November 3 (1975, 1976, 2002)
To be, or not to be... sensible

11/3/75    sunny morning in wren shack. tim & jim & i went out to canyonland day before yesterday and camped overnight on cabañita. taffy, tim's dog, was very nervous all night long, barking and growling and pacing around. we didn't sleep very well, but got up before dawn and brewed some coffee. yesterday we hiked down to green valley and the north fork of the american river, descending via the gulch that heads up at the springs near cabañita, past many tiny cascades and waterfalls, mossy gardens with a species of buttercup in full bloom, and an interesting zone of brecciated serpentine that had a band of tufa accumulation ~ quite odd. the river was beautiful, easily twice as big as the south yuba, with many old mine and cabin sites, and a weathered grave marker, wooden, reading ‘joe steiner 1860 1949’ ~ i found an old silver u.s. navy spoon with an embossed anchor on the handle. we hiked upriver to where an old suspension bridge used to be, and where there is a beautiful cliff of smooth marble rising nearly sheer from the river for a couple hundred feet. hiking back up to cabañita on the green valley trail was tough, and when we finally packed all our stuff back out to the jeep, the battery was dead ~ [...] so we had to walk over to alta on the railroad tracks and call craig, tim's old buddy, to come give us a jump with his 4 x 4 bronco. but we finally made it back.”


the headframe of the gracie mine on my dad's property out by nevada city is in danger of falling onto some high-power lines, so my dad wants to pull it down with one of the fire trucks that has a winch and cable mounted up front. there is extensive six-by-six framing in the headframe, some of which i may be able to salvage for cabañita. on one of the main six by six someone carved, years ago, the word 'phantasmagoria' ~ that one especially i would like to retrieve, if it isn't busted too bad. it calls to mind visions of a group of young people [p.40] who dropped acid together one fine night, a warm summer evening perhaps seven years ago. they partied up at the old gracie mine, the old silent tumbledown gold mine, giant relict of yesteryear. the headframe was sturdier then, a fine outsize jungle jim to scramble over and perch upon, to reflect on the sound of rushing water from the nearby ditch, to loll about and laugh and pass around joints and carve "phantasmagoria' into an old wooden beam... i would love to build 'phantasmagoria' into cabañita ~ i've had my eye on that timber for years now. i recall when my dad first showed me that property out there, one of the first things i noticed was that distorted word ~ and while we stumbled about in the brushy forest, my dad pointing out little bits of flagging tied in this bush or that tree, trying to communicate to me his visions of roads here, building sites there and then again over there, my mind was wandering, i was chuckling to myself about the acid party of years past, and the weathered old timber with soul, 'phantasmagoria'. 
[A photo of this timber, re-used as a rafter in Russell's cabin, is on the October 11 page. ]

[Russell Towle's journal]

11/3/76   before dawn, wren shack. another clear day. if only i had some money instead of owing much money, i would be so glad to finish my cabin and live in it this fall, this winter. the trees are at the height of their color now, but i won't be here to see them drop their leaves. i won't be here to see the first snow dust the high country. i will be working to make money. and i have committed myself to a lot of that type of activity.”

[Russell Towle's journal]

Date: Sun, 3 Nov 2002 11:11:17 -0800
To: North_Fork_Trails
From: Russell Towle
Subject: Return to Sawtooth Ridge

Hi all,

On Saturday, November 2, I met Tom Molloy at the Monte Vista Inn, Dutch Flat exit, I-80, at 8:00 a.m., to hike and explore and find another lost trail out on Sawtooth Ridge, which forms part of the divide between the North Fork American and the North Fork of the North Fork.

Years ago Tom had acquired a copy of one of my books, the diary of Isaac Tibbetts Coffin. I.T. Coffin was a gold miner and photographer who lived in Dutch Flat from ~1864 to 1903, and kept a diary from 1870 to 1903. On the first page of this diary he mentions having kept other diaries; the only one of these which survives goes from 1863 to early in 1864, when he lived out at Texas Hill and Burnett Canyon. Tom had poked around out there looking for some of the sites mentioned in the diaries, and emailed me for information about one of them, the Big Spring Mine, which is on Sawtooth Ridge at the head of the Mumford Bar Trail.

