Wednesday, March 28, 2007

A Virtual Landscape

[written March 28, 2007]

I have posted, on YouTube, a 30-second animation depicting the terrain around the North Fork of the American River. The "virtual landscape" is seen as if from perhaps thirty miles above, looking straight down, and oriented like most maps, with north up, east right, west left, south down. See

The area encompassed by the animation extends from Colfax on the west (lower left) nearly to Donner Pass on the east (upper right); one can see, from north to south (top to bottom), portions of the canyons of the South Yuba, Steephollow, Bear River, Blue Canyon, North Fork of the North Fork American, North Fork American, Indian Canyon, Shirttail Canyon, North Fork of the Middle Fork American, Middle Fork American (with French Meadows Reservoir seen on center right), and at the lower right, a bit of the Rubicon and Hell Hole Reservoir.

The animation involves use of a sun position algorithm to move a virtual sun across the sky, along the exact path it would follow on the Vernal (and therefore, also, Autumnal) Equinox.

On the equinoxes, the sun rises due east and sets due west. As it passes through the southern sky, midway between dawn and sunset, it rises high enough to fairly well fill the various canyons with light; but in the early morning and late afternoon, deep shadows haunt the canyons, and the relief of the landscape is seen to its best advantage. Relief-enhancing low-angle illumination is usually preferred by those geologists who use aerial photos to trace the courses of fault zones, or to study geomorphology. I use this same trick on my "virtual" landscapes.

Here, about five minutes separates one frame of the animation from the next. I begin before dawn and finish after sunset. In the YouTube movie, the animation runs twice, and the second time through, little flashing lights were attached to Lovers Leap, on the west at Giant Gap, and Snow Mountain, on the east at the Royal Gorge. The two points are about twenty air miles apart.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Lost Camp Road Closure?

[written March 22, 2007]

Ron Gould tells me that there may be a movement afoot to gate the old road to Lost Camp from Blue Canyon. It's been about ten years since I started asking Tahoe National Forest to protect the historic China Trail and the Bradley & Gardner mining ditch, both in the Lost Camp area. I believe outright acquisition of the private lands at Lost Camp is quite important.

Howsosever, it happens that the road running south from near Blue Canyon, across the railroad, to the historic mining town of Lost Camp, and to the China Trail, and beyond, to the overgrown old trail running down the Lost Camp Divide, to the Rawhide Mine--the old road, I repeat, passes through yet other private parcels, north of Lost Camp. One of these is owned by a man who posts huge "no trespassing" signs and carries a pistol. He even puts "no trespassing" signs entirely off his property, on Tahoe National Forest land.

This man, it seems, wants to close the Lost Camp Road to the public. It is said he has contacted other property owners nearby, and proposed that they gate the road.

This has been a public road since at least 1858. In case we have to go to court to show the public's right, Ron is interested in talking to anyone who has used the road before 1970. His email address is

For more information about Lost Camp, see my web page at

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Garbage Supreme

[written March 18, 2007]

After receiving a goodly number of emails of the "sorry, I can't make it" variety, and a lesser number reading "maybe I can make it," and but one single "I'll be there", I was not surprised to find only Joe Gerber at the Tesoro gas station at Dutch Flat. It was quite a beautiful day for hiking in the Great American Canyon, as it was once called. We waited until 10:08 for latecomers, and proceeded to the trailhead.

I knew that good old Steve Hunter would join our garbage party somewhat later, possibly with reinforcements, and I knew that whether it was today, or a month from today, the last of that despicable pile of trash left by "gold miners" was leaving the canyon. That garbage was marked for death. Its time in the great canyon was short, very very short. It really only remained to have some fun, see the river, admire flowers, lop some brush off this or that ancient trail, hoist some ungainly mass of junk onto our backs, and then trudge slowly up and up and up and out.

I had never met Joe. He recounted that he had moved to California in 1980, and had immediately run afoul of The Cedars, that club of wealthy self-admirers with land in the upper North Fork, who have arrogated unto themselves the historic public trail down the river to Heath Falls. Joe had found a way wide around, and had, of course, fallen in love with the place. So we soon established points in common.

It was Joe's first visit to Green Valley. I took him down the East Trail to the High Ditch, which we followed west through its sharp bends in and out of Ginseng Ravine (named for the water-loving native, Aralia californica, growing around perennial springs at its head), to the Meadow Cedar on the West Trail, and thence to the river, passing the old suspension bridge site, to trail's end, where some of the miners' garbage remained.

