Monday, August 30, 2010

SNOW MOUNTAIN WILDERNESS: Adventure & Drama in the Heart of the North Fork American River in the Sweet Embrace of the Range of Light

Driving in on a bumpy, rutted out road with friends Ron, Gay and CanyonSpirit at the wheel of her high clearance truck, we're about a mile from our destination, passing through a sloping meadow dotted with flowering purple thistle, mullein and yellow mule's ears.
Then off in the distance we spot a large mother bear (a rare blonde) and her adorable little cub (black), on the saunter up to higher forest cover. They pause and turn to investigate our dust-raising commotion.
CanyonSpirit kills the engine, and we all pile out, eager for a few moments of watching the animals from a respectful viewing distance. 
Standing as tall as an NBA center, big mama bear lifts up her hefty bulk, stares our way, and gives the air a good sniffing, before collapsing back down on all fours and lumbering away with her frisky little charge in tow.
I have to search my stockpile of wildlife sighting memories before realizing this is my first ever glimpse of a mother bear in protective custody of a newborn cub. And, although I do not yet know, it won't be our only bear encounter on this trip.
Hiking on crumbling cliffs fifty feet above the river, beneath the massive bulwark of Snow Mountain, we're on a dizzying approach to view a plummeting waterfall when Gambolin’ Gal suddenly yells out a warning which would cause most people to jump over the cliff  "Rattlesnake!"
Indeed, there she is, slowly slithering her way up toward me. I'm busily snapping photos and trying not to slip to my death on the rocks below, so initially I don’t even see the “handsome and harmless” creature. No worries. She's not overly big, probably a juvenile, and nothing about her demeanor appears threatening as she glides and maneuvers in a confined area.
Can't tell if she's on the prowl . . . or maybe just out for a little "stroll"  she doesn't seem in stalk mode and is unconcerned with my presence. (Or so I intuit, perhaps dead wrongly!) Gambolin' Gal, though, is taking no chances, and backs away. Me  I'm fascinated, drawn toward a closer inspection, a more intimate encounter, but playing it safe, nonetheless.
I get out my handy Flip camcorder and videotape her little journey back and forth, up and down, around and about; it really seems like she's just out for a little exploratory slither, because on this cliffy ledge, I can't imagine there being any mouse or frog to catch.
This is our first and only encounter with Crotalus, King of Reptiles in North Fork country. No doubt, many more of the species have observed us from their sheltered rock crannies and hiding places, content to let us pass by and leave them unmolested. Not that we would molest them, but, of course, it being purely natural instinct, their tendency is to shy away.
Still, I like to think they must have some cellular memory or something of cowboys pulling out their six-shooters and murdering them or miners crushing them to death with their shovels. Even eco-warrior-hero John Muir killed a couple of them, brutally stamping their skulls to a pulp, before realizing the profound error of his way and learning to respect them, as he noted with horrific chagrin one day:
"I imagined that rattlesnakes should be killed wherever found . . . I felt degraded by the killing business, further from heaven."
One early evening, with the wind whipping up into swirls of dancing dust devils, I'm enjoying a moment of quiet respite sitting on a rock writing my bear memoir when, suddenly, Gambolin' Gal  approaching from the river  lets out a startled gasp.
I drop my pen and whirl around just in time to see a bear tear off faster than possible for such a lumbering animal, leaving scattered sets of giant paw prints and clear indentations of five-inch-long claw marks scarring the trail.
Ursula, bad girl!
What are you doing sneaking into our camp, behind my back, so stealthily, without a sound?
Are you stalking me?
Fairly shook up, heart pumping adrenaline in waves through my body, I’m taken aback by my unawareness of the bear's presence no more than fifteen feet behind me!
She must have been shaken up, too, having been caught, so to speak, with her paws in the honey pot, herself totally unaware of my presence right there at the fire pit. I shudder to think what might have happened had Gambolin' Gal decided to stay down by the river a few moments longer.
During our several days ensconced deep in the primeval river canyon, in the wild heart of an untouched area known for its relative lack of human intruders, animal sightings are a natural pastime, especially when you sit in silence and remain motionless for extended periods. 
Then out they come, flying by, flitting here and there, jumping up, skittering about, and they have their own natural curiosity to check you out.
They sense you're just one of them, another creature meaning no harm. (I would suspect, though, the free-swimming and soulful trout are on to the fisherman’s rude designs.) Keeping company, we commune with numerous Western fence lizards, several kinds of snakes, and many birds and insects.
Every day, the normally elusive kingfisher engages us with frequent flyovers; one day she flies straight at me so close I can hear the whirr of flapping wings right behind my head. (I actually duck.)
Her modus operandi is intriguing, being the only perching bird to dive straight down into pools for fish. We watch her do her thing in the big pool at the base of Palisade Falls, where lucky trout, who managed to avoid her sharp predations, dart here and there in clear granite-encased aquariums. Then there are the frisky American Dippers, also known as Water Ouzels, who are our merry companions from morning to dusk.
In The Mountains of California, John Muir characterizes the Ouzel:
" . . . a singularly joyous and lovable little fellow . . . among all the mountain birds, none has cheered me so much in my lonely wanderings . . . no cañon is too cold for this little bird, none too lonely, provided it be rich in falling water. Find a fall, or cascade, or rushing rapid, anywhere upon a clear stream, and there you will surely find its complementary Ouzel, flitting about in the spray, diving in foaming eddies, whirling like a leaf among beaten foam-bells; ever vigorous and enthusiastic, yet self-contained, and neither seeking nor shunning your company."
We also are graced by the continual presence of scrub jays, playful little squawkers always seeking a dropped morsel; curious and hungry ground squirrels; a few circling hawks; curious and intricately patterned hummingbirds; and a magnificent fish eagle, the osprey.
