Thursday, October 7, 2004

Italian Bar and the Sawtalian Trail

Wednesday morning I dropped off my kids at their schools in Alta and Colfax, and took curvaceous Yankee Jims Road across the North Fork to Foresthill. Turning left, I drove up the Foresthill-Soda Springs Road, past China Wall, to the road left to Humbug Ridge and the head of the Italian Bar Trail. Three miles on this moderately rough road brought me to the trailhead. It was 9:37 a.m.

This area is shown on the USGS 7.5 minute Westville quadrangle.

My objective was to find and follow, if possible, the "Sawtalian" trail, on the north side of the canyon, which left the crest of Sawtooth Ridge at a little over 5000' elevation, and dropped south and west to a crossing of the North Fork at 2300', near Italian Bar. This trail is only depicted on a couple of the old maps in my possession, notably, the ca. 1900 USGS "Colfax Folio" of Waldemar Lindgren. This is a topographic map, made without the benefit of aerial photographs, but is quite interesting in that it shows several trails which have fallen out of use and are, as it were, lost, and forgotten.

Perversely, it omits some important trails which existed at that time, such as "the" Italian Bar Trail (IBT). Lindgren also leaves out much of the Sawtooth Trail itself, which led down the length of Sawtooth Ridge. This Sawtooth Ridge forms a part of the divide between the main North Fork and its principal tributary, the North Fork of the North Fork. Rather than having a flat crest, as do so many of the ridges in middle elevations, it has a succession of knolls and saddles. I attribute this to the glaciers which repeatedly flowed down both canyons, attacking the ridge from either side.

Around ten years ago I published the diary of Isaac Tibbetts Coffin, a gold miner and photographer who lived most of his life in Dutch Flat, where he died, in 1903. Forty years before, he lived in Burnett Canyon, near Texas Hill, quite near the Sawtooth Ridge. From his cabin he could take the Burnett Canyon Trail south to Sawtooth, and continue south on the Sawtalian Trail to the North Fork American. The south-facing slopes of Sawtooth often remain free of snow, in stark contrast to Burnett Canyon. He might have, say, six feet of hard-packed snow on the ground at his cabin in Burnett Canyon, and yet find none at all along the Sawtalian Trail.

In the Sierra, microclimate counts for a lot.

Now, I.T. Coffin used the Sawtooth Trail, and also what I have named the Sawbug Trail, which also drops from Sawtooth Ridge, a few miles west, to Humbug Bar; another "lost" trail. A series of seven explorations over recent years finally succeeded in tracing the line of the Sawbug. The main problems proved to be at either end, both near the river, and near the crest of Sawtooth. The main central reach of the trail was easily followed, if one could only get on the thing.

A maze of bear trails and old old miners' "use" trails had complicated the issue, on the Sawbug.

Yesterday's reconnaissance might be called "Sawtalian IV" since it was the fourth effort to find and follow this lost trail. The first three attempts involved driving out to Sawtooth Ridge to a point just south of the Burnett Canyon Trail, and scouting down the steep slopes just below the rim of the North Fork canyon. A trail was found, which seemed to end in a pleasant grove of Kelloggs Black Oak and Ponderosa Pine.

The discovery of the Sawbug Trail had at the last hinged upon following it up from the river. It was reasonable to hope the same approach would work on the Sawtalian Trail. So I set off down the IBT at 9:37 a.m. I had left my loppers at home, and I almost never hike without loppers. "It is a Forest Service trail," I reasoned, "it will not need lopping; and once I cross the river, I should save my strength for scrambling up and down and every which way, rather than spend it all lopping bear trails which turn out to lead nowhere."

How wise.

Immediately, I mean, in about ten steps, I wished I had my loppers. Deerbrush overhung the trail, small Douglas Fir trees were smothering it altogether in many places, and there was no sign that Tahoe National Forest (TNF) had lifted a finger to maintain the trail in the last twenty years. Someone had lopped a few branches here and there, possibly this May or June, judging by the cuts, which were just beginning to brown and check, but this trail is in rather serious trouble. How many young Douglas Fir should be removed? Only about a thousand. Of these, perhaps a hundred are large enough to need a saw. The rest could be lopped.

Then there are the small Black Oak and Canyon Live Oak which have stump-sprouted from trees TNF cut near the trail, twenty-some years ago. There are some dozens of these often multi-trunked small oaks which need cut.

The trail starts at around 5000' and at first follows a road, though much overgrown. In about 200-250 yards a vehicular closure sign is reached, and another quarter mile brings one to the end of the road, and the beginning of the foot trail proper. A small wooden sign on a large tree reads "Italian Bar Tr."