So we corresponded about I.T. Coffin and things Dutch Flattian until finally, after a couple years, we met, and hiked around a bit here and there. Tom has been out on Sawtooth Ridge several times this year, and wanted to follow the ridge southwest to near its end, where, just east of the final sawtooth, trails diverge to the Rawhide Mine on the north, and to the North Fork American on the south. I myself wanted to find another "lost" trail on Waldemar Lindgren's 1900-era map, this trail descending from the saddle east of Sawtooth 4210 (see the USGS 7.5 minute Westville quadrangle) to Humbug Bar (at the confluence of Humbug Creek and the North Fork), where, according to Lindgren, a bridge spanned the North Fork. I will refer to it here as the "Humbug Bar" trail.

I.T. Coffin was quite the hardy hiker, and every month he would walk from Texas Hill to Dutch Flat for his Masonic Lodge meeting. His route varied. Sometimes he would cross the North Fork of the North Fork on the China Trail to Lost Camp, pick up the Old Emigrant Road, and follow that on down to the Flat. Sometimes he would follow Sawtooth Ridge down, which he called the Camel Hump-backed Ridge, presumably using the Humbug Bar Trail to descend to the North Fork, and then climbing back out on the Euchre Bar Trail, thence across Canyon Creek to the Old Emigrant Road, by 1863 known as Main Street over this part of its course, and on down to the Flat.

This Sawtooth Ridge route is quite demanding. The ridge crest forms a long succession of knolls and saddles, and the only natural route would often have been along the very crest of the ridge, forcing one to climb each knoll and descend to each saddle. The canyons on either side are 2000' to 2500' deep and the slopes are generally quite steep.

We drove up I-80 to Emigrant Gap, and took Forest Road 19 in to Texas Hill, and then the right-hand fork, to Helester Point. Rather than follow the old road along the ridge crest, we used one of the more recent logging roads on the North Fork of the North Fork side. The typical checkerboard pattern of land ownership obtains here, the odd-numbered sections having been given by President Lincoln to the Central Pacific Railroad, which was later absorbed into the Southern Pacific, which finally, under threat of corporate takeover in the middle 1980s, sold off its gigantic land holdings to various lumber companies. Among these the most prominent is Sierra Pacific Industries, or SPI.

SPI has executed several clearcuts in Section 35, near Helester Point on the North Fork of the North Fork side of Sawtooth Ridge. These are highly visible from Lovers Leap and Iron Point, and if you think they look ugly from a distance, to see them at close quarters is somewhat like visiting the site of a nuclear blast, in a war where it was not sufficient to slay ten thousand trees with the saw, and roast hundreds of others in place like so many Joans of Arc, and send bulldozers scrambling every which way up and down some of the steepest terrain in Placer County, leaving scars which will persist for centuries—no, not even this was enough for SPI. In order to adhere to the most stringent demands of corporate, industrial timber management—or "silviculture," as they would have it—in order to fully meet these stringent demands, they found it necessary to use poison, and quite liberally it would appear, on the many oaks which had once graced those steep slopes. For, cut a Kellogg's Black Oak or a Canyon Live Oak down to the ground, roast it as you will, it will still send out many strong and vigorous sprouts from its base, and these will in time become multi-trunked oak trees.

In fact, the multi-trunked oaks one sees everywhere in the Sierra resulted from just such "stump sprouts," regardless of whether it was axe or fire which leveled the original tree.

But in the clearcuts of Section 35, the oak stumps either did not sprout, or if they did, the sprouts immediately died.

We drove through the devastated areas and at a certain point found the road blocked by a fallen oak. We parked, shouldered our packs, and hurried past the last clearcuts.

