Monday, July 28, 2008

The North Fork Fire

Above: Looking south from Big Valley Bluff to Tadpole Canyon
Photo by Ron Gould

After weeks and weeks of smoke, the fires in and around the American River Canyon are mostly out. Today I joined Ron Gould for a visit to Big Valley Bluff, a grand eminence, the El Capitan of the North Fork, rising 3500 feet from the river, and near the eastern margins of the burned area.

We drove to Emigrant Gap, hung a right, and followed Forest Road 19 south, past the North Fork of the North Fork, past the East Fork of the North Fork of the North Fork, past Texas Hill, where we lost the pavement. Soon thereafter we began seeing evidence of the fire, which had encompassed an area of 20,000 acres.

Apparently Forest Road 19 had been used as a firebreak, and "backfires" had been set on the canyon side of the road. From
bulldozer scars I had seen miles away on Sawtooth Ridge and Humbug Ridge, I feared what I would find along the road to Big Valley Bluff. However, for the most part I was pleasantly surprised. The backfires, in particular, had mostly burned nice and cool, leaving all larger trees alive, and even most smaller trees.

The issue of bulldozer use on the fire has been complicated somewhat by what seems to be something in the way of what Tahoe National Forest terms a "hazard tree removal project," and various bulldozed paths radiated away from the road, and various piles of sawlogs were stacked along the road. There also seemed to be "staging areas" which had been bulldozed clear, here and there. Nothing seemed too extreme or heavy-handed, although I confess to a slow burn of hatred for bulldozers which has been building in my heart for many years. I begin to lament every square foot of forestland which is torn and trampled by the loud and stinking beasts.

Reaching the summit of the Bluff, we finally saw areas which had burned wildly, and it was impressive. In particular, the upper reaches of the Iowa Hill Canal, around Tadpole Canyon and the Beacroft Trail, had been hit hard. The Big Brush, an artifact of a fire decades ago, is gone. Erased. And large areas of forest nearby had been killed.

Also, a good two or three miles of forested canyon flanking the American River Trail had burned, and not in a cool, ground-creeping fire, but in an all-consuming crown fire.

It will be interesting to watch these parts of the canyon regenerate. I have little doubt but that much of the brush will stump-sprout, and by this time next summer there may be a froth of green over some of the burned area.

We hiked down to a certain slaty cliff-top, where I told Ron about the Fluttering Rocks.

It happens that if one is on a high-enough cliff with flat-enough rocks (a thin shard of slate is ideal), and if one throws the flat shard flat and spinning sharply like a Frisbee, far away from the cliff, so it will fall a long way ...

Then it will certainly happen that at first the shard will retain its horizontal orientation; and it will certainly happen that it will
gradually tilt to one side, and begin knifing steeply down in a vertical orientation, ever faster; and once in ten throws, I told Ron, it will happen that, as it knifes down, it will begin to flutter rapidly, a chaotic tumbling motion which beats the air in an audible, rhythmic, whipping susurration, and *it slows down.*

After a time I cast around for a shard of slate and found a perfect piece, three inches in diameter, nearly round in outline, and less than half an inch thick. I gave it a strong toss into the vastness of the canyon, where it could fall free for a thousand feet.

Sure enough, about six hundred feet down, it began fluttering, and slowed down. It is a marvelous thing to see.

While out at the Bluff we saw smoke from the big fire in Mariposa drifting north and seemingly crossing the Sierra crest right at the head of the North Fork. We also saw smoke from the fires farther north in a long white mass along the Coast Range up in Mendocino County. In fact, it was remarkably clear for a summer day, with fires still burning in many places; we could see Mt. Diablo, Mt. St. Helena, and Cobb Mountain, rising above the general line of the Coast Range, the Sutter Buttes, and even parts of the Sacramento Valley floor.

