February 20 (1978, 2005)

2/20/78   before dawn in the canyon. another clear day, balmy weather, it went to 70° here yesterday. after writing, yesterday morning, i walked over to the railroad tracks and a bit of the way towards casa loma, to where i could see an unobstructed view of this end of moody ridge; also visible were the pinnacles and lover's leap. once again i tried to understand the way moody ridge drops off in terraces at this end. slump blocks? planation by meanders of inter volcanic streams? i can't really tell...


sun is up, my cabin is cold but soon sun will warm it. warm my heart as well, o sun. shine on, lucky star, music, life and love, the bejeweled earth spins on...”

[Russell Towle's journal]

Lake Clementine
[North Fork Trails blogpost, February 20, 2005:
http://northforktrails.blogspot.com/2005/02/lake-clementine.html ]
On Saturday Catherine O'Riley and I took advantage of a spot of sun and a break in the weather to explore the North Fork canyon in the vicinity of Lake Clementine.

There one can find the flagged route of Placer County's proposed and approved "North Fork American River Trail" (acronym, NFART, which we will shorten to the more graceful NFT, for North Fork Trail), which would run up the canyon from The Confluence to Ponderosa Bridge.

North Fork Dam, Clementine
Crossing over the highest bridge in California, we drove up to Lower Lake Clementine Road and followed it down to North Fork Dam. This was built around 1939, to impound future hydraulic mine tailings (it never served its purpose; another story). It diverts no water, the entire flow of the North Fork spills right over the top of the spillway, at elevation 715'; while the 600-foot contour bumps into the base of the dam.

Thus there is a sort of Niagara Falls there, 115' high, boiling up clouds of spray, just thundering along, day and night. It is quite a remarkable place and I have always thought some sort of nice stone overlook terrace should be built, facing the falls.

We admired the falls for a time before turning to business. The Old Wagon Road joins Lower Clementine at a certain hairpin curve, low down towards the dam. The task was to find the flagged route above, or up the canyon, from this point.

A few minutes' scouting revealed yellow ribbons, neatly splitting the gap between the upper and lower legs of the hairpin switchback.

We noted that, while the trail might have availed itself of one of the existing roads above or below, there is some traffic on the narrow winding way, and it would be better not to mix equestrians and bicyclists and hikers, with cars and trucks.

On the other hand, Lower Clementine is already much used by bicyclists, without any apparent problem; we saw several, on a day which threatened rain.

After getting a feel for this area, and for the flagged route, we drove back up top to the Foresthill Road, parked in the area set aside for an existing multi-use trail, and walked down what I call Middle Clementine Road. This is gated closed to motor vehicles, and is seldom used by bicyclists.

Robbers' Roost
We had fine views across the canyon to the cave-ridden marble eminence called Lime Rock or Robbers Roost, with its old quarry-era access-road contouring along the canyon wall beside it. Unfortunately, a large house now glorifies its owner on the hilltop directly above, almost dominating the viewshed, considering that all eyes are drawn to the Roost.

Middle Clem road has quite a gentle gradient at first, and winds gently through oak woodlands with a startlingly large number of Madrone trees in the mix. A brushy knoll rises to the west, showing a mixture of Chamise and Manzanita. Across the canyon to the north another large patch of Chamise is visible, in direct contradiction to the rumor that the northernmost stand of Chamise in the Sierra is right there on the Foresthill Divide.

And now I hear of Chamise in the South Yuba.

Middle Clem steepens and at a hairpin turn left we saw a faint road right. Another couple hundred yards brought us to the intersection between the flagged route of the NFT and Middle Clem Road.

This is quite low, not far above the reservoir. The road itself has quite a gentle grade there, and we could not see why a brand new trail should be cut from the canyon wall, in that area; this road has no traffic. So use it.

We retraced our steps up to the hairpin and investigated the side road. It broke away east and immediately ended at a ravine, with a pretty little stream gurgling along down below. It was easy to pick one's way down and across and back up the far side, where the road reappeared.

Bears often step in the same old spots again and again and make a curious kind of dimpled trail, the dimples six or eight inches across and sometimes inches deep. A very faint dimpled bear trail led down this road. The sign of bobcat and fox was abundant.

The narrow road led down the ravine, and was soon joined by the flagged route. Then it flattened out altogether, and by all my experience of such things, this meant that it almost certainly had been cut into an old mining ditch.

In years past people had kept this old ditch-road lopped open, as a foot trail, but it is now overgrown again. We were not high above the river, in fact, GPS put us consistently on the 800' contour, 85' above the lake, while on the line of the ditch.

In something like half a mile, the bulldozed road-line left the ditch, dropping towards reservoir level. The ditch continued right along, now undisturbed and visibly an old mining ditch. At this point the flagged route suddenly left the line of the ditch and climbed above, slowly.

