BOGUS THUNDER: A Strenuous Exploration of Isolated and Pristine Canyon Country Deep in the Heart of the North Fork of the Middle Fork American River
A land of riches once rent asunder
Where gold crazed men went to conquer and plunder
Where today I sit by the river and wonder. . .
Late summer is the Sybarite's season to seek out the sublime glory holes of Sierra Nevada's low elevation rivers, to take a hint from ol' Ed Abbey and find a place off the charts to just "breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space." I’m hoping to ramp up the SFP factor (Seriously F***ing Pretty) by several notches somewhere in nearby Gold Rush territory, ideally find a place I've never ventured to before, in foothill country beyond historic Auburn. This unsuspecting wild place harbors hidden treasures - healthy forests, rugged mountains, pure air and water, no people (but it's not necessarily a place to find spectacular waterfalls like in the iconic Royal Gorge of the North Fork American River). The land is a fissured matrix of small, deceptively rugged canyons that are largely ignored, unexplored and unknown about. Tiring year to year of the "same old same old" (why, shame on you, Gambolin' Man! How can the enchanting and luscious South Fork Yuba or the incomparably beautiful upper reaches of the North Fork American ever bore?) – well, anyway, this year I'm seeking to feast on some higher hanging fruit.
So where to? Unless you’re a GPS-equipped, topo map-reading, compass-using hiker, good luck finding and then getting safely to these out of the way, inconvenient places on your own. How good are your topo interpretation skills? Are you confident of your cross-country gambolin' capabilities? What’s the status of your fast-fading acumen of being able to bushwhack through harsh, impenetrable terrain? And, can you rely on anyone else to join in on the scrambling escapade, thereby lessening the likelihood of a potentially fatal accidente solitaire?
So if you want to enter this temple, you've got to know the high priest with the keys. You need to know someone like Ron, a long-time resident of the area and hiker / bushwhacker / explorer extraordinaire, who, I'd stake a buck on it, knows the various secret ravines and forks and canyons and bi-forks and sub-canyons of Placer County’s American River system like no other person alive. (Tom Peterson, you there?) Ron is also a tireless open space / free passage advocate and trail clearer with Fiskars loppers always in tow. Matter of fact, hiking and trail maintenance are one and the same thing! At the juncture where Bogus Trail splits off from the Western States Trail, Ron and Gay (and Gambolin' Man in a tiny supporting role) pull out their loppers - Ron also extracts from his pack a foldable saw - and begin earnestly clearing out a huge downed tree that's blocking passage to the spur trail leading to the saddle of the ridge before all hell breaks loose and the trail drops down, down, down a slippery and rollicking 1600 ft. through the crackling dry forest and to the big payoff - the gorgeous river, whose cool ripples, Thoreau consoled, will ensure that whoever hears it "will not utterly despair of anything." In under twenty minutes, the trail is cleared of the fallen tree, and we congratulate ourselves on our handiwork in removing the huge obstacle from easy ingress. The only thing missing is a sign pointing that-a-way to Bogus Thunder. (Not!)
Ron had written to me earlier in the summer, "Hey, Tom, I’m going to get back into the NF of MF American sometime this summer/fall. It really is a pretty nice area and I want to do some more exploring of the canyon. I would probably like to go into Bogus Thunder for at least two nights to have some time to explore around. It’s probably about 2 miles and 2000 ' down to Bogus Thunder where there is a nice big camping flat just downstream. Let me know if you are interested in doing a trip into there."
Bogus Thunder!?! Having never heard of the place (surprising!), let alone having never been there (doubly surprising!), and with an appellation like Bogus Thunder - hell yeah, I’m interested in doing a trip into there, Ron old boy! What more memorable way to celebrate my birthday, than buck naked and high as a kite (spiritually) in a spectacular, unknown river canyon, where, traditionally, the celebratory rite is spent doing as much of nothing as possible except for maybe a little swimming and frolicking about. But if you've ever spent any guilt-free time just hangin' and chillin' down on the river for a fifty or hundred hour stretch, listening to its eternal song, melding with the flow of hours, that's tiring, too. No matter what, you're always active, doing something, jumping up, filtering water, exploring; supine relaxation is for the night and early morning hours only, generally, otherwise, you're constantly engaged in some hard scrabble bushwhackin' up or downstream, to see what you can see, to follow the river to its new place.
