July 10 (1981, 1982, 1983, 1996, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2008)
The Sacred Groves of Sugar Pine Point ~ Mercury & Pleistocene Basalt ~ Snakes and Squirrels

7/10/81 Morning. Merrill & Janet & Rick & Aki & Peggy & Maisie are up for a few days, camping on Rick's property. We'll go to Smarts Crossing today. I stopped in and invited them last night, took them out to Lovers Leap. Just returned from two day backpack trip with Dana up to the Devil's Peak-Snow Mountain area. We had a nice time, but failed to reach Snow Mountain—it is more remote than I had guessed. Looked even more intriguing from up close. Climbed Devils Peak yesterday—despite its forbidding appearance, an easy scramble. Interesting columnar andesite. A pair of rock wrens visited briefly at the summit.”

[Russell Towle's journal]

7/10/82 It is so beautiful here! Last night when I went to bed, I could see the waning moon rising in the east, through a lacework of oak branches. Then this morning, I awoke about a half hour before dawn to see a golden wash over the canyon walls. Now at sunrise, Eagle Puke Point is lit by the first light.

Mary Henderson gave me some interesting old topo maps, dating from the turn-of-the-century. 100-foot contours. included are Pyramid Lake, Mono Lake, and Fish Lake Valley, near the White Mtns.”

[Russell Towle's journal]

7/10/83 Haven't written in a while. I've been very busy for the past month. [...] I bought 100' of 2” pipe and began hydraulicking in good earnest. Much of the cave-in has been removed. Monstrous boulders remain.”

[Russell Towle's journal]

7/10/1996 [...] Two days ago, Dave Lawler and I went out to one of his fossil leaf sites near the Gold Run diggings, off Garrett Road, and did some chainsawing and clipping of brush and small trees, preparatory to a visit by a group of paleobotanists from all over the world. What a workout! The botanists arrived, I gave a little talk on local history, well-received, and we all went out to the site. I found more fossils in a layer of clay not far away. This coming weekend day and Janet and Greg and I may go to the Cosumnes River to join Dave for a camp-out. Since the previous entry, Dave and I hiked up to Lyon and Needle peaks on the upper Forest Hill divide. Lots of snow remained up there, Needle Lake was still buried.”

[Russell Towle's journal]

Date: Thu, 10 Jul 2003 07:53:02
To: North Fork Trails
From: Russell Towle
Subject: Visit to Sugar Pine Point

Hi all,

Wednesday at noon I met Jerry Rein and his friend Jimmy at Alta and we headed up I-80 to Yuba Gap. I became absorbed in some kind of senseless geological oratory and we went right past the exit. We were at Big Bend before I noticed what had happened. The Great Pathfinder is humbled.

Back at Yuba Gap, we followed the right fork in a ways and then broke left on Forest Road 19, which also gives access to Lake Valley Reservoir, at the head of the North Fork of the North Fork American. There was originally a small natural lake here, in a long wet meadow; in the 1860s the first dams went in, impounding water to use down at Dutch Flat in the hydraulic mines, and eventually the whole shebang went to PG&E, which raised an even higher dam, and voila, waters which belong to the American River are now shunted aside to the Bear, by way of Drum Powerhouse.

Click to enlarge
After several miles we broke left again on Forest Road 38, in past Huysink Lake and the Salmon Lake Trail and Pelham Flat (I know who Bernard Huysink was, but who was Pelham?), and then at last followed an almost hidden fork to the right, down to a pass just north of Sugar Pine Point, where we parked and walked south on a hidden trail.

Sugar Pine Point is on the ridge dividing Big Valley on the north from Little Granite Creek on the south. The very popular Loch Leven Lakes are at the headwaters of Little Granite Creek.

In a quarter mile we passed into Section 20 and left all traces of logging behind. Here, on gentle south-facing slopes, with many springs and deep soils, stands a forest of huge ancient trees, Sugar Pines, Ponderosa Pines, Incense Cedar, White Fir, and some Kelloggs Black Oak. Some of the Sugar Pines approach eight feet in diameter.

A mature Sugar Pine
(Pinus lambertiana)
We did a fair amount of wandering in the sacred groves, visiting one giant and then another. I was amazed to see how much damage had occurred over the winter season; there were small firs and cedars down everywhere, blocking our path, and a few really big trees had fallen as well. I imagine those storms last December, when even down at Alta the winds gusted to near one hundred miles per hour, were responsible. The Bear Wallow has been about ruined by one fallen monster. We cleared some of the debris away, and I shouted out to the bears that it would be OK, and their pool was back.

