August 17th, 2010

Picket Pins

Young Belding ground squirrels standing next to their burrowYoung Belding ground squirrels standing next to their burrow 

Sorry it’s been so long since I last posted here—I’ve been working on some big projects. But I couldn’t let the summer go by without writing about Belding ground squirrels—a.k.a. “picket pins.”

They get that nickname from their habit of standing upright next to their burrows, watching for danger, looking, to early park visitors, like the stakes used for picketing horses. Their frequent alarm calls—a rapid series of whistles—are as much a part of the high-country experience as the afternoon thunderstorms and the lack of oxygen. Enter any subalpine meadow and these squirrels will announce your arrival to all the local residents.

Early in the summer young Belding ground squirrels can be seen everywhere, and they are undeniably cute. Many years ago, while waiting to take a shower at the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge, I saw a mother ground squirrel running with one of her tiny babies in her mouth. She dove into a burrow, then emerged, sans baby, ran off, and shortly returned with another young squirrel. She repeated this procedure three more times before disappearing down the burrow for good.

I once read a study which showed that female Belding Ground Squirrels sometimes kill, but don’t eat, the young of unrelated females, and then try to take over the den site. Apparently they’re trying to take over a den site that’s safer than the one they previously had, in order to give their own young a better chance of survival.

Had this mother Belding ground squirrel just killed some of the old inhabitants, just to move her offspring to a better location? Unlikely. She was probably just taking over an abandoned burrow because the old one had too many fleas.

Belding ground squirrel whistlingBelding ground squirrel whistling 

Belding ground squirrels are also one of the few animals that are known to engage in altruistic behavior—that is, behavior that benefits another animal without benefitting, or perhaps even harming, the animal that does the behavior.

Remember those alarm calls? It seems that standing upright in the meadow making loud whistles makes these squirrels conspicuous, and researchers found that squirrels who whistled were more likely to be killed by predators than squirrels who stayed silent. So when they sound the alarm, alerting their fellow squirrels to danger, they are risking their lives to do so.

It seems, though, that these squirrels are only willing to risk their lives for animals that share some of their genes. Researchers found that almost all the whistling was done by females with relatives close by. Males, who usually live alone, and females with no relatives nearby, rarely whistled.

These little animals, such a common sight in the Yosemite high country, lead more complicated lives than we might imagine.

But when I see a Belding ground squirrel, my first thought is not about their intriguing behavior, or how cute the young squirrels are, but about our golden retriever, Elsa. In the late ‘80s Claudia and I would often take Elsa up to Tuolumne Meadows. Dogs are not allowed on trails in the park, and outside of Yosemite Valley are only permitted along roads and in parking lots, so we frequently had to find shady places to leave the car, with Elsa in it, while we went off hiking or taking pictures.

But we didn’t worry about leaving her alone in the car. Like many dogs, Elsa was obsessed with squirrels. We knew she would be happy and entertained if we parked near some Belding ground squirrel burrows. We would tell her that we were going to visit some “picket pins” and her ears would perk up and she would start drooling. Before long we could simply say “pick-ETT” anywhere, even in our living room, and she would get excited. She absolutely loved those squirrels. Well, I’m sure she would have absolutely loved to catch one if she had the chance.

Elsa is now buried somewhere in Yosemite Valley, but I think of her whenever I hear a Belding ground squirrel whistle. Wherever she is now, I hope there are lots of picket pins.

 

June 28th, 2010

Cook’s Meadow

Cow parsnips and the elm tree, Cook's Meadow

Cow parsnips and the elm tree, Cook’s Meadow

The place is more special than the name. Nestled in the east end of Yosemite Valley, with views of Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, Glacier Point, and Sentinel Rock, Cook’s Meadow might be the most scenic meadow in the world.

Surrounded by roads and trails, Cook’s Meadow is a popular spot with visitors, yet it’s wilder than it might appear. It’s never been plowed, as many other Yosemite meadows were in the 1800s. Wildlife has become accustomed to people; twice I’ve found deer carcasses along its edges, the evidence clearly showing that they had been killed by mountain lions.

Since this expanse of grass was so close to our home when we lived in Yosemite Valley, Claudia and I got to know it intimately. We took frequent walks around it in the mornings or evenings, in every season, in every weather. We came to appreciate its beauty and abundant life.

Walking around the meadow in February we might hear one of the first signs of spring: tree frogs singing in the meadow’s ponds. February nights are too chilly for these cold-blooded creatures to be active, so they start calling in the warmer afternoon. The songs tell a familiar story: males trying to attract the attention of females

On a dusk walk in February we’d look for great-horned owls in the black oaks along the north side of the meadow, trying to see which tree cavity they’d use for a nest that year. The owlets appeared at the edge of the nest hole in late April or early May. Soon after that they would leave the nest, but every evening throughout the summer these owlets—adult size by July—could be heard making loud, rising, repeated screeches, begging their parents for food.

