November 18 (1975, 1977, 1985, 2002, 2005)
Giant Gap and the Keyhole, Up Close and Personal ~
New Miners' Mess at Tunnel Camp on Canyon Creek ~
Green Valley on a Golden Day

11/18/75 clear and cold and windy. an exceptionally strong gust of wind woke me up at about five-thirty this morning as it howled through the trees. […] the full moon was low in the west, its light streaming into my cabin. bright venus blazed in the east, gleaming ornament of a grove of incense cedars. […] much hoar frost this morning.”

[Russell Towle's journal]

11/18/77 ~ just after dawn. a lot of hiking and rock-climbing lately: yesterday the fanatic four—ron, neil, gary, and myself—drove over to giant gap ridge and descended various distances on the pinnacles ridge; the day before we all descended from the head of the lover's leap spur to the keyhole ~ a super cave. gary gets around remarkably well with his cast. today my muscles are stiff and sore. but i finally realized a goal of the past couple of years: a scramble amongst the pinnacles of giant gap. i have climbed all the pinnacles except the lowest, the most spirelike of them all, and the only chance i could see was to traverse around several hundred feet below it to the west, then ascend the knife-edge ridge to it. the other, smaller pinnacles were hard enough. the exposure is extreme, the rock along the knife edge is often a precarious stack of loose blocks, but good holds are there. i have traversed the knife edge from the top to the big notch between the two lowest pinnacles: pyramid point above and the absolute spire below. the uppermost pinnacle we named eagle point. the next one down is white spot point/spire, due to a patch of white quartz on the very top. i can see eagle point from here, and white spot spire. possibly also minor point. i wish i could see pyramid point and the absolute spire.

Russell Towle's labelled sketch of the Pinnacles Ridge and Lover's Leap, which
comprise the ribs of Giant Gap, in the North Fork of the American River canyon.
ron found some eagle feathers on eagle point, and neil found a curious little grove of torreyas just below and to the west of eagle point, nestled in with the storm-beaten canyon live oaks. i found a piece of aluminum that likely came from the airplane that crashed in giant gap many years ago. it was several hundred feet below white spot point, and someone had scratched their name into the soft metal: “B. Baxter 602 Las Palmas N Sac 5/13/62.” I suppose he left it on top of white spot point originally, and either it blew off or someone threw it off. it has the flavor of a summit record.

the keyhole was fascinating. it is a large cave, overhung a full forty feet by the cliffs above, but it has a sloping floor and much poison oak. nearby is a flat balcony-like outcrop that provides an excellent view of the canyon below.

the skies yesterday were quite cloudy, and unfortunately the light was very flat. but we were treated to an incredible sunset as we climbed back up to the canyon rim. the coast ranges were clearly silhouetted from mt. diablo to the mendocino ranges.

today i am going to auburn for the second meeting of the board of supervisors relative to precise zoning in the dutch flat-moody ridge area. […]

[Russell Towle's journal]
Neil Gerjuoy has sent this photo of the Pinnacles Ridge of Giant Gap—probably taken on November 18 by Ron La Lande—along with these comments:
“I still have a photo from that trip (which I'm including). It's actually a picture of Russell, who is sitting atop the right-most pinnacle. He's the barely visible blue dot at the top left of the right pinnacle.”

November 18, 1985

Worrying, worrying, about how to make money, about where to live, if not here, about how to get along or not get along with Dad, about how to find a woman, etc., etc., etc.

Went out to the cliffs to take some sun a minute ago. The snow is gradually disappearing. Many many branches down, no firewood problem at all.


[Russell Towle's journal]

Date: Mon, 18 Nov 2002 13:16:46 -0800
To: North_Fork_Trails
From: Russell Towle
Subject: Tunnel Camp

Hi all,

This morning I decided to take a look at the situation on the Canyon Creek Trail, where, at the outlet of the historic (1873) drain tunnel of the Gold Run Ditch & Mining Co., I had heard, from Tim Carroll of BLM, that someone had set up a camp and had been mining.

Bob and Judy S. of Gold Run had also reported that they had seen a truck parked at Potato Ravine, near the trailhead.

