August 3 (1982, 1986, 1988, 2001, 2002)
Camping Atop Snow Mtn ~ Indian Ouzels of Wabena Falls
Mysteries of Green Valley

8/3/82 Perched on the east end of Snow Mountain, sun in my face, wind unabated since yesterday, the river roars 4000' below. I was so happy yesterday morning once I'd decided to come here. I listened to one happy song on the Grappelli/Menuhin tape over and over, broke into a silly dance from time to time. Had lunch at the Scoop, and drove up to lower Cascade Lake, at about 6700' elev., and a mile northeast of Devils Peak. I hiked directly and unflaggingly to the intersection of a ridge with the north face of Snow; rested a wee bit, and continued to the windswept summit, around 8000' elev., 4500' above the N. Fk.

The ridgecrest was flat with a few knolls of bedrock about. Searching for a campsite, I found a little terrace on the lee side of the crest with fine clifftop perches ~ and an active bear camp. Never seen so much scat in one spot. I set up camp and explored down to this end of the ridge, where a fine mixed stand of Red Fir, Mountain Hemlock, and Western White Pine has somehow withstood the winds that beat upon this very exposed ridge. Here are spectacular cliffs, a meadow within the forest, a view of a waterfall in the Royal Gorge ~ and no enormous piles of bear scat.

So I moved camp. A somewhat restless night wondering if the bear'd investigate, and the moon nearly full dragging its feet while crossing the sky; wind howling, howling, roaring through the trees. Up before dawn, out here to the clifftop with a large cup of coffee, chilled even with sweater and down jacket.

~ Later. A closer examination of my new camp reveals more bear scat and sleeping hollows about ten feet away. Too windy for mosquitoes to be much of a problem, which is fortunate as I left the repellent in the car. Wandering around this morning, I came upon a red fir that had been struck by lightning. A large portion of the trunk had exploded away, leaving 10 to 20 foot fence rails scattered about, some 50 feet away. The ground at the tree's base had been churned up thoroughly.

The waterfalls around Heath Springs are very enticing. Shall go there soon.

I think I'll snuggle into my bag for a little snooze.”

[Russell Towle's journal]

August 3, 1986 Morning; I awoke before dawn to the faint vibrations of an earthquake, probably another aftershock at Chalfont.

Then, a while later, a canyon wren—the canyon wren of this summer—came chirping along, crawling about my window in the loft. Yesterday I was depressed, today I feel better.


For the past week I've had the hose dripping water over the big rock beside the cabin; it makes the moss all green and fresh, and brings the robins and jays and squirrels there to drink. The squirrels are ground squirrels—I watch them quite a bit, they're cute. They climb a ways into the trees, and like to perch and gaze around, sitting motionless.”

[Russell Towle's journal]

8/3/88 Morning; I await Gay, who is scheduled to arrive this morning for a hike, possibly to the waterfalls below Wabena Point in the Royal Gorge. The heat wave has slacked off, thank goodness.”

[Russell Towle's journal]

Date: Fri, 3 Aug 2001 15:43:38 -0800
To: North_Fork_Trails
From: Russell Towle
Subject: The Indian Ouzels of Wabena Falls

Hi all,

Yesterday young Luc Olrich (23) and I made a visit to Wabena Falls, in the Royal Gorge of the North Fork American River. We met in Colfax and made the long drive, by way of Iowa Hill and Sugar Pine reservoir, over to the Foresthill/Soda Springs road, then up and up and up, perhaps ten miles past Robinson Flat, to the unmarked trailhead, near a point surveyed at 6371 feet in elevation, in the upper west basin of Wabena Creek. Wildcat Point, just to the west on our side of the canyon (the south side), stands 3000 feet above the river, while across the canyon, the massive bulk of Snow Mountain lifts a gigantic expanse of bladed cliffs over 4000 feet above the river.