My little friend, with her lilting song of high-pitched falling notes, Canyon Wren, alas, is not to be seen or heard. Adding to the circle of life dancing around us are butterflies, bees, wasps, moths, and incessant patrols of glittering green and blue monster-sized dragonflies.
I refer to this spiritually white, sacred blue, magical green place as Snow Mountain Wilderness, after the massive rise of Earth which dominates this part of North Fork country.
Topping out at just over 8000 ft., the chunky mountain is visible from every viewing angle in the river canyon, and represents some ridiculous topographical relief, towering as it does over 4000 ft. from the riverbed to its treetop summit of Western White Pine, Red Fir, Western Juniper and Mountain Hemlock.
If legendary North Fork adventurer and explorer Russell Towle were still alive  see my Homage to Russell Towle  he would surely take me to task for calling his beloved gorge area “Snow Mountain Wilderness”  for that is not its true namesake, but my own whimsical invention.
Just as he used to rail at me for calling a favorite little gorge area farther downstream at the Big Granite Creek confluence "Sailor Gorge"  which in fact has no geographical association with the area farther upstream at Sailor Creek confluence  my pseudo-but-appropriate appellation would no doubt ruffle Russell's feathers. No doubt, he'd lecture:
"Tom, you can't just go naming things what they're not!"
Well, call his magical place whatever you want – Snow Mountain WildernessRoyal Gorge Nature AreaNorth Fork American River Paradise.
By any other name, it's a beautiful, pristine, wild, rugged stretch of scenic river lying hidden in the depths of a glacial-carved canyon somewhere, as the crow flies, not three or four miles from the motorized river called Interstate 80, deep down where only the determined and fortunate (and possibly demented) get to experience.
Legendary explorer and Placer County writer Gene Markley wrote of the difficulties in hiking this country. In his 1976 book Bogus Thunder, he characterizes this amazing topography as:
" . . . 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."
Originating as a high altitude glacial and spring fed series of fingerling tributaries, the North Fork carves chutes and channels over blinding white granite bedrock.
It forms bedazzling emerald pools of exceptional clarity and depth, and  were the water not so cold! – sculpts out kingly, luxurious soaking tubs; and throughout its churning course, the river presents some serious head-banging, foot-jamming and knee-knocking challenges getting through, up and around impressive series of waterfalls and cascades in an impossibly rugged and heartbreakingly beautiful setting.
Perfect bear and rattlesnake country, too. In fact, everything about the North Fork American River wilderness seems impossibly rugged and challenging. 
It is not an easy place to get to and venturing into this wild landscape is not an act to be undertaken lightly or without some backcountry route finding and wilderness survival skills (doubtful I possess much of either, but that isn’t about to stop Gambolin’ Man!) . . . why, you could injure yourself and die down here and no one would ever discover you, except perhaps a hungry mountain lion or scavenging bear!
Most trailheads leading down from ridges on either side of the canyon require a 4-wheel drive high clearance vehicle, and then – brace yourself! – the trails abruptly descend, sharply and steeply, over a couple of brutal short miles, making the way down a knee-buckling trial and ankle-busting tribulation that severely tests your mettle, your physical conditioning, and your state of mind for getting into such ridiculously difficult hiking predicaments.
You really, really  make that REALLY!  have got to want to be here. Here being at the bottom of a veritable chasm in the Earth more than half as deep as the Grand Canyon.
It's nothing to sneeze at, it is something to write home about, and not everyone gets to experience it, even though snide and harsh comments to this and other North Fork posting blogs have argued that by revealing its charms, by giving away its locations and compromising its secretive allures, it will attract the crowds, and ruin it forever.
Paradise Lost, I doubt, given what I have just written about the difficulties and dangers of venturing into this wilderness, along with the fact that anyone can Google “North Fork American River” or “Royal Gorge” and find numerous websites praising this area and giving precise instructions on how to access it.
There are several ways down off of two big ridge systems. Situated not more than twenty miles west of Lake Tahoe, Palisade Creek Trail off old Soda Springs Road  a historic wagon route from the Gold Rush days  is definitely the easiest point of entry, but first you have to find the trail head by navigating the rutted out, bumpy, winding jeep road with its confusing matrix of crisscrossing timber tracks and dead-ends.
When I say easiest point of entry, make that in quotes, for nothing comes easy in North Fork country.
But at Palisade Creek Trail, the elevation loss (and gain) is doable compared to some North Fork trail heads, for the trail is well maintained (only about a half dozen fallen tree crossings) and well graded compared to, say, Sailor Flat Trail which drops 1600 hard-pounding feet – in some places a thirty percent or more grade  on a gnarly trail layered with jagged shale rock in just a mile and a half from Oak Flat.
Graph that, or better, try just getting to Oak Flat and then hiking the sucker and you'll have an idea of what North Fork hiking can be about. If you can't make it to Oak Flat off Sailor Jeep Trail from Foresthill Road, you'll have a near four-mile trudge and over 3000 ft. to contend with, which makes Palisade Creek Trail on the Wabena Drainage a moderate approach, dropping "just" 2600 ft. in three pretty tame miles.
About two-thirds of the way down, semi-cataclysmic flooding from intense rains in 1997 washed out a massive spread of land, cleaving it into a 500 ft. long, 100 ft. wide couloir  the only way down and across and back up to the connector trail down to the river is via rappelling ropes, guaranteed to add drama and adventure in getting to your favorite spot on the river. 
Yeah, sure, bring on the hoi polloi.
It takes about two hours to traverse the dozens of switchbacks and downed tree crossings and the nasty rock avalanche prone ravine before finally making it to the bottom, 2600 ft. down to about 4000 ft. elevation.
