August 30 (1976, 1983, 1985, 2002)
Of Crickets and Candles and Clouds. And Clear-cuts.
~ North Fork Frog Patrol

8/30/76    […] a time of the year, which according to the inclination of the earth's axis relative to the plane of our orbit about the sun, is analogous to about april 10th. the days have been hot of late, though the northern hemisphere is cooling slowly at the moment, and the southern warming.”

[Russell Towle's journal]

8/30/83    [...]

~ Evening. Another breezy day, with clouds racing in this afternoon, the winds aloft were moving the clouds at over 100 miles per hour I'd guess.

I've been in the sun a lot lately. Somewhat fried at times.”

[Russell Towle's journal]

August 30, 1985

Morning. Still cloudy; only a small amount of rain fell. I've been working on continued fractions this morning. [...]

Went out to the cliffs for sunset; an especially fine display of lenticular cirrus clouds were stacked up over the Sierra crest. They graded into lenticular cirrocumulus clouds to the south, and had a pleasing symmetry, in that there were two zones of more lenses with a uniform bridge of long lens-bands connecting them, one over Snow Mountain and one over Squaw Valley. The travesty of the clear-cutting across the canyon distresses me whenever I see it. My visits to Lovers Leap and the cliffs on my property have been less frequent since the logging across the canyon, in 1982 and 1983.

The skies have largely cleared. Crickets chirp. A candle burns beside me—I have yet to get another 12-volt fluorescent. Could have paid for it with what the candles have cost by now—it's been six months. Extreme financial embarrassment.”

Date: Fri, 30 Aug 2002 11:26:56 -0800
To: North_Fork_Trails
From: Russell Towle
Subject: The Mother of all Frog Patrols
Cc: "Brian Williams"

Hi all,

On Thursday, August 29th, Brian Williams and I followed the North Fork American from Green Valley, to the Truro Mine, near Fords Bar, about six miles downstream. Our mission: to count all Foothill Yellow-Legged Frogs found, along both banks of the river.

Foothill Yellow-legged Frog
(Rana boylii)
I should say that the Foothill Yellow-Legged Frog (hereafter referred to as YLF) is a close relative of the Red-Legged Frog and the Mountain Yellow-Legged Frog, and all these three species of the genus Rana have shown startling declines in population, here in California, and have disappeared from large parts of their original ranges. This is especially true of the Red-Legged species. Brian is a wildlife biologist, and on his own initiative organized a survey of the YLF populations on the North, Middle, and South forks of the American River, from the middle elevations on down. Around twenty or thirty people participated, splitting up into groups of two or three, each group assigned some particular reach of one river. Brian and I took on the famed and fearsome Giant Gap.

I should also say that, here at home, at roughly 4000' elevation, near Dutch Flat, some small springs issue from the Valley Springs Formation rhyolite ash beds, and below these springs, my kids and I have made little pools. One we call the Pool of the Sacred Frog. Another we call the New Pool. Then there is Janet's pool, and Greg's Pool. At any rate. YLFs like our little pools, and when bored, we set off on a Frog Patrol, and visit one or more pools, and the kids hassle the gentle frogs, catching them and carrying them around. This, despite my every effort to inculcate a profound respect for the YLFs, and the idea of, hey, hands off!

On Wednesday, Greg and I met Brian at the Iowa Hill Road in Colfax, and followed him out across the North Fork canyon, on that harrowing, paved wagon road, to a point a few miles past Iowa Hill, and took an unmarked dirt road bearing north, passing two forks, to the Truro Mine Road. This switches back and forth on a long descent to the North Fork American at the Truro Mine. This property was recently acquired by the BLM. We were to drop Brian's vehicle off there, and drive back around through Colfax and up to my place to spend the night, before setting off in the morning.

The road is in terrible condition, without water-bars, so heavy rain events incise channels into the roadbed, and said channels deepen year by year. I was driving my battered old Toyota 2WD pickup, and as the miniature canyons deepened, I became increasing doubtful of my ability to drive back up and out. Finally a steep stretch, with severe trenches, and with a few large boulders and tree roots showing every ability to stop my truck dead in its tracks on a slope far too steep to get started again, lay before me. As always happens in such cases I had already passed the point of no return, so far as backing up goes, and was forced to descend through the nightmare lands. The road leveled out just below, and we called a halt to consider the matter.

Still several hundred feet above the river, and at least half a mile from the base of the road, we knew at any rate that somehow Brian's 4WD truck must end up down there. I decided to try and drive up through the nightmare lands immediately, and settle the issue of whether we would have to call upon Divine Intervention, or what.

To my utter amazement, my extremely trusty old pickup, jumping up and down and side to side like a bucking bronco, made it up that miserable hill. I took it well beyond and parked at a switchback, running back down the road to where Brian and Greg waited.

