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Living and Writing in the Natural World

A Yosemite Ramble Goes Up in Smoke

Half dome behind the oak--shrouded in smoke!

My long-planned Yosemite outing this past weekend would be perfect: Amtrak bus and train down the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, bus from Merced depositing me at Yosemite Valley’s Curry Village, then picked up by the Tuolumne Meadow Hiker Shuttle the next morning, up to the high country, and deposited at the May Lake trailhead for my hike into a series of High Sierra Camps, light pack on my back and walking sticks in hand.

What could possibly go wrong?

Plenty, as I would soon learn. The Rim Fire has been burning in the Stanislaus National Forest to the west of Yosemite park for two weeks. In the course of becoming the fourth largest fire in California history, it had invaded and consumed some 90 square miles of Yosemite park, too, mainly the foothill sections below Hetch Hetchy in the park’s northwestern corner.

The day before I was to leave on my Yosemite ramble, I learned that the road connecting Yosemite Valley with the Tuolumne Meadow high country had been closed due to the fire.

My scheduled four days in the high country went up in flames, literally. Fortunately, the issue was mostly smoke and the chaos of nearby fire-fighting efforts, rather than Yosemite high country itself aflame. And of course, my puny plans were insignificant next to the reality of a raging fire.

All right. I still had my public transportation into Yosemite Valley intact, so I extended my stay at Curry Village on the south side of the valley to three nights and forged ahead. The valley was reportedly clear of smoke and not threatened by the fire. This would be a good time to try to find a route to John Muir’s favorite perch high up the 3000-foot tall north (thus south-facing, and sunny) wall of the Valley, what he had called “My Sunnyside Camp.”

Muir’s perch is today known as Sunnyside Bench, a considerable ledge jutting out from the north wall some five or six hundred feet above the valley floor. Saint John spent many hours amongst the flowers and trees carpeting this ledge, enjoying the view and figuring out what had generated the location of forests and the course of the Merced River in Yosemite Valley below.

By this time, Muir had seen the abundant evidence of extensive glaciation of Yosemite Valley in the not-so-distant past. He noticed from Sunnyside Camp that the location of forested groves was correlated with shaded areas of the Valley, and with flood wash from side canyons.

Shade indicated where residual glaciers had lingered, and their terminal moraines provided the abundant soil upon which forests could grow. “This (observation) explains the relationship they (the forest groves) bear to the shadows, the shadows controlling the glaciers, the glaciers controlling the position of the moraines, and the moraines governing the position of the groves.” (From Ch. 3, “Sunnyside Observations”, of Muir’s previously unpublished journals, John of the Mountains.)

Flood wash from melting snow roaring down side canyons each spring also brought soil, so forest groves traced the course of these floods fanning out from the mouths of side canyons entering the Valley as well.

From his Sunnyside perch, Muir also explained the looping course of the Merced River. The elevated moraine material from the southside Illilouette and Glacier Point residual glaciers forced the Merced River below Vernal Falls to loop north at the foot of the Valley. Then the rocky material deposited by floods down Indian Canyon on the north wall of the Valley forced the river to veer south, where it flows until encountering elevated flood deposit from the Sentinel Rocks canyon on the south wall, pushing it north again.

I arrived at the Valley’s southside Curry Village at dusk this past Thursday. The massive granite walls loomed in the fading light, Half Dome the most visible from the old apple orchard (now a parking lot). I headed off across the meadows to the Ahwahnee hotel on the opposite (north) side of the valley, and was soon enjoying a scotch in the bar. This was going to be good. Walking back to Curry Village in the darkness later, the stars shone brilliantly overhead, with the Big Dipper just beginning to set behind the north wall.

Friday morning I explored the area where Tenaya Creek flows into the big loop of the Merced River below Vernal Falls, where the two Pines campgrounds and the backpacker’s Walk In campground are located. It’s a beautiful, quiet corner of the valley, far from the bustle of tourists and traffic. Then I hiked along the northern wall of the valley, past the Ahwahnee and all the way to Lower Yosemite Falls (now quite dry, this far into the season).

I was searching for a way up the steep north wall, to reach Muir’s Sunnyside Camp. Just east of Lower Yosemite falls, I found a path headed up the western flank of Indian Canyon on the north wall. Rock climbers on the granite wall five minutes up this path had heard of Sunnyside Bench, but this trail didn’t go there, they said. I should backtrack a quarter mile or so to a steep talus slope, clamber four or five hundred feet up its boulders, then with luck I’d pick out a trail that led to the bench.

It was well past noon by now. I had six miles under my feet already, and would be climbing up the talus slope alone. The boulders ranged from Volkswagen size to room size. I figured the odds of my making it to the bench without injury were about even; the odds of getting back down in the dusk, considerably lower than even.

I have been many things, perhaps, but stupid has not often been one of them. Tomorrow, I thought. I’ll come here straight from my Curry Village tent-cabin in the morning, fresh and strong. Maybe I’ll even take the shuttle bus here, and be really fresh.

Trudging back to Curry Village that night, I couldn’t see any stars. Strange.

The next morning I awoke to a valley shrouded in smoke, with ash particles raining down steadily. The south wind had shifted and was now coming from the west—the center of the Rim Fire. I couldn’t see Half Dome. I couldn’t see any of the valley’s granite walls at all, in fact. So much for climbing to Muir’s Sunnyside Bench; I couldn’t see anything from it, and the risk of the climb clearly outweighed the blank view. Stymied again. The ash fell all day, and soon my fleece jacket reeked of smoke.

To salvage the day, I took a bus tour that traveled to Wawona and the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias at the far southern end of the park, thinking (with others on the tour) that it might be clear there. The smoke and ash followed us the whole way, unfortunately.

I was due to leave the next day late in the afternoon, which would have left me most of the day to play in the valley. I awoke that next day with throat burning, and made a command decision to catch the early bus out of the valley and down to the railway at Merced, and thence northward home to Chico.

All my plans of high country rambles, and finding Muir’s Sunnyside Bench, had gone up in smoke, literally. My little disappointments were not as weighty as the destruction wrought by the Rim Fire itself, of course. And there were many good moments in the trip: rambling along the Merced River and Tenaya Creek Friday morning, several scotches in the bar of the Ahwahnee Hotel.

But the best part of the trip had occurred in the smoky Mariposa Grove. I had wandered away from the old cabin there to find a particular giant sequoia. And there it was. Two hundred and some feet tall, fifteen feet wide, between 1500 and 2,000 years old, the experts say. Fires over the millennia had burned a cavity clear through the base of the giant tree, so one could walked, stooped slightly, into the tree.

Several years ago I had been here in November, with the whole grove to myself. It had begun to snow, and I had taken shelter in the cavity of that tree to eat my sack lunch. Sitting on the dirt within and under the ancient giant tree, munching on my peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, I watched the snow drift down steadily in the silence. It was a precious, magical experience. And even though on Saturday it was ash drifting down upon me, rather than snow, it was good to be back.

Certainly that old sequoia has experienced many a fire in its fifteen to twenty centuries of life, and is accepting of both ashes and snowflakes falling upon it from the sky. It has doubtless seen worse fires than the Rim Fire of these past weeks, and worse winters than that winter I crouched underneath it.

And still that ancient tree endures. We should all be so steady.

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