October 9 (1977, 1985, 1987, 1988, 2004, 2007)
Watershed Moment ~ Sawtalian V ~ Down and Up and Down and Up

10/9/77   sunday sunset. i am stunned, sick. i just went to alta to buy something for dinner, and on the way back noticed a new road cut off of casa loma road near towle's hole. i stopped to see and it couldn't be worse. a road has been cut into the side of canyon creek ravine, leading to a building site which is directly above towle's hole, not setback but extending to the ridge of the little cliff that forms the side of towle's hole. the road is the usual horror story, a fresh-cut hillside road always is, jumbles of fallen trees and scraped-up boulders, piles of raw dirt. but to top it all off, whoever has been sampling the magnasite veins around towle's hole has been hard at work, and they are smashed to a greater extent than i would ever have believed possible.

that spot—which bears my name—was one of the most beautiful in all this area. doubtless it is a relatively common type along the streams in the sierra, but ~ it was the people's swimming hole. water ouzel's nesting site. oh god. such should not be allowed. is it for a house? i am wounded.

i have been leaning towards doing both more and less to screen my cabin from the canyon ~ more, in the way of darkening the cabin surface with redwood shingles, and less, in the way of not clearing more trees to further open up the view, and possibly planting, or allowing to grow, trees to instead screen off some of the ‘view’ and thus the cabin. i feel guilty about imposing my disruptive presence in this wild canyon. what i've seen today makes me feel real bad, ashamed. but i have promised the plants and animals here that i will keep this area as wild as i can, and will not needlessly harm them. i take that to mean i can clear a certain amount of brush, which will tend to restore the land to its more natural status when a regime of recurrent ground fires promotes meadows and healthy spacing of trees. the brush i will clear will be from my gently sloping, ‘flat’ land in the ‘meadow’ area ~ which supported at one time a fine stand of first-growth ponderosa.


[Russell Towle's journal]

October 9, 1985

[...] Windy and clear yesterday and today. Cool; strong winds out of the North. Geese flew over yesterday. Circled in a thermal rising over a South-facing slope in the Bear Canyon.”

[Russell Towle's journal]

10/9/87   Evening; [...] Today, by dint of main force, I moved the big boulder at the curve, breaking it into pieces, and swung by Dutch Flat, where I found Gay and the kids: we went on a stroll in search of grapes, in the vicinity of the cemetery.”

[Russell Towle's journal]

10/8/88   moping around musing, mulling over miracles, the universe, for one, and my capacity to admire it, to seize upon the grandest vistas and strike lightning from the eternal verities and the visionary seers of days gone long by. Archimedes and Epicurus, Homer, Caesar, Voltaire. Johnson Shakespeare Disraeli Darwin Oscar Max H.G. Wells and Winston. Cicero, Lucretius. Einstein. I stumble into them and it's like, some crusty old miner finds an emerald four feet across. No. Because, having found the emerald, rubys, diamonds clustered, I pause for reflection, return to reflect again, rotate, return, and sigh to sing the translations of cherry-blossomed Heaven which somehow seems to explode from every Point in Space.

At least a miracle a day, and, why, there've been ten thousand days and more, and if translations have been sung, who's heard? And if no one's heard, what record remains? The Journal? The notebooks? The few and paltry tapes which so poorly record my musical evolutions? And this all seems dark and heavy and without reward. For I know that I've been lax, I've been slack, I've turned aside a thousand times from the real effort it takes to at least write to approximate what's been seen, or even in faltering tones to sing my grandest translations in these pages.

The patio progresses, the elliptical polygons more and more completely surrounded by their networks of parallel-sided hexagons etc. Steve Rafferty will be helping me today, perhaps Monday. The actual end is in sight.”

