September 29 (1975, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1983, 1986, 2005)
Prerequisites. Eagles and Rain. Return to Sawtooth Ridge

9/29/75 ~ [...] this spring i jokingly mentioned what i considered the prerequisites to be for my home-site: that it be (if in the sierra) about four thousand feet in elevation; that it have a marvelous view, of either the coast range or sierra crest; that it be on or near an indian village site; that it be on or near an acorn woodpecker village site; that there must be wrens; large trees; and a a spring. and tho it sounds rather far-fetched, the ‘canyonland’ actually meets most of these requirements. i have tentatively picked a home-site over there which is: 4000 elev.; has a view of the rugged canyon of the north fork of the american river extending upcanyon to a portion of the sierra crest (tinker knob, 8900' elev.); i have found flaked stone artifacts nearby, tho no village site yet; there is an acorn woodpecker colony; there are wrens, large trees, and springs nearby. how about that?”

so, all in all, i am quite excited about the prospect of building and living on this land. the spot i have tentatively picked is atop a cliff on the very rim of the canyon. perhaps i will build a deck that overhangs the cliff slightly, about two thousand feet below is the american river.

but, although this land embodies my dreams to a remarkable degree, it is not perfect. stands of timber both in full view from my homesite and immediately adjacent to it will be logged soon, probably next summer. some type of development of the land atop the canyon rim & adjacent to my homesite seems inevitable, either sooner or later. and it is remote from all my friends, both old and new.”

[Russell Towle's journal]

9/29/77   the piano, today, if it stops raining. though a real rain it's hardly been, barely enough to wet the top inch of soil. but the clouds swirl around me and below in the canyon they cling in arches to the canyon walls. now it is brighter, now darker as the cloud thickness varies. at times i have looked down from beneath the main cloud deck to see a pool of fog in green valley. this is the first storm that i've enjoyed in my cabin, and tho i sit in my down jacket ensconced, even the lack of a wood stove doesn't cloud my enjoyment of the clouds (?) anyway. this past ten days have been entirely focused on the cabin. i have worked from dawn 'til dusk on many days. the equinox passed without rituals as i feverishly sawed and planed and pounded and laughed and swore. the only blemish on all this ecstasy is my fear of a confrontation with the county building inspector. but i put that aside as best i can and plan to continue working on the cabin until i arrive at a point where it would be hard to say whether it had been built, finished, for a day or a decade. and i plan to block off the lower portion of the road with brush i will clear, leaving only a winding trail for access to the cabin. i fear vandals as well as inspectors. one group seeks to improve my cabin, the other to dis-improve it. i can do without them both.

~ later. tim, jim, ron, and i moved the piano today. we had it in about noon, a little after. then tim and jim rushed off to grass valley. ron stayed and we were favored with the sight of incredible things: as we moved down the slope to watch some canada honkers fly overhead ~ they had stopped and were circling as they often seem to do at green valley/moody ridge, hesitating a bit on their journey south ~ we gained a vantage point on a fallen oak's trunk where we could watch them circle. there were some two hundred birds. soon they arranged themselves into a series of v-formations, pointed south, and left the clear sparkling sky overhead. but ron spotted a tiny point of white in the blue that at first he called a balloon, and remembered he had once seen a flight of white geese, which i guessed had probably been swans. finally, i too saw the tiny point of white in the otherwise startlingly blue sky. only a few seconds consideration convinced me that it was venus ~ it was within, say, twenty or thirty degrees of the sun in the sky and could only be seen by shading the eyes. i have never seen it at mid-day, although many times i have picked it out half-an-hour before sunset or after sunrise. remarkable. i should walk out to the cliff, early some morning and watch it ~ it must be large these days.

then, later we went to lover's leap ~ actually to the ledge below and to the west of the leap that is along the knife edge spine of the Leap. smoked a joint sitting in the warm sunshine, our chests bare to the breeze. i was climbing about down the cliff a bit when ron spotted an eagle, and as i scrambled up the 60° rock, another, and as i joined him, another: the two adults and single juvenile that we've seen around the canyon regularly this summer. they were all chirping their eagle-chirp and flying in circles a few hundred feet down canyon, at our elevation. then, they disappeared behind a rocky spire, and we raced in pursuit across the cliff. we never caught up, but found a nice view-spot near a group of lightning-struck, mostly dead, first-growth ponderosa.”

[Russell Towle's journal]

9/29/ 78 ~ dawn. [...]
coming up on the end of the month and i still haven't written a letter to Tahoe Nat'l Forest concerning wilderness designation of the N. Fk. American. i work today at sonny's. perhaps tonight i'll find the time.”

