Friday, February 10, 2012

Darwin in Yosemite

"His noble character has suffered from silly, ignorant, and unbelieving men who say much about Darwinism without really knowing anything about it. A more devout and indefatigable seeker after truth than Darwin never lived." -John Muir, 1878.
This Sunday is Charles Darwin's birthday. Muir read and was a fan of Darwin. For context: "On the Origin of Species" came out when Muir was 21 years old (still living with his family in Wisconsin) and 5 years before Yosemite was first protected (with the signature of President Lincoln, who was born the same day that Darwin was!) Muir's writings made it into print while Darwin was still alive, but it's doubtful the British naturalist encountered the Sierra naturalist's tales. These two great individuals are closely joined in perpetuity south of Yosemite where Muir Pass provides access to Evolution Basin and the John Muir Trail runs beneath Mt. Darwin.
Our dry spell continues. We had a day of light drizzle on Tuesday. A few chorus frogs are calling at lower elevation, but they sound parched. Another chance at precipitation comes through on Sunday/Monday. NPS snow surveys show around 30% of average water content for our park watersheds. Elevations below the survey areas are drier yet. The Merced is flowing at 60% of average now. A few common mergansers have been paddling in El Portal, dippers doing a bit of singing.
On Saturday 10 March one of the park's best (and most delightful) naturalists, Karen Amstutz, is leading a fun Conservancy field seminar on snowshoes from Badger Pass out to Dewey Point and back. If you're up for a modestly physical (and extremely pleasant) day of exploration and discovery, think about coming up to join Karen. If you love a Yosemite experience, this one's a natural selection.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Rock and Road

I had a chance to explore the area of the 22 January rockslide on the Big Oak Flat Road recently. The slide is maybe a couple hundred meters west of the old diversion dam at the junction of 140 and the Big Oak Flat Road (sometimes mistakenly called Hwy. 120 here). The rockfall happened in the middle of the night, after a couple of rainy days. It originated perhaps 5-600 feet above the highway, dropping straight down a cliff face onto the talus above the road. It broke through the roadbed of the Big Oak Flat Road and NPS road crews did well to rebuild it so quickly; their patch should be repaved soon. The material that came loose totals about 500 cubic meters and is dominated by one large boulder half the size of the Yosemite Conservancy office building in El Portal. It cut a very straight swath through the mature live oaks and bay trees above and below the highway, not spreading out too much.
Surprisingly, the big rocks rolled to a stop about halfway between the Big Oak Flat Road and Highway 140, still on steep enough terrain that it seems they might have spilled to the river. One refrigerator-sized slab did make it all the way to 140 but it stopped in the storm drain ditch on the side of the road where almost no one would notice it. Some bigger rocks came within 10-20' of reaching 140.
A couple of jumbo SUV-sized boulders were stopped by a historic artifact: the old penstock foundation. This is a rock causeway built 1916-18 that supported the redwood pipe which carried water almost a mile from the diversion dam to plunge down through the turbines of the powerhouse at Cascades. It's interesting to think that the Valley used to generate its own carbon-free electricity from the Merced. Two weeks ago part of that relict operation caught a couple of big rocks (pictured) that might have smashed Hwy. 140 - an energy project that captured a rockfall's energy. (The one really big boulder stopped immediately above the causeway, slowed by the irregularities of its shape and the slope down which it tumbled.)