A stand of heavy timber flanks this uppermost part of the IBT, much Ponderosa (and Jeffrey?) Pine, Douglas Fir, and Sugar Pine, with some White Fir and Incense Cedar. The 1960 Volcano Fire roared through here, and scorch marks are still visible, running thirty feet up the uphill sides of many of the larger trees. There seems to be a lot of soil moisture and groundwater, and Pacific Dogwood makes a common understory tree. There are almost always "perched" water tables associated with the flat-lying strata of andesitic mudflow and rhyolite ash which cap these flat-topped ridges. The "bedrock" beneath these "young volcanics" is here the Shoo Fly Complex, very old, ~400 million years, metasedimentary rocks, sometimes slate, often metasandstone, sometimes chert.

At the beginning of the foot trail proper one drops below the "young volcanics" into the Shoo Fly. However, almost immediately some vaguely sedimentary deposits begin to appear, often associated with terraces or benches on the canyon wall. I interpret these benches as pockets of glacial till, left by the North Fork glacier. Some or all the benches may even be blurred lateral moraines. I looked almost in vain for "exotic" rocks, that is, non-Shoo-Fly-rocks, which would have helped my theory along, showing that the benches were made from rocky debris carried miles down the North Fork. The best exotics, for my purposes, would have been granite boulders. The only exotics I found were boulders of andesite. While I was sure these had indeed been dropped there by the North Fork glacier, it was troubling that directly above, on the rim of the canyon, was a large area of andesitic mudflow, full of just such boulders.

Between the benches the trail steepened. I had fine views (all about to be erased by the growth of thousands of young Douglas Fir) east and up the canyon to Big Valley Bluff and Snow Mountain, even to the Sierra Crest, where Anderson Peak and Tinkers Knob were visible for a while, before I dropped too low.

A motorcycle had descended the trail for the better part of a mile, scoring it deeply in several places, until finally a large fallen tree had blocked further progress. So. Maybe a lack of trail maintenance is not always a bad thing.

Across the canyon I could see parts of Sawtooth Ridge, especially the area scorched by a wildfire, started when a logging helicopter crashed, some years ago. However, the forest cover was too thick for me to see the area across the canyon where I would be looking for the lost Sawtalian Trail. For those of you with access to the Westville quadrangle, immediately south of Willmont Saddle, in Section 31, note a large area of relatively gentle topography, with more widely-spaced contour lines, south and east of the "31" labeling Section 31. This is where I expected to find the Sawtalian. The upper end of the Sawtalian I imagine to be quite close to the surveyed elevation of 5076', south of the Burnett Canyon Trail, on the rim of the North Fork canyon. The Sawtalian's crossing of the river I imagine to be near the "R" or the "I" of the word "AMERICAN" in Section 31.

I base this upon repeated attempts to make the topography of Lindgren's 1900 map, and the Westville quadrangle, agree. I use Adobe Photoshop to copy a patch of a scan of Lindgren's map, and then paste this patch onto my high-res scan of the Westville quadrangle. In Photoshop one can adjust the transparency of the pasted image, so that the underlying Westville quadrangle shows through. Then it remains to scale the pasted, semi-transparent patch of Lindgren's map, until the best fit is obtained between the two. For instance, one can make the two North Fork American's coincide on the south, and make the two Burnett Canyon Trails coincide on the north.

Then it is an easy matter to trace the line of the Sawtalian onto the Westville quadrangle.

I was always in shade on these north-facing slopes while descending the trail. Around the 3200' contour the trail passes a huge Ponderosa Pine on one of the best of all the benches, breaking a little west before plunging south to the Marrs Mine and the river. This Big Pine Bench actually has a little ridge paralleling the main canyon, which maybe just maybe might be a much-blurred moraine crest.

About this elevation one suddenly begins to encounter the odd little California Nutmeg, Torreya californica, with their spiky sharp needles and sharp unpleasant scent. These conifers are in the Yew family.

Dropping towards 400 feet above the river, I began to hear the North Fork, speaking in the muted tones of Fall. I noticed a parallel trail line above me and scrambled up for a look. Strangely, it was broader than the main trail, and had what the main trail mainly lacked, dry-laid stone retaining walls. However, it soon seemed to end.

Later I decided it may have been made to facilitate the skidding of equipment down to the Marrs Mine.

Dropping back down to the main trail, I hit an old human trail running along level, more faintly to the west, but quite broad and plain to the east. It was about 300 feet above the river. Since I needed to go down the canyon nearly half a mile in any case, I followed the faint trail west. It soon degenerated into what seemed to be multiple strands of bear trails, but these would then recombine and once again I felt sure it was an old human trail.

