Up the Eel River Canyon
by Tim Freeman
It was late winter this year when my uncle arrived from Flagstaff. Tied to the roof of his car was a railroad cart. He made the four-wheeled human-powered contraption last fall and wanted to test it on the abandoned Northwestern Pacific tracks skirting the length of the Eel River Canyon between the hamlets of Dos Rios and Alder Point. The 40-mile stretch lies roughly between San Francisco and the Oregon border, and parallels the coast 25 miles inland, deep in California's rugged Coastal Range.
The train track carves through one of the planet's most unstable geology, called the Mendocino Triple Junction, where the Gorda, Pacific, and North American plates — three slabs of the planet's crust — collide, rub, and weld together. The process behind the formation of the northern Coastal Range is complicated and not yet fully understood by geologists, who long considered the region a mystery. But in the last decade, a new theory surfaced, which I will attempt to summarize. While the Gorda plate (out there under the northern Pacific Ocean) dives eastward beneath the continental North American plate, the Pacific plate (south of the Gorda) simultaneously pushes the Gorda northward. Part of the submerged Gorda has "welded" to the hot mantle below the North American plate, as well as to the bottom of the North American plate itself. When the Pacific plate pushes the Gorda north, the Gorda carries along those fused chunks under the edge of the North American plate. These masses of submerged crust follow the Gorda while it's pushed north, and ruffle and churn the surface landscape over millions of years. There are in fact two discernable masses loosely attached to the Gorda just below the shallow crust of the Coastal Range. The first and northern most hump of mass manifests itself on the surface as a general rise in the landscape, separating the Van Duzen and Eel River watersheds. The southern, lower hump separates the Eel River and Russian River watersheds. This local phenomena is known in geology circles as the Mendocino Conveyor, an awesome name. The Northwestern Pacific Railroad, where it navigates the banks of the Eel, rests on a landscape violently forged by two massive hunks of submerged planetary material that are moving northward, warping the surface. There is evidence that rivers have shifted direction. For a far superior SF Chronicle article on the region's geology, do a google search on the Web for "solving a geological puzzle." The article includes a graphic that sums it up better than words.
There are many forks in the peculiar northward flowing Eel River drainage, and blandly named. There is the South Fork Eel River and the East Branch South Fork Eel River. There is the North Fork Eel River, which itself forks into the East Fork and West Fork North Fork Eel. The Middle Fork Eel and the North Fork Middle Fork Eel both begin in the remote Yolla Bolly Middle Eel Wilderness. The Eel River itself includes the man-made Lake Pillsbury, most of which is diverted to thirsty Sonoma County by way of the Potter Valley diversion tunnel that crosses over to the Russian River watershed. In a few million years, the southern hump of subsurface mass will have moved north, then maybe spilling that section of the Eel River southward into the Russian River. Sonoma County will then get all of Lake Pillsbury's water without legal devices.
The names given by the first European settlers to the many smaller creeks give a good idea of their impression of the region. The following creeks flow directly into the Eel and the above-mentioned tributaries: Bear, Deer, Elk, Panther, Wildcat, Beaver, Coon, Fox, Rattlesnake, Salmon, Steelhead, Trout, Hummingbird, Finch, Yellowjacket, Fly, Thistle, Willow, Alder, Chamise, Pine, Redwood, Cedar, Cherry, Berry, Grapevine, Poison Oak, Brushy, Cold, Oil, Mud, Stony, Rock, Dry, Salt, Silver, Jewell, Fossil, Shell, and Skeleton. I found no Eel Creek flowing into the Eel River. Some other creeks: Tatu, Queatchumpah, Kekawaka, Sonoma, Goforth, Fishtown, Devil's Elbow, Jack of Hearts, Section Four, Cutfinger, Stoner, Lousy. Why name the mighty river after a lowly, oily bottom feeder? Yuki River, or Wailaki River, are more fitting names, after the Indians of the region. Time to petition the USGS.
So we headed up to Dos Rios to ride down the dilapidated tracks, built in 1915. It was rebuilt after the Flood of '64 had wiped out much of the track bed and most bridges. Uncle had canoed the Dos Rios/Alder Point stretch decades ago while passengers in the cars still waved out a friendly hello as they precariously rolled by on their way to Eureka. Landslides and slip-outs closed the tracks in '97, and it's still closed. My uncle wanted to make it to Alder Point on an overnighter.
The state of disrepair on those forlorn tracks is beyond belief. On the banks of the Eel, long stretches of the railway look like ancient country roads. Sections of today's original Roman highways are in better shape. The multitudinous railway ties embedded in the gravel and the parallel tracks of steel crucified onto them seem out of place along the remote river as it meanders northward through the Coast Range's convoluted splendor.
