October 24 (1975, 1985, 1988, 1998, 2000)

10/24/75 [...] yesterday went out to canyonland and broke the chain right off the bat. i went ahead and worked on the trail, since the road is very nearly as long as it can be already—within twenty yards, anyway. a beautiful day, clear, cool, fresh snow on the peaks. not much accomplished but returned tired and sore, went to sleep early in the evening. i am tired of fighting brush.

saw porcupine damage to a young pine yesterday. large area of bark gnawed away. came upon some interesting rocks in elderberry meadow. should be nothing but volcanic mudflow boulders up there, but these were some kind of micaceous schist, probably Paleozoic in age. might have been picked up and carried along by the mudflow when it coursed down the valley of the tertiary Yuba. the bedrock beneath elderberry meadow is serpentine, probably fifty to a hundred feet down.”

[Russell Towle's journal]

October 24, 1985

[...]  today, I was burning out deerbrush stumps, as I have for several days. This, in 1985 terms, involves digging the duff and several inches of soil away from the basal burl and however much of the root can be exposed. If the root proves too large for cutting—as most did today—then it is a "burner" and flammable materials are cleared for a foot or so on all sides. Then, boulders are carried in, and assorted rocks, to make a circle, close in to the basal burl of the ceanothus, which serves to make the fire burn hotter—it does not lose heat so readily by radiation and air mixing from the sides if confined by warm boulders. One of the boulders today exploded repeatedly, spalling off exfoliation shells from the andesite bomb. I burned about ten stumps today. I recalled that it has been ten years since I began work on Moody Ridge. Drank the rest of my zinfandel in celebration. [...] It's been a great ten years.


I climbed an oak tree in the lower meadow today that I've always wanted to climb. Snapped off many dead branches, went up perhaps forty of its seventy feet height. A good climbing tree.

Yesterday [...] rolled big boulders down a slide area below the railroad tracks. They went about a thousand feet down a steep slope, perhaps five hundred feet vertical; some were in the thousand-pound range; some exploded into a dozen pieces on the way down. It was very satisfying. There was an acute finality about the way these heavy boulders reached their resting places; after leaping and bouncing all that way, they'd reach the zone of accumulation of heavy boulders and clunk into their niche. After all that lively leaping: clunk.”

[Russell Towle's journal]

10/24/88   Morning. [...]

A canyon wren pecks and scratches around the cabin as has been the case for weeks of this Indian Summer.

[Russell Towle's journal]

October 24, 1998

Today I showed Frank, Michael and Luc the Sugarpine Flat area. We were rained on and snowed on and got pretty soaked and wet, but built a bonfire in the rain for a lunch break, and had a pretty good time.

I have been out to Sugarpine Flat many times this summer, with Neil Gerjuoy, Bill Newsom and Ed Stadum. And so on; and also, hiked down the Little Granite Creek trail with Dave Lawler, a couple of weeks ago, a debacle, I mean, the canyon was wonderful, we went down to Big Valley creek, checked out the little inner gorge, came back up the American River trail, and had plenty of time as we began the climb out, but Dave's legs began cramping, we had to stop for him to rest frequently and we ended up hiking out through unfamiliar terrain in the dark.”

[Russell Towle's journal]

Date: Tue, 24 Oct 2000 20:03:03 -0800
To: [...]@emigranttrailswest.org
From: Russell Towle
Subject: Truckee Trail


I visited your website about emigrant trails, and wish to add one further branch from what you call the Truckee Trail, but which is locally, in this part of the Sierra, known as the Donner Trail. You mentioned the Nevada City and Henness Pass and Beckwourth branches. There is another; it forked from the Donner Trail at Emigrant Gap (avoiding the descent to Bear Valley, and keeping to the ridge), was used beginning in 1849, and followed the divide between the North Fork American and Bear River down through what would in later years be the towns of Alta, Dutch Flat, Gold Run, Colfax, Auburn, terminating in Sacramento. This road is called The Old Emigrant Road in newspapers of the 19th century. Dutch Flat's Main and Sacramento streets are portions of the old road. Few people know about it. It appears on one or more of the ca. 1866 GLO maps of this area, marked as Old Emigrant Road.

Its route foreshadows the later construction of the CPRR and Dutch Flat Donner Lake wagon road.

Part of its exact route was taken over by the Pacific Turnpike, a toll road from Dutch Flat to Virginia City by way of Henness Pass.

Date: Tue, 24 Oct 2000 20:23:40 -0800
To: [...]@aol.com
From: Russell Towle
Subject: Donner


On your Donner web site you describe the snowshoe party of which Mr. Stanton was a member, and their progress west towards Sacramento. But I believe you must be mistaken about their route. I have no problem with it until they reach Emigrant Gap. But at that point you have them descending into the North Fork of the North Fork, then following Sawtooth Ridge, then descending into the bottom of the canyon, then following it down to Giant Gap, thence to Iowa Hill and on down.

It is extremely unlikely that they would have descended to and followed any portion of the North Fork of the north Fork, still less the main North Fork American. My opinion is based upon decades of hiking in the Sierra, often purposedly avoiding trails, and going cross country, and decades of exploration of the North Fork American canyon and that of the North Fork of the North Fork. To follow these streams is very very difficult. To follow them in snow is unthinkable. Especially if there were any in the party who had even a particle of good sense or woodsmanship about them. Say, an Indian. No Indian would be so utterly foolish as to use the lower (unglaciated) reaches of a Sierran canyon as a route to gain the Sacramento Valley. One would always stay on the ridgetops. Always.

It is instead very likely that the party, at Emigrant Gap, used an existing Indian trail which followed the ridgetop to the southwest through the vicinity of the Blue Canyon exit, and then on down through the vicinity of Dutch Flat. They might well have been forced off the ridgetop down into Canyon Creek—a shady little canyon where the snow lies deep—but it is so very unlikely that they would have been forced down to the main North Fork. If they followed Canyon Creek, at various points, near Alta and Gold Run, they would have been able to regain the ridgetops easily even in snow, and have obtained views down to the Sacramento Valley.

This route down the ridge from Emigrant Gap evolved into an emigrant road in its own right in 1849.

I am no expert on the Donners, but a descent to the North Fork American seems unthinkable (since the implication is that they followed along the river, a difficulty even in summer, a misery and even near impossible in the winter).


Russell Towle

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