Still Here #FergusonFire

In spite of all odds, it seems that our house is still standing! Our neighborhood has been under a mandatory evacuation since Aug 21, and yesterday, a crazy fire whirl (also sometimes called a firenado) raced up Avalanche Creek temporarily pinning fire fighters in our neighborhood as it crossed Hwy 41 and headed toward the fire fighter’s camp at Badger Pass. In the map, you can see the active fire for Aug 3 in red running along two sides of the neighborhood as fire fighters heroically held those lines.

From what we can gather, things are progressing a little more calmly today, on our front. Our neighbors across the river in Foresta are seeing more activity, and down by Wawona everyone is waiting for good conditions to close the line down there and watching some spot fires carefully. Yosemite Valley residents remain evacuated because this fire impacts all three roads into the valley from the west, though the valley itself is not directly threatened.

The ArcGIS map of the fire as of yesterday, August 3, with our house at the tip of the arrow.

Today was also the memorial service for Captain Brian Hughes of the Arrowhead Hotshots who lost his life on July 29 defending one of the lines protecting our neighborhood. Reports that it was powerful and emotional are easy to believe. I wish we could have also been there to show our support and our thanks.

Lady Slipper Treasure Hunt

Lady Slipper Orchids
Rare Mountain Lady Slipper orchids (Cypripedium montanum).

“Rare in Yosemite, and now confined to hidden sites where plants have not been subjected to detrimental flower gathering.”  – An Illustrated Flora of Yosemite National Park, Stephen J. Botti.

These crazy elegant flowers!

Searching for them was quite the adventure. We followed the most incredible treasure map, hand-drawn for us by a generous and knowledgeable local. We identified the mysterious landmarks, counted out the paces, scanned the forest floor. When we finally discovered them, the white slippers shining like lanterns, I imagined the dancing fairies startled into leaving their shoes behind, still suspended a foot or two off the ground. Certainly magic must be involved, protecting them from the wicked flower-gatherers. Then we realized to our dismay that they were being fiercely guarded by a blood-thirsty swarm of mosquitoes. We were lucky not to be carried away, and paid in blood and welts for the few minutes we lingered to enjoy and take a handful of pictures. The real treasure though, is the memory of sharing a little space with these rare and secretive plants.

And in case you need more reasons to be protective of these flowers:

Slow For Butterfly Migrations

Butterfly on a flower
Butterflies and flowers – a sure sign of spring

I love that there is a time of year when our community is asked to please slow down on their commutes in order to save butterflies.

The California tortoiseshell butterflies (a different species than the one pictured above) are doing their annual migration across Hwy 140 just outside the Yosemite park boundary. In 2010 extraordinary numbers of these beautiful but delicate creatures fluttered their way across the highway and were killed en masse by passing cars.

But it doesn’t have to be a killing field. If cars hold to a 25 mph speed limit, the butterflies get pushed up into the slipstream around the car and are alley-ooped up over the car safely instead of being smashed against the windshield or grill.

Please, if you are planning to come into Yosemite, help save our butterflies. Take a little extra time to drive slowly and enjoy butterfly migration season.

Dogwood Memories

Dogwoods are peaking near our house in Yosemite West. Picture taken from our deck.

Dogwood trees have a particular niche of its own in the passing of seasons. In the spring, their large white blossoms (actually sepals) decorate the forests and mark the arrival of spring. Photographers of all levels focus their lenses on them – against a backdrop of dark red cedar bark, the deep grey blue of the Merced River or back-lit against the brilliance of the sky. They are stand-alone beautiful, and I love them for that, but I also love them because they’re now associated with people and memories that are fun to revisit as well.

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Beautiful Rainy Weekend

colorful umbrellas at tunnel view
Hanging Out In The Rain At Tunnel View

A friend of mine really wanted to take advantage of the new moon tonight to test drive a new fancy camera. Another friend I haven’t seen in many months is coming for a weekend visit with her two boys. And it’s going to be raining. And that’s really, in the overall scheme of things, a great thing.

California still really needs the rain. It will be interesting to see the result of the April snow survey, but we’re hovering right around average now but with a big water deficit to make up for. You only need to look around at all the dead trees to see that lack of water is affecting the local ecology.

The forecast is for rain in Yosemite Valley and at our house in Yosemite West, but it’s still going to be cool enough that there will snow up at the higher elevations – snow that is going to be stored up for later on this summer when the weather get drier.

It’s getting warmer and it’s hard not to get ahead of the seasons, anticipating warm weather activities, but there are still some inspirational people going out and getting some great skiing at higher elevations.

