Wednesday, September 21, 2011

CLEAR CREEK OF THE SISKIYOUS: Timeless Rhythms, Eternal Cycles Persist Through the Years at Gorgeous Klamath River Tributary

Time, these days, whizzes by, like that, evaporata. Take five years. . .certainly, a whole lot can get accomplished in five years; or nothing at all, because five years is so fleeting, it really is, and we are often so lazy and uninspired, we really are. The older you get, after 35, especially, suddenly you're 40, then 50 and before you know what hits you, you're shockingly in the early throes of your dotage. Ah, five years. . .what is it but a middle aged dog? We mark the passage of chronological time by observing solstice rites and birthday ceremonies, anniversaries, and other important commemorabilia; the years are replete with incalculable days of adventure, innumerable undocumented dramas entailed in living, gravid with the banalities of routine quotidian existence; indeed, five friggin' years can seem to drag on forever sometimes. But then, with a casual flick, it's suddenly five years on, know what I mean. From the haggard vantage point of retrospective time, five years is rendered over and done with in a veritable instant, consigned to dustbin of personal history in the blink of an eye. Next thing you know you're staring sixty straight on. (Just you wait, all you youngsters and whippersnappers not of the Baby Boom Generation and full of dreams of immortality and delusions of invincibility! Or, as Satchel Paige famously advised, "don't look back, it might be gainin' on ya.")

When I look back on our last visit to Clear Creek in 2006, it seems like only a few short months ago. But sixty of them have already passed. Just like that, in a dreamy idyll rendered in misty memories. Beginning in '93, it was, a summer without a visit to Clear Creek was unthinkable; we ticked off a string of fourteen consecutive summer pilgrimages, eight hours away, gladly making the long slog up I-5, dangerous with so many pendejos on the road and congested with big rigs hogging up the lanes, always relieved to pull off on the world-class beautiful Klamath River Highway (Hwy. 96 West), bereft of traffic for the most part, where we'd proceed leisurely along its anfractuous course the remaining seventy miles to the turn-off into the Clear Creek drainage, always a thrill and ever special to be there.

Sometimes, we'd stop and camp at the Tree of Heaven Forest Service campground, on an oxbow bend far enough down off the road where you felt removed and isolated under a big starry sky with the strong current whooshing by and a moist scent of chlorinated pine duff, it seemed, clinging in the air to keep you company the night through. Once we met a strapping Native American fellow by the name of Wesley Tall Grass, recently retired from a career in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, where, he told us, he tried to, but failed, to make a difference in the corridors of big government on Capitol Hill. I remember his Spartan words: "Nothing changed." Now, he was just taking time off, he told us, his first vacation in twenty-two years. He was loving Klamath Country like no other. Before anyone else was awake, the ex-BIA official, big Wesley Tall Grass, and I talked of many things that early morning at river's edge - (can't remember a single one of them now) - hands-in-pocket figures scuffling slightly to ward off the chill, as a ghostly miasma of wispy condensation spin-tailed above the churning river, and early morning birds began peeping at the dawn. We established the spark of a connection, something unnamed and soulful, exchanged e-mails, shook hands (his big clutch with an exquisite turquoise ring adorning the pinkie nearly swallowed up my homunculus appendage), and said we’d keep in touch. Yeah, sure, adios, Chief. Most other times, we'd press on to the next wild blackberry rich campground, Sara Totten, and crash there late at night or early in the morning, always a relief to get out of the car and breathe in the great American outdoors, the intoxicating fresh scent of summer air in America's Big Wide Open Wild, Wild West. Usually brain-wracked and excruciatingly tired, so much so that I would always just toss and turn the night through, the white noise of the river filling my head with oddly soothing static music as I drifted on and off into very weird realms of dreamland. Other times, like this time, we time it right and plow straight on through to Clear Creek, eagerly anticipating tuning in to our favorite reality show - the Nature Channel (and Premium Content, at that!)

