Monday, March 30, 2009

Nine Expeditions to New York Canyon

I found the following while searching thru an archive of the content from Russell's iMac (with permission from Gay). The entire book totalling four-hundred and thirty 8½" x 11" pages is contained within this archive. Only the CD cover art, preface and introduction are included below. Yes, something will be done to preserve the entire book.

There is an incomplete list of "Books by Russell Towle" in this prior blog post.

Richard L. Towle (Russell's brother)
Alameda, CA

Nine Expeditions to New York Canyon


Since 2001, or slightly before, I have written extensively about the North Fork of the American River, in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, for my North Fork Trails email list. Today, in April, 2007, there are about one hundred and twenty subscribers. Some have been with me since the beginning of the list.

My topics include historic trails, environmental issues, geology, the flora, fauna, history and prehistory. These topics arise, most often, in the course of describing this or that hike, somewhere in the great canyon. The equivalent of several books, in the counting of words, has been generated, and it has long seemed good to publish an archive of North Fork Trails. The emails are sent as plain text, and I regret that it is not possible to attach photographs and maps. I love maps, and generally, if I am out hiking, I have a camera with me.

The task of combining the entire archive of writings, with its parallel archive of photographs, has seemed so large, so daunting, that I never quite get around to it.

It occurred to me, recently, that it would be interesting to collect all the emails which have to do with one particular locality, and combine them with their corresponding photos. This electronic book, or eBook, is my first attempt at such a correlation. It contains accounts of nine expeditions to the great 560-foot waterfall in New York Canyon (a tributary of the North Fork); in two of the nine, I failed to reach the falls, or to even see them. Yet these failed expeditions form part of the story.

The expeditions took place between May of 2001 and June of 2005. Hundreds of photographs are included. The PDF file format allows one to zoom in on the photographs, and capture detail far beyond what is usually seen on the internet, for instance, or even in a “real” book, where page size often prevents such detail from emerging.

So, be sure to zoom in on the photos, and the maps.

I have also included a short sketch of the geology of New York Canyon, with geologic maps.

—Russell Towle, April, 2007


The great 560-foot waterfall in New York Canyon is hidden from easy view. I first saw it from a small airplane, in the late spring of 1975, following an unusually heavy winter, which had buried the Sierra Nevada under many yards of snow. At the beginning of April, 57-foot-high lift towers at the Squaw Valley ski area were hidden under the snow! By June, more than ten feet of hardpacked snow still covered the high country, and waterfalls everywhere were at historic high flows, as hot weather settled in for the summer.

Flying up the North Fork American towards the Sierra Crest in that little plane, my friends and I were astounded by the many waterfalls. I barely glanced at New York Canyon’s Big Waterfall. During the early 1990s, I received a Tahoe National Forest document describing several Sierran rivers and streams, with a view to their inclusion in the National Wild & Scenic River system, and I read, then, of New York Canyon’s 560-foot waterfall.

Surprisingly, I waited nearly ten years to visit that cliff-bound, magical place. I scouted the area, however, becoming increasingly familiar with the Sailor Flat Road, and with the upper basins of the two forks of New York Canyon. In 2001 I made the first of nine expeditions to New York Canyon’s great waterfall, but failed to gain even a distant view of the thing. I could hear it, faintly. An infinitude of brush prevented movement towards the vague roaring and booming.

Nine PDF files record the nine expeditions, in this “eBook,” and I have included a tenth PDF file (NYC_Maps.pdf), of maps and landscape renderings; an eleventh (NYC_Geology.pdf), of geologic maps; and this file (NYC_Preface.pdf) makes twelve. Here I wish to provide a more general introduction to this very special place.

In the general scheme of California’s Sierra Nevada, Yosemite Valley is but one of many deep canyons scoring the broad western slope of the range. During the Pleistocene, that is, within the past two million years, each such canyon had its own glacier, which extended from the summit ice fields about half-way down to the Great Central Valley, which is only a little above sea level.

Like all these other canyons, then, the “Great American Canyon,” of the North Fork of the American River, has an upper, glaciated reach, and a lower, stream-eroded reach. It is only about eighty miles long. From the peaks at its head, such as Mt. Lincoln, Anderson Peak, Tinkers Knob, and Granite Chief, one can see Lake Tahoe, only a little ways south and east. These peaks rise to about nine thousand feet in elevation.

Like all these other major Sierran canyons, the North Fork’s canyon deepened drastically during the Pleistocene, and deepened much more rapidly than its tributaries. Hence the tributaries often form what are called “hanging valleys.” New York Canyon is just such a hanging valley.

New York Canyon enters the North Fork at 3200 feet elevation, and heads up on the Foresthill Divide (the ridge dividing the North and Middle forks of the American River) at about 6800 feet elevation. It is only three miles long, and has two forks, an East Fork and a West Fork. The big waterfall is on the East Fork, just above its confluence with the West Fork. In those three short miles, New York Canyon descends 3600 feet. Hence there are many many waterfalls along both forks of the canyon, and many cascades.

Different types of rock lead to different canyon morphologies. For instance, one of the greatest contrasts in Sierran geomorphology is exhibited by the adjacent upper canyons of the South Fork of the Yuba River, and the North Fork of the American River. The former is incised mostly in granite, the latter, mostly in metamorphic rock, often metasediments, often something like slate. As a result, the North Fork Canyon is vastly deeper than the South Yuba canyon; at Kingvale, the South Yuba is less than a thousand feet deep, while a few miles south, the North Fork American is over three thousand feet deep. The “digital landscape” renderings in the NYC_Maps.pdf file give an idea of this strong contrast between two canyons otherwise much of a muchness.

Like the main North Fork canyon, New York Canyon is incised into metamorphic rock of various kinds. In particular, there are large masses of chert and siliceous sandstones and quartzites, which all have a relatively massive texture, and stoutly resist erosion. To the east, these quartz-rich rocks give way to slates, and adjacent Sailor Canyon has no 500-foot waterfalls. It has many smaller waterfalls.

At the North Fork American, the forest of New York Canyon is typical of the “Transition Zone,” being a mixture of Ponderosa Pine, Incense Cedar, Douglas Fir, Kellogg’s Black Oak, and Canyon Live Oak, with Bigleaf Maple, Dogwood, and White Alder, along the creek itself. Up on the Divide, at 6800 feet, and in the upper basins of the two forks, we find pure stands of Red Fir, with masses of Mountain Alder around springs, and Jeffrey Pine in sunny, more open locations. The Sugar Pine is well-represented in the middle reaches of New York Canyon, as is the White Fir.

Finally, as will become apparent in my accounts of the nine expeditions, it is not easy to reach the great waterfall. Vast brushy areas and steep cliffs interfere. Also, by the time the Foresthill Road is free of snow, and one can drive to the head of New York Canyon, the snow has also melted from the upper basins, and the waterfall has subsided. It is most difficult of all, therefore, to reach the waterfall during high flows. The remoteness of the waterfall, the steepness of the cliffs, the rapidity of the current (should a ford of the stream be necessary), are all serious hazards. Also met are the more typical dangers, of rattlesnakes and poison oak.

—Russell Towle, April, 2007.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Sad News

I'm very sad to hear of Russell's passing. My name is Cynthia McDaniel and I am the granddaughter of Alleen Towle, daughter of George G. Towle and Bertha Brice. I contacted Russell in the past regarding family history. Does anyone know how I can get a copy of Russell's Dutch Flat Chronicles? Thank you.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Happy Birthday, Russell

My Mom had this picture of Russ on his 3rd Birthday... and she wrote the story below. This has been a tough 7 months... loving thoughts to all of you. Shellie

All Russ wanted for his third birthday was a Hopalong Cassidy jacket, pants, hat and guns. Thus this washed out Hopalong Cassiday outfit that was the most joyous birthday present he ever received. So joyous, in fact, that he just had to sleep in it for a night or two. I should add, that with reluctance on his part, the hat and the guns were carefully placed next to his bed. So joyous, in fact, that it probably did not see a washing machine for several days.Strangely, if you asked me to remember what he got on any other birthday I could not come up with an answer. That third birthday was so far above any others for him at that time and for me in my memories. We lived in Connecticut at the time and I do believe that this picture was taken at the quite large beach house we rented as we had sold our house and had to move about six weeks before we were to head for California.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Russell's 60th Birthday

UPDATE on weather/road conditions, Friday 7 March: Scratch that last post! This is actually Greg, but my mom wanted to let you all know that the road isn't as good as previously stated. You can make it in if you have good clearance or four-wheel drive, but otherwise, it's likely you'll get stuck. If you want to leave you car out at the Alta exit from the freeway, feel free, just give us a call and I'll come out and pick you up. Happy March! Greg.

UPDATE on weather/road conditions, Friday 6 March: We saw increasing sun today, and patches of ground are now showing up under some trees. The road in has gotten pretty easy; it's tracked down to the road surface, so it should not be a problem for anyone. There's still lots of lovely snow in the meadow, good texture for igloo and sculpture building. Down at the cabins where more ground is showing through, it's muddy. Gloves and boots are in order!

UPDATE on weather/road conditions, Thursday 5 March:
Weather looks promising, dry for the weekend, partly cloudy. The snow that we got on Tuesday (about a foot) is melting rapidly but still covers the ground everywhere. We did a lot of shoveling Wednesday and can now drive to the bottom of the meadow with our 4WD cars. Anyone driving a 4WD will not have problems getting in here even now. By Sunday, I'm confident that even 2WD vehicles will make it OK... but Saturday—can't be sure yet.

The meadow is absolutely beautiful when snow covered. My memorial dreamcatcher has taken a hit though; one of its support ropes has broken so that it has flopped over and hangs low and doesn't look now like it was ever round. That's OK, it evolves... I think we should make fanciful snow sculptures to surround it with sparkling whimsy ; )

The guest of honor can't be here, but we'll celebrate his fascinating life anyway. Join Gay, and Greg (and maybe Janet, Gem, Gus) at the cabins, anytime during the weekend of March 7-8. Bring food to share, music to share, but YOURSELF mainly.

IMPORTANT--check back here on Thursday evening or Friday for an update on our weather/road conditions. If the current series of storms results in snow at this elevation (4000') the road may become difficult or impassable, and we don't want anyone to get stuck. If the road is going to be a problem, we'll move the gathering somewhere else, below the snow.