Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Amazing Anne DeBusk

[written April 22, 2007]

This afternoon I had the pleasure of spending a few hours with Anne DeBusk. She and her husband Lee had often hiked the North Fork high country, had carved their names into the trunks of ancient aspens, and it was by that strange chance I had met them. I saw those names, and Googled them, and found them to live scarcely a crow's mile away, in that merest dot of a town, Alta.

So I called, and visited, and listened to many a story of Snow Mountain, and the Royal Gorge, and the Lost Emigrant Mine, which last Lee's family had owned for several decades. This gold mine stands high on the ridge dividing Wabena Canyon from Wildcat Canyon, a ridge which falls away in sheer cliffs full three thousand feet to the North Fork. I heard of Lee's walk, as a seventeen-year-old, from Weimar to Ely, Nevada; and from Weimar, to Oregon. I had hoped to interview him at length, and record these extraordinary memories for posterity.

But Lee died last year, about this time. And Anne began sorting through his piles of books and papers. For decades he had told her of a certain green box, full of letters from his service in the Army, during the Korean War. They had searched and searched, and they gave the thing up for lost. Only a few days ago, Anne finally found the box. It was blue. I heard she wanted me to see the old letters, and thus it followed that today I drove up to her old old house amid a pounding shower of sleet. Her living room had the same old many-pointed mule deer and bear heads staring down from all sides, the same glass cases full of chert and obsidian spear points, the same odd assortment of cute knicknacks which seemed equally out of keeping with the spirit of either Lee or Anne.

On her coffee table was a stack of photo albums. I slowly leafed through them, while listening to a panorama of her life and times, a constant commentary often diverging widely from the particular page in view. She was raised in a lumber camp, up towards Chester and Portola, where the Sierra insensibly merge into Mt. Lassen and the Cascades. She was the only child in the camp. How exciting it had been to listen to the radio dramas! The thudding footsteps, the creaking doors! In those days there were few enough people in the Sierra, so it was natural for people from Portola to know people in Auburn. In fact, when it was time for high school, she moved to Auburn. She did not meet Lee, at first; a long time would pass, even though they shared fifty friends, before they met, and fell in love.

Lee's brother, Wilbur, died fighting, in the Korean War, and what little was left of Wilbur was laid to rest in Colfax. Anne attributed Lee's survival of that same war to his expertise at driving. Lee's father died young, his mother was very sick, and it was left to Lee, the eldest of several children, to be the man of the house, although only a boy in years. These responsibilities meant Lee could not finish high school. When he was eleven years old he was already driving the family truck up to the Lost Emigrant Mine, fifty miles from Auburn. He drove vehicles of every stripe: bulldozers, big trucks, cars, little trucks, mules, wagons, whatever, Lee knew how to drive it.

Hence when his infantry company was on the move in the bitterly cold Korean winter, all packed into a huge truck, and the driver was shot dead, the word went out, could anyone drive this rig? Lee could, of course. It turned out he could drive anything and everything, and for that reason alone he was not one those sent to take Hill 2115, etc., from the Chinese, inch by bloody inch.

I saw many photos of their camping trips to Snow Mountain. I told Anne that there was, so regrettably I will always think, a house, now, at Huntley Mill Lake. The deep-pocketed owner had actually paved the road in from the railroad tracks, a distance of several miles. This triggered a memory.

"Do you know the creek which flows out of Huntley Mill Lake, and flows down into Big Granite Canyon?" she inquired, and I responded in the affirmative; Tom McGuire and I had followed that very creek for quite a distance, last May, during our expedition to the huge waterfalls in Big Ganite Canyon.

"Well, one time, Lee and I were camping near the lake, and I walked down the creek a ways. It was all waterfalls, all twisty and turny, and not much water, it being the hunting season, and we were up there after deer, as usual.

"So I was following the little creek down, well, you know, little, at that time of the year, in the fall, and I found these pools which were just swarming with huge trout! I mean, these trout were eighteen, twenty inches long!

"So I took off most of my clothes and jumped right into this pool, ... ."

I interrupted. "You jumped into the pool?" This seemed a bit strange.

"Yes, I jumped right into the pool, and it was soooo cold! And I caught quite a few of those trout, and threw them up on the bank, and finally when it got too cold I climbed out, and, ... ."

I had to interrupt again. "OK, hold it right there, Anne. Are you trying to tell me ... do you want me to believe ... that you stripped naked ... ."

"Not naked, I still had some things on!" Anne replied, mock-primly.

"OK, not quite naked, you jumped into the pool, and you caught those giant trout by hand?"

"Well, yes, of course, I didn't have any gear with me, and it's not that hard; you see, you reach under a rock, and if you feel a trout, you don't grab it all at once, you stroke it a little, and that calms it down, and *then* you grab it!"