After a time, tho, I lost the thing, probably by staying low when it climbed high. I followed a steep bear trail down, noting its recent use, the soft soils torn up and heaved into heaps by the great weight of the bear, before, to my surprise, I met still another faint human trail. This angled gently down to the river and, perhaps unsurprisingly, put me exactly where I wanted to be, at the imagined, the purported, crossing of the river on the Sawtalian Trail.

The river itself was in shadow, but just across and above the cliffs, to the north, the sun shone brightly.

After a brief rest, I photographed a low waterfall a little ways downstream, where the river enters an inner gorge of polished Shoo Fly strata. The waterfall, four or five feet high, spoke rather loudly. The rocks were striped and potholed and oddly sculptured. A very pretty place.

It was easy to cross the river, and I began looking for some sign of the Sawtalian. The January 1997 flood event had carved the banks back. Just downstream, cliffs dropped to the river; just upstream, cliffs dropped to the river. I was in the only possible place to climb up and out of the gorge "easily." This meant that whatever trail I might find would, at the least, also be a game trail.

I saw a faint line and scrambled up. With some imagination it could be thought of as an old human trail. It climbed to the west, but first I followed it down and east, and immediately came to a certain ravine, critical to the route of the Sawtalian. Lindgren showed the Sawtalian breaking west down low, and crossing to the west side of this very ravine.

So I turned back west on my little shred of a path and made an easy climb to about 100 feet above the waterfall area.

The relatively east slopes indicated on the Westville quadrangle were all around me. I began zig-zagging up and east. Open forest alternated with curious meadowy areas dominated by a kind of bunch grass. Unfortunately, the helicopter logging which had started the fire some years ago, had involved these very slopes. Slash covered the ground in places. There were many stumps and fallen trees and trees they had cut but left to rot.

All this was well within the North Fork American Wild & Scenic River "corridor." I believe that most of this logging if not all occurred on Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI) lands in Section 31, an odd-numbered "railroad" section. Taking a guess, the logging took place around 1990, or a few years later.

The logging slash and fallen trees tended to obscure anything in the way of old human trails, but abundant bear trails led around and over the obstacles, so I continued zig-zagging back and forth while slowly climbing and making east. I reached the first, westerly branch of the "critical ravine," and found water flowing, in fact, there was a gigantic patch of gigantic Giant Chain Ferns all along the ravine, acres of ferns, in full sun, I can't say I've ever seen so many in one place. This species of fern *only* grows where there is year-around water at the surface.

I had my choice among many bear trails crossing the World of Ferns, and chose one of the shorter crossings, partly on a fallen tree. Scouting up and to the east, zigging and zagging back and forth, I saw nothing to hang my hat on. So far, no Sawtalian.

I came to the eastern branch of the ravine. While this too had water and ferns, it was dominated by great masses of California Grape. They spread across the floor of the ravine, and climbed every tree near the ravine, completely encasing many of the smaller trees. I called this the World of Grapes. Again the bears led the way across. Climbing the far side, I found more of the same kind of terrain: open sunny bunchgrass meadows, intertwined with open forest stands of Canyon Live Oak and Ponderosa Pine. I suspect that the meadows and the springs alike are associated with deposits of glacial till, like the benches I had seen along the Italian Bar Trail. Closer to the river itself, these sedimentary deposits are glacial outwash. The best way to tell outwash from till is that outwash is stratified, it is layered; till is not. But to tell if till is till or not, one must see a cross-section of the deposit. Roadcuts make good cross-sections, but no roads were present here.

I am really just relying on instinct when I say that the bunchgrass meadows and springs are related to deposits of glacial till.

At any rate, zigzagging and climbing and making east, I hit a smaller ravine, with its own small patch of chain ferns, mixed with blackberry vines and grapes. As I tried a likely bear trail into this area, and began to get a little tangled up in vines and a little scratched by thorns, I suddenly noticed I was on the line of a trail-like depression in the ground. Just the sort of thing which might develop by leading strings of mules across soft soils over the course of a few decades.

Since I was already about 400 feet or so above the river, and had the 2700-foot climb ahead of me, back to the car, and since the thorns were a nuisance, I turned back west and followed my shallow groove.

It led to a very easy crossing of the World of Grapes, higher than I had crossed it, and continued down and west on a very gentle line. I am almost sure that it is, in fact, the Sawtalian Trail. However, it became hard to follow. Logging slash and fallen trees forced me off its line, but I found it again, easily enough, at first. I even found some rock-work along the thing. Then I seemed to lose it. In a way, it was because the terrain was too open, to gentle, too easy. If topography does not force one particular trail line, stock and hikers may well wander a little, and the trail becomes less well-defined.