We had lunch amid many butterflies of many types, admiring the North Fork, flowing so high and fast and cold, what with the recent heat wave destroying the snowpack in the high country. We saw a group of seven kayakers whip past, on their way to Mineral Bar, near Colfax, a dozen miles or so downstream. They would dare the rapids of Giant Gap, which is much more than I would dare, incidentally.

Steve Hunter and Dan Farmer joined us, mentioning another man on the trail, who proved to be one of our party, although we did not know that yet, by name of Ron Brasel, and as we rolled up moldy sleeping bags and bulky foam mattresses and gathered the last odds and ends of the miners' mess, Steve and Dan said they were making for the Hotel Site, to the east, and would return to the Meadow Cedar to load up with garbage, later. So Joe and I were on our own again.

We climbed to the Meadow Cedar, and rested for a while, and I took my loppers and worked on an excellent route linking the High Ditch to the Low West Trail. The connection between the two has been difficult since many Ponderosa Pines died in a bark-beetle infestation nearly thirty years ago, and then fell, criss-crossing the trail in many places. After maybe an hour of this I rejoined Joe. The sun was still fairly high, and we didn't want to make the climb until shade had blessed the ridge bearing the Green Valley Trail. While I had been away lopping, Joe had worked on loading his pack, and it had become this gargantuan deformity which weighed around sixty pounds. This meant, first and foremost, that Joe would be slow. So we decided to leave without the full blessings of shade, and work higher until stopped by the sun.

We reached the Peter Wright Anvil, hidden along the trail, and took a sustained break, for sun still scalded the ridge above us. Steve and Dan and Ron caught us up, and I found that Ron had waited for us that morning, at the top of the trail, but we had missed him, taking a slightly different and shorter route. So, almost miraculously, but mainly because Joe was carrying so very very much, we five were carrying *all* the garbage left by the miners of last fall, the miners of the white van.

During our time at the Peter Wright Anvil, we talked about trails, and I expressed my usual dissatisfaction with Tahoe National Forest (TNF), for not only not maintaining its own trail system, but for allowing, with a murmur of protest, private interests like The Cedars to close public trails, here, there, everywhere.

Steve Hunter is about the straightest shooter a man can find and it happens that his sympathies seem to lie more with the private landowner than with the great unwashed, The Public. The conversation turned to a historic public TNF trail Dan had explored, running up the ridge dividing the South Yuba river from its Bowman Lake tributary, Canyon Creek.

Naturally I expressed my usual outrage that this trail had been abandoned by the Forest Service. I knew some of the details, having had conversations with Joe Chavez and other TNF employees about this very trail. A man had purchased a large parcel in the area, what seemed to be one of the old "railroad" sections, and had gated the old road, and had told TNF, "story over, trail closed, private property."

Steve, naturally, said something about property rights, and I held my peace, for a while. But then Dan told us of a similar situation near the Alta Sierra subdivision, over Grass Valley way, where a deeded trail easement had been recorded, way back when the subdivision began, several decades ago, but that now, in the fullness of time, and with new owners of the parcel through which the easement passed, these new owners felt they would enjoy their property so much more without hikers walking through, and now it was being fought out in court.

So Steve said something like, "That's ridiculous: the hikers have a deeded easement? End of story, it's a public trail, the property owners can't block them."

Which is only reasonable; but I saw my chance, and lunged into an inarticulate mish-mash of words, to the effect, "This case is no different from up there by the South Yuba: the Ridge Trail is ancient, it was not only open to the public for maybe 150 years, it was also a formal part of the TNF trail system, and We the People have an 'easement' on it! That fellow who bought the big parcel, I say to him, "Sorry, Mr. Sir, but you have purchased a piece of property encumbered with an easement, an easement to The Public, for use of that old Ridge Trail, and that is just the way it is."

I think I may have scored a point. But then even I had to agree that the situation is really more complicated: if We the People have an easement, does that mean that yahoos with quads and motorcycles and guns and garbage get to use it, too? The best I could come up with in response was, I myself would gladly support the property owner in seeking a motorized vehicle closure, and a firearms closure, on the trail in question.

We managed to distribute some of Joe's garbage to others, so for the last half of the climb he was carrying a paltry forty-five pounds or so. Some of us were faster, some were slower, and Joe was slowest, reaching the top a little after sunset. It was so so good to sit down, and drink a cold beer, and munch on chips and garlic olives and things. It was a supremely successful Garbage Hike, and of course we had the magic and mystery and beauty of the great canyon of the North Fork of the American River to distract us from what can only count as a galling tedium, carrying someone else's moldy bedding up miles of trail.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Garbage Hike March 17th

[written March 11, 2007]

Today is Sunday, very bright and warm, registering 77 degrees in the shade, here at 4000'.