It was quite an interesting visit to Big Valley Bluff, one of the great scenic overlooks in California.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Birthday at Smarts Crossing

My son, Greg, turned seventeen over the weekend, and had a birthday party swim at Smarts Crossing. A merry group of nine young people and one old fogey made the mad drive down the rocky rutted road to a point well above the Bear River. We walked the last few hundred yards. Who can understand the antics of the Younger Generation; who can interpret their slang; who can fathom their music, if it can even be called "music." They vigorously debated an apparently age-old and perpetually captivating question, viz., whether ninjas or pirates would win in a flat-out fight, and made a series of sick jokes about zombie babies.

A monsoonal air mass had spread over the Sierra, and on the one day in the year when one could absolutely count on sun and blazing heat, it was cloudy and sometimes cool, with occasional showers dotting the dust. However, we were all inspired to swim the icy pool. A few of us made the jump from the Twenty-One-Foot Rock. The girls were sweet and lissome, the boys were, well, boisterous. At a certain point the boys thought it worthwhile to carry boulders to the Twenty-One, and topple them into the depths of the pool.

It was a good thing an old fuddy-duddy was present, inasmuch as hundred-pound boulders were deemed inadequate, and the young men were soon collaborating on two-hundred pound boulders, aiming to carry them up a slippery and sloping rock surface to reach the exalted Twenty-One. I had to intercede. One slip and it would be a broken leg, or arm, or foot, or hand. Later I just had to call a halt to the boulder-dropping altogether.

All in all it was a lot of fun to visit the great old swimming hole, enjoyed by generations of folk from Dutch Flat, and probably a favorite swimming and salmon-fishing spot for the native Californians of centuries and millenia past.

There are quite a few obnoxious metal signs nailed up by PG&E, warning of sudden releases of water into the river from Drum Powerhouse, and concluding with the order to "KEEP AWAY."

It is strange that PG&E ignored our beautiful Smarts Crossing for nearly a century, and that only now, in the 21st century, do they assert that the Bear River is no more than their own corporate canal, to be used exactly as they please, the rest of the world be damned.

We ignored the ugly signs. We need to find a way to put the private parcels along the old road into public ownership; Tahoe National Forest would be a good fit, inasmuch as the Crossing is already flanked by Forest parcels.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Of Snakes and Squirrels

I live in an ecotone, a kind of blend between the coniferous forest of the Transition Zone, and the oak woodlands and savannahs of the Upper Sonoran Zone. The "life zones" of Merriam have fallen out of favor in recent decades, but I still find them very apt. Merriam recognized that, as elevation increases, in a mountain range, vegetation changes in very much the same way as if elevation remained constant, but latitude increased. To ascend the Sierra Nevada to the 5,000-foot contour and the realm of the White Fir is much the same as to go north into southern Canada. Merriam did his seminal research near Fort Valley, Arizona, where my grandfather Leland Towle worked as a forest ranger, at the time.

That was almost a century ago. Here, on Moody Ridge, in this ecotone between two different assemblages of vegetation, one sees two different assemblages of animals, also. For instance, both the Scrub Jay of lower elevations, and the Steller Jay of higher elevations, are here.

Today a young squirrel is slowly dying in my yard. It is a California
Ground Squirrel, Citellus beecheyi, and is more closely identified
with the Upper Sonoran life zone of the Scrub Jay, than with the
Transition life zone of the Steller Jay. And, since my yard is on the
cusp between the two zones, there are many Gray Squirrels in the area, as well. And Flying Squirrels, for that matter, although these are rarely seen.

The Ground Squirrel lives up to its name, only rarely venturing into
trees, and when it does, never climbing more than, oh, fifteen or
twenty feet. It will clamber into Ceanothus bushes and harvest the
seeds, storing them in cheek pouches, and then find some conspicuous
perch and slowly work through the seeds it has saved. It is strange
that they like these highly exposed perches, on a large boulder,
perhaps, for they are preyed upon by Golden Eagles.

