February 23 (1987, 2004, 2005, 2007)
Pondering on Moss

2/23/87    Sunny morning after a dusting of snow overnight. Today I will go to Nevada City to meet with TNF officials; and I should call a certain reporter from the Roseville Sun, who wants to interview me for an article about the ‘Big Oak’ [a certain mammoth California Black Oak tree (Quercus kelloggii) approximately 300 years old, on Moody Ridge near Lovers Leap]; and make a call to C & C about their new stove; and who knows what else. ...

Fog swirling blue in the canyon, Bewick wrens busy with their reedy screams, followed by staccato chirpings; steller jays hopping arrogantly from branch to branch; grey squirrels preening and scolding; band-tailed pigeons making dramatic swooping careening flights en masse, seemingly governed by some sort of random-number subroutine, for even to purposely avoid rhyme or reason could not effect such apparently aimless behavior. It's just play, the joy of flying.”

[Russell Towle's journal]

Of Moss and Men
[North Fork Trails blog post, Monday, February 23, 2004:
http://northforktrails.blogspot.com/2004/02/of-moss-and-men.html ]
Ribbon waterfalls decorate
the south canyon wall during
periods of heavy rainfall
Over recent weeks I have made quite a number of visits to the Gold Run Diggings, the Canyon Creek Trail (CCT), and the HOUT (High Old Upriver Trail). On several occasions I have hiked from the end of Garrett Road to the Secret World and beyond, to the Indiana Hill Ditch. There are rarely fine views into the North Fork canyon and Giant Gap from that area. Since the late 1970s I have dreamed of a "Giant Gap" trail connecting Lovers Leap to the Gold Run Diggings at the end of Garrett. The idea arose during hikes along the canyon rim west of Lovers Leap, where a small mining ditch makes an almost level trail. From this old ditch one can look directly down to the river in Giant Gap, and across the canyon to the Pinnacles, and southwest to Iowa Hill.

Unfortunately, there are about ten private parcels along the rim of the canyon west of Lovers Leap. These parcels account for but a small fraction of the distance between the Leap and Garrett, the rest being almost all BLM land, but several of the parcels drape across the line of the ditch. Suppose the parcels were all for sale and the BLM had a ton of money: then buy them, buy them all, even at absurdly high prices, they'd be more than worth it.

For, these are "view" parcels, and it should be regarded as a certainty that some or even all of them will sprout the usual monuments to egotism, large houses with large fire breaks, the fire breaks allowing the houses the widest and deepest of views. Right now, this part of the canyon rim, best seen from near Iowa Hill and Roach Hill and Giant Gap Ridge, is still of a perfectly natural appearance. Were we to have any respect for our heritage and for future generations, we would make sure that this view remained perfectly natural.

A portion of the Indiana Hill ditch
The remarkable views of Giant Gap from near the head of the Pickering Bar Trail could also be impacted by construction on some of these view parcels.

The Indiana Hill Ditch was completed on September 13, 1852. It would, I always thought, make for a wonderful trail. It could be a part of the Giant Gap Trail. Its terminus is a small mining reservoir perched above the Secret World. Following the ditch east from there, it bends around to the north. It is infested with heavy brush. For years my friends and I kept a small path open along the ditch; for a time, it was the best way to get in to the Canyon Creek Trail. Since the upper end of the CCT has been opened to Potato Ravine, the ditch has not been needed. The bushes have grown and closed our narrow gaps. Recently, I have made a more careful investigation of the ditch. I find that the berm is broken down in many places, and that, even if it were cleared of brush, it would not be in good shape for much use as a trail. It is of sufficient historical importance, and scenic and recreational value, to deserve special care. With some work, it could be stabilized for use as a foot trail.

Canyon Creek and its confluence with the N. Fk. American, glimpsed
through brush along the Indiana Hill ditch.
Howsoever, it is a wonder. From a certain point along the ditch, one can look directly down Canyon Creek to its confluence with the North Fork. I was there last Wednesday, after days of sustained heavy rainstorms, and Canyon Creek was a raging roaring river in its own right. I could see the creek itself over much of the reach from just below the Big Waterfall to the North Fork. Amazing!

