May 17 (1979, 1983, 1987, 1988, 2002, 2005)
Placer Legacy ~ PG&E Lands ~ Hail Hike from Hell

5/17/79 dawn. at this time of the year, the sun hits the uppermost pinnacles (eagle puke point) within a few minutes of rising.

a walk yesterday morning down to big pine spring on [S's] property revealed more bedrock mortar sites, on volcanic ash boulders. i have looked in that area before, but the many boulders and ‘bedrock’ exposures are pitted with natural solution pockets so that i despaired of finding any mortar holes in the soft rock.

the volcanic ash in that area is relatively hard, and may well represent an early event in the volcanic sequence that was confined to the lowest ground at the time ~ it almost constitutes a ‘welded tuff,’ and although i can't explain why it should be so much harder and rock-like than the vast majority of the ash found around here, i don't think it was a ‘hot’ flow that welded itself as it came to rest. the sources are too far, i believe, thirty miles. i may be wrong.

also of interest in that area ~ which is a portion of the old nary red channel ~ is the occurrence of some reddish-brown jasper associated with the serpentine that actually post-dates the gravels of the channel, as evidenced that occasionally the jasper includes quartz pebbles etc. in the manner of a conglomerate. it is usually found near the old bedrock surface of the serpentine. i wonder ~ jasper being a quartz-rich rock, and serpentine not, if that jasper may be attributed to the leaching of quartz minerals out of the volcanic ash that buried the serpentine (and the gravels of the creeks of these days) for many millions of years. geodes are also found associated with this jasper.”

[Russell Towle's journal]

5/17/83 ~
Sue and I went up Signal Peak the other day and found an outrageous bowl going down the north side. Fine skiing and fabulous return through a virgin forest of red fir, Jeffrey pine, and western white pine.

Richard and I are planning a ski ascent of Pyramid Peak next Sunday, and a trip down to the Owens Valley and the high Sierra in the first week of June.”

[Russell Towle's journal]

5/17/87 […]

Well, now, I have been working on a really monstrous letter to Geri B. Larson at TNF, wherein I ask for an immediate stay upon timber harvesting etc. at Corral Springs, and then go on for page after page building context and background for an appeal; the idea is that she will deny the request for a stay and for re-opening consideration of the Corral Springs sale, and that I will then, I hope in conjunction with PARC, appeal her denial and ask again for a stay; beyond that, my concepts are hazy, but hidden in that haziness is the possibility of having to seek an injunction from Placer County Superior Court. I wish Ed or Bill or Charlie or one of my legal-type friends were here to advise me. I think that I can file suit or request an injunction under my own steam, but advice would of course be welcome.

It's a good thing I went over my correspondence with TNF; I had forgotten that Geri had promised me that I would be involved with the planning for the Humbug sale; and it proves that the Corral Springs sale is merely a revised humbug, revised in extent and revised in date; Humbug was slated for 1991, Corral Springs for 1987. Have my civil rights been abridged? I hope so. This is the sticking point, this Corral Springs sale; and I am mad. Other sales deserve to be appealed also.”

[Russell Towle's journal]

5/17/88 […]

Today was most highly marked by the kids from Live Oak Waldorf School, with whom I spent the better part of the day, dramatically cloudy yet pleasantly sunny, out at Iron Point, then at Lovers Leap, then the D. F. Cemetery, where we made rubbings from the tombstones, garnering dates, scrolls, flourishes, bearers, names and places; kids with their teacher and some parents, led hither by Eric Peach. Kids all rambunctious and galloping, climbing, clambering, shouting and screaming and chanting invocations to Bigfoot…”

[Russell Towle's journal]

Date: Fri, 17 May 2002 09:09:23 -0800
To: North_Fork_Trails
From: Russell Towle
Subject: Placer Legacy

Hi all,

On Monday of this week I met with Vanessa Dunnican, GIS specialist for the Placer Legacy. The Placer Legacy, headed up by Loren Clark, is an effort to identify and protect important elements of Placer County's heritage and open space. In some cases, they seek to acquire conservation easements, and in some cases, they attempt to purchase land.

