Friday, October 13, 2006

Government Springs

Car troubles have kept me at home in recent weeks, where I have been much devoted to my guitar, learning the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim; and, finding that one piece, Insensatez, had been derived from Chopin's famous little Prelude in E Minor, Op. 28 #4, I was led to acquire the sheet music for the Prelude, and to adapt it for guitar.

Now the car is fixed, and so yesterday I took a hike with Alex Henderson, that Dutch Flat philosopher with whom, long ago, I patiently investigated the question of just how far a Frisbee might fly, if thrown with great vigor and force directly down Main Street. We were never quite satisfied with the answer, feeling that, if a Frisbee could just maintain a level and straightforward attitude, a truly manly state of mind, it might succeed in passing the Hotel altogether, and reach the Oddfellows Hall, or even the Runckle Bakery.

And those are both historic buildings!

At any rate, Alex and I drove up to Emigrant Gap and thence on Forest Road 19 to Texas Hill and the road to Sawtooth Ridge. As always, deep philosophical questions occupied us. Could it be, that for all this great length of time, for all our long and noble history, we humans have been wrong, and very much mistaken, and that we should never, ever, refer to the "speed" of light, but only to its slowness?

In such fashion we drove past Burnett Canyon and followed the Sawtooth Road south to a fork where a shotgun-blasted Tahoe National Forest (TNF) sign may once have said, Go Left to Government Springs; we went left, and in half a mile another shotgun-blasted TNF sign marked another left, but a metal gate blocked our way so we parked and started down the trail to Mumford Bar.

These sparkling clear and sunny October days are ideal for hiking.

This was Alex's first time on one of the Upper Canyon trails; we strode merrily along down the narrow track, down and down and down and down, switching back and forth in an ancient forest of Canyon Live Oak, and when finally we stopped to rest, we were still a thousand feet above the river, yet we had already hiked the equivalent of the Euchre Bar Trail.

I had planned to explore a little side-trail which, I remembered, broke away west a little below our resting-spot, and soon we reached the thing and followed it along, over a rock outcrop which had pretty clearly been hacked out to make the trail, and on to a larger outcrop laced with quartz veins. We could see signs that the quartz had been hammered and samples broken off; possibly this happened in the 1860s, when the riches of Virginia City and the excitement at Meadow Lake made many men wonder whether they might become millionaires overnight, too; all it took, after all, was finding a rich gold vein.

I had hoped that this little westward-trending trail had led to the river itself, a mile or two downstream from Mumford Bar; but no. It appears to have been constructed merely to access the quartz veins. Nowadays bears like to use it, and we saw a couple of small conifers torn down and broken, as bears are wont to do to small trees along their favorite trails. They will grab the tree about five feet above the ground and just snap the trunk.

Alex deeply appreciated the depth of the great canyon, so deeply that he decided the better part of valor was to descend no further, but only to ascend, ascend, ascend. There is a kind of terror which can strike, when following one of these fine old trails to the river; one cannot forget that here, at least, what goes down must come back up. And that climb back up and out can be a bit of a pain. It's that climb Gene Markley and his gorge-scrambling gang used to call the Bath of Fire.

So the question becomes, just how bad is the Bath of Fire, on such-and-such a trail?

It's a pretty long and hot and bad bath, on the Government Springs Trail to Mumford Bar.

On these south-facing slopes of Sawtooth Ridge, the soils are thin and rocky, and sometimes an almost pure stand of Canyon Live Oak, Quercus chrysolepsis, covers the canyon wall. The bedrock is meta-sandstone and slate of the early-Paleozoic Shoo Fly Complex, but here and there on the steep slopes, vestiges of glacial till persist.

In these usually small areas, the soils deepen and consequently are richer and better-watered, so a smattering of Kellogg's Black Oak will mix in with the Canyon Live Oaks. Often the till is almost unrecognizable, in that it itself is made of Shoo Fly Complex rocks; so there is nothing much to tell the till apart from the ordinary run of rocks littering those steep slopes, except that the till rocks are often somewhat rounded.

Many a wildfire has swept these slopes, and almost every single Canyon Live Oak is a multi-trunked stump sprout from wildfires sixty or a hundred and sixty (or whatever) years ago. In contrast, the Kellogg's Black Oaks, which will also stump-sprout vigorously if their trunks and tops are killed in a wildfire, are nearly all sprung from acorns, and are single-trunked trees less than one hundred years old. I am not sure how to interpret this difference in growth form between the two species, on the same canyon wall.

It is notable, and perhaps pertinent to the above, that the larger Canyon Live Oaks are often found rooted directly on rock outcrops. It may take a much hotter fire to completely kill the Canyon Live Oaks, than the Kellogg's Black Oaks.

For, a really hot fire can kill the root systems of these oaks, in which case, they cannot stump-sprout.

The crest of Sawtooth Ridge, here, has the usual couple-few hundred feet of Miocene-Pliocene andesitic mudflow capping it, below which is the Oligocene-Miocene rhyolite ash layer, marked by Government Springs itself and by other springs (for there is always a perched aquifer on such ridges, and whatever water soaks into the andesitic mudflow, emerges eventually in the rhyolite springs--for the rhyolite acts as an aquaclude, preventing the water from soaking down through it).

Below the rhyolite ash (usually included in the Valley Springs Formation, although it is clearly more than one "formation") are the Eocene-age gravels of an ancient river; and below these gravels, the much much much more ancient bedrock, the Shoo Fly Complex metasediments.

It was here, by Government Springs, that Dutch Flat gold miner and photographer I.T. Coffin had his "Big Spring Mine," which tapped the Eocene river channel via one or more "drifts," horizontal tunnels. The pay gravel came out ore-cart-load by ore-cart-lode, and was washed through a sluice box with spring water stored in a small reservoir. Coffin worked the Big Spring Mine in the 1880s and 1890s. Earlier, from 1858 to 1864, he had lived in Burnett Canyon.

Alex and I walked slowly up the gently graded trail, and once back at the car, we enjoyed some almost cold brown ales and some spicy potato chips, and counted it a Job Well Done, and a Good Hike, even tho we had never reached the North Fork; for what can there be to complain about, in wandering the elfin sunlit oak woods, following bear trails which maybe just maybe could be old human trails, and watching and watching all the sun-spangled shimmer of gold and green leaves trembling against the deep blue depths of the great deep canyon? No, we had nothing to complain about.

So it was another great day in the canyon.

We intend to do something about the damnable slowness of the speed of light, but thus far we lack any actual plan of attack. Philosophy does not always come easy.

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