Sunday, December 13, 2009

Thanksgiving Swim

I spent Thanksgiving with one of my favorite aunts, Sara, at her home in Paradise, just to the east of Chico, California. Paradise sits on a lower Sierra Foothills plateau underlain by Tertiary lava flows. These thick layers, gently dipping to the west, are clearly visible on both sides of the road on the drive up and into town. On a clear day, Paradise looks to the west across the Central Valley. The town is constrained on the north and south by the canyons of Butte Creek and the Feather River, respectively.

Thanksgiving was a two person event. Lacking a fixed schedule, Sara suggested a morning walk along the margin of the Feather River Canyon. The canyon itself is steep and rugged. The Feather has a high gradient cataract and pool structure, and is full of large boulders. These conditions indicate rigorous hiking: too much for Thanksgiving morning. A more accessible and less aerobic alternative was to walk along one of the numerous flumes which parallel the canyon walls. Sara wanted to find one on the north side of the river, which was accessible from the local hospital parking lot. She’d been there once before.

It was a decent scramble to find the trail to the flume. The hillside was crisscrossed with paths leading downhill at different angles. Pine needles, bushy secondary growth, and deadfalls guaranteed no obvious route. We made our way, carefully marking our route for later ascent. I wondered at the origin of these paths and roads of varying width. I sensed that I was traveling on routes of varying history, ranging from the Gold Rush to logging operations to flume construction to current recreation access.

We eventually came to the flume. This man-made and lined channel was carved out of the hillside. In most places; the waste rock had been shaped into the outer wall of the flume. The trail on top of this was our route. I don’t know the source of the water, other than it was east and uphill. The flume’s destination is a reservoir just to the west of Paradise. The flume channel looked to be an average of eight feet in width. The current was fast, at least 4 mph, certainly quicker than a walking pace. It was fast enough that the bottom and sides of the chute were bare of any loose sediment, plant growth, or other obstructions.

The flume wandered downhill along the margin of the canyon. In places, the secondary growth canopy completely enclosed us. A few outcrops showed that we were below the level of the lava flows, and into the metamorphic basement rocks: some kind of schistose metasediment. We walked downhill for a good hour. Eventually, it seemed like time to retrace our route and check on the turkey. The flume took a sharp right just ahead; it seemed an obvious turn around point. An outcrop of metamorphics formed a rock fin that defined the bend in the flume. This promontory provided a great view. The sun had largely burnt off the mist. We got our first genuine look into the Feather River Canyon. A classic V-shaped valley; a mixture of firs and just turning yellow deciduous trees covered its hillsides. The stream poured downhill several hundred feet below us. A deer came out of the brush and slowly crossed a large pool.

The metamorphic fin marked the beginning of a stretch of fairly sheer metamorphic rock: maybe an old landslide scar. The shaded canyon side we had been following disappeared. This was not a good place to excavate a channel. Instead, the next few hundred yards of the flume comprised a galvanized steel chute supported by a metal framework. The chute was a little narrower than the excavated channel; the water was thus a little faster. It greatly resembled the flume rides I’ve been on at amusement parks. The “trail” morphed into an eighteen inch metal grate down the center of the flume supported by thin metal cross beams. I’d seen short stretches of flume like this before; they were common where there is a lock or some such mechanism. This stretch was different in its length and exposure; it was like walking on a long narrow and very exposed bridge with no side rails. I had to go out on it.

At first I just enjoyed the sensation of exposure. I was out of the woods and in the sunshine. It was not windy. Once my mind grasped the perspective - a vague sense of walking on a balance beam – I was able to enjoy the feeling of floating above the canyon walls. I started examining the grate. It was the same type of walk way that surrounds the radio towers on Mt. Diablo’s North Peak. Up there, at around thirty-nine hundred feet, a number of rusty melted holes pock the grate: lightning damage.

I found a rusty spot on the flume walkway, and knelt down to examine it. It was ambiguous. I remembered that I had my Nikon. The gray linear steel of the flume provided interesting textural contrasts with the hillside behind it. At water level, the channel walls were stained a variety of interesting colors. I discovered if I lay on the grate and hung my camera down towards the water, I could get shots from just above stream level. I couldn’t see through the view finder as I did this; I liked the randomness of the resulting pictures.

I was shifting around to take more pictures when my sunglasses fell out of my jacket pocket and into the water. I must not have velcroed them securely. Crap – this was my favorite pair, not cheap. I quickly got up, carefully put my camera down, yelled to Sara what had happened, and ran after them. The flume water was very clear. My sunglasses were the only visible sediment particle in transit, gently saltating along the bottom of the flume. They moved at just faster than a walking pace. I ran ahead. I lay down prone on the grate, pulled up my sleeve, and plunged my arm in to the water just as my sunglasses came by. My reach was about four inches too short.

What to do? I ran on, trying to gauge my speed relative to my sunglasses. I came to the end of the steel chute; the flume returned to a channel carved from the hillside. The water slowed slightly. It seemed a good place to wait for my glasses to appear. I lay down on the flume again and watched. Nothing happened. I began to worry that maybe I had misjudged speeds and missed my glasses. Feeling some dismay, I walked off the grate onto the path. I figured, oh well, sunglasses are replaceable.

I kept looking at the channel. I came to a point where there was a small rock fall. A small basaltic boulder had landed in the center of the channel and stayed there. It was too big for the stream to move. Sara caught up to me. I told her my mishaps. I assumed that my sunglasses were on the way to the reservoir. I looked back at the water. There were my sunglasses! I had gotten further ahead of them than I thought. They came to rest against the boulder at the bottom of the flume – the one obstacle I’d seen in three miles of walking.

My course of action was clear. I stripped down to my underwear and jumped into the flume. Just as I got my pants off, the glasses began to dislodge from the upstream side of the rock. Once I landed in the water, I bent down and quickly grabbed them. Mission accomplished. I then noticed that I was freezing – the flume water was cold! I waded back towards the bank. My legs were signaling: icy pain, icy pain. I dragged myself out. I appreciated having built upper body strength at the gym. My clothes were in a patch of sunlight. I warmed up and dried off. We hiked back to the car. The turkey was not overdone.