Repairing the track would be an absurdity. The sawed logs had their day. Whole forests were chewed up in the hungry maws at the Scotia and other mills, then funneled through Eel River Canyon like a thousand-long series of stools passing through some horrific man-made intestinal tract; later plopped down as homes across the landscape of the Bay Area and beyond. Today, Mother Nature is flushing away the tracks, or burying it under landslides, or leaving it hanging over gullies. The track is pummeled with boulders and slapped with fallen tree limbs. These days, Highway 101 enjoys the luxury of costly upkeep, the only alternative artery through this geographically unstable Coast Range.
Uncle made his rail-cart from scratch. It was a square of plywood screwed to a flat frame with 4 wheels, one at each corner. An old bicycle frame was welded upright to the left side, including seat and handlebars, upon which the driver sat and peddled. A long chain extended to the rear axel. The passenger sat on the low floor to the right.
At Dos Rios we set the contraption on the tracks and pushed off. Immediately the cart derailed with an echoing clang, setting off the local dogs. We lifted the wheel back on track and approached the first tunnel. At its entrance lay a boulder that someone rolled there, probably to stop the 4x4 trucks that used to drive through, right over the tracks. This boulder was the first of many obstructions, nearly all of them acts of nature. There were fallen trees across the tracks. Bushes, star thistle and grass grew between the tracks. Rock slides smothered the rails. Imposing boulders, some ten feet high, had tumbled upon the tracks and rested on it in mute indifference. Creeping mud slides flowed over the railway, covered the tracks by a few inches or by the height of three boxcars. On some mile-long stretches the whole landscape warped downward from the original rail bed that the tiny bipeds had once carved straight across. The tracks there resemble roller coasters now. Many sections of track, still held parallel by the ties and navigable, lay suspended in the air — the earth below having slipped into the gnawing waters of the Eel.
After the first tunnel, we hit a stretch where stones had been poured between the tracks on the blackened and embedded railroad ties. It was the perfect place to drive a quad, or four-wheel-drive motorcycle. And indeed someone had been doing it. The quad's fat tires had driven snuggly between the tracks and spread out the little rocks, nudged them to pile up against the tracks. Some got tossed up and balanced themselves right on top of the tracks. Our little rail buggy hit those rocks and bounced hard. We grabbed a stick and knocked off those pestering stones as we came upon them. The missed ones sent our contraption into convulsions.
A mile north of Dos Rios, Burger Creek meets the Eel. We glided across its bridge. The clear creek warbled below and then merged with the subdued roar of the Eel. The tracks on all the bridges were parallel and pristine, held out of reach of the earth's snail-paced geologic processes.
That first morning we fell into a routine. At each impediment the passenger (usually Uncle) braked by pressing the sole of a boot to a wheel. At semi-flat mudslides the cart could roll over the drying mud easily. Uncle pulled a rope tied to the front of the heavy cart in mule-like fashion, while I pushed from behind. Longer stretches of buried track required a little steering when the rail bike veered off course on top of the dirt. Since the wheels could not steer, each correction had me lifting the thing from behind, shifting it left or right, nearly snapping my back each time. Many mudslides were garnished with a potpourri of rocks too high for the cart to roll over. For these we portaged our gear, then doubled back for the leaden cart. The two of us could barely carry it. We repeated this too many times to count for two days, a bone-aching workout.
Although bad for the back, it was good Uncle designed this rail apparatus heavy and solid. It derailed a lot, took a beating when it scraped and banged on the tracks. Twice, with the going easy and eyes fixed on the green river below, a skulking boulder in the middle of the tracks, partially hidden by grass, instantly halted the cart. Uncle flew off with the gear. I was impaled by the handle bars. But the cart held up. Patches of coyote brush thrived between the railway ties where no deterring poison had been sprayed since '97, nor the oily underbellies of low-bearing rumbling engines to prune them. We couldn't peddle over the thick brush lest branches get caught up between chain and sprocket. We pushed from behind on those stretches. The cart plowed over it all. The whiplashed brush, flung out feathery seeds, as well as green inchworms that landed on our arms and recoiled at the taste of human sweat. Star thistles speared us.