Red-winged blackbird and cow parsnip

On an early March walk we might spot our first red-winged blackbird of the year. The males stake out territories in the meadow. Their red wing patches are part of that same well-known story. They’re both a warning and an advertisement—a warning telling other males to stay away, and an advertisement to attract females. “See these wing patches? They’re the biggest and brightest in all the meadow. You won’t find a better mate!”

As the weather warms, and Yosemite Falls grows in volume, the Merced River rises and the meadow’s ponds fill with water. Lily pads sprout in the largest, centrally-located pond. We would watch mallard ducks swimming and courting, and look for ducklings in May and June.

In June the grasses grow tall, lush, and green, and the cow parsnips bloom. These plants are also prettier than their name implies—tall stalks, often densely packed together, with a crown of small white flowers. Deer eat them, and red-winged blackbirds find they make convenient perches.

On our walks, deer sightings were frequent; an evening walk without spotting one was a rare event. We’d usually find them in small groups, but in June the does separate from the others before their fawns are born in late June and July. The tall grasses of the meadow are great cover for a doe to hide her newborn fawn in. We’d watch for lone does in the meadow in summer, and occasionally glimpse a fawn through the thick vegetation.

In late summer, with the meadow drying out, and Yosemite Falls growing quiet, we’d watch the meadow turning gold and brown, the smell of wild mint strong in the air. Fawn sightings would become more frequent as they grew larger, better able to outrun predators, and less reliant on hiding for protection.

Milkweed seed pod

In September the milkweed seedpods open, and would often compel me to break out my macro lens and photograph their intricate, silky interiors. There’s an apple tree on the south side of the meadow, and a small remnant orchard adjacent to the oak grove on the north side. When these trees have fruit—usually every other fall—they attract bears. Bears also like to eat autumn acorns in that oak grove. Although sightings were rare, we’d see their large droppings, full of apple and manzanita seeds, underneath the trees.

As fall progressed, we’d wait for the famous elm tree in the middle of Cook’s Meadow to turn gold. This is the last remnant of a row of elms once planted along a road running across the meadow. The road and other elms are long gone, but this shapely tree remains, attracting lenses by the dozen in October.

While coyotes can be seen in Cook’s Meadow any time of year, they’re easiest to spot in winter against the snow. Coyotes view the meadow as a grocery store, stopping and listening for voles and gophers, cocking their heads, ears pricked, then leaping into the air, landing and… usually coming up empty. But not always.

One snowy winter day—it must have been in the late ‘80s—we were walking our golden retriever Elsa around the meadow, and a coyote came up right behind her. I’m not sure what it was doing, but coyotes will sometimes attack dogs that infringe on their territories, so we chased it off. The coyote trotted across the meadow, then treated us to a chorus of howls.

We have so many memories of this place. I’m heading up to the valley this afternoon to see the cow parsnips. They’re blooming late this year, but I can’t miss this event. To us, Cook’s Meadow was, and still is, the heart of Yosemite Valley.

Autumn morning, Half Dome and elm tree, Cook's Meadow

Autumn morning, Half Dome and elm tree, Cook’s Meadow

 

June 14th, 2010

Spotted Owls

Spotted owl mother and young, shortly after the owlets fledgedSpotted owl mother and young, shortly after the owlets fledged

Twenty-four years ago, in June of 1986, I photographed a spotted owl nest in Tenaya Canyon beyond Mirror Lake. I had found the nest in May by looking and listening in likely habitats. At dusk one evening, in perfect spotted owl habitat—shady, old-growth forest of Douglas fir and white fir, with a dense understory of oaks, maples, and dogwoods—I heard a series of hoots. This wasn’t their distinctive “barking” call, but was clearly an owl.

The next evening I returned to this area and found a likely nesting spot, a hollow cavity about 30 feet up in a black oak. I heard another call I didn’t recognize, a rising whistle. Could this be a spotted owl? Zeroing in on the sound I saw my first spotted owl about 40 feet up in Douglas fir. I heard more whistles and found another, larger adult nearby. Eventually I saw this larger owl—presumably the female, since female owls are larger than males—fly to that cavity in the oak, confirming the nest site.

Being young and ambitious I tried to figure out a way to photograph the nest. I couldn’t capture good images from the ground, so I used some of my rock-climbing equipment to scale a neighboring incense cedar. Nearing the top of this small tree I felt a sharp whack on the back of my head. I looked around and saw the female owl perched on another tree, glaring at me, and realized that she had hit me. Birds of prey like hawks and owls are known to defend their nests against human intruders by swooping down and hitting them with their feet or talons, but I had read in the Audubon Encyclopedia of Birds that spotted owls never do this. (Note to all authors of books about natural history: avoid the words “never” or “always.”) I didn’t hear her coming because owls are silent flyers.

