October 1 (1975, 1976, 1977, 1987, 2005)
“And the birds should know”

10/1/75   well, morning now in wren shack. this is a strong cabin, but i never did nail all the windows in or get them all hinged like i'd planned. every window sill strewn with treasure ~ crystals & weird rocks & arrowheads & broken trade beads & coral & fossil whalebone & pretty little pieces of chert and agate chipped & flaked by some maidu man a century and more ago. when an earthquake rolls through it sets up quite a rattling & a clinking; but this morning i'm sitting quiet, sitting on my bed leaning against my wall of incense cedar; and darn if the beating of my heart doesn't rattle the treasure on the window sill beside me! ever so softly — just rattle-rattle-clink-clink... a wren buzzes in the brush. a wren is trilling and squeaking in the brush.

now and again it washes over me, a wave of realization, that the primary object right now is that canyonland, building a little place out on the canyonland. backpacking? sure, i'd love to roam the high country some more this year. writing? yeah, i got some writing i'd like to do. but the time of building is going to run out on me this year if i don't get cracking. first: find the spot, with care, with consideration, with prayer. second: scrounge wood like a maniac, borrow money and buy some nice incense cedar, some pecky, some clear. can't get too fancy if i want to close it in this fall. might go for an octagon. but keep it small ~ time to add on later. but it's time to get cracking! or is it? my gosh it's october already! those storms aren't going to wait too much longer ~ why the birds have been heading south two or three weeks early this year! and the birds should know.

~ back in wren castle after a day over at the canyonland, trying to find my homesite. i think i've found it. i was out there a week or so back and spotted a small cliff on the very rim of the canyon, with oaks crowding right up to the edge. so today i went in search of that cliff. rode my motorcycle over and got onto some logging roads on moody ridge that eventually led me to the high part of the ridge. the ridgetop itself is a gently rolling remnant of a late tertiary volcanic mudflow, and it trends roughly northeast to southwest along its long axis. the southwest side of the ridge is the canyon wall of the north fork of the american river and canyon creek.

i got off the motorcycle and started to ramble around the ridge, looking for good points of view to orientate myself relative to the cliffs i had seen. almost immediately i came upon bear sign—prints and scat. i started following the bear's trail through the brush, gradually descending into the canyon, wondering where the ‘rim’ i had seen from below was.

i struck an older, overgrown logging road that sort of contoured along the southeast side a hundred feet or so below the crest. followed it north to where it struck the main road coming onto my dad's property. then south to its intersection with the ridge-top logging road. i felt that i was getting close to determining where i was relative to the cliffs, but took a sandwich break and smoked some tobacco.

back down to the overgrown road. the hillside was very steep and brushy above the road, steep and oak covered below, with a few scattered ponderosa, sugar pine, doug fir, & incense cedar. i decided to climb a tall douglas fir and have a look around. up i went, and when near the top, gazed all around me, studied the topo map, gazed some more. i could see no sign of the cliffs themselves, but instinct told me they were below and slightly to my right as i faced the river.

so off i went, zig-zagging down deer trails, in search of the ‘rim of the world.’ in a short while i saw that the hillside flattened out onto a sloping bench, and at first thought that i must be at the wrong place ~ i was looking for a sudden drop-off, not a bench. but on down i went. many deer trails seemed to converge on the bench. i saw a hollow in the duff beside a large oak and thought to myself, ‘a deer sleeps here.’ but on getting up to it, saw that it was surrounded by piles of bear scat, a ‘bear-hollow, and hasn't he been getting his share of acorns!’

a beaten trail went right past the bear-hollow and i followed it. in a matter of twenty yards i saw rock outcroppings nearby and knew i was near the cliffs. i walked to the edge and confirmed it: the very spot i had picked out from below a week ago. and it is beautiful!

i started southwest along the top but a few yards behind the edge, looking for a likely rock to climb out on and get the view. many large oaks, a few pine, a cedar ~ what? a clump of giant chain fern? and where there's chain fern, there's got to be water! i hurried over—sure enough, a spring. there were even a few white alders growing there, right on the edge of the cliff. i knew right away— that had to be the spot.”