Well. Anne is an amazing woman. Later she showed me the old blue trunk stuffed full of letters, and photo negatives, from Lee's time in the Korean War. Most were addressed to his mother. There were hundreds. He was a terrible speller, was Lee DeBusk, but a great writer of letters. I could not take the time to even begin sampling these hundreds of letters, and I was worried about disturbing their original ordering. In the stacks I did find a receipt from a Foresthill gas station, from 1948. The gas station's telephone number was simply F-50.

Before I left I had a crack at repairing Anne's old record player, but failed. We made plans for another get-together after she has sorted through more of her archives. Perhaps then I will take a look at that infinitude of letters. There is a body of material, somewhere, Anne tells me, about the Lost Emigrant Mine. I hope to see that.

Such was an afternoon with Anne DeBusk, a fellow lover of the North Fork. One of the many stories I heard was about a visit she made to Helester Point, up on Sawtooth Ridge. She had led some friends from the Bay Area in there, a long long dusty drive. From the Point they could see mile after mile up the North Fork, to Snow Mountain. Her friends were exclaiming about the beauty of the great canyon, the infinite wildness of the view; and Anne said, yes, yes, this is wonderful, but just you go up to Snow Mountain, and camp out, and you will know you have been touched by God Himself! And she tried to explain how, when the sun was about to set, and the sky flamed into gold, and you were leaning against some giant old pine, away up on Snow Mountain, well, there was really nothing better in this world.

She's so right.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Visit to Gold Run

[written April 18, 2007]

Wednesday morning I met Ron and Chris Lane, and Gordon Hinkle of Congressman John Doolittle's office, for a tour of the Gold Run Diggings and the Canyon Creek Trail.

Ron has developed quite an interest in this area; he sees that an irreplaceable resource hangs, so precariously, in the balance, that one of the most beautiful trails in the Sierra is "For Sale," that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has had a mandate to purchase critical parcels there, since the creation of the North Fork of the American Wild & Scenic River, in 1978, but that nothing has been purchased; Ron saw these things, and decided to do something positive. So, in a variety of ways, he has worked to bring Gold Run and the Canyon Creek Trail to the attention of the movers and shakers, the decision-makers, the responsible officials, and really, anyone who could help secure this incredibly beautiful and historic area for We the People and our posterity.

I deeply appreciate Ron's efforts.

For my own part, letters about Gold Run to my representatives, mainly to Senators Feinstein and Boxer, have fallen into the typical abyss. The Gold Run situation is complicated by mercury contamination, which derives from its use in the sluice boxes of the hydraulic mines; for mercury amalgamates with fine gold, trapping it. A single large sluice box, of a thousand feet in length, would be "charged" with an entire ton of mercury, and every day another hundred pounds would be poured in, to replace what inevitably washed out of the box with the tailings. This finely-divided atomic mercury made its way down Canyon Creek into the North Fork of the American, down the North Fork to the Sacramento, down the Sacramento to the San Francisco Bay, and on into the ocean. But a large fraction settled out before ever reaching the Pacific. It remains in our waters to this day, and one should not eat very many fish caught in the Bay, for one would poison oneself with mercury.

If it were not for the mercury at Gold Run, the 800 acres of old mining ground now for sale, embracing two miles of Canyon Creek, would have long since been sold. Offers have been made. It is mercury, and a bit of sheer luck, which have averted disaster.

At any rate, under cloudy skies, with the icy remnants of Tuesday evening's violent thunderstorms and ensuing snow lightly frosting the forest, we set out to give Gordon a tour.

We parked at the Gold Run end of things, near one of the gates barring access to the 800 acres, and walked down into the Diggings. We visited Stewart's Pond, where ducks and swallows were happily going about their business, and then continued south on the Main Diggings Road, to the obscure old road leading east to the Canyon Creek Trail.

Gordon is a fellow lover of history, and we talked a little World War Two, and a little Ancient Rome, but mainly we talked Gold Run, and hydraulic mining, and rich strikes, dark tunnels, drift mines, the Chinese, the Anti-Chinese (I was pleased to be able to inform Gordon of one curiosity of California history, stemming from the Constitutional Convention of 1879: the enactment of an official State holiday, "Anti-Chinese Day"), and many such things--sluice boxes, mining ditches, monitors, and the "State of California versus the Gold Run Ditch & Mining Company" (1881).

It was a gorgeous day, with flat-bottomed fair-weather cumulus clouds at first seeming to disperse and admit the glad sun, but too soon they coalesced and darkened, and our five-mile ramble ended under a light snowfall. The usual early-season flowers had arisen along the old trail, species of Larkspur and Poppy, Biscuit-root, Virgin's Bower, and some lovely liliaceous flowers whose name escapes me at this moment..