It was sunset. We drove to the bottom of the road, and then realized that we had neglected to transfer Brian's voluminous gear to my truck. So we loaded ourselves up and trudged up the steep road. We got to my place around 9 p.m. and had a late supper.

We were up soon after 6 a.m. and packing our packs. I at least drank coffee. Brian, tho, is too pure for coffee. It all took longer than we expected, and we hit the Green Valley Trail at 7:45 a.m. We left my dog, Lucky (a frisky Australian Shepherd), with Gay and the kids, with stern and inviolable instructions to keep him confined for at least an hour. Lucky has done Giant Gap twice before and both times was a bit of a nuisance. The last thing we needed was his help in herding frogs. No, this time, Lucky must stay behind.

Brian and I tramped down the trail, adding about three trail miles to the six river miles before us. We took the High West Trail and, as we reached the river, heard crashing sounds and rockfall from the hydraulic mine area beside us. Looking up, we saw a Black Bear just reaching the top of the high gravel banks, and disappearing into the bushes.

We saw a small flock of Common Mergansers swimming the river below us. Shortly we reached the end of the trail and began final preparations for the frog patrol. I was to take the left bank, Brian, the right, and as I changed into shorts and river shoes, and bundled my things up in plastic bags within my pack, I asked Brian, "Should I just shout over to you whenever I find a frog, or what?"

"Didn't you read the instructions?" he asked, "in the email attachment I sent out to all the participants?"

The short answer was, no. I was supposed to bring a notebook and pen and there I was, at a complete loss to advance science and our limited knowledge of the YLF. Brian planned to split our six river miles into twelve half-mile reaches, and to keep a running count through each sub-reach, and then stop, whip out the notebook, and enter the data. That is more or less what actually happened, with the quirk that I shouted my running tally over to him at each stop.

We counted four classes of YLFs separately: tadpoles, juveniles (an inch or less), sub-adults (one to two inches), and adults (over two inches). We also counted aquatic garter snakes as we met them.

We had reached the river at about 8:25 a.m. As we were just about to set out downstream, a very excited Australian Shepherd came panting up to us, but restrained his usual bark-fest, knowing full well the error of his ways. There was nothing to be done but to let him come along.

Yellow-legged frog tadpole
(Rana boylii)
The first reach of river, down to the confluence of Giant Gap Ravine, was replete with frogs. After observing them over a long stretch of river I would say that, broadly, YLFs prefer reaches of river with gravel bars which contain an abundance of small gravel and sand. The adults and sub-adults will often be found perched on large boulders or on bedrock, several feet away from the water, but the juveniles are almost entirely confined to the edge of the river itself, on a gravel bar. The tadpoles are usually in small, almost-stagnant pools in the gravel bars, away from the main river, but fed by seeps of river water through the gravel. These pools are shallow and have algae on the bottom. The tadpoles are quite elusive, and wriggle quickly down into the algae, when you near their pool. Once they're in the algae, they're invisible.

The juveniles are tiny things, about an inch long; perfectly-formed miniature frogs. They make a miniature hop directly into the river when approached. In the vicinity of their preferred gravel-bars-with-fine-gravel-and-sand habitat, the river itself is shallow and the water, slow-moving, along the edge, anyway.

The sub-adults will often be found near larger boulders and deeper water, but most often, a gravel bar of the right type is not far away. The adults, however, almost always were seen on large boulders or on bedrock, with somewhat deep water beside them.

Purple Aster
(Machaeranthera canescens)
There were some very nice flowers in bloom along the south bank, which was my bank. The north-facing aspect apparently allows a late bloom. A vine (Clematis ligusticifolia; Western Virgin's Bower) with showy, white, many-stamened flowers sprawled widely across the boulders, and clumps of dozens to hundreds of Purple Aster flowers were quite spectacular. These were always found near seeps and springs, on the cliffs bounding the main channel. This "main channel" is wall-to-wall water during big storm events or during the spring snow-melt, but at this time of year, there are sometimes large areas above water.

As we approached Giant Gap, the cliffs steepened above us, and the main channel narrowed. Our frog count steadily diminished, as the narrowness of the main channel focuses river flow, and the speed and depth of the river increase, and no fine gravels and sands, such as the YLFs enjoy, are deposited. We scarcely saw any frogs at all in Giant Gap proper.

As we neared the contact zone between the serpentine of the Melones Fault zone on the east, and the greenstone of the Calaveras Complex on the west, I observed the last few vestiges of the cemented glacial outwash, so very unusual and interesting, and often well-exposed upstream, in Green Valley. The cemented outwash is confined entirely to the serpentine; whatever the cementing agent, whatever the processes at work, which created such a tough conglomerate, of such a very very young age—possibly, only 15,000 years—whatever the case is, it is an agent and a process which is serpentine-specific.