[Russell Towle's journal]

Sawtalian Trail V
[North Fork Trails blogpost, October 9, 2004:
http://northforktrails.blogspot.com/2004/10/sawtalian-trail-v.html ]
Friday Ron Gould and I drove up to Emigrant Gap, out Forest Road 19 past Texas Hill and Burnett Canyon to Sawtooth Ridge, and parked on the edge of the North Fork canyon at an ugly log deck area, where, by all considerations of old maps, i.e., the Waldemar Lindgren Colfax Folio, and topography, i.e., the modern Westville quadrangle, the head of the lost Sawtalian Trail must be. We were in the SW 1/4 of Section 29, T16N, R12E, quite near surveyed elevation 5076'.

Our best efforts to transfer the line of the Sawtalian from Lindgren's map to the Westville quadrangle had suggested that we hew rather to the east, at the very top, than a little west, where years ago Tom Molloy and I discovered what surely seemed to be an old human trail, dropping into a magical grove of Kelloggs Black Oak and ancient Ponderosa Pine. This grove occupies a broad bench or terrace in glacial till, much like what one sees on the south side of the North Fork, along the main Italian Bar Trail, but here, at least, graced by many exotic boulders of granite, dragged down the North Fork canyon from many miles east. The bench is about 300 feet below the rim of the canyon, where we'd parked.

So we hewed to the east. Descending rough steep ground with no hint of an old trail, we reached the more eastern continuation of that same bench, and, bearing west, but giving up elevation southwards towards the river, we scouted back and forth, in search of the Sawtalian.

We left the lovely bench with its magical grove for steep slopes below, without glacial till, cloaked in Canyon Live Oak and some Douglas Fir with a somewhat unusual proportion of Torreya californica, California Nutmeg. All this area had burned in the Helicopter Fire, when nearby Section 31 had been logged, by Sierra Pacific Industries, as I would think. There were stumps scattered all across this steep terrain. We found the going quite tough. Often we spread apart to cover more ground, occasionally getting beyond shouting distance, but always reconvening every once in a while. There was never any good news to report. A game trail or two, but no old human trail.

After a descent of 1500 feet over this difficult ground, Ron was to the east, I was to the west, and tracts of Ceanothus, Deerbrush, began to cover large areas, all having seeded in or stump-sprouted after the Helicopter Fire. These brush groves were close to impassable, so my route, at least, became governed by gaps in the Ceanothus. The best gaps lead me gradually onto a small ridge, where, to my delight, a faint trail appeared, better by far than anything I had seen. I shouted out to Ron and heard a faint reply in the distance, east, and we managed to agree to meet at a flat bench visible a few hundred feet below.

At this bench we had lunch and scouted widely for some sign of the trail. GPS showed that we were near to our plotted route of the Sawtalian, in fact, the ridge I had followed was directly on this plotted route. So that was satisfying. However, the combination of helicopter logging on the bench, and fire-fighting efforts, made it quite difficult to read the terrain. For instance, the firefighters had made many small fire lines, chopping into the ground with their Pulaskis, tools which are like giant hoes and rakes combined. These fire lines looked much like faint trails. So we wandered about and scouted up and down and every which way. Our elevation at this particular bench was 3200'. South and slightly east we could see yet another bench, and I was gratified, on one of my explorations, to see the very "trough trail" I had found last Wednesday, near a ferny ravine, in the NW 1/4 of the SE 1/4 of Section 31. This is on yet another bench, slightly lower than the one we could easily see below us to the southeast.

Reluctant to give up any more elevation, tho, we decided to check out the Ridge Trail, and ended up following it all the way to the top, reaching the Magical Grove on the Upper Bench exactly where the "faint human trail" leading west and south from Point 5076 had always seemed to mysteriously end.

We were satisfied that we had, indeed, found the old Sawtalian Trail. It is much much less well-defined than the Sawbug Trail, a few miles west. This makes sense on several counts. The Sawbug is closer to sources of supplies, for instance, Dutch Flat, or Foresthill. The Sawbug had the benefit of a bridge across the North Fork, at Humbug Bar. And the Sawbug follows an easier grade than the Sawtalian. This all combines to explain why the Sawbug shows often amazingly large dry-laid stone walls, while the Sawtalian has essentially no rock work at all, and, even worse, on the ridge-crest part of its course—the "main" part of the Sawtalian—shows no sign of ever having been a "constructed" trail in any way shape or form.