Adult female spotted owlAdult female spotted owl

The owl seemed to calm down, and returned to her nest. That same encyclopedia also said that spotted owls are usually unafraid of people, and that seemed to be true. I got my first glimpse of the two young owlets, but the swaying top of my small tree was too unsteady a platform for sharp photographs.

Two days later I climbed a different tree, a tall Douglas fir on the other side of the nest. She hit me again, then left me alone. From this steadier platform I got a few decent photos, and left a rope, intending to return the next morning.

Ascending the rope the next day she hit me yet again. Luckily, as with the previous assaults, she kept her talons closed, so the blow smarted but didn’t cause any serious damage. I continued upward. In hindsight this was rather foolish.

As I settled into position I felt another blow on the back of my head, but this one was much more painful. I felt liquid on my neck and realized I was bleeding. Apparently the mother owl had used her talons this time.

I found myself 30 feet up a tree with my head bleeding profusely. I took off my shirt and pressed it against the back of my head, and the bleeding gradually subsided. I didn’t bother trying to take photographs—I just descended as quickly as possible.

Spotted owlets in the nest cavitySpotted owlets in the nest cavity

Luckily I sustained no lasting damage, and returned to the nest two days later. In the interval the owlets had fledged, and were hanging out on branches a few feet above the ground. Their mom joined them (see the photo at the top). I could almost walk up and touch them. The mom seemed unconcerned about my presence now, despite the fact that I got closer than ever to her babies, and I suffered no more blows to the head.

Near dusk that evening the larger of the two owlets scrambled up the sloping side of a large boulder, vigorously flapping its down-covered wings. Upon reaching the summit it walked to the edge of the the boulder above a 20-foot drop, then hopped-flapped out to a tree branch.

The other, smaller owlet followed its sibling up the boulder, walked out to the same edge, and attempted the same feat. But it missed the branch, fell about five feet, tried to grab anything available, and ended up hanging upside down from another branch. It probably couldn’t hear me laughing because it was flapping its wings so hard. Its attempts to right itself failed, so it had to let go, parachute down to the ground—with more frantic flapping—and try again. By then it was getting dark and I had to leave, so I missed the conclusion to this evening of comedy.

Soon the owlets could fly well enough to reach higher branches. They roamed further from the nest, and I lost track of them. But despite the blows to my head I have fond memories of these birds, and of the hours I spent quietly watching them in their deep forest home.

Female spotted owl and one of her fledged owletsFemale spotted owl and one of her fledged owlets

June 8th, 2010

High Country Light

Tioga Lake at sunrise

Tioga Lake at sunrise

The last major step in Yosemite’s spring progression took place Saturday when Tioga Pass opened.

Every year Claudia and I try to drive over the pass as early as possible to see snowy peaks and icy lakes—a glimpse of winter in May or June. This year we made the trip the first day the pass opened, and there was lots of snow—just tons of it. Bare ground was scarce, and some locations still had five to six feet of snow. Tenaya, Tioga, and Ellery Lakes were mostly frozen, with just a few patches of open water near their shores.

In Tuolumne Meadows we saw a coyote hunting near the river. The new small patches of snow-free ground must be a welcome sight to these animals, providing easier access to voles and gophers than they’ve had in months.

Swollen Tenaya Creek engulfs a lodgepole pineClaudia spotted a picket pin (technically a Belding ground squirrel) that had recently emerged from hibernation. I saw no green growth, nothing that looked like potential food for this squirrel, and hoped it hadn’t miscalculated and ended its hibernation too early. With its fat reserves depleted it could starve before food becomes available.

Several places along the road were marked as avalanche zones—No Stopping, No Pedestrians. We passed a pristine snow slope near Ellery Lake, then three hours later noticed that the same slope was partially buried under a large avalanche. We decided to take the avalanche warnings seriously.

I’m sure the warm weather helped trigger that avalanche. High temperatures are melting the snow quickly, and there was water everywhere, with countless small creeks, streams, and ponds. The major waterways, like Tenaya Creek and the Tuolumne River, were roaring and churning.

In one of the avalanche zones, just east of Tenaya Lake, we saw several waterfalls cascading down the usually dry slopes of Polly Dome. Other normally mild-mannered cataracts were thundering next to the road near White Wolf and Yosemite Creek, attracting cameras and onlookers.

Among these sights and sounds I got that strange feeling again. There’s something about the thin air of the Yosemite high country that makes everything seem more vibrant—crisper, sharper, more intense. Sunlight seems brighter, shadows darker. The sky is a deep indigo blue. I feel more awake and alive than in the lowlands.