We saw an immature Golden Eagle soaring along the cliffs, about 1000' above us and 1000' below Lovers Leap. It was actually a great day for birds, and for just those birds which almost quintessentially make the North Fork their home. We saw the Golden Eagle; many Mergansers, fish-eating ducks; we were sung to by several Canyon Wrens along the way, especially in Giant Gap; Water Ouzels were constantly zooming past us, almost skimming the water; a Kingfisher arced swiftly by, in Green Valley; and later in the day, we saw a Great Blue Heron, whose long streaks of white excreta had marked many a ten-foot boulder, along the whole length of the river.

Brian is an expert birder, a member of the Audobon Society, and also extremely well-versed in the native flora. It was really a privilege to go hiking with him.

I was the first one forced into the water by cliffs. The water was cool and clear, not cold, and although I was entering Giant Gap hours earlier in the day than usually, it did not seem bad at all. Brian wanted us, whenever we were forced to swim a pool, to stay close to our respective cliffs, and tap the cliffs with our sticks, to force the YLFs into action. These YLFs are extremely hard to see unless they move.

As we reached the first really big pool in Giant Gap, directly below Lovers Leap, we scared a small group of Mergansers from a boulder just barely above water-level in the very middle of the pool. This pool is a few hundred feet long. I had planned to take many many pictures as we went down the river, but, since after all there are many pools one must swim in Giant Gap, I had to pack the camera away within double ziplock bags, and truth to tell, there it stayed, for the rest of the Frog Patrol.

I am not sure why, but the coldness of the water affected me more than ever before, as we went through Giant Gap. True, it was a little later in the year than usual, and a little earlier in the day, and the need to maintain a steady pace meant that there were no breaks for sunning and warming along the way. I became seriously chilled, my muscles became stiff and unresponsive, my balance suffered, and I could not stop from a quivering, whole-body shivering. I took two minor falls and realized that I was going to have to minimize further immersion. However, this is not really an option in Giant Gap, so I just toughed it out, but also, noting the complete absence of frogs, I didn't bother to religiously follow the left bank and probe the cliffs with my stick.

Forgive me, Brian.

Finally the last big pool was passed, and we took a lunch break on a sunny gravel bar. It was 3 p.m. As always, Giant Gap took longer than expected. After a break of twenty or thirty minutes we were on the move, and we began seeing YLFs again. Brian had seen two adults in Giant Gap. Now there were juveniles, sub-adults, and tadpoles, not as many as in Green Valley, but there were some.

We continued past the lovely pool which I visited with Catherine O'Riley et. al. last Saturday, and reached Canyon Creek at 5:30 p.m. Where I did not have to swim, I had followed the left bank of the river, but I was through with swimming for the day. Just above Canyon Creek, the same rather large and scruffy gold miner who had spent most of last summer there, was there again, digging away near a large boulder, and dumping five-gallon plastic buckets of gravel into his sluice box.

I decided to take the high, down-river trail to Pickering Bar. I was not entirely beat-up and thrashed, but if I followed the river itself, with its long succession of large boulders and one deep, must-swim pool, I was asking for trouble. Brian faithfully followed the river, tallying a few frogs. At Pickering Bar I decided a full-scale wimp-out was called for, and took the high trail down to the Truro Mine, arriving around 6:30. I suggested, and asked, Brian to also avail himself of the trail, but he stuck to the river. It is a matter of some concern to follow that river alone, and I regretted leaving him, but he had shown himself a strong and sturdy fellow.

At the Truro Mine I met two miners with a truck and van—how that van will ever get back up the road, I couldn't say—named Carl(?) and George. They invited me into their camp, gave me a Budweiser, and it was quite a relief to get off my feet and take a rest. At 7:30, Brian's planned arrival time, I went down to the steep slate cliffs above the river and waited. The Truro Mine is just west of the metavolcanic part of the Calaveras Complex, in the metasedimentary member. A flock of Mergansers swam a pool below me, and let themselves surge down a stretch of white-water cascades to the pool below. The sun had set, but large cirrus clouds to the west held a bright rose and gold glow against the blue sky. A Great Blue Heron was startled by my arrival, and flew upstream to a boulder amid cascades, waiting patiently for dinner to appear. At about 7:40 Brian hove into view, a quarter-mile upstream, and I circled around on a trail to meet him.

He had lost his biologists' net in a cascade, had spent quite a while searching for it without avail, and had suspended further frog tally. It was almost exactly twelve hours since we had started down the Green Valley Trail. We were both pretty-well ruined by the endless succession of boulders and pools, but Brian had by far the more difficult course, holding to the river the whole distance, as he did. I had warned him that Green Valley to the Truro Mine was a hike and swim of truly monstrous proportions, but he had insisted that he could do it, and he did do it.

Such was a successful Frog Patrol, and a very fine day, on the North Fork of the American River.


Russell Towle

No comments:

Post a Comment