After our forest tour we headed to the east side, where cliffs fall away into Little Granite Creek. There are some very nice views to be had along this east side, across to Snow Mountain, and beyond to some of the peaks above Squaw Valley, and up Little Granite Creek. Eventually we found our way to the very east end of the Little Slate Ridge, and began to see up Big Granite Creek to Devils Peak, and down into the main canyon of the North Fork.

The view east from "Little Slate Ridge", with the N. Fk.
canyon at right; the nearer canyon is that of Big Granite Creek.
We reached the summit of Little Slate Ridge around five p.m., and enjoyed the fine views of the canyon. A Golden Eagle soared nearby, over towards Big Valley Bluff, a  3500-foot cliff a mile west of us or so; as we watched it headed our way and we got a decent look at it before it turned south and I lost sight of it over the vast canyon.

After a long rest we followed the direct, non-meandering route up and out to the north, and were back at Alta just before sunset.

It was a great day at one of the North Fork's greatest groves and finest viewpoints.


Russell Towle

SPI Exemption Harvest, Sugar Pine Point
North Fork Trails blogpost, July 10, 2005:
A couple weeks ago Catherine O'Riley and I visited the historic Big Granite Trail, south of Cisco Grove, to examine damage to the trail from logging, which had taken place in the summer of 2004.

We found that the trail had been seriously damaged, obliterated in places, from bulldozer yarding of logs, in Section 9, T16N R13E. This settled the issue of "who done it," as Section 9 is one of the odd-numbered "railroad" sections acquired by Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI). Another lumber company, CHY, has a Timber Harvest Plan under consideration right now. SPI, as it turned out, was operating on over 2000 acres spread across several sections in the area, under a "10% Exemption" harvest plan, approved by Jeff Dowling of the California Department of Forestry (CDF).

A "10% Exemption" harvest is not subject to public review or comment. It allows land owners to harvest up to 10% of the standing timber; in this case, quote, "Harvesting dead, dying or diseased trees of any size in amounts less than 10 per cent of the average volume per acre, where timber operations will meet the conditions misted in 14 CCR 1038(b)."

A little to the south of this Section 9 is Section 17, where the historic Sugar Pine Point Trail had been obliterated by an earlier SPI harvest, some ten or fifteen years ago. A portion of this fine old trail had escaped complete destruction, and friends of mine and I had worked on keeping it open and passable. It leads, not to Sugar Pine Point itself, but to a magical forest of gigantic trees in Tahoe National Forest (TNF) Section 20, contiguous to Section 17 on the south. This section was designated the Sugar Pine Point Research Natural Area by TNF a few years ago. The magical forest is on mainly gentle slopes, bounded by steep cliffs, and old maps label it Sugar Pine Flat. There are springs, bear wallows, orchids, Goshawk nests, incredible vista points, and many trees up to six feet in diameter, or even larger.

Yesterday I packed my chainsaw into the Subaru and with my son Greg, made the 26-mile drive up I-80 to Yuba Gap, Lake Valley, Huysink Lake, and Pelham Flat. I had noticed that the main Forest Road 38, south of the Big Granite Trail, was blocked by fallen trees.

Hence the chainsaw.

The fallen trees proved to be less of an issue than the water bars SPI bulldozers had cut into Forest Road 38, last August. With many a scary scraping noise the Subie crossed one water bar after another, until, half a mile south of lovely Pelham Flat (CHY property, about to be logged—again), where a pond and wet meadow attract much wildlife, we met a water bar too high and too deep even for the mighty little Subie. So we set out on foot. We were just leaving the TNF portion of Section 8 and crossing into SPI Section 17. A mile to the south we would reach Sugar Pine Flat and the ancient forest.

Immediately upon entering Section 17, we saw much bulldozing. For, despite what on paper seems a minor timber harvest, a tremendous amount of bulldozing had occurred. Giant slash piles were heaped up, ten and twenty feet high. New log decks seemed to have been built, old log decks expanded. Skid trails everywhere. So it went until we reached a certain pass in the south center of Section 17, on the Sugar Pine Point ridge (which divides Big Valley on the west from Little Granite Creek on the east), where the almost undamaged portion of the historic trail can be used.

Although a slash pile had been bulldozed directly over the trail, it was easily crossed, and we found that the fine old trail had escaped any significant new damage. We only had to throw some logging slash off the trail here and there, and where it was cut by a road, a little pick-and-shovel work would render it reasonably passable again.

We visited the ancient forest and the bear wallow, photographed flowers—many of Leichtlin's Mariposa Tulip were in bloom, along with blue penstemons and many other species—and visited one of the prehistoric occupation sites, dating to the Martis Complex people of 1500-4500 years ago. We also wandered out east to some clifftops with fine views of Cherry Point and Snow Mountain. Squaw Peak was also visible, at the head of the Middle Fork of the American, to the southeast.

