May 13 (1978, 1982, 1986, 2003, 2006, 2007)
Dogwood ~ The Dangerous ‘Giant Gap Survey’ Trail

5/13/78 saturday morning, in my cabin. the oaks now have their leaves, the iris and the deer brush have begun to bloom, the dogwood is in full bloom, bracken ferns a foot high or so…”

[Russell Towle's journal]

5/13/82 Diffuse clouds filter the light, a most wonderful succession of spring days.

Yesterday I worked on The Article. I hope today, with Mary Henderson's help, to assemble a final draft that I can send to Sierra magazine or…? Don't have a title. A Modern Geomancer visits California's White Mountains?”

[Russell Towle's journal]

May 13, 1986 Morning, spring, partly cloudy. Dave Black should be arriving shortly to hike; the plan is to drop off Bogus Point into Canyon Creek and follow the old mining trail past the waterfalls to the river, prospecting along the way, picking up giant gold nuggets here and there.

Otis and I will be giving a presentation on the Tahoe Forest Plan at the Dutch Flat Community Club Thursday evening I stopped by the Vista to post a notice to that effect and ran into Bob Pfister, and shortly thereafter, Bill Newsom; we had dinner with several bottles of white wine, Chardonnay, sauterne etc. Very nice to see Bill. He and Bob contributed money towards getting a tree person out to see the big oak about the fungal disease showing up near the base.”

[Russell Towle's journal]

Date: Tue, 13 May 2003 10:28:13 -0800
To: North Fork Trails
From: Russell Towle
Subject: Giant Gap Survey comes into focus

Hi all,

Yesterday Ron Gould and I entered Giant Gap from Green Valley, discovered various new sections of the SHOUT, and Ron, at any rate, made it all the way west to Tunnel Gully. It was an amazing adventure. We now have fully agreed that much of the HOUT and its continuation into Giant Gap, the SHOUT, are relicts of the old Giant Gap Survey of the late 1890s and earliest 1900s. The GGS was an attempt to develop the North Fork of the American as a water supply for the City of San Francisco, without any dam for storage here on the North Fork, instead relying upon SF's Crystal Springs reservoir.

One might hope that the Giant Gap Survey had bequeathed us a foot trail through Giant Gap, or one might fear the same thing, and that the World Would Rush In, and this tract of exceptional wilderness and solitude would become a kind of playground. All those hopes and fears can be laid to rest. In Giant Gap, as everywhere along the line of the HOUT and SHOUT, the little bench cuts blasted from the cliffs are discontinuous, and again and again one is forced off the line of the survey, and forced into complicated descents and ascents on extremely steep and dangerous terrain. There is absolutely no hope, without considerable further blasting, that the almost level line of the survey could be made complete and continuous.

We anticipated severe terrain and tough challenges (Ron brought a rope, but we didn't use it). Therefore, expecting cliffs, we contrived to trick my dog, Lucky, in an intricate and perfectly-executed scheme involving the pretense of leaving, one at a time, in both of our trucks, with repeated admonitions that we were "going to school," which is Lucky's code for, "no dogs allowed." We parked a quarter-mile away and snuck down the main Green Valley Trail, whispering and stepping lightly and softly, and were most of the way to the river before we heard a bark of angry triumph far above us, and knew the game was up. Unfortunately, Lucky cannot climb sheer cliffs, so the chances were now much reduced that we might win through to Tunnel Gully—the easternmost point we had reached going in along the HOUT and SHOUT from Canyon Creek.

Taking the High West Trail we hit the river in about an hour. From here a long boulder-hop allows one to work west along the banks for perhaps half a mile downstream, with occasional climbs over small cliffs, where no boulders existed for hopping. Lovers Leap is constantly in view, 2400 feet above. The North Fork was flowing quite high and cold and loud and pretty. It looks to be carrying more water than the Merced, in Yosemite, tho the Merced ought to increase to surpass the North Fork as temperatures warm, and the much larger snowpack in the upper Merced comes into play.

As we approached the Gatepost a little cliff forced us higher and we stayed high and climbed gradually to the line of the Survey. This was Ron's first visit to this end of the Survey, and to the west end of Green Valley, and that remarkable transition from a broad open valley to the closely-paired cliffs of Giant Gap. Ron was duly impressed with the Survey, which after some fits and starts became a continuous narrow bench cut blasted from the solid rock. The terrain, while incredibly steep, was more or less cloaked in groves of ancient gnarled Canyon Live Oaks, and a smattering of smaller shrubs and trees, including some Torreya, and much shrubby Bay Laurel. Wildflowers of many kinds were flourishing, Tufted Poppies and Indian Pinks among them.

Then we entered far steeper cliffs and soon reached the East Tunnel, some seven feet wide and eight or ten feet high, which arcs slightly south over its forty or fifty feet of length, so that one cannot see the end of the tunnel from the entrance. Near here a steeply inclined ramp, infested with brush and poison oak, had appeared to offer a chance to continue. With much difficulty we climbed the ramp, emerging into a sunny opening on dangerously steep and rubbly rock. No chance of proceeding west offered, so we retreated, took another break, and then started down another steep ramp from the line of the Survey. This forced us lower and lower until finally a chance offered to climb back up, and after an intricate sequence of short climbs and traverses, some highly exposed, in the sense that little existed to stop one if one fell, and a few bounces down the plunging cliffs would land you in the raging river two hundred feet below, we regained the Survey. Turning first back to the east, we followed the bench cut to its terminus. It just came to a complete stop. By all our instincts this would have been where the East Tunnel would have broken out onto the cliff face. There may have been as little as forty feet of solid rock between us and the tunnel. Maybe even less.

