October 15 (1975, 1976, 2003, 2005)
Butterflies in October, Ancient Elfin Oak Groves

10/15/75   we made about 60 yards yesterday, and another 60 should bring the road into the elderberry meadow. i don't think i'll be going out there today. when we called it quits yesterday we walked out to ‘the spot’, the crumbling serpentine cliffs with their marvelous view of the canyon winding up to the snowy sierra crest. there we sat and smoked a number. i dug little basins at two of the springs to hold the water. then the long drive back to grass valley as the sun was setting […]

~ what an incredibly beautiful day, clear as crystal, wide-open cedary freshness. yesterday too.”

[Russell Towle's journal]

10/15/76   dawn, canyonland. a cold night. now a covey of mountain quail rustles through and i sit planning my day's work. […] two more big rafters to go and then the rest will be short and easy. the big ones, such as i put in yesterday, are quite heavy and awkward and much time is consumed just getting them up in place, not to speak of cutting them, which is heavy labor in itself, for these douglas fir six-by-sixes from the head frame of the gracie gold mine are at the least 40 years old, and for being ‘softwood’ are quite hard. even my 4-point disston cross-cut docking saw struggles to cut them. as i cut there is a pandemonium of flies all about me, lighting on my bare sweaty back in veritable herds, to graze on my sweat i suppose.

today at least i am guaranteed of another sunny one, for there is another spotlessly clear sky above. so good, i'll keep on going, i am now getting close to a roof anyway, and a roof i desperately need. a roof before windows or doors or insulation. my left arm should be tough and strong by now, for every board cut in framing, flooring, and sheathing was hand-cut, but surprisingly it is sore and stiff from yesterday's rafter cuts. in fact i think i'll indulge in a 2nd cup of coffee and let the air warm up a bit… tapping of woodpeckers, fanfare of nuthatches, squawking of stellar jays, and a distant chainsaw.


a commotion of band-tailed pigeons in the large oaks. no! woodpeckers, acorn woodpeckers. i would be pleased if a band of them took up residence in one of the big oaks here…”

[Russell Towle's journal]

Date: Wed, 15 Oct 2003 19:54:54 -0800
To: North_Fork_Trails
From: Russell Towle
Subject: Visit to Big Valley Bluff
Cc: Julie Carville, Karen Callahan

Hi all,

Wednesday I met Julie Carville and Karen Callahan at the Dutch Flat exit on I-80, and we drove up to Emigrant Gap, and in Forest Road 19 to Big Valley Bluff.

Julie Carville is a botanist and author who has written books about the wildflowers of the Tahoe area; see "Lingering in Tahoe's Wild Gardens," in which she describes many hikes and many flowers. Karen Callahan is a botanist active in our local Redbud Chapter of the California Native Plant Society.

Big Valley Bluff is a cliff of Shoo Fly Complex metasediments rearing 3500 feet above the North Fork of the American River, east of Emigrant Gap. This monstrous mass of rock presents an almost El-Capitan-like appearance as seen from up and down the canyon; the views of Big Valley Bluff are very fine; but the views from Big Valley Bluff are truly exceptional.

The view east, upcanyon, from Big Valley Bluff, major tributary canyons labeled. Big Valley is at lower left.
 I remember it was Matt Bailey of Dutch Flat who told me about the Bluff, lo these twenty-five years ago. Matt and others, such as Gene Markley and Eric Gerstung, worked long and hard to obtain Wild & Scenic River designation for the North Fork.

So we drove out Forest Road 19, in part at least called the Texas Hill Road, out beyond the pretty East Fork of the North Fork of the North Fork American River with its multitudes of giant Indian Rhubarbs, out beyond the pavement and past the road right to Sawtooth Ridge and Helester Point and the elusive Sawbug Trail, and kicking up dust, some few more miles to the road right to the Bluff.

The Bluff projects far into the canyon and a road follows along the top of the ridge to where the World suddenly ends and the Yosemite-like vastness of the "upper middle" North Fork canyon break into view. A Forest Service lookout tower once stood on the very edge of the cliff; only some large concrete piers remain.

Snow Mountain looms to the east, standing all of 4500 feet above the river; its monstrous mass hides Tinkers Knob and Anderson Peak, yet farther east on the Sierra crest; but also in view, peak-wise, from north to south, are Red Mountain, Mt. Lola, Basin Peak, Castle Peak, Devils Peak, Mt. Lyon, Needle Peak, Squaw Peak, Little Needle Peak, Mt. Mildred, and summits of the Crystal Range, far to the southeast.

Click to open the image in a new window.
In clear weather over one hundred miles of the Coast Range is in view to the west. It was hazy while we were there.

