Saturday, August 2, 2008
After the Inferno: The Iowa Hill Canal
Above: Iowa Hill Canal Trail in grey, Foresthill Road, blue, parking, red.
Above: the Chinese Road
Early Friday morning I drove to Jerry Rein's remarkable solar home,
and we made the long odyssey across the American River Canyon to the Foresthill Divide, crossing the North Fork at Auburn, and then driving many miles to the northeast, past Foresthill, past Baker Ranch, past the sites of Forks House, and Westville, and Secret House, to the head of the Beacroft Trail.
We would visit the uppermost Iowa Hill Canal.
We parked amid more or less dense second-growth coniferous forest,
which had burned hot, let us say, here, and yet over there, a few
yards away, had not burned at all. I had seen, looking south from the
summit of Big Valley Bluff, that the fires had flared violently from
the river itself all the way to the top of the Beacroft Trail. I had
seen that the fire had, at least slightly, crossed the Divide to the
south. And I really thought I had seen that that huge, fire-spawned
brushfield along the Canal, east of Tadpole Canyon, had been erased in an inferno.
Well, appearances oft deceive. "Erased," as it developed, was far too
strong a term. One should not too-quickly pronounce the doom of those sturdy old shrubs of Green Manzanita, Bush Chinquapin, and Huckleberry Oak, those gnarled shrubs which had baffled many a bear for decades on end.
The Foresthill-Soda Springs Road goes back to 1852, when Placer County set out to provide a good route across the Sierra for the immigrants flooding into California from The States, i.e., Back East. "If We Build It, They Will Come," seemed to be the guiding premise of this project, called the Placer County Emigrant Road.
And "they" will spend their money here in Placer County!
The road crossed the Sierra crest at Squaw Valley, although I have
read that it forked above French Meadows, the northern branch entering the upper North Fork American near the Old Soda Springs, also crossing into Squaw Valley. The Placer Emigrant Road never came into use by the emigrants, other much easier routes, such as the road via South Lake Tahoe and Placerville, garnering all the traffic.
A mile or two beyond the head of the Mumford Bar Trail we began to see back-fires set by the firefighters along the north side of the road. Once again I was impressed, even astounded, by how expertly these fires had been managed. Not only were all the larger trees left unharmed, often even young conifers had survived these back-fires. Amazing, I think, that this could be achieved in July! Perhaps it was all done at night.
However, as we neared the low pass east of Whisky Hill where the
Beacroft Trail drops away into the great canyon, directly across from
Big Valley Bluff, we began to see more severely-burned areas. Never,
however, had the fire crossed the Foresthill Road, it seemed. That too was amazing.
The pass at the head of the Beacroft is full of archeology. There is
the trail itself; there is the massive Secret Canyon Ditch, which drew
water from the Middle Fork American side of the Divide, and delivered it, via a tunnel beneath the pass, to the Iowa Hill Canal itself: both ends of the tunnel are now collapsed; and there is a little road crossing the Divide and nearing east, to the beginning of the long flume section of the Canal, leading in and out of Tadpole Canyon, rife with cliffs and precipices.
I call this little road the Chinese Road, on the assumption that
Chinese labor was heavily involved in the construction of the Canal,
in the 1870s. I would guess that these Chinese workers had a camp in
the pass. There are two small basins which hold spring water, possibly intended for the teams of mules hauling the wagon-loads of sawed lumber to the giant flume under construction.
If one parks back to the south and walks in to where the Beacroft
Trail begins, but ignore it and follow a faint road bearing northeast,
one will pass the collapsed tunnel of the Secret Canyon Ditch, and
briefly the Chinese Road disappears. Blundering northeast into dense
forest, one will pick it up again easily enough.
It is this Chinese Road which forms the first part of the Iowa Hill
Canal Trail, as depicted on Tahoe National Forest maps of 1947 and
1962. It is now a long time since this trail has been maintained. Some
sections have been erased in rockslides and avalanches. With various
friends I have been working to restore the trail to a minimal
passability, over recent years. It is really one of the most scenic
and dramatic trails in our entire area. The bench cuts in the sheer
cliffs flanking Tadpole Canyon are quite incredible in and of
themselves. Beyond Tadpole is the Big Brush, and from that ancient
chaparral one gains an exceptional view of the canyon, Big Valley
Bluff, Sugar Pine Point, Cherry Point, and even Snow Mountain.
