June 6 (1977, 1987, 1988, 2003)
Wild, Wild, Water, and Knife-Edge Ridges

6/6/77 ~ Monday morning. A heat wave the past few days. [...]

I feel dull, exhausted, uninspired. Went out to the Ridge yesterday and cleaned out the water tank, extended the water line over to the cabin. A dead rat in the water tank—yuck, I've been drinking that water for a week. Well, it is all cleaned out now. Some refinements of the lid are in order.…

Back out to the Ridge today? I don't know. I'm lonely out there. There is so much work to do, I feel swamped, overburdened. Oh well. Be a man, right? Remember how lucky I am, right? It's embarrassingly easy to forget.

Some clouds today. It will be muggy hot.”

[Russell Towle's journal]

6/6/87 Afternoon; a cloudy and humid day, cool at first but now warming. Yesterday I drove to Auburn… Later I joined the Peach family for a picnic supper down at the Confluence, where we met some teenagers, charming folk in my estimation, since, unlike the vast majority of people who use that area, they had been cleaning up garbage from the riverbanks instead of strewing it everywhere. I find teenagers stimulating company.”

[Russell Towle's journal]

6/6/88 Monday evening, on a very cold and cloudy day, why, I've had a fire in the stove all day, a day spent curled up on the couch reading a novel lent me by Ed, “Presumed Innocent,” very good. But it's very cold, very cold, no rain, at least to speak of, tho I saw snow showers falling up-canyon, and thunder rumbles from time to time, and now at day's end clouds seem to thicken, to menace, and it is decidedly un-June-like, and I am wearing a sweater, and I only wish the book were longer, let the world at large come no closer than my radio, today.”

[Russell Towle's journal]

Date: Fri, 6 Jun 2003 09:47:27 -0800
To: North Fork Trails
From: Russell Towle
Subject: New York Canyon IV

Hi all,

[Yesterday], Gus Wiseman and I drove up the Foresthill Divide, aiming for the very top of the 567-foot waterfall in New York Canyon.

Click to enlarge.
Ah, my friends. On the Duncan Peak 7.5 minute topographic map, it looks so easy! Why, a multitude of routes suggest themselves: a romp down the West Fork of NYC, a stroll down the East Fork, perhaps an amble down the ridge dividing the two forks, a ridge, yes, doubtless studded with rock outcrops, which would require little more than some pleasant meanderings to avoid.

Or perhaps, as I had dwelled upon in some detail with geologist Dave Lawler and intrepid hiker and kayaker Ron Gould, one could simply drive down the Sailor Flat jeep trail and follow the 5000-foot contour west, a scant half-mile, to the top of the falls.

Last Sunday son Greg and I had stopped only a half-mile short of the falls. Half an air mile, that is. I don't quite know how I do it, for I pride myself on my map-reading skills, and I have hiked and climbed and explored wild canyons since childhood, but I always, always underestimate the difficulty of a hike.

Gus and I parked at the head of the West Fork, almost directly upon the 6600-foot contour, and dared to descend by a new and different route, first heading north along the west rim, and in something like three-quarters of a mile, dropping down east on a spur ridge which divides two branches of the West Fork. We left the car at 10:30 a.m.

Note that we began at 6600 feet. The top of the falls is around 4600 feet. Hence, the easiest of all arithmetic reveals a descent of 2000 vertical feet. This is equivalent to hiking down to Green Valley on the North Fork--but this would be an out-and-out cross-country scramble. For some strange lack of reason I had fudged this all up. For me the 6600 feet became 6000 feet, the 4600 feet alchemically tranmsuted, like lead into gold, into 4800 feet. A descent of only 1200 feet! How do I do it? I am a mathematician, by God! How!