As Ron remarked, the Sawtalian is kind of like a country road to the Sawbug's highway.

So. A two-thousand-foot climb brought us to Ron's truck around 4:30 p.m. On the way out we stopped at the easternmost, highest sawtooth of Sawtooth Ridge, and crossed ugly bulldozer-ravaged White Fir forest to the south-facing, North Fork side of the ridge, where truly wonderful views are had of the upper canyon. There was Big Valley Bluff, Snow Mountain, and even Tinkers Knob, on the left; and the Tadpole Canyon cliffs, Wildcat Point, Wabena Point, and Lyon and Needle peaks on the right. We could also see Duncan Peak itself, and the north end of the Mildred Ridge, near Picayune Valley.

A trail, routed near the top of these open, south-facing slopes, would provide an alternate to following the Sawtooth Road itself, east and west along the ridge. And such a trail would offer some of the best views in all Placer County.

I saw it remarked, on a rafting web site, that some people think of the North Fork American as the most beautiful river in the world. This seems to be carrying the point a little far, but I'm not the one to argue with them. It is beautiful, quite exceptionally so; its canyon is beautiful, beyond any of my words. Wild & Scenic River status is all very nice, but it seems far from enough. I have advocated Wilderness designation for the North Fork American "roadless area" since 1976. This would be a good thing. This would respect the truly exceptional qualities of this great river and great canyon.

But even this would fall short of what really must be done. When, in the year 2004, bulldozers can casually obliterate one of the most historic trails leading into the great canyon—the Big Granite Trail—when egomaniacs can build houses beside Giant Gap and, again, use bulldozers to clear all vegetation below them, for their million-dollar views—these are just a couple of the attacks on our heritage, on the North Fork, which should tell us, beyond any doubt, that the time is already long past when the stewards of our public lands, Tahoe National Forest and the Bureau of Land Management, should be working feverishly, constantly, to acquire the private inholdings in the region surrounding the North Fork.

For it is not just the wild and roadless areas, mainly within the great canyon, which we ought to protect, but regions flanking this wild "core" area—regions like the Gold Run Diggings, Sawtooth Ridge, the North Fork of the North Fork, Lost Camp, Big Valley, Sugar Pine Point, Big and Little Granite creeks, Snow Mountain, Devils Peak, Palisade Creek—just to name a few.

Later we visited Texas Hill, where some old patented mining claims are nestled within TNF lands. Apparently the owner recently convinced TNF that the historic public roads which cross his property should be closed to The Public, and remain open only to him. We walked around, and saw some of the hard-rock gold mining activity near I.T. Coffin's Texas Hill cabin site, and saw the new little cabin and trailer which has so inspired Tahoe National Forest to block our old public roads. We had some amazing views to the west, of Giant Gap, the Pinnacle Ridge, and Lovers Leap, in the sunset hour. We also got all too good a look at a clearcut on very steep ground flanking the East Fork (of the North Fork of the North Fork), in Section 17, T16N R12E.

It was yet another very nice day in the great canyon.

Down and Up and Down and Up
[North Fork Trails blogpost, October 9, 2007:
http://northforktrails.blogspot.com/2007/10/down-and-up-and-down-and-up.html ]
The day after visiting Hayden Hill, and that lovely little patch of old-growth forest growing on the broad terrace formed upon the rhyolite ash stratum, a few hundred feet below the canyon rim, I was busy writing about Chinese ghosts, and Mesozoic screens, and thinking about the two old trails I had discovered.

I had found a "lumber slide" dropping away north from the summit of Hayden Hill itself, and also a nearly level trail leading west into the Magic Forest. With Ron Gould I had explored similar trails, and we had often found ourselves confronted with major game trails, whereupon I might say, "this must be an old human trail," which Ron would always doubt. He would scoff. Usually, Ron was in the right.