Luc Olrich
By a quirk of fate Luc and I both have home-made metal-handled loppers, and we set off down the trail planning to open up some of the worst sections. We wore long pants, a necessity, and we each cut around two or three hundred branches. Later, on the way back up and out, I remarked to Luc that it was as if we had done nothing. That is one badly overgrown trail.

I made the mistake of over-lopping, and started to feel kind of shaky and over-heated from the exertion. I knew I should stop, to conserve energy for the hike, generally, but really nasty branches kept getting in my way. Sweat streamed into my eyes.

We paused at the crossing of Wabena Creek, with its lovely waterfalls, and pools swarming with trout. Continuing down toward the river, we noted how the trail is sometimes well-defined, sometimes invisible save for the rock ducks left by other hikers. We wished to establish the course of a high trail making a shortcut to Wabena Falls, and veered away from the main trail at a certain point, to follow a more northeastern course.

There are some curious springs nestled in a patch of forest there, and at the base of a large ponderosa pine, ca. four feet in diameter with a huge basal mound, we came across the most perfectly-formed bear bed I have ever seen. It was like a giant bird's nest, four or five feet across and near two feet deep, with a well-defined rim about a foot high all the way around. A perfect circle.

We tried to conserve elevation and succeeded too well, finding ourselves three or four hundred feet above the falls with a long stretch of angular, shifting talus to descend. Soon enough we reached the brink of the cliffs which almost encircle Wabena Falls and the huge, deep pool at its base. Here, at 3800 feet in elevation, there is a lot of glacial smoothing of the Jurassic intrusives which compose the eastern half of Snow Mountain, and much of Wabena Point. Locally, the joints in the rock (a fine-grained diorite) are less closely-spaced, making them resist glacial plucking better. Perhaps the most dominant joint planes run athwart the canyon, and are almost vertical, making for spur ridges which converge from either side upon a waterfall and pool, at such places.

Wabena Falls and Pool
We admired the falls and the nearly circular and very deep pool, ranging from emerald green to almost black in color, and sparkling brightly in the noonday sun. Being hot and tired, it was imperative to reach the pool soon, and not caring to make the 100-foot jump, we followed along the edge of the cliffs westward until a heavily beaten game trail led us to the only feasible place to descend. I was in the lead, and while negotiating a steep section, studded with boulders enmeshed in the roots of an ancient live oak, I heard a sudden buzzing rattle, very brief, and almost serene. A rattlesnake sprawled a few feet below me. It did not seem too concerned about my presence. I offered a few words of reassurance, something like, "Take it easy, big fellow, I'll stay well clear," and picked my way past. As Luc followed, the snake disappeared into a tiny hole in the mossy steep threaded with oak roots.

At the river, just below, we found that the falls are well hidden. There is a short bend in the gorge just below the falls, and nothing to indicate that one of the great jewels of the Royal Gorge is but a few steps upstream. We arrived in short order and within a matter of seconds the clothes were gone and we plunged into the water. It was surprisingly cold, similar to the water of the Pool of Cold Fire in the North Fork of the North Fork. We each swam to where the falls plunge into the pool, but neither of us dared to swim directly beneath them. Low as the river is, in this unusually dry year, to be hit on the head by masses of water which have fallen forty or fifty feet clear is not pleasant.

Emerging from the pool, Luc discovered the carcass of a large owl or some type of raptor. The sharp claws were there, but no head. We found some shade along the cliffs and ate lunch. Afterwards, I suggested a ramble upstream; there were some other large waterfalls, I said, perhaps a quarter or half a mile up. We left our packs in the shade and started up and over the cliffs. After a while a way presented itself to return to the river, and we followed it up until another pair of spur ridges, meeting at a smaller waterfall with a very nice and deep pool, forced us to climb up and around again.

