It was the last day of an amazing two week vacation – a solo camping trip to Sequoia National Park and Yosemite National Park. It was almost over. Tomorrow I would pack up my camp for the final time and head back to Los Angeles.
October is a nice time to visit these two parks. The weather is mild and the crowds small. The only downside to an Autumn visit to Yosemite is many of the waterfalls have run dry and those that still flow do so at a fraction of their Spring time volume.
Of course, Yosemite National Park may not seem a likely subject for a blog on the urban wilderness. This large national park encompasses pristine wilderness and rugged mountains. Yet in 2018 over 4 million people visited the park. In 2016, that number was over 5 million (Of course, that’s small pototoes compared to visitor numbers at Great Smokey Mountains National Park – Over 11 million in 2016). The park’s main attraction, Yosemite Valley, is no more a wilderness than the edges of the LA suburbs pushed against the San Gabriel Mountains. Yosemite Valley is an amazing sight, one of nature’s greatest cathedrals. But it also feels a bit like Disneyland. Tourists go from one attraction to the next with their feet rarely leaving the asphalt. If Yosemite Valley isn’t an urban wilderness, then I suggest a new term – wild urbanness.
If we look at urban wilderness and its cousin wild urbanness, as the interaction between humans, their created environment, and the natural world, then there really is no ‘pure’ wilderness. Some how, some time, humankind has affected it.
For my last hurrah of the trip I was going to drive up to the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and hike along it. The reservoir is located in the northern half of the national park. It is an early example where the promise of the national parks was betrayed. Hetch Hetchy was described thus by John Muir:
“Hetch Hetchy is a grand landscape garden, one of nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples. As in Yosemite, the sublime rocks of its walls seem to glow with life… while birds, bees, and butterflies help the river and waterfalls to stir all the air into music…” (John Muir, “The Yosemite”).
Hetch Hetchy Valley was the little sister to the valley of Yosemite, a glacier carved gorge lined with vertical granite walls where multiple waterfalls roared. Between the cliffs was the gentle floor of the valley, the Tuolumne River meandering through its lush meadows and past tall conifers.
By the early 1900’s San Francisco was looking for a stable supply of water. The city proposed a massive dam at the western end of the Hetch Hetchy Valley to capture the waters of the Tuolumne River. It was a controversial choice and the battle to stop it help gave rise to the modern environmental movement. John Muir lead the charge. It was the last conservation battle he fought. Sadly, it was also one he lost. Now the valley floor is under 300 feet of water. Yosemite’s sister was drowned.
The battle to restore Hetch Hetchy and breach the dam continues. Go to Restore Hetch Hetchy for more information.
I left my camp early that morning. It’s a 90 minute drive to get from Yosemite Valley to Hetch Hetchy. My plan was to head straight to the reservoir. Along the way I would pass a couple of sequoia groves but after a week at Sequoia National Park I thought I had my fill of them. Coming up to a turn off for the Merced Grove, I thought, ‘What am I thinking? Of course I’ve got to see the sequoia grove!” Standing among sequoias is simply an amazing experience. Knowing I was heading home the next day, I realized it may be years before I would walk among those giants again.
Though the sequoia’s cousins, the coastal redwoods in the northwestern regions of California are taller, the sequoias are more massive. In Sequoia National Park is the biggest of the big – General Sherman. The trunk of Sherman has a diameter over 36 feet. It has lived for over 2000 years. Standing in front of that huge giant, my mind just reeled. I knew it was a tree, yet my mind had trouble registering it as such. That’s not a tree, it’s too damn big! As for what the General’s top looked like, at 275 above the ground, I couldn’t tell you.
The trees in the Merced Grove weren’t quite as large but still pretty damn big. Most of the trees showed sign of fire damage, which if you lived stationary in a forest for hundreds of years would be expected. As a defense, sequoias evolved a layer of bark up to three feet thick. The presence of tannic acids in the bark and wood help it resist fire, along with the boring insects and fungi that can shorten the lives of other trees.