[Russell Towle's journal]

10/1/76   morning, wren shack. i was planning to go out to the ridge yesterday & set up camp for a few days, but the skies grew very cloudy and indecisive too, and ended up driving out for the afternoon, without food; nailed the ridgepole together and have it lying across the walls now. it is too heavy for me to set up by myself. but it's ready, and there should be some friends coming out this weekend. i started nailing on the 1x10 T&G cedar to wall five and continued until it was too dark. the clouds were thick and it was cool but no rain and i could have camped. so today although i can see the clouds are moving in again (it seems to clear up every night), i may go ahead and stay out there.”

[Russell Towle's journal]

10/1/77   i sit before my wood stove, warm, on a clear crisp fall morning. remarkable. it was rather tiring, yesterday, to install the stove, with all the elbows, sheet metal screws, sawing holes in the cedar walls... and last night i was ready for my trial run. it wasn't uncomfortably cool but i wasn't waiting. i left the door open so it wouldn't get too hot in here and fired her up. soon i smelled burning paint as splashes of old paint began to burn off the drum's top and sides. i rushed around checking on the top of the stack, the heat of the thimble, the heat of the walls adjacent to the stove, and finally noticed that the burning paint smell was very strong.

cursing myself for forgetting my customary practice with drum stoves, which is to ‘burn’ them thoroughly outdoors before installing to remove any volatile residues inside or out. i opened up all the windows in the cabin and threw some more wood in, hoping to burn it out in one good well-ventilated fire. but i don't think i got it properly hot enough, and though i had a nice fire this morning with only a slight paint smell, that job is on my list. i haven't put in a damper yet, and other details, such as a door-latch, a hearth/wall of brick or stone, and possible use of ceramic pipe within the cabin, remain to be worked out.


[Russell Towle's journal]

October 1, 1987

Morning; sunny, warm, beautiful morning, marred by financial anxiety; still no money for land payment; [...]

I was amazed to hear that [name] wanted to buy one of my “lamps,”—an unsolicited remark! So I trundled a couple of shining geometric forms to Grass Valley, hopes high that I would, indeed, be able to make my land payment. Fate decreed otherwise. [name] evinced interest in the truncated 15-starred zonagonal model, but made no decision, other than asking me to leave it there so she could “think about it.”

Returning home, I gloomily started a pot of spaghetti, and laid on the couch listening to a Giants game while it cooked. I awoke some three or four hours later, to the smell of charred spaghetti. Cooked up a red potato in lieu; and now, would cook spaghetti (the only food I have), if I could get the pot clean.

This has been Starvation Summer, after a Starvation Spring which followed a Starvation Winter, and all that starvation has taken its toll, so to speak, for, skinny to begin with, I am now very very skinny. My legs and arms have lost muscle (there was never any appreciable fat to lose anyway). So, something, as I keep on telling myself, must change. That is, in plainer terms, I must make money. How? Who knows.

Later; night; a trip to Alta, an expenditure of three dollars, for brown rice, black beans, and regular gasoline. Tried to find Dave; no luck. I read Bertrand Russell, also re-read accounts of Isaac Newton, wrestle with the regularity of the 35.26+ pitch, consider whether some useful quantity of rhombic dodecahedra may be said to compose polar zonohedra with n greater than or equal to 4, develop a new form for the equation yielding the number of rhombic hexahedra composing the same, etc. etc.

Rec'd a very nice letter from Greg Troll; nothing, yet, from Coxeter [Mathematician, and author, Universtiy of Toronto]; if I had money for postage, many letters beg the writing: to Jean Pedersen [Mathematician at Santa Clara University], Geri Larson [Tahoe National Forest], Deane Swickard [Bureau of Land Management], Charlie McClung [friend], et. al.

[Russell Towle's journal]

Sawtooth Ridge & the South China Trail, Again
[North Fork Trails blogpost, October 1, 2005:
http://northforktrails.blogspot.com/2005/10/sawtooth-ridge-south-china-trail-again.html ]
Friday morning I met Jerry Rein of Cape Horn for a quick excursion to Sawtooth Ridge, our objective, to find and follow the lower portion of the 1862-era South China Trail.

