Thursday, August 30, 2012

AMERICAN RIVER CANYON COUNTRY: Seeking Mysterious Fountains of Heaven & the Plash of Gleaming Cascades in Hidden California

Poor you!
Nothin’ to do, nowhere to go, but a quick shot up for a couple of days to the Tahoe National Forest for a gambol, hoping to locate a certain pristine river.
What you find, though, is hardly untouched, as decades of mining, dredging, sluicing, deforestation, and eco-destructive marijuana growing have greatly informed and influenced the geography, culture and history of Sierra Nevada foothill canyon country.
Still, it’s worth the effort and trouble, seeking out this mythic artery of plunging High Sierra borne water carving a wild canyon with the North Fork of the Middle Fork American River flowing mightily through it.
For years, this river – it can’t total more than 15 miles in length – and its associated ravine tributaries and twisting canyons was not a place you deigned to visit, not from lack of curiosity or enthusiasm for the area’s putative charm and beauty, but because there was always some place harder and more difficult to get to.
Somewhere more remote, higher up, deeper down, fewer people, even within the vast and diverse acreage of the Tahoe National Forest. But down in the canyons here, you’re thrilled to discover hidden California at its best, replete with adventure, beauty, mystery, and history.
A rose not without its thorns, however. Think rattlesnakes, poison oak, stinging nettle, mosquitos, biting gnats, sunstroke, mercury tailing pollution, giardia, ticks, bears, dive bombing goshawks, anything else you can think of.
Pulling out a map, you’re drawn into the southeast quadrant of the Tahoe National Forest, truly one of our nation’s historic and natural treasures, despite a chunk of it being heavily deforested and a confusing patchwork of private, public, county, state, and federal lands.
You pore over the ungainly thing spread out before you on a small table, chuckling at all the crazy place names that evoke the hardscrabble lifestyle of the enterprising (and mostly foolhardy) souls who gambled with fate in this overpowering wilderness.
No, you don’t want to find yourself lost in Poor Man’s Canyon; broken down in Deadwood; busted in Last Chance; beaten down in Mad Canyon; arraigned for excess hubris in the unforgiving courts of Devil’s Thumb, Devil’s Basin or Devil’s Gate (Bogus Thunder territory); get turned around in Lost Canyon; scraped up in Bloody Ravine; and, with all hope perished, you might as well lay down and die in a place marked End of the World.
Back in the day, and to this day, the American River District of the Tahoe National Forest remains a land of challenging navigation, with route-finding skills a must to negotiate obscure, faint trails wending through obstacle-ridden fearful natural scenery.
Those legions who struggled for gold fevered fortune, then and now, and met with dashed expectations, faded dreams, if not death, may ye rest in peace. And for a few fortunate others, dreams of riches come true with a lucky strike of quartz vein or a Mother Lode of placer treasures, may ye share the wealth.
On a scorching August day – around your 57th birthday (gulp!) – you head up to foothill canyonland country to see what you can see. You really want Gambolin’ Gal to experience the NFMFAR, because she was unable to accompany on last year’s Bogus Thunder birthday trip.
But Bogus Thunder is out of the question – isn't it? – so that leaves . . . where? And how would access be? – always a notoriously difficult proposition in these parts. A quick internet search turns up not a whole lot on NFMFAR – a nice video made by one “Daniel of Auburn” who scrambles down from the bridge and proceeds to river whack his way to some heap-big-beautiful spots.
Nice fall-back plan, Daniel’s, but you’re worried about Gambolin’ Gal being able – or willing to – negotiate the unstable slope. Another quick search informs you of a very “easy” trailhead just before the bridge. That’s what you’re looking for!
The ride is easy, familiar, along Interstate 80, past places you’ve always blown by, forever in search of higher up destinations, more exciting venues, greater challenges, more extreme scenery.
Memo: hiking hidden California – lower Western Sierra Nevada gold rush foothill canyon country – may not have the altitudinous sporting factor at work with fiery cold alpine tarns, X-country route-finding and forbidding snow-capped peakage.
Or it might not possess the obvious glamor of Yosemite or dramatic in yo’ face scenery of Mount Whitney or a hundred other spectacular destinations that many outdoor junkies insist on for a real wilderness experience, but so far as you’re concerned, as much as you love all that, too, you just don’t operate top notch at those altitudes.
You’ll take the perfect habitat elevation zone of between 1500 ft. to 4000 ft. on a beautiful mosquito-free river any day, you’ve always said. And so that’s what you’re looking for.