Breezy, and cooler than normal, there were scarcely any mosquitoes.

After a time we retreated back up the trail and through the mile of mild devastation in Section 17. On the drive out, I noted that SPI had opened up the road from Pelham Flat down into Big Valley, through TNF lands in Section 8, presumably to access SPI Section 7. The construction of this road, and the previous SPI harvest in Section 7, had already obliterated the historic Big Valley Trail, from Pelham Flat to Monumental Ridge.

I have asked TNF for years to seek to acquire these exact sections from SPI: that is, sections 7, 9, and 17; and to try to acquire CHY lands in Section 8 and elsewhere, nearby. This area is a fine patch of Placer County high country, semi-high, anyway, with the ridges running up to and over 7000 feet, and a complex of old trails. Many a meadow and many a pond and tarn are in the area.

In fact, I have hiked around in that area for years counting chickens before hatching, imagining that TNF would soon purchase these SPI and CHY lands, and that the last of the logging had already taken place.

As usual, I was exactly wrong.

On July 12, CDF's Inspector Jeff Dowling and SPI's Carl Bystry, along with a CDF archeologist, and a contract archeologist named John Betts, will visit the area to examine the damage to the Big Granite Trail. Betts used to work for CDF and is sympathetic to the old historic trails. I called him a week ago and was not encouraged by what I heard. Betts said that I should not expect much, if anything, to result from the July 12th inspection. He said that any progress in protecting old trails would take place in small increments. I mailed Betts a map I prepared showing the exact locations of the worst of the recent damage on the Big Granite Trail, with many annotations and labels.

Betts suggested that Carl Bystry in particular, and SPI generally, will not take kindly to complaints about damage to trails on SPI lands.

And I know, from past experience with CDF's Jeff Dowling, that I am a despicable tree-hugger who, without any good reason, throws monkey wrenches into the great and important work of cutting trees down.

Nevertheless, Betts will be a voice of reason and, after all, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, ten people with shovels and chainsaws and rakes and mattocks ought to be able to whip the worst parts of the Big Granite Trail back into shape, in a day or two or five.

John Betts has done important work in protecting the ancient petroglyphs of the northern Sierra from timber harvest operations. Usually, that "protection" means tying some flagging around a petroglyph site, so that bulldozers do not grind directly over the rocks and glyphs. But it counts for something, and has made a difference.

I don't know what to do about the CHY Timber Harvest Plan. I should make a field trip and look at the many and far-flung parcels of land involved, amounting to about 1200 acres. Then I could address comments to CDF.

More as events warrant.

Gold Run Mercury
[North Fork Trails blogpost, July 10, 2005:
http://northforktrails.blogspot.com/2005/07/gold-run-mercury.html ]
On July 8 I met Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) staff Gina Solomon and Miriam ? at the Dutch Flat exit on I-80, for a visit to the Gold Run Diggings. Gina and Miriam were making a follow-up to the NRDC team I led into the Diggings on May 19th of this year. The NRDC is interested in quantifying mercury contamination in the Diggings, and discovering how much mercury is discharged into Canyon Creek, and therefore, into the North Fork American River.

Land ownership in the Diggings is complex. Broadly, it is divided between public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and 800 acres of private lands owned by Gold Run Properties (GRP). The GRP lands have been for sale for several years, the current asking price being ~$2.1 million dollars. The Diggings extend ~two miles south from I-80 to the rim of the North Fork canyon; BLM lands begin to appear about one mile south of I-80, and make the larger part of the Diggings near the rim of the canyon.

When Congress designated the North Fork a Wild & Scenic River (W&SR) in 1978, is created a special "Gold Run Addition" to the W&SR "corridor," extending more than a mile north of the river, into the southern part of the Diggings. The Dept. of Interior was instructed to purchase the private inholdings within the Addition, if the owners (GRP) were willing sellers.

They were not.

One of the GRP parcels within the Addition is a long narrow tract following Canyon Creek itself over the last mile of its course, to the North Fork. This is an old patented "tailings claim," such claims re-working the gold-bearing gravels which had already passed through the sluice boxes of hydraulic mines in the Diggings proper. It was called the Canyon Creek Placer Mine. Most of the historic Canyon Creek Trail is within this parcel.

By 1870, the regional pattern of consolidation of ownership of hydraulic mines was well under way at Gold Run. The days of individual ownership of small claims gave way to corporate ownership of large numbers of claims. The Gold Run Ditch & Mining Company (GRD&M) typified this pattern. It had the capital necessary to construct the huge drain tunnel from the Diggings to Canyon Creek. The GRD&M tunnel had two branches, beginning in vertical shafts, which branches converged into one giant tunnel, twelve feet wide and nine feet high. Three to five thousand cubic yards of tailings per day issued from the GRD&M tunnel into Canyon Creek, in 1881.