View of Wildcat Point from the North Fork
American River near Wabena Falls
The entire Royal Gorge area is full of large talus slides and debris aprons, some of which are simply monstrous, and have been developing for thousands of years. Again and again I saw signs of major avalanches of talus which had briefly dammed the river and then been breached, during the January 1997 flood event. It is quite remarkable how fresh many of these areas look to this day. In some places, small rocks and sand remain atop of boulders well away from the river, and twenty feet or so above its level, being vestiges of a rockslide which had filled the channel to that depth and who know how much more, before being ripped away by the raging flood. At one place, very large avalanche, perhaps of mixed snow and rock, had fallen from high on Wabena Point. I could go on and on about the almost desert-like wastelands of angular boulders and avalanche sediments, which look as raw and fresh as if they had happened yesterday; they are entirely uncolonized by new vegetation.

We admired the many boulders of marble found along this stretch of the river, which come from a small body of the same a few miles upstream, near Heath Springs. They range from sparkling sugar white, to banded and mottled blue-gray in color. When struck by another rock, they smell of sulphur, like a match. There are many huge erratics of granite from the Palisade Creek area littering this part of the canyon, as well as large masses of diorite from the flanking cliffs, and quite an assortment of other rock types, including some meta-mudflow.

My "quarter of a mile" became half a mile with no sign of a big waterfall. Still, we hopped along, boulder to boulder, or sometimes walking the small gravel bars. At a certain point I almost blundered over another rattlesnake. It did not rattle, but became unnerved and began to slither rapidly away. It made for a boulder and started up the side. "What, you think you're going right up and over that thing?," I asked the snake incredulously. Embarassed, it stopped, halfway up the steep side of the boulder. We left it to work things out in peace, and after a time a reddish spur ridge came into view another ways upstream. I recognized it as the one flanking the big falls. So, we forged ahead, and reached the falls, and the lovely deep deep pool. These are the two-tiered, double falls one sees from Wabena Point, at the petroglyphs. Luc swam again, I got my feet wet. The sun was hiding behind Snow Mountain as the afternoon waned, and I just wasn't quite ready to brave the cold water with no sun to warm me when I got out.

Ouzel House
We had more than a mile to go to reach our packs, and soon started back down the river. All afternoon we had been herding water ouzels along the river; they were constantly fluttering on ahead of us, and every single rock near the water's edge was dotted with their poop. While hopping across a group of rather large boulders in the bed of the river, six to ten feet across, I found the most amazing water ouzel nest I have ever seen. It was built right on top of a large boulder, in plain view. It was like a little Indian house or some such thing, a perfect dome of moss and grasses, with a neat little entrance hole facing the water. Usually ouzel nests are on cliffs beside waterfalls, and cunningly located so as to be nearly invisible, and always to be inaccessible to rats and snakes. This nest seemed to have no such protection, although the sides of the boulder were steep. Luc suggested that perhaps during nesting season, the river had been higher, and surrounded the boulder on all sides.

Hopping and hopping we continued downstream Luc gave a sudden shout and made an awkward landing; he had had to change his jump in mid-air, to avoid a tightly coiled rattlesnake, missing it by a couple of inches and dancing past. This snake seemed reluctant to uncoil, but as I photographed it, it suddenly decided to charge us down, and we left, discretion being the better part, and so on.

We repeated the same ups and downs to pass the various falls in reverse order and regained our packs. After a break, we followed the river down to the confluence of Wabena Creek. Here there was the largest desert-of-angular-boulders yet. Wabena Creek had apparently become a violent unstoppable force in its own right, in January of 1997, and several acres of ground had been completely ravaged. Here also, the North Fork seeps underground, with no surface flow at all this time of the year. This is just upstream from one of the tremendous debris aprons on Snow Mountain, plainly visible from the confluence. Wabena Creek itself also flows underground here. There is such a deep accumulation of avalanche debris here, that during low flows the water simply sinks well below the surface.

