THE FAR SIDE OF THE SKY

© Christopher Earls Brennen

SKULL CANYON

``One is always wrong to open a conversation with the
Devil, for, however he goes about it, he always insists
upon having the last word''.

From ``Journals'' (1917) by André Gide, translated by Justin O'Brien.

On October 22, 1995, about a week before Halloween, there occurred a series of events that seemed straight from a screenplay for the Twilight Zone. The central character was a rugged and spectacular canyon deep in the innermost reaches of the San Gabriel mountains. Appropriately enough, it is called Devil's Canyon. The catchbasin of this canyon forms a large part of the Devil's Canyon Wilderness within the Angeles National Forest. This wilderness contains some of the most inaccessible terrain in the contiguous United States. There are probably canyons within its boundaries that have never witnessed a human footfall.

Devil's Canyon (and the river that flows within it, year round) begins just to the west of the saddle separating Mount Waterman and Twin Peaks. It plunges into a deep ravine, travelling west for several miles before turning southward. At the turn the canyon broadens temporarily and so allows, at this point, the only practical access to its upper reaches. A steep but well-maintained trail descends about 1500ft from the Angeles Crest Highway to the canyon bottom. It meets the river at a beautiful spot where once I cooked dinner on a hiking stove for Doreen, myself and our two dogs. The trail continues on downstream for about a mile but then peters out as the canyon narrows again and the going becomes tougher and tougher. It is, however, possible to bushwhack one's way on downstream for about another two miles, though progress is frequently slowed by the need to climb over boulders and down small waterfalls. Those who persist are rewarded by encountering the beautiful Devil's Canyon Narrows where the river has cut a narrow and precipitous defile through solid rock, leaving a series of deep, clear pools separated by crystal cascades and two large waterfalls. Because of the narrowness of the canyon, it is only with great difficulty and some danger that one can descend the canyon past the first or upper waterfall. Without technical climbing gear it is virtually impossible to proceed further and circumvent the lower waterfall.

To hike down the trail, along the canyon to the falls and return the same way is a very long and exhausting day hike. And, though it is possible to access Devil's Canyon from the downstream end by way of Cogswell reservoir, it is an even longer and harder hike to the falls from that direction. Consequently, despite their great natural beauty, the Devil's Canyon Narrows are rarely visited and retain an aura of great remoteness and true wilderness.

One day in the early 1990s, I was perusing the topographical maps of the region and began to investigate whether there was an easier way to reach the Devil's Canyon Narrows. I noticed that, at one point about 1.5 miles west of Charlton Flats, the Angeles Crest Highway comes quite close to the Narrows though it is some 1500ft up on the ridge above. The map showed a steep side canyon descending from the highway to join Devil's Canyon just north of the Narrows. I noted that, if one could descend this side canyon, the Narrows could then be reached by a significantly shorter route. However, this seemed highly unlikely. Experience had taught me that some combination of cliffs or impenetrable brush would almost certainly bar the way. Nevertheless, it seemed worth a try. So one day in 1991, I parked my car by the roadway and began to descend this side canyon. There appeared to be some evidence that others had earlier passed this way and that was encouraging but no guarantee of success. The narrow side canyon was mostly in the shade and so relatively free of the tough brush that made the surrounding slopes virtually impassable. But I started to encounter waterfalls that required climbing and, as these increased in size, I began to anticipate an encounter with one that I could not circumvent. In several places, I was only just able to negotiate my way down and around the falls by using narrow and airy ledges. But I continued to make progress and my confidence that I could reach the bottom and access Devil's Canyon began to increase. Indeed, I seemed almost there when I suddenly came upon a large and very precipitous waterfall, perhaps 100ft high. I made some effort to find a route around it to the north but concluded that no safe passage existed, at least in that direction. I abandoned my attempt at this point and climbed back up to the road.

Bighorn Sheep skull
Several years later, I had a couple of graduate students who were avid hikers. When I described this side canyon to them they were eager to explore it further in the hopes of finding a way to the falls. And, looking back at my earlier effort, I could visualize the possibilty of a route to the south of the cliffs which had previously stopped me. And so, one Saturday in 1993, I climbed down the same side canyon with three students and, with greater ease than I anticipated, located a route to the south of the cliffs. Shortly thereafter we reached Devil's Canyon Narrows just above the falls. It was a hike that I repeated several times in the next couple of years, each time taking a different friend to the spectacular falls by this ``secret'' route. On one such hike in early 1995 I came across the skull of a bighorn sheep very close to the intersection of the side canyon and Devil's Canyon. I debated whether or not to carry it home but finally left it on top of a prominent rock, thinking that others would be rewarded by this curiosity after their long hike down the main canyon.

