April 28 (1988, 2001, 2002)
Pelicans & Dudleya ~ From Pacific to Sierra

4/28/88 Morning, fogged in, drippy, a feeble excuse for a storm. Just returned from some time with the computer, trying to find a way to dispense with my “twice-around” counting and measuring of the star, which is used with nested loops to draw various projections; all I really need is once around, but then—oh, it takes too long to tell, and the problem must be extremely simple, but it's solution has escaped me.

I continue to study Latin, and make slow but steady progress, even occasionally buckling down to the memorization of verb-conjugations and pronoun-declensions, which usually results in a marked improvement in my reading skills, and, I'm happy to report, my vocabulary is growing.

Just saw a real first, for all the years I've been here: a flock of white pelicans, flying up the canyon, circling in the thermals which are beginning to flow upwards now that the sun has come out.

Near midday, an eagle zooms to and fro along the canyon rim, scouting ground squirrels, enough sun for thermals to sprout, enough wind to get bumped summarily upwards simply by facing into it…

Evening, sun low and light aslant, I am returned from Colfax with booty, Norris's “Octopus,” and a book of short stories in Spanish, so I can work on it side-by-side with my Latin. Skies closed and cloud-strewn, air cool.

[Russell Towle's journal]

April 28, 2001

Looking up-canyon, east, to the distant Sierra crest, from Moody Ridge. Sawtooth Ridge
is in center. The highest mountain on the left, with snow patches, is Snow Mountain.
Straight up into the clearing sky, serpentine cliff face and a leaning "ghost" pine silhouetted.
(Phacelia egena)
Waterleaf Phacelia
(Phacelia hydrophylloides)
Canyon Live-forever
(Dudleya cymosa)
Stonecrop family (Crassulaceae)

April 28, 2002
From Pacific, to Sierra
by Russell Towle
[This is an essay Russell wrote for the Pacific High School Reunion web site, but to my knowledge it was never completed or sent in. –Gay]

Over the past 30 years I have gradually explored more and more of the great canyon of the North Fork of the American River. It is a Yosemite in slate, without roads, over 3000 feet deep for mile after mile, and despite its proximity to Interstate Highway 80, wild and remote beyond belief.

I first heard of this remarkable canyon from John Hicks, while still fairly closely involved with Pacific. In the spring of 1967 John and I were hitch-hiking up to Pacific from Los Altos. Traffic was sparse on Skyline and we chose to walk. Around half-way to Pacific from the intersection of Page Mill and Skyline, I noticed that Peters Creek—Pacific itself being in the headwaters of this stream, which flows north from the school, parallel to Skyline—Peters Creek bent to the west and disappeared through a narrow gap in a ridge.

A certain set of cliffs, visible from Alpine Road on the drive down to the Hobson's place, had beguiled me for over a year, and my efforts to find them had failed. Suddenly this very ridge, and its narrow gap, seemed a possible location for my fabled and elusive cliffs. John and I contoured along a cow trail over grassy open hillsides north of the creek. As we approached the crest of the ridge, we saw storm-blasted, stunted Douglas Fir trees, and dense groves of flowering manzanita. A peculiar perfume was lofted in the rapidly warming air. It was sweet and spicy and we could almost smell sun-baked rock. "It smells like the Sierra," I said. For me "the Sierra" was a combination of sunny granite domes, waterfalls, and that awesome and mysterious wall one sees from Highway 395 near Lone Pine, a wall 10,000 feet high and impossibly steep.

John agreed about the Sierran smell. We started talking about the great Sierra Nevada. I sketched out my own impressions, and then John surprised me a bit. He said that he and his brothers went up to "Dutch Flat" every summer, and hiked into the North Fork American canyon, to a place called the Royal Gorge, where they would fish and swim and explore, camping out for several days at a time. I had never heard of this Royal Gorge, nor of the American River, nor Dutch Flat. I remember that I pursued the matter far enough to determine that there were no granite domes, but that it was very wild. In fact, I remember being a little piqued, and being very sure that John Hicks' Sierra Nevada could never match up to my own Yosemite-plus-Owens-Valley Sierra Nevada.

A few more steps through the sun-steeped manzanita brought us to the top of the cliffs, where a large piton was driven into the sandstone, and an "S" for "Stanford" was carved into the rock; I would learn that a Stanford rock-climbing club practiced there. At long last I had found "The Cliffs." They faced into a deepish canyon, with sun and rock and manzanita on our side, and a dense forest of Douglas Fir on the far side. It was really quite the vegetational contrast and inspired an interest in biogeography and microclimate which persists to this day.

Later I saw the topographic map for that area, and found that this little gorge-like area is called Devils Canyon. Peters Creek descends in a series of waterfalls, as it breaks the plane of The Cliffs' steeply tilted strata. The Cliffs are riddled with caves, most being solution pockets in the sandstone, some intricately etched into a kind of sandstone lace. One, near a waterfall, we came to call "The Cave." Some of the caves, I later learned, were dug for Indian artifacts about a hundred years ago. It is really quite the magical place, and I ended up spending a lot of time there. In later years I made two traverses of the Santa Cruz mountains, from Los Altos to Año Nuevo Point, and also in reverse order, both traverses partly by way of Peters Creek. Peters Creek is a tributary of Pescadero Creek; their confluence is inside Portola State Park.

A few years later, two houses were built on the line of the trail leading from Skyline to The Cliffs. This has always seemed a tragedy to me. If there was ever a candidate for open space zoning, it was there, around those cliffs and waterfalls, so close to Skyline. I have not been there since, oh, perhaps 1975.