Jerry and I found that the dense forest along the Chinese Road had
been incinerated, only a few of the oldest Sugar Pines, three feet in
diameter, appearing to have survived with some foliage intact.
Everything smaller had become stark and blackened poles without any
needles or even smaller branches. The road was easier to follow. We
paused at a rock outcrop on the canyon rim for a good view north to
Big Valley Bluff, and observed the broad swaths of burned forest
leading from the river up to the cliffs of the Bluff.
Jerry spotted smoke rising from a blackened Douglas Fir trunk nearby; a rotten area within the trunk was still burning, the smoke escaping lazily from a hole in the trunk, fifty feet above the ground.
Continuing, we followed the Chinese Road as it crossed the Divide and struck more to the east, descending on a gentle grade towards the Canal, which began to appear below us, a truly gargantuan mining ditch.
Every step puffed up a cloud of dust and ashes. Many a rock had rolled
down onto the old road during and since the fire, and occasionally a
blackened trunk had leaned down across it. I lifted a few rocks to the
side and quickly my hands were blackened. My shoes and pants were
blackened. My arms and face were blackened. No human had walked in to the Canal before us, the ashy dust was pristine.
The bedrock here is the early-Paleozoic Shoo Fly Complex of metasedimentary rocks, but it is not often exposed, glacial till
covering much of the area, in a kind of "till shadow" extending down-ice from the higher ridges to the east, between Tadpole Canyon and New York Canyon.
Reaching the Canal, we followed it east towards Tadpole, almost immediately passing some stone walls which facilitated, in some way, the off-loading of the lumber. They were loading docks, as it were. These stone walls, made of carefully-stacked large boulders retrieved from blasting operations along the bench cuts ahead, had suffered some damage in the fire, many boulders showing fresh cracks from the intense heat, and one section having collapsed altogether.
Although the leaves had been scalded off the brush along the Canal,
the skeletons remained. I would say it was easier going than before,
except that very many boulders and rocks of all sizes had rolled down
onto the old Canal Trail. A few of these I moved aside, usually
placing them on the uphill side, so as to dam up the soil already
moving down the slope from above, and soon to descend by the ton, when the fall rains arrive.
Once we reached the precipices close to Tadpole Canyon, the intensity of the fire lessened, as there was much more rock, much less fuel, and whole stretches of the Canal were untouched. At the crossing of Tadpole Canyon tall patches of purple Fireweed were in full bloom. The stream is at a low flow, clear and sparkling through a succession of pools and waterfalls.
Crossing, we entered that little patch of tall conifers immediately to
the east, very badly burned, and then crossed unburned cliffy areas
for couple hundred yards before reaching the first outliers of the Big
The Canal bears north before breaking out of Tadpole Canyon proper
into the main North Fork Canyon and the Big Brush. Here it changes
back from flume to ditch. It became apparent before we even reached that area that the Big Brush had by no means been burnt to the ground. Perhaps the only slight increase in passability is that the "outside-the-berm" path, a concession long long ago forced upon animals and humans alike by thick brush and trees growing from the crest of the ditch's high berm (for the most natural path would be on the berm crest)--the "outside-the-berm" path could now be walked rather easily. The bed of the Canal itself was also much more open than it had been, except it was so deep in soft fluffy ashes that to walk it was to nearly choke to death in clouds of ash-dust.
Soon we reached the edge of that ocean of heavy brush I call The Big
Brush. At exactly this point a faint trail forks away north, directly
down the canyon wall, with some very old blazes on trees just below
the Canal. These trees had been incinerated and only vestiges of their
foliage remained, near the tops, and even these had been cooked in the violent upslope winds of the fire, and left frozen, as it were, permanently bent as though that wind were an eternal and unvarying gale of great force.
I wished to explore down the old trail, always too choked with brush
to follow in years past, while Jerry wished to continue along the
Canal. I told him I would catch him up soon, expecting to take ten
minutes or so to scout the slopes below for this Mystery Trail,
depicted on the 1947 Tahoe National Forest map. It must have once led all the way down to the river, although the map showed it ending half-way down.
