Friday, May 4, 2007

The Upper Iowa Hill Canal

Years passed, and finally the day had arrived when I could show Steve Hunter, connoisseur of local canyons and old trails, the remarkable, the amazing, upper section of the Iowa Hill Canal.

In this part of the Sierra, where miners swarmed the hills and the canyons for decades, in search of the golden metal, there are many mining ditches, some miles long, some many miles long, all constructed to bring water to the mines, to the diggings, to this or that fabulous trove which would send one back home to the States a rich man—home at long last!—to live like a lord, within the encircling glow of a faithful and a grateful family.

Such a man would, someday, command quite a large tombstone, in the old cemetery on the hill.

Never mind that in reality, one worked and worked, one dug and dug and sweated and sweated and banged one's hands bloody, and the few rich strikes accomplished little more than to keep the anxious bill collectors at a respectful distance. One's credit was reestablished at the general store, and some spanking fine mules would amble, heavily laden with supplies, to one's remote camp, and the other miners would see those mules, and say, that Jones, he's onto something good!

If a mining ditch aimed high, aimed to stand head and shoulders above the general case, above the pitiful and impotent streams of the commoner sort, well, that ditch would be called a Canal. Thus the Placer County Canal, which served the mines at Dutch Flat, or the Iowa Hill Canal, which served the mines at Iowa Hill.

Ditch or canal, the thing had an alpha, an omega, a beginning, an end. Ditch or canal, end and beginning alike could become blurred: there might be tributary ditches, there might be distributary ditches, multiple beginnings and multiple endings; and such was the Iowa Hill Canal.

Today, after so long, I finally reached the Alpha of the Iowa Hill Canal. Or is it the Omega? It is where the Canal begins, yes, but this Canal was never finished, this Canal was pushed higher and higher, farther and farther east, commanding more and more tributary streams, gathering more and more water.

Then the money ran out, and work stopped. The Iowa Hill Canal was projected to begin high within the great canyon of the North Fork of the American River, at Old Soda Springs. It would have leeched the life blood of the North Fork itself, and all its southern tributaries: Wabena Canyon, Wildcat Canyon, Sailor Canyon, New York Canyon, all would have fed the monstrous ditch. Excuse me, the monstrous Canal.

I met Steve at Colfax and we drove his wonderfully underpowered, gas-scorning little Suzuki Samurai across the North Fork at Mineral Bar, climbing through tortured curves to Iowa Hill, and far beyond, to the Foresthill-Soda Springs Road, passing China Wall (a spot along this same Iowa Hill Canal), passing Mumford Bar Trail, passing the road to Deadwood, passing the site of Secret House, and after quite a long time, we parked at the Beacroft Trail, which drops 2800' to the rowdy, spring-high North Fork.

This ancient trail begins in a low gap in the Foresthill Divide and makes short steep work of its descent to the river. A rough little road continues north from the parking area to the trailhead proper. There is a complex of roads and trail and ditches in the area. The Secret Canyon Ditch converges upon the trailhead from the south, and appears to end. It took me a while to realize that just there it entered a short tunnel, which has since collapsed.

The topographic map shows the Beacroft Trail crossing the Iowa Hill Canal a little ways below the pass, to the north, just within the North Fork canyon. Following the trail, one reaches the north end of the collapsed tunnel, and behold! An old mining ditch, and a large one at that.

But this is just the continuation of the Secret Canyon Ditch, which was itself but a feeder to the Iowa Hill Canal. Continuing down the Beacroft, the trail steepens, and in a little ways one crosses a flat bench cut. This is the Canal, which at this point flowed through a wooden flume.

Strangely, if one follows the bench cut east, it soon ends altogether, in heavy timber. With sharp eyes one can barely discern yet another ditch, well above and to the east. This too is the Canal, which, as I eventually realized, makes a sudden drop of about a hundred feet in elevation at this point. This sudden change in grade may have been prompted by the steep cliffs farther east, in Tadpole Canyon; that is, when faced with these cliffs, and the inevitable blasting required to eke out a bench cut upon which to stand a wooden flume, the builders may have found that some great advantage accrued from the higher line, probably, by avoiding some one pernicious cliff.

