thunderheads near the sierra crest. afternoon shadows lengthen.”
[Russell Towle's journal]
Visit to Canyon Creek; the HOUT
[North Fork Trails blogpost, June 10, 2004:Yesterday I met Catherine O'Riley for a hike on our beloved Canyon Creek Trail. After the thunderstorms and rain of the day before, Wednesday dawned cool under a general overcast, but by ten in the morning the clouds had parted into fair-weather cumulus, of which there were many, but all in all giving much more sun than shadow. It was in fact the perfect spring day.
We were delayed for a time while I learned the bad news about the family Subaru from Randy of Dutch Flat Motors. A rather modest dent would require some thousands to repair; and worse, Randy was not equipped to do the work. Randy is a jovial man, on the large side, now favoring hoggish Harley Davidsons, but once upon a time a racing bicyclist, who competed in the 1972 Olympics, at Munich.
We used our usual secret road into the Diggings and drove a mile or so to the trailhead in Potato Ravine. The Gold Run Diggings is a vast complex of hydraulic mines, once an irregular tiling of dozens of discrete claims, but over time some 800 acres fell into the ownership of one James Stewart, a friend of Jack London and Franklin Delano Roosevelt; except that a number of worked-out claims in the southern part of the Diggings had lapsed back into public lands, now managed by the BLM. For years many of us have urged the BLM to try to purchase ever so much of the 800 acres as possible; for a number of important trails, historical sites, and paleobotanical resources span the irregular boundary between private and public lands, there to the south.
In recognition of this most-remarkable part of the Diggings, when Congress designated the North Fork American a Wild & Scenic River, in 1978, they created a special "Gold Run Addition" to the W&SR corridor, which extends fully a mile north of the river, well into the Diggings. The BLM was directed to acquire the private inholdings within this special area; but the owners were not willing sellers, and nothing could be done.
The 800 acres has been for sale for the last few years. Time for the BLM and act, swiftly, decisively! But no. There is no money. Land trades have become difficult to execute. And now we learn that a credible offer has been received on the 800 acres, by someone desiring a "private reserve," and the owners have made a counter-offer. I have been afraid to call the one owner with whom I am acquainted, for fear that disaster has already struck, and the sale is in escrow.
We set off down the trail, winding out of Potato Ravine on the Indiana Hill Ditch (which, in testimony recorded during the 1881 trial, State of California vs. the Gold Run Ditch & Mining Company, we learn was completed on September 13, 1852), and then dropping away south and east to closely parallel Canyon Creek. For a time we were on BLM lands, then crossing onto a part of the 800 acres, which runs right down to the North Fork itself. We made rapid progress down the trail, across the little bridge, stopping briefly at the first large waterfall, and enjoying the late-season wildflowers.
Notable among these were the Two-Lobed Clarkia, Harvest Brodiaea, a species of Lotus, a species of Madia, and the very last of the Bush Monkeyflower. The bloom this warm and dry spring has been pushed forward nearly a month, so many species which would still make a fine display, have already shed their flowers and set seed.
We passed the Rock Slide and were on the steep slopes above the Big Waterfall when a family of Canyon Wrens caught our eye. They were foraging for insects among a jumble of rocks, not singing at all, but busily poking into every tiny cave and crevice. These birds are a rusty brown with a creamy breast, pert wren trails, and a curved beak. Their wild lilting descending sequence of notes is a classic ornament on cliffs and in canyons, in the Sierra and elsewhere.
Then to our amazement one of the mysterious white racing pigeons which had taken up residence near the Big Waterfall, winter-before-last, soared into view, disappearing towards the waterfall, then circling back and sweeping away south into the main North Fork.
We decided to break away east on the HOUT (High Old Upriver Trail), a strangely level thread of a path which can be followed miles up the canyon into the heart of Giant Gap. It is a relict of the Giant Gap Survey, a scheme of a hundred years past to divert waters of the North Fork for San Francisco's water supply. The schemers put men at work to rough in the line of the proposed canal, and they dutifully blasted out narrow ledges from the cliffs, and drove a couple of tunnels through the flaring rock spurs below Lovers Leap.
The clouds had gradually increased in size and their shadows drifted across the cliffs all around us. The views east, of Lovers Leap and the Pinnacles, which opened occasionally to our admiring eyes, were made even more dramatic and lovely by the fluffy clouds. These clouds seemed to swell higher before our eyes, and for most of the day, we felt a kind of restless excitement, at the prospect that a fully-blown thunderstorm might develop. To which we only said, bring it on!
At a certain point, nearly a mile east from the CCT, a fork is reached, where one can either hew to the line of the Survey (the HOUT), or drop away east and down to the North Fork, just shy of massive Big West Spur, which might be more esthetically named Castle Spur, in honor of a fine large conical mass of bare rock adorning its summit, a thousand feet above the river. The river makes a funny kind of square turn around the base of this spur ridge before turning again to bear nearly west to Canyon Creek. A large expanse of large boulders occupies the outside of this last big bend in the river; all the boulders look to derive from the steep slopes in the immediate area, being various types of metavolcanic rock of the late-Paleozoic Calaveras Complex.