Our party of five, including Otis the Hound along to keep us all in check, throws off packs and breaks out food, filters water, and hits the sunny rocks.
For Gambolin' Man, first things first  a dip in the icy water of the sacred Pool of Cold Fire  Russell's term for any icy plunge pool but this one in particular.
Last year we sprinkled the ashes of our dear friend (Russell Towle, Gay's husband) whose love of all things "North Forkian" inspired my own decade-long immersion and exploratory forays in one of California's most historic (Gold Rush / mining) and wildly beautiful areas. The quick in and out dip takes my breath away.
Others soon follow suit, but at least one member of our expedition cannot muster up the courage to jump in . . . yet nothing is more refreshing than the teeth-gritting and bone-chilling plunge that washes away the sweat and dirt and grime of the hike.
Nothing (repeat nothing!) replenishes youthful vigor like a plunge in the Pool of Cold Fire, a rebirthing immersion as though by a direct infusion of primal energy, inducing a hyper-alert state of keen crystal-clear awareness, and ultimately cleansing the dusty mirror of the soul like nothing on this sweet earth can.
We spend several hours with our friends exploring stunning Palisade Creek Falls – a tour de force of water crashing over a big cliff face to a rainbow-sprayed pool 40 ft. below (although it seems more like 75 ft.). 
In earlier months, during massive snow melt run-off, the river runs high and the falls is a wide curtain of foamy torrential whitewater in which dare-devil kayakers test the limits of their athletic prowess  and sanity  in running these tumultuous plungers.
It just doesn't seem possible yet check it out on YouTube. We take seats on conveniently perched boulder blocks sheltered by the umbrella awning of a small oak tree and watch the Nature Channel, no remote in hand, in undisturbed awe and admiration for at least an hour. 
With more to explore, and time running out for our companions (they're crazily hiking back out same day!), we finally haul ourselves over to the trail head and make our way upstream, following no particular trail, a few hundred yards where Ron had gone before and wanted us to share in the glory of his revelations.
At the Forest Service bridge, the North Fork squeezes its ribbon of celadon colored water through what is probably the narrowest section in its entire sixty-plus mile journey to Lake Clementine Dam near Auburn. 
Here, faced on either side by polished, sculpted granite walls, right where low-flowing Palisade Creek trickles in at a big elbow bend, a tight section of gorge constricts the river's artery to just six feet.
Up from this area, the river widens out, but not by much  a mega boulder has fallen dead center, choking the constricted gorge and forcing the river to seek recourse under and around it, however it can, and backing up many smaller boulders with no place to go. 
It's a big, jumbled mess of rocks, a Cyclopean rendering of artistic perfection, this sculptural arrangement in nature's outdoor gallery. We stop here and there to peer over slickrock ledges, mesmerized watching the tourmaline-colored water swirl and rush over sing-song rocks, gurgling down carved chutes, cascading down alleyways of polished white bedrock emptying into luscious pools of deliciously chilling and pristine water.
On higher shelf ledges, scraggy manzanita grows low to the ground, bursting with sweet little red berries that keep the bears happy munchers. Squat Kellogg Oak trees, growing in dwarf clusters, accompany gnarled and venerable Western Junipers, Giant Cedars and Jeffrey, Sugar Cone and Ponderosa Pines, adding sights and scents of arboreal splendor to our surroundings.
As the languorous day wanes, it's finally time for our good friends to say goodbye and begin the trek back up to the ridgetop. They're tough, it'll only be about 5200 ft. and six miles in eight or nine hours by days’ end – and they’ve got cold beers waiting for them up there.
Being a ways upstream from the trailhead at the Forest Service bridge, instead of backtracking, Ron decides to lead us across the river and up and over a (no doubt rattlesnake infested) scree slope of unstable jagged rocks which we carefully make our way over for a good scramble and scrape-up before emerging right at a bend in the trail.
We hug and thank them profusely for making our visit possible – Ron for picking us up at the Auburn train station and taking us to Gay’s in Alta; Gay for rusticating overnight with her and her son, Greg, now a second year theatre major at UC Santa Cruz, suddenly all grown up from when I had known the young whippersnapper back in the day when Russell, his father, would drag him along on our epic canyon hikes.
And to CanyonSpirit for picking us all up the next morning in her big 4x4 for the long and winding drive on Old Soda Springs Road, past the secretive Cedars resort, across the bridge where the North Fork flows gently, still gathering its forces before its many plunges through the Royal Gorge.
And finally the stretch drive to the difficult to find trailhead where Wabena Point offers up secretive American Indian petroglyphs over 3000 years old, and spectacular overlooks of the High Sierra Nevada backcountry and North Fork Canyon drainages  Wabena, Wildcat, Sailor, New York, Big Granite.
With our friends gone, we're left alone, and the weariness of the day bears down. We're completely bushed. All we’re able to do for the remainder of the day is rest under the shade of nurturing oak trees, dozing off for a while, lost in a trance-like meditative mind-meld with the subtle energies of the natural world.
The whispering wind, the call of birds, the huzzuzz of insects, the tinkly roar of the river. Finally, we haul our lazy butts down to the swimming hole and muster up the courage to get in – this time, despite the cold factor, I am able to stay in longer and frolic, swim and splash around a bit, before feeling the numbing sting of the yin glacial waters permeate to my bones.
I slip up to a flat, hot rock and let the blazing sun now infuse its yang warmth – a calming sensation of pure bliss overtakes me as I lay there, a naked animal in the wild, a hot-blooded lizard, not a care or worry or concern in the world.
There, my "carnal incrustations melt off" and my soul breathes "deep and free in God's shoreless atmosphere of beauty and love" as John Muir expressed in a similar corporeal release of stress, tension and psychic mayhem of his own harried day and time. Sometimes things just don't change.