Bogus Thunder of the North Fork of the Middle Fork American, flows through the canyon here in showcase splendor hemmed in by prominent 4000 ft. Deadwood Ridge. Located in an area around Foresthill, this place has always been by-passed in pursuit of the next great North Fork American River adventure whose several extremely difficult trailheads are found at higher elevations, up to over 6500 ft. Although the Bogus trailhead is easily accessible down a 9-mile dirt road by passenger car, off the relatively well traveled Foresthill Divide Road - the place feels much farther away from the developed world than seems likely. Yet I venture to guess that only twenty people a season might make it down to Bogus Thunder. Translation – except for the most foolhardy - viz., intrepid - of Central Sierra Nevada western foothill canyon explorers, it’s way too rugged and steep, too easy to get lost, with its tough to discern trails and intractable terrain further adding to the severe under use. Not to mention a proliferation of poison oak, constant threat of a rattlesnake bite or bear encounter, god-awful heat, horrible disease vectors like mosquitoes and ticks, and the unthinkable prospects of twisting an ankle or injuring yourself, with no help on its immediate way and no easy way out. Ah, yes! Just how you want and expect a wild place to be! So if you’re going, you’ve got to be fearless. (But don't be stupid or out of your element.)
Ron’s casual description of the hike disarms me initially - "The first mile of the trail follows the well graded Western States Trail. The route to Bogus Thunder then follows an old miners trail for about 1 mile down to the river. The old trail has a foot bed but parts of this old trail are steep, not like the well graded trail into Palisade Creek.”
Steep! I’m familiar enough with the trails in this area to know that anything dropping down to the bottom of an American River canyon has got to be one mighty tough trail - perhaps a Bogus Trail falling away 1600 perilous feet at ridiculously steep pitches over slippery layers of oak leaf duff, pine needles, and dusty, cobble-strewn surfaces. I press Ron for more details, only confirming my suspicions that the short trail is going to test our mettle, kick our butts and thrash our knees, ankles, shins and feet. "The trail down to Bogus Thunder is mostly a dirt type trail bed. May be a little slippery/loose in a couple of the steep places, a walking stick could help someone feel more secure at these places. The last little drop to the river is a little rough. . ."
A little rough! A little steep! But what’s Ron gonna say to an old "North Fork" canyon hand like Gambolin' Man? So as not to scare me off, he understates the obvious. When it comes to exploring Sierra Nevada foothill canyonlands, a good motto is be prepared for and expect anything, and certainly you can count on a little roughness and a little steepness. Cowboy up, Gambolin' Man!
Curiously, I learn that Russell, who ardently explored and wrote extensively about these lands for over three decades, had never made the hadj to the temple of Bogus Thunder. When I ask Russell's loved one left behind, Gay, how he could have overlooked this one on his bucket list, she shakes her head and spreads out her arms, indicating how much there is to explore in this vast realm of heavily logged but largely untamed Tahoe National Forest wilderness, but I also sense, sadly, the implication that he would have eventually hiked into Bogus Thunder, like and with Ron and Gay, a half-dozen times by now had he not met with a tragic and untimely demise in a freak auto accident on the Yolo Causeway in August of 2008 just outside of Davis. (Resquiat In Pacem, Amigo!) (Hey, that IS you, isn't it, Ms. Osprey, Ms. Canyon Wren!)
In dropping high off Deadwood Ridge, in going down into the depths of this special canyon, down, down, down into a hauntingly beautiful oasis environment that bedazzles the senses with endless magical expressions of animist power - Mother Nature humming and buzzing with vitality and abundance - in having the privilege of being guided into this cut-off-from-civilization paradise, I feel a huge connection to Russell - we all do - and a promise welling up to meet his protector spirit, as I have on past occasions, in the ancestral lands of his eternal wanderings. Ms. Osprey is a sure sign, but maybe Ms. Canyon Wren, too, plays into it. One hot afternoon, we're taking a break from our gorge scramble, entranced by our wild surroundings, and hoping to evoke a response, I whistle in my most convincing bird call (not very good!) the lilting, sonorous tweet of Russell's favorite bird, when some other bird calls back, and Gay and I exchange bemused glances - that isn't a Canyon Wren! - and a second later, we hear her clarion call saying hello! (Ted Floyd, editor of Birding Magazine, characterizes the "shrill beet" song as "a decelerating series of 10 - 15 clear whistles, each note descending in pitch: dyeer! dyeer dyeer dyeer deer deer. . .") Hello, RussellSpirit!