This trail led from Lost Camp on the north, south across the North Fork of the North Fork American (NFNFAR), thence climbing south and east to the summit of Sawtooth Ridge.

It is one of the trails formally protected by Placer County in its 1953 Trails Ordinance.

Jerry always says, “I can't go too far, can't go too high, can't go too low: my knee, my shoulder, my wrist, my overall physical condition, will not permit a Russell Hike, Russell. So keep it short and easy and I will be fine.” And then somehow, some way, we end up in some drastic canyon, dripping with sweat, just kicking rattlesnakes off the cliffs and breathing Face Flies and crawling under brush.

These Face Flies resemble miniature house flies. They try to get in your eyes, ears, nose, mouth, into whatever opening presents itself: they are there, ready to enter. Fortunately they are not always around. When they are around, a sort of windshield-wiper action of one hand is needed to keep them away from your face.

So. I-80 to Emigrant Gap, south on Forest Road 19, across the NFNFAR, the East Fork of the NFNFAR, up to Texas Hill, right on the fork to Helester Point (a Forest Service fire lookout tower site, on one of the many Teeth of the Sawtooth), east to the head of Burnett Canyon, and then west on the Sawtooth Road, into Section 25, T16N R11E.

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

We reached the fork between Upper (old) Sawtooth Road and Lower (new) Sawtooth Road. From the purple coloring applied to the lower road, and other information on the Westville quad, I deduce that the lower road was cut between 1952 and 1976. The odd-numbered "railroad" sections were logged by Southern Pacific Land Company in the 1960s (I guess—by the well-rotted appearance of the large stumps), and miles of roads and skid trails were bulldozed at that time. Then Southern Pacific sold off its lands, around 1985, and today these same sections are owned by Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI). SPI, I guess, conducted timber harvests out there in the early and late 1990s. There are some clearcuts, and more "selective" harvests, with lots of bulldozer yarding, in which logs are dragged to landings by bulldozers. The slopes are so universally scarred by these roads and skid trails it is actually difficult to find areas which were not disturbed. Within one single section, one square mile, Section 25, entirely within the canyon of the NFNFAR, there are miles of these roads, and many miles of skid trails.

Through this same Section 25, the South China Trail climbs from the river to the crest of Sawtooth Ridge, reaching the crest in TNF lands of Section 30, T16N R12E, at surveyed elevation 5094', a quarter-mile west of the Sawtooth Basalt. An old TNF sign, missing its sign-boards, just a lone 4X4 with peeling dark brown paint, lies on the ground there, just out of view of Upper Sawtooth Road.

The sign would have said "NFNFAR, 2. Lost Camp, 4," or something to that effect.

Like the Big Granite Trail and other old trails, TNF obtained an easement on the South China Trail from Southern Pacific Land Co., in 1950.

There are plenty of old Forest Service blazes up high on the South China Trail, in TNF parts of Section 30, and down low on the South China Trail, in TNF parts of Section 24, T16N R11E. Between these two patches of TNF lands is SPI-owned Section 25, and most of the South China Trail.

Often roads and skid trails were bulldozed directly into the line of the old trail, there in Section 25. Most of the trees which once held TNF blazes were cut down. So, to find and follow such a trail is an exercise in observation combined with good sense. What would have been the logical, the likely route of the trail? And is that scar on that Douglas Fir one of ten thousand scars caused by bulldozers bashing into trees, or dragging logs past trees, or is it in fact a "small i" TNF blaze?

These old blazes are almost always healed over, so only a faint pattern in the rough bark reveals the upright rectangle, with the square above it. The rectangles seem often to be eight inches or so high, by two inches wide, and the squares, two inches on a side. At times they are larger.

One also cannot discount the possibility that an old trail may have had more than one course or alignment.