At Auburn, boiling in 100+ temperatures, you turn down a country road, stock up on some necessities (like cold beer and ice, for starters!), cross the highest bridge in California at over 700 feet, and drive 17 winding, trafficky miles to the mountain town of Foresthill, scattered along a six mile stretch, where you wonder who the eff lives here, then turn off on a well-marked road to begin a pleasant drive through some surprisingly kick butt territory.
High on this roller coaster ridge, views open up, cliff faces loom, and the road curves and winds to the sunless depths of the river canyon. It’s hotter than Hades out, which is just fine, since back in the Bay Area, it was the coldest winter of any summer you can recall.
Elation and awe momentarily wane when you realize, duh, you may have ignored this route for thirty years, but still, you’re in American River Canyon Country – spectacular in an unassuming way – hardly reason to dismiss the area as not being about much.
That is, until you scale the inverted mountains that are its canyons and enter a realm unseen by most – the hidden California of your wilderness dreamscapes. 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 . . ."
You’re looking for a slippery, hard-to-notice trail off the side of the road, any trail leading to a paradisiacal, hard-to-get-to river on the North Fork of that infinitely more famous and well-rafted Middle Fork. It’s easy to miss, and you right drive on by.
You make a dangerous U-turn in the road and steer back to the little pull off, get out of the car and fume and fret a bit before suddenly noticing a grade winding down the steep ridge face. The river lay some 200 feet below, you calculate; well, if that’s over the course of just a mile, it can’t be all that bad (for American River Canyon Country).
But the trail turns out to be full of twists and turns and is quite steep in places and slippery as ice owing to a fine accumulation of smooth, colorful bay and oak leaves carpeting the ground.
You keep insisting to Gambolin’ Gal, who keeps insisting otherwise, that this HAS to be the trail described in the Web instructions – aren’t all Web instructions intentionally misleading? – because it truly is an “EASY” trail.
She laughs and waves you off when you explain that by American River Canyon Country standards – where trails can drop over 2000 ft. in under 3 miles – this IS easy.
She doesn’t agree, and you concede – it is neither easy nor the right trail. But the good news . . . it’s less than twenty minutes down to the river – unheard of in the labyrinthine reverse mountains of American River Canyon Country.
You learn all this later on, though, after deciding to “play it safe” and just day hike down to the river – because (hand clasp fretting!), because (worried eyes rolling heavenward), because what if it IS the wrong place and the trail IS brutishly long and unforgiving and there IS no good camping and – heaven forbid! – there ARE hungry bears. Then what?
Taking no chances in American River Canyon Country, you load up day packs with munchies, camera and binoculars, river shoes, extra clothes, bottles of water, and – c’maaaaan, Gambolin’ Man! – a Sunday NYT crossword puzzle?
You’re thinking – geez! – might as well haul everything down while you’re at it! But it’s too late now, you’re boltin’ down the untrammeled track, evincing proof that it’s a scarcely trod way down.
In a few minutes, you come to a vague T in the trail where you stop, drink some agua, eat a handful of apricots and walnuts, then go off exploring a side branch – a promising route until a massive tangle of thorny brambles turns you back, but not before stopping to gorge on mouth-watering, finger-staining luscious ripe blackberries.
Returning to the vague T, you find Gambolin’ Gal kicked back on the trail awaiting your gallant return (in your mind). She asks what’s up. You confidently assert the trail isthat-a-way”, pointing the opposite direction along a vaguely delineated trail line. You’re eager to volunteer to scout ahead while she continues her leisurely idyll under a shady canopy of stunted Black Oak trees.
It’s just breezy and shady enough to forget it’s 108 degrees with a dry zephyr rolling through. The trail doesn’t have too many obstacles (downed tree, overgrown section), and not a whole lot of downhill – not so bad after all. Nearing the river, the trail is now just ten feet above the flood bank, but you can’t get down the bank.
Well, you could, but you might hurt yourself, so why do something stupid. Plus, you ask yourself, backing away from a tomfoolery attempt to vertically drop to the riverbed via some deft maneuvering (in your mind) down precarious wobbly boulders, why bother when the trail is actually in pretty decent condition.