Blue Dicks
(Dichelostemma capitatum)
Several species of early-blooming wildflowers have appeared. The first blooms are always near The Terraces, one of the camps used by the men who used to work the sluice boxes in Canyon Creek, in the 1870s. This camp site was undoubtedly selected for its warm microclimate. I have often seen California Milkmaids in bloom there in early January. This year, what with the coldness of the weather, the Milkmaids appeared a week or so later than usual.
Biscuit root, (early, tiny budding flowers)
(Foeniculum vulgare)
At Gorge Point on the Canyon Creek Trail, Biscuit Root and Brewer's Rock Cress are now flowering. In the meantime, dozens of Milkmaids have appeared along the lower reaches of the CCT. And on the HOUT, last Saturday, I saw my first Blue Dicks of the season, along with a few Biscuit Roots and some really small guys I didn't recognize.

I used the Paleobotanist Trail, from the Bluffs off Garrett Road, to reach the CCT. This adds nearly a mile, and makes a hike on the HOUT a fairly long affair. Canyon Creek had settled into a medium to medium-high flow, enough to make The Leaper, a waterfall which eagerly rises before falling into its own little chasm, rather bold and noisy. In fact, the sound of the waterfalls along the CCT was everywhere quite loud; various hissings, thunderings, and low, almost cyclic bass-drum boomings reverberating from within the Inner Gorge.

Paleobotanist Trail, connecting with the Canyon Creek Trail. Russ marked the parking spot off Garrett Rd. with a black circle. Since then (and as of this date in 2014) that parking area has been blocked off. To access the trail now, continue on Garrett making the right angle bend, and park on the road shoulder.
A mile east on the HOUT carries one past Bogus Gully to a fine viewpoint. The North Fork swirls in emerald and white a couple hundred feet below, while Giant Gap frames the eastern sky. Just a few yards beyond this viewpoint is another, similar, but with the whole stretch of the North Fork up to Big West Spur in view. Awesome.

Rain showers had come and gone all day, and as the clouds seemed to gather and darken, I retreated. Wondering whether I might find some short-cut up to a higher point on the CCT, I left the HOUT early and followed a deer trail up. Soon enough I was scrambling across rock outcrops and ducking under oak and manzanita.

The canyon wall there faces south, and catches a lot of sun, and has much exposed rock. Woody vegetation is somewhat sparse, dominated by Canyon Live Oak, Digger Pine, and various brushy species, like White Manzanita, Toyon, Buckbrush, Mountain Mahogany*, and Silktassel*. There are many grassy areas, and many mossy areas, which last present an interesting subject in themselves.

Along the Indiana Hill ditch
There is a species of coarse moss--I think it is a type of club moss*, but may be mistaken--which colonizes many slopes. It knits together fine material which passes for soil, and in places, this sheath of coarse moss covers talus slides (elsewhere it covers solid rock). Hidden from our view are underground galleries, where mice and other rodents have their little dens, as do snakes.

To what extent does the nitrogen from these animals' excrement fertilize and sustain the sheathing masses of moss?

This moss--when I say it knits its quasi-soil together, I mean, it knits it very tightly together, so that a shovel would have trouble cutting it, and if one tore away at it, it would come up in chunks.

One sees at first glance that these moss-sheaths, somehow, some way, are terraced, like so many miniature rice paddies. Small areas of mineral soil, a few inches or a foot across, lie perfectly flat, held up by walls of moss. How do these areas arise? Why are they free of moss?

At times, looking over a moss-sheath, the quasi-soil bound by the moss seems much as though it had flowed into position, or been built up like travertine around a hot spring.

I am tempted to believe that it literally has flowed into position, and has been built up "like travertine." I believe these moss-sheaths may be thousands of years old, and that they are indeed constantly fertilized by excrements, but that, perhaps, it is wildfires which are most critical to their development.

For, a good wildfire will leave deposits of ashes on the steep slopes, and these will be mobilized by rain storms, and work their way down the slopes. At the same time, the thin soils on these steep slopes will become exposed to higher-than-ordinary rates of erosion after wildfires, and the soils too will wash downwards.