The descent of one thousand feet was easy enough, and put us on the West Fork directly across from the point where Greg and I had turned back. Heavy brush confronted us over the last steep couple hundred yards to the creek, and a certain amount of acrobatics was required, of holding on to one branch while stepping on another. The day was setting up hot, the much-heralded Delta winds too far from New York Canyon to temper the temperature. We were in quite a sweat as we thrust through the last barriers of native cherries and mountain alders to cross the creek on a series of wet boulders. A short sharp escalade over rock put us a hundred and fifty feet above the creek on the east side. There, a fairly rich forest of Douglas Fir and Sugar Pine promised relief from heavy brush, but the promise was broken. Our basic route here was to follow the 5400-foot contour north and east to the ridge dividing the West and East Forks, cross that ridge, see what the true shapes of things were, and proceed accordingly.

The open cliffy rocks were
the easy terrain; the expanses
of gnarly brush were brutal.
Occasionally a game trail offered some slight relief, but in the main it was a hardscrabble bushwhack, up, down, clinging to shrubs, often even using them like ropes to swing out in a short arc and land on top of some other shrub. The ground was often hidden, and only by luck did we avoid rattlesnakes. When a ragged ridge of rock jutted out of the dense vegetation, the bear trails would focus and improve, as the route became more constrained by topography. At such times I would say, "Wow! This could be an old human trail"--for one can never discount that possibility, considering the Gold Rush and the intense exploration of virtually every stream in this part of the Sierra. But once the boss of rock was passed, the beaten track would fade into nothingness, and it was back to our miniature Tarzan-like acrobatics. It was an exhausting, grueling, half-mile fight, enlivened by great views of cliffs, and wondrous masses of flowering Pacific Dogwood.

Finally we reached the dividing ridge, where a small pass once again focused the game trails into convergence, and once again I wondered if humans might not have helped define the route. A huge Sugar Pine grew in the pass. Above, to the south, the dividing ridge rose in an imposingly steep sequence of cliffs and jagged rocks. It actually flares into two spurs up there; we were on the more principal, western spur. Easy going to the north led us out onto mild cliffs of chert with fine views down into the East Fork, and across the North Fork to Snow Mountain and the 3000-foot cliff at Wildcat Point We could also see the ridge dividing New York Canyon on the west from Sailor Canyon on the east, and see the pass on that ridge near the base of the jeep trail, at Oak Flat. We could also see some of the nearly flat benches on the east side of the East Fork, right near the top of the big waterfalls. We were still the better part of half a mile from the waterfall, but the amount of open rock suggested we would have little problem with brush.

Leichtlin's Mariposa Lily
(Calochortus leichtlinii)
Nor did we, as we traversed areas of talus and scree and made occasional descents down small cliffs. A thousand, ten thousand Mariposa Tulips were blooming in the sunny openings. There was also much in the way of Penstemon of two different species, one flowering blue, one reddish or magenta. Much of the country rock was chert of the Duncan Peak Formation, which is part of the ancient Shoo Fly Complex, metamorphic rocks, the oldest of all rocks in the Sierra. Often the chert was a lustrous blue-green, but sometimes it was black, and sometimes, white. In this area a number of thrust faults have juxtaposed different formations within the Shoo Fly Complex, so that there are, as they say, "abrupt changes in lithology," over short distances.

As we approached the top of the waterfall, we veered down closer to the creek, and at last reached the cliffs just west of the top of the falls. These chert cliffs fell away in a dizzyingly vertical plunge of many hundreds of feet, and were maddeningly rounded along their edge, so that to see directly down the cliff face was almost impossible. We scouted back and forth without finding any good viewpoint. By holding my camera out at arm's length, from as near as I dared to the gut-wrenching abyss, I obtained some rather strange photographs of the waterfall.

Immediately to the west, a few hundred feet away, the dividing ridge has a very unusual form. It is truncated into a cliff, which falls steeply only to level out into to a slender knife-edge ridge, perhaps a couple hundred yards long, which then rises into a rounded knoll of bare rock. This knoll and knife-edge ridge are very distinctive features, and can be recognized from quite a long distance. The view of the falls would be tremendous. The cliffs between us and the knoll seemed too steep for a traverse; we would have to climb a few hundred feet, and then hope for a reasonable route down the steeps onto the knife-edge. This knife-edge did not look all that bad.