Rain makes for some pretty dramatic scenery too. When the sky is a cloudless blue, there are masses of people out taking pictures with their phones and point and shoot cameras. When the storms roll in, that’s when you see the serious photographers with their big cameras come out. The clouds swirl around the Yosemite cliffs making them seem even bigger and lending a feeling of mystery about what lies beyond.

Rain also makes puddles. Don’t  underestimate those! Puddles are great for photography too, creating beautiful mirrors of the landscape everywhere. They are also great for splashing in. I’ve had great fun in the last year hunting puddles to splash in with a friend’s toddler.

And finally, I circle around to a Tim Ferriss Show podcast that I listened to recently where he interviewed Josh Waitzken. Josh is the chess prodigy who inspired the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, and who has since that time won national and world championships in martial arts, and now has a successful business coaching elite mental performers – currently mostly in the world of finance. He has lots of interesting things to say in that podcast, but the one that is relevant here, is that he started noticing that people put value judgments on the weather. “The weather is bad,” means it is raining. But actually, that’s arbitrary. Josh made a point of going outside to play with his son in every storm that comes through. When she visited us, my own Aunt Jaq would get up in the morning, walk outside to sniff the air, and stretch her arms up and say “Ah… it’s a beautiful day.” When we questioned that because it was raining, she said, “Oh, Honey, I decide before I get up that it’s going to be a beautiful day.”

That’s it. I’m fully planning to enjoy the beautiful weather in Yosemite this weekend. I’ll do some puddle splashing with my friend and her boys, take some photos, and revel in the great reason to curl up with some hot chocolate afterwards.

Firefall Video By Shawn Reeder

If you haven’t seen it already, be sure to take a look at the beautiful new-this-year video of the Horsetail Fall “Firefall” that happens in February when the conditions are right.

When we first moved to Yosemite, we were driving out of the valley on South Side Drive, came around a corner and were mesmerized by what seemed to be a waterfall on fire coming off the shoulder of El Cap. Quickly, we pulled off in to the pull-out (which had plenty of space) with just a few other people equally surprised and entranced.

I didn’t own a fancy camera or tripod back then, or a cell phone/camera, so I didn’t get the amazing image, but the experience of discovering the magical event is etched into my memory.

These days, when you come to Yosemite during “Firefall Season” the event is hard to miss. Photographers travel from across the country, and start setting up in the morning in order to claim their spot before the masses show up. NPS sets up cones and turns an entire lane of the road into a parking lot. By 2p, practically the entire corridor along the viewing angle is elbow-to-tripod with people, trampling vegetation and setting up lawn chairs in hopes that the day will bring just the right combination of sunshine and water to make Horsetail Fall light up.

And this year didn’t disappoint. It was the first year in many that the waterfall had enough water to be truly spectacular, but I didn’t go down to see it. Not even once. It’s OK. I’ve seen the amazing pictures, Shawn’s video, and I still have that memory of rounding the corner and enjoying Horsetail Fall magic in a wilderness setting.

Seasons In The Mountains

Bee hovering in front of wildflowers
Sipping from the Bird’s Eye Gilia

One of the great things about living in the mountains is being able to change out seasons by driving up or down in elevation. The same day I took the above picture at 3000 feet, people were skiing and snowboarding in beautiful spring snow conditions above 7000 feet.

I remember growing up in the mid-west that the first few snow days of winter might have been exciting and new, but by the time February or March rolled around I was just aching for the first warm days of spring. And they would arrive – warm and sunny at maybe 55 degrees F, and everyone, conditioned by months of bone-chilling weather, would be out in shorts and t-shirts throwing frisbees on the still-brown lawns.

Now, the moment that longing for spring weather hits, we can just drive downhill for an hour and find emerald hills, wildflowers, and soak in 70 degree temperatures.

Not to brag. But it’s nice living here.

Yosemite Transition

As neglected as this space is from time to time, I thought it would be remiss not to at least mention the big changes that have been happening all around me this month.

On March 1, Aramark took over the Yosemite concession contract, and that ushered in a new cultural era for the park.

The public would be most aware of the name changes: The Ahwahnee has become the Yosemite Majestic Hotel. Yosemite Lodge at the Falls has been shortened to Yosemite Valley Lodge. Curry Village is Half Dome Village. Wawona Hotel adopted an old name, Big Trees Lodge, and Badger Pass has been stripped of character and renamed with the functional, if less poetic, Yosemite Ski and Snowboard Area. There has been a huge outcry about this, and friends of mine have received threats and have been virtually screamed at by strangers who have only the vaguest idea of what is actually happening. Ultimately, though, I have to agree with Pete who has written about the history of name changes in the park (there have been many), and the endurance of the things that actually matter.