A few miles down river from Dos Rios, there was a tunnel with a sheer cliff at its entrance. A large portion of that cliff had collapsed. Gargantuan boulders had walloped the tracks, the pile reaching 20 feet high. One boulder had punched the thick track, tore the metal in half. The rubble blocked the tunnel's entrance. We portaged our gear by climbing the top of the mass and down a narrow gap, the roof of the tunnel a few feet from our heads. Then backtracked for the cumbersome cart. We heaved the vehicle a foot at a time up the heap of crumbled cliff. We slipped and scratched legs and arms on the angular rocks. At the peak we paused. Were there more obstructions like this on the remaining miles to Alder Point? We had enough food for three, maybe four days. We couldn't bear too much portaging. But we pushed ahead.
Beyond that tunnel we hit a series of little rock slides for a half mile. We'd roll smoothly for 30 feet, then stop to portage around a part of track engulfed by a pile of more sharply angled rocks. The incessant lifting of the rail buggy taxed the spine. We often cleared the rocks by hand. Anything to spare a sweaty heave-ho of the four-wheeled piece of lead. Uncle and I placed our four hands on the bigger boulders and rolled them off the tracks, then glided over the area with the rail cart, catching our breath until repeating the task a minute later. As we rounded the geology of that long bend in the river, rock slides faded. Mud slides began, which after a few warm and rainless days had dried a little under the baking sun like hardened loaves of old bread around the tracks. We pushed the cart over them, and lifted it over those with boulders and uprooted bushes. Two manzanita bushes, thick at the trunk, had slid onto the tracks. Uncle hacked at their red corpses until the cart could sail through.
It was not all toil and moil. We took time between the donkey work to look around. The clear river, the swaying oaks, the rippling meadows, the lichen-covered outcroppings, the whole region was imbued with a silent and ancient vibrancy.
After that bemired portion of track we rode clear for a long while. We skimmed across a quarter mile straight stretch, the view of the river blocked by thick woods. A rowdy blue jay darted through the boughs like a mini Velociraptor. We hit a turn, the cart derailed, tossed us off again. Uncle pondered the design flaw, hammered the wheels with the ax. Widening them helped. We passed a little waterfall, endearing and unassuming, had to stop and stick our head in its spray for a drink. We passed a house next to the track. A lonely column of smoke rose from a chimney. We clacked our way past and saw no one. It seemed a ghost stoked the fire. Later, we passed Spy Rock, a collection of lifeless buildings.
At Bell Springs Creek, the top of the tracks sank to ground level and often disappeared under the hardened soil. The wheels' flanges wedged into the dirt. We had to push from behind again. It rattled down the dirt-covered rail bed. Suddenly, we spied a band of youths ahead jumping and spinning donuts on motorcycles. One of them hurled himself skyward and spotted us down the tracks. All four lunged their metal steeds toward Uncle and me and in an instant they were upon us, sliding to a halt in a cloud of dust. They wouldn't be the last company of stoned lads to admire our mode of transportation. The four sped away in a singular roar, pulling triumphant wheelies. They had warned about the next tunnel, which was caved in. Was there an easy way to walk around the tunnel? Nope, they said. The tunnel was a few bends in the river away, and we approached it with foreboding. We rounded a bend and were halted by a cow fence strung across the tracks. We had to pass through three such fences, a strong indication that the daily rumble of trains in the canyon were a fading memory. Then a stretch of track perfectly parallel made a pleasant approach to the tunnel, which is near the North Fork Eel River tributary.
We made it to the tunnel at dusk. We couldn't see to the other side. The tunnel made a bend. It was dark inside. Our eyes adjusted. Our footsteps crunched on the gravel and scattered distinct echoes. Suddenly in front of us we could barely perceive a looming blackness hovering in front of pitch-black. Uncle's flashlight revealed a rubble heap reaching to the ceiling. Since the ceiling had collapsed, the new ceiling was another 15 feet up in pure bedrock with water seepage drip, drip, dripping down. The rock ceiling of the tunnel, where it hasn't yet collapsed, was shored up by Herculean timber joists that rested on equally massive posts that straddled the tunnel walls. When the rock loosened, most likely by water seepage, it burst through a few of the joists. But some held up and the rock simply poured out around the joists, creating a sort of attic. I shined a flashlight into the attic. It was disconcerting to see a dislodged wooden beam sticking out directly overhead. It was held in balance by a loose pile of skull-sized rocks resting on its other end. A mass weighing tons, a mix of timber and rock, hovered above our heads in risky balance. On the other side of the heap, the light of the other end of the tunnel was visible. Portaging around the tunnel, down the steep bank and skirting the river, would've taken hours. So we went over the rubble with our gear. Then back to heave-ho the rail buggy over the scary heap. The blackness helped us deny the risks. Its veil obscured the danger overhead and spared us undue unease.
