YOSEMITE & THE SIERRA
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Beside an old Toyota Camry, I find a slight fellow with a long gray grizzly beard, who was once blessed with the nickname “rattling bones” growing up in a small village in India. His wild beard is overshadowed by a kind, healthy face. It seems to exist beneath his epic whiskers like the sun emerging from a cloud.
One of Gnanasekaran’s hiking boots, purchased for $19 at Walmart, is busted open around the toes and his backpack is ripped in several places, its zippers looking like frail ribs, barely able to support the heavy load.
But this is no poor man. Gnanasekaran is a retired Fresno State associate professor of electrical and computer engineering who chooses not to own a cellphone and likes his ragged hiking equipment.
As I tag along – always behind, no matter how fast I move my legs – I wonder if I’m actually following a 20-year-old boy. His gait is effortless, a skip in his step, jogging here and there up some of the slopes.
Most impressive, there is a compassionate contentment that hangs in all of his words. Twenty minutes into our day-long hike and Gnanasekaran has already shared enough positive insights to fill an inspirational quote book.
He’s spent his life pushing the limits of possible, skirting a moving line that separates pioneering from recklessness. He’s always trying to exist in this place.
But how do you find it? And how do you make sure you aren’t pushing it too far?
With a smile, Whitmore says simply: “You wing it.”
He loves all kinds of challenges. He recently sent me a text while plumbing a sink at a rental property he owns. I tell him he shouldn’t have to fix sinks at his age, and he assures me that “fixing sinks keeps me young, trying to figure out solutions to problems.”
Still, his problems of choice continue to be mountains – big ones.
Stagecoach driver Burrel “Buckshot” Rambo Maier tells his cargo, a family of three, that it’s his first day on the job and he’s “a little nervous” as a pair of trotting horses pulling the coach embark upon the bumpiest stretch of their journey. The wagon jostles and dust flies, but the horses’ steady gait and the driver’s grizzled beard make the newbie act hard to believe. The family giggles and Maier slips a sly smile.
First came an immense flash of bright white light, then a sound like a cannon exploding feet away.
Four backpackers’ thoughts quickly turned to the youngest member of their group, Nicholas Torchia, who was just behind them on their high Sierra backpack trip through the John Muir Wilderness of eastern Fresno County.
And the most beautiful moment of their journey wasn’t reaching the summit, Jorgeson said. It was a quiet, intimate moment, watching the sunrise on the last day of their climb.
“We had a full view of Half Dome and Tuolumne and all of Yosemite. ... We watched the day break and then the sun come up and then the sun hit us, and it was just a beautiful place to be on the last day of what was going to be one of the most memorable adventures of our life.”
Climbing El Capitan’s challenging and iconic Nose route in Yosemite National Park this week was a labor of love for 10-year-old Selah Schneiter in more than one way.
Her parents, Mike and Joy Schneiter, fell in love on this 3,000-plus-foot granite monolith.
Mike Schneiter called it a “full-circle thing” Friday while driving home to Colorado with his daughter.
Milligan, who accompanied him, is a rock climber who doesn’t consider himself a skier. But others weren’t available Sunday, and Milligan was up for the adventure. He thought he’d likely just film Torlano as his friend skied down Half Dome, but when the time came, Milligan decided to click into his skis, too. He felt calm atop Half Dome and took it as a good sign.
Things quickly turned perilous when Milligan skied over part of a protruding cable on the dome and started to lose control.
“I was able to get my ice axe in and not die,” Milligan said of the terrifying moments that followed.
Ninety years ago, one man set out alone on a pair of wooden skis on a journey of roughly 300 miles across the length of the snowy spine of the Sierra Nevada.
Orland “Bart” Bartholomew’s aim was photography, however, not glory, as he stood atop Mount Whitney on Jan. 10, 1929, making him the first known person to make a recorded winter climb of the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states.
He later wrote one article about his winter journey of 1928 and 1929 for a Sierra Club bulletin, and then his adventure journals and photos sat on a shelf for decades.
These crown jewels of our nation are inspiring. Just listen to Williams as she describes a trip to the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias in Yosemite: “To stand before those sentinels of deep time in their millennial standing was such a gift. Humbled is the word that comes to mind, to stand before a tree like the Grizzly Giant. The tree reminded me of this many armed Shiva, with all that kind of power, and there was this low-level drone of bees, almost as if they were guardians, and it was so silent, you could hear that hum.”
and two news obituaries ...
DIVERSE YOSEMITE VOICES
Chinese American’s historic contributions to Yosemite National Park is new information for many visitors, including Chinese Americans.