We took a long lunch break here amid the boulders, which at the base of the little trail contain some level pockets of sand. The river was sparkling clear, moderately cold, and moving along quite nicely. Across from us and a ways upstream, a gigantic boulder reared up ten or fifteen feet above the water, and a little clump of moss caught my eye. I pointed it out to Catherine, remarking it looked much like what I had thought to be an extraordinary Water Ouzel nest, on a mid-river boulder, up in the Royal Gorge. These ouzels a like large grey wrens and dive right into the river, foraging for insects etc. underwater. They zoom up and down the river itself, a foot or so above the water, and have a rippling, chattering, random song which hardly sounds like a song at all. John Muir's favorite bird. And they nest, almost always, in the spray of waterfalls, making a hollow ball of moss and such, which a downward-sloping entrance, often impossible to see unless the birds are actually going in our out.
That's a water ouzel's nest. But I had seen that one rarely strange nest in the Royal Gorge, like some kind of miniature wigwam, perched atop a boulder. Here, perhaps, another, and I might have to stop thinking of such an ouzel nest as so rare or unusual. We went to investigate, hopping from boulder to boulder to boulder to a last boulder almost at mid-stream, only forty or fifty feet from the Big Boulder. The truth could not be denied. It was an ouzel nest, the rock near the entrance streaked with white excrement. The entrance was plain to see, opening to the west, downstream. The nest was about six feet above the water, on a ledge.
Swallows were zooming around, but there were no ouzels visiting the nest. The young must have been already fledged, several weeks ago perhaps. After a time we started back.
I placed my right foot on a polished little boss of stone and with my usual casual expertise made a leap to the next boulder. Then, with all the grace of a ballet dancer, I slipped and turned, in slow motion as it seemed, and made what amounted to a swan dive right into the North Fork. I remember seeing a boulder underwater as my face slammed down, and darting my hands down to break my fall. Boulders to either side bruised my hips as I plunged fully and completely into the river, but I kept my face safe. It was complete submersion, a total soaking from head to toe.
Standing up, the bruises almost incapacitated me; it felt as though I had pulled the muscles; I could really barely stand, and made a slow and awkward business of climbing out of the water.
After a minute I could move again, and used much more caution than usual in hopping back to the main boulder-field and our sand hollow.
I had a long-sleeved shirt to change into and just wore my blue jeans dry. Actually, they're still drying, right outside on my porch.
After a time we decided to follow an old miners' trail up the river to the first square corner of the base of Big West Spur. As we hopped along, I tested my bruises and kept up a decent pace and felt reassured that I was, after all, OK. Then a holler was heard. I looked back; no Catherine. What; a rattlesnake? A strange flower, a rare frog? What could make her holler like that? I retreated a dozen yards and she came in view, dripping water.
It was a double baptism, then, into the North Fork; except, Catherine had not equalled my own total submersion, only managing a modest three-quarters. We can now justly claim admission into the ranks of those hardy souls who swim the North Fork in spring.
So we squished along in our wet shoes and reached our square corner, a ways up above the river on a cliff, admiring the narrow gorge there, and the deep pools, and remembering a few years past when we had scrambled and swum Giant Gap, with Chris Schiller, and had finally left the swimming behind, at just this point, just this sunny bar of rounded boulders, a hundred feet below us.
Eventually it was time to start back, and we took it pretty easy, as is best after all, reaching Catherine's truck around six p.m.
Such was another fine day on the North Fork.
[North Fork Trails blogpost, June 10, 2005:Thursday morning the rain slacked off and the sun peeked through, so it was deemed time to drive up the Foresthill Road and, by hook or by crook, hike north to the cliffs above the Point of Beginning, or Point of Ending, of the Iowa Hill Canal. I do not know how to name these cliffs. They are on the divide between Tadpole Canyon, on the west, and New York Canyon, on the east, and stand a little over 3000 feet above the North Fork.
Ron and Catherine & I met and made the twisting odyssey across the North Fork on Ponderosa Road. Turning left, we followed up the Foresthill Divide past the Beacroft Trail and Ford Point to where snow still blocks the road, just shy of Canada Hill, at around 6400' elevation. We put on gaiters and packs and tromped off over patchy snow to the north, following a road which only occasionally could be seen. We were hugging the west rim of New York Canyon.
At times we walked through pure stands of Red Fir, with bright yellow-green Staghorn Lichen coating their trunks down to about six or ten feet above the ground; this would seem to be the average depth of the snow-pack, in such groves. Perhaps the lower parts of their trunks are subjected to scouring by wind-blown snow, and the lichen can't stand up to the punishment.
At other times we ranged closer to the steeps of New York Canyon, where brush and Sugar and Jeffrey pines were more dominant.