So, writing about ghosts, and thinking about human trails disguised as game trails, I wanted to drag Ron out there to Hayden Hill immediately, if not sooner. The hour of eight in the morning arrived and I picked up my telephone; but a family member had left her internet connection up, and I had to disconnect to get a dial tone. Before I could even dial, the phone rang; it was Ron. It was a fine sparkling clear fall day, and he suggested a hike. I broke in: "We must go to Hayden Hill!"

But Ron replied that he had been imagining doing the Blackhawk-Sawbug loop, up by Humbug Canyon, and Sawtooth Ridge. I was persuaded, and yet for one reason and another, it was ten in the morning before we parked at the head of the Euchre Bar Trail.

"It will be pitch dark before we return," I remarked. This was likely enough, as we had twelve miles and some thousands of feet of elevation gain ahead of us. Thus it was that when we did finally reach his truck, at the end of the day, the stars were bright. GPS revealed, when it was all over, that we had climbed 5,700 feet over the course of the hike.

Most people who hike the Euchre Bar Trail go only so far as the river, which is spanned by a footbridge. The trail continues up the canyon, after crossing the bridge, and technically it not only reaches Humbug Canyon, but follows the Humbug Canyon Road up to the canyon rim, to the gate on Eliot Ranch Road.

We made quick work of the descent to the North Fork, the river flowing slowly, calm and clear, with morning shadows still clinging to large parts of the far canyon wall; in fact, the bridge was still wrapped in frigid shade, and damp with dew. The bridge is scarcely a mile and a half from the trailhead at Iron Point.

Crossing, we made good time up the main trail, passing the confluence of the North Fork of the North Fork, which is divided from the main stem of the North Fork by Sawtooth Ridge. Another mile brought us to the Southern Cross Mine, with its collapsed and dismembered stamp mill, where we stripped off shoes and pants and forded the ice-cold river. A sunny patch of bedrock, metasediments of the Shoo Fly Complex, allowed us to relax in comfort on the far side of the river, while we dried, and soon we were scrambling up a steep bank beside another dismembered stamp mill, and reached the level ore-cart-run of the Blackhawk Mine. The little railroad tracks are still in place.

The USGS 7.5-minute Westville Quadrangle shows a trail descending to the Blackhawk Mine from the crest of Sawtooth Ridge. This trail was likely widened to accommodate wagons as early as the 1890s, and in subsequent decades, bulldozers widened it further. In 1978 it became subject to a motorized vehicle closure, following designation of the North Fork American as a Wild & Scenic River, but the closure sign, up on the crest of the Sawtooth, was soon ripped out and thrown far down into the manzanita; for such is the lawlessness of OHV (off-highway vehicle) users, who also make quite a point of leaving garbage, wherever they go. They can do this with complete impunity, for there is essentially no Tahoe National Forest law enforcement; the TNF budget will not allow it, just as TNF cannot afford to maintain its own trail system.

Ron and I picked up the odds and ends of OHV garbage and started towards the top of the ridge. We were somewhat shocked at the clear signs of heavy OHV use of the trail.

Incidentally, this heavy OHV use only began two or three years ago. One of the first consequences was the vandalizing of the ancient dry-laid stone walls along a mining-ditch-trail, leading upstream from the Blackhawk Mine; apparently, the lawless motorcyclists thought it would be great fun to topple the huge slabs of slate, so carefully set into the arc of a circle a century and more ago, down the cliff into the river, from where the ditch-trail rounded a rocky point above a deep pool. This ditch-trail shows on a number of old maps, but has disappeared from modern maps. It leads all the way up to Humbug Bar, and continues farther yet as the Cavern Mine Trail.

A climb of a little less than two thousand feet brought us to the summit, where the OHV closure sign used to stand. One official TNF sign remains, almost hidden in the manzanita; it reflects an error in mapping, as it reads "North Fork American, 2" (arrow left), "Blackhawk Mine, 3" (arrow left), and "Rawhide Mine, 2" (arrow right). The error lies in supposing that the Blackhawk Mine is at Humbug Bar, rather than right at the base of the trail, where it reaches the North Fork.