I have suggested several land acquisition objectives to the Placer Legacy, including the Gold Run Diggings, 806+ acres currently for sale, including a long narrow strip of land along Canyon Creek which contains the historic Canyon Creek Trail, leading down past waterfalls to the North Fork American.

Vanessa informed me that the Placer Legacy will not pursue any action on a given parcel or parcels, unless a letter is received by the owner(s), indicating their willingness to sell to the Placer Legacy. Thus, although this land at Gold Run, rich in historical, scenic, wildlife and even archeological and paleobotanical resources, is now listed for sale with a realtor, and although one of the principals, Mark Pohley, has repeatedly mentioned to me his hope that the Placer Legacy would purchase the property, nothing can be done until a letter is received.

So I called Mark Pohley, informed him of this, and gave him Loren Clark's address; he said he would talk with the other principals and see about writing a letter.

On Thursday, Vanessa and another employee of the Placer Legacy, Melissa, came up to Gold Run to get a look for themselves. We briefly toured the Diggings and then hiked the Canyon Creek Trail down to the river. It is especially impressive right now, with an abundance of wildflowers, the Notch-petaled Bush Monkeyflower in peak bloom, hawks and vultures and swallows soaring about, and the waterfalls still in good form.

Turkey Vultures circling above Canyon Creek
(Cathartes Aura)
We saw a Striped Racer down near the river; these snakes take to the trees and bushes when scared, and seem quite at home among the branches.

Striped Racer
(Masticolos lateralis)
Another project the Placer Legacy is working on right now involves some PG&E lands near Yuba Gap. As it happens I know this area well and have been quite concerned about these lands, as they contain several petroglyph sites, and include portions of the Donner Trail and also of the Dutch Flat Donner Lake Wagon Road, which led to Virginia City. One of the petroglyph sites has been misused, I think, by a lessee (?) of the PG&E lands, Eagle Mountain. They have located a mountain bike trail right through the middle of this rather unusual archeological site, as well as a Frisbee Golf course, and have moved boulders and rocks around to mark their trails. More recently, the wildfire last summer near Yuba Gap occasioned a back-fire, set purposely in the vicinity of the aforementioned archeological site, near which the fire-fighters also dropped some of the larger trees.

I tried over the course of several years to get a Tahoe National Forest archeologist in to see these petroglyphs, feeling that he might bring pressure on PG&E to limit commercial use of the area by Eagle Mountain, but failed. One of the other petroglyph sites has been marred by tractor logging on the PG&E lands. If you think that CDF (which regulates timber harvests on private lands in CA) looks out for heritage resources, and, for instance, keeps bulldozers from scrambling around on glaciated rock with petroglyphs, well, you're wrong. In all fairness, they do try to protect such sites.

If the Placer Legacy acquires these PG&E lands, perhaps the archeological sites can be better protected. Another issue involving these lands is public access. A commercial campground, named Snoflower, as I recall, was allowed to close the historic public road from Yuba Gap north to Crystal Lake. This is in part the historic Dutch Flat Donner Lake Wagon Road. I complained to Placer County about this years and years ago.

Of other PG&E lands which contain important scenic, recreational, and historic resources, such as, just for one example, the lands east of Drum Forebay, these are apparently not for sale. These lands contain the other historic road from Dutch Flat to Virginia City, the Pacific Turnpike, and also, the South Yuba Canal which fed water to the mines in Dutch Flat and Gold Run, and the course of the Towle Brothers Narrow-Gauge Railroad, which could make a nice equestrian and hiking trail from I-80 north across Bear River and Steephollow to Highway 20. The rails were ripped up in 1902, but in places the original hand-split cedar ties are still in place, embedded in moss on the shady north-facing slopes of the Bear River canyon.

Such is some recent news.


Russell Towle

Date: Fri, 17 May 2002 15:10:08 -0800
To: North_Fork_Trails
From: Russell Towle
Subject: A Funny Thing

Hi all,

I was meeting botanist Karen Callahan at noon today to show her an amazing display of flowers out along Drum Powerhouse Road. Now, the bridge across Canyon Creek has a plywood deck, and that plywood is delaminating. So John Krogsrud, tall, lean, wildfloweratious John Krogsrud, in his typical direct and no-nonsense fashion, went and bought three sixteen-foot pressure-treated 2X6s a few days ago, which I picked up from him in Auburn.

