He was standing over the middle of the Yuba on the bridge at Edwards Crossing looking over the railing when I met him. We had been playing phone tag for a few weeks and I finally had a chance to talk to Sterling in person at the river. Sterling is a geologist. I showed him some photos of my work to give him an idea of what I’m doing. He asked me if I wanted him to show me some places on the river. ‘Of course,’ I replied.
We walked back across the bridge the way we had come to his truck so he could get his knee brace and walking stick. He pulled out a hard plastic and metal knee brace with little sunflowers all over it, pulled his pant leg up and strapped the contraption to his leg. A construction accident over thirty years ago gave him a bum knee. I figured I was in for a slow, leisurely day with on old man wearing a sunflower brace and clutching a walking stick. Sterling shut the door, put on a hat with ‘Older Than Dirt’ written on the face, and we were off.
Back on the bridge he asked me where I wanted to go. I didn’t really have any particular destination in mind. I figured we would just go wherever he thought was interesting. We settled on the fossils first. Backtracking for a second time across the bridge, we returned to the truck to drive to the trailhead.
Trail is a loose term. It was a path, definitely, but trails usually are more user-friendly than this. It basically went straight down the hill to the river, turning when things got a bit too steep to be able to stand without pitching headlong down the hillside. The sunflower brace didn’t appear to slow Sterling down at even a little. In fact, walking stick and all, he was proving to be much more adept at negotiating the pseudo trail than I. Sterling told me he began backpacking in the Sierra in the 1940’s. He must have been phenomenally fast in hi pre-knee brace days.
When we reached the riverbed, he found a stick and drew figures of Crinoids in the sand to show me what we were looking for. These ancient critters were weird. They inhabited the ocean floor about 200 million years ago. The most sturdy part of their body(?) was the stem. It was something like a vertebral column consisting of stacked rings like a roll of Lifesaver candies. That’s what we’d be finding in the rocks. Attached to the stem on the bottom were roots – they were stationary creatures. On top of the stem were petals and from the petals sprouted tentacles. They used the tentacles to catch their prey. As much as they sound like plants with their roots, stems and petals, Crinoids were actually animals.
Unbeknownst to me before I met with Sterling, the riverbed above Edwards Crossing was once the bottom of the ocean. The ocean floor is now at 2,000 ft. elevation and has been shoved vertically. Much of the rock in the area where we were is slate and limestone from the sediments of an ancient ocean. The Crinoids are housed in limestone.
There were a ton of these creatures in the rocks. Their stems and roots had drifted away after they died, leaving only their ringed stems behind in the mud. When me eye grew accustomed to the Crinoid shape, I found evidence of animals, that before I would have never have registered as existing, all over the place.
Around the Crinoid rocks, little limestone caves burrowed into the earth. All of the bigger stalagmite and stalagtite formations had been broken off, but little ones were still forming. Limestone isn’t common on the S. Yuba. Most of the rock on the river is volcanic or slate. The land here was covered in what Sterling referred to as a ‘thin veneer’ of magma about 1 billion years ago. A lot of this rock is reddish. I had figured it was red from some horrible byproduct of hydraulic mining, but instead it’s just naturally occurring iron oxide in the rock. The rocks are rusting.
We tinkered around the limestone for a while. Then Sterling decided he wanted to show me somewhere else. He was no slower navigating up the steep hillside as he was going down. Both of us were hot and a little winded by the time we got back to the truck. Sterling took off his jacket to reveal his long-sleeved t-shirt with the menu of the Roadkill Café on the back.
As he drove up the dirt road toward the old mining towns of North Columbia and Bloomfield, I noticed that one of his fingers was about half-size - probably the result of another construction accident. We passed an old mine shaft that didn’t go very deep with an accompanying initial dig nearby where the miners dug away a small part of the earth to see if a vein was worth following. Apparently, there it was not.
Driving further, Sterling pointed out that the rocks had changed considerably. We were halfway up the ridge from the river. They had gone from large and rounded or vertically stacked to small and rounded. Small and rounded rocks get that way from being worn away from water in rivers. We were in an ancient riverbed that meandered through rolling hills 50 million years ago. The old river flowed from north to south. The path it took bisects the east/west flowing S. Yuba, but hundreds of feet above.
Up further through the trees we were able to see bare reddish rock and soil where the entire hillside had been blasted into a canyon by hydraulic mining in the late 1800’s. Sterling asked me if I was into getting kicked off some land. ‘Certainly!’ I told him. ‘Good,’ he said, ‘I want to get you closer to that.’ He veered off the road down a small dirt drive. He asked if I saw any no trespassing signs. Nope. I saw nothing, nothing at all. Neither did he.
I could see the scars in the hill peaking through the trees. But before we were able to get very far, the road was blocked by two large barking dogs marking the beginning of the ‘getting kicked of the property’ process. Sterling began making a 9-point turn on the narrow road at our canine barrier. Not following very far behind the dogs sauntered a flannel-clad man with a foot long beard dripping like moss from his chin. I stuck my arm and head out the window and yelled that we had only taken a wrong turn and that we would be backtracking momentarily. He said nothing, but only stopped his slow forward crawl and stood firmly where he was, staring.
That idea being thwarted, Sterling decided to take me to the outskirts of North Bloomfield, a ghost town where, Sterling said, some living ghosts still live. It’s a park now, but the government allowed the remaining residents to live out their lives there as they had been doing. It also has huge hydraulic mining scars, but now trees are beginning to grow back, so the damage isn’t as much of an eyesore. Along the way we passed the old stagecoach road from Nevada City to North Columbia and Bloomfield. The road forded the river without using the aid of bridges. I can’t understand why, if they were able to build intricate mining structures and systems capable of taking out entire hills, they didn’t just build a bridge.
Many of the old shacks still stand, but barely. Gnarled fruit trees were blooming in remnants of orchards. Not wanting to pay the fee to enter the park, we stopped at a sign before then entrance marking a trail to the beginning of a hydraulic mining tunnel. The miners wanted to blast water to the river smashing rocks to pieces to free gold. But, a few hills were in the way between there and the river. Who were they to let nature get in their way? It took them about 30 months, but they blasted a tunnel from North Bloomfield all the way to the South Yuba. They could do that, but they couldn’t build a bridge over the Yuba for the stagecoach. Amazing.