October 13 (1975, 1976, 2004, 2006)
Government Springs

10/13/75   [...]

~ home after a day at canyonland, clearing a road in towards the spot. bob & dave came out to help, and bush by bush we yerked and janked our way, until at day's end we had penetrated a 10th of a mile into that deerbrush. far more than i had hoped for. good weather is supposed to persist through the week, and my spirits are up. even though freight trains puff and thunder and hoot and chug their way past, several times a day ~ hourly perhaps ~ i am taking quite a liking to that land. […] i don't know if, after living out there for a while, the shine might wear off. dave and i will go out tomorrow, and yerk and jerk our way towards the little meadow with its elderberry tree.”

[Russell Towle's journal]

10/13/76    [...]

~ what a fine day! this weather has been so perfect. clear skies, hot sun, a breeze every afternoon. But it is fall. I am about ready to start putting up more rafters, though I don’ t know yet whether I’ ll be able to lift them myself. […]

midday and the knife-edge dropping into the canyon from giant gap ridge is a shadowy mass silhouetted against a lighted back-ground. the reverse of early morning. what should i call the knife-edge? and what to call the wall it splits? properly speaking the wall is the southeast wall of the canyon. so in giant gap nomenclature it could well be called the southeast wall; lover's leap being on the northwest wall. each wall has a rib of rock that stands out from the rest of the face and presents the steepest profile. in giant-gappian language, perhaps south rib and north rib would be adequate. or, better, south spur and north spur. or giant gap spur and lover's leap spur. the latter convey more positive identification. very well, let the knife-edge splitting the southeast wall be known as giant gap spur.

giant gap spur has many small pinnacles along its edge. i would love to climb them and hope to sometime this fall. each of the pinnacles needs a name. [...]

[Russell Towle's journal]

Trout Fishing in the Royal Gorge

[North Fork Trails blogpost, October 13, 2004:
http://northforktrails.blogspot.com/2004/10/trout-fishing-in-royal-gorge.html ]

I received a kind and interesting letter from one A.J.M., recounting experiences in the Royal Gorge, decades ago. The trail he describes is unmarked and gets very little use. I call it the Wabena Trail. Out of curiosity, I googled Arnold Gamble and found he was killed in a shootout in 1963; a tragic end for one who knew and loved the North Fork.

The rattlesnakes remain.

While surfing the net I stumbled across your web site and the fascinating narrative and pictures which resurrected some of my fondest memories. It has been almost 53 years since I first traveled the Lost Emigrant Mine trail across Wabena Creek to the floor of the Royal Gorge of the American. I was introduced to this area by Arnold Gamble, who worked with my dad on the Sacramento Police Department. This is where I learned to fly fish and Arnold is the man who taught me. I was fifteen years old at the time of my first visit and subsequently went back there several times with friends and also on my own. Rattlesnakes were everywhere down near the river. I remember that we ran into fifteen to twenty on that first trip, so constant vigilance was the order of the day. Because of an earlier experience (Arnold reportedly found a rattler coiled on his bed roll when he returned to camp) we slept on hammocks. In those days we weren't very conservation-conscious, so they were all dispatched to snake heaven. Later, I learned to give them a wide berth and they would go their way and I would go mine. Fishing was outstanding for many years. During those early years, I never ran into anybody in the area. However, sometime after 1962 (I was in the military from 1958 to early 1962) I ran into a party of bricklayers who were on strike and decided to spend their time fishing. They had also brushed the trail from the top all the way down to the bottom. They had spent a week on the river, and were on their way out when we came across them. My partner and I still caught plenty of fish.

