Comments on life, the universe and everything from an aging Sixties survivor.

Location: Massachusetts, United States

Ummm, isn't "about me" part of the point of the blog?

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Yo-Ho, Part 8 and last

Back to the MBTA

There's little to say about the return trip. My wife and I swapped seats for the flight home, which wasn't a total success. She got the middle seat and didn't sleep at all. I took the window seat, where I promptly discovered that a 757 window seat doesn't have quite enough headroom for me. Wedged in, I did sleep though, for about three or four hours. Then I dozed off for about 15 minutes at a time until we saw the sun rise (because the morons in the seat in front of us hadn't pulled the shade).

The high point of the return, oddly enough, didn't come until we caught our bus at Wonderland. Ah, those squeaky, smelly, grubby MBTA buses.

Note to M-A: early on Sunday morning, they're all prison buses. But I think we got your driver with a heart of gold.

As the bus was about to pull out, a guy on a bicycle pulled up and asked if he could get a ride to Central Square, since it had begun to rain. He said he forgot his Charlie Card and did a classic Wimpy routine of how he'd pay next time. The driver patiently said no about six different ways, then finally shrugged and let him aboard.

This was not your stereotypical suburban cyclist caught in the rain in his bright Italian jersey. This was one of those cyclists one sees here and there, who are on a bike because they can't drive. I'd say one OUI too many was the cause here.

A few minutes after we started, the driver called to this guy to come up. He came, clearly fearful that he was going to get thrown off after all. The driver handed him his own Charlie card, first ringing up this ride, and told him to keep it. Our poor wet cyclist was stammering in his gratitude, and the driver said "just do it for someone else sometime, OK?"

Sometimes ya gotta love this town.

Yosemite Reflections

Having reached an age when time, money and stamina are running out at about equal rates, it's unclear if we can return to Yosemite, but I'd like to try.

If we go back, we're inclined to camp at Tuolomne and visit the valley, not the other way around. From all reports, bears up there are as common as squirrels, but bigger and smarter. So we'd need to be a bit smarter...and a bit bolder.

Now, we're having a little fun about the lack of pictures of the bear, so pardon me for grabbing a teachable moment. From the perspective of the urban east, a Yosemite bear encounter sounds like a tall tale. It isn't. The unusual thing was that we had gone a full week without seeing a bear. People who live in that and other parts of bear country will tell you that humans are the intruders in bear habitat, not the other way around. They will say that in any incident involving property loss or injury, it is nearly always the human who is at fault for offering the bear a temptation it is not equipped to refuse.

Consider that ear tag on our bear. A bear caught breaking into a car or camp for the third time at Yosemite is a dead bear. The next bullet won't be rubber. Human stupidity is a large part of this problem, and so is simple oversight (think of that candle we lost). More than that, there is a big problem with skepticism. People who have not experienced Yosemite simply don't believe that, from dusk to dawn, you are as likely to meet a bear as a human being. Carry food with you and you're ten times as likely to meet a bear. Leave food in your car and you're quite likely to have a wrecked car, a whopping fine from NPS, and an unsympathetic insurer who won't cover you.

All of these are real threats, but not as real as the death of bears faced with temptation once too often. But too many people just don't believe it and treat the bear stories as tall tales until it's their unfastened bear box that's cleaned out, their car that is wrecked, or it's them on a narrow trail between a cub and its very angry mother. If I were making up a story, I'd be sure to give myself a more heroic role.

The park's weekly reports suggest that if you want to be scared of something in Yosemite, try the people planting marijuana in remote places along the western slopes. Parks law enforcement is breaking up these farms regularly, and the planters are packing serious heat. This is not something you want to stumble across by accident.

It's tough to say what the major national parks can--or should--do about crowds. This has been a problem as long as the parks have existed and been accessible by automobile. It strikes me that one option would be a public relations push on crowding in California itself. Over 90% of the cars I saw had California plates. Even deducting for rentals, California residents still account for the great majority of the visitors. Perhaps there could be an effort to encourage some of them to go elsewhere, maybe to California state parks: California could sure use the revenue.

Now I need better boots and more hiking.

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Sunday, August 29, 2010

Yo-Ho, Part 7

In Which Ursus Americanus Finally Makes his Least Once

This being the last day for the parents to frolic in Yosemite, it seemed necessary to hike again, Dr. Morton notwithstanding. We decided upon a double-header. The trails to Taft Point and Sentinel Dome start from the same trailhead off the road to Glacier Point. The first is about 2.5 miles round trip, the second around 3.5*. This offered, then, a total round trip around six miles, with the chance to get back and start packing.

For we had plans in the evening. Ron Kauk's HD film, Return to Balance: a Climber's Journey, was appearing at Yosemite Village, with Kauk as the emcee. Earlier in the week it had taken no particular arm twisting for Em to persuade the parents that it would be a good way to wrap up the week.

Apart from that, and one more hike, plans now began to devolve to the primary question of finding a bear. The previous day, Em had spoken to a hiking couple who had been on all the trails we had been on and had seen four bears, while we were batting zero, apart from nearby camp racket and a few scat piles. Going up Glacier Point Road and hiking there seemed promising. If that failed, walking to the film and back at dusk, via the back trail from Housekeeping Camp to Yosemite Village, seemed like it might meet the bear quota.

I skipped the boots and opted for sneakers, hoping that this would keep Dr. Morton's disagreeable toe under control. This had some limitations. The absence of lugged soles underfoot meant no big rock scrambles and no getting anywhere close to the edge of anything, but half a loaf is better than none.

Last Hike: Taft Point and Sentinel Dome

So off again down 41 and up the Glacier Point Road. For once we seemed to be ahead of the pack--we even beat the tour buses out of the Valley. This made parking easy. Since we'd already chosen Taft as our first destination, we were off quickly.

The trail begins in yet another burnt-over, partially grown-in piece of woods: perfect bear country, but no poop and no bears. Since the parking lot is slightly higher than the point, the walking was chiefly downhill. Bears? No bears. When we got into the grown-in woods again, no bears, but a small herd of deer clearly not on the Park payroll. They continued feeding, but also watched the humans carefully and kept their distance.

Em had been developing a theme all week, that in Yosemite there must be mountain bears and valley bears who didn't get along. She suggested that the mountain bears scorned the valley bears who didn't know how to tear up a log and eat grubs and ants. The valley bears would laugh at the mountain bears, who didn't know what a cooler looked like and couldn't rip a car apart in five minutes. Possibly, we agreed, there are also mountain and valley deer.

Before one reaches Taft Point, it's necessary to pass a feature called The Fissures. We had done our homework, so when we came out of the woods and onto the rocks, we were looking out for The Fissures.

Just as well. The Fissures are just what they sound like: narrow separations in the rock, that go down, and down, and down....

This is no place for tourists who expect to be nannied. The only place with any sort of protection is on Taft Point itself, where there's a very modest guardrail. The following shows almost all of it.

One wants to be alert because, having passed one fissure, the next will appear almost (we hope) before you know it. If you miss, well, it's been said, at one step you're 7500 feet above sea level, and at the next, 4000 feet above sea level. This fall is, as the link says, squish-you-like-a-bug fatal.

With a view like this, there was no one objecting to the photo break, except Mom, who didn't altogether trust that silly little steel railing. Neither did Em, entirely. As she leaned out from it for the shot above, she said "this is where I scare myself."

And still no hint of bear. Apart from the rock squirrels and the deer, the only non-human signs we saw were horse or mule droppings and hoofprints. A mounted ranger patrolling this piece of the Pohono Trail: talk about a job! I'm sure the shovel-toting ranger we'd seen Wednesday would rather have been mounted.

We returned to the trailhead, still in hopes of seeing a bear, and arrived still out of luck. The guidebooks say that Sentinel Dome is a more popular hike than Taft point, which turned out to be true. We were looking for under an hour out and the same back, but that didn't allow for a fairly brisk hiker traffic that slowed nearly everyone up a bit.

From a trailhead whose altitude pushed 8000 feet, Sentinel Dome (8122 ft.) is a much less intimidating prospect than it is from the Valley: it rises pretty much straight up until the immediate vicinity of the summit dome. This trail is flat and fairly comfortable until it reaches the final approach to the Dome. This is another of several places in Yosemite where the Park Service put down asphalt once upon a time. They are letting nature have its way with the hardtop now, and apparently won't be replacing it. Between the summit rocks and the uneven asphalt surface, the going isn't difficult, but it is hot.