The slurry of gravel passed through sluice boxes of various descriptions, always "charged" with mercury. A single large sluice box might be charged with a ton of mercury, and a flask of a hundred pounds would be added every day; for the mercury, essential to capturing the fine gold, was constantly washing out the ends of the sluice boxes, and hence must needs be replaced.

Mercury is a kind of atomic glue, which attracts gold.

Hence mercury pollution on the grand scale afflicted every river and creek downstream from the hydraulic mines. The main forks of the rivers, the Sacramento River, the Delta, the San Francisco Bay, all were contaminated with mercury, and remain contaminated to this day.

All this was well known, but only in the last few years have serious efforts been made to stop the ongoing release of mercury into these same streams and rivers, from "point sources" in the old hydraulic mines. Usually, these point sources are regarded to be the drain tunnels. Drain tunnels are ubiquitous; there are several in the Gold Run Diggings, perhaps ten in the Dutch Flat Diggings, and so it goes, throughout the northern Sierra.

The NRDC, then, took water samples on May 19th, above the drain tunnels of the old GRD&M, in this same tunnel, and on Canyon Creek, both up- and downstream from the tunnel. Gina and Miriam were more or less repeating this same sampling regime.

On May 19th, following a series of heavy storms, an exceptional quantity of water was entering both shafts in the Diggings, and Canyon Creek was as high and muddy as I have seen it in many years.

On July 8th, very little water was entering either shaft, and Canyon Creek was clear and meek and mild, with a typical low summer flow.

It will be interesting to see what results are obtained from the July 8th samples; they should, I think, contrast sharply with the May 19th samples. My instinct is that the measure of mercury, in nanograms per liter, will be much less in the new samples.

However, just how they will contrast is debatable. Geologist Dave Lawler, very experienced in mercury contamination, suggests that the new samples may in fact show higher concentrations of mercury. That is, imagine if you will that a little pipe is discharging mercury into the GRD&M tunnel at a constant rate. First let one thousand liters per minute flow through the tunnel, and take a water sample at the outlet.

Then let ten liters per minute flow through the tunnel, and take a water sample at the outlet.

The quantity of mercury has not changed, but the quantity of water has decreased. Hence the second sample would show a higher concentration of mercury than the first.

To me, this model does not make sense; to me, the higher sediment load of the higher water flows should directly correlate to the mercury load. So I expect much lower values of mercury concentration to come back, from the July 8th samples.

I am probably wrong. Time will tell.

Mercury contamination of both the BLM lands and GRP lands in the Gold Run Diggings is important, not only so far as continued pollution of Canyon Creek and the North Fork American (hence also, the Sacramento River, Delta, Bay and ocean), but as it may affect the chances of BLM acquisition of any part of the GRP lands.

It is my fondest hope that the BLM can acquire several hundred acres, at the least, of the 800 acres of GRD lands for sale. However, the BLM is, by rule, forbidden to acquire polluted property.

This rule is, perhaps, poorly defined. Recently the BLM acquired lands along the South Fork of the American. It is a certainty that the sediments—the gravel bars, etc.—on that part of the South Fork have mercury mixed into them, from gold mining in days gone by. However, there is no glaring "point source" to point to, as it were, so there was no obstacle to the acquisition, which will protect open space and public access along a very popular river corridor.

At Gold Run there are point sources of mercury. Just how bad these sources are is not well known. The NRDC sampling program will help us quantify the degree of mercury contamination there.

To my mind, mercury contamination at Gold Run is likely rather complex, and not easily reduced to a matter of a few drain tunnels. Each drain tunnel, for instance, had one or many "sluice cuts" leading into its upper end; such sluice cuts are very likely contaminated with mercury.

One could spend a million dollars cleaning up a tunnel, and the upstream sluice cuts would continue to bleed mercury into it, and through it

Canyon Creek itself, being worked as a tailings claim over the last two miles to the North Fork, is heavily contaminated with mercury. It is virtually impossible to clean up such a stream. For all its contamination, it has a rich complement of riparian vegetation, and is just crawling, teaming, with fish and garter snakes and Foothill Yellow-legged Frogs and all manner of aquatic life.

For that matter, the North Fork itself is heavily contaminated with mercury. It too is impossible to clean up. There may be quite a few tons of mercury in the North Fork, between Gold Run and Auburn. Of course, there is mercury upstream as well, from the mines in Green Valley, at Lost Camp, in Humbug Canyon, etc. etc.

Even the 49ers used mercury in their relatively tiny sluice boxes, long toms, and rockers. There is probably measurable mercury in North Fork sediments all the way up to the Royal Gorge.