That night we sleep soundly, a deep, dream-laden state, but not without its share of tossing and turning  every little noise we hear jolts us to blurry consciousness, anxious over any unwanted four-legged intruders, namely of the Ursus variety.
A near full moon rises early over the distant tree-lined ridge, saturating everything in a scintillating glow of alabaster resonance, silhouetting stark outlines of trees, highlighting contours of plunging ridges, and casting eldritch shadows up and down the river, a living monument of stone and water bathed in the vivid illumination of moon rays.
Each time I get up to pee, caught between the world of dreams and waking reality, I stop in my tracks to marvel at the vastness of the candlelit wilderness, which seems so much more formidable, scary, and all-consuming. Back in my bag, I lay there in my secure cocoon, staring up at the sky, occasionally witnessing the arcing descent of a meteor flaming out.
And soon, the moon sinks below the horizon of jagged arête and in the night sky of celestial vastness, in Wordsworth's "infinite meadows of Heavens", the stars, the "forget-me-nots of the angels", blossom one by one.
I spot bright planets, constellations I hadn’t seen in years, the full spectrum of the Milky Way, splotched across the inky firmament like a river of sprinkled stardust. Oh, so magical, and such a sight unseen for so long by this urban dweller. Timeless, eternal, infinite, vast, quantum – a Big Bang of wondrous epistemological contemplation.
The next day I wake up one year older, ho-hum. Can it really be that, from each day forward, I am now closer to 90 than to 20? Wasn't I just 25 a short time ago? 35? 45?
And now  55!
And yet still just a kid!
And still forever seeking, and never really finding, in my eternal search for what I started for so long ago. No, really, it is a special day, if only because of where I wake up, this magnificent place!
If only because, in fact, I do wake up! For that I am thankful and grateful and sing my praises of health, of happiness, of spiritual and earthly riches, if not material wealth. I remember Robert Service, the Yukon poet's comforting words:
"What? You're tired and broken and beaten? Why, you're rich! You've got the Earth!"
I am entranced by the dawning of the day on August 20th  the quality of pink and lavender light spilling over the top of Snow Mountain, a painterly backdrop of heaven's palette. I head to the river pool, savoring the quietude, the serenity, the bliss of the early morning hour.
Despite a chill, I strip bare, make an invocation, and plunge in without hesitation. The water is freezing, but I dive to a depth of five feet, swimming in circles with pretty rainbow trout crisscrossing my path.
The water is clear and bracing. I get a sense that I am swimming in Russell's company! Oddly too, the water temperature is more tolerable at this hour than in the middle of a hot day  something about the ambient air temperature which I still can’t figure out.
I swim around in circles, murmuring some prayer, evoking some chant, discarding the skin of old and asking the river spirits to replenish me and shed those carnal incrustations once and for all.
Talk about having nothing to do and doing just that – nothing. To think, or not think, doing nothing, nothing to do, occupying the entire day! This is a pass-time that will either make you squirm in anxiety and discomfort or will calm you to the core of your inner being and make you realize the truth of the Spanish maxim:
"How beautiful it is to do nothing, and then rest afterward."
Ah, yes, those Iberian slackers know a thing or two about the secret of life!
Yes, here on my stone throne, let me sit, and let things be. Here in the pathless wild, let me walk, and let things unfold. May I grasp at nothing, resist nothing, look at things, and not overlook them.
Getting at the mother essence of the do-nothing / think-nothing philosophy is – depending on your outlook, attitude and acumen – incredibly easy or incredibly difficult to do in nature, or in life in general. This is a theme, and practice, I return to again and again.
The day ticks away. Gambolin' Gal asks me to guess what time it is. I squint up at the ball of yellow fire in the sky, and say, "Four-forty-two." She checks her watch in the daypack, and chuckles, for it is exactly 4:42. We swim and lay out on the rocks; return to eat some oatmeal and drink our tea; head back upstream to further explore beyond the area where we left our amigos.
It's a magical, intriguing place, very little evidence of humans passing that way but for a ragged little campsite with a few cairns. I read a bit, engaged in Tom Brown Jr.'s The Journey.
An engrossing book full of tales of youthful magic and power about his growing up under the spiritual tutelage of "Grandfather", an 80-year-old Apache elder / shaman who takes him under his wing to teach him the secrets of Inner Vision, the spirit-that-moves-through-all-things, time travel and deep insights and wisdom of universal truths.
Can it be for real? That THIS world is the unreal one? We swim some more, go sit in front of Palisade Falls and meditate on the meaning of nothing and everything some more, on and on, until it’s dusk again, the onset of another gorgeous end of day setting of sun over immutable and indomitable Snow Mountain, once called Eagle Cliff in the 19th century.
No need to build a fire  yes, a certain classic ambience is lacking  but who needs to breathe in campfire smoke? The wind keeps mosquitoes at bay, then dies down and out the little tormenters come, but it’s not all that bad.
We make hot soup, and  not being DEET users  or tent dwellers  we crawl in our bags to escape the buzzing and biting, all in a day's playful do-nothing activity. And the moon rising over the ridgetop to silently serenade us. Tonight, we are so tired – from all that doing nothing! – but the heat, the scrambling, the swimming, it truly is energy-zapping.
Soon, we fall into a drowsy stupor interrupted only to relieve ourselves in the middle of the night. Still, though, the thought of a bear coming into our camp rumbles through my brain and keeps me in a dreamy, vigilant mode.
As dawn breaks, Gambolin' Gal lurches up with a start and I hear something, too, confusing it with a dream sequence. It's my boot falling to the ground with a thud. What the – ? I shoot up out of my bag and scan the surroundings  nothing.
Then I look over to where I had left my backpack, with my two hiking boots on top of it, and (yes) all of our food, every last morsel, in a stuff sack inside it . . . only to see – not see! – my backpack . . . it’s gone!