You encounter just one more hairy spot, a nothing little wash-out you have to negotiate, no big deal but you could get hurt if you slipped, so you’re grateful for the sturdy root bangle handhold jutting out of the side of the cliff, perfectly positioned for safe clutching and ideal for propelling your momentum across the defile in a nifty little move.
Once past that, it’s smooth sailing. A couple of moldering mounds of old miners’ garbage – why are they such inveterate junksters? An easy surmounting of a big rock. The trail dipping down to unveil from the riparian curtain of vegetation a perfect 10 campsite river scene! Not quite what you were expecting.
Quick, got to get back up to Gambolin’ Gal and get your butts back down this trail pronto. Get situated under those welcoming shady alder trees offering up a wealth of comfort and shelter from the sizzling buzz and crackling hum of the hot summer day.
Oh, yeah, can’t forget – drink that rapidly warming beer. First things first – you take a moment to check out just how strikingly beautiful and remote seeming it all seems.
That lovely rill-ver!
Look at ‘er, still flowing nicely in late August despite a tell-tale sign of low flow: alga growth in the showcase swimming hole fronting the camping area. In your haste, or just your excitement, you barely notice the old miners’ bridge from maybe the 1930s.
Got to go get Gambolin’ Gal now! Heading back, you get turned around thinking you came this way when in fact it was the other direction; you stumble about a bit, bang your knee, knock your sore ankle, brush up into thick poison oak.
You begin having panicky thoughts about getting lost and what with poor Gambolin’ Gal languishing there trailside, who knows, a mountain lion or demented miner stalking her, you scramble to get your bearings and soon you’re back on track once you come back upon the miner’s old trash heap.
From there, it’s an easy retrace back to Gambolin’ Gal, who’s waiting patiently in the shade, surprised to see you so soon. (So soon? You’re thinking . . . weren’t you gone like four hours?) Out of breath and barely containing your excitement, you easily convince her it’s doable.
No sooner are you down in the canyon, marveling at the beauty and isolation, than you announce your wired-up intentions to race back up to the car to get all the camping gear at once – cursing yourself for not doing it in the first place.
You get everything you “need” – sleeping bags, ground pads, water purifier, food, cooking stove and gas, pots, mugs and utensils, more extra clothing – all in one man-sized haul, everything stuffed in your big REI Mars pack or bungeed on the outside – look at you, ya big lug, loaded down like an old fart 49-er on his last leg, and you’re good to go.
First things first, though – that still-cool beer to suck down, you mean savor.
From the time you leave Gambolin’ Gal all by her lonesome, and race up the steep hillside, gather your things together, fumble with the newfangled security fob on the rental, and race back down, only 35 minutes have passed! Unheard of! But that’s how close you are to the car!
Do not let those 35 minutes fool you – it’s a mofo getting in and out of here; and you just happen to be a scampering billy goat, with a bad wheel, but hey, the difficulty, the getting there and back and there again isn’t about to stop you.
If it keeps most people out, so be it, and thankee. (Besides, what are the mobile / web app / internet-addicted / ADHD-afflicted among us going to do down there anyway, just sitting on a bunch of rocks for hours on end staring at the water . . . ?)
Happy and relieved the task is behind you, you can finally strip off your sweaty clothes and let out that big barbaric yawp – AAAAAAHHHHH! – you’ve been holding in. Sounds of primal joy resound in the dry air as you plunge head first in the bracing water and luxuriate in the refreshingly clear pool beneath high ragged cliffs.
Just upstream your eyes are glued to a raised river bed with tumultuous cascades tumbling down in rhapsodic white noise. One cascade funnels sharply down a spiral chute into a cut bedrock tub fit for the Gods.
You take in the sumptuously sensual experience of a natural Jacuzzi bath pounding your suspended body, the force of the swirling white frothy concoction holding you aloft and weightless as continual waves of roiling water besiege your every cell and aching joint. More barbaric yawping.
It’s a beautiful natural world. You suddenly notice the miners’ bridge just downstream – a 100 ft. span of rusted metal – a relic from another era when miners relied on the vital connector to get their loaded down draft mules from one claim to another.
On first glance it’s an annoying feature blotching up the scenery, but on second consideration you come to appreciate its presence for what it is, for what it represents – an icon of blood, sweat, tears, labor and drudgery of those who chose to placer and lode mine for a living in California’s Gold Country.