The discovery of The Cliffs, then, was epochal, within the narrow scope of my drug-enhanced (?) life at the time. It has always seemed a strange coincidence that on the day of the discovery of these Sierra-smelling rocks, I would also first hear of the canyon which was to challenge and inspire me over so much of my life. Within five years of the day John told me about the Royal Gorge, I saw it from a distance, for myself. Every year since then (spring of 1972) I have visited some part or another of the great canyon, of the one and only canyon which, historically, was known as "the" American River Canyon.

My acquaintance with the American River Canyon began in the North Fork's headwaters, an amphitheater-like basin nestled along the crest of the Sierra between the Sugar Bowl and Squaw Valley ski areas. Neither of these commercial ski areas penetrates the North Fork basin itself. This part of the Sierra is sometimes called the Central Sierra, or the Northern Sierra, and is characterized by nearly horizontal layers of young volcanic rocks on the ridgecrests, with the vastly older granitic and metamorphic bedrock exposed in the canyons between those ridges. The ridge-tops, then, tend to have fairly flat profiles; there is considerably less relief and variety of landform, say, than one becomes accustomed to around Yosemite and points south. The flat ridge-crests are remnants of a generalized volcanic plateau, which slopes gently to the southwest, and all the canyons were incised into this sloping volcanic plateau.

It is a bit of a subtlety, but there are really two landscapes here, or perhaps we should say, three landscapes: there is an ancient landscape of rolling hills with Appalachian-style parallel ridges, eroded into the Paleozoic and Mesozoic "bedrock" over many millions of years. Then this old erosion surface was buried by the young volcanics, leaving a plateau with only a few of the highest ridges of the older bedrock landscape poking up through a mess of coalescing andesitic mudflows. Finally, around six million years ago, the effusions of volcanics slowed considerably, and our present landscape, of deep canyons between flat-topped ridges, began to take shape. The incision of the modern canyons was accelerated by repeated episodes of glaciation. The subject of glaciation on these western slopes of the Northern Sierra has much exercised me over the last few decades.

This part of the Sierra was especially impacted by the advent of European civilization. The Gold Rush almost instantly obliterated the native Indian culture and population, these people being known to us as the Nisenan Maidu and, a little to the south, the Miwok. Construction of the Central Pacific Railroad, in the 1860s, led to the almost incredible government land grants, in which every other square mile of public land, for miles to either side of the tracks, was deeded to the Central Pacific. Rather suddenly the rich old-growth forests cloaking the uplands in the middle elevations found a way to market, and were cut down wholesale. The railroad lands in the high country, with a scantier growth of smaller trees, and more difficult access, were, in comparison, left undisturbed. Thus, when I arrived on the scene in 1972, there were fairly large areas of semi-wilderness in the uplands of the higher elevations, while the North Fork canyon itself was almost savagely pristine. As a measure of how very wild is this canyon, note that from its headwaters along the Sierra crest, for 35 miles downstream, it is crossed by only one road, and that, rough and unpaved.

I remember thinking, then, in the early 70s, that the area would likely remain wild and undisturbed. For one thing, as California's large population increased—I reasoned—wild lands and open space would become ever more precious. Plus, there was talk of creating a North Fork American Wilderness Area, and a North Fork American Wild & Scenic River. I sent my letters of support for the North Fork American Wilderness, for Wild & Scenic River designation, and attended Placer County's zoning hearings, speaking on behalf of protecting the North Fork canyon, and its views. I hoped for the best and felt I had honored my obligations as a citizen, by partaking in the political process.

How wrong I was! Reagan was elected president, and suddenly Tahoe National Forest was under orders to cut timber—lots of timber. At the same time, the curse of corporate takeovers struck the Southern Pacific Railroad (it had purchased the old Central Pacific many decades before), and in a fit of fear, Southern Pacific sold off its land holdings. Most of this railroad land found its way into the hands of lumber companies, most notably, Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI).

At roughly the same time, lands flanking one of the most scenic parts of the great canyon, near Dutch Flat, were illegally subdivided. As surely as there was no compunction about blocking public access to The Cliffs, by those who built the houses near there in the early 70s, and no thought about the impact upon the viewshed, but only on how wonderful their own personal views would be, so also here. Consider the famed Giant Gap and Lovers Leap, where cliffs of metavolcanic rock soar almost 2500 feet above the river, and are shaped into pinnacles and knife-edge ridges more reminiscent of alpine terrain, than of the middle elevations. Here golden eagles were wont to nest and could be seen any day gliding past the dizzy cliffs. Various scenic overlooks offered the general public views of Giant Gap and Lovers Leap, why, even the Maidu had located one of their principal villages in that area, with a view of Giant Gap. It was one of the crown jewels of Placer County, until the real estate speculators arrived.

It is hard to find an eagle in Giant Gap any more. Turkey vultures there are a-plenty, and houses built on the rim of the canyon, feasting on the dying viewshed. These houses can be spotted from the Sierra crest, thirty miles up the canyon. Clear-cuts scar the landscape, many partially hidden behind tenuous screens of trees. As all this unfolded before my eyes, in the late 1970s and 1980s, and 1990s, I began a more intense effort at North Fork American advocacy. This effort has been rewarded, mainly, with failure. If I were to confess how much time I have lavished upon the cause of this worthy canyon, it would only emphasize the futility of my work, and what a very bad job I have done.

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