Lifelong Yosemite visitor and a former California State Park superintendent, Jack Shu, learned about them just over a decade ago through a video by the National Park Service and Yosemite Conservancy, featuring Yosemite Park Ranger Yenyen Chan.
In his search to help make that information a regular part of the park’s origin story, a park ranger friend showed him an old building originally used as a laundry by Chinese workers at Yosemite’s Wawona Hotel.
“It was symbolic,” Shu said Friday morning, standing in front of that 104-year-old building. “It was symbolic of how the stories of Chinese in Yosemite was not being noticed. … This building was a storage facility for the stagecoach program. A sign, right over there, hung that said, ‘Carriage Shop.’”
National Park Service documents written into the 2000s describe the Pioneer Yosemite History Center – a cluster of old buildings made into a historic village in Yosemite National Park – as a place for interpreting Anglo-American history, but “pretty much nobody associated with these buildings is Anglo-American.”
They were Chinese, African American, Italian, Norwegian, Polish, Scottish and Irish immigrants, said Adam Ramsey, supervisory park ranger of interpretation in Yosemite’s Wawona District, which includes the history center.
Helen Coats, 87, is the great-granddaughter of that little girl hiding in the cave. Coats, born in Yosemite Valley, lived in its last native village, destroyed by the Park Service by 1969.
She now lives down Highway 140 in the Mariposa area. She sees "busloads after busloads" of tourists pass by every day. Sometimes, it makes her sad.
"They are just trampling my home to death."
Bill Tucker brushes pine needles from a flat, granite boulder to reveal bowl-shaped holes once used by his mother and grandmother to grind acorn and native plants for cooking.
“This is home!” the 78-year-old Miwuk and Paiute man says at the site of the last Native American village in Yosemite Valley, destroyed by the National Park Service by 1969.
Vernett "Sis" Calhoun, a Wahhoga Committee member, called Wahhoga's return a "dream come true."
Yosemite's native community moved to Wahhoga after another Yosemite Valley village was destroyed in 1928 to make way for a medical clinic.
"And they were moved and mistreated long after that," Reynolds said, recalling other housing that people called "Army Row" when he was a kid.
"There were many, many efforts, sometimes on deaf ears from our side, to give back the village to native people," Reynolds said.
The Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation has been waiting 37 years for a decision from the U.S. government about their petition for federal acknowledgment as a Native American tribe.
FORCED FROM HOME: FLEEING WILDFIRES & EVICTIONS
WILDFIRE SURVIVORS: Carmen covered numerous wildfires as a Fresno Bee and Sierra Star staff reporter. The wildfire coverage that sticks with her are the profiles about survivors. Here are five of those fire stories:
When she awoke, her view of flame-ridden hillsides were replaced by smoke like a thick fog. She couldn’t even see the apple trees growing in her backyard, let alone her usual beautiful view of the Ritter Range in the distance.
No longer sure where the fire was, she quickly packed her car, grabbing a few boxes and mementos, and left the afternoon of Sept. 6 after receiving about 15 notices to evacuate. She said her bruised arms made it hard to carry much.
“You don’t know what you’re doing,” she said of trying to pack up her life.
Concern crept back in as the 50-year-old neared his home and saw bulldozers had dug up buried electrical lines powering the water pump for his family’s well. But his home atop the hill remained intact.
“It’s a huge relief, of course,” Warner said, “but boy now I see the list of chores to get this well back up and running.”
Before that well went in, the family hauled barrels of water up the mountain.
Warner chose not to water a patch of golden flowers for his mom as planned so he could save the precious liquid still left in their water tank.
One small victory: Warner’s propane-powered fridge is still cold.
“I’ve still got ice cubes,” Warner said before pulling out a cigarette while looking at a mass of feathers strewn across his yard – all that remained of one of his chickens. A pile of unguarded eggs was nearby.
Hill said one of his dogs might have killed the bird, but thought his work feeding the chickens had gone pretty well overall. “If that’s only one chicken gone, that’s alright.”
Much of the 52 miles stretching above North Fork to their pack station burned in the Creek Fire. The devastation can feel endless on that winding road, still called the Sierra Vista Scenic Byway. Blackened sticks that were trees punctuate views of vast arid mountainsides in every direction, none more overwhelmingly altered than at Mile High Vista above Mammoth Pool.
A car charred in the Creek Fire and subsequently covered in graffiti still sits deserted along this long, lonesome road. Around another turn, a new sign that reads, “Be extra careful with fire,” seems superfluous.
As the sky grew darker and smokier Saturday afternoon, Brad Johnson feels embarrassed now to admit that he thought, “Let’s go fishing!”
“I had to use a headlight to tie the fly,” the 40-year-old said. It was 4 p.m. at Sadler Lake.