Bogus Thunder is but a mere speck on the face of the earth, yet it is such a powerful force of nature. The entire North Fork of the Middle Fork American River, situated at 2037 ft. above sea level, is tiny and insignificant as life-blood arteries of water go, and yet it is a masterpiece, a showcase, of wild splendor. Having belabored the point enough already, I can't help myself - not many people get to Bogus Thunder, or know about it or could find their way down and back up and out, and it's just as well, don't you agree. The world needs more such places not many people can get to - "in wildness is the preservation of the world" Thoreau foresaw; or Gerard Manley Hopkins' "What would the world be, once bereft of wet and wilderness? / Let them be left / O let them be left, wilderness and wet / Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet."
But sometimes I wonder, if by publishing this entry, am I contributing to the ruder clarion call for every river rat and pool junkie to make the bang-up pilgrimage to Bogus Thunder? I think not. Anyone with a sniff of curiosity and inclination can find it on a topo map, or despite my professed stance that not just anybody can get there without expert guidance, you can probably do it if you're in good shape and you have experience hiking wicked trails and if you really, really want it. (Best to go in with a party of at least three.) With the exception of an in-the-know cadre of local hiker/explorers such as Ron, who has hiked down here a half dozen times, and lucky people like myself and Gay, the only other humans who make it down here are thrill-seeking kayakers. Driven by fierce motivation of one kind or another, in our case by another deeper purpose to pay homage, a spiritual call of the wild, only a few of us ever get to experience the magic of Bogus Thunder, get to willingly subject ourselves to the challenging rigors and rewards - not to pan for gold or hunt for fish or seek wet and wild monster runs - but to do it for the sheer existential reason of simply. . .being there. Being here, a part of the grand, eternal show. Being immersed in the purity and truth of the unfolding pageantry. Being cellularly cleansed by the experience. Being transformed. Being leavened spiritually. Being able to let what Muir referred to as the "carnal incrustations" of life melt away like bear fat in a miner's hot pan.
Back in the day, though, it was another story. Gold, of course, was the raison d’etre, the alluring attraction, for humans' presence in this no man’s land. Deadwood the town was founded in 1852 by fortune-seekers who amassed a 500 person strong settlement - there were probably Chinese laundries and lurid opium dens, harlot-infested hotels, and sinful gambling parlors. By day, the men tunneled and hydraulic mined until the terraformed landscape was sucked dry of its precious nuggets. In a frenzy to coax ever more gold from the riverbed and high flood walls, teams of bedraggled men labored mightily to dig out dangerous gaping holes in unstable cliff faces, construct ditches to channel flushing water through, and build trenches to support flume boxes. They piled pyramids of rock – monuments to futility – up above the river banks, their bodies wracked from doing hard penitential, mostly fruitless labor, since just a fraction of the gold miners who went for broke actually ended up not going broke. (Translation: only a tiny few struck it rich.) The vast majority of these enterprising souls eventually realized a better more predictable line of business was in the cards, and packed things up and moved on back to the cush accountant job in bustling Sacramento, or went off to peddle shovels and Levi's in Hangtown, or headed back East to reunite with the wife and kids. Could these bestial men, so single-minded and philistine in their devotion to finding a precious metal – dying for gold, killing for gold – could they really have been, as an 1860 report averred, “independent, prosperous, and happy”?
Even though Deadwood was on the decline by 1855, sporadic settlements existed into the early part of the twentieth century, as hundreds of men, enslaved to the cruelly hopeless belief of hitting it big, hustled and bustled like a nightmarish formicary, laden with all their bulky tools and heavy equipment, all in the vain hopes of striking a rich vein. How did they get this clunky mechanical shit down here? (Poor burros!) Steely lengths of cable and pulleys and high-powered hoses kept the miners busy working their asses off from dawn til dusk in a perfervid dream to tap the next Mother Lode. Even pistol maker Sam Colt took up residence in Deadwood for a while and no doubt tested his handiwork on a few renegade souls. But when the riches were exhausted, the place was quickly deserted and has remained so ever since.