Turning west, the Survey was reasonably passable, and we reached an amazing section in which a sort of sideways U-shaped passage had been hewn into the solid rock, with overhangs jutting fully ten feet over the narrow path in places. We marveled at this, and the fine view of the Pinnacles almost directly across the gorge, and at the bear bed and sign all along this magical cliff trail. We were also surprised to find a sixteen-foot four-by-four laid along the bench cut where it entered the U-shape overhang section, and was remarkably sound for having endured 102 years of storm and sun. It was protected somewhat by the incredible overhang.

Then, as we had known we must—having looked down upon it from the Pinnacles—we reached a broad gully which has seen many an avalanche of rock and snow, from a source "basin" only a few hundred feet above us. Around 200 feet of bare rock separated us from the continuation of the Survey, visible across the gully to the west; and this bare rock plunged directly down to a final oversteepened cliff above the river, without one tree or shrub to grab in desperation should one slip, and with a multitude of wet areas making what was too steep, in any case, too steep and slippery.

Here the dog was of some use. As I advanced into Avalanche Gully, Lucky would go forward at times, and then come back to me, and I would see that this next ten or twenty feet was not all that bad. What was bad was what would happen if one slipped. If one ignored the near-certain death below and looked only at one's own little immediate neighborhood on the cliff, it was tolerable. We crossed without incident, in a series of traverse and short escalades.

The Survey was beset with gaps and problems ahead, and we were forced down again. By now we had the sense that those who had worked on the Survey had themselves used much the same routes as we had, to bypass the gaps where no blasting had yet eked out a path across the cliffs and monstrous blades of rock infesting this area. As we followed a likely little ramping path down, it suddenly flattened and a vertical cliff faced us across a narrow gully. Two sixteen-foot four-by-fours had been laid across the gap, starting low on our side and rising to a kind of trail cut from the rock above the little cliff.

The lumber was, again, remarkably intact after 102 years, but had rotted and split beyond any possibility of trusting our weight to it. The little cliff was full of good holds and really offered little challenge, but was quite impassable for Lucky. Ron decided to go ahead, and I stayed with the dog. Twenty minutes went by, and I began to worry. The most likely scenario was that Ron had found the Survey again and followed it towards Tunnel Gully. This, judging by the kind of terrain we had recently traversed, might become quite an exercise, and be fairly dangerous. The rock-blade across my little gully blocked any view down the canyon. Another fifteen minutes passed, and the afternoon shadows had visibly lengthened and deepened since Ron had left. I set a stick to mark the line between sun and shadow a few feet away, to keep some kind of grasp upon the passage of time, and began debating whether to follow Ron—out of the question because my dog would literally die trying to follow me—or just wait, and then, when only two hours of daylight remained, hustle back along the Survey and along the river and up the Green Valley Trail to call in Search and Rescue.

Ron suddenly appeared around the corner across my little gully, and paused to take a drink from his water bottle. I called out, "Did you reach Tunnel Gully," to which he replied, "Yes!"

So, the legendary accounts of a kind of high trail through Giant Gap have now been verified. Not only that, Ron found that the tunnel in Tunnel Gully does indeed go all the way through its own rock blade, however, the line of the Survey becomes discontinuous just east of this tunnel, and a rattlesnake buzzed angrily nearby but out of sight, so Ron was forced down, and followed the lower of the two sets of ledges we had seen weeks ago, right around the rock blade and into the gully. He did not climb into the higher area of the gully floor where we had found a series of sloping ledges descending the cliffs on the west side, so there is actually still a little gap in the Giant Gap Survey Trail, a gap of some fifty yards, but there is now no doubt one can win through that very steepest part of Giant Gap, where Lovers Leap Spur flares into a number of large sub-spurs, and where Avalanche Gully not only interrupts the Survey, but even allows no oddly acrobatic alternatives to the Survey, that is, no going higher or going lower offers anything easier or safer.

We took our time retreating east along the fragmented line of Survey and its tortuous connecting "trails." The Trail of the Giant Overhangs is especially charming and we paused there for quite a while. Then the intricacies of our retreat fully engaged us and after a good long time we reached the end of the West Trail and started the long slow slog up and out, arriving at my cabin a little after sunset.

In conclusion, this is a very dangerous route, and very difficult to find and follow. Ron and I were struck by the many many discontinuities in the Survey, but each such gap seems to have had some kind of bizarre or ordinary alternate route. It looks as tho the HOUT, from the Canyon Creek Trail east to Bogus Spur, holds the line of the Survey very well, over the longest distance, but from there east into Giant Gap the line of survey was never or only very locally constructed, and even the alternate routes often dwindle to nothing. As Giant Gap is entered from the west, on the SHOUT, there is no sign of the line of Survey until the short stretch from Lover Leap Ravine on the west to Tunnel Gully on the east appears to at least roughly hew to the desired line. Continuing east, in the section Ron and I explored yesterday, one can see the line of Survey in occasional bench cuts across cliffs, all the way to Pyramid Ravine, near the end of the West Trail. In all this stretch from Tunnel Gully to Green Valley I doubt whether the Survey is intact for as much as a quarter-mile in any one place.

The line of the Giant Gap Survey appears to start around 1950' in elevation at Pyramid Ravine in Green Valley, dropping to about 1850' at the Canyon Creek Trail, making for a grade of roughly twenty feet per mile over the five miles of its course. There is no known continuation west towards Pickering Bar.


Russell Towle

Ice Morning in May
May 13, 2006

May 13, 2007

Wandering Daisy
(Erigeron peregrinus)

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