We rested, had lunch, and then explored the East Fork. Just above the big falls it enters a twisting inner gorge, reminiscent of the one on Canyon Creek at Gold Run. The creek makes a bold leap into an almost cave-like little chasm and disappears, only to leap quite free from the main cliff a little ways below. Upstream, pleasant cascades and pools are lined with polished chert. Two hundred yards brings one to a 30-foot waterfall with a very nice pool at its base. Here we found two California Newts, salamander-like beasts, dark red in color, perhaps six inches long, or eight, their tails strongly "ribbed" vertically, like rudders. Later I would read that this ribbing of the tail occurs during the mating season.

Returning downstream along the east bank, I found a pretty little shard of black slate with a thin veneer of limestone on one side, and in that limestone were a number of hemispherical hills and hollows, up to a little more than half an inch across. Clearly they were fossils. Dave Lawler suggests that they may be crinoid "caps," which are strongly patterned in geometrical designs.

We engaged in a reconnaissance of the cliffs east of the falls. These were also dauntingly steep, but broke away in a series of ledges, which lured one farther and farther down--"Maybe from the next ledge down, I will see the falls." I made a descent of a couple hundred feet and did find one more or less terrifying perch from which I could hold the camera out and get a picture. At the base of the falls, almost six hundred feet below, the spray spreads over a large area of rock and gathers into a maze of little white veins of water. A series of other waterfalls, impressive in their own right, could be seen farther down the stream. Cliffs almost surrounded the area.

From my last lowest ledge, I saw that a steeply sloping ramp a few feet wide offered an easier route back up, and gave it a try. To my amazement, there was bear poop on this ramp. Bears, it seems, like cliffs, they like great views and unusual architectures in ancient rocks. I have found bear sign on the most recondite, blade-like rock spurs of Big Valley Bluff and Sugar Pine Point; in the steepest parts of Giant Gap; and now here, perhaps the airiest, most unlikely spot of all. I begin to revere bears. I begin to see why many of the California Indians believed in Bear Shamans, and why the bear-footprint motif is almost the only one, unifying design motif of our high country petroglyph sites.

Cliffs, knife-edge ridges, knolls of fantastic promise, all haunted by wrens and bears and salamanders and flowers; gnarled ridges of faulted rock clothed in the graceful dancings of Sugar Pines, waterfalls everywhere, polished stone of many colors. This is an amazing place, surpassingly wild, and by every appearance, virtually never visited by humans. Never a lopped branch, never a fire-ring, never a piece of trash of the smallest magnitude, never a footprint, never anything to suggest that people visit this unusually magical place.

It was a given that we would not, could not return to the car by the same route. That "little" traverse through the brush really tore me up. It was not so much that I was bleeding from a number of cuts and scratches--I was--but I was quite unusually tired and drained. We were close to the Sailor Flat jeep trail; climb to the 5000-foot contour, and a half-mile traverse should do the trick quite nicely; then up and out.

However, it turned out that another ocean of heavy brush must be crossed. Without going into all the gory details I will say that that half-mile took an hour at least. We hit the jeep trail a little higher than planned, rested, and then slogged on up the hill. In a couple miles we reached the snowfields at Sailor Flat, and, crossing them, found the Foresthill Road free of snow. This made for easy walking. All we had to do was follow the road around the head of the East Fork, then around the head of the West Fork, and, voila. But. That "voila" came after about two miles of ins and outs and ups and downs, as we climbed and descended the many knolls along the summit of Canada Hill.

Reaching the car only a smidgin after 5 p.m., we made the long drive home, and by way of variety, took Ponderosa Road across the North Fork to Weimar, from just west of Foresthill. At the river we ran into Ron Gould, who apparently was just loading up his gear after rafting or kayaking with some friends. We chatted a while and then slowly zoomed up the dusty road to Highway 80, Colfax, and Dutch Flat.


Russell Towle

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