Friday, May 11, 2007

Return to the Iowa Hill Canal

[written May 11, 2007]

I was surprised, Wednesday morning, by a thump on my lonely, lost-in-the-woods door, and gave an inarticulate shout of welcome, whereupon Ron Gould stepped in and asked if I was ready to go to the Iowa Hill Canal that very instant.

Of course I was ready!

In a few minutes I had thrown together one of my embarrassing sandwiches, filled a water bottle, and packed my little pack, with camera, binoculars, and something warm to wear, and off we went. We met Catherine "Canyon" O'Riley in Colfax and were soon embarked upon the tortuous windings of the Iowa Hill Road; for it was required to cross the American River Canyon. After an eternity we turned left on the Foresthill Road and drove upcountry another ten miles or so, to the Beacroft Trail.

Ron and Catherine were aware that, scarcely a week ago, Steve Hunter and I had somehow done what no five people together could ever have done, that we had achieved the impossible, that we had blundered slowly through that vast green Ocean of Brush, to the very end of the Canal. There, a distant and obscure ravine plunged into the dizzy blue depths of the North Fork. A 100-foot waterfall sprang from serried cliffs above. Ron and Catherine had personally confronted the Ocean of Brush, in years past, and must see for themselves if this were not one of Russell's tall tales, one of his myths of derring-do, and high old-fashioned romance.

These easternmost two miles of the Canal appear as a Tahoe National Forest system trail, on the map of 1947. And most interesting is the spur trail shown, east of Tadpole Canyon, leading down into the North Fork. From the overall look of things, neither trail has been maintained since 1947. It is not exactly easy, nor is it safe, to hike the Canal. There are rockslides on cliffs, where no trail exists. There is an often-difficult creek crossing, at Tadpole Canyon. But this old Canal Trail is surely one of the most scenic of all trails. We made our way slowly east, crossing Tadpole with a short hop, and took a break at the point where we guessed the spur trail forked away north.

Here a few stout firs and a Sugar Pine mark the intersection of a faint ridge with the Canal. It actually looks quite as though an old trail drops steeply past these trees. But the path instantly enters thick Huckleberry Oak, and is lost to sight. Ron and I had been convinced, on previous occasions, that this must be "the spur trail." A White Fir, just below the Canal, bears healed-over scars which might be blazes. I walked below this scarred fir and turned to face uphill, to face the Canal, to face the blazes. Once again I realized that, with enough imagination, a "small i" Forest Service blaze could exist. What had been notches through the bark had healed over until the new wood actually swelled out from the main mass of the trunk. Ron had always doubted this contorted excrescence could be a blaze.

The excrescence contains a rounded boss of woody tissue. Suddenly I saw what I'd always missed before: centered upon the rounded boss was an arrow, pointing to the right, or west, along the Canal, pointing to the Beacroft Pass and, eventually, Civilization.

With the arrow in play, there was about no question that this was indeed the spur trail depicted on the 1947 TNF map. I explored a little ways down, and found the trail continuing beneath the brush. It would not be easy to follow this trail. One would have to use patience and instinct, and be willing to lose the trail altogether from time to time, and just keep to the faint ridge, knowing it would reappear.

So, this was very nice. We had found the Old Spur Trail. But the Ocean of Brush beckoned. We left the shade of the spur-trail-trees and followed the outside-the-berm trail east into the many-flowered, sunny, silent Ocean.

The tremendous views were duly enjoyed. Somewhere ahead, Steve and I had dropped into the bed of the Canal, and had lopped the natural corridor a gnat's hair wider. Once we reached that spot we'd have easy going. Hence, with so much excess energy, it behooved us to pioneer an earlier, a simpler, and a better descent into the Canal. We began the fight.

Unfortunately, this turned into a lesson we had already learned all too well: the Ocean of Brush fights back; it fights hard; and it never gives up. In half an hour we reached the spot, about a hundred yards east, where Steve and I had entered the Canal. Here, then, would be the "easy going" I had bragged about.

Mysteriously, there was hardly a sign that anyone had ever set foot there, much less lopped a thousand branches. We advanced slowly. It took forever to cross the Ocean and enter the shelter of the firs to the east, where immediately one reaches a big rock outcrop, and the Canal becomes a bench cut again, and one enjoys really incredible views of cliffs and waterfalls and snow peaks.

A grouse could be heard booming, in the forest above us.

From here, I declared, it would be easy going; the fir forest kept the brush down.

But somehow I had forgotten that an outlier of the Ocean had invaded that fir forest, so the going was not very easy at all. We persisted, and entered the forest shade eventually, squishing over a few tiny patches of snow along the Canal, and at last , there it was, the End. The Beginning, in one sense. The little creek, the waterfall. Catherine was surprised this creek had no name. I suggested Tad-York, since it is midway between Tadpole Canyon and New York Canyon. Ron thought York-Pole might be good. Neither is euphonious.

After a good long rest we began the tramp out. The sun neared the horizon as we neared the Beacroft Pass. We were very glad to shed our packs and sit in the comfort of Ron's truck. It's good he was driving, for I was little better than a zombie, possessed by a haze of dreams, of cliffs and canyons, roaring waterfalls, and silent, grasping, many-armed and many-flowered Oceans.

It was another great day in the great canyon.

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