Within the main theater of the canyon one sees Wabena Point, where petroglyphs are inscribed high above the waterfalls of the Royal Gorge, and Wildcat Point, an enormous glacially-truncated spur; Cherry and Sugar Pine points share the north wall of the canyon with the Bluff; Sawtooth Ridge winds away to the west; and one sees portions of many side-canyons, including Big Valley, Little and Big Granite creeks on the north, Wabena, Wildcat, Sailor, New York and Tadpole canyons on the south.

Directly across the canyon from Big Valley Bluff one sees the pass of the Beacroft Trail, the Iowa Hill Canal, and the unnamed eminences of sheer rock between Tadpole and New York canyons.

Three thousand feet below, the American River Trail can be seen from some vantage points, threading high above the river.

So the Bluff has a phenomenal view. I had enticed the botanists there with promises of Juniperus communis, or Common Juniper, which is a ground-hugging sub-shrub of a conifer. It is "common" because it is found all around the Northern Hemisphere, in the higher elevations and latitudes. And it is common within the North Fork, seeming firmly wedded to rocky, sunny, storm-battered knolls and cliffs.

The main summit of the Bluff is around 6500' in elevation. Storm-twisted Jeffrey and Sugar pines are scattered widely about, with low masses of Huckleberry Oak and manzanita, and much in the way of raw rocky areas, and weirdly-shaped pillars of rock rising along the verges of the cliffs. The humble junipers, not even a foot high, sprawl over the rocky ground here and there.

There are interesting ecotones and gradations and discontinuities of microclimate at Big Valley Bluff. For instance, it is warmer along the edge of the cliffs. Not only Jeffrey and Sugar pines, but storm- and elevation-stunted Douglas Fir are found. A short distance north is the broad summit of the spur ridge leading south to the Bluff; and by its broadness, and its gentle slopes, it is less able to shed heavy cold air. Here the contrast between warmer, western exposures, and cooler, eastern exposures, is evidenced by Western White Pines east of the crest, and Sugar Pines to the warmer west.

I am concerned about 4WD activity out at Big Valley Bluff. Over the past ten years jeeps trails have proliferated and spread, and huge fire-rings have been built, and the usual beer bottles and cans scattered about. I think Tahoe National Forest ought to enforce a vehicle closure somewhere along the access road to the north, perhaps a quarter-mile north from the old lookout tower site. Let people walk in from there. For there is something quite extraordinary about Big Valley Bluff, and its storm-beaten almost elfin forest, and its awesome views, its hawks and eagles and falcons, its lowly little junipers.

One wonders why the North Fork canyon is not a National Park.

I wrote a letter to Forest Supervisor Steve Eubanks some years ago urging a vehicle closure. Perhaps it is time for a more concerted effort.

We wandered up along the crest of the cliffs and then down to the East Summit of Big Valley Bluff. Around 1987 I tried but failed to get Tahoe National Forest to deny permission to Sierra Pacific Industries to build a road across TNF lands down to SPI lands (old railroad lands) at the East Summit. I have been scared to go down there and see the stumps and skid trails and log landings and roads since then. Julie and Karen and I walked through the logged area, which was not so drastically torn up as I feared, and lunched on East Summit, with more marvelous views down into the great canyon.

Later we meandered farther down the ridge, to a cliff which offered the best views I have ever had of the lower reaches of Big Valley itself.

Heading at Huysink Lake, Big Valley runs due south some several miles to the North Fork. Ice spilling south over the divide from the South Yuba Icefield deepened Big Valley far beyond any proportion to its length or basinal area. As the valley approaches the North Fork, it steepens dreadfully and narrows into a gorge, with some unknown number of waterfalls hidden within shady chasms, and every sign that it is totally impassable. No one walks down Big Valley to the North Fork. With a long rope and nerves of steel one might rappel down the waterfalls and win through.

I could see the dark slots of inner gorges, and ragged cliffs and pinnacles painted with lichen, and flocks of Band-Tailed pigeons zooming around far below me. I felt confident that I could advance another mile south within Big Valley, from my previous most-southerly point limit of exploration. It looked exceptionally wild and pristine and cliffy. Just my kind of place, really.

We walked slowly back to the main summit and the car and drove back out, stopping at Onion Valley, a large meadow of glacial origins with a weak moraine on its west side. Almost all its lush complex of flowers had died away, but along a shallow stream-course we found some unusual flowers of the Broom-Rape family, probably in the genus Orobanche, flowers none of us had ever seen. These Orobanche are root-parisitic on various plants, and have no leaves and no chlorophyll. So—once again—out came the cameras, the hand lens, the manuals, and we botanized long enough to make me slightly late in picking up my daughter Janet from the school bus stop at Alta.

