We had hiked five miles of the 15-mile South Yuba National Trail, which cuts through public acreage overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. We walked through immense stands of emerald ponderosa pine, Douglas fir and incense cedar, and groves of twisted oak with bark darkened by lichen and moss. Our mouths were dry, and we panted slightly. The gnats were a nuisance.
The last few hundred yards had been awkward going, across slippery black bedrock and over and around boulders. We crossed a small bridge at the confluence of Humbug Creek and the South Yuba River, brushed through a field of knee-high grass and stood at the payoff a remote little beach on the river at a campground called the South Yuba Primitive Area.
Boy Scouts camp there in the summer. There were picnic tables and a fire ring of stones. A twitchy squirrel peeked around a tree, and birds hidden in the branches chirped merrily.
The river was glittering-green and clear, with patches of whitewater and deep, darker-green holes ideal for diving into. The water rushed around boulders millions of years old, and those two elements meeting made the soothing whoosh! of nature's voice. It was a voice that has become alien to many of us because we live among so many man-made noises and at such a hurried pace. There rarely seems to be time to step off the sidewalk and into the woods.
The river's voice was primitive, too, not harsh but holding the certainty of relentless power, holding it in reserve. The voice could scream if it wished and the water could sweep you away if it chose.
But not on this day.
On this day, the river was our friend. I kicked off the Merrell hiking shoes, peeled off the socks and waded out knee-deep. The icy water numbed my aching dogs in seconds.
"If you camped here, got into your tent at night and listened to the river, you'd be sleeping in a minute," said John Rapphahn from the beach. Rapphahn, an outdoor recreation planner stationed at the BLM's Folsom field office for three years, had agreed to be our guide for the day. He takes care of portions of the public land managed by the BLM. The South Yuba National Trail runs mostly through BLM property. Earlier in the day, the ranger remarked that he needed to return and weed-whack some of the poison oak that thrives alongside it. That, and replace a broken bridge slat.
Mining evidence remains
We'd hit the trail at 7:30 that morning, when the woods still held their chill and the air was so fresh you could taste the cleanliness of it.
Our hike began at about 2,500 feet and took us along a fir-covered ridge overlooking a steep ravine. The view was of other ridges across the way and of the winding South Yuba River below. Now and then, flowers lit up the trailside in little bursts of indigo, yellow, red and pink. The trail is shared by hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians and gets busy in the summer, though it was deserted the weekday we were there.
This is country largely shaped by mining and logging. It was once populated by gold-seekers who lacked any notion of environmental impact. Dramatic evidence of the damage they did with their hydraulic mining operations 150 years ago is evident. For instance, at one point on the trail, Rapphahn pointed out three denuded spots on a neighboring ridge where the hilltops had been blasted with jets of water.
We also saw what once had been the path of a gold-mining cable tram system. "When I first walked the trail, I thought, 'Look how the water runs down this point in the hillside,' " Rapphahn said. The scar did look like a stream bed. "But that wasn't it at all. The miners took (rock and earth) from the riverbed, trammed it up to the top (of the ridge) and processed it there."
Pioneers passed this way, too. There's a faded wagon road at Illinois Crossing, on which they traveled in wood-wheeled wagons drawn by oxen. They paid cash to a caretaker at the crossing to be rafted across the river.
"It amazes me how they knew to cut the trail here," Rapphahn said, pointing out the old path. "They had to bushwhack through the woods and figure out the best way to get down to the river, and then they had to cut the road by hand or by mule."
Illinois Crossing is one of several points of interest along the trail. Others are tiny Kenebec Creek, and the Overlook Point and the Humbug Creek picnic sites, both shaded glades with picnic tables.
We took a water break in a shady oak grove and talked about the gold-mining history of the area, which is plentiful.
"A lot of people say, 'I want to see the future and what it's going to be,' " Rapphahn said. "I'd rather see the past and find out how they did a lot of those amazing things.
"I was working on the Stevens Trail and we were drilling in bedrock," he continued. "It took two of us an hour and a half to get a foot-long hole into the bedrock using an electric drill. Look what the miners did using only hand tools, like the trench dug by Chinese workers in the river bedrock near Humbug Creek, to divert water for a sluice box."
Speaking of rock, I was curious about the kinds we saw along the trail. Later, I phoned Tim Carroll, the BLM geologist at the Folsom field office.
Turns out we were walking through the "Western Sierra Nevada metamorphic belt," Carroll said, on rock that's 40 million to 60 million years old.
The geologic formations are made of oceanic sediments (including compressed mudstone and shale) that were metamorphosed by heat and pressure to become argillite and chert (flint).
"You were looking at what originally was part of the ocean bottom that was piled on top of the North American tectonic plate (about 150 million years ago) due to the movement of the Pacific Plate," Carroll said.
I also wondered why some foothills were covered in fir forests and others in oak. The contrast was sudden and dramatic. So I phoned Al Franklin, the BLM botanist at the Folsom field office. He said the phenomenon has to do with soil depth, moisture and exposure to sunlight. Nature at work.
At Malakoff Diggins
It was near the Humbug Creek Picnic Site that the scope of hydraulic mining in the area became clear to us.
A steep, 90-minute hike would take us to Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park, the former site of what the state park system calls "California's largest hydraulic mine." (Visitors can reach the park by car from Highway 49; see "How to get there ..." at right.)
A big wooden sign nearby (is there a nest of bees living inside?) posted by the Department of the Interior reads: "Humbug Creek: The 7,874-foot tunnel engineered by Hamilton Smith, Jr. for the Malakoff Diggins has its outlet in Humbug Creek one mile upstream. In the late 1870s, tailings from the Malakoff Diggins filled the river channel to a depth of 60 feet. Remnants of these tailings may still be seen along the banks of the South Yuba River downstream from this point."
Imagine: A tunnel 1 1/2 miles long was dug through bedrock to serve as a "drain" for the massive hydraulic operation that employed water cannons to literally blast a mountaintop to rubble.
We stood on a 20-foot-high bluff and looked down at the Yuba River. Actually, the bluff is composed of compacted tailings from the Malakoff. Tailings are the rocks and sand waste material left over after the ore was milled and the gold removed.
So many tons of tailings washed into the Yuba that the river was effectively dammed, causing the flooding of farmland and whole towns that lay downstream, including Yuba City and Marysville. A heated feud between miners and farmers led to a lawsuit that ended up in U.S. District Court in San Francisco. There, on Jan. 7, 1884, Judge Lorenzo Sawyer issued an injunction against hydraulic mining, if it meant that an operation's tailings would be dumped into navigable rivers and/or rivers that went through farmlands.
Hot and uphill
Now the air began to throb with the first real heat we'd felt that day. It was time to hit the trail back to the SUV in the parking lot and make the 90-minute return trip to the BLM Folsom field office. Five miles to go, and we took no comfort in knowing the last 1 1/2 miles would be mostly uphill.
We paused for a rest about a half-mile from the parking lot. "This is the part of the hike that gets me every time, for some reason," Rapphahn said.
Soon, we understood what he meant.