." So. How could I appeal to his Better Nature, to his Higher Self?

How else than by Jealousy?

"Oh well," I offered, "you would really like it up there, Ron. It's that area, you know, which Steve Hunter and his Gang call The Teacups." I wished to convey the idea that the real studs of gorge-scrambling thought nothing of slippery cliffs and hot days and angry rattlesnakes and had ever so much fun doing what no one else in the world dared to do, so much fun they had to give the place its own special name. Few were the heros enrolled upon the short list of those who had braved the severe dangers which attend upon The Teacups, dangers which in fact throng all around The Teacups, hell, even if someone were bold enough to swim the Pool of Cold Fire, they were immediately brought to bay by the big waterfall. Fewer than few had ever made it beyond that supremely scary spot, etc. etc.

Well. Most of the above was only in my mind. Somehow, tho, it worked, and Ron relented and led the way back up the cliffs and, soon enough, we were amid those glorious Teacups, with high old cliffs overhanging on every side, and waterfalls and cascades and deep pools and water-polished miniature synclines and anticlines folding the almost-quartzite metasediments into tight arcs.

We only went a little ways, far enough to peer up the gorge and see about where the main NFNFAR enters the Gorge of Many Gorges from the north; for the main axis of the Gorge better aligns with the East Fork of the North Fork of the North Fork, than with the higher reaches of the NFNFAR itself.

Having succeeded in all our objectives, it only remained to slowly retreat back down the gorge, over the cliffs, to boulder-hop along the river below, and then make a sweat-dripping slog up the old old trail to Ron's truck. Our clouds had gradually drifted apart and let the sun shine into the canyon, so that great masses of warm air began to form, and it was time to take things quite slow and steady.

But it is only a 1500-foot climb, and the grades are easy. We reached the truck without incident and such was a great day in the North Fork country, great, yes, but disturbing on several counts, what with the Keep Out signs and the No Trespassing signs and what with OHVers transforming the historic foot trail into a quad trail.

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