To me, the open-space, scenic, and recreational values at stake at Gold Run, are of great importance. I hope the BLM can find a way to purchase the 800 acres of GRD land now for sale, despite its likely contamination with mercury. I am worried that a lot of money could be misspent, trying to remediate mercury contamination there.

Gina and Miriam enjoyed getting a look at the strange old shafts and tunnels and lovely, sparkling Canyon Creek. After they had finished gathering their samples, we made a short jaunt down the trail and across the little bridge to Waterfall View. There is still a nice bloom going on along the trail, with masses of Clarkia biloba and Monardella lanceolata.

Such is some recent news from Gold Run.

In Search of Old Trails and Pliocene Basalt
[North Fork Trails blogpost, July 10, 2006:
http://northforktrails.blogspot.com/2006/07/in-search-of-old-trails-and-pliocene.html ]
Sunday morning I whisked over to Grass Valley to meet geologist David Lawler for explorations up in Nevada County, near the popular Grouse Ridge hiking area. We had two objectives: to find and follow a certain old trail running up Canyon Creek (not Gold Run's Canyon Creek, but a major tributary of the South Yuba, joining the latter just above the town of Washington), and to visit one or more of the little patches of "Pliocene Basalt" as depicted by the USGS's Waldemar Lindgren in the ca. 1900 "Colfax Folio" geologic map.

So we piled into Dave's rattletrap old Jeep and zoomed slowly up Highway 20 above Nevada City. This is an excellent drive to get a look at the Tertiary (or "young") volcanics which cap so many of our ridges in this part of the Sierra. The roadcuts expose much in the way of the andesitic lahars or mudflows of the "Mehrten" formation, and occasionally one also sees the cream or white older rhyolite ash of the "Valley Springs" formation.

Highway 20 eventually descends into Bear Valley, at the headwaters of Bear River, where again and again the South Yuba icefield spilled over the dividing ridge into the Bear, wearing it down to near non-existence, and by the looks of things, a moraine-dammed lake formed, subsequently silting in the become the wet meadow we see today.

Here two branches or "feeders" of the Henness Pass Road met, one from Dutch Flat, the other from Nevada City, and continued north as one road across the South Yuba and on towards Bowman Lake and points east. This road was known as the Pacific Turnpike and was built by combined Irish and Chinese labor in 1863, opening for travel in 1864, when stagecoaches and freight wagons made great use of it. It led to Virginia City, Nevada.

We climbed out of the South Yuba on the Pacific Turnpike, passed the road right to Grouse Ridge, and soon we were paralleling Canyon Creek, a thousand feet below, and approaching the Windy Point Cliffs, we began scanning the roadside carefully for our lost trail. We passed one logging road dropping away west and south, then another, and then saw the duck some intrepid hiker had placed at the unsigned trailhead, and parked nearby.

This was a good match for our maps, but nary a blaze could be seen. The "trail" was a rough piece of road, hashed up into a welter of loose rocks by bulldozers and impassable for cars or Jeeps, and it led us down to the line of a canal, now defunct, which once issued from Bowman Lake, a mile to our north.

Here a broad bench cut ran almost level, still several hundred feet above Canyon Creek, which wound through masses of glaciated granite below us to the west. Rather than a ditch, this section had been flumed, and in its latest incarnation, which we guessed to be from the 1960s, PG&E had used a semi-circular metal flume, supported by gigantic timbers. I saw many a six-by-eighteen, and one does not see six-by-eighteens often. Apparently, PG&E had been much bothered by snow avalanches.

We could not tell if we were on "the trail," and if we were on it, where it left the line of the canal and dropped down to Canyon Creek. Scouting north, we found a tunnel, over eight feet square, blasted into the solid granite, where it seemed that once the flume had been hung from the very cliffs, but at last PG&E could not tolerate the avalanches, and drove the tunnel. We walked fifty yards into the thing and saw no hint of light ahead; it must have been a long tunnel.

Everywhere below the defunct canal were timbers and sections of metal flume, scattered by the many avalanches over the years. PG&E had even used complicated arrays of railroad track, welded together, to attempt to hold the flume to the cliffs, railroad track bent into special curves fitted to the ins and outs of the cliff itself. Now all that too lay in disarray.

We determined to drop directly down a steep bouldery gully to Canyon Creek, and to scout down there for our lost trail. We had to skirt the base of the cliffs to reach the gully (the one good rocky avenue in a sea of brush), and at a certain point, an old cable hung down the cliff, inviting one to grab it for support in a difficult area. Dave so grabbed, and instantly a boulder cut loose from somewhere above, and thudded to the ground a few feet away.

A near thing.

As we reached the base of the steep slopes, where timber grew in thick glacial till, we ran into a welter of skid trails which boded anything but good for our chances of finding the old trail.

