Tuesday, December 4, 2007


Yesterday, I went on a field trip with my brother Andy and grandson August. Andy is a water treatment specialist and August is greatly interested in the local natural history. Combining those interests, our plan was to go to Lyon's Dam and take a look at the start of the ditch system that supplies much of Tuolumne County's drinking water. On subsequent days, we planned to explore other sections of the system.

Our trip was thwarted when we discovered that the dirt road to Lyons Dam was closed for the winter. We decided to pick up the system on Mt. Elizabeth, and while we drove to our new starting point, Andy told us a little about the history of the ditches and the river that feeds them. Being the good teacher that he is, Andy started with a geographic overview in which he explained the ridge upon which we were driving (Highway 108) and the two rivers that flowed in the canyons on either side of the ridge: the Tuolumne and the Stanislaus. He explained the forks of the Stanislaus and the fact that our ditch system is born of the middle fork of the Stanislaus where it dumps into Lyons Reservoir. We didn't get to look at the flumes that carry the water out of the reservoir, but we will do that next spring. Instead we hiked for several miles along one of the widest sections of the ditch system that curves around Mt. Elizabeth from the Twain Harte side to the Cedar Ridge side.

Andy explained that the ditch system originated because of the need to provide water for the gold miners in the huge settlement of Columbia back in the 1850s. Later the water became essential for hydraulic mining when large areas of soil were washed away with heavy streams of water and the residue was run through a sluice to find the gold. By the 1900s, the water began to be used for hydro-electric power. While not disputing the historic relevance of the ditch system, Andy told us that the system is antiquated. He compared it to the much more sophisticated aqueduct system developed by the Romans which prevented water loss from seepage and evaporation--definitely problematic aspects of the ditch system and relevant in our area of population overgrowth and potential drought.

This problem notwithstanding, we had a wonderful four mile hike along the ditch trail, accompanied by the pungency of mountain misery and the crunch of newly fallen black oak leaves. Sharp-eyed August pointed out many things along the trail, including a hawk, a mountain mahogany, a statuesque golden oak, and a big fat trout that fishermen had missed. He also entertained us with a story Papa had related from NPR and an anecdote from his favorite book Redwall about a shrew and hare in a pie-eating contest.

Homeschool field trips are the best, especially when you're ditchin'.


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