With some trees over 3000 years old and with their massive girth, I felt like a Lilliputian walking in some primeval forest. The grove felt like a place where nature was unchanging and untouched by humans. Sadly though many sequoias met their fate from lumberjacks and were reduced to lumber. Ironically, even when trying to save the trees we were dooming them. For decades, no new sequoia seedlings were found in the national parks. Sequoia seeds hold off sprouting until a fire comes through, clearing the underbrush and creating a nutrient rich layer of ash. Ignorant of this, we aggressively fought to put out any fire to save the trees thus preventing any seeds from sprouting. Nowadays, the park service has a more flexible policy regarding wildfire and fire fighting.
After wandering around the grove, I got back in my car and continued to Hetch Hetchy. The road following the mountain contours took me out of the national park. On reentering Yosemite National Park, the ranger gave me a map of the trails and told me about a fire burning at the far end of the reservoir.
The fire didn’t really worry me. During my two week trip I was always coming upon fire. Both in Sequoia and Yosemite I would encounter prescribed burns going on, at times, literally right next to the road. Fires started by lightning were also left to burn, so I didn’t think too much about this fire. This part of the park was still open for business as were the trails.
I pulled into the parking lot on the south side of the reservoir next to the large dam. Smoke from the fire could be seen, but it was coming from the far eastern end of the reservoir, further than I was planning to hike. People were milling about, walking on the dam, and taking photos. There was no sign that the trail was closed and no indication of firefighting.
So I slung my daypack on, hung the camera around my neck, and headed off. To get to the trail, I had to cross the dam. The O’Shaughnessy Dam is an immense wall of concrete, rising 430 feet above the valley floor. It was an impressive feat of engineering. It is situated in an area where the Hetch Hetchy Valley narrowed. Behind it was the dark blue surface of the reservoir. On the opposite side, the O’Shaughnessy released the water it didn’t need. By the point, the Hetch Hetchy valley had narrowed, transitioning from a glacier carved gorge to a V-shape water cut canyon.
Standing on the dam, I had my clearest view of Hetch Hetchy. On the south side, rising prominently above the water, stood the granite dome of Kolana. It would dominate all my views of Hetch Hetchy. Across the dam, I entered a short tunnel that was blasted through a rock outcropping.
The crowds disappeared and I was alone. Along both sides of the reservoir rose sheer rock walls hundreds of feet high. Kolana towered 2000 feet above the reservoir. The drowned valley floor of the Hetch Hetchy sits at an elevation of 3700 feet, 300 feet lower than the Yosemite valley floor. But the trail, traversing on a ledge that traverses the rock face, was closer to the 4000 feet elevation of the Yosemite floor.
Ironically, despite the reservoir, Hetch Hetchy appeared to be drier than Yosemite. There was little soil to retain water and support big trees. Instead of the towering pines, spruces, and sequoias of Yosemite Valley, grew the smaller and more sparse grey pines and some deciduous trees scattered among chaparral plants. The day was warm. A haze of smoke floated above me, turning the sunlight red and giving the granite walls a warm glow.
The trail meandered up and down over ridges but never came to the water’s edge. Recreational use on the Hetch Hetchy reservoir is prohibited so the rumble of boat motors did not disturb the silence. The reservoir surface was smooth and calm.
I came upon a grove of small trees that arched over the trail creating a magical tunnel. Their leaves carpeted the trail and their arching branches offered precious shade. As I entered the tunnel, something caught my eye in the leaf litter. A credit card. Not an usual find on a trail, I picked it up. After a little debate on whether I should leave it, I put it in my pocket thinking if I encounter anyone else on the trail I could see if it was theirs. Worst case, I will turn it in at the ranger’s station on the way out.
I passed by both the Tueeulala Falls and the Wapama Falls, both falls dropping over 800 feet, but like many of the waterfalls in Yosemite Valley they were dry. I had to imagine the torrents of water crashing down. Now, I have a good imagination but not enough to do justice to Yosemite’s mighty waterfalls.
The dry waterfalls are a result of the ancient history of the Sierra Nevadas Mountains. During the Ice Ages, the Sierra Nevadas experienced heavy glaciation. Indeed, both Yosemite Valley and Hetch Hetchy Valley were created by enormous glaciers. But many smaller glaciers formed and covered the higher peaks, flowing downward. As they moved, the rivers of ice scrapped much of the soil, leaving the bare granite foundation of the mountains.