I noted a scanty but significant occurrence of glacial till at various places. The bedrock throughout the length of Sawtooth Ridge is metasediments of the Shoo Fly Complex, mainly metasandstones but with some slates. There is an abundance of quartz veins out there, following the same northerly strike and steeply easterly dip as the strata if the Shoo Fly. As Tom and I walked along the road, the occasional rounded boulder of granite showed that at one time, a glacier had filled the North Fork of the North Fork. In fact, glaciers filled all the nearby canyons: the main North Fork, the North Fork of the North Fork, Blue Canyon, Burnett Canyon, Fulda Creek, the East Fork of the North Fork of the North Fork, and likely enough even Humbug Canyon, across the North Fork to the south.

As with many other ridges dividing canyons in this part of the Sierra, the ice grew deep enough to spill across the ridge crest. At Sawtooth Ridge this spilling-over was not limited to the saddles between the "sawteeth," but involved even the teeth themselves, as is shown, for instance, by glacial polish on the Shoo Fly rocks on the very summit of Helester Point.

My instinct with regard to these particular patches of glacial till, southwest of Helester Point, is that they derive from an older glacial episode, perhaps the "Tahoe" episode, rather than from the most-recent "Tioga" ice, which finally melted away a scant ten thousand years ago. The boulders do not look as fresh and sound as those found in glacial deposits of the most-recent Tioga ice. These Tahoe-age tills, then, may be around 65,000 years old, possibly older yet.

At any rate, I saw some weathered, old-looking till, and also some glaciated rock surfaces, but without any striae, and I fired up the old GPS unit and marked a waypoint for one of these planed-off patches of Shoo Fly, and also found that we were only half a mile from the Lost Humbug Bar Trail, for which I had recorded a waypoint and uploaded it to the GPS unit from my Macintosh. The road descended to the saddle or pass immediately northeast of Sawtooth 4210. We took off our packs and started scouting for the trailhead.

Manzanita stump bark
All this more-southwestern part of Sawtooth Ridge is cloaked in a mixture of Kellogg's Black Oak, Ponderosa Pine, Douglas Fir, occasional Bigleaf Maple, and quite a large number of Knobcone Pines, which latter are the relicts and evidence of the repeated wildfires which have swept over the ridge. These pines are "closed-cone" pines, related to the Monterey Pine; their cones remain closed for years or even decades, only to finally open and release their seeds when burnt in a fire. On the steeper, rockier slopes, Canyon Live Oaks are common. There is also a lot of manzanita, of two species, the stump-sprouting, basal-burled Green Manzanita, and the non-stump-sprouting, no-basal-burl White Manzanita.

So. At the saddle, presumably during the last fire, perhaps as little as twenty-five years ago, a bulldozer had bladed a path down to the south towards the North Fork. We followed along above and beside this path to its end, and started poking around at the top of the steep slopes, looking for anything resembling an old trail. I reasoned that such a trail would have made for the very lowest part of the saddle, to avoid any extra elevation gain, after a climb of 2000' feet from the river. However, although there were any number of faint game trails, nothing like a human trail presented itself. Knowing that the Humbug Trail had descended south and west, we scouted farther and farther down and to the west. Eventually we entered an area of gentle slopes, with large Kellogg's Black Oak and some large Ponderosa Pines. The game trails became much more pronounced. We searched the larger trees for blazes, without success. Having dropped down a few hundred feet and a quarter-mile or more west, we started scouting back up and east towards the saddle, following a slightly higher line. We hit what was the deepest, best-defined game trail of all we had seen, and followed it, entering a grove of Knobcone Pines with many fallen trunks, though which we had to slither and scramble and sometimes kiss the very ground, to find a way through.

Passing the last jumble of fallen trees, through which the game trail had continued with notable vigor and definition, we entered a rocky area in which the trail was quite unequivocally a human trail. Ah ha!

Our packs were a short distance away. We had only missed “the” trail because I had assumed “the” trail would make for the very lowest part of the saddle. We shouldered our packs and set out again, with every hope of winning through to the North Fork, 2000 feet below.

As we approached the first jumble of fallen trees, we saw branches had been cut along the trail. Who in the world would have ever known this trail existed? Or, having known it existed, who would have found it, and lopped off branches along it? It seemed a remarkably strange thing, strange, but encouraging. We imagined a trail with neatly-lopped branches leading all the way to the river. Our packs felt light, our legs felt young, and we strode through the forest will all the assurance and grace of the noble savage.

