A perfect climactic elevation zone, ranging from 1200 ft. to 4500 ft. above sea level, tilts my preference to this wondrous and magical setting over inhospitable and harsh redoubts of some stark, mosquito-infested alpine Sierra Nevada settings I’ve frozen my ass off in over the years. Such austere places are without peer, but North Fork and Middle Fork American River Canyon Country is the place you want to be for hot weather river gorge scrambling, world-class pool and waterfall action, and sensational beauty literally stopping you in your tracks, so difficult is it to negotiate and navigate this nearly impenetrable land. Dating back to the early 1850s and before, gold-hungry men applied brawn, sweat, tears, blood and brains to conquer this land; they lived in squalor, got injured, suffered from diarrhea and rotten teeth and a host of other ailments and had terrible diets. But they built trails and dug tunnels and did whatever it took to get the mule loads of supplies across intractable cliff faces and down to the canyon depths. A land smack dab in the middle of authentic Gold Rush Territory - exploited ruthlessly for its abundant natural resources, its unimaginable gold wealth that fuele d the state’s rise to prominence at a huge ecological cost and loss of human life. Today, the land is what it is – in recovery still - and the ghosts of those who met their fate here, haunted, desperate specters, roam aimlessly up and down the river, wailing of murderous treachery, of accursed reversal of fortune, seeking everlasting atonement for avaricious transgressions committed in this sacred land. Listen hard enough and you may hear plaintive Chinese violins of a quiet evening on the river funereally lamenting some forsaken spirit, or you may be spooked by the gobbedlygook chatter of so many lost souls seeking egress from their lengthy purgatory in the ruins of the gold pits. Perhaps it’s just buzzing in your brain, scaredy-cat nighttime auditory hallucinations, but ah, if you just pause to really tune in - what mysterious voices emanate from the river’s babbling tongue!
North Fork American Canyon Country is a blip on Google Earth, but zoom in and you are virtually THERE – cyber witness to an unpopulated pristine paradise (except for the very real mercury contamination from the old tailings). The tortured topography contributes to a sense of extreme isolation, while one endures exceptional hardship in getting to choice spots pretty much anywhere in NFAR country, making it pretty much off-limits for the casual or even avid hiker, because the choice spots are always terribly tough miles away and agonizingly difficult thousands of feet down and back up again on impossibly steep trails – a sure deterrent for most people who want “drive-up” beauty or easily attained vistas on not too challenging loops or out and back hikes. Yet people do make it here – on our hike we encountered a lone female hiker in her late fifties. I was impressed. When you chance upon another hiker in these rarefied realms, it’s a kindred soul encounter, because only a very impassioned individual would torture him or herself in making the lung-busting, ankle-twisting, knee-knocking, poison oak-infested, rattlesnake-hissing pilgrimage to some of the crazy remote places of incalculable natural beauty and raw power found in NFAR country, with elevation drops of 2000 ft. in two miles not uncommon.
All for the thrill and glory of seeking out the most alluring of splendors - some of the American West’s loveliest glacial- and spring-sourced canyon-carving rivers, gathered together in a tangle of arteries in the Dutch Flat Quadrant of the Tahoe National Forest. You’ve heard of the famous rafting and kayaking venues of the North Fork American River and the Middle Fork American River, but how about those princesses’ lesser known and appreciated but equally attractive sisters - the North Fork of the Middle Fork of the American River, the North Fork of the North Fork American River, the Rubicon, and Monumental Creek, jokingly referred to by the late scholar, historian and explorer of the area, Russell Towle, as “the North Fork of the East Fork of the North Fork of the North Fork of the American River. The NFEFNFNFAR, as it were.” Russell wrote prolifically on his many adventuresome forays and research expeditions with a “Nec Aspera Terrent” style of devil-may-care, uber-enthusiasm coloring his peregrinations and explorations of the historic American River canyon – his beloved backyard which held endless fascination for him. He posted about the same hike a half dozen times, yet wrote passionately with refreshed powers of observation, as though experiencing the splendor, charm and beauty for the first time. For Russell, it was always “Difficulties Be Damned”when it came to feasting on North Fork beauty. And for a compilation of essays, writings, fulminations and inquiries about the area, no one can equal Russell’s output of over 300 postings at his legacy website, northforktrails.blogspot.com . Requiescat in pace, Russell!