Most returned home tired and broken and beaten. Today, this is a heavily “claimed” land, with clearly marked “Private” notices posted. You get to wondering about claims – what gives someone the right to “own” (claim) a piece of natural land under government jurisdiction for the use, benefit and enjoyment of all the public?
The government gives that right to all citizens. So is it first come first serve? Who are the lucky claim jumpers who got first dibs on the rich lodes? How long can they keep a claim as theirs? Are they handed down from family to family, generation to generation, until the treasures are depleted? Or are there “term limits”?
And surely, a “Private” claim cannot embar you or me from being there, enjoying the public land, right. Rousseau hit the nail on the head with his observation:
“ . . . you are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to all and the earth to no one!”
So far as you can tell, ain’t no claimants around these parts. You’ve got the place all to yourselves – you and the resident animal population! Just how you like it! You’re thrilled at your “discovery” – your serendipitous blundering to find this secret little spot – in hidden California!
Dreamily idling the day away on an isolated stretch of the river reminiscent of last year’s Bogus Thunder trip. On a smaller scale, to be sure, and with but a hint of the grandeur of that truly wild place. Still, here, right here, is a revelation of pristine beauty. You and Gambolin’ Gal just keep shakin’ your heads, like, man, can you believe it?
At first you try not to notice glimpses of vehicular traffic high above on an arc of roadway cutting across the ridge face – rafter vans, motorcycles, even a cement truck whizzes by. You laugh at the absurdity, at the contrast of being so “remote” yet within eyeshot of a fairly steady stream of Sunday traffic!
You can see them, but doubtful they can see you, or the pretty thread of blue green river far below in the canyon, their eyes fixed on the winding, narrow road. Chalk it up to the subtle splendors of hidden California.
You spend the remaining inscrutable hours idling about under a colony of shady alders, waiting out the dragon-breath sirocco blowing through daily for a couple of hours before abruptly stopping. You swim endlessly in the deep pools, up and downstream from the campsite; off you go exploring, checking out the bridge pilings, the rickety structure, a surviving section of moss-covered rock wall.
You take note of the extraordinary perfectly chiseled round, deep holes created in the rock by repetitive swirling water action over thousands of years. Downstream, the river narrows into a squeeze channel flanked by finely sculpted “Ohlone blue” bedrock, with elephantine tufts of Indian rhubarb springing up from the shoals.
Across the way is a Mining Claim, impeccably neat, and clearly marked “Private”. You cross the river and climb up the embankment to check things out, find nothing of particular interest (another pile of trash stashed in a pit beneath a manzanita tree), snap a few pictures, and pause briefly to wonder about claims again, now that you were, ostensibly, or is that technically, trespassing on some dude’s claim.
By virtue of the General Mining Act of 1872, it seems a land grab of sorts was legalized, which allowed for land claim prices to be capped at $5 per acre, so that (Wiki):
"All citizens of the United States of America 18 years or older have the right under the 1872 mining law to locate a lode (hard rock) or placer (gravel) mining claim on federal lands open to mineral entry."
Whoever got the first jump on stake claiming, won the lottery, it’s that simple. The BLM currently sets a fee for 20 acres of claimed land at just under $200; Tahoe National Forest must have some similar arrangement allowing for a hardy individualist prospector to shoo away competitors by proclaiming, hopefully with civility and gentility, “My claim, Sir!”
You head back upstream to explore in the opposite direction. It’s an easy walk along a few hundred yards on smooth sculpted bedrock, dry as a bone now but flushed clean every winter by ravishing snowmelt waters that steam shovel everything in its way, casting piles of driftwood high onto rock shelves. 
Eventually, an impenetrable chaos of boulders forces you veer away to the shiny thread of river where you boulder hop a few hundred more yards until – Lo! – you come to an Olympian-sized emerald pool that stops you in your Keen tracks.
An angular sun refracts gorgeous Goddess beams, mirroring deep reflections of salmon-colored hillsides, shimmering images of alabaster rock formations voluptuous in their soft hardness, and dense stands of conifers and alders creating a mirage of a forest on the undulating surface.