“The lake is covered in ash and the fly hit a scummy film of ash and immediately sunk,” Johnson said. “I did not catch any fish.”
The smoke didn’t feel like an imminent danger to the avid hiker at the time. Neither did the thunder he now knows was created by the massive Creek Fire. Not even when blackened chunks of wood started falling from the sky.
Johnson camped overnight and awoke to more ominous changes.
“I looked downslope and saw this black cloud. It looked like Mordor, it really did,” he said, referencing the evil wasteland from “The Lord of the Rings.”
“I don’t know what’s down there, but I don’t want to go down there,” he thought. “Whatever it is is not good.”
The ash tornadoes along the road to what might still be called home frighten Jessina Diaz-Hunter’s children.
They fear the periodic smoky swirls might be hiding more walls of flames like the ones the family escaped last month, rushing from their ranch in Mariposa County as the Oak Fire closed in upon them.
They got a stroke of luck when the wind suddenly shifted the afternoon of July 22 as they were rounding up livestock and pets to flee from Rocking Lazy DJ Bar Ranch.
YOSEMITE LEADERS OUST RESIDENTS: Carmen wrote many stories about Yosemite leaders forcing longtime homeowners near the national park to leave their homes. The El Portal residents got three-month notices and no financial compensation. Here are five stories from that series in The Fresno Bee:
The week before Christmas, residents of the El Portal Trailer Park got letters from Yosemite National Park saying they have to remove or surrender their homes by early 2022 because Yosemite has other plans for the trailer park and is worried about power lines there that Yosemite owns.
“Thank you, Park Service,” Luke Harbin said sarcastically, shortly after heavy snowfall recently covered the mountains surrounding his mother’s home near Yosemite with a thick coat of white.
Yosemite is not paying for mobile homes that residents own or moving expenses. Letters dated Dec. 13, signed by Yosemite Superintendent Cicely Muldoon, informed them for the first time that authorized tenants have to leave within 90 days.
Harbin said his mother has worked in Yosemite for over 40 years and has lived in the trailer park for 38 years – 34 years in her current home.
Attorney Mariah Thompson of California Rural Legal Assistance said the National Park Service needs to “slow down.”
“There’s a reason California law grants residents up to a year in advance notice, and under some circumstances, relocation benefits,” Thompson continued, “because mobile home park residents are tremendously vulnerable.”
As the sun hung low on the horizon, Neal and Nancy Dawson held each other close in their emptying living room, preparing themselves for the last evening they’d have together in their longtime home near Yosemite National Park.
“It’ll be OK,” Nancy assured her heartbroken husband.
“I hope so,” he responded with a brave smile.
Most of their belongings were packed, but a small wooden bowl – a wedding present – still lay beside them holding treasures, including two sand dollars, lavender, a dried palm twisted into the shape of a flower – a present from Nancy’s son – and a stone heart with the words, “Loving you is what I’ll do forever.”
Neal walked outside to try and conceal a flood of emotion as his wife started to talk about their “wedding bowl.”
The home that has sheltered these precious belongings tied to precious memories is being taken from them. At 11:59 p.m. Sunday, Yosemite leaders terminated the lease for the pad beneath the mobile home they own in the El Portal Trailer Park.
A moment of silence for Toni Covington grew increasingly heavy as a group of her longtime neighbors huddled together at a now-closed mobile home park where they had lived days prior near Yosemite National Park.
Covington was found dead Thursday afternoon in a rented employee dorm in Yosemite Valley, just a few days after she moved in there. She was forced to leave the home she owned in the El Portal Trailer Park last week without compensation.
Covington lived in the mobile home park for over 30 years throughout a 41-year Yosemite career.
“That moment of silence got kind of tough for me. ... I’ve been to funerals and things over my life, but that was a really sad, sad one,” said Rob Schiefelbein, who had been Covington’s neighbor for decades and watched her three children grow up.
The grief was mixed with exhaustion and hurt over what has happened to all of them over the past three months.
Sheets of paper that read, “This property is not abandoned,” were taped in windows and on the sides of the mobile home that Lynn Harbin owned for the past 34 years near Yosemite National Park. It was a last ditch-effort to save it after she was told to remove or surrender her home to the National Park Service earlier this year without compensation.
The bulldozers sent to destroy it last month paid little heed to her notices as they demolished her home and others in the El Portal Trailer Park.
“Don’t forget, they never evicted us,” said her son, Luke Harbin. “They shut off my power and threatened us with imprisonment.”
COVID EVICTIONS: Carmen also wrote about evictions during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in Yosemite National Park and Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks. Here are two of those Fresno Bee stories:
One employee inside now-closed Yosemite National Park often hears from friends about how wonderful it must be to shelter in place near roaring waterfalls and serene Sierra Nevada meadows bordered by iconic granite mountains.
