August 14 (1976, 1977, 1979, 1986, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003) Glacial Deposits ~ The Wabena Trail to Wabena Falls

8/14/76   morning, [...] and incredibly enough, rain. wet earth. a fire in the wood stove. [...] yesterday dave and i went out and hiked down the north alignment of my dad's land from the green valley trail road. we were looking for water ~ [...] and found it. just below the base of what could be the largest ponderosa pine on the ridge ~ about 5 feet in diameter with huge bark plates and a ruddy complexion ~ was a spring that dave and i agreed might well be flowing as strong as fifty gallons per minute. it comes out in an area about fifty feet across, and there is a band of giant chain ferns about that wide extending at least a hundred yards down the hill. wildflowers in bloom everywhere. mimulus cardinalis & guttatus. a salvia. ranger buttons (?). the ground is just soggy soaking wet everywhere. [...]”

[Russell Towle's journal]

8/14/77   [...] Very hot weather, smoky from the numerous forest fires around the state. I should clear the brush away from the cabin.”

[Russell Towle's journal]

8/14/79   sunrise. A few partly cloudy days have cooled things down and reminded us that summer is not going to last forever…”

[Russell Towle's journal]

8/14/86   Morning; [...] Yesterday I put in about six hours and headed for Smart's. Ran into Darrell and his remarkable son Josh along the way, and talked them into coming along; Darrell and Josh had never been there before. I was worried that some fellows I'd seen there last Saturday might have left some garbage. It was worse than I'd feared. Beyond their mountains of trash, they had fired many many bullets at the Douglas fir tree hanging over the pool and had actually managed to shoot a couple of one and a half inch branches off completely. I can't understand such people. I may get in touch with the Sheriff today; I took their license plate number down, and and am a witness to what happened.”

[Russell Towle's journal]

Date: Mon, 14 Aug 2000 09:02:40 -0800
To: Allan James
From: Russell Towle
Subject: Glacial deposits

Hi Allan,

I found some new (to me) glacial deposits yesterday which bear upon your work and thought I'd let you know.

A portion of the divide between the main North Fork American and the North Fork of the North Fork is called Sawtooth Ridge. It has a few small remnants of the typical Tertiary volcanics—Valley Springs and Mehrten—along its crest, but lacks any kind of continuous flat ridge crest, having apparently suffered too much erosion. The bedrock is Shoo Fly complex stuff. It is marked on the Tahoe National Forest map and on USGS quadrangles as Sawtooth Ridge. An old Forest Service lookout used to stand well down the ridge on what is called Helester Point, elevation ~4930. I was walking the crest of the ridge west from there, and to a point around one half mile southwest of Helester Point, or perhaps a little farther, I found glacial moraine debris thinly scattered across the narrow ridge crest. The bedrock is exposed in many places along this crest and in some places, looks suspiciously rounded, and at the Helester Point lookout itself, is even flattened in a small area, as though by glaciers, but this is so close to where bulldozers scraped the road in up to the lookout, this flat surface on the rock is suspect.

A line draw perpendicular to the canyons of the North Fork of the North Fork, and to Blue Canyon itself, from the southwesternmost point on the Sawtooth Ridge where I saw the granitoid glacial boulders, would intersect Drum Forebay. There was a high spot along the Sawtooth southwest of me I did not examine, might have been more stuff there.

The granitoid boulders I saw looked quite weathered. Their source might have been in the South Yuba basin, or perhaps at the head of Little Granite creek or of Big Granite creek. I know that ice swept right over the top of Quartz Mountain at the head of the East Fork of the North Fork of the North Fork, coming from the South Yuba and flowing southwest.

How're the cosmogenic dates coming? Have you published them yet? Any new ones?

With best regards,


Date: Mon, 14 Aug 2000 10:07:07 -0800
To: Allan James
From: Russell Towle
Subject: Re: Glacial deposits

>Hi Russell,
>... I have committed to giving a paper on the subject
>in Reno at the GSA meeting. That will force me to
>revisit the topic.
>Do you know about the GSA meeting this November? It
>should be very interesting.

The GSA meeting sounds interesting. [...] and don't forget your promise to devote at least a few years to the remarkable Quaternary deposits in Green Valley.