Driving to the Gold Run exit on I-80, I took Magra Road west and then Garret Road south, driving 1.2 miles on Garrett to the unmarked dirt road leading left into BLM lands on The Bluffs. In a few hundred yards I reached the main parking area/turn-around, and backed a little way down the side road to the north, parked, and set off north on the Paleobotanist Trail. The ground is still damp after the big storm. As I entered the Diggings, I began to see post-storm footprints on the trail, of deer, dogs, and one, or possibly two, humans. These continued across the Main Diggings Road into the pass at Potato Ravine.

The tracks of a dirt bike were on the last little bit of road leading to Potato Ravine Pass. At the pass I suddenly saw Pepsi and RC Cola and beer cans near the road, and more garbage at the trailhead. More cans were strewn along the trail. At the crossing of Potato Ravine, a homemade cart with padded handles, made from an old shopping cart, and used to haul mining equipment and supplies along foot trails, lay abandoned.

I saw no more footprints as I continued down the trail. The trail was blocked at one point by limbs and debris brought down in the big storm. I cleared the trail and continued. At The Old Wagon Road, a length of heavy-duty 4-inch ribbed plastic hose was stretched out. I had dragged this heavy hose, and another like it, from the Oxbow Curve on Canyon Creek, a few years ago, and one of the groups I had led into Canyon Creek had generously carried one of the two lengths up and out, a couple years ago. This one had been moved from my cache spot up onto the wagon road, and left part-way down to the tunnel.

Reaching the tunnel, approximately 1.25 miles from where I had parked, I found the camp, at the little terrace beside the tunnel, where the steam engine had once stood, which supplied compressed air to the Burleigh drilling machine, in 1873. A fairly large amount of garbage and camp stuff was strewn about. Some light steel cables had been strung up between oak trees, and one strand even went across the creek. A large tarp was attached to these cables. Some lengths of 2-inch plastic hose lay in the little gulch below the tunnel; apparently the miner(s) had diverted water from the tunnel to work vestiges of old mine tailings nearby.

The Manzanita and Mock Orange bushes on the terrace had all been cut down. The miner(s) had broken up the last "old" stack of bricks from the steam engine, and built a cooking pit.

There was no sign that anyone—miners, or Deputy Sheriff, or BLM Ranger—had been there since the Big Storm. Garbage was strewn rather widely. Among the gear lying around were two air filter masks, and some powerful-looking, huge light bulbs; apparently the miner(s) had been working in the tunnel, too. There was no sign of a battery or of a generator. I did not enter the tunnel, though.

More garbage was strewn across the rocky slopes below the terrace, near the creek. I climbed down and gathered up most of it, making a cache above flood level.

It looks to me like the stuff there would make about four or five backpack loads, some heavy. The tarp is large and bulky. I tore it down from the cables and roughly folded it and weighted it down with some logs.

On the way out I picked up all the cans and dragged the cart up to the trailhead from Potato Ravine, and made another cache, at the trailhead.

Such was a visit to Canyon Creek.

Date: Fri Nov 18 09:10:45 2005
To: North_Fork_Trails
From: Russell Towle
Subject: Visit to Green Valley

Hi all,

I've been working on various projects for several weeks and have had little time for hiking in the North Fork. Yesterday, tho, I joined Catherine O'Riley, Jerry Rein, and Alex Henderson for a visit to Green Valley, an old mining camp east of Dutch Flat (see the USGS 7.5 minute Dutch Flat quadrangle).

We would walk down the old mule trail, beaten deep into the ground by the pack trains coming from Illinoistown, ten miles west. Parking is on Moody Ridge road, near Alta.

The river flows west at 1800' elevation, while volcanic mudflow tablelands to the north and south stand at 4200', hence a canyon 2400 feet in depth. In one of the great curiosities and contrasts of local geomorphology, two of the most notable strips of Sierran bedrock are in faulted contact in Green Valley: the serpentine of the Melones Fault Zone, also called the Feather River Peridotite, to the east; and the massive metavolcanic part of the Calaveras Complex, to the west.

The strips are near a hundred miles long, but only a mile or ten wide.

So in a few steps one crosses from a weak, shattered, sheared rock—serpentine—to a dark, heavy, not at all slate-like, but metamorphic, something?—I always used to think of the rocks of Giant Gap as metabasalt; they are something iron-rich, dark, mafic; but really I've little idea of the true origin of these metamorphosed volcanic rocks. They may be a mixture of ocean-floor basalts, quasi-sedimentary layers of ocean-floor basaltic ash, with patches of underwater turbidity flows, mixing pebbles of lava and basaltic ash and whatnot into something like a mudflow.