It’s been a half dozen years since my last visit to Gold Run Diggings and Canyon Creek Trail. The first was in 2003, nine years ago already, when Russell and a friend, CanyonSpirit, invited me along – “bright sun blessed us all day long.” These old Canyon Creek hands absolutely delighted in turning me on to a place that was so near and dear to them and so secret and spectacular to me – they reveled in my childlike, overly exuberant reaction to capital E Everything, as Russell noted! “You ain’t seen nuthin’ yet,” he ribbed me, the city-slickin’ gambolin’ man dude from Berkeley, with each new revelation. Indeed, that day my eyes were popping out of my skull as a myriad of s ensations and unexpected splendors left me, not quite speechless, but certainly breathless: a 150 ft. waterfall leaping from a solid rock face; a chute of ferocious water plunging from an unseen corkscrew inner gorge; dramatic cliffs, high bluffs and pinnacle crags and Lover’s Leaps; historic lost trails, old mossy walls and tunnels; wildflower garden displays; artifact and relics from another age; and the raging waters of Canyon Creek – “loud, boisterous, surging clear green water with long stretches of frothing white rapids,” wrote Russell. We had taken a different approach in through the Digging, down Potato Ravine and Indiana Hill ditch, dating back to the early 1850s, then the bridge crossing at the creek, a footbridge which Russell and company rebuilt after the torrent of 2006. The n, the 1600 ft. descent on the plunging trail to the North Fork American River carving a mighty significant S through the thickly forested canyon. At stops along the way we paid homage to the “politically-incorrect Blasted Digger, that lightning-struck pine on the rocky ridge east of Canyon Creek, that wondrous spot which offers awesome views into Giant Gap, and even beyond, to the freshly snow-dusted mountains around the head of the North Fork of the North Fork,” noted Russell on one particularly fine outing. He took me to check out the Six-Inch Trail, an acrophobic perch cutting along an escarpment from an old sluice box line from 160 years ago, tempting fate peering down off the slippery ledge into the corkscrew inner gorge where a monolithic waterfall crashed and boomed.
On another day we detoured on to the obscure(d), historic trail known as the HOUT – Russell’s acronymic High Old Upper Trail, a formerly undistinguished and indistinct spur trail that Russell and Ron Gould discovered – the HOUT being “a strangely level thread of a path which can be followed miles up the canyon into the heart of Giant Gap. It is a relict of the Giant Gap Survey, a scheme of a hundred years past to divert waters of the North Fork for San Francisco's water supply. The schemers put men at work to rough in the line of the pro posed canal, and they dutifully blasted out narrow ledges from the cliffs, and drove a couple of tunnels through the flaring rock spurs below Lovers Leap.” Russell had lots to say about the HOUT; he really wanted to understand its origins, who built it, when, where it led to, how long it was, what it was used for, why it was situated in such god-awful terrain – perhaps, mostly, it gave Russell the opportunity to escape to nature with a singular purpose to revel in it and enjoy all its aspects and facets – botany, archaeology, cultural history, oh, and his one of many great loves, geology. For Russell, getting his feet muddy and hands dirty on the HOUT was field work, integral to his understanding the mystery story and being able to piece together the fragmented bits of documents, deeds, maps, letters, journals, and newspaper clippings offering insight into the mining and settlement history of Placer County. Russell (and Ron) pretty much solved the mystery and brought back the HOUT back from the brink of oblivion and extinction.
One time at Canyon Creek, thinking I knew the place by heart after a visit or two, Brock Stoker (of “Boys’ Trip” notoriety) and I made the approach by illegally accessing the trailhead on mountain bikes cutting through private holdings (Russell always railed that Placer County should be renamed Parcel County!). Since that was the only way I knew in, we took our chances and made it to the trailhead (TH). (Today, it’s best to take the route in from Garrett Road at BLM land along jeep roads and eventually the Paleobotany Trail.) We ditched ou r bikes at the TH, and encountered a guy with a fishing pole who pleaded with me to “lead” him down to the river. I’m thinking, hell no, bro, find your own way down, but this Jack Black look-alike was so insistent that I finally relented, making it clear that it was a tough-ass trail that at one point simply erodes into the rocky hillside, so it would be rough going and I was not responsible for him. Capiche?
