The Merced River Gorge


Scouting West


7/21/09, Tuesday - I woke at 0600. I wasn't sleeping alone.

Looks to me like the notorious Cone-Nosed Kissing Bug - aka the assassin bug, and in Mohave County, Arizona, the Hualapai Tiger - fierce names for a big, bloodsucking bedbug larger than a cockroach.

They have a folding proboscis they'll stick in anything that smells like warm blood.

Down in Old Mexico they're known to carry Chagas Disease, an incurable infection that eventually destroys the heart muscle. Somehow their Yanqui cousins don't, if I can believe what I read.

This one must've been baffled by the amount of nicotine in my blood.

Final score: Joe 1 - Bedbug nil.

Today's job was getting down the trail to Bagby to see if I could get my outfit across the river or not. With the fire danger, and the need to make maximum use of the cooler hours, I skipped the coffee routine, cached my gear, and hit the trail west.

In times of high water the North Fork can be impassable, as in this shot of the trestle under construction in 1907. The trestle's long gone. The ford's about 100 yards upstream. When I crossed, it was just a matter of hopping boulders over pools of stagnant water. I pushed my bike back up on the grade, and rode off.

Steaming west over the North Fork trestle.

Not for long. Right away I had to dismount and push again over a few rockfalls. I was wondering what this trail might be good for, but luckily that was it, with miles of pleasant riding ahead through beautiful backcountry only reachable by river and trail.

The grade veers a bit north, away from the river and some extensive boulder piles, for a nice half-mile through a stretch of shady trees. When it comes back to the river, and the open sky, that's it for shade for the remaining miles west.

The trail does get sandy, churned up by cattle and obstructed by driftwood here and there. 2" tires would've done better than my 1.75s, but I made steady progress, pushing where I had to.

Here's Bagby, on the south bank of the river:

It's a fee area run by the Merced Irrigation District, reached by a dirt road off Highway 49. A rocky little harbor upstream had a couple of little gold dredges moored, but there wasn't much activity around the camp. It was already blazing hot.

Past here the going gets tough for biking in the heat. The trail is soft - big side gulches have to be crossed. I kept going, looking for a ford, but I could see every riffle had a deep channel running through it. Then I hit the deeper water of Lake McClure.

I tried a few crossings, leaving my bike and bag ashore. The current ran about 6 knots. By the time the water reached my hip, it had enough square inches of pressure to start lifting me off. No go, especially with gear.

I was sitting back up on the grade, chewing on my pipe and getting resigned to backtracking 50 miles through Mariposa. Then I saw 2 fishermen on the north shore getting ready to wade across. They looked like duffers - neither had a staff, and both had close calls - but they made it. I marked the spot and said, "Now I have to go try it."

I made it, too - just barely, even with a driftwood staff. Packing a load of gear across was still a very iffy proposition. But there it was. I waded back across, and started back to camp.

I don't know how hot it was, but it was knocking me out. I carried 3 liters on this little jaunt and was still about a quart short. The river was always there in case of serious over-heating, but I wanted water on the inside in the worst way. Aside from thirst, I also had the clinical signs of mild dehydration in high heat - headache, dark urine, fatigue. Days of this were catching up to me.

I found a seep just west of the North Fork, hidden behind some dense greenery on the inside wall of the grade, with a little concrete basin full of green scum. The flow was too trifling to fool with when I had a cool gallon stashed just half a mile ahead. But if my cache was busted?

It wasn't. I left my bike in some shade by the trestle footings, collected my gear, and spent the rest of the afternoon in the shade, swilling water and dipping in the cool Merced. I also had to wonder how to get my outfit safely across the river.

Since I hadn't found a source of potable water, I'd have to make another 16-mile round-trip to Briceburg again. I was earning my engineer's cap on this road. Maybe a water filter and iodine tablets would've made life much easier, but, no thanks.

7/22, Wednesday - Water and a good night's sleep had me feeling fresh for the day's ride. I cached my gear in the dim morning light and took off, enjoying the cruise.

Along the way I found a big heavy-duty trash bag - good insurance for the river crossing.

The gorge was still in early morning shade when I made the tap. I filled my tanks and headed back to North Fork with 10 quarts aboard.

On the ride back, I was in the sun again, and the heat rose quickly. I made good time, but there are many places on the trail where speed can kill.

I was back in camp by 10, but I was already knocked out and stumbling. I needed a day off, and took it.

I set my big 10X10 nylon tarp up among some scraggly oaks for maximum shade. I was so conked it was a major effort. I fell asleep for an hour, and woke lusting for caffeine.

With the heat, and the predictable afternoon wind, it'd only take a spark to turn the gorge into a roaring firetrap. Last July, that's exactly what happened. 34,000 acres burned, centered just west of Briceburg. 30 houses and 100 outbuildings were destroyed. The estimated cost of the "Telegraph" fire was $37.6 million. The cause? Target shooting. It only takes a spark.

But did I need coffee!! I cleared an area and built a tight little rock stove for just enough of a twig fire to boil a cup of water.

It was like making a fire in a powder magazine, but I was careful enough to get away with it - twice.

What a difference it made! 2 cups of strong coffee had me feeling alert and rested. I had a pleasant afternoon, reading, cooling off in the river, and scheming out tomorrow's river crossing.

Worry #1 - Losing expensive gear in swift water. #2 - getting tangled up in expensive gear and drowning. I had a risky job ahead. Time to pre-plan before it hit the fan.

I couldn't tell if it was just my imagination, but it seemed like the river was dropping.

El Portal