My last trip down to the Gorge was some time in 1969. As we were descending along the trail we could hear the steady drone of a gas engine which grew louder as we got near the bottom. When we came out on the river, there were two guys operating a "Bazooka" dredge looking for gold in the crevices and sand at the bottom of the river. If you have never seen one of these things all it is a big suction device that sucks the sand and small rock up through a nozzle and over a catch basin with riffles and out the other side. The gold is collected on the catch basin. Sort of a mechanized sluice box. We proceeded on up the river and made camp on our usual sandbar. By the way, several years before my trip with Arnold, he had been down there and nailed a double spring, steel trap to a tree. It was still there in 1969. I wonder if it is still there? To go on, no sooner had we made camp than a bunch of hikers (all the way from little kids to an elderly lady), about an eleven in all, came walking by on their way up the canyon. They were going to take a trail up and out the other side. I didn't even know there was such a trail. They must have found it because I never saw them again. By this time we were getting mighty discouraged and completely flabbergasted that this piece of heaven had been discovered. This wasn't the final shock however, because while fishing, we ran across two professors from UC Davis that we knew through our work, also fishing the river. They provided us with the explanation for the traffic. It seems that the Sierra Club in their infinite wisdom, had published an article about the area and told the readership to visit the area because it would soon all be under water when a proposed dam was built. We continued to fish, but it took a lot more work to limit out.

That was my last trip to the Royal Gorge. My friend and colleague went a couple of more times, but it was ruined for me. I would rather remember it as it was. That is why I really appreciated your description of the area. It sounded like it has returned to its pristine beauty and of course, the dam was never constructed. There use to be a mine shaft (which we called the Lost Emigrant Mine) right where the trail crossed over Wabena Creek. There were also cables stretching from the ridge near where the car was parked all the way down to this mine shaft. There were also large kettle-like metal gondolas which were used (not very successfully as I understand it) to haul the ore to the top for transport to a stamp mill. These metal gondolas were strewn about the side of the hill. Are these still there? Also, the trail down to Wabena Creek was a series of switchbacks originally constructed to accommodate the mules used initially and maybe later on to haul out the ore. When the price control was taken off of gold, and it jumped from $34 to $234 an ounce, there was some talk of reopening this mine. I think some surveying for a road was actually done. Again, it apparently was all talk. That is enough for now.

Government Springs
[North Fork Trails blogpost, October 13, 2006:
http://northforktrails.blogspot.com/2006/10/government-springs.html ]
Car troubles have kept me at home in recent weeks, where I have been much devoted to my guitar, learning the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim; and, finding that one piece, Insensatez, had been derived from Chopin's famous little Prelude in E Minor, Op. 28 #4, I was led to acquire the sheet music for the Prelude, and to adapt it for guitar.

Now the car is fixed, and so yesterday I took a hike with Alex Henderson, that Dutch Flat philosopher with whom, long ago, I patiently investigated the question of just how far a Frisbee might fly, if thrown with great vigor and force directly down Main Street. We were never quite satisfied with the answer, feeling that, if a Frisbee could just maintain a level and straightforward attitude, a truly manly state of mind, it might succeed in passing the Hotel altogether, and reach the Oddfellows Hall, or even the Runckle Bakery.

And those are both historic buildings!

At any rate, Alex and I drove up to Emigrant Gap and thence on Forest Road 19 to Texas Hill and the road to Sawtooth Ridge. As always, deep philosophical questions occupied us. Could it be, that for all this great length of time, for all our long and noble history, we humans have been wrong, and very much mistaken, and that we should never, ever, refer to the "speed" of light, but only to its slowness?

In such fashion we drove past Burnett Canyon and followed the Sawtooth Road south to a fork where a shotgun-blasted Tahoe National Forest (TNF) sign may once have said, Go Left to Government Springs; we went left, and in half a mile another shotgun-blasted TNF sign marked another left, but a metal gate blocked our way so we parked and started down the trail to Mumford Bar.

These sparkling clear and sunny October days are ideal for hiking.

This was Alex's first time on one of the Upper Canyon trails; we strode merrily along down the narrow track, down and down and down and down, switching back and forth in an ancient forest of Canyon Live Oak, and when finally we stopped to rest, we were still a thousand feet above the river, yet we had already hiked the equivalent of the Euchre Bar Trail.

I had planned to explore a little side-trail which, I remembered, broke away west a little below our resting-spot, and soon we reached the thing and followed it along, over a rock outcrop which had pretty clearly been hacked out to make the trail, and on to a larger outcrop laced with quartz veins. We could see signs that the quartz had been hammered and samples broken off; possibly this happened in the 1860s, when the riches of Virginia City and the excitement at Meadow Lake made many men wonder whether they might become millionaires overnight, too; all it took, after all, was finding a rich gold vein.