As it turned out, we were too far north, and should have followed the defunct canal south. Howsoever, we enjoyed a nice reconnaissance of Canyon Creek as it wound past glaciated granite domes, in a series of waterfalls and gorgeous deep pools. We had lunch near two of these waterfalls and pools, and admired the granite, which was sort of porphyritic, a crystal mush as all granite is, but this particular mush dotted with raisin-sized raisins of white feldspar, which were left as a billion tiny eminences rising ever so slightly above the glaciated surface.

We scouted north, following a bulldozer skid trail which, of course, might well be the line of the historic trail, since that is apparently how Tahoe National Forest mismanages its own trail system, i.e., TNF allows the trails to be obliterated by timber harvests. When I saw how close Canyon Creek pinched in towards the base of the windy Point Cliffs, I realized we were too far north, and we made an about-face and marched south, scanning what trees remained for old Forest Service blazes, without any luck. We had some nice strolls across large expanses of glaciated granite (this "granite" may be part of that pluton known as the "Bowman Lake Pluton"), but the afternoon was wearing on, and we wished to visit some basalt to the north, so we began climbing up and away from Canyon Creek as we made distance south, hoping to strike the line of the old trail.

But all we struck were more skid trails, logging roads, and log decks. Eventually we decided to just flail up the steep slopes and find a way to the road and the jeep. As we reached the steeps, I remarked, "You know, we should be in the right area, we could find the damn trail even now," and about ten seconds later I saw my first "small i" Forest Service blaze of the day. We had found the trail.

Following it up was a little troublesome, for almost no one has walked it for many years, and no wonder, as long stretches of it have been erased by logging. The trail is about buried beneath woody debris from the conifers along its line. We found more blazes, however, and soon had reached that same defunct canal. Here we lost the trail again, and scouting higher, found no trace, but reached the good old Pacific Turnpike, and walked a quarter-mile north to Dave's Jeep.

We deduced that the ducked bulldozer road we had followed down to the defunct canal does indeed form part of the old trail, and that once one reaches the canal, one has to follow it south a couple hundred yards or so, before the trail continues its descent to Canyon Creek. We had followed it north.

The road worsens as one approaches Bowman Lake, an old hydraulic mining reservoir, as were Lake Spaulding and Fordyce and Lake Valley and many another, now used by PG&E for water storage and power generation. Its dams have been raised since the olden days. When the Pacific Turnpike was built, the lake was, I believe, still a lush meadow a couple miles long, surrounded by high wild mountains of mixed granite and metamorphic rock, with precious little forest, the glaciers having had their way with things. Here and there an alcove in the cliffs preserved some glacial till, and some real timber flourished.

About midway east along the north side of the lake, on the Turnpike, a very rough road forks away north to McMurray Lake and Weaver Lake. One of my basalt locations was at the outlet of Weaver Lake. I wished to gather a sample for Dr. Brian Cousens of Ottawa, Canada, who has been engaged for years in the study of the youngest of the young volcanics in this part of the Sierra, mainly around the Squaw Valley Eruptive Center. There are a number of tiny relicts of basalt scattered in the middle elevations, well away from the various eruptive centers long the present Sierra crest, and these youngest-of-all Tertiary volcanics should help us unravel the history of the incision of our modern canyons. These Pliocene basalts are found only on the ridges dividing our present canyons. I have gathered samples for Brian from Sawtooth Ridge, between the North Fork American and the North Fork of the North Fork American, and from Lowell Hill Ridge, between the Bear and Steephollow, and from various other localities.

So, I find good unweathered chunks of basalt, and mail them off to Brian.

As Dave and I reached the north end of the lake, which drains north to the Middle Yuba River, a couple miles away, we saw part of the basalt, a rubbly mound rising almost a hundred feet above the road. We gathered our gear and climbed to the summit, where one can find blocky basalt cut smooth by the glaciers, with striae visible. Soon we realized that the flow was rather extensive, and scouted north along its almost flat surface, where it fell away in increasingly steep cliffs.

Geologists are alert to the difference between the lee, or down-ice, sides of rock outcrops, and the stoss, or up-ice, sides. Glaciers will pluck away rocks from the lee side, leaving cliffs, while the up-ice, stoss side, will show a gently curved and smoothed surface. The Weaver Lake Basalt exhibits this pattern to an alarming degree. We found ourselves skirting the edge of a rather monstrous and strangely steep cliff.

To the north, another part of the same flow had preserved more of its original thickness, being away from the axis of deepest ice. Pyramid Peak, as it is named on the map, exposes perhaps as much as five hundred feet of this same basalt.