Which is what makes Bogus Thunder such a special place - the angst and agony of the trip in and out, and down there on that little river of radiant beauty and sublime charm, it's a world removed, a snapshot of how things used to be anyoldwhere in California. A friend of Gay’s, an avid hiker named Julie, pined about her love affair in a post from several years ago, "But really, you just want to take this one home in your back pocket!" And so, we’re all stealing her line left and right as we gawk in amazement at every new beautiful view unfolding downstream of city-block long aquamarine channels of water held in by polished alabaster rock walls - "But really, I just want to take this one home in my back pocket!" – as we ogle in lascivious reverence at every new erotic pool - "But really, I just want to take this one home in my back pocket!" – as we sigh in breathtaking epiphanies of rapturous joy breaking out in our hearts at every nook and cranny of this impossibly beautiful and charming river - "BUT REALLY, I JUST WANT TO TAKE THIS ONE HOME IN MY BACK POCKET, DAMMIT!"
But we can't. The river ain't goin' nowhere, except along on its relentless never-ending journey. The river is here to stay, defying our wishes, denying our influence and mocking our authority. The river, thankfully, exists of its own, apart from human meddling - it is "ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins." This is goodness. Well put, Langston.
The key to Bogus Thunder’s mystique, immense charm, redoubtable isolation and preserved pristine character. . . is in the getting down. The simple act of descending a mere couple of thousand feet over a mere couple of miles. Doesn’t sound too, too bad, until you read from an 1860 account, “The sides of the ridge upon which it stands are so steep, that rocks rolled from the top in some places would continue their motion until they reached the bed of El Dorado Creek on the one side, or of the North Fork of the Middle Fork of the American River on the other, a mile distant from the place where they were set in motion.” Ouch! That sounds steep!
Averaging out this minuscule distance of two miles seems reasonable, so how bad can it be? Well, the truth of the bogus trail is that the first mile (or last out) is a stroll in the park along the well-maintained Western States Trail. As you approach a lower saddle off the 4000 ft. Deadwood Ridge, where the remains of about thirty people are buried somewhere in unmarked graves in the lonesome cemetery, the trail plunges down and out of sight immediately; it’s not so much a walkin' trail as it is a rutted animal trail, or series of faint pathways, fanning out in various directions into plunging lengths of trail made additionally slippery by brittle debris and doubly treacherous owing to roots and rocks and downed trees which require special exertion and agile maneuverability in getting up and over, or under, or around their massive web of downed branches or huge trunks. We all slip more than once and land smack on our butts, legs splayed high and packs nearly thrown off. Not only is it mirthless to slip and fall, it's a huge expense of precious energy, and dangerous to boot. A sprained ankle or poked eye or dehydration or heat stroke or hypothermia or a rattlesnake bite could prove fatal. Out here, down here – there is nothing, nobody to rescue you; you’re truly on your own. Every move requires caution, confidence and composure. Be smart. Have respect. Stay humble. (Banish stupidity, irreverence and hubris!). It is easy to get lost but for a keen eye, common sense, and the colorfully flagged branches every so often sure help. But, yes, I admit it - I'm nervous, what with my bum ankle and all. . .but up for the challenge! My spirit says go for it, you can take on the sloping, twisty brown snake on whose slippery back you will make a switchback-bereft beeline nearly straight down 1600 exhilarating feet . . . surely, it is the most arduous mile of my life. Even so, it sometimes actually becomes a decent footbed, winding through an aromatic, arid forest of live and black oak, Ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, and several attractive specimens of California Torreya, a conifer also known as nutmeg yew, identifiable - and felt - by its stringy stingy sharp needles. The day is hot, but in the shady forest the sun's heat is tempered, and stretches of the trail are actually quite pleasant, apart from occasional plagues of mosquitoes and biting flies and those annoying and dastardly wicked trail plunges.