Oh yeah, one more glacial deposit for you, in Big Valley Canyon, not too far from Sugar Pine Point, where I took you that time. In the middle of the canyon there is a large Quaternary sediment mass, conceivably, a silted-up glacial lake. At any rate. There is a layer of fine sediment exposed in places along the creek, Dave Lawler thought it was reworked volcanic ash. It does have that general appearance and there is some ash higher in the canyon. The stratum looks to be a few feet thick and to have been freshly exposed by scouring during the 1997 flood event.

Date: Tue, 14 Aug 2001 14:25:11 -0800
To: North_Fork_Trails
From: Russell Towle
Subject: Giant Gap

Hi all,

Yesterday Catherine O'Riley, Chris Schiller and I did Giant Gap, a swim-and-boulder-hop of several miles through an awesome gorge on the North Fork American. See:
[Now archived at ]
for some photos and a brief description of our excellent adventure. Cliffs on cliffs, sun on sun, emerald pools sparkling before us. Now I have to rest some more.


Russell Towle

Date: Wed, 14 Aug 2002 10:27:01 -0800
To: North_Fork_Trails
From: Russell Towle
Subject: Wabena Falls

Hi all,

[Yesterday], with Tom McGuire and Catherine O'Riley, I visited Wabena Falls, on the North Fork American, in the Royal Gorge. This is the last waterfall going west, or the first, going east, in the Royal Gorge. The ragged spurs of Snow Mountain rise directly and very steeply from the falls on the north, to the broad summit, something over 4000' feet above.

I left Dutch Flat around eight in the morning, and popped into the Sierra Market at Colfax for a new straw hat, anticipating a long hike without much shade. The only hat available was a women's affair with rounded crown and a pretty little sash-like hatband thing, which adorned the front of the crown before slipping through two slots on either side, to hang freely, a foot below the brim. With this sash one could tie the hat to one's head, under the chin. As I marched down and then up the trail in this ridiculous get-up the sashes swung freely beside my face, and in my own mind's eye I was some kind of Bolivian Indian, in tribal attire. So it was not all bad, and it did shade me from the sun.

Catherine was perfectly on time, and leaving her sleek machine at Colfax, we proceeded down to Auburn, and entering Raley's parking lot on Foresthill Road, saw Tom a few seconds after he saw us; I had never met Tom in person, and saw that he was a tall, rugged fellow, with every indication that he was ready and able to take on a fairly drastic hike. So that was good. We futzed around and transferred packs into Tom's Subaru, also very rugged, and soon enough were making good time up the Foresthill Road. One begins by crossing the high high bridge built to allow access across the North Fork American to the Foresthill Divide, at a cost of untold millions, in anticipation of the construction of the Auburn Dam. Fortunately the dam was never built. Now we have a 700-foot-high bridge spanning the canyon. It appears briefly in the movie now playing, Triple X. A car goes off the bridge, as I understand it.

It took well over an hour to reach the Wabena trailhead. This unmarked trail begins almost exactly nine miles east of the end of the pavement at Robinson Flat. The trailhead is at 6371', and the base of the trail, at the confluence of Wabena Creek and the North Fork, is at ~3720', making for an elevation difference of 2651', somewhat over one-half mile. At the trailhead there is an open forest of Red Fir with some Jeffrey Pine, somewhat thrashed by logging. One crosses a log deck area to the north of the parking spot and begins following a bouldery old mining road to the northeast. The country rock around here is apparently the "intrusive member" of the (mainly) volcanic extrusives of the (Middle Jurassic) Tuttle Lake Formation. It is a fine-grained diorite in appearance. It is obscured by glacial till over the first half-mile of the trail.

Breaking out of the forest, one reaches the first good outcrops of the diorite, on a glaciated knoll at the head of a steep, brushy, rocky slope leading down towards the North Fork. Fifteen hundred feet below, Wabena Creek makes an abrupt drop of several hundred feet, right at the base of this steep slope. It flows from east to west in a long series of falls and cascades, and at the base of the steep slope breaks to the northwest, joining the river in about a half mile. We began picking our way down the obscure trail, loppers and saw in hand and put to constant work. Once again I was to find, while slogging slowly up the hill, hours later, that, even after cutting, literally, hundreds of branches, it seemed as tho nothing had been done. I wore shorts and my legs are covered with scratches.