The basalt itself was fine-grained and quite dark in fresh exposures, weathering to a light gray. It exhibits a weak columnar structure, but nowhere did I see good hexagonal columns, and all in all it has much more of a blocky character, than columnar. It is perhaps a half mile by a quarter mile in lateral extent, by about one hundred feet thick, there at the north end of Weaver Lake, and is almost bisected by the outlet of Weaver.

Dave and I slowly approached the ravine cut into the basalt where the Weaver waters escape to the north. We began to realize that the lee-side steepness of the cliffs was more than a little strange, it was a lot strange; for directly beneath the basalt was a 20-foot-thick section of rhyolite ash, and beneath that, a couple hundred feet of indeterminate soft sediments, likely also related to the rhyolite ash. And all this was much, much, much weaker than the basalt, and, facing north as it did, at an elevation not far short of 6000', was exposed to severe frost and thus to frost-sapping, an important agent of erosion, but here carried to extremes. For our basalt cliffs were not just steep, they were overhanging. At times while we had wandered the edge of the cliff, we had been standing on these massive overhangs without realizing it.

The creek itself drops over part of the overhanging section, and makes a pure out-and-out waterfall of at least one hundred feet. This would make for quite spectacle at higher flows. Yesterday, a modest amount of water simply dropped away into empty space. It's quite scary to approach the edge, there, but one tiny pine allowed us to lean over and look straight down the falls. Wow.

We were much impressed with this overhanging topography, and felt that luck had blessed us once again, for all we had imagined was scrambling up some knoll of basalt, and collecting a few samples with Dave's rock-pick.

Whereas it turned out we had stumbled upon one of the more interesting and unusual places in this part of the Sierra. I can't think of another waterfall like this one. Weaver Lake is beautiful, Pyramid Peak is bold and beautiful, but the Weaver Lake Basalt and its overhanging cliffs are, well, amazing, scary, and also beautiful.

At last it only remained to make the long drive back to Grass Valley, where we arrived about eight in the evening, sunburned, dusty, a little sore, but quite satisfied with our explorations.

Of Snakes and Squirrels
North Fork Trails blogpost, July 10, 2008:
I live in an ecotone, a kind of blend between the coniferous forest of the Transition Zone, and the oak woodlands and savannahs of the Upper Sonoran Zone. The "life zones" of Merriam have fallen out of favor in recent decades, but I still find them very apt. Merriam recognized that, as elevation increases, in a mountain range, vegetation changes in very much the same way as if elevation remained constant, but latitude increased. To ascend the Sierra Nevada to the 5,000-foot contour and the realm of the White Fir is much the same as to go north into southern Canada. Merriam did his seminal research near Fort Valley, Arizona, where my grandfather Leland Towle worked as a forest ranger, at the time.

That was almost a century ago. Here, on Moody Ridge, in this ecotone between two different assemblages of vegetation, one sees two different assemblages of animals, also. For instance, both the Scrub Jay of lower elevations, and the Steller Jay of higher elevations, are here.

Today a young squirrel is slowly dying in my yard. It is a California Ground Squirrel, Citellus beecheyi, and is more closely identified with the Upper Sonoran life zone of the Scrub Jay, than with the Transition life zone of the Steller Jay. And, since my yard is on the cusp between the two zones, there are many Gray Squirrels in the area, as well. And Flying Squirrels, for that matter, although these are rarely seen.

The Ground Squirrel lives up to its name, only rarely venturing into trees, and when it does, never climbing more than, oh, fifteen or twenty feet. It will clamber into Ceanothus bushes and harvest the seeds, storing them in cheek pouches, and then find some conspicuous perch and slowly work through the seeds it has saved. It is strange that they like these highly exposed perches, on a large boulder, perhaps, for they are preyed upon by Golden Eagles.

It may be that another predator worries them much more than mere eagles. The Western Rattlesnake, Crotalus viridus, is an avid hunter of the Ground Squirrel. One might almost say, given ground squirrels, rattlesnakes are sure to follow.

In this little clearing in the woods, in this ecotone, there has always been a colony of ground squirrels, at least, for the thirty-three years I have been here, there have been ground squirrels. They fall victim to foxes, to bobcats, and, although one is extremely unlikely to actually see it happen, to rattlesnakes.

This summer brought many a baby squirrel into the colony. The colony burrows are scattered over a broad area, and have multiple entrances, and may also be shared between individual squirrel families. It seems there are more squirrels now than ever before. One develops a sense of their lives and habits. I can recognize their metallic "alarm squeak," and sometimes, hearing the squeak, and taking a look around, I will see the fox, or the bobcat, which inspired that squeak.

The squeak is repeated, every second or so, for minutes, sometimes tens of minutes, at a time. It is painful to listen to this squeak. With a roar, and a hurled rock, I will sometimes try to quiet that squeak.