But, all said and done, moving through and negotiating each step of the journey through this difficult landscape proves to be manageable with a one step at a time, I can do it mindset, and an inspirational sotto voce mantra murmured to a good steady breathing rhythm. I joke to Ron and Gay, both billy-goats, that going up will be a whole lot easier than coming down. It always is, isn't it? In what seems like no time, really - but maybe it takes us an hour? - or two? - maybe we've been glissading down this nasty trail with our big loads for three hours? The next thing I sense - I swear I smell it before hearing it - is the river, still about 75 ft below us. A ridiculously tough 75 ft., let me tell you. By now, the fatigue and heat of the day is getting to me, but following Ron's lead, Gay taking up the rear, we bully our way down the final pitch - stepping on and over crazily unstable, slippery rocks, clinging to (hopefully not poison oak) branches, vines and roots for support, scooting down if we have to on our butts - until we safely emerge, wiped out, exhausted and all scratched up (well, I'll speak for myself) at the river's edge.
Dazzling damsels and dragonflies dancing above the lush river, flitting about magisterially, rushing water whirring by. I'm instantly charmed and enthralled by the soothing song and gurgling motion. I'm oohing and aahing vocally, as are Ron and Gay, by the beautiful surroundings of this wild and remote setting we've arrived at. It’s putting me in a swoon, as though my pants have been charmed off by a stunning beauty at the county fair giving me a flirty once-over. I throw off the weltering weight of my pack, and feel delirious of mind, and light of body, a sensation with the river rushing by in sparkling hues of lavender and salmon that leaves me feeling euphoric but debilitated, and in dire need of a major head-dipping in the chilled water. Too wobbly to bend over or get in, I fill my cap with pure clean sparkling (healing) liquid gold and repeatedly drench myself. Soon, I'm feeling back to my normal chipper Gambolin' Man self. Thank the Spirits of this Sacred Place! Heat stroke, sun fatigue, dehydration - these are not things to take lightly here or anywhere, so I'm grateful to have weathered the dizzy spell after just a few minutes. Without a doubt, the river has touched me, and my energy and spirit are reinvigorated. (While I'm in baptismal mode, I also give my mangled feet a good soaking in the healing waters.)
Ron, Gay, and Otis - doggone it! How could I forget about Otis, Ron's affectionate and loyal hound dog! - they all seem fine. Actually, I am too. Bad ankle and all, I have survived! We recoop for a few minutes, then figure out the best way to ford the electric current bustling along in riffs and cascades and rapidy little chutes and suddenly deep dipping holes that could knock you on your ass in a second and, maybe not carry you away to your death, but drench you and your belongings, and possibly bang yourself up pretty seriously if you aren't careful enough to not get knocked over in the first place. Not an easy thing to avoid. Looking upstream, then down, the beauty and grace of the river easily mesmerizes and holds your consciousness hostage to its "grand eternal show", its random, ever changing, never duplicative processes unfolding in ceaseless rhythms of Mother Nature humming and buzzing with vitality and abundance. But don't get distracted - you've got to ford this puppy safely!
Ron helps Gay cross over a bridge of well-placed rocks, but it looks slippery and awkward, with dire consequences resulting with one little bungle. It's not that I don’t trust Ron, far from it; it's that I don’t trust myself. So, I choose another route, where I sidle awkwardly into a small channel with water up to my knees, pressing down against a large boulder with the weight of my pack bearing down, white water swirling by with enough force to destabilize me, and bit by bit I inch my way across, exploiting strategically located boulders to help me with each lunge forward. It's so awkward I can't use a walking stick even if I had wanted to. Finally across this little kicker of a stream, we climb up a ziggy jumble of moss-covered rocks to crest at a short trail - an old miner's ditch from the Gold Rush Days - and then down through a gnarled oak forest to come upon a large clearing about fifty feet above the river. "Here we are," Ron announces, "What do you think about camping here?" It's a commodious and propitious site to call home for a couple of nights. The sense of isolation is real and enduring. We throw off our packs, and go off to explore the epicenter - the meadow is probably the size of two football fields - and we come upon evidence that others in the past have also enjoyed coming here - via helicopter. Ron recounts some story of some guy who had something to do with mining or logging, no doubt, who used to drop in and party down. The landing tracks, who knows how old, are smeared and faint but clearly visible in the layer of packed dirt. But what a cop-out, getting to come here in style like that! Shouldn't being here be an earned privilege? Shouldn't experiencing this pay-off require grit and guts and gumption? Shouldn't this culmination of our supreme efforts be achieved by the pain and rigor of physical torture? Well, not always, evidently. I'm sure they toasted to that, whoever they were.