Soil is like a sponge. In regions with deeper soil some of the melt water and rain water is absorbed into the earth and slowly released through the year. With much of the high elevations being exposed granite, when the snow melts, it’s not absorbed, but quickly flows down the impenetrable stone. The water rushes down the canyons left by the smaller glaciers till they reach the cliff walls of Yosemite and Hetch Hetchy. Voilà, waterfalls.
I continued on, enjoying the quiet of the valley. After another mile or so, I rested and had some lunch – cheese, crackers and carrots, the official meal for hikers everywhere. The fire was still far away and only the smoke could be seen. There was no sign of fire fighting helicopters. The sun was slowing dropping towards the horizon. I started to head back.
The truth is I was a little underwhelmed by Hetch Hetchy. The rock walls didn’t seem as high or awe-inspiring as those in Yosemite Valley. Of course, I wasn’t looking at them from the valley floor, three hundred feet under water. Plus, the valley floor would have added towering conifers and green meadows feed by the water provided by Tuolumne River. But it was the reservoir that took away from the experience.
The water surface was still and a deep blue. It would have had a lovely reflection of the blue sky, sun and towering cliffs if it wasn’t for the smoke. But it didn’t feel like it belonged. There was no natural shore line or beach. Lush vegetation one would expect to be ringing the lake was missing. The trail never even came down to the water’s edge as if the water was forbidden. The lake looked exactly like what it was – a body of water trapped behind a dam.
I came back to the tunnel that leads to the crossing on the dam. I felt a bit of sadness as I finished my last hike on this two week camping trip. Walking over the dam, I looked over the dam edge on the dry side. It was a very long drop. Two women I passed made a comment about me coming through the forbidden tunnel. I was a little confused about their comment. The tunnel was not that long or scary looking. So I missed their omen.
A couple of ranger vehicles were in the parking lot. Oh good, I thought, I can give them the credit card I found.
And so I stepped off the dam and onto the parking lot asphalt.
“Stand still and put your hands in the air,” commanded a voice over a loud speaker. What? I froze. Again the command came, “Hands in the air!” Though I didn’t see them, I became very aware rangers were pointing guns at me.
“Walk slowly forward, ten feet.”
Okay. I carefully walk forward. What is going on here? In the middle of the parking lot, I stopped.
“Turn around.” I started turning towards the rangers. “No, the other way!” They weren’t too happy about how I was turning. Changing direction I turned so my back was to them.
At that moment, a third ranger vehicle arrived in front of me. Stopping at the parking lot entrance, a ranger quickly exited and moved behind a rock outcropping. He then aimed his shotgun at me.
Oh crap… What is going on here? My mind raced. Is this about the fire? Do they think I attacked someone? Why are rangers carrying guns?!
The human mind is an interesting thing. While these very relevant questions ran through my mind, I also started thinking about movies. Specifically thrillers and action films where the hero finds himself encircled by villains with guns. With a glint in his eye, the hero lunges to his side and with a quick roll is by the side of the nearest villain. One good punch and he grabs the gun. Before long, all the villains are dead. Boy, that is bullshit, I thought standing there. I knew, one false move and I am dead.
They told me to get down on my knees. Then I was ordered to take off my backpack and set it aside. Every nerve in my body was tingling and my heart raced. Panic was setting in. And so, for the first time, I said the Serenity Prayer in my mind. You know the one –
‘God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change (being surrounded by rangers with guns), Courage to change the things I can (stay calm and focus), and the Wisdom to know the difference (actually not a lot of wisdom needed here. It was pretty clear what I couldn’t change: rangers with guns).’
The prayer became a repeating mantra in my head, slowing a bit the thoughts in my head and the beating of my heart. Not quite serenity, but the panic pulled back.
“Now, nice and slowly, empty out your pockets.” I remembered the credit card. Crap. I’m not that familiar with the criminal world, but I’m pretty certain that carrying a credit card that isn’t your is something you don’t want to possess when being searched by the police. So begin another “God, grant me the…”
I yelled out about the credit card, saying it wasn’t mine and I found it on the trail. The rangers didn’t seem too concerned about it and told me to just put it on the ground. I emptied my pockets, putting the items on the ground. I was then ordered to lay face down on the ground, hands behind my back.
