Sunday, June 12, 2016

Yosemite's Forgotten Land: Hetch Hetchy




We have dubbed this Rainbow Bridge.

Jody and Lucy cross one of the bridges at Wapama Falls.
Story and photos by Elliott Almond
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK -- Rugged and spectacular Hetch Hetchy is so far off the beaten path many outdoor enthusiasts have no idea about its important contributions to America’s national parks system.
Which is odd considering it’s tucked into the northwest corner of the park about an hour’s drive closer to the Bay Area than precious Yosemite Valley. Hetch Hetchy receives a scant percentage of the scores of visitors traveling to the Valley, a drive-by tourist playground to snap a pretty camera phone photo.  

As we traced ancient footsteps of the Miwoks, Paiutes and Washoes peoples on a recent all-day trek toward Rancheria Falls, I began to wonder if the careless destruction of Hetch Hetchy Valley in the early 1900s somehow has preserved its solitary state.
Jody and Lucy scramble up stone steps.
To be clear, local backpackers are attuned to the splendors of this granite-strewn arena judging by all of their parked cars on a recent Friday. But most of the 4 million-plus visitors jam their clammy bodies and sports utility vehicles into the Yosemite Valley floor 15 miles to the south to enjoy an outing as unremarkable as a backyard barbecue.
Might a similar scenario have unfolded had the Hetch Hetchy Valley been preserved by naturalist John Muir and others who tried to stop the damming of the free-flowing Tuolumne River from 1901 to 1913?
I’m not one to advocate that a massive engineering project in a national park is good natural resource management. But I just wonder what it would look like today under a preserved state when seeing families linger on 430-foot O’Shaughnessy Dam that created the eight-mile Hetch Hetchy Reservoir so San Francisco could get a nice glass of water.
Much has been written about the political struggle to save Hetch Hetchy, a name that is said to derive from the Miwok word “hetchetci,” or edible grasses. Muir’s forces eventually lost out to human greed in 1913 when Congress passed the Raker Act that allowed San Francisco to effectively blanket the glacial-carved valley with water.
It proved to be a defining moment in U.S. national park history. It helped spur the environmental movement as the Sierra Club gained political strength over the ensuing years. In 1968,  environmentalists used the destruction of Hetch Hetchy to help halt the building of 740-foot Hualapai Dam in an isolated section of the Grand Canyon.
In other words, the rival to Yosemite Valley might have been sacrificed for the future betterment of America’s most cherished natural wonders.
We’re left to let our imaginations run free while traversing Hetch Hetchy’s stone cathedrals.
Some have described the dam and reservoir as a “scar” on the national park system. I cannot find argument with their disdain. The Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River once flowed into the gentle valley. The reservoir dramatically altered the landscape.
Wapama Fallas from the east.
Lovely forests on the trail.
Granite dome called Kolana Rock
But our trio of hikers got past the disgust one, long day to explore what’s left. As those experienced backpackers can attest, Hetch Hetchy still has much to offer with waterfalls spilling over granite rock or seemingly flushing straight out of the mountain with a misty roar. Towering 2,000-foot granite dome Kolana Rock is perhaps the most prominent natural piece that rises above the water across the reservoir.
A majority of the day-use visitors stop along O’Shaughnessy’s concrete overpass to take a photo of the reservoir, or peer over the edge at the impressive dam walls and spurting water of the tamed Tuolumne. Many also make the rocky five-mile roundtrip hike to Wapama Falls, the swirling, gushing cascade of water that guarantees trespassers will get wet.  
My companions Lucy DiBianca and author Jody Berger (Misdiagnosed, One Woman's Tour of--And Escape From--Healthcareland) marveled at the continual sight of water and the changing biology of forests as we huffed our way up hundreds of feet after the low point at Wapama Falls.
The 13.2-mile round-trip path to Rancheria Falls hugs the mountain while climbing and dropping steeply above the reservoir.
We had agreed to a destination of Rancheria, which would take us deep into the Hetch Hetchy backcountry without breaking our backs or wills. It came with a caveat: We’d head back whenever it seemed right. The warrior mentality of having to complete a certain amount of miles is the antithesis of exploring nature on its terms. Author Bill Bryson got it right in his seminal book “A Walk in the Woods,” about hiking the Appalachian Trail. You don’t have to cover every inch of the 2,160-mile path to earn a Merit Badge. Just tread respectfully and appreciate the surroundings.
Spring hung in the dry air with meadows covered in blue dicks, buttercups, Indian paintbrush,  larkspur, poison oak and yarrow, among other species of beautiful flowers. We found a rock perch just before Wapama Falls to stop to nibble on the usual offerings of the Trailmix Gods. Cousin Lucy

Scenes of 8-mile Hetch Hetchy Reservoir that once was a beautiful valley.
 did her best elementary school teacher pitch to get us to sample a bag full of banana chips.