I had hoped that this little westward-trending trail had led to the river itself, a mile or two downstream from Mumford Bar; but no. It appears to have been constructed merely to access the quartz veins. Nowadays bears like to use it, and we saw a couple of small conifers torn down and broken, as bears are wont to do to small trees along their favorite trails. They will grab the tree about five feet above the ground and just snap the trunk.

Alex deeply appreciated the depth of the great canyon, so deeply that he decided the better part of valor was to descend no further, but only to ascend, ascend, ascend. There is a kind of terror which can strike, when following one of these fine old trails to the river; one cannot forget that here, at least, what goes down must come back up. And that climb back up and out can be a bit of a pain. It's that climb Gene Markley and his gorge-scrambling gang used to call the Bath of Fire.

So the question becomes, just how bad is the Bath of Fire, on such-and-such a trail?

It's a pretty long and hot and bad bath, on the Government Springs Trail to Mumford Bar.

On these south-facing slopes of Sawtooth Ridge, the soils are thin and rocky, and sometimes an almost pure stand of Canyon Live Oak, Quercus chrysolepsis, covers the canyon wall. The bedrock is meta-sandstone and slate of the early-Paleozoic Shoo Fly Complex, but here and there on the steep slopes, vestiges of glacial till persist.

In these usually small areas, the soils deepen and consequently are richer and better-watered, so a smattering of Kellogg's Black Oak will mix in with the Canyon Live Oaks. Often the till is almost unrecognizable, in that it itself is made of Shoo Fly Complex rocks; so there is nothing much to tell the till apart from the ordinary run of rocks littering those steep slopes, except that the till rocks are often somewhat rounded.

Many a wildfire has swept these slopes, and almost every single Canyon Live Oak is a multi-trunked stump sprout from wildfires sixty or a hundred and sixty (or whatever) years ago. In contrast, the Kellogg's Black Oaks, which will also stump-sprout vigorously if their trunks and tops are killed in a wildfire, are nearly all sprung from acorns, and are single-trunked trees less than one hundred years old. I am not sure how to interpret this difference in growth form between the two species, on the same canyon wall.

It is notable, and perhaps pertinent to the above, that the larger Canyon Live Oaks are often found rooted directly on rock outcrops. It may take a much hotter fire to completely kill the Canyon Live Oaks, than the Kellogg's Black Oaks.

For, a really hot fire can kill the root systems of these oaks, in which case, they cannot stump-sprout.

The crest of Sawtooth Ridge, here, has the usual couple-few hundred feet of Miocene-Pliocene andesitic mudflow capping it, below which is the Oligocene-Miocene rhyolite ash layer, marked by Government Springs itself and by other springs (for there is always a perched aquifer on such ridges, and whatever water soaks into the andesitic mudflow, emerges eventually in the rhyolite springs—or the rhyolite acts as an aquaclude, preventing the water from soaking down through it).

Below the rhyolite ash (usually included in the Valley Springs Formation, although it is clearly more than one "formation") are the Eocene-age gravels of an ancient river; and below these gravels, the much much much more ancient bedrock, the Shoo Fly Complex metasediments.

It was here, by Government Springs, that Dutch Flat gold miner and photographer I.T. Coffin had his "Big Spring Mine," which tapped the Eocene river channel via one or more "drifts," horizontal tunnels. The pay gravel came out ore-cart-load by ore-cart-lode, and was washed through a sluice box with spring water stored in a small reservoir. Coffin worked the Big Spring Mine in the 1880s and 1890s. Earlier, from 1858 to 1864, he had lived in Burnett Canyon.

Alex and I walked slowly up the gently graded trail, and once back at the car, we enjoyed some almost cold brown ales and some spicy potato chips, and counted it a Job Well Done, and a Good Hike, even tho we had never reached the North Fork; for what can there be to complain about, in wandering the elfin sunlit oak woods, following bear trails which maybe just maybe could be old human trails, and watching and watching all the sun-spangled shimmer of gold and green leaves trembling against the deep blue depths of the great deep canyon? No, we had nothing to complain about.

So it was another great day in the canyon.

We intend to do something about the damnable slowness of the speed of light, but thus far we lack any actual plan of attack. Philosophy does not always come easy.

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