As it happens, this trail junction is at the very end of the Sawtooth Ridge trail. Essentially, at the end of the Sawtooth Trail, one drops away left to reach the North Fork, and the Blackhawk Mine, and one drops away right to reach the North Fork of the North Fork, and the Rawhide Mine.

However, in the same year the neat wooden sign was installed, the Rawhide Mine was sold, and the new owner (Harry Mayo) immediately closed the trail to the public, posting all kinds of threatening "no trespassing" signs, with pictures of revolvers and so on.

Did Tahoe National Forest intervene? Did TNF make Harry Mayo remove the signs, and stop harassing hikers? Oh no, TNF did no such thing. Here was a trail likely open to the public for over a century, instantly closed. It is exactly what we are seeing at Lost Camp right now: a new property-owner decides to close a historic public road, open since 1858, and a historic trail, open since 1862. The road and trail were once maintained by Tahoe National Forest.

Does TNF intervene? Does TNF make a telephone call, do they write a letter, do they lift their left little finger to protect the General Public's right to historic roads and trails?

No, they do not. As surely as they did nothing to keep the Rawhide Mine Trail open, they now do nothing to keep the Lost Camp Road and the China Trail open.

It's a funny thing: Tahoe National Forest has enough money to hire all kinds of people with degrees, people obviously too talented, too highly trained, to perform physical labor, to actually maintain a trail; and TNF puts these talented, talented people to work engineering more and more and more timber harvests. For that, TNF has money.

I should imagine these degree-adorned employees of Tahoe National Forest make a pretty penny. I should imagine they have benefits, like health care, like retirement, oh my, yes, they make lots of money, they enjoy lots of benefits.

Ah well, these TNF employees are Good People, as near as I can tell. They are not the ones who set the policy, not the ones who plot the course.

Sawtooth Ridge appears to have been scorched in the 1960 "Volcano Fire," which spread from near the Middle Fork of the American, north across the Foresthill Divide to the North Fork, hitting Humbug Canyon hard, and crossing the river to Sawtooth Ridge. A very large number of Knobcone Pines grow along the summit of Sawtooth Ridge, towards its southwestern end. They appear to date from the Volcano Fire.

The climb to the crest of the Sawtooth, from the Blackhawk, winds in switchbacks through a forest dominated by Canyon Live Oak, with scattered Ponderosa and Knobcone pines, and a passing-strange abundance of Kellogg's Black Oak. These are the classic deciduous oaks of the lower-middle elevations, and they seem to much prefer deeper and moister and richer soils than usually exist on south-facing canyon walls. I have only hiked the Blackhawk Trail twice, and during my first visit, I concluded that one of the concentrations of Kellogg's Black Oak was associated with vestiges of glacial till. The till was deeply weathered and altered and almost unrecognizable. It would date from a much earlier glaciation than the Tioga, which ended a scant 12,000 years ago. I would guess this older till is either Tahoe I or Tahoe II in age, roughly, 65,000 or 125,000 years ago.

At last on top of the Sawtooth, in the very last pass before the very last Tooth—this last tooth, at the southwest terminus of the ridge, being a kind of flat-topped molar, capped with a vestige of andesitic mudflow—Ron and I rested. A few feet away, the Rawhide Trail, unmaintained by Tahoe National Forest since at least 1978, led away into dense, post-Volcano manzanita. We had attacked this section with loppers a couple of years ago, and I proposed we execute some maintenance. So we picked our way into the tangled brush, lopping here, ripping dead manzanita from the ground there, and pushing the slender poles of dead Knobcone Pines away down the hillside, a process much like threading a needle, since they were usually thoroughly trapped in the manzanita, and the only hope was to simply push them in the direction they already lay, hoping to get them clear of the trail.