Holy Mary Mother of All Bears!
Can it be possible?
First of all, the hubris of failing to hang our food. I'm deeply chagrined. It’s downright embarrassing for a contrite Gambolin’ Man to have to admit that he neglected to hang his food . . . in bear country! What were you thinking, or not thinking, old boy? (Doing or not doing?)
No excuses like “didn’t bring any rope” or “no suitable trees” – plainly and simply, my hubris has cost us big-time, and has put us in potential harm's way of a hungry, scavenging bear who'll stop at nothing to get to human food, or humans as food? . . . not a thought to dwell on at the moment.
I race over to where the pack had been, scrambling to spot evidence of something, anything, but it's still too dark and I'm too flummoxed by the confounding episode. I put on my headlamp and make a few panicky rounds, this way, that way, up there, and over here, to no avail, and nothing feels right  that damn bear has absconded with my pack and could be anywhere. 
I've got to trust my Inner Vision now and think like a bear! I return to camp, kicking and cursing myself, and wait an eternal twenty minutes of forlorn ruing and regretting, before it's finally light enough to go in search of the absquatulating bear. With a nervous and consternated Gambolin’ Gal in tow, off I go in a new direction, feeling in my gut it's the way the bear had to have scurried off.
I'm armed with a shovel head someone had left at the fire pit, and my little shit shovel to clang with. About thirty feet down the trail, I stop and inspect the ground, having espied what looks like drag marks. Indeed, there alongside huge paw prints with clear outlines of five-inch claw marks. Yikes!
I track this blatant act of thievery for another fifty yards to a multiple fork where the tracks disappear. Not knowing which way to go, I just stand there in a calm panic wondering what in the holy fuck we're going to do now, without a morsel of food to our name – hold on! I do have about four ounces of trail mix in my daypack!
We'd have to parcel that out and make do, somehow, preserve our energy, somehow, eat manzanita berries, try to catch a trout (with what?) or a lizard to grill up. Certainly, we can't count on anyone coming to our rescue. Oh, hell, it's not like we're in any serious survival situation, really, now! . . . so just take it easy, calm down!
Think like a bear!
As I'm contemplating all this, I look up and  amazing sight to behold  there, through an opening in the forest, in all her furry fury and animal charisma, there she is! Oh, she’s big, and looks like she means business. She's standing upright and sniffing, apparently having already seen us. I begin yelling at her like she's my misbehavin' pet:
But this is one nonplussed bear, definitely unimpressed with my antics and verbal threats. Gambolin’ Gal wants no part of these confrontational histrionics, and urges me to back away, let it go.
But I'm operating on a hunch that I had caught her in time before she was able to finish her little smorgasbord. I clang and bang on my shovel and she disappears – to where I can't make out, but after a few minutes, with Gambolin’ Gal back at camp and prayin’ I wasn’t foolish enough to be doin’ what I was about to set off and do.
I set off in the direction of where the bear had disappeared, slowly, cautiously, heart pumping full of adrenaline - hey, I needed to rescue my pack and salvage some food! So far, so good – no she-bear in sight!
Then, just a few feet in front of me, scattered about on a pile of rocks, I come upon the detritus  the “food maul” – a goodly portion of our victuals shredded and partially devoured. Luckily, indeed, my timing was such that she hadn’t had a chance to completely engorge herself before my clanging had scared her off.
I'm able to salvage enough food so at least we won't starve! (C'mon  we coulda gone forty hours without food and made the grueling climb out of the canyon, couldn't we have?) I feel like a kid finding money in a pile of sawdust at the county fair, uncovering several tea bags, three Clif Bars, a cache of walnuts and raisins, dried soup and refried bean mixes, a bag of cookies, three vegan jerky strips, one apricot and four pieces of dried mango.
Meanwhile, though, I've forgotten all about poor Gambolin’ Gal, who's been pacing back and forth back at the camp, wondering what on earth has happened to me, for she has not heard anything, no yelling, no clanging, nothing, and naturally she's beginning to worry about my fate.
What if the bear had, with one swipe of her powerful claws, disemboweled me? What if she had charged at me, knocked me unconscious, mauled me like a raggedy Andy doll and left me for dead?
I finally hear Gambolin' Gal calling my name, yelling with a tinge of urgency in her voice, "Tom! Tom?" I respond and she’s relieved but upset because she didn’t know if I was alive or had been attacked and dragged off. 
I never even considered that, or even the potential danger I had put myself in, in tracking the bear in the first place, and then actually confronting her, scaring her off, and reclaiming what was left of our food. I was simply operating in "act now think later" mode (which has gotten me into heap big trouble on past occasions . . . guess I was dumb lucky this time).
But now, I’m mystified by the bear’s actions. What’d she do with my backpack?
Got to think like Ursula!
I had seen her on the other side of the fallen log, milling about in a field of boulders, no doubt guarding my backpack and its remaining contents, at the base of a scree slope. But she's vanished, so I figure she must have climbed up to the higher ridge.
Through my binos, I spot a shiny white ball on the slope, and see it's our bag of oatmeal! I scramble up the slope and find a bag of crackers nearby, too, grabbing both items and stashing them in my daypack.
At that moment, I look up and see Ursula staring me down from about thirty feet higher up on the ridge. I respectfully, slowly, back away . . . without a doubt, she's got my backpack, and I'm sure it's been totally thrashed and shredded, and I’m certain in a matter of a few gluttonous minutes she had snarfed down the rest of our food!
And what a prandial treasure-trove of treats – tamari almonds, salty roasted cashews, crunchy peanut butter, organic rice cakes, dense bread, flat crackers, soup mixes, apricots, apples, and Clif Bars. I'm fortunate that nothing else was in the backpack except for a few extra bungee cords.