The rangers approached and handcuffed me. I could only see the two in front of me, the late arriving ranger with his rifle and another ranger who was carrying a semi-automatic rifle. Why are rangers carrying semi-automatic weapons!? That can’t be good. This was in the years shortly after 9/11 when everyone was edgy about terrorists. Is this what this is about? Did they think someone was trying to sabotage San Francisco’s water supply? Did they see me as an al-Qaeda operative? After all, rangers don’t bring semi-automatic weapons because someone reported a bear raiding picnic baskets.
More serenity prayers.
After being thoroughly frisked, they had me get up – not an easy feat when handcuffed. They lead me to a low stone wall on the parking lot edge and told me to sit. Late arrival ranger and semi-automatic ranger stood in front of me. The late arrival ranger did the talking while semi-automatic ranger stood there with a cocky grin. I was certain I would be spend a night in jail.
“Do you know why you are here?” The ranger asked.
“No. I was just hiking.”
“A couple of hikers came upon a man trying to start a fire. When they confronted him, he flashed them his gun. Their description matches you.” Not what I wanted to hear.
I should note that by this time I had been camping for two weeks. I haven’t shaved since leaving home and hadn’t had a shower in over a week. I did not give the appearance of an up-right citizen. Mountain man, maybe. Crazed arsonist, yes.
They asked if they could search my car. I said yes, not that I think a no would have changed anything. Now my mind began thinking what I might have in the back of the car. I’m sure the back was completely unpacked but it’s possible items for starting a camp fire might have been left in there. More serenity prayers.
They also wanted to know why I stopped half way across the dam and looked over the edge. To take a picture I said. “Not to throw a gun away?”
The car search turned up nothing and late arrival ranger asked me about my whereabouts and why I was up here.
Finally, they decided to let me go. The reason, the ranger explained, was he thought I was too calm. If I actually was the guy that started the fire, I would have been more nervous. Though he did note I acted pretty nervous in the beginning. At which point I reminded him that was because I had four guns pointing at me.
He also pointed out again how uncannily I matched the description of the suspect. The only thing that was off was the suspect had a blue backpack and mine was purple. Thank God for my choices of bold colors…
The last thing he did was take a photograph of me to show the witnesses. Not that eyewitness’ recollection are always that reliable. A few more serenity prayers.
Handing me back my stuff, I realize I still had the found credit card. “I still have this card I found on the trail, can I give it to you?” The ranger took the card and looked at it. He turned to semi-automatic ranger, “That’s the name. We need to find this person.” And with that, I was able to go.
To say I’ve never been so shook up in my life would be an understatement. My calm demeanor went away. Driving back to the campground required all my effort to not break down. I wanted to pull over to catch my breath, but was afraid the rangers would drive by and wanted to know why was I pulling over. I toyed with the idea of breaking camp that evening and heading home but that may look suspicious. So back at camp I ate a cold dinner and sat in the tent having a breakdown. Needless to say, I didn’t start a camp fire that evening. The only good thing I could see coming out of this is I’ll have one hell of a story to tell when I get home.
I like to think I am in control of my life. I started that day feeling all is good with the world and wishing the vacation didn’t have to stop. Two weeks camping left me relaxed and calm. It’s scary how fast that illusion could be shattered. All I wanted now was to be home and in bed. I also thought about the unplanned stop in the sequoia grove. It delayed my arrival to the Hetch Hetchy trailhead by over an hour. What if I got there when I originally planned? I may have been hiking with the arsonist. The gun being pointed at me may not have been held by a ranger.
And so, in a national park where people go to escape civilization, the madness of modern life found me. Welcome to the wild urbanness.
Upon returning home I searched the internet to see if I could find any news about the fire. Sadly, the arson was the least tragic part of the story. A rain storm came and put most of the fire out. The suspect’s body was found further up the trail where he shot himself dead. At the suspect’s home,about 50 miles from San Francisco, his wife and two daughters were found murdered. Apparently, after killing his family, he headed up to Hetch Hetchy, where he often went to get away and started the fire before killing himself. The credit card I found had the same last name as the suspect.
Written by Alan Starbuck. All photos by Alan Starbuck unless otherwise noted.