Always dreading it, the drive up isn't too bad. I manage to secure an upgrade from my favorite Rent-a-car company, Enterprise, to a big ol' boat, a funky ostentatious Gran Marquis (certain to amuse and delight a car aficionado friend) - that takes us there in pimp-my-ride comfort at no appreciable loss of gas mileage. We be stylin’ for sure. At one point, Ray Charles is belting out a jazzy rap tune that's a perfect anthem for us. I set 'er on cruise control at about 66, and we're off 'n runnin'.

In Yreka, up in Shasta country, the county seat of Siskiyou County, after all these years, we finally stop and actually check out the historic business district, comprised of a block or two cluster of turn of the century and older buildings that once served as hardware stores, bakeries, breweries, bars, and, naturally, houses of ill repute (prostitution AND gambling, oh my!). In 1854, the then hugely celebrated poet Joaquin Miller noted Yreka was a place with "... a tide of people up and down and across other streets, as strong as if a city on the East Coast.” Today, this tide of people has moved up and down and across an increasingly sprawling frontage road commercial strip. Back in the day, mining and minerals and ranching drew people here (and I guess the huntin's good); today, it's some of that, but largely Yreka appeals because of its perfect inducement of the three R's - recreation, relaxation and retirement. Who wouldn't want to live here, in the shadow of looming Shasta, on the boundary of vast acreage of federally designated wilderness areas, where neighbors, heaven forbid, actually know and talk to one another, where the everyday pace of life is conducive to low blood pressure and peaceful states of mind. . .but what would you do all damn day? Might just drive you (stir) crazy.

I guess you'd run an old timey sporting goods / hunting store. It takes us all of about ten minutes (hey, after all, we are on our way to paradise) to check out the historic edifices and read the dignified plaques commemorating some event or another. Our primary mission for having detoured off the interstate is actually to score some butane for the camping stove, which I neglected to do in Berkeley. We get in a wild goose chase going to this place and that - and I'm amazed at how much traffic is going up and down the strip boulevard on a Monday afternoon - finally being directed to a Wal-Mart – "Oh, yes," we're told in an ignoring fashion by a young wholesome female clerk working the register at some kind of propane / outdoor equipment establishment, "they have a big camping section there." At the Twilight Zone Wal-Mart, we're met with menacing navigational challenges, blinding florescence, chemically pungent, fake scented aromas permeating, zombie crowds of pathetic shoppers, bent-up old ladies standing in the air-conditioned foyer to escape the oppressive heat (it's about 90, but a hot, dry 90, to be sure), but we strike out in our quest to score some camping gas. They have every damn item in stock except our gas.

Can’t get out of that place fast enough, so we head back to the historic district where we had been before and had overlooked - or mistook for closed - an old-fashioned sixties era sporting goods store. I mean it's totally classic like from my boyhood or something. I go in and am relieved to spot the cannisters. (Yes, we can now eat our oatmeal, tea and soup!) I pick up two and approach the old-fart proprietor (a transplant from somewhere, like probably four-fifths of Yreka) and I ask him (obviously I am a mere city slicker in my big honkin' Gran Marquis and faux-cool shades) about the kills on the walls - about ten severed taxidermized heads of Tule elk, stalked and shot in the local hills, stare down from on high, mounted way up on the lacquered fake wood walls, his personal trophy kills presiding over this grim little store. Or at least two of them are. "Oh, yeah, I killed both of them," he says, spinning around and pointing proudly to two massive rack specimens. "So," I ask, "were they clean one-shot kills?" It's as though I asked him if he shit and wiped his ass this morning. I'm not kidding. I avoid looking at the old fart, affixing my gaze on the once magnificent elks' glassy distant stare. I try to imagine doing what it takes to - sportively – massacre a peaceful beast. My question, which I repeat, flummoxes him and he fumbles with a response something to the effect of "it took me several bullets on that one there." I nod, say "I see", complete our transaction, thank him, and I'm outta there, and we're outta here - on to Happy Camp. Should be there in ninety minutes. That ought to put us on the banks of Clear Creek in plenty of time to set up camp and take an evening swim. Time to tune in (to the Nature Channel), turn on (the switch that activates the crack between two worlds), and drop out (of all routines, preconceptions, imagined fallibilities, insecurities and false narratives). At least for a few days of fantasia.