There was little or no shade. Eventually, after losing the trail once or twice, an easy thing to do, we reached the ravine just before the Crossing at Wabena Creek. A great luxuriance of purple-flowered Fireweed, Scarlet Monkeyflower, and yellow-blooming Common Monkeyflower grew here. As I pointed to the three species, rotating slightly in the process, my index finger reached the Common Monkeyflower, and a sudden slithering of nearly black and white transverse bands caught my eye. It was our first and only rattlesnake of the day, in the Rattlesnake Capital of the Universe. It slithered into a shady nook in the boulders.

The trail crosses Wabena Creek in a short almost flat reach between two precipitous sequences of cascades and waterfalls. We rested there in the blessed shade of oak and maple and alder, Tom swam, and we explored upstream, climbing a little cliff to reach a nice pool at the base of some falls. It was certainly past noon. We lunched on some home-made baked tofu and other goodies.

Continuing, we descended the last 1200 feet to the North Fork, on a trail which crosses many talus slides, and winds through sparse groves of Canyon Live Oaks. This part of the trail is steeper than that above, has a more western aspect, and is hotter. It becomes truly obscure in many places and we lost its line several times. Not to worry, since after all it just parallels Wabena Creek, staying a couple hundred feet above it for the most part. Rock ducks mark its course and for once I was glad to see them. I see way too many of these trail markers in the wilds, often in places where under no construction could they be deemed necessary. Here they were essential. I should mention that as one reaches the Crossing of Wabena, at 4800' elevation or so, poison oak makes its first appearance. This is probably the highest elevation at which I have seen poison oak. It remains in the mix of vegetation for the rest of the way down to the North Fork.

 It was hot, probably all of 90 degrees. Reaching the river, we saw that its flow was much reduced, in the lateness of the season. We followed upstream, fording it at a couple places, with no indication whatsoever of the marvel soon to appear. After a bend to the right, a bend to the left; suddenly large blocks of barely-rounded talus, shed off the impossibly high slopes of Snow Mountain, began to choke the channel. We clambered over the large boulders, passed the bend, and there it was: a pure fall of around forty feet, with a narrow chute above, focusing the water over a drop of ten feet, where it hit a ledge and leaped clear of the cliff face. Although the river's flow was small, it made for a pretty picture. An almost round pool is at its base, very deep, and bounded by sheer cliffs on three sides. Because it is near Wabena Creek, this waterfall is called Wabena Falls, which is confusing, because of the many waterfalls on Wabena Creek itself. Two thousand feet above, and slightly to the east, is Wabena Point, on the ridge between the North Fork and Wabena Creek, with its remarkable petroglyphs and views.

Note Catherine in the small strip of shade at the cliff base.
On the south side of the pool the cliffs made a tiny strip of shade, and we unburdened ourselves quickly and dove in. The water was cool and perfectly clear and wonderfully refreshing. The heat and sweat and bother of the long descent were instantly erased. It was like stepping, quite quickly, into a parallel universe, where up was down and down was up, and hot and wearisome was cool and wonderfully alive and awake. As if this weren't enough proof that we had strayed into another world, it soon developed that Tom's wife is named Mary Catherine, while the inimitable O'Riley is named Catherine Mary.

Tom in the Wabena Falls pool, North Fork of the American River
We played at the perfect pool for an hour or so. I climbed the cliffs a little ways for a dive and then a jump, from the daring height of (maybe) ten feet. Tom and I followed a talus slide up and crossed the cliffs on the north side of pool, looking down 200 feet to Catherine, and gaining a glimpse of the inner gorge just above the waterfall.

Returning, we proceeded downstream to the confluence with Wabena Creek, where the entire North Fork disappears beneath the deep gravels. Before it disappears, it flows merrily along, following the precept which guides most Sierran rivers, "Go West, Young River," and then with a certain trickiness doubles back in a hairpin turn, flows due east, and simply stops, in a tiny pool at the base of one of the many talus slides coming down off Snow Mountain.