[Russell Towle's journal]

9/28/79   5:30 A.M. saturday morning. orion and taurus glitter high in the southeast, as seen through the mandala window. [...] maples are beginning to turn colors.”

[Russell Towle's journal]

9/29/83 ~ Late afternoon. Clouds cover the sky; thunder rolls from time to time, and so it has every day since the equinox. Yesterday Ron La Lande was here and we watched thunderstorms all afternoon. It rained and hailed and lightning struck nearby a couple of times.


Well well well. The wind picks up. Trees sigh and sway. Darkness lowers its [blowing?] hand. It rains lightly across the canyon, but not here. The stove is lit, makes its own small thunder and lightning.”

[Russell Towle's journal]

9/29/86 Morning. [...]

Today is unequivocally sunny. Cool. Birds throng happily. [...]

Brother Rich stopped by yesterday while I was away, and left a message that he will be back with cross-country skis during the week. Today would be a nice day to go glide around somewhere. Too bad parking has become so difficult up on top; there's an "environmental" task I would like to dive into. Parking for cross-country skiers has been systematically limited and nearly erased, partly due to the efforts of Royal Gorge, seeking to protect its market share by forcing would-be skiers to buy a trail pass.”

[Russell Towle's journal]

Return to Sawtooth Ridge
[North Fork Trails blogpost, September 29, 2005:  ]

Wednesday I was joined by Alex Henderson for a quick trip to Sawtooth Ridge, in search of more fragments of the South China Trail.

I.T. Coffin only called this the "trail to Lost Camp" (from Texas Hill via Burnett Canyon), but does mention Chinese from Dutch Flat in the area in 1863, looking to buy mining claims. Sometimes people call it the China Bar Trail, so perhaps the minor gravel bars at the crossing of the NFNFAR were in fact worked by Chinese, which would be in accord with the general trend, back then.

Of course there's nothing too quick about driving out Forest Road 19 ten miles from Emigrant Gap, taking the fork right onto gravel roads at Texas Hill, winding along beside Burnett Canyon, reaching Sawtooth Ridge, and then finally passing the old Burnett Canyon Trail and Sawtalian Trail and dropping into Willmont Saddle, and then climbing back up to the major fork where Old Sawtooth Road stays high, New Sawtooth Road stays low, and "Bob" has boldly placed four "No Trespassing" signs, bracketing both roads.

Wednesday the drive was slower than usual. A TNF "fuel load reduction" harvest was under way, and trees were being felled above Forest Road 19, near Fulda Flat. We were stopped by a flagman and waited nearly half an hour before being let through. Quite a crew of Mexican workers chattered away in Spanish beside the road. Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI) has the actually logging contract for TNF, and these were SPI employees.

Alex and I took New Sawtooth Road at the "no Trespassing" fork west of Willmont Saddle and stopped at a certain side road dropping away north. Our first foray was non-China-Trail, dropping down to a certain ridge and knoll in SPI Section 25, which cap the cliffs which had stopped my eastward progress when criss-crossing the heavily logged slopes in search of blazes, on Monday.

To the west we could see the China Trail Ridge. Both Knoll Ridge and China Ridge are spur ridges dropping north into the NFNFAR from Sawtooth. Both ridges exhibit quartz veins, repeating a pattern I have often seen in Shoo Fly rocks in this area: concentrations of quartz veins make for more resistant rock, which becomes ridges, following the overall north-south strike of the Shoo Fly strata. When down on the east-west-flowing streams, these same quartz vein areas are the sites of waterfalls and cascades.

Between Knoll Ridge and China Ridge is a "bedrock low" of the pre-volcanic landscape, where I had seen the mine and mudflow cliffs, on Monday. This marks an old valley which once ran roughly north-south, across the present line of Sawtooth Ridge. The basalt flow is associated with this valley but would seem to be off-axis. More study is needed.

We also had a fine view of Giant Gap and could see Diving Board Ridge west of Canyon Creek, and the remarkable view area near the head of the Pickering Bar Trail. With binoculars I could even pick out a little section of the HOUT, on the east side of Big West Spur, in Giant Gap.

Well below us to the west we saw a bit of Rattlesnake Point, which is just west of the China Trail.

We satisfied our curiosity about Knoll Ridge and climbed back up to the road and drove a little west to China Ridge, parked again, and started up towards the crest of Sawtooth, past the blaze I found on Monday.