However, soon enough no more lopped branches were seen. Then the game trail split and split again and dwindled to the track of a single enfeebled squirrel, then to nothing at all.

We knew from Lindgren's map that the trail had bent briefly east, here, near the top, before accomplishing its first main plunge into the depths of the canyon. Perhaps we had missed a switchback? So we began criss-crossing the slopes, descending slowly, until Tom's sharp eye spotted flagging, and the mystery of the Branch Lopper of the Lost Trail was solved. We found a survey marker showing us to be on the line between sections 2 and 3, which we knew anyway, from studying our Westville quadrangle.

This was a sad thing. However, we kept up our criss-cross descent, and soon found another bolder-than-usual game trail, following it west into a tiny ravine, then down the ravine a little ways, then out of the ravine and west and south again, and we began to hope that we had struck the old Humbug Bar trail again, at a lower level. Perhaps we had; for, in a couple hundred yards, we saw a terrace of stacked boulders, below the trail, and the trail itself was bolstered by smaller boulders, in a most suspicious manner.

Again our packs lightened, our legs grew younger, and our hopes higher. But, sad to say, the trail soon disappeared on a steep slope, with no apparent continuation. We scouted forward without success, then down, thinking that perhaps a switchback had been erased by erosion, as well it might, for all the tons of rocks and debris and leaves constantly sliding down these canyon steeps.

We went down to nearly, if not fully, the 3000' contour, and found any number of game trails, but no human trails. At this level, according to Lindgren's map, the Humbug Trail should have made a long traverse to the west, before making a finally plunge to the river. We saw a suspicious terrace linked to a game trail and scrambled down to it. But, no. However, there were some nice views into the North Fork from rock outcrops in this area. We could see into Humbug Canyon, to the meadowy terrace of glacial outwash near the bottom of that canyon, and various buildings, including the main house, of the Dorer Ranch. The Dorer family have been associated with Humbug Canyon since the early 1850s.

Humbug Canyon from Sawtooth Ridge
Virgin's Bower seed-cluster
(Clematis ligusticifolia)
The Dorer Ranch, at the base of Humbug Canyon,
photographed from Sawtooth Ridge.
There were quartz veins everywhere on the steep slopes around us. I found some feathery seed-clusters of Virgin's Bower, a vine, and photographed them in several close-ups, also photographing the canyon and the Dorer Ranch.

Upcanyon to the east; Snow Mtn is on left, Tinkers Knob in the far distance.
We began the tedious climb up and out, and stumbled upon a "prospect," where one of the many veins had been dug into, and a couple of cubic yards of material moved. It is very difficult to climb these steep slopes, with slippery Canyon Live Oak leaves everywhere, and loose rocks everywhere, so that as often as not one slides downhill just while trying to step uphill. We stopped to rest often. Soon we were at the terrace-of-large-boulders, which proved to be another prospect. The quartz in both prospects was stained red with iron oxides but also had veinlets of dark grey material mixed in, and some pieces had quite a metallic lustre, silvery, or occasionally sort of coppery, or golden.

From the terrace it was a simple matter to follow the two probable sections of the Humbug Bar Trail up and out, tho we still could not find the intervening section joining the two. At the saddle, it being something like two in the afternoon, we decided to venture farther southwest along the ridge, towards the other trail to the North Fork, which I believe is a jeep trail.

This took quite a bit longer than I expected, as the now-narrow and rudimentary road switched back and forth a lot as it climbed and then descended from Sawtooth 4210. Very nice views of Giant Gap were had from the west side of Sawtooth 4210.

Downcanyon to the west from Sawtooth Ridge, Giant Gap in middle distance
 Only two more sawteeth exist to the southwest, the first a sort of long, narrow, Italy-shaped thing oriented at almost right angles to the general trend of the ridge. Its summit is just over 4000' in elevation. I call this the "Transverse Sawtooth." I saw more granite boulders in glacial till between Sawtooth 4210 and the Transverse Sawtooth. I also saw the body of a white Jeep Wagoneer. Mysteriously, the engine, and all running gear including the wheels and gas tank, were missing.