It’s good to have the pass open.

 

May 28th, 2010

Corn Lilies

Corn lilies in bloom near Badger Pass
Corn lilies in bloom near Badger Pass

 

This has been the coldest, dampest May in 25 years. Last night it rained again, and snowed down to 5000 feet, just missing Yosemite Valley. Isn’t Memorial Day supposed to mark the beginning of summer?

Everything is two weeks behind—the new leaves emerged two weeks late, the dogwoods bloomed two weeks late, and it looks like the Tioga Pass Road will open about two weeks later than average—that is, two weeks from now. New snow last night delayed today’s scheduled opening of the Glacier Point Road, but it will probably open tomorrow. Yes, that’s about two weeks later than it’s typical opening date in recent years.

When the Glacier Point Road does finally open, it will provide access to some of the park’s most spectacular viewpoints: Washburn Point, Glacier Point, Sentinel Dome, and Taft Point. But when I think of driving up the Glacier Point Road this time of year, with patches of snow underneath shading trees, and meadows soggy from melting snow, I think of corn lilies. These plants are just emerging, sometimes pushing up right through the snow.

Frost on corn lilies, McGurk MeadowFrost on corn lilies, McGurk Meadow

Corn lilies get their name from their huge leaves, resembling those on cornstalks. They can be found in almost every Yosemite meadow above 6000 feet, including several places near the Glacier Point Road like Summit Meadow, Badger Pass, McGurk Meadow, and Westfall Meadow.

Those big leaves form beautiful, intricate designs that have attracted the attention of many photographers. If you like abstract patterns—and I certainly do—corn lilies are irresistible.

I made the photograph at right during another cold snap in June of 1992. I camped near McGurk Meadow, about a mile from the Glacier Point Road, and got snowed on. The snow didn’t stick, but in the morning I found thick frost on the meadows, and discovered this pattern of corn lily leaves, neatly outlined by the frost.

As the summer progresses the corn lilies grow bigger, and eventually, if conditions are right, they produce tall stalks decorated with white flowers. Sometimes they grow clustered together, sometimes isolated, sometimes bunched with other flowers. Bees, flies, and even hummingbirds are attracted to the nectar.

Often, though, conditions are not right, and the corn lilies never bloom. These plants grow rapidly, up to five or six feet tall in less than two months. But a hard summer frost will cause them to stop pushing upward and save their energy for another year. The once-beautiful leaves wither and turn brown, riddled with holes from hungry insects.

With spring progressing so slowly this year the corn lilies will have only a short time to grow and bloom before autumn frosts arrive. There’s a good chance that they’ll save their energy for next summer. But they always put out their beautiful leaves. When the Glacier Point Road opens I’ll need to visit these old friends.

Withered corn lily leaves among California goldenrod
Withered corn lily leaves among goldenrod

 

 

May 25th, 2010

Rainbows

Rainbow along the boundary between sun and shade at the base of Vernal FallRainbow along the boundary between sun and shade at the base of Vernal Fall

People think of rainbows as fleeting and ephemeral. But in Yosemite, in spring, they’re are as predictable as the rising and setting of the sun. Continuous spray from the waterfalls and copious spring sunshine create perfect conditions for rainbows. You can see them on all the major waterfalls, and the minor ones as well if you’re in the right place at the right time.

To view a rainbow—or perhaps, with waterfalls, they should be called spray-bows, as John Muir suggested—you have to put the sun at your back when facing the mist. A rainbow forms a 40 to 42 degree circle around a point opposite the light source. We commonly see only the top half of that circle, of course, since the bottom half is usually below the horizon. But while ascending the steep stone steps of the Mist Trail, through clouds of spray from Vernal Fall, I’ve seen the complete circle right in front of my eyes—all except the very bottom, which was blocked by my own shadow.

Rainbow on Bridalveil Fall from the Old Big Oak Flat RoadRainbow on Bridalveil Fall from the Old Big Oak Flat Road

The easiest place to see a rainbow in Yosemite is right from the Bridalveil Fall parking lot between about 5 to 6 p.m. in spring. If you time it right you don’t even have to get out of the car.

Vernal Fall provides a unique opportunity to see rainbows almost any time of day. Since you can look down at the base of this waterfall from the Mist Trail, rainbows are visible any time the sun hits the spray. One of the most unusual rainbows I’ve seen was from this spot in mid-summer two years ago. Around 10:30 in the morning, as the sun got high enough to hit the pool at the base of the fall, a rainbow formed right along the boundary between sun and shade.