It may be that another predator worries them much more than mere
eagles. The Western Rattlesnake, Crotalus viridus, is an avid hunter
of the Ground Squirrel. One might almost say, given ground squirrels,
rattlesnakes are sure to follow.

In this little clearing in the woods, in this ecotone, there has
always been a colony of ground squirrels, at least, for the
thirty-three years I have been here, there have been ground squirrels.
They fall victim to foxes, to bobcats, and, although one is extremely
unlikely to actually see it happen, to rattlesnakes.

This summer brought many a baby squirrel into the colony. The colony burrows are scattered over a broad area, and have multiple entrances, and may also be shared between individual squirrel families. It seems there are more squirrels now than ever before. One develops a sense of their lives and habits. I can recognize their metallic "alarm squeak," and sometimes, hearing the squeak, and taking a look around, I will see the fox, or the bobcat, which inspired that squeak.

The squeak is repeated, every second or so, for minutes, sometimes tens of minutes, at a time. It is painful to listen to this squeak. With a roar, and a hurled rock, I will sometimes try to quiet that squeak.

So. There are many squirrels, hence, as night must follow day, there must also be many rattlesnakes.

And there are. Four or five different snakes have visited the yard this summer. The hotter days seem to somehow inspire them to visit. Years ago, when my children were small, I killed rattlesnakes in the yard. In recent years I do not bother them. Live and let live. And yet ... and yet, they are so very hard to see if not moving, and they do not always rattle, and they coil up in places one can't really see well, anyway. It is a bit nerve-wracking. To have four or five different snakes visit, in one summer month, is a first in my several decades here.

I recently learned, on the Internet, that adult ground squirrels are immune to rattlesnake venom, and also, that they will wave their tails back and forth while facing a rattlesnake, and that the temperature of those waving tails increases by some five degrees at the time.

Yesterday I heard a doubled alarm squeak, in the sultry smoky heat of the afternoon, and walked slowly towards the sound, expecting to find a rattlesnake.

Sure enough.

An adult and a juvenile squirrel were atop one of their favorite Ceanothus-seed-eating perches, just above their burrow, both facing a spot a foot and a half away, and every two or three seconds, at exactly the same time, they would rapidly wave their tails, and squeak. It was as if they were telepathically connected. I could not see anything for them to squeak at, and slowly ventured closer.

The young squirrels are much more fearful of humans, than their parents, and they (there turned out to be a second juvenile, perched a few inches below) scampered away once I was within six or eight feet. The adult remained, steadfastly squeaking and waving its tail. Finally I saw the snake. It was occupying a crevice between two boulders, directly above one of the burrow entrances. The head and upper part of the snake's body were already coiled and still, the tail was extended away a foot or so, and was slowly being drawn into the coil.

I kept an eye on that snake as the afternoon dwindled into darkness. It never moved. I saw the adult squirrel enter the burrow, only a foot from the snake. The snake never moved. It seemed to be waiting for the squirrels to forget its presence.

At dawn I returned. The snake had gone. There seemed a peculiar lack of squirrels in the yard. This is common after a fox or bobcat visits.

An hour later I looked around again; an adult ground squirrel was on a large boulder, seemingly surveying its domain. And a few feet away, a juvenile was stretched out on the ground, its eyes open, alive, but hardly able to move. It had been bit by a rattlesnake in its right hindquarters, paralyzing its right hind leg. Over the next hour it painfully dragged itself twenty or thirty feet, downhill, towards one of its family burrows. The adult surveyed its child's progress. But then the venom's force overcame the young squirrel. It stopped moving. Its eyes closed. An hour later, it was dead.

There was absolutely no sign of the snake. All the squirrels entered their burrows and stayed within for hours, in mourning.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Smarts Crossing

The number of historic public trails and roads which have been closed
to the public here in Placer County has grown too long to tell, at
least, in the course of such a count, it degenerates into a repetitive
whine: The Sky is Falling, and what's more, Life is Unfair.

