Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Down and Up and Down and Up

[written October 9, 2007]

The day after visiting Hayden Hill, and that lovely little patch of old-growth forest growing on the broad terrace formed upon the rhyolite ash stratum, a few hundred feet below the canyon rim, I was busy writing about Chinese ghosts, and Mesozoic screens, and thinking about the two old trails I had discovered.

I had found a "lumber slide" dropping away north from the summit of Hayden Hill itself, and also a nearly level trail leading west into the Magic Forest. With Ron Gould I had explored similar trails, and we had often found ourselves confronted with major game trails, whereupon I might say, "this must be an old human trail," which Ron would always doubt. He would scoff. Usually, Ron was in the right.

So, writing about ghosts, and thinking about human trails disguised as game trails, I wanted to drag Ron out there to Hayden Hill immediately, if not sooner. The hour of eight in the morning arrived and I picked up my telephone; but a family member had left her internet connection up, and I had to disconnect to get a dial tone. Before I could even dial, the phone rang; it was Ron. It was a fine sparkling clear fall day, and he suggested a hike. I broke in: "We must go to Hayden Hill!"

But Ron replied that he had been imagining doing the Blackhawk-Sawbug loop, up by Humbug Canyon, and Sawtooth Ridge. I was persuaded, and yet for one reason and another, it was ten in the morning before we parked at the head of the Euchre Bar Trail.

"It will be pitch dark before we return," I remarked. This was likely enough, as we had twelve miles and some thousands of feet of elevation gain ahead of us. Thus it was that when we did finally reach his truck, at the end of the day, the stars were bright. GPS revealed, when it was all over, that we had climbed 5,700 feet over the course of the hike.

Most people who hike the Euchre Bar Trail go only so far as the river, which is spanned by a footbridge. The trail continues up the canyon, after crossing the bridge, and technically it not only reaches Humbug Canyon, but follows the Humbug Canyon Road up to the canyon rim, to the gate on Eliot Ranch Road.

We made quick work of the descent to the North Fork, the river flowing slowly, calm and clear, with morning shadows still clinging to large parts of the far canyon wall; in fact, the bridge was still wrapped in frigid shade, and damp with dew. The bridge is scarcely a mile and a half from the trailhead at Iron Point.

Crossing, we made good time up the main trail, passing the confluence of the North Fork of the North Fork, which is divided from the main stem of the North Fork by Sawtooth Ridge. Another mile brought us to the Southern Cross Mine, with its collapsed and dismembered stamp mill, where we stripped off shoes and pants and forded the ice-cold river. A sunny patch of bedrock, metasediments of the Shoo Fly Complex, allowed us to relax in comfort on the far side of the river, while we dried, and soon we were scrambling up a steep bank beside another dismembered stamp mill, and reached the level ore-cart-run of the Blackhawk Mine. The little railroad tracks are still in place.

The USGS 7.5-minute Westville Quadrangle shows a trail descending to the Blackhawk Mine from the crest of Sawtooth Ridge. This trail was likely widened to accommodate wagons as early as the 1890s, and in subsequent decades, bulldozers widened it further. In 1978 it became subject to a motorized vehicle closure, following designation of the North Fork American as a Wild & Scenic River, but the closure sign, up on the crest of the Sawtooth, was soon ripped out and thrown far down into the manzanita; for such is the lawlessness of OHV (off-highway vehicle) users, who also make quite a point of leaving garbage, wherever they go. They can do this with complete impunity, for there is essentially no Tahoe National Forest law enforcement; the TNF budget will not allow it, just as TNF cannot afford to maintain its own trail system.

Ron and I picked up the odds and ends of OHV garbage and started towards the top of the ridge. We were somewhat shocked at the clear signs of heavy OHV use of the trail.

Incidentally, this heavy OHV use only began two or three years ago. One of the first consequences was the vandalizing of the ancient dry-laid stone walls along a mining-ditch-trail, leading upstream from the Blackhawk Mine; apparently, the lawless motorcyclists thought it would be great fun to topple the huge slabs of slate, so carefully set into the arc of a circle a century and more ago, down the cliff into the river, from where the ditch-trail rounded a rocky point above a deep pool. This ditch-trail shows on a number of old maps, but has disappeared from modern maps. It leads all the way up to Humbug Bar, and continues farther yet as the Cavern Mine Trail.