Perhaps the most vivid and spectacular rainbows in Yosemite can be seen from the Old Big Oak Flat Road. This long-abandoned stagecoach track cuts through rockslides west of El Capitan, opposite the valley from Bridalveil Fall. I’m not sure when rainbows are first visible from this road; perhaps as early as 4 p.m. from the aptly named Rainbow Point. From there you can follow the rainbow down the road, moving to keep the sun at your back and the rainbow against Bridalveil’s spray, until your view is finally blocked by trees. Under certain conditions the rainbow can stretch almost the full length of the waterfall, from top to bottom.

Of course I’ve seen real rainbows—formed by rain rather than waterfall spray—in Yosemite. On one memorable occasion I was leading a camera walk for Yosemite Park & Curry Company (remember them?) near the Ahwahnee Hotel. As a morning rain squall passed, a bright rainbow formed underneath Upper Yosemite Fall—not in its spray, but on the rain falling in front of it.

A few years later I watched thunderstorms dissipate late in the afternoon from near our house in Yosemite Village. The sun broke through near sunset, and I headed to the Ahwahnee Meadow, hoping to photograph some nice light on Half Dome. The rain had stopped, so I had no thoughts of rainbows, but to my surprise a vivid rainbow materialized out of nowhere, arching over Yosemite’s most famous icon.

Rainbow over Half DomeRainbow over Half Dome

 

Wind-blown Upper Yosemite Fall
Wind-blown Upper Yosemite Fall

For 20 years my wife Claudia and I lived in Yosemite Village, right underneath Yosemite Falls. In spring, when full from snowmelt, the roar of this fifth-highest waterfall in the world was the background music to our life in Yosemite Valley.

In late summer and fall this waterfall dries up, sometimes sometimes dwindling to a wet stain on the cliff below Yosemite Point. But an occasional autumn rainstorm can create a sudden, temporary gush. We would sometimes wake up on an October morning to the unexpected sound of rushing water, and push aside our bedroom curtains to peer through the trees and see Yosemite Falls reborn.

Winter snows bring a more lasting source of water, but cold temperatures limit melting and keep the flow down to a trickle. By late February, however, the volume increases enough to make this a real waterfall again, and the sound of water lapping against rock carries down to Yosemite Valley. In April the noise increases to a dull roar, audible, if you listen for it, even from indoors. By May the din builds to a level that’s unmistakable, inside or out, 24 hours a day.

View from the Upper Yosemite Falls TrailMost of the time we didn’t think about the sound—it was constant white noise, just below our conscious attention, like one of those recordings designed to lull you to sleep. But living underneath this cataract we’d sometimes focus on the roar and realize how incredibly loud it was even when sitting indoors. At its fullest we could feel the whole house vibrating, the windows rattling.We used to take frequent walks around Cook’s Meadow, and learned to always bring jackets in springtime. Even if it was warm enough for shorts and T-shirts at our house, the volume of icy water pouring over Yosemite Falls could cool the air near its base by as much as ten degrees.

Viewed from below, Yosemite Falls seems to leap from nowhere. Where does the water come from? Many first-time Yosemite visitors assume the falls are fed by a lake immediately above the top. But a view from the other rim of the valley, near Glacier Point or Sentinel Dome, shows the true, if rather mundane, picture: above the waterfall the terrain slopes gradually upward toward the base of Mount Hoffman, the source of Yosemite Creek.

On an October day the early 1980s, before I lived in Yosemite, I hiked ten miles down Yosemite Creek from the Tioga Pass Road to the top of Yosemite Falls. It had snowed two days earlier, and I saw no other hikers, but found many animals tracks in the snow: deer, bears, coyotes, bobcats, and, near the top of the fall, a mountain lion. The return trip, another ten miles, uphill through the snow, was exhausting, but I was younger then.

There’s a shorter, but much steeper route to the top of Yosemite Falls: the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail. It’s only 3.6 miles, but over that short length climbs 2700 feet above the valley floor.

Backlit spray on the upper fallI climbed the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail for the first time in September of 1983, shortly after I started my first Yosemite job as a host in the Ahwahnee Dining Room. I began the ascent late in the afternoon, planning to climb past the top of the waterfall to Yosemite Point before sunset, then descend by moonlight. The falls were virtually dry in September, but the views were wonderful, especially the panorama from Yosemite Point. The moon, however, rose later than I expected, and plunging temperatures prompted me to start my descent by starlight. Being young and foolish I hadn’t brought a flashlight, but my eyes adapted amazingly well and guided me down the stone stairs past the upper fall to the moonlit switchbacks beyond.Of course I’ve climbed this trail in spring too (usually in the daytime!) when the waterfall is full. If the springtime roar of Yosemite Falls is loud from the valley floor, it’s deafening and all-consuming as you climb past it on the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail. And this trail is wet too, almost as damp as the Mist Trail.

While the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail climbs to the left of the waterfall (as you face it from below), it’s also possible to reach the terraces between the upper and lower falls to their right via Sunnyside Bench. This route requires a little rock-climbing skill, and confidence in high places.