Smarts Crossing is one of these historic public roads. A wagon road
led across the Bear River, from near Dutch Flat to the Liberty Hill
Mine, and Mule Springs, and Lowell Hill; once there was a bridge,
where an inner gorge holds a deep pool in its polished embrace ... one can still find the heavy iron pins set in the rock there, which
anchored the bridge, but some time, in the 1940s, the old bridge
washed way and was never replaced. On the Liberty Hill side, the road fell out of use and became overgrown; but on the Dutch Flat side, it was kept open, decade after decade, by local residents who loved to swim and dive in the long deep pool, and wander and explore up and down the river, and shiver while the hot canyon breezes swiftly dried the icy water from their bodies.

The Crossing derives its name from the Smart family of Dutch Flat, who once had a sawmill over on the Liberty Hill side.

As is usual, a complex of various parcels is crossed by the old road.
There are patches of Tahoe National Forest land in the canyon, around there, and also Bureau of Land Management lands: these are public lands. The road also crosses some PG&E land, land which I hope will become public land, as there is a settlement in the works, linked to the PG&E bankruptcy several years ago, a settlement which will transfer ownership of some thousands of acres of PG&E lands, to Tahoe National Forest.

And there is an ordinary private parcel, of some seventy acres,
through which the old road passes, on its way down to the sparkling
river. In the early 1980s, this parcel was sold, and the new owner was
quick to put up his "no trespassing" signs, quick to throw a gate
across the road, quick to turn people away at gunpoint.

Local residents banded together and filed a class action lawsuit in
the Superior Court in Auburn, maintaining that the Smarts Crossing
Road was a public road, and could not be closed. We could not have
done this without very substantial pro bono legal help, most notably
by Ed Stadum. We won our case. The road was re-opened. The seventy acres was sold, again, to a somewhat notorious real estate developer, which bodes no good, so far as continued public access to the glorious old swimming hole.

A few years ago, a second gate appeared on the road. A group of people at Smarts Crossing had been chased away by a sudden release of water from Drum Poerhouse, five miles up the canyon, and had complained to PG&E. Now, PG&E owns no part of Smarts Crossing itself; their lands lie rather high on the road, near its intersection with Drum Powerhouse Road. Nevertheless, PG&E decided that, in the interest of public safety, they would close the road.

Local residents complained about the closure, the gate, the sign, and
copies of the legal decision by the Superior Court were mailed to
PG&E's legal counsel. Eventually, in a show of compliance, PG&E went so far as to remove the lock. The gate remained, and it remained closed, but it was not locked.

This was not a welcome compromise, but at least public access was retained.

Recently I was informed that the PG&E gate boasted a brand new lock. Xanadu, for so I will style him, sent me a photograph of the lock. I am about paralyzed by anger and bitterness by all these closures of the historic trails and roads. I merely replied, to Xanadu, that, yes, it was indeed a lock. A large lock. My thoughts turned to an honored environmentalist of Dutch Flat, who advised me, years ago, to find a large pipe cutter, and trim the gate off at ground level.

Xanadu now informs me that, strangely, unaccountably, not only has the big lock disappeared, but the entire gate is gone!

Someone's heart is in the right place.

So far as the future, I regard it as essential that the PG&E lands near Smarts Crossing be transferred to Tahoe National Forest, and moreover, that the seventy acres which was involved in the original closure be purchased by Tahoe National Forest. The "recreational values" of that area (how I hate the language of the bureaucrats!) are too important to allow those lands to be given over to residential uses.

There are many many private parcels bordering Tahoe National Forest lands which must be purchased and merged with the Forest, IMHO. Some are entire sections, as at Four Horse Flat, on the Big Granite Trail, or at Wildcat Point, in the Royal Gorge. Some are tiny little parcels, once upon a time, who knows, patented mining claims. And some, as at Lost Camp, will likely require an Act of Congress, to adjust Forest boundaries.

And all this should be done without delay. I can't help but think that the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on our war in Iraq might have been put to much better purposes.

But that is just more whining.