All was well despite my tardiness and it was a fine fine day in the upper middle North Fork.


Russell Towle

The Sawbug, Revisited; Mumford Bar
[North Fork Trails blogpost, October 15, 2005:
http://northforktrails.blogspot.com/2005/10/sawbug-revisited-mumford-bar.html ]
Sawtooth Ridge divides the main North Fork to the south, and the NFNFAR (North Fork of the North Fork American River) to the north. It parallels the two canyons and has a higher "upcountry" part to the east, and a lower "downcountry" part to the west, where the ridge terminates, at the confluence of the two streams, above Euchre Bar.

One can drive into the area from Emigrant Gap. Maps are useful, at least, the "big" Tahoe National Forest map. One will end up on the Sawtooth Ridge branch of Forest Road 19, also called Texas Hill Road.

Many old trails thread Sawtooth Ridge. Some are now roads, like the Sawtooth Ridge Road, along the crest. Others have been obliterated by logging, like the south part of the China Trail. Others have been abandoned.

The Sawbug Trail leads from a minor pass on Sawtooth Ridge, at about 3900' elevation, down to the North Fork at Humbug Bar, about 2000' elevation. It forms part of what once was the main trail back to Texas Hill and Monumental Canyon from Dutch Flat, by way of Euchre Bar. For there were suspension bridges at both Euchre Bar and Humbug Bar, in the olden days.

The Sawbug trail is at left on this portion of a 1900 USGS map by Waldemar Lindgren.
A Dutch Flat gold miner and photographer, I.T. Coffin, used the Sawbug to get back and forth between Texas Hill and Dutch Flat, in 1863. It is a nice old trail, and makes a long west-descending traverse of the south-facing slopes of Sawtooth Ridge, which may equally be described as the north canyon wall of the North Fork.

These sunny slopes are covered in a forest of Canyon Live Oak, with occasional conifers and Kellogg's Black Oak in areas of deeper soil, and groves of Knobcone Pine near the crest of Sawtooth.

With various friends I made a series of expeditions in search of the Sawbug. It shows on the ca. 1900 USGS topographic map, the Colfax Folio [shown above]. Finding it from the top down didn't work. Three failed trips. A trail was found, but it led to some hard-rock prospects. This false trail proved to be scarcely a quarter mile east of the genuine Sawbug.

From the bottom, from the North Fork, up, proved difficult also. Most of the trail is without switchbacks, just one long descending traverse. But at the bottom, there are a few switchbacks. These confuse the issue. And at the top, there is a series of tunnels, driven into a quartz vein running right up and down the steep slopes, and the trail simply disappears.

One looks at the tunnels, at the old equipment, at the repeatedly fire-scorched oak forest, and it becomes easy to explain why the Sawbug disappears: first, the slopes are steep, and a certain amount of loose rock and dirt is always working its way downhill, especially after fires; and this stuff can bury a trail. Next, the tailings and debris from the tunnels themselves could have similarly washed down over the trail; finally, with no one to lop branches and brush back, what portions of the trail might exist, might also be invisible, overgrown.

Several attempts had been made to sort out the top section, which makes the last four or five hundred feet of climb to the crest of Sawtooth. Gradually a trail emerged just to the east of the north-south line of tunnels.

Last week, Ron Gould and I returned and finally found the rest of the "lost" Upper Sawbug. It proves to be a series of switchbacks to the east of the mines; a descending eastward traverse, away from the mines, is followed by a descending westward traverse leading back to the mines. There are several of these. Finally one long eastward traverse leads to a long westward traverse to the Bear Bed Tunnel; from here the Sawbug drops gently to the west, down to Humbug Bar.

So that was very gratifying. The Sawbug is finally back on the map, as it were. It took about ten visits, over three or four years, to get it right.

Even this "right" may be, in part, wrong; for I find it suspicious that the trail returns, again and again, to the very mouths of the tunnels. Would the miners have said, "Here's a switchback intersecting a quartz vein, how convenient, we'll drive a tunnel here," or would the "true" Sawbug have vanished beneath rock waste from the tunnels, and an ad hoc trail accessing the series of tunnels, have evolved into "the" Sawbug?

That, in any case, is a long-abandoned trail. A very nice old trail, I must say. But there are other nice old trails. Last Wednesday, I returned to Sawtooth Ridge with Ron and Catherine O'Riley, to walk the Government Springs Trail down to Mumford Bar.