He assented, and off we set – Gambolin’ Man, of course, stormin’ out front while Brock obligingly kept the fisherman dude company for a while until a point at which I stopped to wait for them. And that's when he never showed up. After fifteen minutes, I’m thinking, WTF?! More in frustration than what later set in – panic - I retraced my steps up the twisty path yelling and whistling for him – nothing. Now, I’m really thinking, WTF! He must have detoured at the Terraces area, got waylaid somehow on the Six-Inch Trail, and – horror of horrors – slipped to his death in the inner gorge. I rushed to and fro, retracing my steps on the Lower Terrace Trail and redoubling my search effort by circling back up and around to the Higher Terrace Trail, scanning the turbulent Canyon Creek below with binoculars; nothing. Finally, I concluded that somehow he must be below me – it was the only scenario that made sense.So I hustled all the way down to the river, one thousand feet of hard lost elevation, where to my surprise the fisherman dude had made it in one piece, having passed by me when I was looking for Brock on the Terraces Trail. He was thoroughly engaged in casting his rod in the swift-moving river. When I yelled out to him over the din of the splashing rapids, he turned to regard me through coke-bottle lenses, rolling his magnified eyes with a who-cares shrug when I asked if he’d seen my friend. Last he said he saw of him was up there (pointing). Okay, so now, it’s like WTF in the Twilight Zone. Where could Brock Stoker be? Lost. . .or dead!. . . in Canyon Creek, that’s where!
I was utterly spent but very worried about my friend and didn’t want to ponder the very real possibility that something semi-serious could happen to the loving husband and father of three. How on earth could we have separated and lost sight of one another? (Of course, Gambolin’ Man gets the blame.) In my renewed adrenaline rush of fear, I tore off back up canyon all the way to the TH, 1600 feet up in a painstakingly steep mile and a half. Man oh fuckin’ man, was I beat. But no Brock was to be found at the TH, so now I had little choice but to head 1000 ft. back down the trail, thinking all the while that, shit, maybe he already was waiting for me at the TH and because I never showed up he headed on up and out through the Diggings, via Indiana Hill and Potato Ravine. Simply not possible, I concluded. Hardly plausible even. Barely considerable.
Finally, I was back near the area where the separation had occurred. I carefully negotiated the insanely narrow, slick, rocky promenade - the Six-Inch Trail - with its deadly 300 ft. drop-off to my immediate left, and scouted out again the inner gorge and its profound depths, to no avail, so I reconnoitered another area and came up empty there as well, but thankful for not having to bear the guilt and agony of spotting Brock’s battered body hundreds of feet below in a lifeless heap on jagged rocks. Finally I gave up all hope, figuring my best bet was to go back to the TH and wait for him there. Along the way I scrawled some rah-rah notes and left them under strategically placed rocks for Brock to find on the trail; sure enough, the plan worked, for after about a 5 hour separation ordeal, Brock had managed to find his way back to the main trail.
It begs the question - where O where had Brock strayed to? You guessed it! Onto the indistinguishable, indistinct High Old Upper Trail! Somehow he had detoured off Canyon Creek Trail onto the HOUT without even knowing it! In my zeal to plow down the hill, I had missed the hard-to-spot spur trail, even though I had just been shown it a few weeks prior. But here was Brock, just ambling along in his own groove, and he somehow managed to stray off the very distinct Canyon Creek Trail and onto the very indistinct High Old Upper Trail! I would never in a million years have suspected he would be on the HOUT, because never in a million years would I have suspected he would or could have found it; which explains why I didn’t go looking for him on the HOUT. . .actually, I probably wouldn’t have even found the HOUT myself had I been purposefully looking for it, that’s how obscured it is, but somehow, Brock managed to veer off on it and get insanely turned around, wandering like John the Baptist in the Wilderness on the Trail to Oblivion.