Our meadow - the only available camping site within two river miles up or downstream - affords wonderful views of the surrounding forest, and there are even picnic tables, although they are rotting, but serve us capably nonetheless. Fast elapsing hours of physical activity and non-stop action blend into relaxing evenings of conversation, eating, and a shot of whisky before retiring to the sack. The comforting white noise of the river - the bogus thunder invoked by spooked miners - stills all thoughts at night, calms nerves, allays fears, inspires a deep yearning and connection. Lying awake in the warm open air, under the starry firmament of a night sky featuring infinite constellations of stars, flashing meteorites and a glittering Milky Way. . .I'm cozy and exhausted, dreamy-headed and out of it, happy to be listening to the song of the river that, as Norman Maclean writes, "has so many things to say that it is hard to know what it says to each of us." Well, I know what the river speaks to my heart - it speaks of eternal beauty, power, sustenance of the soul, love even - effecting a magical quieting down of jumpy anxious energy, a lasting lesson about my place in the flow of the universe, more poetically stated by the grand master Da Vinci, "In rivers, the water that you touch is the last of what has passed and the first of that which comes; so with present time."
First thing we really do is hang our food - actually, Ron takes it upon himself to hoist up the victuals, while Gay and I discourse animatedly about Lord Knows What (at one point we we discuss her experimentation with preparing and cooking with acorns, a too time and labor-intensive process to further pursue it). . .all the while, I'm observing his technique, a simple trick to foil the bears by hanging the bags 12 ft. up and 6 ft. away from a trunk. He ties a rock around his nylon cord and on his second attempt he manages to fling it accurately right over a limb situated according to those specifications. After last year's Royal Gorge bear debacle (see http://gambolinman.blogspot.com/2010/08/snow-mountain-wilderness-adventure-and.html), I have vowed to never learn that lesson again, and so hanging is the law of the land. In places like Bogus Thunder where the presence of humans is virtually nonexistent, the bears haven't been corrupted or spoiled and so there's not a lot to worry about, but it's still wise to hang all food, cosmetics, liquids, toiletries, and - if you're real old school - your stash of 35mm film; but chances are you won't be staring down or seeing the ass-end of any she-bear down here anytime soon. It's too wild. (Sounds like a contradiction, but it's true.) But in places like Yosemite, where cunning and determined bears are inured to humans, and know how to exploit their weaknesses and mistakes, hanging is not an option; bear canisters are mandatory in the back country. (It's never a bear problem; always a human problem.)
The morning of my birthday, August 20 - I open my eyes to a new dawn and wake up one year older, and now here I am, three-fifths of the way to sixty, and deep in (not debt or doo-doo, my friends!) but deep in a wild, remote, rugged canyon harboring the spirit of a primordial river on its mystical journey through life. Waking up to this realization - breathing in the fresh morning air redolent of pine duff and toasted pecans, loving the gentle light - it moves me to a self-reflective moment of spiritual introspection and reverential silence. I just want to revel in the sensory glow of this glorious creation. (Well, Happy Birthday, Gambolin' Man! Fifty-six and still gettin' yer kicks!)
After brewing a cup of coffee, and greeting Ron and Gay, having breakfast, small talking, I head down to the river to filter water, and just sit there silently, me and Otis, who has now joined me. Otis is thirsty as hell, lapping madly at the water. I'm entranced by the refractory tableau, the utter peace and calm and tranquility of this river world. I can't express the feeling welling up in me at this cry-your-eyes-out sight of such.. .such. . .such primordial purity and pristine beauty.
Ah, everyone's thinking - there goes Gambolin' Man again with his hyperbolic evocations and exaggerated descriptions of a river is a river is a river ... certainly the North Fork of the Middle Fork constitutes a familiar scene, typical of California's Gold Rush country, of rugged mountains and ridges, striated colorful rocks, sweet swimming holes, mythical gorges, cliffy promontories. With variant exceptions, ain't it all the same? Bogus Thunder somehow is set apart, feels different, is self-contained light-years from anywhere I've been or know. . .I can't explain it. Perhaps, though, I feel this exalted sense only because it's a new venue. Perhaps only because it's a place of extraordinary privilege to be. Perhaps really because it's the living embodiment of wilderness purity. And to think at one time the miners down here, trashing the place, tearing things up, polluting the water, their crude and impure lives. . .today it has recovered and been left alone. It probably hasn't changed in a hundred years or more. I doubt a hundred years from now things will be much different.