So I wound down the slope, picking my way through the skeletons of shrubs, seeing any number of possible trail segments, but no one continuous line presented itself. I scouted back and forth, to the west and to the east, as I dropped hundreds of feet in elevation. Seeing a nice promontory jutting into Tadpole Canyon below and to the west, I dropped down to it, and saw for the first time a waterfall I had often heard, easily a hundred feet high, in its upper, more visible part, and in full flow perhaps merging into a single two-hundred footer.
From the Promontory I broke back east on a contour and reached the faint ridge crest upon which I supposed the trail would most likely be found.
It was interesting to see, scant weeks since the area had burned, that
many of the bushes and small Black Oaks were stump-sprouting, fresh
green foliage pushing up through the grey ashes from the roots and
burls below. The Bush Chinquapin seemed the most eager to sprout,
while the burled Green Manzanita more rarely showed new growth. All in all, maybe one bush in one hundred is already showing new growth sprouting from the roots.
It was also interesting to see an occasional ant. And I saw some few
footprints from deer. As I scouted back and forth on the blackened
brushy slope, I began to see that the inimitable California Ground
Squirrel had at least sometimes survived the inferno, and fresh dirt
was piled outside their burrows, every two hundred yards or so.
Other than that it was a dreadful Desert of Death.
On my putative trail ridge I saw a faint and broad depression which
might have been an old prospect, although in the till blanketing the
area it was not clear what would motivate such a prospect. There were some small outcrops of bedrock nearby, at any rate. I saw no sign of any trail. Continuing on an eastward course, I soon saw some old cans scattered amid the burnt brush.
There were a few rusty condensed-milk cans, and a dozen or more larger cans of a curious construction. They were "double" cans, one can within another, a space of a quarter of an inch or so separating the inner from the outer, and on their bases were embossed these words:
TO HEAT CONTENTS
AT LEAST ONE INCH DEEP
Four dimples on the base marked where the holes were to be punched. Most all the cans had no such holes. Later, back at home, I Googled these double cans, and determined that in the space between inner and outer there would have been some quicklime, and a reservoir of water, which, when combined (by punching the holes to break the internal membrane separating the two), would react to heat the contents of the inner can.
This technology dates back at least to 1900, and quite a few patents
were issued over a period of decades. It was used by the U.S. Army in
WWII and in the Korean War for various types of field rations. Beyond
that, I could learn nothing.
That the cans showed up so close to the possible prospect made me
return west for another look at the latter. The second time around I
descried a faint trail leading right down the ridge. I followed it
down for a dozen yards or so until the blackened brush closed up too
tightly, and was left wondering whether it was or was not the Mystery
Already four hundred feet below the Canal, I hesitated to drop any
lower. The sun was intense and there was no shelter at all. The few
trees were merely black poles casting thin stripes of shade. I
returned to the cans and cast around more widely, without finding
anything, and then struck east through a bad section of brush which
forced me into an intricate series of ups and downs and twists and
turns. A grove of conifers, all burned badly, lay ahead, and in
scanning these very slopes with binoculars from Big Valley Bluff, the
other day, it seemed an area which could have carried the Mystery
However, although the burned grove contained any number of faint
terraces which a good imagination could conjure into a trail, there
was no tell-tale continuity which could settle the issue. Regretfully,
having exceeded my ten minutes by at least thirty more minutes, I
began a hot and dusty climb up through the Big Brush. Even in death
the Big Brush is formidable, and I found myself almost insensibly
pushed back to the faint ridge where I most-expected the Mystery Trail to be. This insensible pushing actually argues well for that ridge being the very line of the Mystery Trail. Sometimes one's feet are better arbiters, of such things as the courses of long-abandoned ancient trails, than one's brain or one's eyes.
Eventually I reached the Canal again, and followed it east. The sun
glared down and I didn't really want to push on through the glare and
the dust to the end of the Canal, almost a mile ahead, but fortunately I had delayed so long in searching for the Mystery Trail, that Jerry was already on the way back, and we met in the middle of that infinity of burned skeletons, and then turned back west and followed the good old Canal back to the Chinese Road, the pass, and the car.
Such was a very interesting day spent high on the walls of the
American River Canyon, within the area most-badly burned by the
"American River Complex" fire of June and July, 2008.