The HOUT that Brock found himself on (precariously) cuts across a steep sloped mountainside about 250 ft. above the North Fork American River, forming a fairly straight line, “east, on an intricate path, through groves of Canyon Live Oaks, through heavy old brush, and across cliffs and rockslides, on and on and on, in the full heat of the sun,” wrote Russell in “Visit to Canyon Creek and Giant Gap” on May 30, 2007 during one of his dozens of scouting expeditions to piece together parts of the trail, that at times just dropped off below ten or twenty feet to pick up anew; and Brock, bless his heart, had followed that faint line about a mile out. Not seeing Gambolin’ Man in sight, he figured he HAD to be down at the river by now, so what did Brock do? He veered yet again, this time off the secondary HOUT and negotiated a harrowing bushwhack of a descent to the river (in deck shoes, no less!), where he reported resting up and waiting on a big polished boulder in the sun, sure as shit that Gambolin’ Man was about to pop up around a bend in a second flat, laughing and mocking his fears and insecurity. Where else could he be? And isn’t that what he would do – it would all be so welcomingly funny!
When two hours passed and no Gambolin’ Man turned up, Brock started thinking, well, maybe Gambolin’ Man didn’t make it to the river after all. Which meant he HAD to be back up THERE. So, with the day waning, Brock snapped out of his poolside (sans cocktail) reverie, hopped to it, and scrambled back up the steep, slippery mountainside, nearly falling to his death, he reported, at one point, clinging to a fingerhold of crumbling rock; finally, back on Canyon Creek Trail, thankfully on firm navigable ground again, he made the right decision and headed up canyon toward the TH, along the way finding my reinvigorating notes which, he reported, were like manna from heaven for his depleted psyche. I had gone back to the TH to wait, but despite my fatigue I couldn’t remain still, so down I went again looking for him, when we finally met on the trail – not quite a Livingston and Stanley moment, but still. . .it was great to see Brock alive and well, if slightly shaken up by the experience. Oh, yeah, I had forgotten – at the TH on one of my runs up there I flagged down a hiker to use his cell phone to call Russ ell for help, that’s how panicked I was! (What are the chances of a hiker being there and having cell phone reception!) Russell was out of town, and so we were on our own. Later on, Russell excoriated me for having gotten separated from Brock, no doubt exaggerating the perilous prospects of drowning, hypothermia, heat stroke, and rattlesnake poisoning, but no less so than my own over-stimulated imagination run amok with grisly images of po’ Brock slipping and falling to his death off the Six-Inch Trail.
These memories are heavy on the mind as our party saunters through the Gold Run Diggings, an 800 acre swathe of private property twenty minutes east of Auburn, depending on how fast you’re driving and how tough the traffic is. If you really want to learn details about the history of this fascinating place, read Russell’s informative essays about this recovering wasteland once controlled and managed by the Gold Run Ditch and Mining Company, who extracted tons of gold as the land was rent asunder and landscapes were environmentally devastated, forever altered by tunnel and ditch construction and huge swathes of hillside eroded away into hoodoo a nd goblin shapes, courtesy of hydraulic action of the miners’ big blasting hoses in operation a century and a half ago. (Remember that scene in Pale Rider?)
Along the trail, we approach an old miner’s tunnel, dynamited in 1852, forcing a subterranean traverse along a s tream flowing through. Very cool! Another part of the hike takes us along an old diversion ditch, beneath “an arched grotto of manzanita,” as Russell described it, where water was once channeled to the cannons used to blast to smithereens the hillsides in order to wrest gold from deep in the bosom, and where the sluice boxes took run-off and other stream diversions down into the fine extraction pits, where miners spared nothing in their zeal to coax the precious metal out of every nook and cranny of the Gold Run Diggings. Throughout the historic setting of the Gold Run Diggings, one finds scattered evidence h ere and there, testament to the indefatigable efforts of the Forty-Niner Miners, of a bustling hydraulic mining past - trenches, sluice boxes, ditches, pits, caves, tunnels, old cables and pulleys, dilapidated cabins, and boulders piled high by gold-obsessed miners not content to leave one stone unturned. Not so well known as Malakoff Diggings (State Park) near Nevada City, the Gold Run Diggings is an area of keen interest and odd curiosity, a place you could explore endlessly and never know what you might come upon - how about remnants of petrified wood! Russell characterized his “Secret World" as “a wild and beautiful land with two trails - the Canyon Creek and Pickering Bar trails - giving access to the North Fork American Wild and Scenic River Corridor.” Today, poor soil conditions have led to straggling vegetation, gray pines and hardy manzanita trees, a l andscape on the mend, for sure.Russell dug up the following nugget: “James Stewart the Younger owned most of the Diggings for many years. His father, James Stewart the Elder, had been a hydraulic mining superintendent in the olden days. The younger Stewart was a friend of Jack London and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It is said that London used to stay at Stewart's house in the Diggings, and did some writing there. His short story, ‘All-Gold Canyon’, may have been written at Gold Run.” I just knew there had to be a Jack London / FDR connection!