With enough food to see us through the remainder of our time in the canyon, we triumphantly return to camp and heave a sigh of relief and thank the spirits of the bear for leaving us some food. 
Well, maybe it was just timing and had nothing to do with spirits – that bear would have left us with nothing had I not had the temerity (asinine gumption, more like it) to track her furry ass down!
And how chagrined I remain for not having hanged our food, such a simple, effective preventive measure to ensure that no big, lumbering Ursula ruins your camping trip. John Muir was known to have said, after his famous "interview" with a Sierra bear:
"I was then put on my good behavior, and never afterward forgot the right manners of the wilderness." (Ditto, John.)
And so the third day of our retreat unfolds, again in slow-motion do-nothing / do-everything communal bliss; and suddenly the wilderness is inviting and beautiful again, not threatening and terrible and scary.
In fine tone (as John Muir liked to say before a Sierra ramble), we pack all of our food and set off for a level III gorge scramble, to explore the sights down river, itching for action / adventure, eager to see what lay beyond each bend and curve.
Beyond Palisade Falls, the river opens up for a straight-away half-mile stretch where the boulder hopping is challenging and fun, and sidewalk-like slabs of granite bedrock allow for easy strolling right along the gently flowing river.
Huge boulders choke the stream – we pass by a "train wreck", a mess of jumbled freight car sized boulders that has fallen from high above into a perfect configuration of derailed locomotives.
Along the river’s edge, we encounter great cedars, big leaf maples, alders, Kellogg’s Black Oak, Canyon Live Oak, tangles of manzanita brush, aromatic bay laurel, big Jeffrey pines, and the occasional cottonwood, along with ever-present poison oak and assorted other plants flourishing in perhaps the richest biota in the Sierras, providing a smorgasbord of victuals for the many animals who pass this way and call it home.
With light hearts and the promise of adventure, we trek across and up and down boulders and along slabs of sloping bedrock, with Snow Mountain looming ever higher and more prominent in our field of vision. We come to a pretty area of cattails and a spring providing a flourishing habitat of crimson monkeyflower in bloom, which in turn attracts a pair of rufous hummingbirds, and invites swarms of bumblebees, and  it is oh-so-pretty! 
Oh-so-precious! A tableau of nature's perfect symbiotic creation. The going is rough, though, and we’re getting knicks and blisters in our Tevas, having to alternately clamber over slippery rocks or wade through pools to reach safe harbor and better traversing on the opposite shore.
Finally, we come to a beautiful area of polished rock chutes and swirls with a sandy camping area right at the base of Snow Mountain and the beautifully christened Curtain Falls, where we peer into the depths of the opalescent pool and stand in meditative reverie for several moments watching the incessant flow and spray over the rock lip.
It is here where we have our little encounter with the "handsome and harmless" rattlesnake  I don't know why people get so fearful. Sure, you put your hand in the wrong spot before hoisting yourself up over the rock and you might well get bitten, but a little meeting like this, in the open, both parties aware of the other, it's a rather nonchalant affair, where a sense of mutual respect prevails.
You do your thing and I'll do mine, the vibe seemed to say. John Muir knew and understood that a rattlesnake is no cause for hysteria or mythmaking:
"He carefully keeps his venom to himself as far as man is concerned, unless his life is threatened."
We climb up to a sublime perch on a rock outcrop, elevated high above the river, and confront the elements as tiny observers, insignificant participants in the passage of life out here in the great wilds of California. Snow Mountain consumes our field of vision and captivates our imagination.
From our camp perspective, the mountain looms as though composed of a giant bulk of solid earth, a massive formation rising 8000 ft. above sea level, nearly 4000 of those feet above the river.
But approaching ever closer, down this great riparian throughway, its aspect changes into a rampart of massifs, each its own ragged, craggy self, rent apart by gargantuan defiles, cleft into individual sun-blasted spires and pinnacles – an eco-system of several distinct mountains whose unattainable peaks, from our vantage point, loom into the cerulean expanses like the dwelling place of Olympian Gods.
Clouds form, rolling ominously overhead, and two – just two – drops of rain fall, one on me, one on Gambolin' Gal. Then, just as suddenly, the wind pushes the billowy masses beyond to leave us under sunny blue skies again. The wind today is our constant companion, adding howling melodrama as it whips up and down the canyon and shakes the treetops.
From our perch, we gaze up at Wabena Point where I spot two people up there, tiny spectral figures visible only through binoculars. Tomorrow, that's where we'd be, looking down on this very scene which now seems so expansive and grandiose but from 3000 ft. above will doubtlessly appear microscopically rendered and from above, could we see ourselves, we’d be mere ants on the ground.
Back at camp, I hang our food (none to early) and it’s back to our time-tested, time-proven, time-worn activities  snoozing, reading, swimming, filtering water, staring at water, bird watching, driftwood hunting, ambling here and there, not doing anything except doing nothing, doing what the mood and minute calls for.
Around six pm, I'm writing about the Ursula event in my little moleskin diary when Gambolin' Gal, coming up from the river, suddenly lets out a big yell, scaring me half out of my wits, but more importantly, scattering Ursula to the winds!
Talk about stealth mode! I suspect she didn't smell me because of the strong wind blowing my scent away, or else she was just bold and so hungry  and being no dummy  was coming back for seconds.
How close would Ursula have approached before realizing I was there? Or did she realize I was there? How would she have reacted if I had turned around and there we were, suddenly in a face-off? Would she have ripped my face off?
Although not a grizzly, an overpowering creature who would kill and eat a human being in John Muir's day without a second thought, it is unknown how this scenario would have unfolded if Ursula had not been frightened away.