I am looking at the map I have made on my computer, combining GPS data with a small portion of the digital version of the Westville quad, as I write this. The South China Trail does not appear on the Westville quad, but the North China Trail, below Lost Camp, is shown, albeit a little inaccurately. Earlier USGS maps did show the South China Trail, as do TNF maps from 1939, 1947, and 1962.

My map shows portions of the South China Trail discovered thus far as a black line. Various waypoints I obtained using GPS are marked along its length, and the approximate positions of the few blazes which remain, in Section 25, and the many blazes which remain, in TNF lands near the river, and near the crest of Sawtooth.

Jerry and I parked on Lower Sawtooth Road almost due south of the center of Section 25, at about 4480' elevation, and took a road descending northeast, clearly dating from the 1960s logging, but retaining too much forest cover to have been recorded in the 1976 photogrammetic revision of the Westville quad. In about half a mile we reached Snake Point, a remarkable vista point of jumbled slabs of quartz-rinded Shoo Fly metasediments, jutting northwest into the NFNFAR canyon, riddled with caves, and in another couple hundred yards reached a critical point on the line of the South China Trail (SCT). Here the SCT, climbing from north to south on the "main" logging road, suddenly turns east onto another logging road. There are large trees with blazes on both the north-south section and the east-west section.

We were interested in the lower, north-south section, and followed down the road north past a small log deck, at perhaps 4080' elevation. I had scouted the log deck area a few days ago, finding no blazes, so the road itself seemed the best candidate for the line of the trail. As we walked down the road, I scanned every tree anxiously, and gazed down into relatively undisturbed forest for any smallest sign of a trail.

Patience paid off: we found a good double blaze (one facing up the trail, one down the trail), a couple hundred yards down, and followed the road with more confidence another couple hundred yards, to another, single blaze, facing uphill.

Such a blaze means the trail is making a turn, here, down the slope. However, we were in a perfect storm of skid trails, and large boulders and debris had been bladed off the road onto the very slopes where the trail should have descended.

We began a back-and-forth reconnaissance of the slopes below the Last Blaze. We would range east and west, while dropping slowly. As it happens, we never ranged quite far enough west, missing some critical blazes by scarcely a hundred yards.

Dropping lower and lower to the north, we suddenly passed into TNF lands in Section 24. What a relief! No more logging, no more skid trails, just an ancient forest of huge fire-scarred Douglas Fir, over slopes so easy I was convinced we must be on top of the SCT. I kept on yelling out, begging blazes to appear: “Come on baby, I know you're there, just give me one blaze, just one, I don't care if the trailbed is buried under fir needles and branches, just one, single, solitary blaze!”

Jerry would religiously circle every large tree, scanning its trunk.

We began to hear the river, and were led west by something which one could easily imagine to be "the" SCT, passing huge, five-foot-diameter Douglas Fir. Suddenly the blazes appeared—one, then another, and then there was the trail, switching back down the last steep slopes to the river.

We were at about 3400' elevation, and directly across the NFNFAR from the North China Trail. We could even see the old cabin site near the base of that trail.

Following sensible Forest Service protocol, this switchback section of the SCT was so well-defined it did not require blazes, so there were none, or rather, we only found one double-blaze, on a Torreya trunk, midway down this last lowest section.

There are quite a number of the unusual conifer, Torreya californica, in the NFNFAR. They have the stiffest sharpest needles of any conifer native to California. In the Yew Family, they are sometimes called "Stinking Yew" from the pungent odor of their needles, when crushed or bruised in some way. They do not grow to be very large.

We cleared the old trail of debris as we descended, tho some sections were blocked by logs beyond our strength, where bears had beaten alternate paths. Nearing the river, the last part of the trail was not only overgrown by small Douglas Fir and Dogwoods of various species, but steepened a bit beyond anything above, confusing us, but we finally sorted it out and were led directly to a miner's storage-cabin thing, a wooden structure covered with tarps, with foam mattresses cast onto the slopes below.

This tarp-cabin was directly on the old trail, which continued nearly level to the southwest, downstream to Slate Camp, where Shoo Fly metasediments, more in the way of metasandstone than slate, are stacked up into a big fire ring with stone thrones all around it. Quite remarkable, really. Also, quite messy, with much in the way of garbage scattered about.