Our hike on this day had been planned a month in advance, perfectly prognosticated, chosen randomly and happening to fall in between days of heavy rainfall. March 21 greets us with blue skies and puffy clouds, about an even 72 degrees – in other words, a perfect day! (Hey, guys, why aren’t you in your shorts?) We’re hiking some BLM jeep connector trail into the Diggings proper. I never could have located or set bearings once in the Diggings – had it not been for Ron Gould, tireless trail advocate, friend and hiking bud, who knows the area like the back of his hand. Pleasant company in tow is the effervescent and witty CanyonSpirit, a friend now of ten years already; and (first time meeting) fun-loving, inquisitive Mary of th e (now inactive) SheepShepherdess blog. Oh, and the most ardent enthusiast of us all, Otis – Ron’s faithful good-natured hund, always in lock-step with us on these outings, sniffer working overtime. We are five excited critters to be setting off! The prospect of hiking Canyon Creek after big rains to witness the BIG WATERFALLS thrills, even if we have to suck up thousands of feet of elevation gain and loss. So what – Canyon Creek rocks! (Don’t all Canyon Creeks rock?)
We’re a lively chattering group, conversing non-stop about a hundred things, but making sure to pipe down often enough to feast our gazes on the long views and take in every perceived miracle around us. During these moments, every little thing along the way captivates our attention, is cause for great celebration, wonder and discussion, giving way to many such little detours and way-lays - to minutely investigate and photograph a flourishing colony of fern, lichen, algae and moss in a rock outcrop; to stoop over and admire a sprig of fairy-capped ‘shrooms popping up from a rotted limb; to stare at the ground litter, an artist’s palette of color and mixed media – pine duff and needles, tiny grasses, sticks, pebbles, Lilliputian ferns – a colorful mosaic to be unceremoniously trampled beneath our feet but not before commenting enthusiastically about it for twenty minutes. I think at one point I ask (facetiously?), “Is this art?”
At a little spread called Stewart’s Lake we stop for a quick look-see at the water, unimpressive at first glance, but ultimately, with its changing marine hues and reflecting trees and clouds, it’s quite pretty. We pause, reflect and move on, soon chancing upon a miner’s cabin, replete with an unknown history and plenty of ghosts bustin’ out in the nighttime . . . and only Russell would know about it: “In the Secret World is a small stone cabin, built I believe by one Byron Emric, maybe in the 1930s. He used clay for mortar, and gleaned some corrugated sheet iron for a roof.”
Next we stride on a real neat section of trail following the old ditch line, by-passing a little spur trail leading down to the so-called Diving Board Ridge where canyon views open up east and west. We debate going down the 600 foot slippery descent over just a half mile and decide (thankfully) against it, given our ambitious agenda to hike all the way down to the river, or all the way out the HOUT, or knowing Ron and my indefatigable hiking partners, both. Little do we know that we will be forced to retrace our steps and have to “settle”- instead of the BIG WATERFALLS - for stupendous ethereal views of the Upper North Fork canyon and the stunning tableau from afar and on high of the monster waterfall - Canyon Creek’s immense discharge out of the mountainside.
Final ly, we are within earshot of the creek’s symphonic crash of water booming through a tight rock channel, eager to get on the Gold Rush era system of trails built between 1865 and 1882, “when Canyon Creek was fitted with sluice boxes and undercurrents, extracting fine gold from the tailings of the Gold Run hydraulic mines.” Suddenly, Ron lets out a “Whoa!” – equal measure surprise and dismay – to announce that the bridge had been washed out by the swollen creek from heavy rains several nights ago – a reminder of nature’s raw power - wiping out our only way across the little chasm. Ron points down at a battered wooden plank hanging on by a thread of a cable as roa ring waters lash it to and fro against the rocks. So here we are - met with the same fate as Russell, back in ’06, when a raging torrent took out the bridge then and thwarted his hiking party’s further progress: “The bridge was gone. And there could be no merry romp down the Canyon Creek Trail to the river.”
The disappointment wears off quickly; despite n ot being able to continue, we are in a tremendously beautiful, wild place, big waterfalls or no big waterfalls. This river is humming! And so we hang around on the rocks, eat lunch, meet up with the lone woman hiker who, it turns out, was instrumental in rebuilding the bridge from the prior washout. After about an hour, each lost in our own worlds for half the time, we gather ourselves together and begin the hike back to the Diving Board Ridge, stopping along the way to pick up the garbage - soda and beer cans and bottles - we exhumed from a hollow in a rock outcrop. Russell described the Diving Board as a “remarkable spur ridge” that flared from the canyon wall “between Indiana Ravine on the west, and Canyon Creek on the east. Its crest plunges steeply and then levels off for a long run to the south, into the canyon depths, but almost a thousand feet above the river; so it puts you in the center of the canyon immediately downstream from the great cliffs of Giant Gap, and within direct view of the largest waterfall on Canyon Creek, a 150-footer which lives in a kind of crater all hemmed around by sheer cliffs.” Not too shabby of a consolation prize.
Getting down to the viewpoint requires an all-out effort of breakneck bushwhacking, but we take it in stride (thanks for asking – yes my ankle’s killing me!), and soon we’re cueing up for views on a rocky perch, regaled by breathtaking vistas, tickled by jaw-dropping panoramas, with the sun peeking out from cloud cover to provide warmth and cast an alpenglow of heavenly light on the mountainous surroundings. The camaraderie and banter carry on, the oohs and aahs unceasing. Finally, though, with the day slipping away, we begin our hike back the way we came, now traversing the very cool named Paleobotany Trail, eyeballs peeled for some honest to goodness petrified wood. Unless you know about, it’s impossible to spot. Ron locates it after a brief circuit off-trail, informing us it’s just a fraction of what once was here. Several years ago, some idiotic and arrogant guy actually came in here with a backhoe and dug o ut 200 to 300 pound chunks of the paleobotanical treasure-trove, including “the very last petrified log of any size exposed at the surface, around fifteen feet long and two to three feet in diameter” reported Russell. Just who in the hell did this guy think he was? How in the hell did he manage to gain access with a backhoe? And why in the hell was he never prosecuted? In a rare instance of lacking information, I suppose, Russell did not provide any answers, that I could find at least, regarding who this guy was and if he was ever caught. What appalling chutzpah!
Late in the afternoon, with light to spare, we straggle back to the vehicle at the same time as the lone female hiker appears, safe and sound from her long perambulation to the wash-out at the creek, then down to the river and back up on the not-for-sissies Pickering Bar Trail. Otis is beat and sprawls out on the ground while we bid adieu to The Secret World and prepare to face the Real World. As Russell always liked to end his posts with a simple sign-off, I shall, too, by proclaiming it was another fine, fine and altogether too short of a day in the great canyon.
Postscript from Russell on Ron:“Ron has developed quite an interest in this area; he sees that an irreplaceable resource hangs, so precariously, in the balance, that one of the most beautiful trails in the Sierra is ‘For Sale’, that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has had a mandate to purchase critical parcels there, since the creation of the North Fork of the American Wild & Scenic River, in 1978, but that nothing has been purchased; Ron saw these things, and decided to do something positive. So, in a variety of ways, he has worked to bring Gold Run and the Canyon Creek Trail to the attention of the movers and shakers, the decision-makers, the responsible officials, and really, anyone who could help secure this incredibly beautiful and historic area for We the People and our posterity. I deeply appreciate Ron's efforts.”
Map photo of HOUT courtesy of Russell Towle. Leaper Falls courtesy of Ron Gould.
Here is a hefty sampling to keep you busy poring through Russell’s writings on the area, posted from his legacy website, northforktrails.blogspot.com
Bonus Coverage - Live from the Washed Out Bridge at Canyon Creek!