It so happens that yesterday I discovered that the little road into the Gold Run Diggings behind Heistercamp's was open again. The heavy reinforced concrete barrier had been lifted aside. So when I took Vanessa and Melissa into the Canyon Creek Trail we were able to drive right to the trailhead. Saves about 1.6 miles round trip from having to start at Garrett Road.

Anyway. This morning I thought, "What better time to haul the 2X6s to the head of the Canyon Creek Trail than right now, when the little road is open?" So I loaded them on my truck and headed out there. The cement barrier was where it had been, beside the road. I drove to the trailhead and carried the 2X6s a little way down the trail, then got back in my truck and drove out. "Wouldn't it be strange," I thought, "if, during the fifteen minutes I have been in here, the cement barrier was replaced?" When I arrived at the barrier-place, it was gone, and the tracks of some large loader-vehicle were visible there. "Wouldn't it be even stranger," thought I, "if the barrier has been moved just a smidgin up the road, and I am trapped in here?"

And so it proved to be. But the loader-thing was just in the act of backing away after lowering the barrier into position, and he immediately swung it out of the way for me.

So, it was a funny thing. Who wants to help carry the 2X6s the rest of the way (.6 mile or so) down to the bridge?


Russell Towle

The Hail Hike From Hell
North Fork Trails blogpost, May 17, 2005:
For quite some time a hike had been in the works, with Catherine O'Riley and Leslie (?), date, Monday, May 16, destination, the HOUT. Somewhat surprisingly, weather had entered the picture, as storm after storm wetted the Sierra, so with some anxiety we had watched the forecasts change from a dry Sunday and a sunny Monday, to a possibly-wet, but-if-wet-only-slightly-wet Sunday, followed by a clearing Monday.

The maybe-just-maybe-slightly-wet-Sunday lived up to its billing until, at day's end, heavy rain set in here at 4000' elevation, and continued through the night, tapering off at dawn to light showers and drizzle.

Now, I have been laughingly complaining, to anyone who will listen, about the "girlie-men" geologists, so scared of the mean-old, deep-old North Fork canyon, that it is a kind of terra incognita, a blank spot on the map of Sierran geology.

Indeed, on those girlie-men maps, the old canyon trails are marked, in ancient uncials, "Here Be Monsters."

Heck, I know one girlie-man geologist who has been relying on the work of yet another girlie-man geologist of a century ago, to form his ideas of the magnitude of the most-recent, "Tioga"-age glaciation in the North Fork. Neither one troubled himself to actually enter the canyon; for them it is enough to see it from a distance, to shudder with fear and fright, to turn away, to carefully comfort their quaking knees, and then to publish nonsense based upon nothing.

Howsoever: at least Catherine O'Riley is not one of these. At least Catherine O'Riley dares to descend the abysmal abyss. There is that one fixed point in a sea of quivering variables. That one thing is certain. All other stars move, the Pole Star holds its place.

So I was surprised when Catherine called Monday morning to complain that it was foggy and wet, and to suggest that some day in the future might just be dry.

Foggy and wet? Since when is that a factor? She was quick to apologize for her wimp-like caution, yes, quite quick; but there was a strange hint to her apology, a hint of the merely dutiful and rote obligation, while Prudent Maturity reared up behind her words, carrying a large placard which read, The Sky Is Falling!

With all the sense and sensibilities of a trained psychologist, I reminded her of other hikes when fog boiled in the great canyon, and talked about possible strategies, such as gaiters and umbrellas. Of course Catherine came around. After all, weren't the clouds beginning to glow? Didn't the satellite imagery show the frontal cloud band already passing into Nevada, with clear air behind? Hadn't the rain almost stopped?

So the hike was on, and we would meet at the Dutch Flat exit, to hell with the weather, on to the HOUT!

We duly met and loaded packs and gear into my little Subaru, Catherine's rig being a bit on the bulky side for the narrow path of unrighteousness which puts us onto the Main Diggings Road. A light drizzle dotted the windshield as the crux of the route was reached. All clay, all wet, all leaning crazily to one side. Easing the Subie through, it began to slip downhill into some pines. I was inches away from major body damage.