After refueling, we navigated a series of foot bridges underneath Wapama Falls while getting drenched in a freezing spray of water. Lucy, the Girl Scout, was smart enough to cross the threshold with a poncho. But it wasn’t so bad for Jody and I. The late spring sun helped dry our clothes quickly.
Afterward, when heading up for the more arduous section of trail it grew serenely quiet. No other day hikers encroached past the Wapama bridges.  Finally, two women backpackers from Bishop, California, caught us on the dusty trail. The older, presumably the mom to her slender teenage daughter, just got targeted by a local gang of bloodsuckers. The amenable woman seemed particularly sensitive to the native insects as the area just under her right eye began to puff into a dime-sized raspberry tart.  This was not a good sign for a twosome undertaking the adventurous Laurel/Veron/Rancheria 30-mile loop. They planned to spend two nights out in Yosemite’s northern wilderness.
I found some antiseptic pads in my emergency kit to apply to her face and some extra for the next round of mosquito assaults they might encounter over the coming three days. The exchange led to an informative discussion about hiking trails in the drop-dead gorgeous Eastern Sierra.
Lucy, our inquisitive companion, has a way of bringing out fascinating stories in people.
“Did you see the poop on the trail back there?”
Yes, the women saw it.
“Do you know what it is?” Lucy inquired.
They weren’t sure.  
It was big, and for whatever unknown reason I kept saying black bear scat is smaller. Something about some scat I once saw years ago hiking at Mt. Rainier National Park.
“Maybe it’s a mountain lion?” Jody asked.
By the time we shook hands and bid our adieus we decided the only creature capable of delivering such a healthy amount of disposal must be a bear, since confirmed by photos found in a Google search.  
The idea of black bears roaming the Hetch Hetchy seemed troublesome to the women. I couldn’t understand why because they indicated they had been climbing and hiking in the rugged Bishop area for some time.
This wasn’t a family outing so I didn’t have time to tell the women my bear story from my last visit to Hetch Hetchy.
That time four years earlier I was alone in the evening and under a time constraint to meet Lucy and some friends at White Wolf to began a weekend trip hiking Yosemite’s High Country.
I encountered a buck on the crumbly trail while returning toward the day-use parking area next to O'Shaughnessy Dam. Such a strange sight. The healthy buck stood frozen in the center of the trail, a wall of granite on one side and the reservoir on the other. The mighty deer looked at me. Then he looked behind him. He turned to face me yet again. I took off my cap and used it like a matador’s red cape.
“Come on, then,” I said. “This is your home.”
I stepped off the path as much as it was possible. The buck didn’t need a second invitation as he galloped past.
I continued in his direction because it was the only route to my car. As I came to a bend in the trail I could hear a commotion on the other side. For some reason, still unclear to this day, I thought it was another deer. Of course, that is absurdly ridiculous. Moments earlier a big buck decided it was safer to scurry past me rather than risk dealing with whatever was in the bush making the racket.
Yet, there I was thinking about sneaking up on the animal -- a deer -- to surprise it. Just as I stepped around the bend my better sense took hold. I pulled out my emergency whistle as the bear materialized no more than 100 feet away.  I blew a forceful tweet. Mr. Bear didn’t care. He continued his business of foraging in the woods between me and the path to my car.
The first twinges of dusk began to bathe the landscape in that unforgettable light. I had to do something. I began singing my go-to song, “I’ve been working on the railroad,” with the lyrics, “Dinah won’t you blow your horn.” OK, I cannot sing. But my audience of one black bear gave me not one notice no matter how long and loud I sang and blew the whistle.  This is a real problem in the wilderness when bears become habituated to humans. It ultimately endangers the animals.
Finally, this one scrambled back up the mountain from where he came, opening the path as I blew past like the buck.
I ran into a couple on the other side and warned them about the bear.
“Yeah,” they said in unison. “We heard your signing.”