Happy Camp is a sleepy spread out community of a couple thousand souls situated where Indian Creek flows into the Klamath. Like Yreka, it's a strictly-business stop, short, sweet and purpose-driven; we're in and out of Larry's Market - or is it Parry's now? - in ten minutes, with some essentials, chief among them ice, fire and lottery tickets. I ask the (whom I believe to be a slightly surly Native Karuk) woman for five Super Lotto Quick Picks and tell her we're in it together - if I win she wins. She gives me this dull, disbelieving look and shoos me along to attend to her (whom I believe to be slightly sullen) sister or cousin next in line. (Bulletin we'd all love to see: "Berkeley man hits Motherlode jackpot in Happy Camp! Shares fortune with no-longer-surly clerk!") We tend not to spend too much time in Happy Camp, mainly because there's not a whole lot to do here. We pay our respects to the big statue of Sasquatch on the main drag welcoming visitors, and head out of town, just another couple of transient big city tourists contributing paltrily to the local tax base, just passin' through, and the Happy Campers probably wouldn't have it any other way. (But, God, are we really reduced to such a characterization?)

After a few miles, we turn off at the clearly marked Clear Creek sign, and head up an eight mile Forest Service road hacked in the rugged hills of the drainage, dead-ending at the trailhead. In the old days, we always used to get lost, invariably taking a wrong logging road leading high and away from the drainage - duh! Now, it's much better marked, and there have been some upgrades - trail maintenance, signs posted, toilet, camping areas with picnic benches. (Heard tell in '04 or '05, campers left their unattended dog leashed at one of these trailhead areas and when they returned, only the collar was there - with evidence suggesting a visit by a hungry mountain lion.)

Our special spot the last few visits has been No Man's camping area right before the trail head - an easy, but easy-to-miss (for nothing seems to be there) turn off with a secret trail heading down fifty feet to a nice little spread overlooking a deep green pool. It's right here, and oh so beautiful. If you didn't know what was there, you'd never know it was there. And it might remind you of a place you've never been, but intense deja vu remedies that minor disorientation. One day we pull in late and are too tired to hike in that evening, and so resign ourselves to the horrible prospects of this little pull-off gem. Lending a semblance of a "backpacking trip" we had always hauled in our over-stuffed loads a couple of miles up and over the ridge to a sweet camping area we always adored, where I'd hang up my Yucatecan hammock and we'd spend four or five days there in contemplative lethargy, engaged in the usual do-nothingness one does nothing of whilst languishing on a river in the thick of the lazy dog days of a hot August summer. Might see a bear, might not. Rattlers always made their presence known, respectfully. One year, with nothing better to do, I join the ranks of Preston Little Bear and Laura Little Hawk and proudly carve a youthful moniker from my early Mexican daze (ca. '74 - '92) into the ramshackle picnic table; last I checked it’s still there, with a sun emblem forming the “O”: "Acapulco Slim 8/20/94."

We are homecoming queens and kings as we approach our serendipitously discovered camping area. Look around! This is an intimate slice of wildness, all within our grasp, no effort (except for the driving) in getting here, right off the little-used road, conveniently tucked away out of sight down below where we throw down our camping gear and head straight for the inviting swimming hole. A blinding brilliance prevails at the river - slanting late afternoon rays splay across half the pool, with lengthening shadows darkening the other half's depths to the color of cold forged steel. We strip down and slink in, surprised by the tugging current and warmer than expected water. Usually, Clear Creek is a shrivel your balls experience, a work up to it inspiration, an inch-by-inch sidle into its bracing cold water - that, or just the wild plunge. Now, though, covered in sweat and grime, hot and in need of a refreshing dunk, it is pura vida and subudibal, mon! AAAAH! What a feeling to be soaking away all of our aches and frustrations, not to mention our fears and worries, and, of course, melting away all stress like asphalt under a Death Valley sun, in this precious, healing, cleansing wilderness mountain stream. It can’t be beat (well, a secluded hot springs experience come close).