Fortunately my shovel was in the car, and by quarrying gravel some distance away, bit by bit we contrived to add some traction to the equation. A second attempt was made, and failed. More trips with the shovel, the slick and soggy clay salted with more bits and pieces of rock. And then, at last, success. A loud crunching from the undercarriage, and freedom.

Sidalcea reptans
Sierra Checker-mallow
In a few minutes we were at the trailhead, and the rain had stopped. The forest was soaked and Canyon Creek raised its voice in a joyous tumult. Passing the bridge, the Flowery Realm was entered, the trail rife with tall grasses nodding under the burden of a thousand droplets. From the knees down, never mind the gaiters, we were increasingly soaked. The falls were big, Canyon Creek, a mite muddy and unclear. Our old friends, the white racing pigeons, huddled forlornly on ledges in the Chasm, that strange and wondrous inner gorge above the Big Waterfall. Even a well-placed rock hurled across the narrows failed to move them into flight. Could they be dead? Leslie fancied one was on its back, its pitiful little feet aimed at the sky. But no. They were alive, only somnolent, at rest. A falcon winged by above, offering one more reason to hide on little ledges in twisted chasms.

We left the steep trail for the even steeper cross-country route down to the base of the Big Waterfall, impressive in sound and fury, spewing spray, big enough to split into a second channel near the top. A brief break, then down the Waterfall Trail to the Terraces, and on back again to the Canyon creek Trail.

Soon we entered upon the HOUT. The clouds had gradually lifted and brightened, not a speck of rain had fallen, yet the grasses and flowers stayed soaked, the blossoms almost all nodding low, clotted with water.

My light leather shoe-boots, so carefully Sno-Sealed the night before, were squishy-wet. My two layers of woolen socks, squishy-wet. We picked our way quite slowly over the slippery rocks and those threads of ledges which form much of the HOUT, not so much a trail as the ghost of a dream of a trail. In dry conditions I can reach Croquet Meadow in a little less than one hour from the top of the Canyon Creek Trail. Today we would need three hours to make Croquet. It seemed to take forever. Rounding the many rock spurs along the HOUT, we were treated to views of the Pinnacles, set nicely against a backdrop of distinctly darker clouds.

I saw a pair of Golden Eagles soaring around the Pinnacles; they crossed to the east and out of view before Catherine and Leslie caught me up.

And the North Fork was huge, raging, roiling, muddy as it is almost never muddy, and out of all proportion to the moderately high flows of Canyon Creek: this was a genuine flood event, such as I have not seen for years.

I had been keeping tabs on the North Fork Dam stream gauge on the Internet, and noted that it had climbed from 2000 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 3000 cfs by Sunday morning. Monday morning I was shocked to see that it had climbed up to 4000 cfs. Of course, Auburn is well downstream from Giant Gap, and many tributaries add their mite. But right here, right now, the North Fork was huge, broad, very fast, full of backward-curling waves and whitewater.

Sunday night's rain had been heavy in the high country, it seems, with the snow level above 8000 feet. Ron Gould had recorded a quarter-inch at Weimar. I could not doubt but that as much as two inches had fallen over the terrain flanking the upper canyon.

So we struggled along, Leslie, having been exposed to Bad Hiking Influences, as I darkly surmised, using no less than two walking sticks, and making a tough going of the rocky places. If there is a better way to ruin one's sense of balance and weaken the musculature of ankles and knees, I can't think what it would be.

To reach Croquet quickly seemed important to me. But we advanced in agonizing slowness. Dilatory! Catherine stopped often to photograph the miserable flowers, while barely a pace or two ahead was that strange patch of Sidalcea at Croquet! Why waste one's time picking through bits of finger in Wendy's Chili, when there's an ocean of Nectar and Ambrosia around the next bend?

Somehow we did advance from Point A to Point B and there followed C and D and E until at last we came within ten feet of the Croquet.

At that exact moment all hail broke loose. Just before the actual ambrosia could be quaffed, we took shelter beneath a Canyon Live Oak and ripped into our packs for sweaters and jackets and caps and hats.

