June 18 (1988, 2006, 2008)
All Forebodings Essentially Good

6/18/88 It is sweet beyond all words to awake to the tender caroling was of young grosbeaks, the murmured racketing of acorn woodpeckers. So I awoke today, thus I dimly decided while half-awake that all forebodings were essentially good, and while coffee sped drugs through my blood trembling grosbeak whistles touched off reverberations of Gershwin, until finally it seemed fit to sit and batter these keys into some awkward semblance of the Nature of Things.”
[Russell Towle's journal]

Sugar Pine Point
[North Fork Trails blogpost, June 18, 2006:
http://northforktrails.blogspot.com/2006/06/sugar-pine-point.html ]
Saturday's visit to Sugar Pine Point, with the Redbud Chapter of the CA Native Plant Society, was a success. Something like twenty people showed up at Yuba Gap, raring to go someplace wild (but not too wild) with the "legendary" Russell Towle.

Rattlesnake Orchid
(Goodyera oblongifolia)

Having much interest in our native plants, it is a treat to go out with so many knowledgeable people. Karen Callahan, John Krogsrud, and others were able to identify about everything we found in bloom, including: three species of violet, a faint purple cloud of tiny Collinsia painting a sunny meadow, various Penstemon, Calochortus, Coral Root Orchid, Rattlesnake Orchid, Pyrola, Lewisia kelloggii, and some few others. The bloom is only beginning there, at about 5500'.

Sugar Pine Point is where the ridge dividing Big Valley on the west from Little Granite Creek on the east is truncated by the mammoth canyon of the North Fork American. Here, the canyon runs about 3500 feet deep. The SPP ridge stems from the Yuba-American Divide, and runs south a few miles before being truncated by the North Fork; in fact, it forms a classic example of the "glacially-truncated spur ridge," of geomorphology. To the north it is just west of the Loch Leven Lakes.

For a couple miles it runs along level, south of Pelham Flat, and in this reach of the ridge, all slathered with glacial till and even a few weak moraines, well, beneath the glacial veneer, is the Pink Welded Tuff (rhyolite), in a more or less horizontal stratum maybe fifty feet thick, and here as at the head of Palisade Creek, it withstood the ice rather magnificently.

Usually it is not visible, here, the glacial till covering it. It is Oligocene in age. The USGS's David Harwood described it as “Densely welded pink to lavender rhyolite tuff probably equivalent to the Nine Hills Tuff; contains scattered phenocrysts of clear sanidine and lesser amounts of plagioclase, quartz, and hornblende in fine-grained tuffaceous matrix that contains elongate cavities lined with amorphous silica. Potassium-argon age of the Nine Hill Tuff is 24.3 Ma. Maximum thickness 15 m.”

Beneath this Pink Welded Tuff is a less-welded unit of white rhyolite ash. Still less is this visible, being weaker than the Pink Welded Tuff.

Beneath these tuffs are the various upturned formations of Paleozoic metamorphic rock, like the Taylorsville Sequence (of formations), and the (Mesozoic) Middle Jurassic Sailor Canyon Formation. These are well exposed in Big Valley. So there is what is called a "profound unconformity" between the horizontal strata of tuff, above, and the vertical strata of (vastly older) metamorphic rock, below.

I had sort of imagined inflicting a ton of geology on all these plant people, but as it happened, I talked about bears so much it seemed to them, anyway, that bears were my one real subject.

The odd-numbered sections out there have been hammered by logging, and the old trails ruined, the very trails on which people used to go backpacking so few years ago it seems, and one can still read their names on the aspen trunks along the trails, with dates in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, ... and then no more. Bulldozers played briefly on the trails, and they were gone, erased as tho they'd never existed. Very little of the Sugar Pine Point Trail remains intact. Our group made slow going of the descent south on the last bit of this trail, only partly ruined by logging, until at last we crossed into Section 20, public land.

There the trail was intact, and we had easy going.

This one-mile-square Section 20 is now designated the Sugar Pine Point Research Natural Area. It is quite a nice place, with a patch of old-growth Ponderosa Pine forest, and with many huge Sugar Pines, hundreds of years old. One is on south-facing slopes within the North Fork canyon, but all one sees are huge trees in every direction, a wonderland, really, with springs and bear wallows and even a bear den, and a host of thousands of young White Fir clog the forest, threatening to overwhelm the millenia-old balance of fire-adapted species, with one single shade-adapted species.

Bears love it there.

I pointed out their persistent footprints as we followed the ancient trail into the tall trees; bears will step in the same spot time after time, week after week, even year after year, and to varying degrees, then, a set of little hollows develops. It is a subtlety, but easy to learn, and soon everyone was spotting bear trails every which way.

Many a tree there, many a huge old pine five or six feet in diameter, is well-scratched by bears. Mostly, one attributes the scratches to territorial markings; but there are some instances less easily figured, such as the monstrous Sugar Pine down on the Little Slate Ridge, commanding the ultimate view of the North Fork canyon, a pine once broken down in some mighty storm of those long-vanished days when men were men, before the money-grubbing Europeans who styled themselves Americans wreaked all their havoc on the Sierra. It is four feet in diameter and maybe forty or fifty feet tall. Having lost its head, side branches became, oh a century ago or more, giant muscled arms two to three feet thick themselves.

And only, I say, only because the good old bears of Sugar Pine Point like to make the climb of thirty feet to these monster branches, only for that reason, the entire trunk of the mighty pine is scratched every which way.

I've never seen the like. Apparently the bears roost up there and enjoy the view. I sometimes think that it must be during those months when snow covers everything, but a sunny interlude will bring bears outside their dens, and the only way to get comfortably clear of the snow, is to climb this ancient broken pine, and take the sun in its giant boughs.