We dropped down the good old trail past Gorge Point to The Rockslide, where we decided it might be better not to descend all the way to the river, but rather, retreat up to the Old Wagon Road, climb to the Indiana Hill Ditch, and follow the ditch around into the Secret World, exiting the World to the north by the Wagon Wheel Tunnel, thence into the great 400-feet-deep pit of the Gold Run Ditch & Mining Company, and *thence* on the Main Diggings Road to Stewart's Pond and our vehicles.

All this came off without a hitch, and we stopped briefly for lunch at a sunny and propitious spot on the old mining ditch, high above Canyon Creek, with a bit of a view into Giant Gap. The clouds soon cast us into cold cold shade, so we picked ourselves up and kept a-walking.

It was a very nice day, and Gordon seemed to appreciate the beauty of the area, and its history.

Ron and Chris kindly drove me home, where the sleety, hail-like "snow" increased, and they hurried away to the lower elevations.

Such was a very nice day, rambling around the old gold mines and into the wilds of Canyon Creek. We even took Gordon out to the politically-incorrect Blasted Digger, that lightning-struck pine on the rocky ridge east of Canyon Creek, that wondrous spot which offers awesome views into Giant Gap, and even beyond, to the freshly snow-dusted mountains around the head of the North Fork of the North Fork.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Eagles on the Nest

[written April 6, 2007]

Early this morning I drove out to Lovers Leap with camera and binoculars. I had a pretty good idea of where the Golden Eagle nest ought to be, not far from the Joint Plane which drops arrow-straight to the river from the V-notch on Pinnacle Ridge. First I scanned the main Lovers Leap Spur in search of Peregrines, but saw nothing. Then I braced my arms on my knees and carefully scanned the area around the Joint Plane, just above where it drops out of view behind the nearby Spur, perhaps 800 feet above the river, across the Gap from the Leap. I saw a tangle of dead branches beneath a rock overhang, and thought maybe I had it.

But no.

Ten minutes after my arrival, without having noticed any falcons in the air, I saw a Peregrine right below me on the Spur, on what I call the Second Step. It was silhouetted against the dark shadows which held everything across the river in their thrall, everything except the highest pinnacles. It clearly knew I was there; whenever I scooted out into plain view to get a really good look, it turned its head to fix me in the gaze of its right eye. It did not leave its sunny perch.

After a time, Deren Ross of Auburn quietly arrived, with his spotting scope, and we obtained incredible views of the falcon, every feather in focus, every subtlety of color revealed. I could see sun, sky, and canyon, all reflected in its eye, for goodness' sake. Then Deren put the scope on the eagles' nest, and I was amazed, it was scarcely a hundred feet from the false nest, but I doubt anyone, using binoculars, would spot it, unless the eagles were actually arriving or leaving. An adult eagle was on the nest, turning around from time to time. I could not see egg or eaglet. I never saw the mate.

The nest was beneath a small overhang, on steep north-facing cliffs, perhaps sixty or a hundred feet east of the Joint Plane. It was made of a mass of dead grey branches, four or five feet in diameter. I expect it was lined with the club moss which coats many rock surfaces in the Gap.

Clouds of Violet-Green Swallows and White-Throated Swifts circled over the cliffs below us, and a Kestrel, or Sparrow Hawk, the smallest of our falcons, came whirring by, scarcely twenty feet away, beating its reddish wings rapidly, climbing slowly. Occasionally we heard a Canyon Wren.

Late in the afternoon I enticed my son, Greg, out to some little cliffs, hoping to see some distant eagles or falcons. We saw nothing; well, there were more or less spectacular thunder-clouds over the high country, with rain showers drifting down, and bright-glowing snowfields on Snow Mountain. We could see the Iowa Hill Canal, east of Tadpole Canyon. But no falcons, no eagles.

Greg picked up a massive pine cone, from a tall and old Digger Pine leaning over us, and gave it a toss down the cliff. We could hear it rolling down the canyon wall for quite a long time. This scared up a few Band-tailed Pigeons, who flapped around noisily before landing in various trees. One seemed to immediately leave its chosen tree, typical pigeon behavior, but at once I saw it was larger, and put my binoculars on it.

After all that time looking for distant eagles, one had been roosting in a Douglas Fir maybe two hundred feet away, the whole time we were there! It soared west, with a few lazy flaps, and then plunged out of sight, making for a rabbit, snake, or squirrel, I would guess. It looked to be a yearling, with a hint of white left in its tail.

Such were some fine experiences in the Great American Canyon.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Peregrines in Giant Gap

[written April 5, 2007]

This afternoon I ventured out to Lovers Leap in search of raptures, I mean, raptors, and found two men spellbound, gazing into the depths. All day it had been cloudy, the canyon dull and flat, shadowless, but as the afternoon waned the sun broke through. Thus the Pinnacles were sharply lit, and shadows deepened, offering more and more contrast, and many of the Sierran snowfields far to the east were luminous, etched whiter than white against the softer pastels of the clouds.