Sandhill Cranes make a great commotion during their migratory flights. Whether it's fall, and they seek the South, or spring, and they fly for the North, they constantly give loud calls to one another. Today the usual confused chorus announced the usual flock, of perhaps fifty of these very large birds. But then a second flock of fifty or a hundred approached in a broad 'V', and then, a third. All together they circled, around and around and around, a tornado of shouting birds, with one oddball raven circling above them, and making occasional feints as if to strike a crane. Pretending to the stature of a hawk?

Always, or most always, the flocks pause and circle above the sun-warmed, south-facing slopes flanking Green Valley. Strong updrafts rise from those rocky canyon walls. Having gained a few hundred feet, almost without effort, they continue on their way.


Friday last I met Ron Gould and we ventured down to Green Valley. A large tree had fallen lengthwise down the trail, and we wished to see if Ron's big chainsaw was really, truly needed, way way down there, to cut it out of the way. If not, then, celebrate! for much exertion has been avoided!

Two minds are better than one, and in this case, Ron's mind was much better than mine, for he hit upon the labor-saving idea of leaving almost all the trunk in place, and just cutting a narrow gap for hikers. For, the tree, the thing, twenty or thirty feet of it, was mostly parallel to, and just above, the trail itself. My idea had been to cut it up into maybe ten pieces and roll each heavy round away into the manzanita. But with Ron's idea, only two cuts were needed. So we fired up my little saw and took care of business, cutting from one side and then another. Problem solved.

Not far below the tree, we finished dealing with yet another tree across the trail, where I had run out of fuel in mid-cut a couple weeks back, and then we rigorously restored a switchback which had been lost to heavy-armed manzanita for decades on end.

The last significant wildfire along both the trail and in Green Valley itself happened about 1955 (I have this date from examination of growth rings and fire scars in rounds of firewood, and from personal communication with one of the firefighters). This fire cleared a lot of brush. But since then, the brush has made a tremendous comeback, and now threatens to engulf about every trail in that area.

The main Green Valley Trail, the East Trail, the High East and Low East trails, the West Trail, the High West and Low West trails, the High Ditch Trail from the west end of Green Valley to the east end, the Iron Point Trail, the Green Valley Blue Gravel Ditch Trail, from the east end of Green Valley, up to Euchre Bar, crossing the river midway, and still other trails, are all either badly crowded, or blocked outright, by brush and fallen trees.

It's the same story with most of our old trails.

Ron and I also worked on the good old High Ditch Trail, and eventually found our way down to the Meadow Cedar, where the High West and Low West trails join, and where Steve Hunter and company left a cache of garbage they had cleaned up from the river, a couple months back.

There are three five-gallon plastic buckets crammed with garbage, and three garbage bags of smallish to moderate size, stuffed with garbage, plus a broken shovel and some other odd things. It comprises around six moderate backpack loads.

Several people expressed interest in helping haul this garbage up and out. Let's take advantage of this good weather and take care of the garbage next Saturday, March 17, meeting at the parking island of the Tesoro gas station at the Dutch Flat exit of I-80 at, say, 10:00 a.m., from which point we will drive to the trailhead. This should put us on the trail by about 10:30 and at the river for lunch. There should be time for at least a little exploration before we lash the garbage onto our packs and start the slow slog up and out.

It is a very strenuous hike!

No pets, and beware of poison oak. Frame backpacks are needed, with light rope or twine to lash on the loads, and of course plenty of water, lunch, sunscreen, etc.; and loppers are never amiss. We should arrive up top by five or six p.m. It's fine to wear shorts, but you may get badly scratched.

Please call with any questions (number below).

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Snow, Storms, and Lions

[written March 8, 2007]

At last the snow is melting away, the recalcitrant snow, the stubborn snow, the snow which defies day after day of temperatures in the sixties. At 4000' elevation it is all microclimate. Where I live, a few dozen yards separate "The Meadow," where it has been freezing every night, from "The Cabins," where it has not dropped below forty degrees for a week or more. The Meadow slopes gently south, but too gently. The Cabins are on a steep south-facing slope.

Hence The Meadow has an unbroken expanse of snow, and in the flat places the snow is still nearly two feet deep.

Yet The Cabins have only small masses of snow here and there, mainly where conifers shed big heaps--these are ring-shaped masses; or on trails, where the flatness of the trail-bed itself is not south-facing, and the snow has been slower to melt; these are linear masses.

They say that Eskimos have fifty different words for snow. We use a couple here in the Sierra, rather imprecisely. One will hear people talk of "powder snow," or its near-opposite, Sierra Cement. These terms lack precision. To confuse the matter further, the ski areas, knowing people prefer powder to ice, will report a "base" depth of, say, ten feet, and describe conditions on the ski runs as "packed powder," when a more truthful description would be "groomed ice."