The river is borne from the land of sky blue waters. . .originating high up in the Sierra Nevada on the western slopes of Duncan Peak - and generates enough carving force to sculpt out its own hidden canyon for maybe a 30 mile run before joining forces with the Middle Fork American River. It is a riparian arm of a rugged watershed system that flows unimpeded, uninterrupted, unpolluted, pure and pristine from its high fount to the confluence - a journey through a little canyon that might easily go unnoticed or unexplored during a lifetime . . .as I've mentioned, the King of Placer County hiking, Russell Towle, never made it here in all his scouting and forays.
We stock up on food and head upstream to a place Ron wants to share with us - a place called Devil's Gate. . .there they go again with their daemonic appellations! Once you scramble up and over refrigerator-sized boulders, and make numerous semi-hazardous creek crossings, and detour 150 ft. high above an impassable bend in the river, and arrive at a tight walled gorge with a massive oval turquoise pool with a gushing cascade emptying into it, your jaw dropping and filling the air with exhilarating hoots of joy and irrepressible hollers of praise and awe . . .then, you would be calling this gorgeous cul-de-sac God's Gateway or Heaven’s Back Forty. I never understood how or why Satan always got something named for him - Devil's Slide, Mt. Diablo, Devil's Gate, Devil's Postpile - Uh, probably 'cause in classic Western dualist mentality, Mother Nature has always been viewed antagonistically and fearfully as an amoral, evil, godless force.
Allowing for easy going, we follow the miner's ditch for a good length; it's an engineering feat of no small achievement by these determined fellows who devised a preposterous scheme of altering the landscape by digging a huge ditch to transport a non-stop flushing stream for their sluice operations and by building flumes and anchoring them somehow to the steep hillsides. Strewn here and there is forensic evidence of a past life, a vanquished history - of desperados seeking to strike a rich vein frantically digging out hillsides and piling up the rocky slag into baleful pyramids - monuments of futility. Try as I might, I can’t quite close my eyes and visualize the community of miners working here engaged in their endeavors to extract as much gold as possible at any cost imaginable. I have an easier time closing my eyes and letting my mind wander to bucolic images of a clanspeople - the nomadic Nisenan Maidu - here long before1849, collecting the sacred acorn harvest, checking their traps and nets, making baskets, weaving clothing, fashioning instruments, utensils, pots and vases. In many ways, it was a near perfect society, showered with the abundance of natural resources, enjoying intimate kinships, creating art and excelling in mythic dancing and storytelling. These tribes, and others who frequented Bogus Thunder, surely were in awe of the place as much as we humans are today. I wonder - did the old prospectors stop for a moment to ever look around and offer up thanks and praise, throw a prayer to the wind, or were they too damn distracted by the sweet allure of easy riches, the narcotic spell of the prospect?
We walk along the ditch trail for a leisurely thirty minutes, coming upon rock walls, odd structures half dug into the earth, cable lines slung for pulley car systems, foundations of old huts, caches of detritus from the mining era (weights, corroded engine parts), tunnels and caved in earth. All very interesting, these "ruins" of a vanished era. The easy traversing ditch trail soon drops down to a jumble of boulders lining the river bank; here, we ford, then clamber up and over some really big rocks, ford again, scramble high up around a detour, and stop momentarily - hey, we're on our way to Devil's Gate! (I mean, God's Gorge!) - to gaze down at a particularly pretty bend far below with jutting algae-stained cliffs, deep pools, and a generally rugged look and feel. Chock-a-block boulders with tree trunks stripped of their bark pose atop like gargantuan toothpicks. Stunted oaks dot the cliff edges, clinging precariously to their little roothold. Pressing on, the going getting rougher, and it's a relief to find ourselves on a sandy blanket of beach finally - the only of its kind in two river miles at least. Here we stop, rest, rehydrate, admire the stunning scene before us, and I could just put things on hold for the next few hours right here. No sooner am I kicked back than Ron says, "Well, we've come this far, and it's only another hundred yards to Devil's Gate, shall we." Or something to that effect. I just remember the hundred yards part. . .because it was at least five hundred yards, wasn't it, Ron? Tell me it was, please!