We glided down the track a mile more in the advanced dusk. We left the rail contraption parked on the track, clambered through some brush in the night, and made camp on a beach by the Eel.
Before setting out the next morning, Uncle tinkered with the rail buggy. I checked out an old excavator and its bucket. Its parts were rusted and frozen in place. Missing panels exposed the outdated mechanics of the earth-moving machine, an ingenious array of gears and clutches. Such pre-hydraulic machines built the railroad. In a thousand years they will be heaps of dusty rust and the railway a deer path again.
Later, back on the tracks, we looked down the embankment and spotted a father and daughter fishing for steelhead. Everybody waved and the mystified dad kept his neck craned toward us. He saw from his low angle only the tops of our heads sliding smoothly across the grass, accompanied by the measured clang of the wheels. Everything felt remote in that Eel River canyon.
A little after midday, the track straightened and spearheaded into Island Mountain. When the trains still ran the line, service workers stayed here. One building's bathroom was intact, with a tiny toilet and low ceiling, as if the people were smaller in those days. In the middle of the abandoned habitation a rock slide had fallen up to the edge of the tracks. We chipped off a rocky protrusion with the blunt side of Uncle's ax and merrily glided on our way. The track led us over the Eel on a shapely bridge, then directly into the entrance of the mile long Island Mountain Tunnel. The other side of the tunnel was in plain view straight ahead and seemed close for being a mile away — an optical illusion. During the great Flood of '64, the river rose high enough to pour into the tunnel. As a child I remember hearing that logging truck drivers had started a fire in the tunnel to close down the tracks, giving them more business. I found nothing about that after a quick search on the Web. But the timbers shoring up the tunnel are sprayed with what seems to be a fire-protection coating or cement mixture.
We headed straight into the dark and toward the light at the end of the tunnel. A cool and mildly pungent draft oozed out. A few hundred feet in, the light from the distant ends of the tunnel was too weak for us to make out the ceiling. We stopped and shined a flashlight up. A bat colony hung on the ceiling. Hundreds of the Fledermäuse huddled in clusters. I guessed 1500 total, an unscientific guess. At dusk they disgorge from the cave in a fluttering mass.
At the tunnel's halfway point, our eyesight "washed" by the darkness, we could see dimly the tracks and the walls around us. Looking outside the tunnel a half-mile ahead, we perceived the daylight as being illuminated by a thousand floodlights. It looked the surface of Mercury out there, the sun a colossal arc weld in the sky.
The tracks in the tunnel ran perfectly parallel from end to end, an exception to the rule on this trip. We whisked through without derailment. Out the other end, the track worsened quickly. Landslides covered the railway again. We portaged the gear and rail cart around the bases. On other stretches the rail bed buckled or slipped away completely, rendering the tracks convoluted and twisted and impassable. The flanges rode up and out of the inside of the tracks and we had to kick the wheels back in place.
Later, the tracks ended abruptly; disappeared, as if scooped away by aliens. The rail bed remained, though, barely a road. The road was mud and puddles, through which herds of cattle had trampled. On the far side of this swamp was a creek. In its cyclical enthusiasm, it carved a six-foot deep culvert across the remains of the rail bed. A hundred feet down the banks of the Eel, we spotted the missing tracks. That stretch took over half an hour to get around — a lot of slogging.
On some later stretches the earth fell away again from beneath the railroad ties. Still attached to the tracks, the ties zipped past below us one by one, and looking down through the gaps Uncle, riding in front, saw the Eel flowing and flickering like an old movie reel.
A later obstacle, yet again, was a pile of rubble covering the tracks. But this time a fallen oak tree rested on top of the heap as though guarding it. Its limbs spread wide and blocked all routes around it. We axed our way along the precipice above the river. I kicked myself in the arsch for not bringing a camera.
Three miles south of Alder Point, another good bridge brought good tracks across the river. We took a break above the whispering Eel. The metal grates on the bridge allowed a view straight down to the ripples.
At dusk we hit the stretch leading into Alder Point. The tracks ran parallel to a big flat, perhaps an old loading area. A carload of stoned Alder Pointers looked at us. We were a piece of driftwood landing on the remote beach of their lives. They celebrated our arrival by flooring the gas and spinning donuts. Our trip was over.
Nature is removing the Eel River Canyon tracks with a ferocious patience. Seven years have passed since the last train. It looks like 50. In a hundred years most of the track will be washed out, buried, or grown over. The rumble of diesel engines will be remembered by no one. In 500 years the forest will spread over the remaining tracks. In a few billion years, after the swollen sun blows off the atmosphere, tracks and canyon will be dispersed at the bottom of an evaporated sea.