Generally not aggressive and eager to avoid confrontations with humans, California black bears (Ursus americanus and Ursus cinnamomum) are wild animals, and thus unpredictable; I can only guess how my "interview" might have concluded if I had startled her into defensive mode. One quick swipe of her powerful claws and  well, Gambolin' Gal, what would you have done?
Serene evening slowly reveals her nocturnal secrets, subtly transforming the bright day to hallowed darkness. The slow-motion setting of the sun creates a golden hue over Snow Mountain and the land, followed by a prolonged alpenglow effect that spreads its amber and lavender wings across a painterly firmament, leaving us agasp and absorbed in our own thoughts and meditations at such deliquescent crepuscular beauty.
Then, quietly, night falls. Stars appear, but not for long, as Albion glow from behind the mountain ridge soon becomes full-on moonshine as the bright orb rises high over the ridge and pours forth its soft luminescence onto our surroundings casting candlelit apparitions and spooky shadows.
In the middle of the night, I crawl out of my sleeping bag and half-stumble down to river’s edge to bask in the prolonged gloaming – a transcendent aura radiates, Moonshadow reflecting chalky white boulders in the hushed stillness of slate-black waters.
Gazing up to the high precipices of mystical Snow Mountain, I feel as though I’m gazing up at an illusory peak of immense proportions. The sound of crickets, a whisper of wind rustling in the oak boughs heightens my senses, no other sound now, except the gurgling song of moonlit soaked waters.
Ursula, to our knowledge, doesn't come back, but our sleep is fitful, and we are happy to see dawn break.
We have a few hours before the hike out, and we enjoy it in a timeless fashion – doing nothing, conscious non-action, in the majesty of nature, observant of every little miracle of life around us, thinking, wondering, how to transform this into a daily life practice, no matter where you are.
I recall Franz Kafka's nostrum:
“You do not need to leave your room, remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait. Do not even wait, be still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you. To be unmasked, it has no choice. It will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”
No matter where you are, but truly, especially, when you’re in nature’s all-encompassing womb of simple truth and beauty revealed, let it roll in ecstasy at your feet.
Sadly, it’s now our time to bid adieu to Snow Mountain Wilderness / Royal Gorge Nature Area. Having only one pack, and lucky we have extra bungee cords, I somehow manage to cram all our camping gear in Gambolin' Gal's under-sized frame pack and carry everything out and up the three miles and 2600 ft. (I had to remind you.)
It’s not as bad as I thought it was going to be and getting up the washed-out ravine is easier than coming down.
In fact, as I’ve always contended, it’s much easier going up than coming down. Eventually we make it to the top, and there’s Gay’s trusty little Sport Subaru at the trailhead – but Gay is nowhere in sight. 
I let out a huge whoop, and it is echoed by a similar joyous holler from the direction of Latimer Point, a great prominence of rocky tors and slabbage where I can now see her through my binoculars.
Rather than wait for her, I suggest we add a couple of miles to our already sore feet and legs – because it’s supremely worth the effort – and slog over to Wabena Point to check out the petroglyph panel and the views.
Snow Mountain is just kicking ass, dominating the westward view like a massive sentinel standing guard over the entire portal to the West Coast; at its broad south-facing base, the silvery blue thread of river abruptly disappears underground, forced to its subterranean egress by a massive payload of boxcar-sized talus debris shed from the enormous slope during some bygone cataclysm. 
For a full half-mile or more, the great river simply disappears, leaving a riparian fossil bed / river course as evidence of its soon to be resurrected grandeur a ways downstream from the jagged wreckage, impressive and awesome even viewed from so far away.
The petroglyph panel is equally impressive. For those who came to this rugged, trackless wilderness thousands of years ago, to pray, to conduct their ceremonies and rites of passage, to witness glorious sights, and to seek answers to the mysteries of existence, this place, right here where we are standing, was a highly sacred setting. It still is, by the way.
Here, overlooking the world, at the very center of their creation myths, artists and shamans – we really don’t know who – pecked their symbolic cosmologies into glacially-polished bedrock outcrops with primitive tools, as they did in 133 other Northern Sierra Nevada fragile rock art sites throughout the High Sierra.
On a 10 ft. long, 3 ft. wide rock panel, lying on the ground slightly inclined, the prehistoric "Martis Complex" people inscribed petroglyphs sometime in the dim past of the Middle Archaic Period, perhaps as long ago as 1500 B.C.
In archaeological parlance, the petroglyphs are Style 7 High Sierra abstract-representational  largely indecipherable, intuitive-knowing sun bursts, bear paw prints, river-like kanji characters, and squiggly connecting lines representing  who really knows?
Such are the unexplainable mysteries of the North Fork which persist to this day.
We finally meet up with Gay at her car and are overjoyed to see her and again profusely thank her for taking her whole day to drive the distance out here and pick us up and then shuttling us to the train station in Auburn. 
Thank you, Gay!
Many things discussed and marveled over, shared together!
And now, turning for a final vista, I salute the great wilderness.
Gay's late and great husband, Russell, always used to end his blogposts with some simple, solemn lyric:
“Such was a wonderful visit to the North Fork.”
“Such was a great, although too short, visit to the American River Canyon.”
“It was another great day in the great canyon.”
“Such was another day exploring the upper North Fork, with so many great views of Snow Mountain, and Devils Peak, Sugar Pine Point, and the many side-canyons, all made more dramatic by cloud shadows drifting slowly over the cliffs and forests.”
"A great great rarely fine day in the great canyon."
Indeed, it was, it was, it was, it was, and always and forever will be a splendid, rarely fine day in the great canyon!
Grab a beer & settle in for some live (but shaky!) footage deep in the heart of NORTH FORK AMERICAN RIVER canyon country:


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The photos are amazing, Tom. And the text, too, although I didn't have time to read it all yet. :)
-- Pete

8/31/2010 10:02 PM  
Blogger Carol said...

Wow, what a trip! Loved the detail on the food! You could have been bear food yourself!


9/01/2010 12:25 PM  
Anonymous Janet said...

Beautiful pictures! And so many bear encounters... it really is their territory. Sounds like you had a great trip down there.

9/01/2010 1:48 PM  
Blogger Cat McGuire said...

Another fabulous posting. What great she-bear encounters. And to defy the bear to get your food back! God, Tom, what a story. And happy belated birthday. It sounds like a memorable one.

9/03/2010 8:57 AM  
Anonymous maui said...

LOVE YOU! such a lovely birthday weekend shared together. glad ya didn't get eaten by that bear!
I love a quote by Mary Oliver that makes me think of those many
meditative moments of solitude just standing and gazing out at the river:
"Sometimes I need only to stand where I am to be blessed."
(I like standing there with you, dear heart)

9/03/2010 9:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of the best blogs, stories I have read on the North fork Royal Gorge area. Great pictures also.
Looking for some info on finding the Palisdade creek trail using the Foresthill Rd side. Wabena creek drainage. I have been in the Soda Springs or Royal Gorge way a few times,but looking to shave some time. Im from Colfax and can't seem to find it.
thanks Edward

9/13/2010 4:02 PM  
Anonymous MattK @ GearGuide said...

I've always heard there were large numbers of rattlers on the North Fork. Holy smokes, though, that water looked to be worth taking the risk. Did you do any fishing while you were there?

9/14/2010 5:59 PM  
Blogger Gambolin' Man said...

Matt, thanks for checking in! It's an area with a reputation for rattlers, that's for sure, but in a dozen trips down there over the years, I've only encountered four or five. Nope, didn't do any fishin', just lazily watched them!

9/14/2010 6:21 PM  
Blogger Cindy Haq said...

Happy (belated) 55th birthday!

May you continue to revel in wonder of nature and keep your food from the bears!

10/04/2010 8:56 PM  
Anonymous said...

Very impressive photos. Especially the color contrast between the rocks and teal water. Sounds like a fun trip.

10/26/2010 7:24 PM  

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