You know, it surprised me, but tracking the path of this summer’s devastating Rim Fire made me feel like my childhood playground was going up in smoke.
I’m trusting that Nature will quickly get about the business of restoring what it can after the blaze. And I’m also surprised to discover that, after many years, I still have this desire to click my heels together in the hope that one particular restorative wish for the region might also come true.
The whole first half of my life was filled with happy adventures in and around the Sierra Nevada. My family took frequent trips to Yosemite since my dad’s work as a UC Berkeley Plant Pathology professor often took him there. I went on backpack trips around the mountains of the Emigrant Basin (often with high school buddies, Katherine and Kelly). As a student at Cal, I visited the Lair of the Golden Bear at Pinecrest, and I toured the Sierra Foothills with the UC Glee Club, doing “gigs” in towns like Angels Camp and Sonora.
For some, places like Hawaii are the measure of “paradise.” For me, it’s the sparkling granite, towering pines and pristine waters of the Sierras. And I’m grateful to those who bravely fought to preserve the places where some of the most colorful memories of my early days were created.
That includes a memory from 1991 when Dad and I decided to plan one more short pack trip before he and Mum headed north from the Bay Area to retire while I headed south. We thought we’d start from O’Shaugnessy Dam and have a look at the area around the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park.
Along this overnight trek, we skirted the former Hetch Hetchy Valley, now flooded with water and sporting an unsightly tan line. But around its edge loomed lofty, unspoiled peaks and waterfalls to rival Yosemite Valley’s. Standing at the foot of these great mountains and feeling mist from off the waterfalls was a spectacular experience!
And then it rained all night long…
Glorious Nature commenced to drench our modest, little camp – even making it cold enough to snow at times. Ever prepared, Dad had designed and sewn custom tents for such occasions. They were low, lightweight tents that ran the length of our sleeping bags with the whole top made of mesh through which we could gaze at the stars (when the rain fly wasn’t needed) and still keep the bugs at bay.
But this was a night to test any camping gear to its limit. And so it was that I woke up about 3:00 in the morning, chilled to the bone (turns out that’s not just an expression…), with my water-logged tent collapsed and resting squarely on my face (okay, so a slight tent pole anchoring fail on my part might have come into play…).
This was kind of disconcerting. And it sent me rapidly careening toward a “Well, Sweetie” moment…
Alright, I do need to digress here.
What’s a “Well, Sweetie” moment? I’m afraid they were prevalent throughout my youth. My dad had a pretty amazing knack for staying cool in just about any situation – and that was helpful when I’d need gently to be yanked off one ledge of impracticality or insanity or another. Dad’s gems of prose and pragmatism would often kick off with those two words.
For instance, while on a Girl Scout hike where I presented Dad with a branch from a plant I didn’t recognize, Dad casually responded:
“Well, Sweetie – I’d put that down. That’s poison oak.”
When Dad was teaching a nervous teenage me to drive our family stick-shift car, he offered this sage (if slightly tardy) advice:
“Well, Sweetie – when we’re doing 55 on the freeway like this, it’s better not to lose ‘er in neutral.”
And when I was preparing to use my new driving skills on the rocky and precarious, cliff-edge road into Donnell Dam (a place along the Stanislaus River where Dad loved to fish), Dad found a supportive way to suggest hedging our bet just a little:
“Well, Sweetie – I have every confidence in you. But why don’t we keep our seatbelts off and the car doors unlocked just for the heck of it?”
That night alongside the Hetch Hetchy became another classic example.
Panicked and gasping, I had leaped up and out of that tent in seconds and rushed over to where Dad was slumbering peacefully (being less wimpy than I about a little cold and wet…). I planted my feet on the soggy ground and launched into a whine-fest that would have done Leo Bloom proud.
He was “Dad” when I was acting my age. If not…
“Daddy!!! I can’t breathe! And I’m freezing! Well, I can breathe again because I can talk and everything. But now I’m soaked! I’m freezing and I’m soaked!”
I’m afraid I demanded that we take down our camp and pack back out to the car right then and there. Dad considered a bit, then replied with that uncanny calm:
“Well, Sweetie – since it’s almost pitch dark and we were told there’s a bear in the area they’ve classified as “bad,” why don’t we see if we can start a fire, dry our gear out a bit and try to get a little more sleep?”
I had to own (albeit, grudgingly) that this might be a more practical course of action. With the rain coming down a little less (and with his being the great College Professor/Mountain Man that he was), Dad managed to get a fire going that I admitted was not just functional, but actually kind of cheery. We then sat alternately holding our tents and sleeping bags near it to get them somewhat dry and warm again – and we chatted.
It really had been a beautiful day. But it bothered me to think that, if we’d been here before the 1920’s when the dam and reservoir were created (to secure water for San Francisco residents), we’d have been strolling along a glorious valley floor instead of past dull concrete and drowned splendor. Dad and I discussed how, as backpackers, we did our best to enjoy these amazing places but leave them as unspoiled as we could for travelers to come. Clearly – and regrettably – that had not been the priority here.
I get the need for dams and such. I do.
I know I’ve benefited from the resources dams provide. And I certainly wouldn’t presume to deny the good people of San Francisco their share of H20. Besides – we blunder in and alter landscapes all the time. But, as Dad and I sat warming ourselves by our little fire and thinking of all the people who’d been here before us and done the same, I had such a strong feeling that, if I had been empowered to designate preservation lines almost a century ago, I would definitely have drawn one here.
I did manage to get a bit more sleep that night. Then Dad and I packed out in the morning (steering clear of bears of any classification) and we returned to civilization. The way Dad looked at it, the outing had been a real success – we’d seen some picturesque country and we’d come out with a good story. When I was completely thawed out, I came to see it that way too. (Um, eventually.)
The spell of Hetch Hetchy has stayed with me over these years. And the Rim Fire brought back that old ache to see the dam demolished, the waters drained away and that incredible valley restored.
Impractical? Insane? Just another “Well, Sweetie” moment? Yeah, probably. But, hey – a girl can always dream.
More views around Hetch Hetchy: