[written August 13, 2007]
Walking down the ancient trail, with twelve people scattered along the way, some above, some below, I found myself thinking of my old friend Dave Lawler, geologist and paleontologist extraordinaire. In the early and middle 1990s we had made an extraordinary series of hikes which had greatly expanded and enhanced my knowledge of this entire area. Dave and I went to places I had previously, somehow, only dreamed of exploring.
For instance, once we visited Big Valley Bluff, away south on Forest Road Nineteen from Emigrant Gap. From the summit of the 3500-foot cliff we gazed up the North Fork to Snow Mountain and the Royal Gorge. I remember pointing out Sugar Pine Point, the first major promontory east of the Bluff, and explaining to Dave, that since at least as early as 1975, I had wanted to check out the Point, and now here it was, twenty years later, and I had never been there.
What mystical and soul-stirring views must be had from this Point, named for the King of All Pines!
With Dave, to think is to act, and within an hour we had driven back out to I-80, up to Yuba Gap, back in along The Nineteen, passing Lake Valley Reservoir, and then out FR38 to Huysink Lake and beyond. Nearing Pelham Flat, an enormous Red Fir blocked the road; undaunted, we hiked south towards the Point.
When we finally reached Sugar Pine Point, we found a few large stumps, some brush and small trees, and the sun was sinking low in the west. There was no view whatsoever into the great canyon. It might have been prudent to start walking the two miles back to our car. But I said to Dave, "It's possible that, if we drop right over the edge, into the canyon, we'll find a rock outcrop that stands clear of these small trees, and have our canyon view."
With Dave Lawler, actions speak a lot louder than words, so ...
We crashed through the thin screen of brush and trees and found ourselves in a magic world which had never been touched by logging, with gigantic, centuries-old Sugar Pines and other forest trees of the middle elevations, with springs, with meadows, and with an old, old trail winding through the woods. We did not know it then, but we had discovered Sugar Pine Flat, and the terminus of the historic Sugar Pine Point Trail, almost entirely ruined by logging in the early 1990s, but in these sacred precincts, intact.
We were in even-numbered Section 20, T16N, R13E; even-numbered, hence not part of the great and horrible land give-away signed into law by President Lincoln in 1862 and then, needing to give away even more of the public trust, in 1864. All the odd-numbered sections, for so many miles to either side of the railroad itself, were given to the Central Pacific Railroad.
I would return again and again and again to Sugar Pine Flat.
For many years Dave had studied the history of the hydraulic mines here in the Sierra, had guided field trips to these old mines, had taught volunteers how to collect the Eocene-age fossils, had added to the collection of the Museum of Paleontology at Berkeley. I had slowly developed the idea, over a couple of decades, that no one else had studied these mines, explored these old diggings, dared to enter those old drain tunnels, more than I had. Then I met Dave. As Dave was, to me, was as ten is, to one. The ancillary subject, of the mining ditches which fed these mines, by the miners' inch, by the acre-foot, fascinated us both; and what could be better, for hiking, than one of these old ditches?
Hence it was that we were out on The Nineteen, south of Emigrant Gap, one summer day, and saw a gate standing open, a Forest Service gate, which was ordinarily closed and locked. We decided to explore, and soon found ourselves on the historic Bradley & Gardner Ditch. A logging road followed the B&G out of Fulda Canyon, sometimes paralleling the B&G, sometimes cut directly into the line of the ditch. We reached an anonymous spur ridge, and here at least the road was separate, the ditch, somewhere below. We walked down to the ditch, and indistinctly, through the forest, saw a great canyon to the south. Perhaps some rock outcrop would stand clear of the trees, and allow a view?
We surged down the ridge, which soon narrowed into a knife-edge of upturned slaty outcrops. "The Blue Canyon Formation," I remarked, and was quite surprised when Dave replied, "No, this is the Shoo Fly Complex; a hundred years ago, Waldemar Lindgren called it the Blue Canyon Formation, but nowadays, we call it the Shoo Fly."
The Shoo Fly?