A climb of a little less than two thousand feet brought us to the summit, where the OHV closure sign used to stand. One official TNF sign remains, almost hidden in the manzanita; it reflects an error in mapping, as it reads "North Fork American, 2" (arrow left), "Blackhawk Mine, 3" (arrow left), and "Rawhide Mine, 2" (arrow right). The error lies in supposing that the Blackhawk Mine is at Humbug Bar, rather than right at the base of the trail, where it reaches the North Fork.

As it happens, this trail junction is at the very end of the Sawtooth Ridge trail. Essentially, at the end of the Sawtooth Trail, one drops away left to reach the North Fork, and the Blackhawk Mine, and one drops away right to reach the North Fork of the North Fork, and the Rawhide Mine.

However, in the same year the neat wooden sign was installed, the Rawhide Mine was sold, and the new owner (Harry Mayo) immediately closed the trail to the public, posting all kinds of threatening "no trespassing" signs, with pictures of revolvers and so on.

Did Tahoe National Forest intervene? Did TNF make Harry Mayo remove the signs, and stop harassing hikers? Oh no, TNF did no such thing. Here was a trail likely open to the public for over a century, instantly closed. It is exactly what we are seeing at Lost Camp right now: a new property-owner decides to close a historic public road, open since 1858, and a historic trail, open since 1862. The road and trail were once maintained by Tahoe National Forest.

Does TNF intervene? Does TNF make a telephone call, do they write a letter, do they lift their left little finger to protect the General Public's right to historic roads and trails?

No, they do not. As surely as they did nothing to keep the Rawhide Mine Trail open, they now do nothing to keep the Lost Camp Road and the China Trail open.

It's a funny thing: Tahoe National Forest has enough money to hire all kinds of people with degrees, people obviously too talented, too highly trained, to perform physical labor, to actually maintain a trail; and TNF puts these talented, talented people to work engineering more and more and more timber harvests. For that, TNF has money.

I should imagine these degree-adorned employees of Tahoe National Forest make a pretty penny. I should imagine they have benefits, like health care, like retirement, oh my, yes, they make lots of money, they enjoy lots of benefits.

Ah well, these TNF employees are Good People, as near as I can tell. They are not the ones who set the policy, not the ones who plot the course.

Sawtooth Ridge appears to have been scorched in the 1960 "Volcano Fire," which spread from near the Middle Fork of the American, north across the Foresthill Divide to the North Fork, hitting Humbug Canyon hard, and crossing the river to Sawtooth Ridge. A very large number of Knobcone Pines grow along the summit of Sawtooth Ridge, towards its southwestern end. They appear to date from the Volcano Fire.

The climb to the crest of the Sawtooth, from the Blackhawk, winds in switchbacks through a forest dominated by Canyon Live Oak, with scattered Ponderosa and Knobcone pines, and a passing-strange abundance of Kellogg's Black Oak. These are the classic deciduous oaks of the lower-middle elevations, and they seem to much prefer deeper and moister and richer soils than usually exist on south-facing canyon walls. I have only hiked the Blackhawk Trail twice, and during my first visit, I concluded that one of the concentrations of Kellogg's Black Oak was associated with vestiges of glacial till. The till was deeply weathered and altered and almost unrecognizable. It would date from a much earlier glaciation than the Tioga, which ended a scant 12,000 years ago. I would guess this older till is either Tahoe I or Tahoe II in age, roughly, 65,000 or 125,000 years ago.

At last on top of the Sawtooth, in the very last pass before the very last Tooth--this last tooth, at the southwest terminus of the ridge, being a kind of flat-topped molar, capped with a vestige of andesitic mudflow--Ron and I rested. A few feet away, the Rawhide Trail, unmaintained by Tahoe National Forest since at least 1978, led away into dense, post-Volcano manzanita. We had attacked this section with loppers a couple of years ago, and I proposed we execute some maintenance. So we picked our way into the tangled brush, lopping here, ripping dead manzanita from the ground there, and pushing the slender poles of dead Knobcone Pines away down the hillside, a process much like threading a needle, since they were usually thoroughly trapped in the manzanita, and the only hope was to simply push them in the direction they already lay, hoping to get them clear of the trail.

A quarter-mile or so of such work got us clear of the manzanita, onto more north-facing slopes. We could not take time to work any longer. That quarter-mile had already cost us dearly, in terms of exertion, in terms of blood smeared along hands and arms, from a myriad of vicious little manzanita jabs. We are not exactly young men. I mean, in my mind, anyway, I am young, but my drivers' license reveals me to be fifty-eight years old.