A quick look around tells me superficially nothing has changed. I sigh in relief, I really do. And yet, on closer inspection - a look here, a glance there, everything has changed. What’s that old adage – you can’t step in the same river twice. Therefore it is continually changing. A pair of diminutive madrone trees guarding the entrance to our camp seem to have sprouted at least two or three feet since our last acquaintance. That giant log never used to be there. What happened to that cliff - it just collapsed into a pile of jagged sharp scree. And our camping area has washed out a bit, so I find a good stick to brush and smooth it out, making it a suitable site for supine relaxation - perfect for looking up between tall pines at a big wedge of star-studded firmament, a faint breeze keeping bugs at bay, snug in my sleeping bag, in a place I've spent fifty nights dreaming away; it's a nice feeling. Other details of our surroundings command my attention - certain familiar trees of heaven and identifiable rocks and assemblages of boulders and cliffs and logjams and sets of rapids and corridors of emerald liquidescence flowing through ancient gorges. Particular views. The snakelike root engaging the stupa shaped boulder. The silky smooth madrone tree with tits and belly button. It is all the same and entirely different. It is as though yesterday these images burned in my consciousness, swelled in my heart. Father Time has progressed, but milfy Mother Nature has not aged one bit. I think she will always be young, even if geology tells us otherwise.

How long does it take, barring a catastrophic natural event like a major landslide or fire or flood, for a serene place like Clear Creek to effect noticeable change? Will Clear Creek look any different in a hundred years, or 5,000 or 50,000, or a million? Big fires have burned in these parts and it just makes the ecosystem all the healthier. My guess is - with just the elements working their relentless fracturing and erosion processes through wind, rain, ice, heat, cold - my guess is that it would take at least 100,000 years for the forces of nature to sufficiently render Clear Creek unrecognizable from today. But the way the earth works, with unpredictable dynamism, it could happen, relatively speaking, or literally, overnight with calamitous climate change, or how about an asteroid plowing into things. But left to its own devices - unceasing ebb and flow of life, timeless rhythms, eternal cycles - Clear Creek will always be. Clear. Creek. Will. Always. Be.

What has always compelled us to retreat to wilderness settings? Beauty and solitude alone, no - although those elements create the sacred context for stopping the world and dismantling the routines, for fostering a meditative floating sensation of suspended time, for the magical chance to revel in eternity’s flow. Along a river, away from the hordes and civilized society and urban depravity, we tend to engage in as little "monkey mind" thinking as possible - no thinking allowed (aloud)! Our intention over the next 100 hours is to turn it off and shut it down, or as an earnest 19 year old Hemingway wrote in a just-released 1918 letter to his "Dear Old Pop", to "give my buszing, crackling, bushed high tension, twin six brain a rest." (Hear, hear, Hemmy!)

For us, it’s not about adventure, thrills, excitement, or challenge (synonymous with FUN) - some nice to haves - but our dog-day August ritual demands so much less of us, or so much more because it's not all that easy to just turn it off and focus on the here and now, the being of being here with nothing to do, nothing to prove, nothing to chase after, nothing to worry about, nothing to read or write or file away. Nothing to fix, resolve, deal with or plan for. Unwinding from so many workaday stresses, the challenge becomes to rev it down in pure chillax mode, contemplate the navel if nothing else in a splendiferous narcoleptic reverie, beset in mindless rapture. While all about you the magisterial manifestations of miraculous phenomena persist - otherwise known as the life's unceasing ebb and flow, Mother Nature's unfolding dramas and unnoticed little things, her animated blueprint and unseen interactions and confluences and overlappings, occurring by the quadrillion every second.

It's hard to find new ways to describe Clear Creek, unrivaled in purity and beauty. What it means. What it means to us. After already posting two accounts of my impressions and non-doings over the years, let me make things easy and just plagiarize my own writing: "Clear Creek’s virginal waters originate high in the ranges west of the Marble Mountain Wilderness, and runs its 23 mile course through an ancient canyon gouged out of raw earth and bedrock, wearing down tortured boulders into jagged and jumbled banks, narrow channels and gorgeous pools of jade green water flowing wild and pristine as a mountain creek should."