Mr. Slippery Sneakers drew the duty of tending the backpacks whilst the female family units continued to the top of the Dome, another couple of hundred metres.

I may have got the better of the two deals. Em reported that nothing remains now of the ancient Jeffrey pine at the top of the Dome, made famous in an Ansel Adams photo about 1940. The tree died over 30 years ago and finally fell in 2003.

This is another place where people who want to keep their kids need to keep hold of them. Apart from the surprise fissures at Taft Point, that summit is fairly flat, and the danger is obvious. Below the top of Sentinel Dome, the rocks and gravelly soil slope gradually toward the edge of the abyss, which also has no guardrail. I tried the slope, below, a little in my sneakers and quickly backed up: very slippery.

The conversation with other hikers was good, but the eavesdropping was better. Consider this tidbit that passed between two women coming up from Glacier Point:

a: I hope we won't be too late to start dinner.

b: Don't worry; I have a roast in my trunk.

Something made me think this person would be hearing from the bears very, very soon.

Finally Waltzing with Bears

We got back to trailhead soon after 1 p.m. and headed back to Housekeeping Camp. After the breeze at the top, the valley seemed especially hot, so we didn't get much done in the packing department: in fact we napped by turns until it was time to fix supper.

Everyone had a flashlight when we started out for Yosemite Village soon after six. The plan was to walk back again if there was enough light left after the film, and otherwise to take the shuttle. You might say this was putting everything on one throw in the bear sighting department.

There were no bears en route to the village, apart from yours truly. Once we reached the bike path, my wife decided the best place to be was on the left side of the path, leaving the rest of us centre-right. I was still a bit raw from the previous day's experience with pedestrians on the bike path and raised an objection. I was voted down, so I dropped back a few feet to give any oncoming bike traffic a fighting chance. After we got past the deer-watching crowd, a camper on his own mountain bike came smoking down the path and dodged around my determined spouse, missing her by inches. As soon as he was past, our traffic safety expert leaped to the right side of the path. I said nothing, but I suppose said it eloquently.

I recommend the film, for its insights as well as its heart-stopping videography. Some of the free-climbing was on cliffs and boulders at low heights, Kauk said. This was apparent in some shots, but not in others. Em commented that even though he was being self-deprecating, Kauk's free climbing technique was at an off-the-charts degree of difficulty, whether he was 10 inches off the ground or 1000 feet.

Some time in the past, I recall learning that Islamic muezzins use a simple test to determine the difference between day and night: whether they can distinguish a black thread from a white. My wife has long subscribed to something similar. When we left the theatre under the faintest remaining hint of twilight, I was not surprised to hear her decree that there was enough light to walk back to Housekeeping Camp. So, off we went to locate the start of the trail in the "daylight."

We found it, turned left, and started. We had no sooner done so than another trail user came in from the parking lot less than ten metres ahead of us. This user was dark, furry and quadrupedal. We had our bear at last, although not quite under the conditions we wanted. It stopped. We stopped, shining our lights on the bear. (Note: it takes much longer to tell this than it took to happen.)

According to the NPS playbook, when a party on foot is surprised by a bear at short range, they should bunch together, shout loudly, wave their arms and flashlights and in general try their best to look like Bigfoot and scare the bear off.

Did that happen? It did not.

Em was in the lead. She said "bear" a nanosecond before me. (My wife has no night vision whatsoever, so it was fortunate she was not in her usual leading position: she would have walked right into it.) With our next breath, we said "bus" in unison, executed a smart about face, and retreated to catch the shuttle. The bear was still standing there and watching until we turned the corner, when I thought I saw it slowly move away. We mentioned this to the next couple we saw, who shrugged and said they were going to the parking lot, not the path. Considering the direction the bear came from, that parking lot is the last place I wanted to be, in a group of less than 30.

It was, I think, about 200 pounds: that is, noticeably larger than a very large Newfie, although much bulkier. It didn't make any aggressive gestures or noise, but seemed to be waiting to see just what it was up against. Em's size estimate was about the same. Mme No Nightvision couldn't contribute to the discussion. Em had also seen that the bear had the ear tag showing it to be one of the Park's Bad Attitude bears: not necessarily dangerous to humans, but an outlaw.

What was interesting, at least to my daughter, was that she and I felt interest, not fear. I've been there before--not necessarily with big animals with sharp pointy teeth, but in dangerous situations. Very often, there simply isn't time to be afraid. One goes from discovery of the situation to response. In this case, we weren't feeling any fear even in reaction. My spouse sort of um-hummed to this conversation, so we can but assume she agreed. We shuttled back to Housekeeping Camp and walked to our unit talking loudly and playing our lights around. There was some packing preparation to do before leaving in the morning, which we did and then settled in: with an oversight.

Em had brought a very large citronella candle, which we had been using for the past couple of nights rather than fuss with the gas lantern. This thing sat in a flared tin and had a plastic cover on it. It didn't seem to be a particular critter magnet, so we gave it little attention.

In the morning, we found the tin just outside our enclosure, empty. The lid was neatly sliced in one place and sat next to the tin. The candle, which probably weighed a couple of pounds, was gone.

As we packed, my spouse kept coming back to the candle. There were no footprints in the dust outside the enclosure (not even ours). There was no other sign of disturbance. We'd been shooing ravens away all week. Therefore, it must have been a raven. At first I went along with this explanation whole-heartedly, until I considered how much the candle weighed. I kept my reservations to myself, because I didn't think it wise to tax my wife with the likely presence of a bear within a couple of metres of her as she slept.

So yeah, it was a raven: just a damn big one.

* No two sources agree exactly on the mileage of these trails: this is an average. One problem is that you can reach both from Glacier Point, and also from a service road just short of the Glacier Road parking lot, near Washburn Point. Parking is now discouraged at the service road, but hikers can get at the road from Washburn Point. Why bother? The joint trailhead comes before the traffic at Glacier Point and is nearly midway between the two destinations.

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Yo-Ho, Part 6

In Which Dr. Morton Enforces Some Downtime

Before bed last night, the resident clinician examined my toe. It was not a pretty sight. It never is, but a second toe swollen to twice its normal size and decorated with evidence of metatarsal joint injury is especially unappealing to anyone but podiatrists. We reached two conclusions: it was time I kissed off my boots, and it was time to take a break from hiking.

The plan, then, was that spouse and daughter would go to McGurk Meadow, a high-country meadow on the way to Glacier Point, whilst I stayed in the valley, did some work work, and investigated the fleshpots of Curry Village and Yosemite Village.

The McGurk Meadow trip was a consolation prize because Em wanted to climb Half Dome via the famous cables route. My wife, reasonably enough, vetoed this. At best this is 16 hour round trip and in August, it means starting before dawn and finishing after sunset. We'll be back to Half Dome at the end of this installment.

One of the annoyances of being unemployed is that one can't totally go on vacation. Things are much better than they were pre-interwebs, because you can now keep up your side anywhere there is Wi-Fi. I had already put in two sessions on the Web at Curry Village, wired and ten minutes' walk away. I did not walk: I rode the shuttle. Now I buckled down and put in most of the morning on the necessary search for work.

With departure only two days off, I also checked on the breakfast arrangements in Curry Village and confirmed the departing bus schedule. That done, I boarded the shuttle to check out some Yosemite Village features we hadn't examined before. Chief among these was the celebrated Degnan's Deli. This might well have measured up if I did not live a couple of blocks from a transplanted and celebrated Manhattan deli, which gets two thumbs up from native New Yorkers. The standard of comparison was thus high. Degnan's, although OK, fell a bit short. Maybe this is a San Francisco deli.

The Dubious Pleasures of Yosemite Cycling

After this, and a brief check-in at the campsite, I decided I'd try renting a bike and doing the Valley's circuit of bike trails. The timing was excellent, because the morning riders were just coming in and returning their bikes.

This process was a bit odd for a regular cyclist. These are one-speed machines to start with, with coaster brakes. There are helmets only for kids. Seats are fixed height, so one can't fine-tune the height: just shop around for the bike nearest your ideal seat height. In this case Goldilocks didn't find one that was just right. Having to choose between one with a seat a bit too high, and one a bit too low, I went with the last.

Off we go. OK, there will be a quiz: in Yosemite, is "flat" an absolute or relative expression? Right. There is plenty of exercise to be had honking up the low hills along some parts of this route. Although the rentals are not supposed to go on one two-mile stretch of path that goes toward mule country and Mirror Lake, it's easy to make up the lost distance by missing a turn or two. Once again, NPS trail management came up short in the Valley. A directional sign or two would come in handy.

Set against the hill-climbing is the bane of all cyclists on all bike paths in my experience: pedestrians. As the trail winds toward Yosemite Village and the day-use parking, the pedestrians become more numerous and more oblivious. I should say, completely oblivious. Did you know it's possible to track stand on a one-speed beach cruiser? Neither did I, until I reached the traffic jam caused by many cubic yards of clueless amblers.

Deer added to the difficulties: not of themselves, but as attractions. There were a couple of deer who showed up in the meadow near Yosemite Village so often that they must have been on the payroll. I don't allow that any wild animal can be tamed, but as long as they had a safe exit, these would allow camera-snapping bozos within a metre or two of them. Wherever there was a deer, there was a thick crowd of the thick on the bike path. Because they were immobile, except when they surged toward the deer, cyclists became pedestrians. From that and other causes, there were times when I made better progress on foot. I haven't even mentioned the family units cycling together after having declared (read, lied about) their cycling competence to get the rental. Passing Yosemite Village was a trial. I did punch my way through at last (readers are welcome to place their own interpretation on the verb). I found one view East I hadn't seen before:
and one west.

It was about this time that I decided one circuit would be enough. Whatever aerobic benefit I was getting was more than offset by the damage to my blood pressure doing crowd control. Except for crossing Swinging Bridge (which does not swing: go figure) there were no more crowds, just enough short hills to keep one busy and alert.

A Bad Day at Half Dome

Back then to the campsite. With no immediate occupation, I took advantage of the informal siesta time and snoozed until the family units returned. The McGurk Meadows trip had been mainly a success, except that it was the first place any of us had run into insects in any appreciable numbers.

Soon after showers, and with supper underway, we began to notice helicopters flying quite low over Housekeeping Camp. I began my adult life listening closely to helicopters. I'm no Radar O'Reilly, but I can usually tell when they're landing, taking off, and more or less where.

These choppers were landing somewhere near Yosemite Village, I guessed. Confirmed when I got a visual on one taking off--and we saw the landing zone the following evening. Six helicopters came in, landed quickly, and left in a hell of a hurry. A seventh came in and landed, remaining on the ground quite a while.

It wasn't until the next day that I got the story. Six people had been rock climbing on one of the scarier faces of Half Dome, when one of them "got stuck" as my informant said tactfully. According to my rock-hopping child, this could mean either climbing into a place from which there was no safe way up or down, or freezing with fear. Either way, the entire party got stuck well up Half Dome and had to be rescued. As for the medevac: remember that comment about the face of El Capitan being as hot as a pizza stone in this heat? Half Dome must have been nearly as hot for people stuck there for several hours. Dehydration and heat exhaustion leap to mind. No one was lost, fortunately. In this business, the tendency is to save lives first and assign blame later. My source was a Ranger, who was chiefly happy no climber had died.

The family unit was divided about the news when I got it. My wife felt her decision to stay away from Half Dome was justified. My daughter said, "if we'd gone to Half Dome, we would have had front-row seats." You can't please everyone.

Our nightly visitors made another appearance, but I guess everybody was chillin' about it. My wife rose just before 5, after another rough night clutching her pots and pans. She was no sooner on her feet than she heard, quite clearly, a male voice casually shout "Yo, bear!" Right, dude. Yo, bear, in Yo-semite.

Later in the morning I found fresh bear poop between us and the river. It was full of lima beans, so I'd say this bear paid the price of his raiding. But clearly, they were getting closer.

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Saturday, August 28, 2010

Yo-Ho, Part 5

In Which We Reach the Literal and Figurative High Point

One trouble with camping is cramming everything into each day. Inevitably, one comes up with ways to force oneself to rise early. The previous night's ursine interruption made the night all the much shorter, but we were determined to stick to the plan and hike from Tuolomne Meadows.

In my ill-informed opinion, the best thing in Yosemite National Park isn't in Yosemite Valley at all. It's not exactly a best-kept secret, either: it simply isn't for everyone.

Tuolomne Meadows is a region of high-altitude, back-country meadows, streams, granite domes and canyons some 15 miles as the raven flies Northeast of Yosemite Village. It's more than four times as far by road, and is also higher: higher than all but a few Yosemite Valley landmarks. The long road into the Meadows is one reason this isn't everyone's cup of tea. The other is the significant drop-off in amenities. The main reasons people come to the Meadows are rock climbing and wilderness hiking. Em had been there once for the rock climbing. As day hikers, we were somewhat exceptional.

In Yosemite Valley, the valley is your view. With rock walls vaulting straight up 3000, 4000 and more feet at every hand, that's inevitable. The Meadows take the visitor to the edge of the really high country, the part where they get the high in High Sierras. Views are long, but distant vistas compete with an astoundingly beautiful landscape closer by.

We had already been warned that one amenity in very short supply was parking. A given day's inbound traffic tells you nothing about that day's parking supply, because it's nothing for wilderness hikers to come to the Meadows, park, and be gone for a week. Another one is--wait for it--rest rooms. There a couple of chemical privies at trailheads on the way in, so we had prepared ourselves on that front. Em found a place large enough for her Civic hybrid and we were off.

Our route of choice was to go up Lyell Canyon, more or less as far as we could. The trail is the first link in a series that takes one either very deep into the Sierras, or back to Yosemite, should one feel ambitious enough to walk back there. The first odd check was a working party on the first of several bridges that cross the Lyell Fork and its branches. The detour signs at first seemed to go nowhere. The workers, seeing our confusion, happily gestured downward to their homemade detour: a one- plank bridge across this small, swift river.

Over my years of work I've had much to do with the National Park Service in general, and their Legal Department in particular. I'm sure that august body had never signed off on this ex-tempore bridge. If they were to get wind of the details, I can easily imagine the conniptions. We all crossed without incident; I did feel I was getting even for a couple of past run-ins. We somehow neglected to get pictures of the bridge, supporting what I'm sure was the workers' credo: it's easier to get forgiveness than permission.

Up the Lyell Canyon

My wife had found out that there are various back-country camps in Yosemite, of which the Tuolomne Meadows facilities are the epicenter. We had been speculating about how these relatively posh camps got provisioned. The Appalachian Mountain Club's Huts in New Hampshire's White Mountains run on much the same idea, over shorter distances and higher climbs from their base facilities. They are provisioned by the hut staff, literally on human backs. When we entered the Meadows, we saw a couple of mule trains heading into the hills. We still didn't cross the Ts until we had crossed Lyell Fork by the ersatz bridge. Our first sight was a mule train, followed closely by another. There was yet another before we had gone much over an hour, as well as plenty of evidence of equine traffic on the trail. For men, it is said, all the world's a urinal. This is so much more true of mule trains. Worse, when one animal decides it's time to go, often they all do in succession, leaving hikers to negotiate a couple of hundred feet of trail studded with mule poop and puddles of mule piss. (It doesn't sink in, remember?) Now you don't see this in the White Mountains. Light dawned and we finally figured out that this was the back-country camps' supply line.

Some time after meeting the first two mule trains, we began to wonder if we were headed in the right direction. Right on cue, the Lyell Canyon trailhead sign appeared, which showed us that we'd walked a mile and a half and had not really started yet: big country, this, as well as high.

Our next landmark was less than half a mile on, when we reached our second crossing of the Fork. It was here, going up and coming down, that we had a reminder that not everyone who treks into Tuolomne Meadows is a dedicated hiker possessed of common sense. The bridge crossing offered the first of several dozen views for which the term breathtaking is, and about all the adjectives are, far too trite. As we paused to assimilate this, the first party not at all interested in hiking began to appear behind us. They weren't here for the hiking except to walk, past the signs reminding people how dangerous are the currents, with their inflatable toys and jump into the water. Never mind them; here's the first view.

You notice right away that, as easterners, we have the wrong idea of the term "canyon." Evidently it's a rather limber expression. I had certainly expected something a little narrower. What Lyell Canyon offered was relatively closed-in stretches alternating with mountain meadows like this. The guidebooks all advertised this trail as flat. Here again, I must remind you that flat, in this part of the world, is relative. The Lyell Canyon trail didn't climb much, but it climbed up or went down all the time except in the meadows.

By the time we had reached the Lyell Canyon trailhead, we had gotten well above 8000 feet. Bearing Monday's experience in mind, I had come well-supplied with aspirin, which I munched in lieu of trail mix. The spirit of Dr. Morton proved to be still with me, determined to prove his hypothesis at the expense of toe and my mood. However, scenery like this is not to be wasted. I trudged on, again in my default position between my wife the marathon hiker and my daughter the photographer.

Ansel Adams Moments

The one thing one can absolutely count on along this trail is Ansel Adams moments. As rare day hikers, we were alone a good deal of the time. Back-country hikers would pass us, heavily laden, going up, and we would not see them again. At the Ireland Creek crossing, the last back-country trail branched off the Lyell Canyon Trail. We estimated that we were now 3.5 miles out (actually, more like 4.5 according to the map in front of me now) and began to think about a lunch spot.

Far in the lead, our fearless point person's bladder was beginning to play her false, so she too was thinking of a stop, for different reasons. We were now far, far away from the nearest necessary, and Em's advice from Monday began to resonate.

We turned on a side trail toward what seemed a likely lunch spot. En route, Mom found her tree. At the river's edge, Em and I found the Ansel Adam-est moments of all. Here's a sample: words do fail me.

Our resident photographer kept busy for most of our lunch break, with the result that she had to find her own tree soon after, and under less auspicious conditions: for the first time in nearly three hours, we had human company.

The surest proof of our altitude was our non-human company, high-altitude mammals, pikas first of all. These charming little creatures, distant relations of the rabbit, live above 8000 feet. They are supremely adapted to life in cold places, and gravely endangered by the steady creep of higher temperatures up the Sierra slopes. Our chief pests in the campground had been squirrels, and we had first taken them to be Belding's squirrels. Now that we were high enough to see the real thing, it was clear there was no resemblance.

About 45 minutes past our lunch break, Dr. Morton was winning, and in any case I had to assert my duty as resident timekeeper. Em wanted to be at Tunnel View in Yosemite for sunset photography, so we had to turn back in time to make that possible.

If you want to be unpopular in a party of three, first, be the only one with a watch. Second, be the only one to have mastered the art of back-timing, which is being able to estimate how long it will take to get back to a given starting point based on the time elapsed. I said I would happily wait where we were, or start back slowly, if the Pathfinder wanted to go on, but in that case we wouldn't make Yosemite Valley in time for sunset photography. The upshot of this tense moment was that we'd turn around. I obtained dispensation to take lines of sight with my bearing compass, to confirm how far we'd come, before we headed back. We had passed the 9000 foot contour, and were within a few hundred metres of the head of valley.

Our first impression was that we'd made what the point person considered was a very unsatisfactory round trip of barely eight miles. Review with the National Geographic small scale map shows the round trip was somewhere between 10 and 11 miles, which should satisfy anyone, including Dr. Morton and the chip on his toe.

Starting Back in Wild Kingdom

Our trio headed back in somewhat imperfect humour, but we had no time to think about that. Two returning hikers whispered "coyote" as they passed us, and pointed. The coyote was some 30-40 metres off up the slope, completely unconcerned by the presence of five humans. It slipped into some underbrush, and we lost sight of it.

However, our other non-human company hadn't. We had not gone long down the trail when we began to see one Belding's squirrel after another pop out of its hole, get right up on stretched hind legs (see the link) and give a piercing whistle. Further off there were other calls; probably the pikas. We soon saw what the squirrels had already detected: either the same coyote or another one, this time working its way up the slope toward the trail and the squirrel colony. We at least couldn't see a coyote uphill, but that's no proof one wasn't there.

We stayed as long as we thought we could without interfering, then withdrew as quietly as possible.

The only other interesting wildlife we saw on the return trip was, first, a park ranger hurrying up the trail with a shovel. We couldn't help wondering whether he had drawn official mule-pooper-scooper duty. When we got further down, there was clear evidence that he had scooped no poop.

Second, when we reached the Lyell Fork bridge with the drop-dead view, we found that the rubber ducky folk had become a crowd. One man had even lugged a very large watermelon up on his shoulders. Em and I agreed it would be a shame to mention to him how fond bears are of things like watermelon. Even though we reached the first bridge about quitting time for the work crew, the plank detour was still there... and the NPS lawyers weren't.

As the official timekeeper had predicted, time was pressing by the time we reached the parking lot. (The official timekeeper thought it politic not so say "I told you so.") Time wasn't the only thing pressing, so we decided to schedule our pit stop for Crane Flat, the last NPS outpost before getting into the high country.

It was not entirely heads-down urgency. As we passed the various rock-climbing sites, Em discussed the different types of rock climbing, and identified what each party had been doing based on their equipment. This was impressive learning. However, I was distracted by other sportifs I haven't yet mentioned.

Cyclists make their way to Tuolomne Meadows to camp. Note that I say "make their way," since the sixty-some miles of road from Yosemite Village to the Tuolomne Meadows campground is comprised of upgrades averaging over 12% for miles at a time, interspersed with a few similar downgrades, on a narrow road with no shoulders to speak of and enough traffic to give one pause. Most are doing this pleasure jaunt on fully loaded touring bikes. About a dozen miles out of the Meadows we saw, going downhill, a couple whom we had overtaken going uphill from Yosemite Valley toward Crane Flat that morning. Em commented that she sure hoped they had campground reservations. There had been sites available when we entered the Meadows that morning, but the sold out sign was up when we left.

We made it back to camp with just over an hour to spare before sunset, so Em dumped the parental units and hightailed off to Tunnel View. Here I must share the conspiracy theory Em and I evolved over the week. In Part 1, I mentioned the one-lane bridge on CA 140. On CA 41, the main North-South route to Yosemite, there are this year several miles of highway construction: as in, rip up all the hardtop and start over construction. They work 7 p.m to 7 a.m, so enjoying sunset at the Tunnel View outlook is a matter of very good timing. The third route, the one we had taken back from Crane Flat, was partially blocked by a car fire when we returned.

Our story--and we're sticking to it--is not that NPS wants to keep tourists out, but that they want to keep them in. So they make it as difficult as possible to get out once they get in.

Dinner came and went, and quiet hours arrived at Housekeeping Camp without bear incidents. This didn't prevent my wife from going to bed with a couple of pots and pans to pound if any unwelcome guests stuck their noses into the shelter.

Later in the night, most of the camp was awakened by gunshots and calls of "Bear, bear! Get out, thief!" Again, we refer to the NPS playbook. Rangers patrol at night armed with loud voices and rubber bullet guns. This is supposed to frighten and discourage marauding bears. It's unclear what effect it has on bears, but it works very well with certain visitors.

I confess to sleeping soundly through the whole racket.

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Thursday, August 26, 2010

Yo-Ho, Part 4

In Which Mules and Bears Make Their Debut

Tuesday morning was our long-planned mule ride. At the start let me say a word on behalf of these misunderstood animals. We owe the American mule to George Washington, by the way. He was the first to cross-breed large Spanish asses (no jokes, please) to standard mares. Our mule is as large as most horses, as intelligent and more durable. Their reputation for stubbornness comes from two things. First, they expect to be treated decently by humans, and misbehave when they are not. Second, although more sure-footed than horses (because they can look down and see all four of their feet) they will not willingly walk into danger.

Uncle and Hobbes

I have always had trouble getting on with equines. I probably telegraphed nervousness to them, whereupon they decided that they were in charge of the equation. This day, I was determined to radiate confidence, assertiveness and patience: qualities with which I am ill-endowed. The rest of the family does not share my equine issues.

As we waited to mount up, I looked over the mules. At the end was a particularly large, busy and inquisitive mule and I thought, "OK, that's exactly what I don't want."

Naturally, I drew that one. The wrangler said, "This is Hobbes. He likes to outsmart his riders and he wants to eat all the time." Oh neat.

Before we started, it was the wrangler, Tory, who had trouble. She was questioning the horse brought out for her, and there was much whispered conversation between her and the other wranglers. The horse began to shy and buck when she had one foot in the stirrup. The wranglers spread out, surrounded the horse and calmed her. Tory, now as determined as the horse, remounted and brought her under control after a couple of perfunctory bucks.

Hobbes watched this display of horses behaving badly with undisguised scorn.
It was at this point that we began a mostly sotto voce dialogue that lasted the entire trip.

At length everyone was mounted and we started off, with Hobbes in the Number Two position, right behind Tory and her fractious horse: Tory thought Hobbes would be a good influence. Emily, who has ridden much more than I, took the Four spot with Isaac, who proved to have an exceptionally independent outlook. The final two spots were a couple who simply had trouble keeping their animals moving and focused.

I managed to radiate confidence and assertiveness. There were plenty of chances. Hobbes tried to eat everything. This is unacceptable when riding in file, because the hungry horse or mule slows everyone else. He would drop his head for grass. I pulled the reins up. Then he would try for pine needles. I pulled his head away. As we were told, the trick with a mule is to do enough of this to maintain control of the animal, while still allowing it to pick its own path.

This they needed to do. The bridle path to Yosemite's Mirror Lake is no joke, steep and rocky. Tory's horse began to slip and slide early, and Hobbes decided he could do a better job leading the file. He kept trying to slide by ahead of the horse. I held him back. We had words. I told him he was probably right, but that it wasn't his job today. Eventually, he seemed to accept the situation, satisfied that I agreed with his assessment of the horse's ability. He did shove the horse in the butt several times when he was dissatisfied with her leadership or sure-footedness.

The first sign of the end of the bear drought came about twenty minutes up the trail. We were crossing a fairly flat and open spot when all six animals stopped at once, turned slightly to the right and stared at a copse twenty or so metres off with flared nostrils. Tory followed their gaze and said loudly, "probably a deer." I looked but couldn't see anything. As we got the animals going, I heard Tory mutter "no, a bear." I was the only one close enough to hear her, but I still couldn't see it. So they were around, then. Just as well to be sitting on a large animal for the first encounter.

As the trail grew steeper and rockier, it became obvious that we had other things to worry about. One clever mule trick on a narrow trail is to walk close enough to an obstruction--like a rock or tree-- to scrape the rider's foot out of the stirrup. Isaac did this to Em, and Hobbes paid attention to the disturbance this caused. Next chance he got, he pulled the same stunt with me. Somehow, I got back in the stirrup unaided and we went on.

By this time, my mule friend was settling down, conned by my act of assertiveness. However, we had soon crossed a ridge and were starting the descent to Mirror Lake.

Know how sometimes highway departments put a bump sign at or even after the bump? In the same way, Tory called, "watch out! There's a big drop here."
The warning came a little too late for Hobbes and me. Down went Hobbes, and before I could counterbalance, down went Uncle. Not to the rocks, fortunately, but over the saddle horn and onto Hobbes' neck. I said a few words suitable to the situation but perhaps inappropriate for Christian company. Somehow I was still in the stirrups, perhaps the only plus at that moment. The trail at that point was too narrow for Tory to come back to help. In desperation I calmly said to Hobbes, "lift your neck up, Hobbes, lift your neck." He did, and the change of gravity was enough for me to get back in the saddle; a little bruised south of the border but not much the worse for wear. I promised Hobbes a good snack first chance we got.

Hobbes, of course, tried to cash in the promise at once. When Tory said that Mirror Lake had good grazing, I used that as my excuse to keep him focused. Mirror Lake, you see, had been pretty much an artificial lake at the foot of Half Dome. Over the past couple of decades, NPS has been allowing it to disappear, along with many other man-made Yosemite features. Doubtless this is a disappointment to humans expecting a lake. To mules, especially hungry mules, it is heaven. The drying lake has left a sandy bed surrounded by long, succulent grass. I let Hobbes know that this was his moment and he made the most of it. You can't see Hobbes' head in the following because it was on the ground, imitating a vacuum cleaner.

There was a down side to this mulish orgy. When Tory called time's up, everyone filed off according to how close they were to Tory and her lead horse. Hobbes couldn't quite tear himself away from that last bit of grass, and we were now in the Three spot, behind Em and the opinionated Isaac. Hobbes wasn't pleased at the demotion, and was inclined to act up. I reminded him that he was the one intent on sucking up the last available blade of grass and had only himself to blame for his position. He seemed to accept this philosophically. As we left, he had managed to inhale a huge tuft of grass, which stuck out both sides of his mouth. For the next two thirds of the trip, Hobbes had his hooves full keeping his feet and chewing.

Just as well that Mr. Know-it-all mule had this preoccupation, because the lead horse was visibly flagging, which seemed to get an "I told you so" reaction from Tory. At one point, the mare was stumbling up a grade. We heard Tory say "overweight, overfed, and knackered after half the trip," or words to that effect. Unfortunately we were passing a couple of up-bound hikers at this moment. My wife reported later that from their looks, the hikers may have thought Tory's words applied to them. Hobbes knew better. If mules could smile, and if this one's mouth wasn't stuffed with grass, he would have been grinning ear to ear.

The downward trip went well, for this family unit. The couple at the rear seemed to have reached an understanding with their mules--and in any case the mules knew they were headed back to the barn--so they were just able to keep up. I appreciated a clever bit of mule ride promotion toward the end: we rode back by way of a couple of adjoining camp sites instead of the direct route, showing the critters off to the campers. The detour also allowed Hobbes to swallow the rest of his snack, so that he could arrive in the barn and claim that he hadn't had a bite since he left.

Farewell, Hobbes! I don't know if we'll do business again, but I feel better about equines, and I hope you feel that some dudes at least can appreciate your view of the world.

Life in Camp

Most of the year, the Merced River, which runs down the middle of Yosemite Valley, is cold enough to freeze your blood from 100 feet off, and runs fast enough to be a genuine danger if you go into it. August finds it at its most benign. It temperature is comparable to swimming off our North Shore beaches--what one might call "invigorating" during the five minutes that you still have feeling. The current speed is down to the point where even children can escape from it. Both of these are good, because a couple of weeks without rain have left the soil of the campsites dry beyond my experience.

I have heard of, but never before seen, soil so parched that it won't absorb water. This was true about everywhere in the valley, but especially the campgrounds. You can see from this where flash floods come from. Although clothes and showered bodies dried quickly, the bodies especially didn't dry fast enough to avoid accumulating a coat of dust as thick as the one washed off in the public showers. One had a couple of minutes with the sensation of cleanliness. Step out of the shower room, and it was gone just as fast.

The tourist guides all suggest bringing ear plugs to Yosemite campgrounds. This is true in most campgrounds, and I have to say Housekeeping Camp's occupants did fairly well observing the 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. quiet hours. What was notable was the early afternoon silence, a literal siesta, and very refreshing.

It's noisiest from late afternoon until 10 p.m. It happened that my daughter was reading The Last Child in the Woods, and she pointed out that despite the frequently rowdy nature of the camp kids' play, it was unstructured play in a setting anything but urban or suburban, and on balance probably good for the kids.

About that observation about water absorption. At Yosemite campgrounds, be prepared to replace ice at least once--sometimes twice--a day. It's not brain surgery. Put a large container of heavy gauge steel out in the open in 90 degree heat and you have an oven. When you put a cooler inside it, you have a cooler inside an oven. Campers buy lots of ice, and conduct percolation tests with the very expensive water left from the ice they bought a few hours before.

If you don't like this, you can spend an hour or more sitting in traffic jams coming and going from off-site hotels, or spend some very serious money getting a room in the park--assuming you can get one at all.

This night, shortly before midnight, Housekeeping Camp's quiet hours were suddenly interrupted by shouts of "bear, bear, BEAR!!" and the sound of thrown objects and clanging pots and pans. All this human behaviour, by the way, is straight from the NPS playbook. Their objective is to frighten the bear, not harm it. Park Service thinking is very much pro-bruin. This is understandable when one reflects that speeding cars had killed 13 bears year-to-date when we entered the park.

The curious bear-less interval, it seemed, was at an end.

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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Yo-Ho, Part 3

Or, Hiking with Dr. Morton

Note to bear fanciers: we had to wait for our bears, and so do you. Suck it up.

To start what the guidebooks call the "moderate" hike of Yosemite's Panorama and Mist Trails, you take a bus to Glacier Point. This is over 7000 feet above sea level, over 3000 feet above the valley, and accessible either by hiking or by a very twisty road.

The driver was informative and entertaining by turns. He sadly told us, at the top, that ours was the first trip in a week in which no one had seen bears. He thought it must be our fault.

En route, we passed through the remains of a "controlled burn" a year or so ago that had got out of hand and spread far wider than planned. As the driver described the rationale of the burns, I began to think about how forestry has changed over the last 50 years or so.

In my foolish youth I considered forestry as a career, and at 14 went to a summer camp for budding foresters. Back then, a forest of large conifers with little or no understory (small trees and brush) was known by the dread term "biological desert," something good foresters avoided at all costs. Forest fires were something to fight, contain, and prevent: hence the Smokey Bear campaigns.

Now, the field understands that large coniferous forests thrive best when there is little understory, and that natural fires—those started by lightning, not morons—are not only good, but necessary, for healthy forests. When there's a shortage of lightning, portions of forests are deliberately set afire, controlled to burn out excess understory, but not gain access to the tops of the large trees. The big trees thrive on this, and a reasonable amount of understory comes back and grows healthier than before.

It's interesting and instructive that the outlook of an entire science can be changed so dramatically in a relatively short time. Still, one wonders what one says at the end of a day when a controlled burn gets out of control: oops?

Down the Panorama

There are several catches to this bus trek. First, unless you bought a round-trip ticket in advance, there is no way off Glacier Point, except by hiking. Second, it is more than five miles from Glacier Point to the top of Nevada Falls, and there is no rest room between those two points. The view below is from Glacier Point to the falls: it's a long way with a full bladder.

NPS suggests being prepared (that is, going even when you don't need to) before leaving. Otherwise, you'll need to use what the bus driver cheerfully called "the leeky-leeky tree."

A couple of years back, NPS built a new, multi-stop rest room at Glacier Point. However, they built it as a water closet rest room, a couple thousand feet above the water table.

They chose poorly. To no one's surprise but the designers', it failed almost immediately. Visitors with the urge can choose between two two-holers and one four-holer, all chemical and all vile. The closed facility stands there and mocks the visitors' desperation.

My spouse is the product of a good Catholic upbringing and does not discuss the excretory system in any detail. As a result, she forgot Rule 2 of the hikers' guide: when you find a john, use it, no matter how bad it is. (Rule 1 is always top off your water when you find drinkable water). She did not mention this oversight as we started. There was already some conflict in the party about hiking objectives. Hers was to do the route at maximum possible speed. My daughter's was to walk fast between photo ops, then stop, view, set up the tripod, go to work, and catch up with the flagging parents. Mine was to finish the hike alive. I had no idea how my questionable cardiac system would respond to vigourous exercise above 5000 feet, doubts which were fully justified.

As time went on, we became quite strung out on the trail. My wife was in the lead, walking fast and gaining. I plodded on as the default hiker with a slowly rising heartbeat and the return of foot pain I thought banished a month earlier. Em continued to shoot, run to catch up, shoot again, catch up, etc.

There was much to photograph. Panorama Trail fully lives up to its name, with views in every direction. For a good part of this stage, the trail winds through groves of Jeffrey pine. This is a cousin of the Ponderosa pine that grows above 6000 feet. Our bus driver had told us that its leading characteristic was that it smelled something like vanilla or butterscotch, not like a normal pine. Damned if he wasn't right. He had suggested hugging one to find out, but that wasn't necessary: walking through a grove on a hot morning was enough.

This went on for over an hour, until we reached the bottom of the first descent at Illilouette Falls. This was the sort of place that makes one wish to morph into a rock and stay there until the end of time. I had rather understood we'd have lunch there, but my wife plowed doggedly on. Even Em had to stop for a handful of trail mix before we too headed on.

This second stage is a climb up Panorama Point, in the background below, a climb of 1900 feet in about a mile. That's about a 36% grade. By comparison, a loaded semi-trailer can barely make it up a 5% grade from a standing start, and bicyclist in good condition who rides up a mile of 10% grade is very glad when it's done. Between my heart and my foot, I was very much looking forward to the end of the switchbacks.

Near the end of this stretch my wife reappeared, having come back to make sure the rest of the party hadn't been eaten by bears. It was here that desperation wrung from her a regret that she hadn't paid one last visit to the Glacier Point privies, bad as they were, and that her whole being was focused on reaching Nevada Falls. My kid chimed in with an unsympathetic "go find a tree, Mom:" different generational values there. At any rate we toiled along more or less together for a mile or so that was relatively level, and then into a corresponding set of switchbacks going downhill.

When we got to Nevada Falls, we'd done the five miles in a shade over three hours, not bad considering the distractions. My spouse plowed on toward the putative location of the rest room, oblivious to scenery, family and bystanders. Fortunately the johns were where they should have been. Still better, they seemed to be solar-powered composting toilets, which don't smell much at all and are as clean as human nature can make a public toilet.

Em and I found a shady spot for lunch near the top of the Mist Trail, which joins the Panorama route at the falls. Nevada Falls are a popular destination from the valley, even though the climb is up there in degree of difficulty. We were made thoughtful by watching the number of hearty Continental climbers who reached the top with their tongues hanging out.

It was here that I pulled off my left boot to see what was the matter. Now we see the benefit of hiking with a clinician. A PT is good, although in this case a podiatrist would have been better.

"Why, you have Morton's toe," Em said after a short examination. The link will fill you in on the leading features of this common anomaly (and on Dr. Morton), in which the second toe of the foot is longer than the big toe. Further study (later) informed me that Morton's toe is especially hard on hikers. Few boots are made with Morton's Toe in mind, for one thing. For another, hikers are forever stubbing their toes. In a normal foot, the big toe absorbs all this abuse and shrugs it off. A Morton's toe foot leads with #2, which objects more and more to the treatment. Em secured the toe as much as possible with tape and moleskin, and I had an NSAID dessert with lunch. From this point, there was no alternative but to go on...except the humiliation of asking for a medevac because your toe hurts.

Down the Endless Stair

In The Two Towers, J.R.R. Tolkien recounted Gandalf's battle with the Balrog on the Endless Stair. He wrote that the stair was blocked with shattered rock and ruined by the end of the conflict. He was wrong. The Endless Stair lives, and it's called the Mist Trail at Yosemite.

The several guidebooks differ on how many stairs there are on the Mist Trail. Some say 300, some 500, some 700. Having done it from the top down, my conclusion is that those numbers are just the numbers that the writers climbed before they ran out of gas. From Nevada Falls to the curiously named Happy Isles Nature Centre, it may be more like 5000. Part of the trouble with the count is that it gets to be a question of what is a stair and what is just some natural rocks shoved together.

Another part was the traffic. You got hearty hikers coming down, requesting right of way until near the bottom, when exhaustion becomes a great equaliser. You got no-longer-hearty hikers going up, silently echoing the childrens' cries of "are we there yet? Everybody got in everybody's way, and there was a premium on places wide enough for two to pass. It was hard to keep count.

It would be worth it to come back and see Nevada Falls, and its lower relation, Vernal Falls, in May or June, when they're running at full throttle. Even in August, with the high country waters running low, they're impressive. We could see and hear Nevada Falls from the Panorama Trail, miles off. At those seasons, the entire gorge is filled with mist from the falls, and hikers often wear rain gear. There is a dangerously mesmerising effect to falling water, something that may account for the death toll. Much as people talk of bears at Yosemite, the claim is that no one has been killed by one in the history of the national park. However, falls and rapids claim visitors every year. This is not enough to keep people out of the water, particularly in the relatively placid waters just above both of these falls: that's right: above. Once get in the rapids and you are toast.

There was a fairly short walk between the Nature Centre and the trailhead, where a shuttle bus carried the worn and famished to food, shelter and toilets. For most mortals, it was a tired trudge. As I said, this was the equaliser. Beginners who thought to trot up from the valley to the falls and back were worn out. Moderate hikers who came off the route from Glacier Point or from the Half Dome hiker's route were dragging. Advanced back-country hikers who may have hiked 20 miles from a remote campsite were wasted. The trailhead was across the bridge from the bus stop, and most of the returning hikers were very grateful when the driver made an extra stop at the trailhead.

There were of course unquenchable young persons still fresh and running ... including my daughter. Em the marathoner was full of good advice to both of us, saying we should put our weight forward and let gravity take us down the hill. I was not in the mood for it. It seemed much more likely that gravity would take me to the pavement.

This particular hike, be it said, was not my idea. My spouse was certain going in that her StairMaster sessions at the Y would see her through the toughest going. It was balm to my aching body parts to hear her mutter, as we got off the bus at the camp, that she was going to sue the Y.

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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Yo-Ho, part 2

"Travel is broadening," the bright bulbs used to say. Those of us who have worked in or around tourism know the opposite is true. Tourism makes smart people simple, simple people idiots, and idiots? Idiots become protozoa. We are about to see this in action.

The plan for the first full day was to hike the flat valley floor to become accustomed to the 4400 foot altitude. As we start off, it's time for a couple of digressions. The first has to do with the chest-thumping that Westerners are inclined to do on the theme of "my mountains are taller than your mountains."

This is true in terms of height from sea level. However, western mountains rise from a higher base altitude. At Yosemite, for instance, Glacier Point is around 7600 feet above sea level, but 3200 feet above the valley. That's respectable, but places such as Franconia Notch in New Hampshire, and the passes of the Great Smokies in Tennessee and northern Georgia can boast as much. A big difference that accounts for the startling magnificence of Yosemite is that these are new mountains--geologically speaking. They are not as worn down by natural processes as eastern mountains. As a matter of fact, they are still growing.

The other digression is a point we'll touch on again in these musings. In Yosemite, "flat" is a relative term. Except in the genuine flat of the meadows, below, take it to mean "not vertical."

Westward, then: we decided to try out the five miles toward the Pohono Bridge along the base of the south escarpment. This would take us past Bridalveil Fall and photo opportunities for my daughter. Fools disparage arts in the schools. Em had photography courses in high school, and something took. It's become her main non-athletic hobby. This was a good thing for a pair of older parents, because there were frequent pauses for landscape photos.

Starting early was a good thing, because the first part of the hike went through restored meadows (background, above pic) which feature two things: the first really spectacular views as one arrives in the valley, and consequently lots of tourists. The first Caucasian village in Yosemite was here, most of it destroyed by successive floods, and the Park Service has carefully restored the alpine meadow. There are numerous signs along the road that ask visitors to stay off the meadow and stick to established paths. Visitors ignore them.

We must be fair, though. California may be the most multi-cultural state in the Union. Yosemite is a World Heritage site that attracts thousands of visitors from every country imaginable. Yet the Park Service stubbornly offers most of its signage in English only. The only place I saw a sign even in Spanish--the original Caucasian language of the state--was in a Yosemite Village rest room.

From the Meadow to Bridalveil Fall, the southerly trail begins to demonstrate the relative nature of "flat." Here, one is right under the escarpment. Nothing of the sort, in most places, stays vertical to flat ground below it, and this was no exception.

The trail winds over talus slopes and the remains of old and new rockslides. There are a number of designated rock climbing trails leading off the main one. We kept looking across the valley toward El Capitan to see whether anyone was climbing it, with no luck. Perhaps it was too hot.

For hot it was. The Sierras have hot, dry summers and, after a late winter and wet spring, this one has been hotter and dryer than most. That day it was pushing 80 F by 10 a.m., which would make the south-facing surface of El Capitan about as hot as a pizza stone for much of the day. Em now includes rock climbing in her list of athletic activities. She and her friends recognise El Cap as a bit beyond their present skill, but that didn't mean she wasn't interested in seeing someone do it.

For prepared hikers, hydration goes along with heat. We knew that in theory, but we'd see the effects of dry heat up close through the week. If one washed a garment, or got it wet by accident, it was dry within minutes. Toweling off after a shower was almost redundant. In addition, while Yosemite is abundantly supplied with water, not much of it is potable. So even on a flat valley day hike, we carried among us about 15 litres of water. Much of it was gone by the end of the day. As in the White Mountains, some visitors get into denial about hydration and about the safety of those clear mountain springs. Again, prepared hikers carry enough water to share. There's not much that one can do for the tourist who has sucked up giardia lamblia or one of several other cooties with their drink of spring water. Most have an incubation period, so the unfortunates who ignored those "don't drink" signs may not regret it until weeks after their visit.

For the most part, the good thing about trails with some challenge is that one has little company. When we reached Bridalveil Fall, we also got in touch with some of those four million Yosemite visitors. August is a lousy time for waterfall buffs to visit Yosemite, but Bridalveil rarely dries up. It had not during our visit, so it drew everyone whose idea of a hike is to drive up, walk a half-mile round trip, and drive back. Not to mention tour buses.

We stopped for the photo ops and for the rest room. There is something in human nature that refuses to take reasonable care of shared facilities for elimination. NPS in its wisdom provided only a four-hole chemical toilet facility at one of Yosemite's busiest destinations. The combination of inadequate facilities and dimwitted humanity produced the inevitable, foul, despicable johns. Regular readers know that I grew up in close contact with outhouses, so I have certain standards. Only utmost desperation would drive anyone into these pits.

The Bridalveil site is one of the few where paved trails remain in Yosemite. This is just the thing for drive-in hikers, especially when they walk up in herds.

I suppose a good many of these folk supposed they had been on a hike. As for us, we detached from the mob as soon as possible, grabbed some lunch, and crossed the road to continue the loop.

Oddly enough, the legendary NPS trail management failed at this point. After 20 or so minutes of blundering about, we finally hit the southward trail...or not. As my vertically challenged wife and daughter forged ahead, I noticed a frantic message carved in an overhanging branch:

"Turn Back"

It was too late for that, because by then my associates had found the trail ending in a rapidly running creek. What the hell, we all figured: our boots are waterproof! We crossed the first creek, plunged on, and found a second brook. This was not so big and we got over it easily. At length--some length--the Pohono Bridge appeared. We crossed it and followed the trail into the woods on the north side of the valley.

Concerning Bears etc.

It seems I have already piqued some interest about bears and bear lockers, so here's some back story. When I was a rural kid, black bears were a rarity, chiefly because most had not yet become accustomed to humans. Even then, it was noticed that some bears made a good living off town dumps. In the process they became bigger, stronger, lost their fear of humans, and produced similar offspring. Human generations run about 20 years, but bear generations run about two years. While two generations of humans have plodded along, there have been 40 to 50 generations of black bears. The new bear doesn't especially fear humans. They were already among the most intelligent of mammals. They've applied that intelligence to their chief objective in life, which is getting the 10,000-20,000 calories a day they need to pack in to survive the winter. Bears have learnt that where humans camp or picnic, there are calories, and they have passed this information on to their offspring. They know what a cooler looks like. Their sense of smell is 2100 times more acute than a human's, many times sharper than a bloodhound's. They do not understand the word "no," and they are powerfully equipped to get those calories. Bears can tear a car to pieces in minutes to get a single stick of chewing gum or a Tootsie roll. And if the bears trash your car because you left food in it, NPS will fine you for careless conduct (up to $5000) and your insurance may not cover you.

Thus, one hikes Yosemite with a degree of caution; making noise and keeping alert. This northerly trail had few, if any, people on it. It heads East from the Pohono Bridge through a regrowing, burnt-out forest. My hick kid senses went past the red line almost at once: this didn't seem like an area that would appeal to tourists, but it sure as hell looked like it would interest bears.

We hadn't been on the trail 15 minutes before I spotted the first bear shit. It was certainly a day or two old and full of berry remains. By me, both were good signs. Somewhat later, I spotted a second pile. This was fresh, no more than half a day old. The good news was that it too was full of berry husks, and not scraps of potato chip bags or blue jeans. We were getting tired, but this find rather put wings to our feet.

About an hour later, the parental units were wearing out and decided to alter course for the nearest shuttle stop. The offspring opted to press on. It was about this time that we ran into the commonest magnet (in Yosemite) for touristic stupidity: deer.

People exposed to Bambi at a formative stage become incapable of reason when they find themselves less than 50 yards from deer. They begin a behaviour which any reasonable prey animal will interpret as stalking, if it goes beyond a certain point. Please note that deer aren't helpless, and their antlers aren't their weapons. The inner surface of a deer's hoof is as sharp as a razor. They can, and do, cut small predators (like snakes) to bits. They can inflict a considerable amount of bloody damage upon stupid tourists who invade the deer's personal space. When the equation includes the deer's offspring, the situation becomes explosive. If a visitor manages to get hurt in this way, they have no redress from NPS. The rules (again, regrettably, in English only) say to stay 50 yards from deer. You can be mutilated by the deer and then fined (there it is again) by NPS for recklessness.

We found, of course, a wide-eyed tourist snapping pictures of a doe and getting between her and her fawns. As I went past, I muttered comments much like those above. It's impossible to say whether the tourist in question spoke English, but I made enough noise to encourage the doe to get away and take her little ones with her. Someone had sense: too bad it wasn't the biped.

All three of us made it back to Housekeeping Camp and our bear locker. The image below shows just the lower portion. In Housekeeping Camp there's a top level as well, to which one can add a padlock. This offers a space secure against human as well as animal predators.

Bear lockers can only be opened by beings with opposable thumbs (so far). They are made of very heavy gauge steel that could probably withstand an elephant. There are somewhat less secure, but portable, safety canisters available to back-country hikers. The story was being told at Yosemite that a bear in New Hampshire has figured out how to open back-country bear canisters. This bear was being earnestly sought in order to take it out of the gene pool before it passes on this discovery.

What goes in here? Pretty much every organic item you bring to the park, except your person and your clothing. So with the cheering note that we had only encountered bear shit to this point, not bears, we close this installment. Next time, we do battle with the altitude, as well as the wildlife.

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Monday, August 23, 2010

Yo-Ho, part 1

For those who may have wondered, people once actually said YO-se-mite, not Yo-SEM-i-tee. You're going to need to hold that thought for a few episodes.

It took us about 20 hours portal to portal to get from Marblehead to our abode in Yosemite's Housekeeping Camp. That includes:
  • A livery car from the house to Logan
  • United to San Francisco (SFO)
  • BART to the Embarcadero
  • An elaborate Amtrak itinerary featuring a bus, a train to Merced, CA, then another bus
  • Daughtermobile to the Housekeeping Camp
We used the van service because we thought it would be cruel to ask any friend to get up at 0300 and drive us to Logan for an 0600 departure. United, which in my experience leads the world in aeronautical fuck-ups, managed to get us on board more or less on time, and on the ground at SFO on time. This was despite changing departure gates without bothering to tell those of us who had arrived punctually, and landing in fog. Note 1 if you're flying United is to never let a departure board out of your sight until you're on the plane. Note 2. There is a Dunkin' Donuts in the Terminal C departure area at Logan. However, it is not part of its business model to be ready for action before 6 a.m. I stood in line with 25 other desperate people watching the manager make the donuts, make the coffee, load the drink racks, etc. before I gave up. I think the shop was finally ready about the time we boarded. Go to Au Bon Pain instead.

Thanks to better living through chemistry, I remember almost nothing of the first three-fourths of the trip, despite having the middle seat. I woke up somewhere around the junction of Nevada, California and Oregon. Nothing much happened after that, except the pilot's perfect landing in thick Bay Area fog.

Boston could learn a lot from San Francisco's BART system. Single fares are expensive ($8.10 from the airport to the Embarcadero) but it covers a wide area. That fare is for a ride equal to a no-transfer subway ride from Park Street to Swampscott, and that line goes another 20-plus miles northeast, on a clean system with up-to-date rolling stock (they even grease the wheels). There are also discounts for regular users. BART could learn a couple of things from the T, though. The station signs are fairly small, not well-placed, and thus are useless to the new rider. Some at least of the operators need speech lessons, as in "don't mumble." T operators may at times lack grace, and may shout or snarl, but generally one can't accuse them of mumbling.

Riding the rails

We walked the three blocks from the BART Embarcadero stop to the Amtrak station at the Ferry Building. Arriving in the middle of the San Fran Farmers' market, we scored some excellent coffee and lunch goodies. The Ferry Building has been rehabbed as an indoor market that--for now--has a mainly local audience. Tourists seldom go down the Embarcadero further than Pier 39. The one defect I noted was one very overtaxed pair of rest rooms. This is also true at Quincy Market in Boston, but the latter's johns have more appliances, hence shorter waits. Usefully, the Ferry Building has commuter ferries: what a concept! Just south of the main plant is a small building that is the Amtrak bus terminal. Why a bus, we wondered? Why not a ferry? Well, perhaps because the bus was punctual, clean and took just 25 minutes to get us from the Ferry Building to Emeryville. Why Emeryville, and not Oakland's Jack London station? Chiefly because the San Joaquin, the train we took, goes North, then East, to leave the Bay Area, before it turns south into the Valley.

Having a choice, I begin to wonder who of our age would fly or when they could take the train? My spouse, who made the rail arrangements, says she needs to double-check, but it appears our Amtrak trip to Yosemite and back cost us $30.60 each, with the senior discount: the Logan van cost more. It may possibly have taken longer than driving a rental car from SFO, but I'm not sure of that. From what I've seen of California traffic in general, and Yosemite traffic in particular, the time (10.5 hours) may come out even.

The San Joaquin scenery is unimpressive. One trip in the valley is enough. Even the views of the Bay along the earlier parts of the trip were spoilt by the military-industrial detritus that separate the shore from the rails for miles. We were compensated by scoring a seat with table, basic but decent food and (I'm dwelling again) clean cars and professional train staff. (We were less lucky returning. The train was crowded with people coming up for the 49ers Sunday night football game and making a weekend of it, but we still had good seating, service and food.)

We got off at Merced, CA. Location is all. One is hard put to it to find much to be impressed with in this city of 80,000 or so. The cow-townish vista below gives the visitor a lasting first impression of the place.

Two things took one's mind off the unfortunate cityscape. First, the waiting room was full of hikers, proclaimed by packs and boots, of several races and nations. Second, the wait for the bus to Yosemite wasn't too long. (OK, was the bus clean or not? There will be a quiz.)

Into the Sierra Nevada

For a while, the trip to the valley is as agri-dull as any other trip in the valley. Dozing is the best use of one's time. Maybe half an hour on, the Sierra foothills appear; steep, tree-clad hills morphing in the distance from agricultural knolls, and wide spots in the road like Cathey's Valley appear.

In another half hour, the hills hit the large-hill to small-mountain status, and the bus hit Mariposa. This was once a mining town, and one must be comatose not to grasp that. Mariposa's Forty-Niner heritage whacks you in the face like a rubber chicken at every false false-front. No New England town has ever merchandised its past with more enthusiastic vigour than Mariposa. Over the next week I found out that this is where people paid to work in Yosemite go for a good time when they've overdosed on spectacular scenery, high prices and stupid tourists.

After Mariposa comes its satellite, Midpines, where the topography tilts toward small mountain. Then it's on to El Portal (there will be a Spanish quiz shortly), which has become a singular mixture of highly rural California and National Park Service (NPS) support facilities. Before reaching El Portal, there is a stark reminder of where one is. In 2006, part of this highway (CA 140) was buried under a vast rockslide. The rockslide is still there. The detour, over a one-lane temporary bridge, is still there. The question of what to do about the rockslide and who will do it is still there.

Our driver was well-informed and chatty, so we got the Yosemite executive summary as we slid from El Portal into the national park. Even though dusk was coming on, we began to do the "ooh-ahh" thing as he pointed out various world-renowned features.

By the time we reached Curry Village it was pretty much night in the Valley. The one amenity the bus from Merced lacked was a rest room, which added an edge of urgency to the following cell phone conversation between parents and child:

P: We're at Curry Village. Where are you?
C: I'm at Curry Village. Where are
P: Wherever the bus dropped us.
C: And that is?
P: How should we know? It's dark out!
C: OK, I'll look for you.
P: There are some signs for rest rooms. We're following them

The confusion was speedily resolved and, after a couple of wrong turns, we found ourselves heading into the Housekeeping Camp.

The Moon Handbooks Yosemite guidebook says accurately that:

From the outside, Housekeeping Camp...looks a lot like a crowded inner-city slum in a developing country.

Not exactly: Housekeeping Camp has trees and more modern vehicles. However, arriving there after dark, at the rowdiest hour of any campsite, makes the simile stick in one's mind.

Why stay there, then? The camps are tent flies over a shelter that's concrete on three sides plus slab, so you're only vulnerable from one side. The sites have electricity, fire pits and a two-level bear locker, and it's as central as possible. Campgrounds are somewhat cheaper, but have no fire or cooking facilities, except what campers bring. Curry Village is in a similar price range, but has no cooking options and small bear lockers. It resembles a GAR encampment of the year it was founded (1899). Its "tent cabins" (read, tent on a platform) are very close together: so close that some critics snarkily comment that you can hear your neighbours fart.

Previously, I was dwelling on the cleanliness of the transportation. Hereafter, I will be dwelling on bears. They are not the most omnipresent pests for the Yosemite camper (those would be fools, squirrels and ravens, in that order) but they are the largest. The park is absolutely stiff with warnings and precautions about bear defence. They are not exaggerated. Patience: we'll get there. Here endeth the first lesson.

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