So. There are many squirrels, hence, as night must follow day, there must also be many rattlesnakes.

And there are. Four or five different snakes have visited the yard this summer. The hotter days seem to somehow inspire them to visit. Years ago, when my children were small, I killed rattlesnakes in the yard. In recent years I do not bother them. Live and let live. And yet ... and yet, they are so very hard to see if not moving, and they do not always rattle, and they coil up in places one can't really see well, anyway. It is a bit nerve-wracking. To have four or five different snakes visit, in one summer month, is a first in my several decades here.

I recently learned, on the Internet, that adult ground squirrels are immune to rattlesnake venom, and also, that they will wave their tails back and forth while facing a rattlesnake, and that the temperature of those waving tails increases by some five degrees at the time.

Yesterday I heard a doubled alarm squeak, in the sultry smoky heat of the afternoon, and walked slowly towards the sound, expecting to find a rattlesnake.

Sure enough.

An adult and a juvenile squirrel were atop one of their favorite Ceanothus-seed-eating perches, just above their burrow, both facing a spot a foot and a half away, and every two or three seconds, at exactly the same time, they would rapidly wave their tails, and squeak. It was as if they were telepathically connected. I could not see anything for them to squeak at, and slowly ventured closer.

The young squirrels are much more fearful of humans, than their parents, and they (there turned out to be a second juvenile, perched a few inches below) scampered away once I was within six or eight feet. The adult remained, steadfastly squeaking and waving its tail. Finally I saw the snake. It was occupying a crevice between two boulders, directly above one of the burrow entrances. The head and upper part of the snake's body were already coiled and still, the tail was extended away a foot or so, and was slowly being drawn into the coil.

I kept an eye on that snake as the afternoon dwindled into darkness. It never moved. I saw the adult squirrel enter the burrow, only a foot from the snake. The snake never moved. It seemed to be waiting for the squirrels to forget its presence.

At dawn I returned. The snake had gone. There seemed a peculiar lack of squirrels in the yard. This is common after a fox or bobcat visits.

An hour later I looked around again; an adult ground squirrel was on a large boulder, seemingly surveying its domain. And a few feet away, a juvenile was stretched out on the ground, its eyes open, alive, but hardly able to move. It had been bit by a rattlesnake in its right hindquarters, paralyzing its right hind leg. Over the next hour it painfully dragged itself twenty or thirty feet, downhill, towards one of its family burrows. The adult surveyed its child's progress. But then the venom's force overcame the young squirrel. It stopped moving. Its eyes closed. An hour later, it was dead.

There was absolutely no sign of the snake. All the squirrels entered their burrows and stayed within for hours, in mourning.

[Russ never got around to post-scripting this story so I will.

After the juvenile squirrel died, Russ picked it up on a shovel and buried it at the opposite end of the yard. This was about 10 a.m. We saw no sign of the rattlesnake until ten hours later, when in the cool of the evening it emerged from its hiding spot under some steps. It headed quite purposefully and directly to the place where it had bitten the juvenile. Not finding the carcass there, the snake began following the exact path the dying baby had taken, zigging and zagging in all the same places, apparently by scent. When it reached the spot about 30 feet away where Russ had picked up the squirrel's body on the shovel, it started to slowly and methodically circle the area, trying to pick up the trail. The snake was certain, and determined—and in widening circles was apparently going to canvas the entire yard to find its meal.

With so many other squirrels still in burrows close around the cabins, this seemed likely to be the first of many nerve-racking days of sharing our yard with this hungry rattler, and we didn't much like that prospect. Russ killed this snake, and the next day he installed solid risers under the stair steps to prevent snakes from being able to get in and hide there again.

The following summer, living out here alone, I began to trap and move ground squirrels out of the immediate environs of the cabins. I caught and moved eleven in 2009, three in 2010, and I haven't seen any here (or any rattlers) yet this summer.
–Gay, July 10, 2011 ]

1 comment:

  1. Any place you can get to on the rim of the canyon, that is open, will typically provide a nice view. The picture included with the "Visit to Sugar Pine Point" entry is indeed from the cliffs below Sugar Pine Point looking up the main canyon to Wildcat Canyon. The ridge in the foreground is the southern shoulder of Snow Mountain with Big Granite Creek on the left side of the ridge.
    In another entry Russell mentions the damage to the Big Granite Trail caused by timber harvests. The public does have a trail easement across the land where the trail was damaged and it should be pointed out that the easement does permit the land owner to harvest within the easement with no requirement to repair the trail damage. The easement also allows the public to maintain the trail and I'm happy to say that volunteers with the North Fork American River Alliance through the Forest Service's Adopt-A-Trail program did repair and restore the trail.