In my prior posts (which have undoubtedly sunk to the bottomless depths of your river of very important but forgotten about things to read) I've gushed about Clear Creek and described the landscape and sketched out the history and limned the culture of native Karuk, Happy Campers and the fiercely independent and radical denizens of Siskiyou County, and have profiled other aspects of the contumacious "State" of Jefferson. To wit: "Klamath Country is the ancestral homeland of 'upriver' spiritual Karuk tribes who have lived simply in harmony with sacred Mother Nature for millennia. Karuk peoples come from a tradition of spirituality, healing, sacred worship of animistic nature and restoring earth harmony, and community values. Such splendid isolation and scenic natural wonders and beauty have also made the area a 'below the radar' mecca over the years for a gallimaufry of characters: enterprising German immigrants, thrill-seeking rafters, wealthy fly fishermen retreaters, gold miners and dredgers, sun-toasted dreamers and river rats, odd ball recluses, out ’n out rednecks, mom ’n pop outfits, B ‘n B-ers, retirees squeezing 'a good livin'' out their frugal dollars, dying breeds of scheming secessionists plotting for the State of Jefferson, and, of course -- you know he’s out there! -- Big Foot. . .and he’s watching, watching, stalking, stalking YOU! (No, quite the opposite; ol’ Sasquatch is probably deep in hiding, if not in the woods, buried in your zoo-mythic consciousness.)"

I really would love it if something better comes to me, some newfangled poetic flourish or highfalutin lyrical riff, but I have mere left-overs to offer: "Clear Creek is flowing mightily in front of our camp site, forming a large emerald green super-inviting pool. A couple of hundred feet downstream, it drops thirty feet to tumble rapidly over a mossy jumble of boulders and logs. Here, it shoots through a gorgeous channel through a narrow gorge whose limpid celadon waters are twenty feet deep. It disappears out of vision into a distant pool at a horseshoe bend right below the road (which you‘d never know was there in a zillion years). Not a soul in sight. Not a sound but the wind and the water. It’s like we just hiked in ten miles to a precious, secret, stunningly beautiful spot that no one goes to or gets to easily. We won’t see a single person in our camping area for five solid days. That‘s one-hundred hours of solitude. (There are a couple of through-hikers on the National Scenic Recreation Trail, and, thankfully, fewer than normal of the usual suspects -- local yokels, yahoos, Christian youth brigades, hippie and punk kids, couples from Redding -- at the easy-to-get-to swimming hole downstream from us.) Well, Ms. Ranger Lady was wrong -- it’s already about a hundred and fifty degrees. I head straight for the sweet pool. After a refreshing swim in the - I’m guessing- 52 degree water - I’m down for the count. With beer and champagne on ice, things are looking chill."

Four nights and five days, hour by hour melting away, time mobius stripping into a circular flow or like the river, with no beginning or end, just an eternal unfolding of which we are but a part carried along like a helpless twig in the torrent, like leaves twirling to the ground, to the creek, swept up in the rush of water like tiny rafts headed on their unknown epic journeys. "World of rock, world of tree, world of water, world of sky—home to all of our animal friends. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts for sharing your home."

This setting - an uncontained wild river - creates a condition of forced meditation, a state of mandatory induced calmness. You cannot rush the river, or hurry it along, or oppose its way; therefore, you cannot do these things to yourself in the presence of the river. All you can really do is let it sink in, give yourself over to it, love it, and learn from it. In Siddhartha, Hesse wrote, "It is a very beautiful river. I love it above everything. I have often listened to it, gazed at it, and I have always learned something from it. One can learn much from a river." This acknowledgement or notion that natural features of the earth - rivers, mountains, rocks, trees - are our teachers comes easily for tribal peoples living in close harmony with nature (unlike Western humankind), who for tens of thousands of years have sought out sacred places and revered holy natural creation in order to unlock mystical secrets and tap into the animist power earth features hold and represent - an ultimate lesson learned of humility and respect, of knowing our proper place in Nature as but one of many inter-connected strands in the complex web of life.