But it is not to be denied. We make it to the lovely dead-end pool of no getting around; above the cascade pouring its pounding waters in through a narrow slot over a ledge, the North Fork of the Middle Fork is inaccessible, tough, tough country. By now, you'd think we would all be cured of our fever, the entranced state come over us, the peculiar spell of the river that stuns, amazes, tickles, entertains, charms, and soothes, and then at the crepuscular hour when the light softens and colors are peyote mellow - then, at that bewitching hour, when Ms. Osprey might pay a visit, or Canyon Wren might sing her sweet song, and the air moves with a gentle breeze keeping pests at bay - then, the river astounds, impresses, enthuses, transubstantiates. I don't know what I even mean by that, but that's what happens at the magical hours whiled away on Deadwood Creek.
Got to love what the name Deadwood evokes! It’s all “dead wood” meaning easy pickings in the placers. How many Deadwood ghost towns must there be? And what's this about Deadwood Creek? Well, yes, that's the name I do declare for the North Fork of the Middle Fork American River. Eventually, I start referring to everything as Deadwood this and Deadwood that - Deadwood Canyon. Deadwood Meadow. Deadwood Falls. Deadwood Pool. Deadwood Creek. The only real Deadwoods, I believe, are Deadwood Cemetery and Deadwood Ridge, but legitimately, every feature named above could and might as well be (affectionately) labeled with the Deadwood descriptor. There's just something about the sound of the name - Deadwood - rich in intrigue and mystery - a name that beckons, for its association with Old West zeitgeist or something.
Fifty hours have never passed so quickly - it is time to pack up and head out, or more likely, pack it out and head UP. We take a final campsite swim, salute the place goodbye, and head up the ditch trail, then down the pile of rocks to the tough crossing that first thwarted us. It seems a lot easier this time. Safely across, we strip down and take a final refreshing dip, eat a bit, chat, recap our adventures, and start to buck up after this languorous break for the ascent. Gay goes off to gather some twigs to make a broom, using her Fiskars loppers as the handle, and intends to sweep the trails clear of debris to make the going easier. (Does it work, Gay? It's a cute sight watching you sweep the pathway - your rhythmic, meditative motions seem more like a zen practice akin to raking sand in a monastery.) Finally, we break the spell of this special place, bid very reluctant adieus, and hoist our packs on for the SFD hike (Serious F***ing Difficult) awaiting us.
The first 100 ft. are the worse - so steep that my feet bend back painfully a couple of times, and where I slip to my knees, grappling with a motility solution more than once. That leaves just another 1500 of 'em to go. . .one foot in the front of the other, just keep moving. It's grueling, and just when you think the tough part is over, another tough stretch looms - like attaining false summits when mountain climbing. Regarding this, a real old hand, Gene Markley, wrote a hard-to-find book in 1976 called Bogus Thunder, where he calls out Placer County terrain for its "upside-down mountain climbing on boulder strewn, brush covered canyon walls with the V-shaped depth lined with slick moss, smooth river rock and containing rushing water. Such is mountain climbing Mother Lode style..."
And as such, we climb up and out of that mountain, straggling and struggling, groaning at another 150 ft. stretch of impossibly steep and sloping terrain, stopping only for a drink of water, which I have to keep asking Ron to get for me on the outer pocket of my pack - "Sorry, Ron, I know I should be using my hydration system" - but finally, worn out but elated, we reach the saddle and have the battle won. Although it's only another mere mile and 400 or so mere feet more of steady uphill, by the time we reach Ron's truck, I throw my pack off and say to my hiking compatriots, "Might as well bury me right here in Deadwood Cemetery, I'm so beat." But, I recover and live on for another day's adventure and exploration in the bad-ass canyonlands and river systems of Placer County's Gold Rush Territory.
Postscript: if you notice, an annoying date stamp appears on many of the photos. This is because one morning Gay and I are discussing my shoot-from-the-hip, amateurish digital photography skills and Gay, being a teacher and former professional photographer of outdoor sporting events, suggests I change my pixilation and some other settings to achieve a different perspective. I agree and later on I fumble about trying to adjust the settings and accidentally screw up the language settings so now everything's in Japanese and in my further bumbling efforts to change it back to English, I somehow managed to insert an irreversible date stamp onto each shot. Well, things could have been worse - the battery could have died.
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