The sun was also sinking, so we scouted along beside Wabena Creek until we found the trail, such as it is. The climb up to the crossing of Wabena Creek, about a thousand feet higher and a mile away, was brutal, in the full sun. I must admit I was pretty well thrashed by the day's exercise. We had a long rest at the Wabena crossing, filled our water bottles right from the creek, and continued up. The sun had lowered enough so that we were now in shade, only the ridgecrests above still holding light. This made the climb much, much easier. I stopped wishing I had never been born, etc. etc., and we slogged along patiently, while the sun set and night came on. A full moon would offer no help for hours, so we more or less stayed the course and made the trailhead in the last vestiges of the twilight. Driving out, we arrived back in Colfax a little after eleven.

It was a marvelous hike to a marvelous place, and even when we do get the brush cut back from the trail, it will be a rough tough go and few will be the people who will dare the descent, to swim the magic pools, herd the ouzels, and bother the rattlesnakes.

Date: Sat, 3 Aug 2002 19:54:19 -0800
To: North_Fork_Trails
From: Russell Towle
Subject: Bud Burke and the Mystery of the Lost Anvil

Hi all,

Having only just crept up the Green Valley Trail, a 2100-foot climb, I am tired and sore and not at the very peak of keenness and sagacity, so bear with me.

This morning Bud Burke, a professor of geology at Humboldt State, who specializes in Quaternary sediments, pursuing research in Central Asia and Eastern California, and one of his students, Paul C., arrived at my place with full packs, for a visit to Green Valley. I was to show Bud and Paul some of the interesting ice-age sediments, glacial outwash terraces and the like, down there.

I had never met Bud in person and was excited that he was able to find time to visit Green Valley, which I had described to him by email. This was not an easy thing for Bud to pull off, for it is an eight-hour drive at the least from Arcata down to Dutch Flat, and he is on his way to Walla Walla, Washington! Paul C. is in his senior year, and may choose to do his senior thesis on these Green Valley sediments.

As we tramped down the trail I launched into a whole lot of what my kids refer to as "blah blah blah" or "yak yak yak," or other less complimentary terms. It was a mishmash of local history and geological speculations and God knows what I was saying, but I said a lot of it, whatever it was. Bud and Paul were a good audience. Every once in a while I had the extreme civility to listen to something Bud would say. After all, he has done more real geology than I have even dreamed of dreaming to be possible. And so we descended into the Great American Canyon. At a certain point I brought up the subject of the Peter Wright anvil my stepson, Gus, discovered, while we were climbing out of Green Valley a couple weeks past.

The anvil had been hidden in a pile of boulders, well off the trail. I was to find (on the internet!) that Peter Wright was an ironworker in the Mouse Hole Forge in England and had left, in 1850, to start up his own anvil business, patenting a new method of forging anvils, from just two pieces, rather than the traditional seven. These anvils are in high demand and fetch a few hundred dollars. How had the anvil, battered from long use, reached this obscure point? I speculated that someone had tried to carry it up and out of Green Valley, in order to sell it, had tired (it weighs 90 pounds), and had cached it in the rocks, planning to finish the job "another day."

So amid all the rest of the yak yak yak I explained this in detail to Bud and Paul. We paused to look towards the spot where the anvil lay hidden, but, sweat drenching us in the hot sun, did not actually visit it. Instead we forged ahead, as it were, and after a spot of work on the High West Trail, which is now completely passable, if still obscure in places, we reached the river and swam in the most perfect, cool, clear, refreshing water on this earth. We were at the pool at the west end of Green Valley, below the high banks of the Green Valley Blue Gravel hydraulic mine on the north, and across the river, approximately, from the Gold Ring Mine on the south. This pool is, oh, 200 feet long, quite deep in places, and has a funky rope swing which really doesn't do the job along the north side.