Blurring our focus, the two notable strips run north and south. But the canyons of the Sierra run east and west. Hence many Sierran canyons cut these same strips. For instance, this same serpentine reappears in the South Yuba to the north, around the town of Washington.

But rocks, whether in big strips or terranes like these, or in foot-thick sedimentary cake-layers, as in, a stratum of sandstone, can vary along strike. Say one finds the edge of a bed of sandstone and follows it; and after walking along a ways, it changes from sandstone to shale. It has varied along strike.

Similarly these terranes, like the Melones serpentine and the Calaveras Complex, vary along strike.

It so happens that just where that weaker-than-usual rock, the Melones serpentine, is near its weakest, and most like serpentine, and least like peridotite, is also just where the metavolcanic part of the Calaveras Complex is at its strongest, at its most massive, with the widest possible spacing of major joints and fractures in the rock.

And this is at Green Valley. At the west end of Green Valley, to be precise, where the fault separating the "two notable strips" crosses canyon and river alike.

One fully expects a canyon to change form if it passes from weak rock into strong rock. To study such changes is the joy of the geomorphologist. The Great American Canyon, the American River Canyon, the North Fork of the American River canyon, changes very dramatically here, as it passes from Green Valley, into Giant Gap.

One goes from an exceptionally broad portion of the canyon (Green Valley) to an exceptionally narrow part of the canyon (Giant Gap).

Or rather, I should say, one doesn't go: Giant Gap is renowned for impassibility. Cliffs drop directly into long deep pools, ruffled by the perpetual canyon winds. There is no walking along the river.

The canyon depth is the same: 2400 feet.

It is always a pleasure to visit Green Valley and marvel at the dark cliffs of Giant Gap, of Lovers Leap and The Pinnacles, to the west. Down and down and down through manzanita and Digger Pine until at last the great complex of Ice Age sediments is met and its associated great forest of Ponderosa Pine spans the valley.

Within this broad forest are meadows and springs and many mines and old cabin sites and even a grave, that of one Joe Steiner.

I have an old photo of Joe Steiner standing on the suspension bridge, just below where we almost but did not ford the river. He died in Green Valley in 1949. He was the caretaker of the mining claims of the Dunkhorst family, who had purchased the old Opel mines in the 1890s.

Thursday was warm and sunny, one of those miracles of California weather. Temperatures were in the seventies. We saw flowers in bloom, some purple daisy-like things I take to be Erigeron foliosus, Leafy Fleabane, and some Scarlet Columbines. Oh: we also saw a Common Monkeyflower.

And many mushrooms, thousands and thousands of mushrooms.

And butterflies, and gnats. No, it was a lovely warm and sunny day, but for all that Alex astounded us by jumping right into the river, at the deep pool near the west end of Green Valley!

Earlier, we had thought to ford the river and visit the Gold Ring Mine, on the south side. Near the old bridge site we took off shoes and pants and hesitantly approached the water, over big boulders slick with dew. The sun warmed the trail a few feet above and behind us, but we were in an abyss of damp and cold and shade.

Way to go, Alex!
I stepped in, about mid-calf deep, and probed ahead with one foot, over the rounded, foot-diameter boulders which made the river's bed. The rounded boulders were slick, and would have to be crossed very carefully. But time to consider this was not given. An excruciating pain was building in my very bones, where my feet and legs were underwater. Immediately it became intolerable, and I exclaimed I could not do it, and climbed out as quickly as I could.

And then Alex jumped in! Astounding!

Later we would climb past old mines and through sunny woods to one of the old mining ditches, and follow it nearly to the east end of Green Valley, in a very pleasant and winding hike of perhaps a mile or a mile-and-a-half, and then, the sun lowering, we took a chance on following a cross-country route downslope and back west, and hit the river again at White Rocks, just upstream from the Hotel Site.

Here a big gravel bar was in fully sun, and we rested for a time before beginning the long climb up and out.

Willows and cottonwoods were yellow and gold, the river, calm and clear and cold and slow; calm, so that all day I was admiring the reflections of things, of cliffs, or trees, or brash bunches of river grass, willows, boulders, or sky.

So, it was a nice Indian Summer day in Green Valley, a bit short, as the days at large are short this time of year, but quite pleasant.


Russell Towle

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