This trail heads up well up Sawtooth Ridge to the east, miles east of the Sawbug. At a broad pass on the ridge, Old Sawtooth Road forks away to the south. A TNF sign at the fork has been shotgunned beyond legibility. It may have read, "Government Springs." For, its twin is found a half-mile west on Old Sawtooth, also shotgunned, but one can still see some partial letters which show it once read "Government Springs," and probably also, "Mumford Bar."

At this second blank sign a road forks away south, dropping into the North Fork canyon. A gate blocks this road. In about a quarter-mile or so one reaches the springs, and an oldish wooden sign points back east, reading "Mumford Bar Trail, Mumford Bar 3, N. Fk. American River 3."

Here the trail was cut by a logging road, which is being re-vegetated by Deerbrush, so it is fortunate that people are using loppers and cutting the bushes back, or the trail would be quickly overwhelmed.

Soon one reaches the original foot trail. It winds through woods from which the larger trees have been harvested in at least two episodes, as one often sees on Sawtooth Ridge, one perhaps in the 1960s or 1970s, the other, in the 1990s. It is a nice old trail and I highly recommend it. Its original line is blocked in a couple places up high, so minor detours are needed, but it all sorts itself out well, and a long series of switchbacks leads, eventually, to the river.

It makes a descent of about 2500'.

About half-way down to the river, say, at 4000', a lone, large granite boulder, a four-foot egg of granite, was left by the (receding) North Fork glacier, probably about 13,000 years ago. The bedrock is all Shoo Fly Complex metasediments for miles around; this erratic boulder may have come from near the Loch Leven Lakes, or even from the upper South Yuba.

There may have been, briefly, lateral moraines along the canyon wall, as the North Fork glacier wasted away, and occupied lower and lower positions in the canyon. But the slopes were too steep to preserve those moraines. First, erosion would have smeared them into formless bodies of glacial till, clinging to the canyon wall, and soon enough, these till bodies would break into patches and disappear altogether. Only a rare combination of accidents could have permitted the Erratic Egg to hold its position for so long, while the moraine associated with it smeared into till, and then even the till bled away, downhill, downhill, to the river.

Whatever the rare combination of accidents may have been, the Erratic Egg remains poised. It too will reach the North Fork, someday. One is left with the impression that, although the parent moraine, and child till, have left the scene, that the boulder holds firm must mean, that the shape and position of that part of the canyon wall cannot have changed very much in the past 13,000 years. The Erratic Egg may remain right there, thousands of years into the future.

Well. Continuing down the trail...

One arrives at a spot directly across from the base of the "other" Mumford Bar Trail, which heads up on the Foresthill Divide. The river is at quite a low flow these days.

There are many old Forest Service "small i" blazes up and down the trail. There are also some other, possibly older, blazes. It has much the same feel as the Sawbug Trail: sun-blasted, fire-scorched canyon wall, supporting an ancient colony of Canyon Live Oak. One sees multi-trunked stump-sprouts dating to wildfires two hundred years past. Often a rock outcrop supports an especially large and old Canyon Live Oak, protecting it from the severity of fire on those steep dry slopes.

Just as the Erratic Egg has stood the test of thirteen thousand years, so also have these oak groves. To me they evoke the idea of a vegetational pattern perfectly adapted to rocky slopes often burned in wildfires. The Canyon Live Oaks may have settled in on Sawtooth Ridge within a century of the ice retreat, and held their place ever since. Who is to say how old these trees might really be? They are the stump sprouts of stump sprouts of stump sprouts, and each "generation" of trunks could live for centuries. That is, are we presented with a forest of oak trees five or ten thousand years old, not a mere two hundred years old, by virtue of their stump-sprouting adaptation to wildfires?

One often sees big game trails leading away from the switchbacks on human trails, in these canyons. The Euchre Bar Trail has many of these game-trails-at-switchbacks. So does the Government Springs/Mumford Bar Trail. And one of these, fairly low down in the canyon, descends west and may (also) be an old human trail, dating from the Gold Rush, and the 1850s. I want to explore that trail.

A portion of a 1962 Tahoe National Forest map, showing "Watson's Crossing"
We spent some time trying to find another trail, continuing upriver on the Sawtooth side, as shown on the 1962 TNF map, leading to a spot called "Watson's Crossing," presumably an easy ford, presumably named for famous local guide Robert Watson, of Tahoe City. We found several trails threading the shady woods, but nothing too convincing.

Short on time, we soon gave up on the upriver trail, although in retrospect I think we found it. Then came the long climb up and out, which took two hours.

It was a day of sun and blue skies and blue canyons, butterflies in October, ancient elfin oak groves, and it was another great day in the North Fork canyon.

October scene on the Mumford Bar Trail, north side of the river
Fused Canyon Live Oak trees, along the Mumford Bar Trail

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