We began to see thin fog gathering over the little snowfields in the deep woods; wherever some shelter from wind allowed time for the moist air-mass to be chilled by the snow, it was plunged below the dew point and began condensing into fog.
So there was fog and cloud above, below, and all around us. The snow made for easy walking, being dense and fairly firm. There was much dirt and pollen and woody debris and the red bloom of algae on the snowfields.
The USGS's David Harwood mapped this area in 1993. He defined and described the Barney Cavanaugh Ridge Formation as follows:
"Devonian? to Ordivician?—Purple, green and gray slate interbedded with white-weathering, greenish-gray, parallel- and cross-laminated, fine-grained, quartz sandstone and quartz-rich siltstone; contains chaotic zones as thick as several hundred meters of disrupted quartz sandstone and siltstone in purple slate matrix; large blocks of gray ribbon chert, quartzite, and quartz-granule conglomerate occur in chaotic zones. Maximum thickness 500 meters."
At the cliffs, we were immediately amazed by the appearance of the big waterfall in lower Big Valley Canyon; from this new vantage we could see the top of the falls, but not the bottom, and tho difficult to estimate, I would not be surprised were it to measure 150 feet in height, maybe a little more.
This waterfall has to rank along with the biggest and best in all the North Fork.
But perhaps more startling were the other falls which came into view on the west wall of Big Valley, farther up its canyon. There was one thin stripe of whitewater which must have been hundreds of feet high. And higher, in the west fork of Big Valley, we saw another large waterfall, spreading fan-like over a steep cliff. The upper 500 feet of 3500-foot Big Valley Bluff was hidden in clouds.
Fog and clouds boiled everywhere. The river was visible directly below us, and here and there down the canyon streaks of silver showed it again and again. Away west the sun was shining. It was a spectacle of great beauty, constantly changing. Some 600 feet below, at the base of these cliffs, we could see little patches of the Iowa Hill Canal. We climbed out onto narrow rocky points, wet and slippery with their mosses and lichens. The chartreuse rock lichen was much in evidence. And while roaming east along the cliff-tops, we found some old gold mines, where quartz veins had been stoped out at the surface, in one place leaving a strange channel, cut twenty feet deep and four to six feet wide, in the gray ribbon chert.
To my dismay, roads had been cut down to these cliff-tops at several places. Checking my 1976 map of the North Fork American Roadless Area, I saw that the line had been drawn right at the cliff-tops; so the roads likely date back to the 1960s. They ought to be permanently closed well above the cliffs.
I had hoped that we could work our way east to a view of the New York Canyon 500-foot waterfall, but while at the Tadpole Point cliffs, a ray of sunshine hit the brushfields below and west, where we had been stopped a week ago, walking east on the Iowa Hill Canal from Beacroft Pass. Fog instantly boiled up and wafted past us. Charming! Mystic!
But it grew thicker and thicker until we were utterly encased and could scarcely see a hundred yards. Some invisible metereological boundary had been crossed, and rather than lifting and clearing, the clouds lowered, it began raining lightly, and our canyon views were almost lost completely.
So in a fit of prudence we turned south and soon struck one of the pesky roads. This we followed higher and higher over deeper and deeper snow. At a certain point we found a Jeep Wagoneer which had been abandoned last fall. It had slid off the road, perhaps in a bit of snow. All kinds of gear was inside. The back window was broken out. Despite this, everything inside looked fairly dry and intact. Soon, I think, a bear will take care of that little anomaly.
Following the road, it eventually proved to be the Wrong Way, so we struck up through the Red Fir forest a few hundred yards east and hit our smaller road of our ingress, a few hours earlier. We were near a series of clearcuts on Tahoe National Forest lands which drape below the canyon rim of the main western tributary to the West Fork of New York Canyon. These clearcuts look fairly old—twenty years?—but show close to zero regeneration.
I don't want to put too fine a point on it: these cliffs form one of the greatest of all the amazing scenic overlooks in the North Fork canyon.
We slogged along over snow for a good while and reached the car about eight p.m., and were soon fogging up the windows with our wet clothes, and slowly zooming southwest. We stopped at Ford Point to drive down the ridge for a look at the Secret Canyon ditch, a tributary to the Iowa Hill Canal. We found that a logging road had been cut directly into the line of the ditch. There seemed to be some prospect that the ditch continued intact, going up Secret Canyon, but more exploration is needed.
All these old mining ditches were used as trails in the olden days; they often were critical parts of the whole complex of trails. So soon as they fell out of use, and wildfires consumed the wooden flumes which once spanned cliffy sections and small gorges, their use as trails was much reduced.
It seems obvious to me that many of these old mining ditches could once again become foot trails. Could, and should. Whether the berms could tolerate equestrian or mountain-bike use would have to be decided on a case-by-case basis.
While in the Ford Point area we were treated to a glory of reds and golds and pinks as the sun set into swirling clouds and fog. It was totally awesome.
Such was another visit to the great canyon, or as it was often named in the 19th century, The Great American Canyon.