Anything west of the Sierra Crest can be counted a maritime climate, versus the continental climates found east of the crest. The influence of the ocean moderates the climate west of the crest, keeping it much warmer. Hence Blue Canyon, at 5200', very very rarely ever has temperatures below zero, while Bridgeport, at the same elevation but east of the crest, along Highway 395, drops below zero degrees many times each fall, winter, and spring.

In fact, Bridgeport once held the low temperature record for the entire United States, flat-out 56 degrees below zero. It lies in a large flat valley encircled by mountains. Cold air settles in and intensifies.

At any rate, genuine powder snow, of the sort they have in the Rockies or in Utah, is a rarity in the Sierra. We do get it from time to time, but usually when the weather people on TV are waxing poetic about powder in the Sierra, it's really the good old Sierra Cement, which is a warm and heavy and sticky snow, somewhat light and fluffy in the first hours after it falls, but let one sunny day go by and, watch out.

The recent sequence of storms laid down the wettest and heaviest of Sierra Cement here at 4000', and as so often happens, periods of real snow were punctuated by periods of what I call "snain," a mixture of snow and rain, which often looks like snow from the comfort of one's living room, but go outside and you will be getting wet.

This "snain" settles and compacts and wets whatever real snow it falls upon. Freezing temperatures, such as are likely between storms, transform this dense snowpack into a nearly monolithic mass of ice. Let a mixture of snow and snain fall for a week running and one has three feet or so of a material which will stoutly resist melting.

Yesterday afternoon I thought it a good time to burn a pile of brush I had cleared from what we call the High Trail, on a steep slope west of here. The slope is too steep for safe burning in dry conditions. But I expected to find it still partially covered in snow, and it was, so I set to work, and safely burnt the slash, a struggle to be sure, since this brush was itself still partly buried in snow, and I had some wrestling matches merely to pull it free. As the sun lowered in the west, patches of bright sunlight broke through the clouds. I walked back to The Cabins in a meditative mood, my feet sinking deeply into the linear masses of trail-snow. I paused often to admire the scene, and visited some low cliffs which offer a view east. There was sun dappling the North Fork canyon all the way up to Snow Mountain and the Royal Gorge, where the snow-clad cliffs of Wabena Point were almost hidden within light snow showers. The crest itself was lost in clouds.

Now, night-before-last my son Greg reported hearing the sounds of an animal crashing through brush immediately below the Big Cabin, and whatever it was make cat-like "yowling" sounds.

"A bobcat," I responded at once. For bobcats are common here, and they often vocalize. Once the oak leaves which litter the forest floor dry out, even a small animal sounds like a big animal. A squirrel can sound like a bear.

But then, last night, I myself heard an animal crashing through the brush below the Big Cabin, and no yowling, but one explosive almost bird-like squawk, pitched high. The brush-crashing continued to the west and then quieted.

I related this to Greg and offered a guess, that perhaps a deer made the squawk, as they do make a wide variety of sounds, which few people ever hear. Deer bellow plaintively, for instance, and deer also bark, a dry, coughing, huffing bark. They also bleat like goats, but more softly.

This morning, at dawn, I decided to walk out west and higher to visit my burn pile. As I reached one of the linear masses of trail snow, I saw mountain lion prints from last night. They had not been there yesterday. They could only be from the animal which had been crashing around below the Big Cabin.

Mountain lion prints resemble those of a large dog, but there are no claw marks. These were well-preserved, as they had been made about eight p.m., and the coolness of the night had not melted much snow.

It was interesting to note that the lion had stepped in my own tracks of the afternoon whenever it could, and if opportunity offered to get out of the snow altogether, it took it. I photographed a few of the tracks; they are probably the most exact and complete lion tracks I have ever seen. For those who have Storer and Usinger's "Sierra Nevada Natural History," (U.C. Press, Berkeley), the tracks were exactly as depicted in the Mammals section, Figure 22, on page 328 of the 1973 printing.

So, I warned my family about the lion. Often they arrive home from work and school after dark, and nowadays, with the snow and all, it is a walk of a few hundred yards from car to cabin.

I tracked the lion quite a ways west on the Old Trail. Its tracks were only visible in the linear snow masses, and even then, where it had stepped exactly into one of my own boot-tracks, they were unrecognizable. Only in those few places where it was more or less forced to step in the unbroken snow, had it done so. Two nights in a row it has come near the cabins.

It is fun to observe animal tracks, and I have seen many fox trails, many squirrel paths, and even the tracks of ground-loving quail, written in the snow lately.