The pool is deep enough to dive into from a high ledge, not that ten feet of water is any big deal, but late in the summer, with snow melt and spring run-off winding down, a pool of depth and clarity such as this is a beautiful and magical thing to – not just behold – but to immerse in and become part of, which you waste no time doing.
The next several hours are a lovely interlude of a lazy day unfolding, just you and Gambolin’ Gal, with no purpose or agenda; finding this perfectly wonderful spot to kick back; relaxing on perfectly form fitting therapeutic hot rocks; swimming and frolicking in perfectly cool water; sitting back and taking in Mother Nature’s perfectly unnoticed events and occurrences.
 In refulgent splendor!
An inch-long black wasp, drunken with nectar, flitting around a white flowering shrub; a green stink bug plummeting to the water in an odd death spiral; swarms of minnows nibbling skin bits at your ankles; gigantic dragonflies patrolling, occasionally darting to the rippling surface to snatch up mouthfuls of swarming gnats; a scrub jay letting loose; and finally, it’s been a while, you hear the high pitched whistle of Ms. Canyon Wren paying you a visit.
Indeed, your lame imitation earlier of Mr. Canyon Wren has brought her down from the cliff face to peck and inspect just ten feet away from you – unheard of! Such a close encounter makes you wonder if perhaps she’s never seen a human being, and is just curious as to what kind of creature you are. She doesn’t stick around long, though.
From this dreamy reverie, you suddenly look up, distracted by a mechanized roar – WTF?! High above in the distance is a yellow sign on the road. Through your binoculars, as you suspected, it’s a 15 mph curve sign.
Just then three motorcycles race by, their revving motors echoing for a nerve-shattering second. It hardly matters, since they’re up there, and you’re down here, worlds apart. Universes apart. That’s the last time you even notice traffic above.
Nightfall approaches, the magical hour. A lackadaisical time to quietly sit by the river, sneak in a final dip, listen to whispering winds, and await for the day to fade into darkness – the undefinable, protracted crepuscular hour, a twilit gloaming where silhouettes and shadows take on spooky visages and time seems to stop.
Old timey music combined with nonsense chatter and imagined growling creatures are unsettling aural hallucinations adding melodrama to the moment. Then the bats come out – more than you’ve ever seen at once above the river sky.
You watch several of them masterfully demo their hunting prowess, plying along an inch above the water in lightning quick coordination, snatching up mouthfuls of gnats swirling on the surface of this insect-rich pool, feeding to their heart’s content, performing incomprehensibly adroit aerial maneuvers aided by sleek aeromechanic body design and super advanced powers of echolocation. Amazing creatures.
And hopefully this species is unaffected by “white nose syndrome” devastating bats across North America. A few are drawn to your dazzling output of red heat wave energy, too close for comfort, and so you stagger back up to your sleeping area, spread out on a simple sheet beneath the great exposed firmament of the vast glimmerings of the Milky Way Galaxy.
After a long, hard day of sun-drenched calorie-burning activity, it’s easy to drop into a daze. You’re barely able to stay awake to spot an asteroid, but you persevere in consciousness until a final Whoa!” moment to witness a flaming bolt of yellow orange fire streaking across the sky.
Fading, fading, good night, sweet night, pleasant dreams until dawn’s early light.
Honoring Russell Towle:
Bonus video of the beautiful North Fork of the Middle Fork American River:


Blogger Carol said...

Love it! I can relate to Gambolin' Gal's reactions and love that kind of detail. Best yet, Tom!

8/31/2012 11:02 AM  
Anonymous Nicole F said...

Fantastic! love the video! Happy late birthday Tom!

8/31/2012 1:14 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

WOW ! Great Story ...

8/31/2012 6:38 PM  
Anonymous Loren said...

Wow! That is really cool photos! Happy late birthday Tom. I enjoyed the post.

Loren @

9/03/2012 6:32 AM  
Anonymous maui said...

LOVED being there with you - a new find, going somewhere new. remembering the delightul hummingbird that danced the longest while above my red sleeping bag in the morning. can't wait to go back! who will make it there with us???

9/07/2012 1:38 PM  
Blogger Cat McGuire said...

What a wonderful spot. Lovely write-up.

Motorcycles! I detest them. Are there any out there that *don't* make god-awful noise? It amazes me that motorcyclists get to legally pollute the aural space with abandon. Who in their right mind would do that?

9/07/2012 7:35 PM  
Blogger James McBryan said...

Wow, I felt a real sense of accomplishment yet yearning after reading this post. I love it how you really found a true gem that is very much overlooked!

10/24/2012 7:27 PM  

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