So one can struggle up from the bench cut to the upper line of the Canal, where briefly it assumes the character of an unusually large ditch, six feet deep, five feet broad at the base, eight or ten feet across at the berm. Following this large ditch east, one soon reaches another bench cut, indicating that once again, a wooden flume had been built.

Ah, it took quite a few visits to this area to sort all these things out. Eventually, I discovered the Chinese Road.

The Chinese Road begins back in the Beacroft Pass, climbs slowly through the fir woods, and then drops slowly to the exact point where the upper, eastern line of the Canal changes from ditch to flume. I call it the Chinese Road simply because it is very likely that most of the work of building the Canal, back around 1873, was performed by Chinese immigrants. The Chinese Road owes its existence to the need to bring lumber to the beginning of a long flume section.

The flume section continues east into, and then back out, of cliff-bound Tadpole Canyon, a north-flowing tributary of the North Fork. After the Canal gets free of the Tadpole cliffs, it reverts to ditch-form again, and sweeps east into the main North Fork canyon, and into an absolute ocean of heavy brush. All the usual suspects are present in abundance: Huckleberry Oak, Bush Chinquapin, Green Manzanita, etc. etc. And further progress east on the Canal is over. I call this area the Big Brush.

Steve was suitably impressed by the Canal. Old Tahoe National Forest (TNF) maps (1947, 1962, 1966) show this section of the Canal, east of the Beacroft, as a foot trail. Like so many other historic trails, TNF abandoned this trail. It often narrows to a precarious thread, crossing some rockslide on a cliff. It is definitely not for everyone.

But the views are extraordinary. Directly across the North Fork, Big Valley Bluff rises 3500 feet from the river, in ragged cliffs. Sugar Pine Point, Cherry Point, Snow Mountain, Devil Peak, and even some of the Yuba peaks, like Red Mountain, Basin Peak, and Castle Peak, are all visible from the Canal. To the west, one sees away down the canyon to Moody Ridge, near Dutch Flat.

Quite a number of waterfalls are seen. There are waterfalls within Tadpole Canyon, and one sees a few of these. But once one gets out into the Big Brush, one begins to see various more distant waterfalls, such as the 200-footer at the base of Big Valley canyon, and the 200-footer up in Big Granite Canyon, and the waterfalls which adorn Sugar Pine Point.

This is indeed Placer County's Yosemite.

One can often hear the North Fork itself, although 3000 feet above it, and, strangely, one can hear the beautiful Big Valley Falls, a distinct roar, louder and more focused than the generalized murmur of the North Fork.

Steve and I made short work of crossing Tadpole Canyon and entering the Big Brush. The sky was clear, the sun was bright, and a cool breeze kept us comfortable. Here was the insurmountable obstacle I had chattered about, that infinite tangle of muscular branches which forced even bears to somehow scramble over the tops of the gnarled shrubs, rather than on the good earth itself. The line of the Canal led almost due east through the Big Brush, and entered a sparse grove of fir about a quarter-mile away.

There, one could hope, the brush would abate.

We had approached the Big Brush only rarely on the berm of the Canal, sometimes in its bed, at other times on a faint old trail just outside the berm. This faint trail seems to be continuous, from the end of the flume section bench cut to the Big Brush, but is itself, often, most horribly blocked by brush. There are signs that it maintains its outside-the-berm alignment into the Big Brush, but since one can usually not even see the ground, this is conjecture.

I climbed onto a sturdy bush on the berm, its limbs hardened by decades of heavy snow, and looked up the Canal, into that vast and gnarled sunny ocean. Once again I saw that the very bed of the Canal makes a faint and narrow gap, an almost imperceptible corridor, with here and there a patch of snow gleaming through the chaparral. Ron Gould and Catherine O'Riley and I had given this quasi-corridor a try. It was an impending disaster of interlacing branches. It was no kind of corridor for humans. A fox would love the thing. A mouse would stroll along with the greatest of ease. A bear would have problems. A deer would not even try. A human would merely ask for trouble. Lots of trouble.