Above the terraces, near the base of the upper fall, is Fern Ledge. I’ve never been that high, but John Muir has.  He described climbing up to Fern Ledge on a moonlit night to view lunar rainbows (they were apparently well known even in Muir’s time). Then he “ventured out on the narrow ledge that extends back of the fall from Fern Ledge and began to admire the dim-veiled grandeur of the view.” Looking at the moon shining through the waterfall, he crept further out. The wind apparently was blowing the water in the other direction, but soon the full force of the waterfall swung back on top of him, forcing him to cling to the ledge and hang on for his life. When the wind pushed the water away again he was able to retreat, and live to write the story in his book, “The Yosemite.”

Claudia and I don’t live underneath Yosemite Falls anymore, but I get to hear its roar on my frequent visits to the park. This cataract hasn’t yet reached its peak flow, or loudest volume, this year, but when it does—probably during the warm days of early June—I’ll enjoy the sight and sound from the valley floor, or the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail, or perhaps I’ll even finally make it up to Fern Ledge. But I won’t be venturing out behind the waterfall. Muir was crazy, God bless him.

Spring Morning, Upper Yosemite Fall and the Merced RiverSpring Morning, Upper Yosemite Fall and the Merced River 

 

May 7th, 2010

The Mist Trail

Hiker's on the Mist Trail below Vernal FallHiker’s on the Mist Trail below Vernal Fall

The Mist Trail has a soundtrack: the deafening, pounding roar of falling water.

This loud pathway must be one of world’s most popular hikes. On busy days in spring and summer, hundreds, even thousands of people ascend the trail. Some take small, slow steps, pausing frequently to catch their breath. Others stride briskly upward. Parents attempt to push strollers up the steep, paved, lower parts of the trail, and entire extended families make their way upward, kids running ahead or dragging behind.

To know why so many people attempt this hike, you must make the journey yourself. It would be hard to imagine a more spectacular trail.

The lower portion follows the churning, tumbling Merced River. As you climb higher, you may notice that some of the people coming down look damp, with matted hair and wet clothes—just a glimpse of what’s in store if you keep ascending. After more than a mile of steady ascent, the trail gets steeper, climbing wet stone steps past the driving mist of Vernal Fall.

Backlit spray on the Silver ApronThere are three basic strategies for dealing with the spray. Some people bring full rain gear and attempt to keep dry. Others strip down to shorts or bathing suits and let themselves get wet. But the most common approach is to just keep climbing, letting clothes and body get soaked, hoping to dry out later.

Many people are intimidated by the steep, wet, stone stairs, especially on the way down. Others practically run up and down them. There are places where a slip could be dangerous, even fatal, especially near the bottom. I once watched a young woman stand near the outer edge of the steps, with nothing but a smooth slab of rock between her and the river below. She got out her camera and took a picture of her friends above. Then she lost her balance and teetered toward the drop. Even though I was only a few steps below, I could never have grabbed her in time, but luckily she regained her balance.

A little higher, the trail turns a corner, and hikers encounter the full brunt of the spray. About half way up the wettest section the trail runs beneath a large boulder, and some people huddle there, trying to catch their breath in a relatively dry place. But when the waterfall is roaring even this spot receives a steady drenching.

Edge of the Diamond CascadePushing on you reach a flat stretch, out of the spray, with a fantastic view of the waterfall. But the climbing isn’t over; in fact the steepest steps lie ahead, though fortunately they’re dry. Above these the trail makes a 90 degree left turn to squeeze between a rock wall and a railing before reaching the top of Vernal Fall.

Two years ago a workshop student and I were halted just before this railing. We had noticed a wheelchair left at the bottom of the stone staircase, and now saw its owner, a man with paralyzed legs who was hauling himself up, slowly, one step at a time, with his arms. His girlfriend told us that they had done many hikes this way. After seeing the tremendous effort this man put into gaining each foot of ground, I vowed to never complain about a steep trail again.

For most people, the top of Vernal Fall is far enough, and beyond that the crowds thin out—but not the scenery. Ascending past Emerald Pool, Silver Apron, and Diamond Cascade, the trail crosses a bridge, briefly leaves the Merced River, then swings back toward a head-on view of Nevada Fall. Another long series of steps leads to this waterfall’s top. From there, a short side trail leads to a unique view: Nevada kicks outward, descending a less-than-vertical stone slab, so its full length can be seen from above.

I’ve often descended the Mist Trail late in the day, with the crowds gone and dusk gathering, after waiting to take advantage of the late-afternoon light. Sometimes I’m accompanied by exhausted hikers on the last stretch of their descent from Half Dome. Reaching flat ground, at last, near Happy Isles, I walk away from the river, and notice the sudden, strange silence, realizing that for hours my ears have been pummeled by the roar of falling water.