In late 1995, I again guided a small group including my colleagues Paul Jennings and David Wales down to the Narrows by the side canyon route. It was a beautiful autumn day and we climbed down the upper falls into the rugged canyon between the two large waterfalls. Paul fished the large pool below the upper falls and we ate a marvellous lunch in those bucolic surroundings. Then it was time to go home. As we prepared ourselves for the return climb up the side canyon, I thought I would wander a few yards upstream to that rock on which I had placed the bighorn skull some six months before. I had no difficulty locating the rock and there, indeed, was the skull still perched on the rock. Strange thing though. I was almost positive that I had placed the skull so that it faced downstream. Now it seemed turned to the right, facing up the side canyon by which we had gained access to the Narrows. Perhaps some animal had brushed against the skull.

The others were already entering the side canyon and so I made an impulsive decision not to leave the skull this time but to take it home as a memento, though a memento of what I was not entirely sure. I quickly wrapped it in an old towel, placed it in my backpack and just as quickly forgot about it as we began the long climb back to the highway.

There was no great hurry. It was a very pleasant day, not too hot or too cool for the ascent back up to the road. In places the climb is very steep indeed. Strangely my pack seemed lighter with the bighorn skull in it, almost as though I was being urged forward by some unseen power. But we had time to spare. So we stopped often to rest, to enjoy the surroundings and to engage in friendly chat.

As we approached the top we began to encounter the trash thrown from passing cars into the gully and the thick brush. I recall several automobile tires and the odd beer can, washed several hundred yards down the gully by the winter rains that do an effective job of scouring the steep and narrow gully. And then, quite suddenly, we were all standing quite transfixed in disbelief by what lay in the gully ahead of us, half hidden in the sand. It was a human skull. Clearly and unmistakably, a human skull. Though missing the lower jaw, it was otherwise in good condition, if one can say such a thing about a human skull. After an extended pause, one of the others picked it up to examine it. It was not worn as it would have been had it been ancient; indeed traces of dried tissue could be detected in the vicinity of the neck. Moreover, it had a dental bridge of about four teeth still in its intended place. We guessed that it was probably only a few years old; that it had been dumped off the side of the road into the upper reaches of the gully, had rotted away and been torn apart by animals. Finally the skull must have been carried into the bottom of the gully and then swept down to the point where we found it.

We looked around somewhat cursorily for other bones without finding any. We also built a cairn of rocks to mark the spot and topped it with a rusty beer can found nearby. Then we put the skull in a plastic bag and carried it up to the road. I recall a sense of surreality that characterized our activity after finding the skull.

When we reached the highway, there was an emergency telephone close by so I used it to speak with the Highway Patrol. After a confusing initial conversation during which the dispatcher asked for the nearest cross-street, I was patched through to one of the Ranger Stations of the US Forest Service. Shortly thereafter a whole succession of officials showed up: a US Forest Service Ranger, two LA Sheriffs, a Highway Patrol Officer, representatives from LA homicide and, last but not least, the Montrose Search and Rescue team. I wryly thought it a little late for the Search and Rescue team: in fact, they were needed to go down the gully to search the site for other remains. We described our marker for them and they thankfully did not follow through with their initial instinct that one of us should accompany them down to the scene of our discovery.

Each of the arriving officials did insist on taking all of our names and addresses regardless of how many times their predecessors had done so. This generated a concentrated collection of vehicles and people in the middle of the large clearing, a conglomeration that persisted for at least an hour in the late afternoon sun. And all this time the skull lay some distance away in its plastic bag, almost ignored until one officer decided to look at it. Even then his inspection was cursory. Finally, they decided that our presence was no longer constructive and we left to drive home.

The Pasadena Star News for the next day, Oct.22, 1995, published the following:

Hikers find body in Angeles Forest

Angeles National Forest - Hikers in the Angeles National Forest Saturday found what appeared to be a body, authorities said. The hikers were near Mile Marker 46.2, about 450 feet off Angeles Crest Highway, when they spotted the apparently human remains about 3 p.m. Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy Jim Hellmold said. Sheriff's homicide investigators were sent to the location, Helmold said, and it will be determined whether the remains are human. ``It appears to be human, but we're not 100 percent certain at this point,'' Hellmold said.

As always with press reports, this was only roughly correct. It was a skull rather than a body we found and it was clearly a human skull. Unless of course, the officers knew of Caltech's reputation for pranks!

Weeks later my curiosity finally got the better of me and I managed to locate the LA homicide detective to whom the case had been assigned. Sergeant Watkins was very pleasant on the several occasions when I reached him by phone. But there had been no identification and he conveyed doubt there ever would be. And so, as far as I know, the case drifted into the nether-world of unresolved deaths. Yet somewhere, someone must still grieve for a lost loved one, and the agony of uncertainity must persist.

About six months later, I finally retrieved the bighorn skull from the closet in which it had lain since that October day. I washed it carefully and applied bleach to remove several stains. Then I placed my trophy on a prominent wooden shelf on our patio overlooking the garden. That winter night was bleak and thunder echoed in the distance as I went to bed. Much later something woke me and, as I often do, I wandered back to the kitchen for a snack from the fridge. As I looked out through the window into the darkness of our heavily wooded garden, a flash of lightning ripped across the sky, illuminating the skull for a frozen instant. It seemed to shine in the dark. It may have even turned a little to face me.

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Last updated 7/30/99.
Christopher E. Brennen