Here again the old theme was repeated: a bulldozer skid trail had been put directly on the old trail, and the larger trees which would have held blazes were now stumps. However, I trusted to the general trend for trails to follow ridge crests, and was a little surprised to find one intact stretch of trail, thirty yards long, in this heavily logged area.

Thirty yards out of five hundred yards is pretty pathetic.

Alex picked up an old old cowbell at one point, which I took to mean, "Yes, this is the China Trail."

As we climbed higher, we passed out of SPI Section 25 into TNF Section 30, and immediately the logging eased off to insignificance, blazes appeared.

The grade lessened and we walked through a pretty patch of mixed coniferous forest past more and more blazes and an old sign on a tree (the sign itself fallen away and not to be found, but the strips of wood which backed it still nailed to the trunk), and in a few steps we were at Old Sawtooth Road on the very crest of the road.

There I found an old TNF signpost, a four-by-four, on its side, its two-by-six sign boards missing. They would have read something like "NFNFAR, 2; Lost Camp, 4" (miles).

There is a bit of a wide spot on the road there with some new and old fire-rings in the vicinity. I had taken note of this spot on Monday, as I climbed up out of the grassy Mudflow Barrens from the south, to this point. Now I realize that this wide spot was the parking area for the Sawtooth end of the China Trail.

So a little more of the South China Trail has been found. It is one of way too many of our historic trails ruined by logging in recent decades. In the Sawtooth Ridge area alone, a rich complex of trails has degenerated into nothing. And where there was pristine forest there is a welter of logging roads and skid trails.

Here is a partial list of these old trails, with some notes as to their fates:
1. Sawtooth Trail: gradually became a road. Extended west to Helester Point by 1939, extended further west to the Rawhide Trail probably around 1960, tho the 1962 TNF map still shows that section as trail.

2. Government Springs Trail. Upper end obliterated by logging in the 1990s; signs marking trail blasted away by shotguns; private property owners gated road leading to trail in 1992 or so. Otherwise, in reasonable shape, except not maintained at all by TNF.

3. Burnett Canyon Trail. Upper parts of trail on both sides of Burnett Canyon obliterated by logging. Middle part still OK but unmaintained.

4. Sawtooth-Italian Trail (Sawtalian). Abandoned. Upper end obliterated by logging. Lower end obscured by helicopter logging in the 1990s.

5. (South) China Trail. Obliterated by logging in the 1960s and then again in the 1990s. Trail No. 50 in the 1953 Placer County Trails Ordinance; there described as trending southeast from the crossing of the NFNFAR, climbing to Old Sawtooth Road, and following Sawtooth Ridge southwest to a junction with the Pioneer Mine Trail, on the main North Fork; whether by way of the Sawbug Trail, or the Blackhawk Mine Trail, is not stated.

6. Sawtooth-Humbug Trail (Sawbug). Abandoned. Upper end obliterated by mining and then by non-use in the early 20th century.

7. Blackhawk Trail. Still occasionally used.

8. Rawhide Trail. Abandoned. Blocked, since about 1979, at the crossing of the NFNFAR, by new owner of the mine, Harry Mayo. Badly overgrown in places.
Alex and I drove back out the long and winding roads and reached Alta in time for me to pick up my kids from the school bus.

Some of the old trails, highlighted on a 1916 Tahoe National Forest map


  1. I don't want to label Russell a hypocrite, but at times I was surprised by some of his actions considering some of the issues he had concerns about. Worried about development on the canyon rim and the spoiling of the viewshed, yet he was considering a building site that would be fairly visible in that part of the canyon. Even though he did build on the canyon slope I am impress by how well the cabins are hidden from the view. It is very hard for me to spot the cabins from anywhere in the canyon and I know exactly where to look. I also saw some of this when he complained about 4WD vehicles going down the old road off Sawtooth Ridge to the Blackhawk Mine. Then when we drove all the way out Sawtooth Ridge, found the no motor vehicle sign for the Blackhawk Mine road in the bushes, he still wanted me to go down the road to the mine. It may have been just like Rattlesnake Johnson felt... "this was Russell's Canyon".
    Also, nice timing on the entry about moving the piano down to the cabin. Just last week Tim told the story about how they slid the piano down the slope to the cabin and as soon as they got it down the slope Russell hopped on and started playing before they got it into the cabin.

  2. I think what we see in this chronicle is the evolution of his thinking on the canyon and his place within it, on humanity's place within it, on the resource and development issues, etc. It's not hypocrisy to change one's mind based on new information. Over his years of intimacy with the canyon, he learned and changed a great deal in his views and actions. And doubtless, his thinking and focus for activism would have continued to evolve.