It was a grand day of wandering the old forest and the raw sun-blasted cliffs and getting scratched by brush and breaking sweats and, fortunately, it was not all talking talking talking but plenty of good quiet walking walking walking.

Another great day on the verge of the great canyon. My only regret is that we were somewhat hurried, and could not linger on the majestic cliffs to watch the shadows grow and deepen as sunset approached; that is how it really should be done. Then one walks slowly up through the woods, in twilight.

On the 7.5 minute Duncan Peak quadrangle, note the pass immediately north of that spot labeled Sugar Pine Point. One can contrive to park there, and the old trail drops away to the east for a few dozen yards before breaking south towards the Sacred Forest.

Fringed Pinesap
[North Fork Trails blogpost, June 18, 2008:
http://northforktrails.blogspot.com/2008/06/fringed-pinesap.html ]

Hi all,

A rare and ghostly flower haunts the deep woods, called Fringed Pinesap.

Fringed Pinesap
(Pleuricospora fimbriolata)
On the gentle uplands of Moody Ridge, some four thousand feet above sea level, there once grew an open forest of mighty pines and cedars. Then, around 1870, came Progress: those gigantic trees, centuries old, were laid low. A dense forest of young pines rose in its place, almost impenetrable, as is remarked in the field notes of Berkeley zoologist Joseph Grinnell (see http://mvz.berkeley.edu/Grinnell.html), who visited in 1912, collecting specimens for days on end. He stayed at the Pine Mound Inn, one of several hotels in and near Dutch Flat at that time.

Fires swept across Moody Ridge and thinned that dense forest again and again. More logging took place, notably, around 1960 and 1977-78. This last cut was the unkindest, in that every conifer over fifteen inches in diameter was taken, and then, adding insult to injury, the bulldozer-churned forest land was illegally subdivided.

Thirty years later, the signs of logging have softened, but the skid trails of the 1977-78 timber harvest are still plainly visible, as the bulldozers spun their treads deeply into the rich forest soil, casting it to the side, and exposing the clayey subsoil.

Only recently did I finally realize, after a few decades of walking about, that signs of the earliest phase of logging, dating to around 1875, remain visible, in the form of narrow-gauge railroad grades, very carefully located to allow for the easiest yarding of the huge first-growth sawlogs, which would be rolled directly onto the flatcars, and hauled away to the Canyon Creek Mill.

Fringed Pinesap
(Pleuricospora fimbriolata)
 I have cleared debris and small trees from one of these old logging-railroad grades, which winds in and out of a small valley on a line so level one would imagine it an old mining ditch, and it makes for a nice walk. I call it the Railroad Trail. Yesterday, walking along the Railroad Trail amid Incense Cedar and White Fir, Ponderosa Pine and Sugar Pine, I saw what seemed to be the white ghosts of small pine cones thrusting up through the pine needles which deeply cover the forest floor. They were quite intricate, and clearly, without any chlorophyll, being one of those saprophytic plants often placed in the Heath Family, like Pine Drops and Snow Plant. I took some photographs, but was not pleased with my efforts, when I got home to my computer, so today I returned.

In the meantime, I succeeded in identifying these ghostly flowers as Fringed Pinesap, Pleuricospora fimbriolata. It derives all its energy and nutrients from fungal mycelia in coniferous leaf litter. There are quite a few nice photographs of Fringed Pinesap on the internet.

As I neared the Railroad Trail, a loud and sudden flapping of very large wings, very near by, shocked me, and I hastened forward into an opening, expecting to see a Golden Eagle lifting away.

Instead I saw a large dark bird move awkwardly, from one branch to another, in an Incense Cedar. A turkey? I sidled closer, camera raised, hoping for a shot. Many an intervening branch left my subject indistinct. I lost patience and strode closer.

Immediately that first large bird took wing, and a second followed, in a great commotion of flapping. Two turkey vultures. Just as I recognized what they were, a sour smell spoke of Death. I walked towards the tree in which the vultures had roosted, and found a dead Gray Fox stretched long on the pine needles, long and oddly narrow, since most of it had been eaten, and for a radius of twenty feet around the carcass, vulture feathers littered the ground. A cloud of flies hovered above.

Returning to the trail, I was soon in the gentle uplands of the surface of the andesitic mudflow plateau which was once universal, but the larger part of the plateau is gone, carried away bit by bit during in the canyons of our modern rivers, canyons only a few million years old. It is very likely that the canyons of the North Fork American, the Bear, Steephollow, and the South Yuba, are all alike only four million years old.

I revisited the several locations where my Fringed Pinesap pushed up from the forest floor, in clusters of five to ten individual plants, and took a number of photos. These plants never grow very tall, a few inches at best. In years past I have often mistaken them for young Pine Drops, somehow, due to their youth no doubt, not colored red. It is gratifying to recognize at last they are a distinct species.

Fringed Pinesap and Pine Drops alike are classic residents of the deep pine woods, along with a number of native orchids, such as Rattlesnake Orchid, and other plants either in the Heath Family or closely allied to it, such as Little Prince's Pine, and Wintergreen.

I left the Railroad Trail and struck out through the densely overgrown forest, gathering spider webs in great swaths across face and chest as I pushed through thickets of young cedars and firs, but only found one new cluster of Fringed Pinesap.

A dead fox, ghostly flowers which mimic pine cones, uneasy vultures; it was, all in all, a nice walk. I will post a picture or two on my blog (http://northforktrails.blogspot.com/2008/06/fringed-pinesap.html).


Russell Towle

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