Nevada Fall from aboveNevada Fall from above

 

April 29th, 2010

Dogwoods

Dogwood along the Merced River, May, 1991

Dogwood along the Merced River, May, 1991

It’s raining again. It’s been unusually cold and wet this April, with weekly storms and some of the largest April snow accumulations I’ve seen in Yosemite Valley, including 12 inches on April 5th. The cold weather has made the dogwoods cautious, and slow to bring out their blossoms. But the flowers are finally emerging, starting, as they always do, as little green discs. Soon they will evolve into big, beautiful, white blossoms.

I first saw dogwoods blooming in Yosemite on Mother’s Day weekend, 1980. My mom, brother Peter, and I had moved from Connecticut to the San Francisco Bay Area in January, joining my other brother Steve who had been living in California for two years. My two brothers and I were taking my mom camping in Yosemite for Mother’s Day; it was only my second visit to the park. As we drove into the valley it was snowing lightly, and a thin layer of white highlighted all the tree branches. As we swung past Fern Spring, dogwood blossoms, lightly coated in snow, lined the road. My mother was delighted—she loved flowers. Like most young men, I wasn’t normally moved by floral displays, but this one made an impression.

Dogwood blossomsThe western, or pacific dogwoods (Cornus nuttallii) that grow in Yosemite are found in wetter, milder habitats from British Columbia to southern California. It’s blossoms come in only one color: white. The eastern, or flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) might be more familiar to many people. It grows throughout the eastern United States, and it’s blossoms can be white, pink, or red.

What look like large petals on both species are actually bracts, the specialized leaves that hold up the base of a flower. Bracts are usually small and green, but on dogwoods they’ve become large and showy. The tiny dogwood flowers are actually clustered in the rounded center.

During the dogwood’s peak bloom in Yosemite Valley those big white bracts add a splash of life to the forest. It’s not a splash of color exactly, since they’re white. It’s a visual vibrance created by the contrast between those white spots and the darker surrounding forest, as if giant snowflakes are suspended in the air, floating in the forest understory.

I started to become serious about photography about five years after my first encounter with dogwoods at Fern Spring. Although initially more interested in wildlife, I took advantage of any good opportunity that presented itself. Dogwoods, however, proved difficult to photograph. They’re usually found beneath Yosemite’s giant conifers, and these forest scenes often look chaotic and confusing in photographs. But in May of 1991 I had my first dogwood success: I found one growing along the banks of the Merced River, and used a slow shutter speed to blur the water behind it and create a clean, undistracting background.

Sadly, that tree fell into the river years ago, but I’ve used the same theme again several times over the years, finding places where I could position a dogwood against the flowing lines of the river. And I’ve managed to find other spots away from the river where I could portray dogwoods cleanly, without introducing too much clutter.

Dogwood understoryI said that dogwoods grow in the understory, and there’s no place in the forest further below the canopy than the floor of the giant sequoia groves. In Yosemite the best blend of dogwoods and sequoias can be found in the small but enchanting Tuolumne Grove. I’ve also photographed these trees together in the Giant Forest of Sequoia National Park, and remember seeing abundant dogwoods decades ago, on another camping trip with mom, in Calaveras Big Trees State Park.

Some years ago I discovered the Nelder Grove, outside Yosemite’s southern boundary near Oakhurst. This place once hosted a large stand of sequoias, but was partially logged in the late 1800s. Yet many large trees remain. Because it’s little known, and reaching it requires traversing a dirt road, it’s a quiet, serenely beautiful place.

One year I visited the largest tree in the Nelder Grove, the Bull Buck tree, in autumn, and noticed many dogwoods around its base. The Bull Buck was once considered the world’s largest tree, until careful measurements gave Sequoia National Park’s General Sherman tree that title. (Does that make the Bull Buck the second largest tree? I haven’t been able to find a definitive answer to that question.)

In May of 2006 I made the short hike to the Bull Buck late in the afternoon, hoping to find a nice juxtaposition of dogwoods and an enormous tree. I wasn’t disappointed; the Bull Buck was surrounded by white blossoms. I only had to find an undistracting background, neatly provided by the huge trunk itself. As I photographed, far from the Yosemite crowds, I heard only birds—the faint nasal honk of a red-breasted nuthatch, the twittering of a brown creeper.

As I’m preparing to post this, the sun has finally emerged after two days of rain and clouds. Last night the rain turned to snow, and covered the ground with about an inch of wet white stuff at 2700 feet here in Mariposa. Yosemite Valley, at 4000 feet, got more, perhaps two to three inches. Maybe we’ll see dogwood blossoms covered in snow again this year.