I knew that the NFT was intended to avoid old mining ditches; here it had followed the line of one, for half a mile; but now that it became obvious that it was, not just a road, but a ditch, the flagging split away high.

We stayed with the ditch, for if it continued, there could be no reason not to align the NFT directly upon it; the bench cut needed for a trail is already there, for goodness' sake. We had to find out.

Flowers were in bloom in many places: Houndstongues, Shooting Stars, and quite a few others; a species of Indian Paintbrush; Madrone and Bay Laurel; the day had a spring-like feel despite the clouds and occasional showers.

After another, more awkward ravine crossing, we followed the ditch into an open grassy glade of Black Oak and Ponderosa Pine. The flagged route had climbed high enough, now, that we could not see it. Below us we could see the boat camping area and its picnic tables and tall Cottonwood trees. From somewhere in the lake a raucous honking dialogue was held in echoing tones by water birds of some sort. The mossy old ditch makes for a magical trail and the canyon is a magical place, even there, even where quenched by a reservoir. The honking birds seemed to speak to this. And, being this low to the river, no more houses gloried over us. It seemed utterly wild.

The ditch became blurred as it crossed this glade, and just beyond, narrowed to a single trail, a foot wide if that; and then there was no trace, just a big patch of steep, rocky terrain which the ditch had crossed in a wooden flume. Game trails threaded everywhere, and seemed for a time to openly avoid the ideal level line of the ditch, carrying us too low or too high by turns.

If there was a way to make money from poison oak ...

At last the trail re-formed almost magically, game threads coalescing into one beaten track, a foot wide, on the one true ideal line of the ditch, that is, at or very near the 800' contour.

Here we stopped. We did not know exactly how close we were to Upper Clementine Road; if we broke through, we could climb it to Foresthill Road and follow that back down the two miles to our car. The showers had been increasing. We decided to return the way we came. Out of curiosity we climbed to the line of the flagged NFT, and reassured ourselves that it was, indeed, a scant 100 feet or so above the line of the ditch.

Later, with the map in hand (actually, on computer), I would realize we had walked within a half-mile of Upper Clem.

The walk back out was delightful, tho high on Middle Clem it began to really rain, and we arrived at the car a little on the wet side of things.

Such were a few hours in the North Fork along Lake Clementine, trying to make sense out of the County's harebrained scheme to build a road up twelve miles of canyon.


  1. I found this bit of interest:
    Unfortunately, a large house now glorifies its owner on the hilltop directly above, almost dominating the viewshed ...

    I've come to the following conclusion about the innumerable vulture houses surrounding Ukiah and Redwood Valley:
    It is not enough to have a house with grand view, but a desire to be seen by all as having a house with a grand view.

  2. There are a lot of private parcels in and along the rim of the canyon. Russell's property being one of them, I always felt that he was walking a line on the building in the canyon and canyon viewshed issues.
    We do have a wild and scenic river canyon that for the most part is undeveloped and is remarkably beautiful. This wild beauty of the canyon attracts and it is somewhat easy to see someone wanting to have that beauty in their living room, off their decks, yards, etc. Many of these property owners probably also recreate in the canyon enjoying that wild beauty, the canyon is a tremendous asset to our local communities. I've always wondered if these property owners did not understand the impact to that wild beauty that developing in the canyon can have or whether they did not care or consider it a significant impact. I came to realize that Russell was well aware of this when he built his cabin. When hiking in that part of the canyon I'm always impressed with how hard it is to spot the cabin. Even knowing where it is located, I often can not see any sign of it from across canyon. And just a short walk from the cabins you have the amazing views of the canyon (if you just don't look too far to the right and up).
    Even though there are still going to be some property owners that don't really care about the viewshed, some education (and ordinances?) could help reduce the impacts. Good site and material selection would really help in preventing some of the real eyesores in the canyon. On some of the existing development in the canyon I would think that some earthtone paint could go a long ways to reducing their impact.

  3. It's not only the buildings on the private parcels that affect and damage the viewshed; usually way more damaging is the clearing of vegetation--done often to minimize risk of fire losses to those buildings. However, clear-cutting is NOT advisable, and is NOT required by CalFire. Large established trees should NOT be cut; they survive most fires, they anchor the steep slopes, and they provide re-seeding and nursery support for new timber growth if a fire does occur in an area. It is the "ladder fuels" that are to be cut; tall, narrow, crowded conifers, and low-growing shrubs and brush.

    I wish Placer Co. would monitor and enforce both building setback and viewshed ordinances, and perhaps add incentives to property owners to re-grow damaged areas with fire-resistant vegetation. LEAVE THE TREES. Let them protect and nurture the land and the web of wildlife as well as the human lives that share the forest. And let them as much as possible, hide and disguise the human encroachments into these sacred wild canyons.