The hail graded slowly into rain and for several minutes we held to the cover of the trees. Then hard rain gave way to soft showers and we advanced into the Sidalcea Colony.

Like most all the larger flowers they nodded low and hid their glories. We moved along to the Meadow of the Whirling Dervish Backpack, and found the Monarch caterpillars visibly larger than they'd been last Friday. Catherine photographed the behorned and striped little puppies, and we took a break.

Another shower moved in and intensified into a deluge. We retreated beneath the trees. Thunder rumbled. Directly across the canyon, The Eminence soared two thousand feet above the river, and the showers had spawned the usual lovely threads of waterfalls on its steep cliffs.

"The Eminence"
South side of the North Fork American River canyon, west of Giant Gap

After ten minutes or so, the rain tapered back to showers, and we left the trees to get a look around. We were all a bit soaked. Instead of a day steadily clearing, we had apparently picked a day steadily deteriorating into thunderstorms and drenching downpours. The only sane and sensible thing to do was to make a mad dash for the Canyon Creek Trail and then, quickly-quickly, up and up and up to the safety of the car.

However. There is more to life than mere sanity. I observed that we were all wet already; what could the harm be, in walking just a little farther, and that little *not* over nasty wet rocks but instead over an easy forest path, until we broke out onto the steep Blue Lupine Barrens of Big West Spur, by the Bear Bed, and could see back down the canyon?

Common Madia
(Madia elegans)
Where's the harm in that? Leslie would be able to scan at a glance the entire mile of canyon we had ascended from Canyon Creek, and if the storms closed in again we were really not so very much further from safety and civilization.

What were we, after all? Girlie-men geologists?


So off we went in the wrong direction, not to the west and safety, but east into deeper and deeper danger. Lo and behold, the sun came out. I felt sure that for the first time since leaving the trailhead, I was actually getting drier rather than wetter. We reached the Bear Bed in short order and took another break.

The sun felt so very very good. The river was surely as high as ever and Leslie thought that it sounded louder. I saw no difference and heard no difference, but when I checked the North Fork Dam stream gauge later, I found that the river rose steadily until about 2:45 in the afternoon, topping out over 7000 cfs.

So Leslie was right.

7000 cfs is enough water to cover an acre of land a foot deep in six seconds.

Clouds boiled all around, fog clung to the canyon walls in shreds and curls and sometimes in long level windrows, and there seemed every chance of more rain. We felt encouraged by the sun and dared the storms to do their worst and just kept on following the HOUT, as it climbed from its long level line into an intricate and narrow path around the several big rock blades at the base of Big West Spur.

We crossed to the east of the eastern blade into the Elfin Forest and down a short distance to a remarkable overlook. We were in the heart of Giant Gap with the Pinnacles and Lovers Leap to the right and left. Eagles reappeared and disappeared. To penetrate so far along the HOUT under such dramatic and somewhat adverse circumstances was a notable achievement.

Then it only remained to retrace our steps. Occasional very light showers maintained a scattered boiling of fog in the canyon, such as is more commonly seen early in the mornings after storms. When I tried to rest on the Canyon Creek Trail a mass of mosquitos attacked and so I started a slow slog up and up and up. Catherine as is often the case forged into the lead and left Leslie and I to our own peculiar pace. When we reached the car, a moment of consternation: no Catherine. How could we have passed her? Had she branched away to the Blasted Digger? Which, in retrospect, we all ought to have done. I unlocked the Subie, threw my pack in, and scouted ahead to see if footprints showed what was what. But there she was in a patch of weak sunshine, having merely left the shadows around the car for the light a few yards away.

The slight drying over the last of the afternoon had firmed the clay where disaster so nearly struck in the morning, and the Subie crawled through the narrow pass without incident. It was about 6:30 p.m.

Such was another great day in the great canyon.

Incidentally, I have managed to identify the species of coarse moss which plays such a prominent role in the ecology of our canyon walls, often knitting together talus, why, without this one species of moss the HOUT itself would scarcely be passable. It clings tightly to the bedrock and makes critical and durable footholds. It is Selaginella hansenii, or Hansens Spike-moss.
[See Hansens Spike-moss here:

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