A quarter-mile or so of such work got us clear of the manzanita, onto more north-facing slopes. We could not take time to work any longer. That quarter-mile had already cost us dearly, in terms of exertion, in terms of blood smeared along hands and arms, from a myriad of vicious little manzanita jabs. We are not exactly young men. I mean, in my mind, anyway, I am young, but my drivers' license reveals me to be fifty-eight years old.

At any rate, we retreated to the pass, shouldered our packs, and walked on up the Sawtooth, through dense stands of Knobcone Pine, and brushy groves of Black Oak. We walked up and over the first minor Tooth. A larger Tooth, rising above the 4200-foot contour, rose before us; on the map, it is shown to have an elevation of 4210 feet. Here, on the down-ice, lee side of Tooth 4210, is a body of very old glacial till, probably of the same age as the till along the Blackhawk Trail. Again, it is not easily recognized. One of the things which help separate this patch of deep soil containing rounded boulders from, say, some vestige of Eocene-age river gravels (which also can be found on Sawtooth Ridge), is the presence of rounded granite boulders. The Eocene gravels generally do not preserve granite; granite is too easily dissolved by chemical weathering. These granite boulders might have come all the way from the South Yuba basin, or, perhaps, from Little Granite Creek, or Big Granite Creek, or the upper North Fork of the North Fork. They are visibly different from granite boulders in the recent Tioga-age tills, in that they have lost their smooth surfaces, mainly, I think, from chemical weathering, i.e., from exposure to soil acids over a long period of time. There are only a very few of these rounded granite boulders visible, in the very bed of the Sawtooth Trail.

A much more obvious body of old till, with similarly deeply weathered granite boulders, is on the crest of Sawtooth immediately down-ice (southwest) from Helester Point.

Crossing over Tooth 4210, we descended to a minor pass and turned sharply southwest onto the Sawbug Trail. This is our name for the ancient trail, which likely dates from the 1850s, connecting the summit of SAWtooth Ridge to HumBUG Bar. I much doubt anyone would discover the upper end of this old trail by accident. Near the top, it passes some smallish hard-rock mines in a series of switchbacks, and then makes one long gradual descent to Humbug Bar, with one more minor switchback near the base of the trail.

At Humbug Bar (which, incidentally, was entirely mined away, way back when; there is no "bar" left), we followed the Cavern Mine Trail up the canyon a short distance, to where an easy trail leads away down to the river itself. We were about to strip off shoes and pants when we realized that we could actually hop across the river, boulder to boulder. This was a welcome alternative to wading.

Afternoon shadows were long, most of the river already in shadow, but one broad beam of light still reached the river itself, just upstream, and made for an incredibly beautiful picture, glowing trees reflected in deep dark pools.

It only remained to walk the two or three miles back to the bridge, and then climb the Euchre Bar Trail to the truck. Ha! We were dragging along in painful slowness, in the dark, through interminable switchbacks, as the twilight gave way to full darkness, and the stars came out. For my part, I was reciting a litany of benchmarks, which would be passed in turn: "soon enough, the switchbacks-without-water-bars, where the leaves were scoured from the trail in the last storm; not too terribly far above that, the crest of Trail Spur, and the Iron Point Trail, forking away west into Green Valley; then, that long rocky section, through the errant patch of serpentine, serpentine separate from the main mass in Green Valley, mixed somehow into the Mesozoic screen; and then ... and then ... the last switchback ... and just a tiny little bit of ridge-trail left ... cross the Rawhide Road ... and the final, steepish, blessedly short bit of trail ... and then the Rawhide Road, again, and right there, well, a few yards away, Ron's truck ... ."

I went over these trail-phases again and again and again in my mind. I would carefully imagine what each section in turn was like. Eventually, I actually reached, and passed my benchmarks, albeit slowly, very, very slowly. When the trail entered denser forest, the world went black, but it was easy to feel the trail beneath my feet. We made the climb separately, alone in our agonies, but as I neared the tippy top, Ron caught me up.

Twelve miles, 5,700 feet of elevation gain.

We were absolutely ruined, but it had been, yes, another great day in the great canyon.

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