The reality hasn’t been as idyllic. Laid-off employees wonder when the park will reopen and if they’ll get another paycheck while racking up debt to buy food in the wilderness – what requires a 3-mile round-trip hike for some to a store in Yosemite Valley. Shuttle buses stopped running after the popular California park closed to visitors in March.
This week, an estimated 90 shuttle bus drivers and Yosemite transportation workers got worse news: evictions.
Among those evicted is Leah Hennessy, who started working at Wuksachi Lodge in Sequoia on March 17. Her new High Sierra job ended the next day when the park decided to close its concessions because of the growing threat of COVID-19.
“I spoke to a member of HR on March 16th, and they made no mention of COVID-19 or shutting down, instead encouraging me to arrive,” she said.
The 25-year-old came to California after working at a ski resort in Washington, and is now trying to decide whether to live in a campground or make a 2,500-mile-plus drive to her mother’s home in Florida.
“I am pretty nervous right now for a few reasons. … I don’t think I have enough money to get to Florida safely,” Hennessy said, “so I will probably end up having to borrow money and defer some bills.”
Her eviction was announced during an employee meeting, where she was handed a letter from management of the parks’ concessionaire, Delaware North.
The letter begins: “This is certainly a very challenging and unprecedented time. Delaware North has navigated many challenges in the past.”
Among those challenges: A legal battle with the National Park Service that thrust Delaware North into the national spotlight over its claim of owning the names of Yosemite National Park properties after the company lost its Yosemite concessionaire contract in 2016.
FOREST MANAGEMENT AND GIANT SEQUOIAS
A group of frogs and humans gathered in a Yosemite Valley meadow on a blue-skied spring day before the backdrop of thundering Yosemite Falls.
The frogs likely didn’t know this was a huge historic afternoon, as Yosemite National Park spokesman Scott Gediman called it, but they could sense pond water nearby while awaiting their release from plastic Ziploc containers, noted Rob Grasso, a park aquatic ecologist.
It had been a long journey from San Francisco, where the federally threatened California red-legged frogs were reared.
Hanson doesn’t see anything controversial about it when he looks upon the extraordinary new growth in Nelder Grove, what he describes as the kind scientists have been “hoping and begging and dreaming of” for a species that has “been slowly dying off without any fanfare for the better part of a century.”
Giant sequoias can live over 3,000 years, but can grow large and to maturity within 150 years, said Hanson, co-founder and director of the John Muir Project, a nonprofit that acts as a watchdog in federally managed public forests.
“We’ve been loving these groves to death,” he said, “thinking that we’re saving them from fire, and that thing that we’ve been ‘saving’ them from, in quotes, is actually the thing that they need to survive.”
He describes the emerging science as “fundamentally positive and hopeful.”
“I think we could all use a little bit of that right now. Frankly, I’m sort of mystified by some of the resistance to scientific evidence that’s actually positive and hopeful.”
Hanson describes the high-intensity fire patch he’s studying in Nelder Grove as the largest of its kind among giant sequoia groves since at least the 1870s. There’s much to learn in this relatively new frontier for sequoia science.
Mountain Home provides a unique vantage point for looking at the effects of recent wildfires. For one thing, it’s the only giant sequoia grove – and the only forest in the Southern Sierra – managed by Cal Fire, the state agency primarily responsible for fighting fires.
Conservationist John Muir once called giant sequoias in the Mountain Home area “the finest in the Sierra.” The state of California purchased the Mountain Home tract from a logging company in 1946 to help protect more than 5,000 old-growth sequoias there. Logging still continues, but in a different capacity.
Kvamme said as a soil scientist, he’s used to looking at things in an evolutionary way, gazing thousands of years ahead and behind.
“In the meantime, it’s hard to imagine the next 20 to 100 years,” Kvamme said of California’s Sierra Nevada. “So much is going to change in that time frame. I can’t picture it.”
“Why were these trees killed?” Brigham continued. “A combination of fire exclusion in many areas for over a century, combined with climate-change-driven hotter droughts, have increased fuel loads and changed fire behavior beyond what these incredibly fire-adapted trees can tolerate.”
The massive trees and Yosemite Valley were first protected by landmark legislation signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1864.
These trees were the thing that really got people's imagination and attention," Dean said. "They almost couldn't believe the stories about the size of these trees. People had been to Europe, they'd seen glaciated valleys, but they had never heard of trees like this. So this was really the catalyst for creating Yosemite and the National Park Service, ultimately, as special places. For us, it just seemed natural to come back to this grove, restore it to what it should be as far as a tranquil and serene experience."