Descending into the saddle southwest of Sawtooth 4210, we climbed and crossed the Transverse Sawtooth, descended into the next saddle, and followed along on a level until, just shy of the Final Sawtooth, the jeep trail switched back sharply left and began its descent to the North Fork American. It does not go quite all the way to the river, as I understand it, but I have never walked it.

The sun was getting low. There was no sign of a trail on the right to the Rawhide Mine, down in the North Fork of the North Fork canyon, but, there was a very thick growth of White Manzanita in the area. I spotted a game trail leading out onto the south slopes of the Final Sawtooth and we followed it, finding branches lopped where it squeezed through a snarl of manzanita. We entered a lovely grove of Kellogg's Black Oak. I should say that, over the past several days, night temperatures have fallen to their lowest of the season, and this has really accelerated the blush of fall color on the black oaks. In the warm light of the late afternoon they were spectacular. We crossed the shallow soft valley of the grove and, reaching a ridge with exposed Shoo Fly rock on the far side, began scouting for views southwest to Giant Gap. Climbing the ridge, we reached the eastern summit of the Final Sawtooth. We were a quarter-mile from the very end of the ridge, where it drops away steeply to the confluence of the North Fork and the North Fork of the North Fork, but there was all too much manzanita, all too little sunlight remaining in the day, and at least one last mini-saddle between us and the ultimate end of the ridge. So we went no further.

It was notable, tho, here on the highest part of the Final Sawtooth, that a small patch of Mehrten Formation andesitic mudflow caps the ridge, which is a smidgin or two above 4000 feet in elevation. One has to go well back to the northeast, beyond Helester Point, to find another patch of mudflow.

After a brief look around the summit, we started back. For some reason I wished to follow along the north side. Well, I confess I thought that, what with more shade and so on, there was likely to be less manzanita. I imagined a brief descent, keeping just north of the summit, and then an easy traverse back to the road. However, whenever I tried to traverse back south to the road, impenetrable manzanita barred our way. So I just kept descending and going northeast and trying to stay as high as possible so as to be poised to avail myself of the gap in the manzanita "which must soon appear."

But, no gap appeared. Not only that, but the topography was such that we were getting farther and farther away from the road. Finally, this could not be tolerated. We began crushing through the manzanita and Knobcone Pines, and soon we were threading through fallen trees mixed with manzanita in the very nastiest manner. Bushes were clawing at us like wildcats. I could see the part of the ridge with the road, and was shocked by how very far I had led us astray. As often happens, we could not effect a traverse. We were somehow, almost insensibly, forced down. Eventually we were atop a little ridge, with dense manzanita on our side, and open forest on the far side, of a little valley. A descent of 200 feet would get us clear of the manzanita.

It did not relinquish us without a fight. With claw and dagger it ripped and thrust and raked and tore. But we imitated the humble earthworm and the lowly lizard and found a way through at last, climbed through the open forest, and, voila, there was the road.

Sensible people, after scouting and re-scouting the lost Humbug Bar Trail, to the tune of 1200 feet of elevation loss and gain, or more, slipping and sliding and stumbling at every turn, would probably never have chosen to walk another mile and a half up and down to the Final Sawtooth. Having walked it anyway, sensible people would not have followed a game trail into a magical grove of oaks and then climbed a high knoll through mixed oak and manzanita and poison oak. But, having climbed the steep knoll, sensible people would surely not have veered wildly off into the wilderness and been forced farther and farther away from any vestige of ease and comfort and safety by an ocean of manzanita growing wider and deeper at every step.

One can't always be sensible, tho, I think.

In the final analysis we did get back to the road, just before sunset, and then it was up and down and up and down and up and down, but mainly just plain up, back to Tom's truck. The stars were out when we entered the little patch of somewhat intact forest between two clearcuts, where we had parked. I noted that ahead of me, in the deepening gloom of the forest, I could just make out our tenuous, wavering shadows, cast by the fading twilight glow in the western sky, behind us.

Such was a visit to Sawtooth Ridge.

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