Here is where Ron Gould and I had seen, and been seen by, a river otter, last summer. As Jerry and I reached the river there, we scared some large bird, not a Great Blue Heron, perhaps a large owl, from a tree above the pool, and it flapped strongly away downstream a hundred yards, to a grove of Douglas Fir.

We rested a bit and ate our sandwiches and talked about the blazes we had just found. We were anxious to follow the SCT up from those blazes, since we had apparently missed it altogether while zig-zagging down from the Last Blaze on the logging road.

So we gathered our things up and I took my sweat-soaked shirt off and lashed it to my pack and up we went.

At the top of the switchback section, on a terrace of glacial outwash, with fairly heavy timber and faint signs of old-time mining, we found many blazes, leading straight up the slope to the south. We had entered this area from the east, on our way down. Eagerly we followed the blazes up, without much of anything in the way of an actual trailbed—not strange, considering the litter of branches and needles covering the forest floor, and the lack of use of the trail for forty years.

Suddenly we could find no blazes, and stumps were seen a little ways above. We were at the south line of Section 25.

Jerry ranged east, and I stayed west, and back and forth we went, for a long time, without finding anything.

At last I decided to range farther west, to the vicinity of a log deck just south of the section line. When Dave Lawler and I had followed the SCT up from the river, around 1998, we had not noticed the blazes, but instead just relied on instinct and the overall feel of the topography, and had been led right to that same log deck.

Reaching the log deck, at about 3500' elevation, I noted a ridge just above, at right angles to the river, with large Ponderosa Pine stumps. Those were the very trees which would have held blazes, were the SCT to have followed this "ridge route" up the canyon wall.

A skid trail led up the crest of the ridge, and since skid trails are often cut directly into the lines of historic trails, here in Placer County, I gave it a try. Again, patience paid off: a TNF blaze appeared, in a couple hundred yards. Higher, the skid trail split into multiple trails, and the most-logical, most-sensible criterion came into play, and I was rewarded with more blazes, and soon I had left this minor ridge crest and was aiming directly for the Last Blaze on the logging road above. Two more blazes showed I was on the SCT, and then Jerry and I converged for the final few hundred feet up to the road's Last Blaze.

Hence the Last Blaze actually marks a major switchback on the SCT. Above the Last Blaze the SCT runs north-south; below the Last Blaze, it runs more east-west.

This only leaves a section of about a quarter-mile in length, near the center of Section 25, undiscovered. The South China Trail has been turned into a series of logging roads and skid trails over almost every inch of its length across Section 25.

It is possible that the "trail past the old mine" I saw last Monday was a part of the SCT.

Another type of blaze is found out in that area, probably everywhere: a "three-high" surveying blaze, in which three scars are arranged vertically on a tree trunk. I have seen these "three-high" blazes near section lines, and on part of the boundary between Bob's Parcel and TNF lands in Section 30, T16N R12E.

I would like to see TNF acquire the SPI sections on Sawtooth Ridge and on nearby Lost Camp Ridge (dividing the NFNFAR from Blue Canyon), as well as the Siller Bros. lands around Lost Camp, and the Rawhide Mine lands, and Bob's parcel, and the private lands at the head of the Government Springs Trail at I.T. Coffin's old Big Springs Mine.

These acquisitions are needed to restore the historic trail system, and to avert more industrialized logging of the area, and to preserve open space. Ten years ago one would scarcely believe anyone would build a "chalet" or some awful thing on Sawtooth Ridge. But Bob is ready. Who knows, he may be on the point of subdividing his parcel into four forty-acre parcels, each one offering someone a chance to put up No Trespassing signs, build a house, and change open space to "closed space."

I have a special Forest Service edition of the Westville quadrangle which shows the east boundary of Bob's Parcel maybe 400' to the west of where he has placed four No Trespassing signs, bracketing both Upper and Lower Sawtooth roads, near their junction.

Jerry and I were very pleased to have found so much more of the old China Trail. Only a bit is left unexplored.

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