Dogwood and the Bull Buck tree, Nelder Grove

Dogwood and the Bull Buck tree, Nelder Grove

 

April 23rd, 2010

Rainbows by Moonlight

Lunar rainbow on Upper Yosemite Fall, May 8th, 2009
Lunar rainbow on Upper Yosemite Fall, May 8th, 2009

 

At 5:19 next Wednesday morning the moon will become full. Last year, under a full moon on the evening of May 8th, I joined a throng of photographers near the Sentinel Bridge parking area. A small pond on the edge of Cook’s Meadow reflected Upper Yosemite Fall, and about 50 photographers were lined up, tripod to tripod, waiting. I edged into a small gap and joined the group. At least 50 more photographers could be seen out on the path through the meadow.

At about 10:30 a faint white band became visible in the spray near the base of the fall. Shutters began to click. The dim light required long exposures, but eventually glowing LCD screens on the back of cameras began displaying vivid bands of color, invisible to the naked eye—a rainbow formed by the light of the moon.

Our retinas contain both rods and cones. The cones see color, but are less sensitive to light. The rods don’t record color, but can still operate when the light is dim. At night, with only the rods working, we see a lunar rainbow as a white band or arch in the spray of a waterfall. But the color is there, and, with sufficiently long exposures cameras can record it, as evidenced by the images on those screens.

I don’t know who first discovered lunar rainbows, or who first photographed one. When I began working in Yosemite Valley in 1983 the phenomenon was well known, and every spring full moon brought people to the bridge below Lower Yosemite Fall to view it. People took photographs too: I remember seeing Jim Wilson’s image of a moonbow at the lower fall when I began working at The Ansel Adams Gallery in 1985, and later saw Keith Walklet’s photo from the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail.

While Yosemite Falls is the easiest place to see lunar rainbows, I’ve also seen them on Cascade Fall, and any waterfall struck by moonlight could work. And of course Yosemite doesn’t have a monopoly on waterfalls, or moonlight, and lunar rainbows have been found throughout the world.

To see a lunar rainbow, you need to face a source of spray, like the base of a waterfall, with the moon at your back. A rainbow forms a circle around a point opposite the light source. The sun and the moon are always above us, so we usually see only the top part of the circle, and the rainbow looks like an arch.

One spring night in the early ‘90s I guessed that the rainbow would be visible on Upper Yosemite Fall from Cook’s Meadow, took a photograph, and when I got the film back (remember those days?), there it was. So I knew it was possible to photograph the rainbow from that area, but it was hard to predict when you could see it, and to know if you were really looking at a rainbow or just a band of mist until you got the film back.

Years later an enterprising astronomer, Don Olson, figured out exactly when the lunar rainbow would be visible from Cook’s Meadow, and from the bridge at the base of Lower Yosemite Fall. Now, anyone can find out where and when to photograph this event just by doing a Google search. For millennia lunar rainbows went unobserved and unnoticed; now each springtime full moon in Yosemite attracts hundreds of viewers and photographers.

Nature photographers usually operate alone, or in small groups, but last May in Cook’s Meadow we were forced into a crowd, and it became a social event. People chimped (ooh ooh aah aah!) over their photos and showed them to other photographers and onlookers. Friends bumped into each other in the dark and caught up on the details of each other’s lives—often loudly, so everyone else heard the details. Occasionally a car would pull up, shining bright headlights into the scene, and a chorus of photographers would shout complaints until the lights went out.

By 11:30 the rainbow began to sink below the spray, and the crowd dispersed, but I aped the moon and moved left, following and photographing the rainbow for another hour.

Lunar Rainbow, Castle Geyser, Yellowstone National Park, June 1996
Lunar Rainbow, Castle Geyser, Yellowstone National Park, June 1996

 

Theoretically, any source of spray lit by the moon could create a lunar rainbow. Acting on this theory, in June of 1996 I walked out to Castle Geyser in Yellowstone National Park at about 11 p.m. The moon was full, and the geyser was predicted to erupt between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. When I arrived everything was quiet; apparently it hadn’t erupted yet. I set up my camera, then settled down on a bench to read a book. About five minutes later two 20-year-olds, employees at one of the hotels or restaurants, showed up and sat down on a different bench to wait. They brought a boom box, and for the next 30 minutes played rap music, loudly. Then they switched to country. Finally the geyser began to erupt, and it’s roar drowned out the music.

At first I didn’t see a rainbow. But Castle has a long eruption. It’s initial phase, lasting for about ten minutes, is pure water. When the second phase hit, a mixture of water and steam, the steam apparently blasted the water into finer drops, just the right size, and the rainbow appeared, arcing through the mist.

Lunar Rainbow from the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail, April 1996
Lunar Rainbow from the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail, April 1996