In the meantime, whatever moss colonies exist, having, let's say, survived the fire (because they are in an especially rocky, untreed, unshrubbed area)--these moss colonies tend to trap and slow down the sediments and ashes. So the mossy areas expand. Slowly.

So far as the little bare-soiled mini-terraces in the moss-fields: could these represent the traffic of animals of all sorts, over the long term? Does a deer or a bear or a fox or a bobcat or a human tend to step in some certain places, and those certain places become moss-terraces? Maybe.

On Saturday, while struggling along on my supposed short-cut, I came to a neat little cliff, all sheathed in moss, with a clump of poison oak leaning out over the top. It was the easiest way to continue on my short-cut. As I debated which sequence of moss-terraces to use for my hand- and toe-holds, I saw one sloping moss-terrace--an oddity--right at the base of the cliff. I realized, suddenly, that this one barren spot was exactly where bears, for who knows how long, hundreds, thousands of years, have made their first step onto the cliff from the ground below.

Soon enough I was at the top of the little cliff, and ducked my head and bulled through the poison oak, and angled up and west, up and west, and reached some really fine cliffy viewpoints, just before crossing a rocky ridge to the Canyon Creek Trail. The last few hundred yards were really rough going, and could never make any kind of short-cut to the HOUT. Perhaps a lower line might work instead.

So, I have been out in sun and storm, watched flowers gradually come into bloom, listened to waterfalls, enjoyed many fine views, and pondered moss-travertine deposits. And last Saturday, I found the Paleobotanist Trail blocked by fallen trees in two places, and this morning, carried my saw through the dripping forest at The Bluffs and on down the trail, and cut through the trees, rolling the logs away.

It is clear that Spring is on its way, and I hear, from a bird-watching friend, that hundreds of robins, and hawks of many kinds, and eagles, have been seen migrating upslope and northeast, in the canyon down near Auburn.

*Links to Cal Photos images for more of the plants mentioned:

Club moss (Lycopodium sitchense):


Silk tassel (Garrya buxifolia):


Mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus betuloides):

Date: Feb 23 2005
To: Daniel
From: Russell Towle
Subject: RE: Lost Camp- China Trail?
>Hello Russell- I am interested in visiting "Lost Camp", China Trail. I read the article on Lost Camp & would like to visit the area in the near future. The article stated that there might have been a Stamp Mill built near the Grizzly Mine? Is there a Stamp Mill, was a Stamp Mill ever erected? Please advise & add me to your email list. Thanks-Dan   
PS- Where did gain so much knowledge on Geology??? I'm impressed!!!!!
Hey Dan, thanks for your note, I added you to the email list.

OK. Lost Camp. Right now snow might get in your way; the Camp is below 5000' so probably free of snow, but the road down from Blue Canyon is above 5000', and may have some snow.

What, is it the Westville 7.5 minute quad? That, and a good sense of terrain and where you are on the map, will take you through Lost Camp to the unmarked trailhead. The trail shows on the map. It's a pretty easy trail, for these canyons.

Unfortunately a large and violent timber harvest has been approved at Lost Camp. We (email list) fought it and lost. So I am almost afraid to go there.

So far as stamp mills: we have a couple of things going on at Lost Camp.

1. Eocene-age river channel: hydraulic mines and drift mines. Not impossible that a stamp mill was used to crush cemented "Blue Lead" gravel, but not especially likely.

2. Gold-bearing quartz veins. There are hard-rock mines in the near vicinity of Lost Camp. One of these, the Red Rock Mine, had a stamp mill. It appears to have been dragged out of there by a bulldozer around 30 or 40 years ago. Portions of the ore-processing equipment are still scattered at the site in --- Canyon. Including an ore cart.

But I don't know you. Are you the sort of person who hauls artifacts away? I wouldn't want to give away the locations of mining equipment to someone who hauls it away.

So far as geology, there's precious little I do know, and an infinite amount I don't know. But if you study a subject on and off for 40 years, something really ought to stick. And my approach to subjects like that is, “make it personal.”

That is, I don't study the abstraction, Geology, so much as I study its particular local expression: the Geology of the North Fork American. Same with plants or with history.

How about you? Study much geology? Where are you, anyway, Dan?


Russell Towle

Pink Snow Sunset 
23 February 2007

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