[written June 25, 2007]
The "pileus" or liberty cap was the especial badge of emancipation, worn by freed slaves in ancient Rome. It was a floppy affair, somewhat like a broad short sock.
Hence when the cloud-column of a thunderstorm grows high enough, and it is spread out to one side by prevailing winds, this horizontal mass of cloud on top is called the pileus; and the largest of our local woodpeckers, with its distinctive head-crest, is called the Pileated Woodpecker.
The Pileated Woodpecker is a denizen of the deep woods, and chops large and somewhat rectangular holes in the trunks of dead trees, searching out grubs. Their chopping can be heard from a long distance, and if one sees a Pileated in action, well, the chips fly amazingly far and wide. It is a regular brute of a woodpecker.
Renewing our exploration of Elisha L. Bradley's and Melvin S. Gardner's "Placer County Canal," Catherine O'Riley and I paced slowly along the broad berm of the gargantuan mining ditch, through a second-growth forest of Ponderosa Pine, Sugar Pine, Incense Cedar, Douglas Fir, and White Fir, four hundred feet above the waterfalls and cascades of the North Fork of the North Fork of the American River (the NFNFAR). The shadowed forest was full of tall trees; many might mistake such a forest for first-growth. The Canal follows a nearly level course just above 4800 feet in elevation.
We were scratched and bleeding, having just and at long long last escaped the brushy clutches of a Tahoe National Forest clear-cut in Section 18, T16N R12E. For half a mile we had inched through an ocean of sun-scalded Ceanothus. The clearcut looked to be somewhat more than twenty years old; a fine old second-growth forest had been ripped out down to the last twig, and planted to Ponderosa Pine. The young trees were reaching twenty feet in height, but everywhere, from side to side and from stem to stern, there was brush.
The huge gap in the forest did offer views; we could see the canyon of the NFNFAR below us, Scott Hill, on the other side, Sawtooth Ridge, and portions of the Foresthill Divide all the way across the main North Fork of the American, to the south and east. However, since we literally could not see the ground we were walking on, through the densely-woven brush, we had to pay close attention to almost every perilous step, and didn't much enjoy the views.
At last, we regained the shelter of the deep woods, at last we could stride again along the historic Canal, used as a trail for so many decades, until Ronal Reagan became President and the word went down through the Department of Agriculture, to the Forest Service, and finally to Tahoe National Forest, that if you've seen one tree, you've seen them all, so, cut and cut and cut and cut and cut.
During our walk we had talked about the odd fact, that when the General Public drives south on (paved) Forest Road 19, from Highway 80 at Emigrant Gap, they can drive mile after mile, and explore side road after side road, and they will never, ever, see a sign marking a hiking trail.
Well. There is an exception, but this exception proves the rule. If the General Public, driving in this manner, exploring the side roads, happens to reach a certain fork on Sawtooth Ridge, where a sign was shotgunned into oblivion twenty years ago; and if the General Public turns left, and the General Public drives another half-mile, a second shotgunned sign, unreadable, will appear, just where a road left is gated and locked.
This is the historic trail to the North Fork American at Mumford Bar, by way of Government Springs. If one walks down the gated road for another half-mile, one reaches the trail. It was obliterated by logging a decade ago, up there on top, but volunteers have restored its line.
So. That's the exception which proves the rule: the one hiking trail which actually has signs, although they are illegible, and have been illegible, for twenty years.
Well, a reasonable person might wonder, so what? There are no National Forest hiking trails in that area; ergo, no signs.
In the immediate vicinity of Forest Road 19 and its principal fork, Sawtooth Ridge Road, we have these Tahoe National Forest "system" trails, as depicted on old TNF maps:
1. China Trail.
2. Burnett Canyon Trail.
3. Italian Bar Trail.
4. Humbug Canyon Trail.
5. Sawtooth Ridge Trail.
6. Rawhide Mine Trail.
7. Blackhawk Mine Trail.
8. Monumental Creek Trail.
10. Mears Meadow Trail.
11. Big Valley Trail.
12. Government Springs Trail.
Except for #12, all of these trails have either been abandoned outright, or ruined by logging (the more severe method of abandonment).
The Bradley & Gardner does not show as a System Trail on the old maps, but was much used as a trail, from before 1859, down to about 1980.
Then Reagan took office.
So. Catherine and I think it is beyond strange that this lovely area, so accessible from Highway 80, in a part of the Sierra where one might well think that Tahoe National Forest would favor recreation over timber harvests, with the historic trails carefully and lovingly maintained--in this lovely area, instead, the good old trails are abandoned, ruined, and TNF employees are, even as I write this, working hard to plan extensive new harvest activities.