Not neglecting the importance of labels and traditions, I genuinely feel that Yosemite won’t be changed. Have amenities distracted us from what the national park and the land truly are? Rocks and trees, water and seasons, won’t be a whit less wonderful. Jays and oaks won’t care, bears and domes won’t be diminished if we re-label a hotel.

If you’re interested in hearing stories of Yosemite from an amazing naturalist and interpreter/communicator/nice guy, you ought to wander over and check out Pete’s Yosemite Nature Notes blog. On a similar note, the National Park Service is in the process of re-examining the rules governing wilderness use in Yosemite. Now, this is something that will most certainly impact those of us who want to do more in the park than take pictures from the road. Now is the time to pay attention and participate.

On a personal level, the transition has had more of a social impact than anything. Because Aramark didn’t replace all positions within the park, many people who have lived here for years, and sometimes decades, have suddenly found themselves out of a job (like me). But in Yosemite, where employees tend to live in company housing, being out of a job often means being out of a place to live too, and so friends are scattering far and wide and rebuilding entire lives – home, job and community. If you can imagine how disruptive it is for one person to make a major life change, imagine an entire community doing it simultaneously and in multiple dimensions. Even many of the people who have found a way to stay have new employers, new co-workers, new housing and often a slightly different job description to adapt to. It’s been a stressful time, filled with uncertainty, and I’m glad to see things settling back down. In fact, one of the most encouraging reports was from a friend who works at the Yosemite Ski and Snowboard Area, who said that it all seems like business as usual, right down to the shouted morning welcome… “Good Morning, Badger Pass!” Ha!

On a personal note, I am so grateful to Delaware North for the opportunity that allows me to work remotely from Yosemite. In spite of derogatory slogans to the contrary, I’ve been impressed with how much Delaware North has cared to try to find creative ways to help people through the transition process when they can.

Begin Chapter Next.


First snow of the season

Dogwood leaves covered in snow
Dogwood leaves covered in snow.

The first snow of the season at our house in Yosemite West is always a treat, and worth a quick mention. After a few years of drought, it’s even more welcome. The dogwood leaves at 5000-6000 feet elevation in our neighborhood are still turning, and I loved seeing the contrast of the bright colors against the snow.

Badger Pass is reporting 9 inches, which is also a good start. My co-worker, pointed out that the first snowfall of last year was about the same date, so this in itself isn’t going to get us very far, but hopefully it’s just the first taste of more snow to come. The storm wasn’t cold enough for snow to fall in Yosemite Valley itself, but from the valley you can see the frosty rim all around.

Neighborhood cedar in snow
My favorite neighborhood cedar
shaggy mane mushrooms in snow
Shaggy Mane mushrooms from our yard, surprised by the dusting we received.
Bridalveil Fall
The water in Yosemite valley is no longer gushing the way it was while it was raining, but it is still nice to see Bridalveil Fall flowing again.

Halloween 2015

Halloween office parade
Left: Co-workers alerted the kids will be here soon. Right: Handing out candy to the kids.

So much as been going on this October that Halloween was here before I knew it. Non-costume plans had been made for the weekend, and although those changed, I still didn’t have costume party plans. So, my single whirlwind dose of Halloween festivities was the parade of kids that come through the office each year.

It’s a highly anticipated event in the office. We order much too much candy in advance. Those of us who are more prepared and/or festive dress in work-appropriate costumes, and throughout the day there is a gentle buzz. “When are the kids going to come by?” “Make sure you get me when the kids are here.”

And when they come, escorted as usual by the Yosemite mounted patrol (What other kids get horses in their Halloween school parade, honestly?) People line up at the door to see the costumes, candy at the ready.

There are two waves. The little kids in daycare come first. Some are held by their parents. Others surge forward on their own. One enterprising boy this year held his pumpkin out hopefully to every adult he saw whether or not they had any candy. The older Valley School parade is later in the day. Last year there were a lot of Elsas, but this year there was much more variety.

In addition to this school parade, the kids also make the neighborhood rounds on Halloween night. Yosemite’s small community seems like the perfect place to trick or treat. National Park’s are nice and dark but people know each other here so safety is less of a concern than it might be elsewhere. Besides, I know of one person who makes it a point of pride to offer full-size candy bars.

Those kids must have quite the haul at the end of the event. If their parents aren’t clever enough to come up with a Pumpkin Prince-like story, those kids are probably buzzing on candy right up until the moment that they sit down to Thanksgiving dessert.

Another great Halloween idea to remember – an early October costume exchange party!