I must admit, it galled me a little, to be so ignorant. Here I had imagined myself acquainted with the local geology, but I was apparently not so very well acquainted. I had imagined myself the master of the old hydraulic mines, and then it had transpired, I was not the master. Dave was. In fact, he was The Master. And now, in an instant, I and my Blue Canyon Formation were down in the dust, pathetic coyotes, and some demented geological roadrunner had beep-beeped "Shoo Fly Complex" before disappearing into the distance.
The same pattern seemed to obtain when we hiked. Here we were, in drastically steep terrain, following a knife-edge of slate down and down and down amid a gnarled elfin forest of Canyon Live Oak, and some kind of foot race had developed, and Dave was winning. He dropped out of sight below me. We had imagined finding an outcrop with a view, but I had myself never envisioned that we would descend all the way to the North Fork of the North Fork of the American River before we gave up.
We knew we were entering the Complex of Canyons, the Gorge of Many Gorges. Who ever heard of having a race down cliffs? I remember feeling a little irritated as I pulled out all the stops, and alternately skied down steep slopes over the slippery oak leaves, when the slate knife narrowed overmuch, or when it made one of its sudden hundred-foot steps, or, sometimes following the ridge-crest itself. How could anyone in this world handle terrain like this, better than I? For it was one thing to know the hydraulic mines better, one thing to know more geology, but to out-scramble Russell Towle in such rough terrain was unthinkable. It was not only impossible, it was, well, unfriendly.
I brooded. What of the camraderie of the hike? Gone, destroyed, in a clatter of slate and a cloud of dust, somewhere below. So I pulled out all the stops and tried to catch up to Dave. Finally I reached the last step in the ridge-crest; a couple hundred feet below, almost straight down, the beautiful river. A gurgling, a murmuring, but also, the hiss and roar of waterfalls. There was no sign of Dave. He must have found a way down to the water, but I could not quite see how. The cliffs were steep to sheer. I shouted down. No response. Dave had either peeled off the ridge to the right, or to the left; there was no going straight down, not without ropes. So I sat there and shouted and brooded for a while. Ten minutes. The sun was lowering, the climb of more than a thousand feet was in my immediate future, but my hiking companion had disappeared.
Then he suddenly appeared, climbing down from above. In the intensity of my effort to catch up, I had passed him by. He had been on the other side of the knife-edge at that critical instant. So we sat and admired the scene for a while. This was quite an amazing canyon, most all of it incised into the Shoo Fly. Consulting our maps, we saw that a trail dropped to the river a little ways downstream, from a spot near Blue Canyon named Lost Camp.
Dave knew all about Lost Camp, and despite its proximity to Blue Canyon, being almost in my back yard, I had, somehow, some way, never visited the place. At any rate, it was clear to both of us what the next phase in our explorations must be. A week later we drove down to Lost Camp, in odd-numbered Section 23, T16N, R11E, and with a little difficulty, located the trailhead.
We had our loppers with us, as usual, and the old trail needed a lot of lopping. I forget whether, on that first-ever hike of the China Trail, or China Bar Trail, as it is variously called, we swam the Pool of Cold Fire, and entered the Gorge of Many Gorges. But we soon did. The canyon, the gorges, the river, the waterfalls, were of incredible beauty.
Twelve or so years later, here I was, following the old trail, built in 1862, passing giant Douglas Fir which had sprouted in, who knows, 1662, passing old Forest Service "small i" blazes. Like most trails in Tahoe National Forest, the China Trail long predated the establishment of the Forest itself, in 1905. For decades the trusty rangers had faithfully maintained the historic trail.
I had met Ron Gould, Catherine O'Riley, Jim Johnson, and Jim Ricker, of the North Fork American River Alliance, or NFARA, at the Blue Canyon exit, for a hike on the China Trail. A number of other people were present, including Bill Templin, of the American River Watershed Group, and Steve Hunter, who has been hiking the China Trail since 1955. It was not just a pleasure hike. There was trouble, right here in River City. The old road to Lost Camp, a public road since at least as early as 1858, had been gated closed, and posted with numerous "no trespassing" signs. Thankfully, NFARA had decided to act. The purpose of the hike was two-fold: to assert the public's right to use the road, by ourselves going through the gate to the trailhead, and to consider what to do about the closure.