But I mentioned the almost-invisible corridor to Steve, and, always sensible, he said, "Maybe we should give it a try." Steve was intrigued by the fact that no one had managed to follow the Canal east to its end, that is, its beginning, for a long, long time. For decades, maybe many decades.

So we lowered ourselves down to the bed of the Canal, clinging to slender and strong Huckleberry Oak branches, and with one pair of loppers, began making our way.

There was no walking. There was only lop and lop and lop and lop, and then throw aside the cuttings, which would reveal still more branches, so, lop and lop and lop and lop, and one yard was gained.

Then repeat.

Rarely, we saw signs that bears had shouldered through, and often they had climbed above the Canal bed on the uphill side, and we could take advantage of a few yards of relatively easy going.

In an hour or so we had made half the distance to the sparse grove of fir trees to the east. We rested. A worse-than-usual tangle of manzanita and the like blocked the Canal ahead. It was prudent to stop, to give up, to call it a day. My lopping count was up over five hundred branches, and my arms and shoulders were screaming. My pants were torn, my arms were bloody. I pulled myself up to the berm, a minor feat of gymnastics, climbed a bush, and gazed ahead.

Just beyond the knotted tangle which had brought us to a stop, the "corridor" seemed to open somewhat, and a number of small snow patches, up to fifty feet long, could be seen in the bed of the Canal. I reported to Steve, who calmly opined, "Maybe we should go a little further; after all, the trees are closer than they were."

We left our packs behind and attacked the tangle. By inches we made ten feet, and entered upon the most open section yet. Suddenly we could take five paces at a time without any lopping. Suddenly the bear trail became better-defined, and would always climb to the inside of the Canal to avoid bad brush tangles. Suddenly there were little snowfields where we could just walk along like real humans, without dodging a single shrub. No crouching, no intricate sidling motions, just plain walking.

It was a miracle.

We reached the trees, and at their fringes passed some White Fir in the bed of the Canal, where so many bears had shouldered past, for so many years, that they had stripped all the side branches away on one side, for five or six feet from the ground.

At last we had easy going. Soon a certain rock outcrop was reached, which I had often noted when scanning, with binoculars, the line of the Canal from Big Valley Bluff, across the canyon. Here the ditch ends and a bench cut resumed. At a certain promontory we found an old flume timber, almost intact, studded with twenty-penny square nails, and really incredible views of the Big Valley big waterfall, and the Big Granite Canyon falls, and we could even see parts of the Big Granite Trail, where it makes begins its final approach to the North Fork, from a few hundred feet above. Snow-spangled Snow Mountain; the wind-wavering little waterfall on Sugar Pine Point; the rarely-seen waterfalls on the west side of Big Valley, well back from the river ... the view was truly exceptional. Our hard work had earned us something very very good.

It remained to follow the last quarter-mile of the Canal east, to an unnamed ravine below some notable cliffs. We had a little trouble rounding the view-outcrop, as the bench-cut was not continuous, and some minor rock climbing-scrambling was needed, but soon enough the Canal assumed ditch-form again, and in the shelter of the fir forest, there was much much much less brush, and we had reasonably easy going, comparatively easy going, to the very end, or very beginning, I should say, of the never-completed Iowa Hill Canal.

A small creek rushed in cascades beside steep cliffs, and just upstream, dashed over a 100-foot waterfall in clouds of glowing spray, towards which we climbed, over rough slates of the Shoo Fly Complex, and enjoyed mystical views of the falls, looking almost directly up into the early-afternoon sun.

We were exhilarated with our success in performing the impossible, in actually crossing that green ocean of chaparral. Slowly we worked our way back along the Canal, here on the berm, there, in the bed, and sometimes on some faint little bear trail above the bed. It was nearing four o'clock when we reached the Suzuki Samurai. Steve, thoughtful as always, had packed a couple of cold Hamm's, which we savored in the shade of a fir tree, while munching some stale pretzels. Then followed the long mesmerizing drive down the Divide, through lonely Iowa Hill, and back across the North Fork to I-80, and Civilization.

It was another great day in the North Fork.

No comments: