Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Empty Yosemite

I'm compelled to post the same news that I did last time because it is simply SO astonishing to have the park empty of visitors. I wish everyone could see Yosemite this way - but, of course, you cannot. It is precisely your presence that causes this experience of this place to vanish. We have a strong example of how observers affect the observed object. All I can tell you is that it is a magically different landscape, but as the door to the outside world opens, the remarkable quiet will soon be gone.

This is a place that is explicitly intended to be enjoyed by the public, so there's some guilt in a few of us being here while most are excluded. California is still under a 'stay at home' order, but backpackers and Half Dome dayhikers returned last week (barely noticed), and a half-portion of overnight and day visitors will be returning this week. Only two of the park's several hotels will open, and just two campgrounds for now. The new reservation system for daytime visits is gummed up with demand. Respect the rationale for limits, expect disappointment and perhaps you'll be pleasantly surprised with a lucky chance to enter a special place. For those with reservations, Tioga Road opens to cars next week. Official word is that the day use reservation system will be in place to October. Any limits on visitors will exasperate plenty of people/businesses, but there are also many who would like to see this as the start of a permanent system for limiting traffic.

Entrance gate kiosks have plastic sheeting between you and a ranger. Rangers are wearing facemasks where necessary, but I've yet to see a Class A uniform facemask. I really hope visitors will obey the rules and practice a shared common sense for staying healthy while SARS-CoV-2 is still expanding its range. Staying home is the best way to keep healthy, and while coming to Yosemite is the opposite of that, a visit here can be done cautiously if everyone is attentive to the hazard.

Extensive patches of Clarkia are blooming at lower elevations. Buckeyes are also maxed out, but starting to fade. Azalea, cow parsnip, globe gilia, and plenty of lupines are to be found in the Valley. Birds are still singing, with the two vireos dominating most of the day. We saw two peregrines at river level near El Capitan Bridge the other day, the female struggling to gain height with some heavy prey (possibly a duck). Two falcons also harried a juvenile golden eagle away from El Cap the same morning. We have 15 known nesting pairs in this park - a remarkable density of predators, and a good indicator of ecosystem health.

With some recent cool days and some clouds, the Merced River is running at about 20% of normal volume. It's going to be a dry, dry summer.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Ghost Town Notes

It's astonishing to have Yosemite Valley empty of all but a few hundred staff residents at this time of year. No traffic, no buses, no parking issues, no crowds on trails. It's just running water, greening plants, singing birds. Is this a glimpse of what it was like in the historic past? Or might it be a vision of a future when most people visit Yosemite through virtual reality?

The paved roads are still here, all the built environment of hotels, shops and all the housing for 1500 employees and their families is here. The infrastructure stands ready to host 4 million visitors - so this is very different from what Hutchings or Monroe would've seen for a Valley without lines of cars and acres of parking. The Valley is most like a ghost town now; all but abandoned in what should be busy season. The isolated community is getting out a bit on trails and its fun to see families biking around the safe, quiet roads.

The Valley has been populated by the usual suspects who've slipped past the gates: tanager, oriole, peewee, MacGillivray's, grosbeak, violet-green, etc. After a rainy April, then a hot stretch, the Merced River peaked at healthy 3500 cfs on 30 April, and it's dropped back to average now. This weekend's heat will bump it up again, but the usual annual peak for our river is the third week of May; can't say for sure yet, but we seem to be early. Tenaya Creek went around both sides of the footbridge near North Pines, partly due to a big logjam just downstream. Sentinel Creek flows in just 3 of its potential 8 channels, Eagle Creek and Horsetail Creek are dry on the Valley floor. Indian Creek flows only in its main channel, with none of its common leakage in the Village. Ribbon Creek flows in all four culverts under Northside Drive but isn't leaking into El Cap Meadow. Wosky Pond is quite small, only 15-20m long. Bridalveil Creek flows strongly, and all but overcomes the noise of machinery working on the access improvement project there. The 1 May snow surveys show 54% of average snowpack water content in the Merced watershed and less in the Tuolumne. The spring rains at lower elevations have produced an exceptionally thick growth of grass and forbs - which will be come a lot of fast fuels in another month.

Clarkia has started blooming west of the park and dry canyon slopes mean that the foothill growing season is tapering off. The corona pathogen hasn't reached into the park as far as we know and it is not at all tapering off in the state. There are only guesses about when Yosemite will reopen for visitors and what limits on visitors there might be. We'll all need to be patient for a while before re-populating this ghost town.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Happy Muir Day to You

Remember your 30th birthday? Or perhaps you're still looking forward to this milestone. Did you do something special, were you surrounded by family and/or friends, did you go someplace nice? Turning 30 is a big moment for many of us. One hundred and fifty-two years ago John Muir observed his 30th, newly arrived in California, far from home and friends. When Muir got to California he wasn't famous, he wasn't from an important family, and he didn't have much money. He was a blue-collar nobody, with an accent from his childhood in another country.

He'd come to San Francisco by ship from New York (via train across Panama), took a ferry to Oakland, and walked to Yosemite from there, via Pacheco Pass and the Coulterville Free Trail. He was expressly focused on seeing Yosemite, as he'd read about the Valley and the sequoias back east. We often picture him alone but he journeyed with another traveler, who'd been on the ship with him. He and Joseph Chilwell spent about two springtime weeks exploring Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove (he went right past the sequoias of Tuolumne and Merced Groves unawares), and he met Galen Clark along the way. The Valley and Grove were already protected lands, granted by Washington, D.C. to the care of Sacramento a few years prior. After their visit he and his companion left the mountains to seek ranch work in the lowest foothills near Snelling.

Somewhere on this short trek, Muir turns 30. How excited he must've been, exploring this new place at this vibrant time of year - and how daunting to be solo without Instagram, Zoom or TripAdvisor. Was there cake? Candles? Any presents? Did he even tell anyone it was his birthday? Just over a year later, Muir returns to the mountains with the sheep. It's a couple of years after that point that he starts to transition from the life of a transient laborer to that of a writer/naturalist, then conservationist and widely known public figure.

I think we are lucky to have had someone as generously-minded as Muir (and Clark, whose 206th birthday was 3 weeks ago) passing through Yosemite. I truly hope that someone wished him a happy birthday, raised a glass, or thought of him from home in Wisconsin or Scotland. May we all give a moment today to turn our thoughts to Muir's contributions to our lives...

Monday, March 9, 2020

Daylight Spendings Time

We are 10 days from an early equinox and the Sierra winter is melting away already. The Merced watershed has 38% of average snowpack water content and Yosemite Falls is running with the water that's not supposed to flow until June. Horsetail Fall didn't produce appreciable 'firefall.' The big storms just didn't come this season. The low-elevation canyon west of the park has a decent quantity of flower species and numbers, but the slopes look surprisingly dry instead of their usual green. Redbuds punctuate the verdure now.
Rough-winged swallows, white-throated swifts, and turkey vultures are all flying overhead in El Portal. This foothill region also has singing flickers and orange-crowned warblers; ruby-crowned kinglets are warming up with partial songs.

We are curious to see what COVID-19 does to Yosemite visitation this season, where people over 60 are advised to stay home, large gatherings are to be avoided and many people don't want to travel. My May trip to our sister national parks in China has cancelled, but I hope to go in September. With our park getting at least 25% of its visitors from other countries, we expect to see less of the world in Yosemite. The park will be here nonetheless.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Build Me Up, Kumlienia

The first waterfall buttercup of the new season has bloomed in the Merced Canyon across from Ned's Gulch. A couple of the dippers that keep their toes cool in this part of the canyon have started to sing, as well. Solstice has just passed and the greening of spring is underway in the lower reaches of the Sierra. Quite visible (thousands of feet) just above, new snow is accumulating on the healthy base we've acquired in the past month or so. Ski season is young at the same time the first flowers emerge; altitude is everything.

Slash piles are putting up smoke in the Valley now.

Most of these are cleanup from all the ponderosas that have died (overstock, warming, drought, and lastly, beetles) and been felled (hazards to people while they stand). Some of the downed trees and burn piles are from meadow restoration near the Ahwahnee and from vista clearing. I am one who does not lament the shocking mortality of the pines; because of fire suppression they'd grown too dense. The small fraction that is gone from the Valley has opened up fantastic views that no one has seen in generations, a real win. Yosemite Falls is flowing nicely again, though the Merced is running below average volume. Our Christmas Bird Count had good weather and fine birders, and turned up an average number of species and individuals.

We are disappointed that our well-regarded Superintendent has been re-assigned to Denver by NPS HQ, but we are pleased to have the respected Cicely Muldoon arriving to cover in a temporary role that we hope will become permanent.

We've just renewed our sister park arrangement with Huangshan National Park in China for another five years.

I had a good visit there in September and look forward to returning there and to Jiuzhaigou in May.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Tioga Corridor

NPS opens the Tioga Pass Road on 1 July. Our big snow year made clearing snow, avalanche zones and downed trees more laborious than usual. Because water and wastewater systems in Tuolumne Meadows both have problems, it's not easy to have park staff living up there yet. These important people are needed to staff the entrance gate, patrol the road, provide information to visitors, oversee Wilderness access and permitting with backpackers, patrol trails, manage a huge campground, clean public restrooms, set up seasonal housing and make sure that all utility systems are functioning well. It's been our disappointing experience that when the Tuolumne Meadows area isn't staffed by NPS, some visitors can be more destructive to the high country's values.

The partial opening of Tioga during the past week, with one-hour morning and afternoon windows is something new. While cars can't stop on the transit (except to drop-off or pick-up backpackers with permits), the windows have been heavily used by visitors and locals moving between eastern and western California.

NPS has generously allowed bicycles to ride Tioga during all daylight hours. This is one of the best bike rides on earth and is a terrific national park experience. Birds, running water, and the purr of bike tires - so nice!

Of course, as mentioned elsewhere, Tioga is open all year - just not to vehicles. Plenty of people travel this corridor all through the winter months. Those contemplating hikes in the next few weeks should expect lingering snow, difficult creek crossings, and wet, muddy trails. We hope that visitors will be gentle on the landscape as it dries out.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

April Flowers Bringing It

The Merced River approaches 'minor flood' stage tonight, with the previous two night's flows being near 5300 cfs, which is roughly double the average peak spring volume. Valley meadows are wet, some trails are under water, some campsites unusable, and it's a great time to be a duck. While exciting, this is the normal and predictable outcome from a winter that brought the Merced watershed 153% of average snowpack water content as of 1 April (and 176% in the Tuolumne watershed). The waterfalls are ripping right now. You may recall that (after vehicle accidents) swiftwater is the number one factor for visitor fatalities in Yosemite; respect the water. April has been warmer than usual (only one day of wist ice [frazil] in its typically most productive month) and we wonder if peak runoff has come 3-4 weeks earlier than the late May average.

There is still a huge quantity of snow at 7000' and above. While we did have some warm storms this winter that brought rain to high elevations, we had far more storms that delivered snow down to 2000'. Several recent SAR call-outs have resulted from people getting up into deep snow where they didn't expect it. Some have been getting their intel from various posts/photos about nice April hikes that others did last year - that was a very dry winter. The Fourmile Trail and the JMT below Nevada Fall (ice cut) are still closed and dangerous. The High Sierra Camps won't open this season. Expect stream crossings to be challenging and snow to persist well into mid-summer in the high country.

Dogwood flowers are at the puppy stage in Yosemite Valley. Tanagers, orioles and grosbeaks are singing and shining brightly. Peregrines are at their eyries. The green dragons are rolling. "This grand show is eternal..."