And so, all you can do is fight it or succumb to it. In the old days, I used to fight it, itchin' and restless after a couple nights, driven to explore other places to hike, be on the move, active, working out, productive. Picture this: an argument where it is suggested that I just go off on my own, then! Well, these days, I've learned to fall loving victim to the captive spell of torpor. I've become adept at shedding my base human ways and peeling off the "carnal incrustations" of life. Viz.: "A typical day at Clear Creek? Think of sloooooowing waaaaaaay doooooown. Imagine walking in meditative mini-steps. Certainly the 108 degree temperature helps, but the exercise is to deliberately gear it down several notches. It is revolutionary to just wind down, let go, not rush, not think, not do. . .just be. And that is when the animal magic happens!"

Sun rising over ridge tops, spilling soft light over mountains and creek, then latish in the afternoon dagger rays stippling patches of amber limpid pools, dazzling, kaleidoscopic reflective visions of upside down cedars and inverted salmon-colored cliff faces, as finally night unveils its ebon curtain, revealing the infinite cosmos, "the grand celestial show above of meteors, satellites, Milky Way, glittering pinpricks of millions of stars, and the occasional UFO sighting."

Opening our hearts to the animals' presence, brings them out, so they feel comfortable to emerge from their hiding spots - soon the shrill bzeet bzeet bzeet of the ouzel cheers the air and the sweet song of canyon wren is carried on the wind, and the playful squawk of jay livens things up. "We have had the pleasure of visiting with ant, beetle, bee, bat, butterfly, bumblebee, bird, caterpillar, cicada, cricket, dragonfly, deer, fly, frog, fish, grasshopper, horsefly, hummingbird, kingfisher, lizard, moth, mosquito, midge, mantis, pheasant, spider, snake, squirrel, slug, water strider, wasp, water ouzel. Oh brother and sister, where art thou, raccoon, bear, bobcat, lion, weasel, skunk, hawk, badger, Bigfoot?—all creatures great and small we love and admire. We feel a powerful, almost shamanic connection to the animal soul-world. We truly are fortunate and blessed to make any acquaintance whatsoever, for Muir, perhaps lamenting, writes, 'Gliding about in their shady forest homes, keeping well out of sight, there is a multitude of sleek, fur-clad animals living and enjoying their clean, beautiful lives. How beautiful and interesting they are is about as difficult for busy mortals to find out as if their homes were beyond sight in the sky.'"

Slow-boiled, sun-drenched Saharan days with sirocco zephyrs meld into "one great time flow, a river of events and happenings, comings and goings, of few doings and pure being. No hurry, no worry. Be here now. Sleep, dream, wake, swim, eat, one endless activity." And then no sooner are we becalmed, settled in and kicked back than it's time to leave. Imagine if five years can pass so quickly, how ridiculously evanescent five measly days are - vanishing like that (snap!) into the thin air of our mysterious existences.

Whether twelve months, five years or two decades pass before we again find ourselves immersed in the magico-animated world of Clear Creek, doesn't matter. We carry the place in our hearts for all time.

To read more about Clear Creek, visit my other posts:

Sunday, September 04, 2011

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

This is the tale of Bogus Thunder
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. . .
-Gambolin' Man
Around the witching hour on a warm August evening, we’re drawn to the river, the river with no beginning and no end. We're taking in the last of the sun's rays peeking over Deadwood Ridge, watching the turquoise / jade colored pool meld in amber liquidescence. Suddenly, we look up to spot an adult female fish eagle reconnoitering her surroundings - her impressive two meter long wing span elegantly extended in a swooping and banking maneuver high above. Just to be sure, she does another quick fly-over, then vanishes over the canopy of green never to be seen again. No doubt a mother with juveniles nearby in a massive stick nest high atop some scraggily snag, growing big and strong from mama's adept hunting skills at plucking up the many trout darting about and coming to the surface to feed on massing swarms of insects. Whether Ms. Osprey's visitation is a welcome - or cool admonishment - we don’t know. But the elusive bird’s soaring splendor surely embodies the spirit of a deceased friend, Russell Towle, who I like to believe claimed Ms. Osprey as his personal totem. pee pee pee! peep! peep! pee pee. . .

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, 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.

To view complete Bogus Thunder gallery, visit: