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.


Karen said...

What a find! Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Gay said...

The great thing about this book is the ability that the very high resolution photos allow for zooming in to see more than you could ever see in a printed version. That's why he kept this in digital form and it's AMAZING. I didn't think I'd enjoy reading a book on DVD, but I loved this one. You can click right to the various maps, zoom and scroll around to see just what you are interested in on all the maps and photos--it's really wonderful.

jbaack said...

I'm sure I'm not the only one who would be interested in getting a copy of the eBook. Please let us know if you think that will be possible.

More generally, has anyone thought of compiling a book, electronic or paper, of Russell's entire blog archive? It would make such an extraordinary record of North Fork explorations, geology and history.


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