Perhaps that was the case. Following it down and west, I crossed the World of Ferns, again more easily than I had on the way in, and higher, too, and then, just when I figured I had lost the trail altogether, I came to a fine figure of a pear tree, near some hard-rock mining prospects, and a possible collapsed tunnel.

This was somewhat encouraging. If one were to live year-around down by Italian Bar, one would be up there in the bunchgrass meadows, and the springs, where the sun shines, for, even this early in the fall, the river itself gets little to no sun, and the southside, north-facing slopes, about none at all. It seems to me that if there is a pear tree, there is likely a cabin site. I didn't see one, but I didn't look.

Soon thereafter I hit a little old mining ditch and followed it west, into yet another ravine. Scouting further west yet, I found nothing, so I retreated east, and reached the place where I had first climbed up from the river on a faint old human trail. This trail made an especially easy crossing of the Critical Ravine, and an easy descent the last few yards to the North Fork, which easy route I had missed earlier.

At the river, I rested, ate lunch, and then followed along upstream to the Marrs Mine, with its stamp mill, tunnels, rock-crusher, and shafts. There is also a nasty pile of garbage near the stamp mill, several tarps disintegrating into tiny shreds of plastic, some aluminum chairs, a blanket, etc. etc. Looks like about four to six backpack loads.

Before climbing up and out of the river, I saw that, on the north side, a faint trail led up to a patch of forest in a deposit of glacial outwash. I crossed over and explored up there for fifteen minutes or so, finding several old human trails, all in active use by bears. Both here and up above in the bunchgrass meadows area I saw signs of mining, not on a large scale, but gullies from ground-sluicing, piles of boulders, and small mining ditches here and there.

Finally it was time to start up the Italian Bar Trail. Along the way I paused to examine the east-bearing side trail roughly 400 feet above the river, and followed it about a quarter-mile, before it began to climb. Its junction with the main IBT is marked with unusual blazes, on two Douglas Fir trees, in the form of a cross. Another cross blaze is found a little ways along this trail, to the east.

Retreating, there was nothing to do but slog on up and up and up. I more fully appreciated how steep the IBT is in many places, how few the switchbacks. I saw two old "small i" blazes of the sort made by TNF rangers in the olden days, on the downhill sides of large trees beside the trail. At about 4:30 p.m. I reached the car, pretty well soaked with sweat.

All in all it was a very nice day in the North Fork canyon, and although I cannot say with certainty that I found any part of the Sawtalian Trail, I did find several old human trail segments on the north side of the river, which make a good fit with what is depicted in Waldermar Lindgren's 1900-era topographic map.

More exploration is needed.

In the Big Picture, there once was a rich complex of trails threading all through Tahoe National Forest, many dating back to the Gold Rush. Gradually, roads penetrated the region, and more and more of the trails fell out of use. After World War Two many more roads were constructed, and logging took places in areas which had been pristine.

Thus over time, official TNF maps have shown fewer and fewer trails, and more and more roads. I believe that, in some areas, we should turn the clock back.

Sawtooth Ridge lies between two very wild canyons, the main North Fork, and the North Fork of the North Fork. Clearcuts have marred parts of the ridge, and a road has replaced much of the old Sawtooth Trail. Clearcuts heal over time, and over time a road degenerates into a trail, perfectly well-suited for equestrians and mountain bikes.

Various spurs trails lead away into the canyons on either side. Considering how rare our wildlands have become, I believe that very much of Sawtooth Ridge should be closed to motor vehicles, surely everything west of Helester Point, or possibly everything west of the Sawtalian Trail. The Sawbug Trail, Sawtalian Trail, Government Springs Trail, Rawhide Mine Trail, and still other trails which have lapsed into complete disuse and obscurity, should be re-opened, for hikers to enjoy new and varied perspectives, new routes in and out of the wild canyons.

We really should aim for the next ridge and canyon north to be included in the mix: Blue Canyon, and the "Lost Camp" ridge dividing it from the North Fork of the North Fork, are also very wild and beautiful. There once was a trail descending the length of the Lost Camp Ridge, to the Rawhide Mine. This should be re-opened for hikers. There should be a vehicular closure at Lost Camp itself. Every effort should be made for TNF to acquire the private inholdings in this region, beginning with Lost Camp, the Rawhide Mine, and the Sawtooth Ridge.

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