In my opinion, NFARA should not have to act. This Lost Camp Road and this China Trail are both parts of the Tahoe National Forest "system" of trails and roads. It is Tahoe National Forest's job to protect the public's right to use these historic roads and trails. But Tahoe National Forest is too busy devising ways for Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI) to harvest timber from our public lands, to trouble itself about historic roads and trails. Historic roads and trails are things which get ruined and erased in the ordinary course of doing sweetheart business with the most rapacious lumber company in California; historic roads and trails are curious artifacts from before the Atomic Age, before that great god, the Bulldozer, commanded our National Forests to bow to its every whim.
So, unfortunately, the custodian of our public lands in the middle and upper elevations, Tahoe National Forest, has not acted to protect the public's rights. Very far from it. To wait for the Forest Service to act would be to lose the Lost Camp Road, and the China Trail, forever.
Would Placer County act to protect the public's right? No. What Placer County will do is approve land subdivisions directly on historic roads and trails, as though we didn't have more than enough parcels already, as though we can afford to lose any number of historic public roads and trails. Placer County supports and aids in every way possible the "standard" path to progress: first log, then subdivide.
Look, look, how much the views have improved, now the trees have been cut down! Why, this is now a "view" parcel! Look, look, how the very roads made by the logging bulldozers, can become driveways! Look, look, how the log landings become building sites! Look how easily one can put up a gate, how easily "no trespassing" signs can be added here, there, everywhere!
The gate was not locked, on the Lost Camp Road. We let ourselves through and drove to the trailhead. A hazy summer day, the wildfire up by Chico spreading smoke into our area. The China Trail is short, not much more than a mile, and we were soon on the river. A glorious pool is just downstream. I hurried down ahead of the rest, tore my tattered clothes off, and dove into the crystalline coldness. If there had been a way to dive right back up and out, I would have. The North Fork of the North Fork is usually far too cold for my tastes.
The Shoo Fly Complex metasediments are often slaty in structure, and on the gravel bars one can find any number of excellent skipping stones. Several of us amused ourselves skipping slates down the long pool. Others debated what to do about the gate. Some left and explored up the river. Eventually, most of the group left, and Ron and Peggy and Catherine and I boulder-hopped up to the Pool of Cold Fire. We swam a little, and Peggy became a regular expert at skipping rocks. I had the pleasure of helping her, by telling her that one must throw the rock, so that it spins like a Frisbee. Suddenly she was skipping rocks like a champion.
We were directly below that last cliff-bound step on the very knife-edge ridge Dave Lawler and I had raced down in 1995. Just above the long and narrow Pool of Cold Fire, a waterfall, and then the Gorge of Many Gorges. We might have swum the Pool and entered the Gorge, but we merely relaxed in the shade of some alders, swam a little, skipped rocks, talked, took note of an infinitude of spiders and spider webs, found a chilled cicada in the Pool, rescued it, and visited various sunny boulders, beloved by birds, in the river.
At last our lazy day must end, we must hop back down the river to the trail, and then, up and up and up and up. I took my shirt off just before the climb, and wore nothing but shoes and my cutoffs. It seemed likely I'd be attacked by mosquitos, but nary a one chomped me on the way up and out. Only, those miniature flies I call Face Flies buzzed along beside me half the time, trying to get into my eyes, my ears, my mouth, my nose. Horrible little things.
In and era when the very entities we might reasonably expect to protect the rights of the public, Tahoe National Forest, and Placer County, are far too busy arranging timber sales and subdivisions, to be bothered with historic trails, it is indeed fortunate that we have people like Ron Gould and Catherine O'Riley and the others of NFARA, who are willing to fight the good fight. It may well be that this issue, the Lost Camp Road, the China Trail, will end up in court.
I did not say it, but even if the gate is removed, and the "no trespassing" signs come down, residential development of these little parcels north of Lost Camp will be like the kiss of death, affecting not only public access--one will feel as though one is driving through somebody's yard--but also ending the ambience of wildness and remoteness, which existed there until a very few short years ago.