After a lunch break, and some interesting tales of Bud's research in Asia and the east side of the Sierra, we walked upstream a short distance and forded the river to examine some of the cemented glacial outwash gravels. These are typically in direct contact with the serpentine bedrock. We were at the base of the trail to the Gold Ring Mine, now a quarter-mile west. Above a stratum of cemented gravel are some fine-grained sediments, very light in color, in places horizontally stratified. These intrigued Bud. He proclaimed them lake sediments and suggested a rockfall, downstream in Giant Gap, had dammed up the North Fork. However, as we scouted along the sediment beds, we found that they dipped steeply in some places, and were only flat-lying very locally. We began picking apart the layers, looking for fossils, and found some beguiling linear structures which might have been impressions of conifer needles. Even under a hand lens, nothing was certain.

I proposed an alternate model for deposition of the fine-grained seds: that, while Green Valley was more or less buried beneath a floodplain of glacial outwash, the river had meandered across the outwash plain, and had perhaps even left cut-off meanders here and there, little oxbow lakes which filled with the fine sediments.

We left the site. I should mention that I had also told Bud and Paul of the strange ideas of one Dr. Wallace Halsey, who taught, fifty years ago, that aliens had come to Earth over many thousands of years to educate humanity, and had built pyramids, and taught humans to build pyramids, all over the planet. Two such alien pyramids were in California, Halsey said: one, in the Owens Valley; the other, in Green Valley. So, I impressed upon Bud and Paul the mystical ramifications of Green Valley, and of Giant Gap, and the Pyramid (which, on the 7.5 minute Dutch Flat quadrangle, is identified as having an elevation of 2277 feet—surely no accident).

We walked to the Gold Ring Mine, and lo! The owners were there! Four men of somewhat advanced age, and one younger man, had ridden motorcycles down the "other" Green Valley Trail, on the south side of the canyon. They have special permission from the Forest Service and BLM to do so (unfortunately). They were very nice. One of them, I believe his name was Al Platt, came over to me, and immediately—this is bizarre but true—he said something to this effect: "I have been coming here for 56 years! I used to ride my motorcycle down the Green Valley Trail! And once I tried to haul an anvil up the Green Valley Trail, but my bike broke down half-way up, so I hid the anvil nearby!"

So, the Mystery of the Lost Anvil is at last solved! Al told me, too, exactly where it came from, and agreed that it really ought to remain in Green Valley. It will be a job and a half getting it back down the trail and across the river. Oh well, another day.

We stood around and talked with them for a while, and I lamented once again that I had never, even after reading old newspapers until I was blue in the face for years on end—never ever had I been able to verify that age-old story, that "twenty-two Chinese miners" had been buried, along with their sluice box, at the Hayden Hill Mine. All these old timers swore up and down that the story was true, but had no idea what the original source of the story was. I allowed that the renowned Dr. Wallace Halsey himself had mentioned the unlucky Chinese miners. Al Platt said that a bunch of Chinese had come to Green Valley 20 or 25 years ago, and performed some kind of ceremony, to quiet the spirits of the dead miners. They all agreed that this ceremony had happened, too. Gosh. Another thing I never had a clue to.

So I am left wondering whether what I have tended to dismiss as a fairy tale might really be true. Having read the newspapers of Placer County for the 1850s, 1860s, 1870s, 1880s, 1890s, and even beyond, without every seeing any mention of this major mining accident, I had come to disregard its truth. Now, suddenly, "they say" a ceremony was performed. Spirits were soothed. Dr. Wallace Halsey said it was true. My stout resistance begins to crumble. I must have not read the one crucial issue of the "Stars and Stripes," or the "Placer Argus," or the "Dutch Flat Enquirer." This is indeed possible, since some issues are missing, from even the most famous and complete library collections.

I left Bud and Paul by that perfect pool, and walked slowly up the trail. It was four in the afternoon. Sweat poured into my eyes as I lopped away at the branches which constantly intrude upon the trail. I stopped and looked at the anvil on the way up. It's looking fine. I added a couple more boulders to the pile in which it hides, and soon enough, I was home with Janet and Greg, drinking Tang, and thinking about the strange history of Green Valley, and the crystal pools of the North Fork American.


Russell Towle

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