The men had hiked and climbed in the Sierra together since childhood. They contemplated a trip down to Green Valley. I began to expound upon the theme of Green Valley, and unleashed a torrent of words, while the North Fork's own dwindling torrent roared two thousand feet below us. I also told them of the Peregrine Falcons and Golden Eagles, but we saw none, though one of them remarked he had seen a Peregrine, while visiting Lovers Leap recently.

I had never ever seen one, anywhere.

After a time the men left, and I heard their voices as they ascended the steep trail; which way, one asked, go left, the other replied. Then their voices seemed to get louder, and again it was which way, but, go right was the reply. Then some excited nonsense about having a magical birthday, on the very equinox, and in olden times the Druids would have felt such a birthday must count for a lot, and so on and so forth, and lo! three teenagers shouldered through the blooming brush.

They were from Auburn, I found, and soon enough I was expounding upon the landscape, and it was not enough to say, "over here is Little Bald Mountain, and away over there, the Coast Ranges north of San Francisco," but, no, I must tell these young men of equinoctial birth about townships, sections, ranges, and Mt. Diablo, and how, since we were in fact within Township 15 East, Range 10 North, this meant we were "something like" six times fifteen miles east, and six times ten miles north, of the Diablo summit.

Which made perfect sense to me, and might have made more sense to them if we had been able to actually see the Diablo summit; but there was too much haze and moisture in the air.

I also explained to them about the falcons and eagles, and soon their sharp teenage eyes picked out a Peregrine, a mere dot of light against some vast canyon shadow, and I whipped my binoculars to my eyes, and, sure enough, there it was, my first Peregrine Falcon.

My overall impression was of a soaring bird, with much blue-grey, but with flashes of white, and not as big as a Red-Tailed Hawk.

It, or its mate, soared by several times, often a thousand feet below us, often seeming to move slowly, but in fact moving very quickly. This is also the case with the Golden Eagles; one sees them soaring so calmly, so effortlessly, yet in less than a minute they have moved a mile.

It was a very nice visit to Lovers Leap.

I was sad to see, however, that the whole area looks beaten up by OHVs, that many trees have been cut using chainsaws, that even the historic Incense Cedar logs lying athwart the trail down to the cliff have been sawn through, and the very sculptural root masses hauled away. I have suggested to the Bureau of Land Management, for quite a few years now, that a vehicle closure on the last couple hundred yards of road would be a good thing. All parking could be held to the north, before that last rise to the current parking area. Further depredations with chainsaws would be much less likely.

Finally, I now hear there is an Golden eaglet in the nest, down in the Gap, across from the Leap.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

The Falcons and Eagles of Giant Gap

[written April 1, 2007]

A correspondent, expert in all things avian, writes:

"Yesterday, I missed finding the Great Grey Owl on Pliocene Ridge (Yuba-Sierra Co.) but I came up big at Giant Gap. Shortly after getting out onto Lover's Leap, I heard the courting calls of two Peregrine Falcons. The sound was coming from across the river. The calls are often made in flight. I kept searching the cliffs and airspace near lower north facing cliffs. I was surprised that I couldn't find them. I then peered straight below Lover's Leap and spotted two adult Peregrines in courtship flight display. I am fairly certain they will be nesting on the south-facing cliffs below Lover's Leap. This angle is preferred by many birds including falcons. Besides, the other side is already taken. A Golden Eagle is sitting in a nest on the other side of the river. I spotted the nest with my binocs but it wasn't until I put up the scope that I could see the majestic ruler of Giant Gap's airways. The falcons are great to watch during courtship and when hunting but they're also very sensitive to presence of anything moving above them. "

This is good news, showing that the endangered Peregrine Falcon is re-occupying its old territories, and also that Golden Eagles, who always used to nest in Giant Gap, are at last nesting there again.

The Goldens were pretty thoroughly scared away by logging near the nest site, on Tahoe National Forest lands flanking Giant Gap, during the early Reagan years, when the word came down from above, to cut it all, to cut everything, to wreck everything wild, and to ruin every beauty.

But now the Goldens are back. My correspondent cautions that the Peregrines are "very sensitive to the presence of anything moving above them." The same is true enough of the eagles. They are easily scared from their nest sites by rock climbers, for instance. Hence we should take care, if we visit Lovers Leap, to be quiet and minimize our presence.

This quietness is something the bird-watchers know well; in fact, I remarked to a friend, this morning, that bird-watchers, almost above all others, know how to immerse themselves in wild places, know how to be quiet and yet alert, how to grasp every nuance without ever grasping, and that, in a way, they are like Zen Buddhists who do not even know they are Zen Buddhists.

To which he replied, "And that's the best kind (of Zen Buddhist)!"