Well, we walked in the cool shade to the giant trees, and we spoke about how the World is Going to Hell in a Handbasket, and suddenly a rhythmic high-pitched squawking rang out, and I saw a ghostly shape flit through the branches, a hundred feet above the ground, in the forest below.
"A Pileated Woodpecker, Catherine," I called out, as the bird continued its complaint, and moved a little down the slope toward the river.
She caught me up and we gazed into the woods below. To my surprise, the Pileated began working back up the hill towards us, and continued its high-pitched yipping. I got my camera ready, and made a little fun, calling it to me, as though calling a dog, "Here, boy, here pilly-pilly-pilly-pilly, here boy," etc. etc.
"It's a large bird," Catherine observed, and I explained, for only an instant The Professor, that the Pileated was the King of Woodpeckers.
The big and kingly bird continued its yipping, and moved higher yet, closer yet. Apparently, it had responded positively to my calling; apparently, it liked us; it clearly wanted to be near us, for it was almost all the way up to the berm, only a few yards away.
Then I realized to my instant horror that that yipping bird was not the King of Woodpeckers, it was not my friend, it did not like me, and that it emphatically did not respond positively to my dog-calling antics.
It was a Goshawk, and we were in a bit of danger so long as we stayed around. We had strayed into its nesting territory, and it was patiently and persistently warning us away. But a Goshawk only has so much patience. Then it attacks. It slashes, it rips, it tears, it claws and it bites. Usually, humans survive that attack. They may have to wear dark veils, over their disfigured faces, for the rest of their lives, but they survive.
So, we hurried away, along the berm, and after a time and over a distance, the angry yipping subsided.
We had begun the day's exploration at high noon, dropping off FR 19 where it crosses the ridge dividing Fulda Creek to the west, from Sailor Ravine to the east. A logging road led down the crest on a gentle grade, and we had some trouble finding the Canal, as the abundance of sunlight along the road had led to a continuous thicket of brush and small trees to either side. We eventually spotted it above us, making the turn into Fulda Canyon, and we look forward to another exploration of that segment of the Canal.
Breaking through the road-thicket, we started walking up the Canal, towards its crossing of Sailor Ravine, and were immediately within shady deep woods of tall trees. Misadventure struck at once, Catherine taking a tumble over a fallen tree, and scratching herself rather royally, so that it looked as though she had been attacked by a bear. There followed some stomach-turning minor surgery, to remove a half-inch splinter buried in her thigh. Then we ambled along the Canal, crossing Sailor Ravine, and passing various short and collapsed wooden flume sections, where nailed timbers and planks have somehow survived intact to this day, from a century ago. Then the Canal turned around Sailor Spur, dividing the Sailor-Fulda basin from the NFNFAR, and we entered Section 18, and the grasping, scratching, sunny ocean of Ceanothus.
Slowly slowly we fought through it. Then again the deep woods, the afternoon light slanting down in gilded shafts, following the very pronounced bear trails along the Canal, with their distinctive permanent footprints (since bears are wont to step again and again and again and again in same exact spot), and then of course we battled the dread Pileated Goshawk, and then, after nearly another mile of deep woods, Forest Road 19 appeared, which we followed back to the car.
The Placer County Canal is a fine old trail. Scarcely twenty years ago, Tahoe National Forest went hog wild and ruined the Canal in at least two areas near Forest Road 19: Area One, a clearcut on the steeps above Monumental Creek, had turned the Canal into a logging road for at least a mile; Area Two, a clearcut in Section 18, had left the Canal mainly intact, but so buried in brush that a hiker has to be more than half-crazy to even try to follow it. To actually succeed in following the wonderful old mining ditch through that clearcut ocean of brush is an exercise in pain and suffering which does not merely border upon dementia, but enters fully into dementia with verve and enthusiasm, steeped and dyed in every shade of irrationality, possessed by every nuance of cross-grained refusal to face Reality.
Catherine and I succeeded--permanently scarred, yes--but we succeeded. The Section 18 clearcut is by far the worst impediment to restoring this notable emblem of Placer County history to what it always was: a level path through the deep woods. Were a path opened through that interwoven tangle of brush in Section 18, one could walk from the East Fork to the Sailor-Fulda Divide, something like five miles, on what I can only describe as one of the finest trails we have in Tahoe National Forest, Bradley & Gardner's Placer County Canal. Along the way, one would see many huge old stone walls, and enjoy some really great forest, and cross several rivers and streams, including the East Fork of the NFNFAR (Azalea Canyon), Monumental Canyon, Onion Valley Creek, the NFNFAR, and Sailor Ravine.
And from there, why not to Fulda? A level trail from Fulda to Azalea Canyon would be quite a nice thing.