Similarly, Wabena Creek, over the lowest part of its course, is underground at this time of the year. Both streams flow above the surface in the spring snow-melt, or during heavy rainstorms in the winter.

As we approached the confluence, we scared a Merganser from the bank, where it had been taking a snooze, and it scampered drunkenly across the sun-hot boulders to the last vestige of the river, and began a rapid half-submerged run upstream to safety, making remarkably good time. These fish-eating ducks have long narrow bills.

We left our packs in the shade of a tree, and continued down the dry riverbed for perhaps a half mile, at the base of the more easterly of several truly gigantic talus slides coming down the face of Snow Mountain. These big slides are around a thousand feet high and are almost contiguous, and over this whole reach of maybe a mile the river stays underground. Apparently huge volumes of talus filled the channel and have an open-enough texture to permit the passage of lots of water below the surface.

The sun was lowering and we turned back upstream. Shouldering our packs, we followed Wabena Creek itself up its dry bed. Here the January 1997 flood event was very severe, and the waters of Wabena had spread over several acres of low ground near the confluence, leaving moraine-like arcuate ridges of talus and reworked glacial outwash between multiple channels; the Wabena flood waters had split into various "distributaries" on this flat area, and moved, oh, a million tons of boulders around to new positions, in the process.

We reached the first waterfall and pool on Wabena and stopped to filter water. Then it was up and up and up that first, steepest, rocky part of the trail to the Crossing. We took it slow and steady. As usual we lost the trail a couple of times, but at new and different places than those where we had lost it, when descending. That is just the way of this trail.

After another rest at the Crossing, we started up the final climb to the summit. We could see our rocky little boss of diorite, 1500' above us, for a while. It marks the end of the steep slopes. In a little while the sun set. A crescent moon hung over Wildcat Point, to the west, a cliff rising 3000' from the river. There are glacial striae at the top of that cliff, showing the ice was at least 3000 feet deep in the Royal Gorge, about 13,000 years ago or so.

As the light waned the obscurities of the trail's course began to plague us mildly, for it takes sudden twists and turns and little ups and downs, often in heavy brush. Catherine dug her flashlight out, but Tom and I relied upon our manly instincts and, really, the supreme, zombie-like slowness of our pace, to hold the trail. There was still decent twilight when we reached the Diorite Boss, and it was a simple matter to follow the old mining road up to the car; simple, but, well, tedious. We had left the North Fork around 6:30 and reached the car at 9:00, with two fifteen-minute breaks along the way.

It had been a wonderful day in the great canyon of the North Fork. We were all more or less wrecked by the hike, covered with scratches, soaked in sweat, and so on. The Wabena Trail is gnarly, rocky, given to disappearing acts, more or less covered in rattlesnakes—in fact, they soften the footing, somewhat, bless their little hearts—but what a place that is; the Royal Gorge, of the North Fork American river. For now at least, while California's population remains at a paltry 30 million, one can be reasonably sure of seeing no one else, if one hikes this remarkable trail.


Russell Towle

Date: Thu, 14 Aug 2003 20:29:30 -0800
To: North Fork Trails
From: Russell Towle

Lost Camp CDF Inspection

Rich Jenkins, CDF archeologist at Redding, called today, with questions about the exact location of the China Trail. He said a CDF field review of the Lost Camp project is imminent, that quite a few letters have been received, and, furthermore, he intimated that some highly placed political forces had been brought to bear, and that (as a result) unusually high-echelon CDF personnel would attend the field review.

I have no idea what highly placed political forces were at work.

Rich also verified that the fascinating ore-cart runs out in Fulda Canyon are already in the RPF's archeological survey. He thought they were well within the helicopter-yarding zone, hence, relatively well-protected; for tractor yarding is notoriously disruptive of things like trails (and ore-cart runs).

He also asked about the location of the Chinese artifacts we saw out there at Lost Camp last Sunday.

My impression is that the CDF will require that care be taken to protect the China Trail. However, when I mentioned the flagging we saw, marked "trail," Rich thought that might have only marked a proposed bulldozer skid trail!

I offered to attend the CDF review and show the team the China Trail and all archeological sites I was familiar with, but he said that could not happen without the invitation of the landowner.

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