At any rate, we retreated to the pass, shouldered our packs, and walked on up the Sawtooth, through dense stands of Knobcone Pine, and brushy groves of Black Oak. We walked up and over the first minor Tooth. A larger Tooth, rising above the 4200-foot contour, rose before us; on the map, it is shown to have an elevation of 4210 feet. Here, on the down-ice, lee side of Tooth 4210, is a body of very old glacial till, probably of the same age as the till along the Blackhawk Trail. Again, it is not easily recognized. One of the things which help separate this patch of deep soil containing rounded boulders from, say, some vestige of Eocene-age river gravels (which also can be found on Sawtooth Ridge), is the presence of rounded granite boulders. The Eocene gravels generally do not preserve granite; granite is too easily dissolved by chemical weathering. These granite boulders might have come all the way from the South Yuba basin, or, perhaps, from Little Granite Creek, or Big Granite Creek, or the upper North Fork of the North Fork. They are visibly different from granite boulders in the recent Tioga-age tills, in that they have lost their smooth surfaces, mainly, I think, from chemical weathering, i.e., from exposure to soil acids over a long period of time. There are only a very few of these rounded granite boulders visible, in the very bed of the Sawtooth Trail.

A much more obvious body of old till, with similarly deeply weathered granite boulders, is on the crest of Sawtooth immediately down-ice (southwest) from Helester Point.

Crossing over Tooth 4210, we descended to a minor pass and turned sharply southwest onto the Sawbug Trail. This is our name for the ancient trail, which likely dates from the 1850s, connecting the summit of SAWtooth Ridge to HumBUG Bar. I much doubt anyone would discover the upper end of this old trail by accident. Near the top, it passes some smallish hard-rock mines in a series of switchbacks, and then makes one long gradual descent to Humbug Bar, with one more minor switchback near the base of the trail.

At Humbug Bar (which, incidentally, was entirely mined away, way back when; there is no "bar" left), we followed the Cavern Mine Trail up the canyon a short distance, to where an easy trail leads away down to the river itself. We were about to strip off shoes and pants when we realized that we could actually hop across the river, boulder to boulder. This was a welcome alternative to wading.

Afternoon shadows were long, most of the river already in shadow, but one broad beam of light still reached the river itself, just upstream, and made for an incredibly beautiful picture, glowing trees reflected in deep dark pools.

It only remained to walk the two or three miles back to the bridge, and then climb the Euchre Bar Trail to the truck. Ha! We were dragging along in painful slowness, in the dark, through interminable switchbacks, as the twilight gave way to full darkness, and the stars came out. For my part, I was reciting a litany of benchmarks, which would be passed in turn: "soon enough, the switchbacks-without-water-bars, where the leaves were scoured from the trail in the last storm; not too terribly far above that, the crest of Trail Spur, and the Iron Point Trail, forking away west into Green Valley; then, that long rocky section, through the errant patch of serpentine, serpentine separate from the main mass in Green Valley, mixed somehow into the Mesozoic screen; and then ... and then ... the last switchback ... and just a tiny little bit of ridge-trail left ... cross the Rawhide Road ... and the final, steepish, blessedly short bit of trail ... and then the Rawhide Road, again, and right there, well, a few yards away, Ron's truck ... ."

I went over these trail-phases again and again and again in my mind. I would carefully imagine what each section in turn was like. Eventually, I actually reached, and passed my benchmarks, albeit slowly, very, very slowly. When the trail entered denser forest, the world went black, but it was easy to feel the trail beneath my feet. We made the climb separately, alone in our agonies, but as I neared the tippy top, Ron caught me up.

Twelve miles, 5,700 feet of elevation gain.

We were absolutely ruined, but it had been, yes, another great day in the great canyon.


Spider said...


steve said...


You are definitely on my must-meet list. Thank you for sharing all of your knowledge, not only of the trails and the hiking, but the politics, the history, & the geology, although much of that goes right over my head. Hopefully we will get together some day and you can help fill those large gaps in my knowledge.

Bloviating Zeppelin said...

I happened to come across your blog whilst searching for Russell Towle and, though years late, I have a very easy answer for you regarding Harry Mayo, his mine purchase and the immediate placement of "no trespassing" signs. I would have done the exact same thing:


This is, as I call it, Fornicalia, where there reside more three-piece-Rottweilers PSI than any other state and any other nation.

Let just ONE person with a questionable mindset during a given hour turn his or her valuable little ankle or, worse yet, fall and break a bone or proffer some kind action which results in trauma -- be it physical or mental -- and the landowner becomes responsible and the subject of a suit.

It is as simple as that. I repeat: I would have done precisely the same thing. It is sad but it is today's reality.