Chapter 2: Mammoth Hot Springs

Places of Power (c) 1991 by Kathleen Kemsley

Sometime between midterms and final exams during my first quarter of college in San Diego, the mental picture of the dorm behind the Wawona Hotel in Yosemite returned to me.  With no plans for the following summer, and little enthusiasm about the prospect of spending those three months in Los Angeles at my parents’ house, I began taking steps to find out how I could get a summer job in a national park. 

I wrote to the National Park Service headquarters in Washington, D.C., to obtain a pamphlet listing addresses of concessionaires who hired summer help in the parks.  Once I received the list, I chose 15 parks which looked intriguing and sent to them for more information.  By return mail I received piles of application forms.  Every one of the forms I filled out by hand.  I sent them in, then settled back to await the results. 

By April I had received three job offers, from Sequoia, Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone National Parks.  I decided to take the position in Yellowstone. 

“Why Yellowstone?” my roommate asked when I told her my plans.

“Simple,” I said, laughing.  “It’s the farthest away from southern California.  I’ve never been to Wyoming.  Don’t you think it sounds exciting?”

Apparently, I was the only one of my college friends to think it sounded exciting.  Though I tried to entice some of them into applying for park jobs, none were interested.  So I went by myself, eager to get away from the stuffy atmosphere of college and the fog-shrouded coast of California. 

I traveled to Yellowstone in the company of my boyfriend, Randy, his sister Julie, and my brother John.  In Randy’s parents’ camper, we drove through Utah’s canyon country and the benign pastures of southeast Idaho for a week on the way to Yellowstone. 

We arrived at Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park, at noon.  Randy and the others helped me offload two boxes full of clothes and camping gear, and soon after that they left.  I stood by the hotel watching the camper until it disappeared around the curve of the park road, heading south.  I was alone in Yellowstone.  Turning my back on the road, I walked into the hotel and approached the front desk clerk. 

“I’m here,” I said. 


Mammoth Hot Springs was situated at the far northern end of Yellowstone National Park, just five miles from the park entrance and the Montana state line.  It was off the beaten track in comparison to the more famous features of Yellowstone such as Old Faithful and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River.  Many tourists making the quick loop through the park missed Mammoth completely.  Those travelers arriving from Glacier Park to the north, and those who had allotted two or more days to see Yellowstone, were the ones who stopped in Mammoth Hot Springs. 

The main thermal attraction in my area was a series of travertine limestone ledges bubbling and steaming with hot water which flowed from the depths of the earth.  During my first week in Mammoth, I walked up to the terraces half a mile from the hotel to give myself a self-guided tour.  I picked up a pamphlet at the parking lot which described each spring and interpreted for novice geologists the highlights of the terraces. 

A plank trail led from the parking lot across the fragile calcium deposits, carefully marking the route so that tourist feet could not impact the delicate ecosystem of water and bright algae and slippery folds of lime. 

I learned from the pamphlet that, while the amount of water or steam being emitted from any one part of the terrace area could vary hourly, the total volume of water expended by the hot springs remained constant.  The booklet also told me that all the colors brightening the hot pools in each spring indicated the presence of different species of algae.  Various types of the algae grew in each spring depending on its temperature, so that by looking at the color of any given hot pool, I could tell approximately how warm it was. 

Just as interesting to me as the natural features of the hot spring terrace was the parade of people I saw on my tour.  I peered with great humor from behind my sunglasses at “Mabel and George,” the hundreds of tourists who tramped through, took pictures of each other, and hurried away to their next destination. 

I paused on my walk to sit on a bench strategically located to overlook the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel.  Beyond the bright colors of the hot spring terraces, the hotel rested in the middle of a huge, freshly mowed lawn.  It looked like it had been planted there at the beginning of time and had just grown along with the trees to a mellow maturity.  The hotel was neither obnoxiously fancy nor sadly neglected.  The adjective which came to mind was “grand.”  It was a hotel built in an era that had passed; when it was new, people arrived at Yellowstone in Model A’s, wore bobbed hair and still talked about the World War, unaware that there would one day be a need to number the world wars.  The Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel had aged gracefully, appearing just as comfortable and unobtrusive as it must have looked sixty years before. 

I turned my attention to the procession of people passing by.  A man with a big belly waddled by, dressed in an orange tie-dyed sleeveless vest and a pair of those polyester pants branded with a permanent crease. He was talking to an invisible buddy on a walkie-talkie.  The absent man’s voice sailed over the airwaves as Orange Vest moved past me: “Say Joe, did you hear the one about the Montana bull shipper?” 

Next came two thirtyish women who herded five children between them.  One woman was reading from the pamphlet: “’The raw material here is limestone.  Over 4,000 pounds of material is produced by the springs each day.  Some of the terraces grow as much as two feet each year.’ Are you listening to me, kids?” She lined them all up for a photo, and several kids made faces at the camera.  The other mother spoke sharply to a little girl who was leaning over the edge of the plank trail, trying to touch the boiling water of a hot pool. 

I thought, as the two women hustled their brood along down the path, that I bet this trip had sounded like a good idea when the women had talked about it over coffee in their kitchen in Ohio.  But they were certainly having second thoughts about it now. 

Two older ladies walked past me going the other way.  I overheard a snatch of their conversation:

“Ooooh,” one complained, “my legs still hurt.”

“That’s what happens when you carouse around all day, acting so frisky.  At your age!” 

The people moved past and disappeared around a curve in the trail.  And the hot springs paid them no heed.  In a quiet lull between the clumps of tourists, the water bubbled and flowed over the terraces.  Steam rose silently into the sky and disappeared.  It delighted me to know that the steam kept rising, whether anyone was there to make comments about it or not. 

Wandering by foot around the Mammoth Hot Springs area, I discovered other places, not public like the terraces, where I could go to be alone with the open expansive land of the Yellowstone region.  One such place was a small hill directly north of the Mammoth complex.  A twenty-minute hike took me to the apex of the hill.  From there I could look one way and see the settlement built around the hot spring terraces; turning my back on that, I could gaze over an endless series of hills and valleys, through which the Yellowstone River flowed north into Montana and ultimately into the Missouri River, the Mississippi River, and the Louisiana Delta.

Once when I was up there, I discovered a couple of grave markers.  One was etched with the name of a man who died in 1886 at the age of 25.  The other bore the name of a woman who passed away three years earlier, when she was 35.  The graves were still distinguishable from the rolling hills and long grasses, for the perimeter had been marked off from the wilderness by white rocks. 

I spent a few hours in my first few weeks at Mammoth perched on top of that minor unnamed mountain north of the hotel in the company of the two departed pioneers.  Sitting on a rock in the wind, I found some of the serenity which I can come all the way from southern California to seek. 

The moments of solitude and peace, however, became scarcer as the summer progressed.  For, after the first few weeks of memorizing names and learning my job, I became a participant.  I joined forces with the locals and became immersed in the Parkie culture that existed at Mammoth Hot Springs.  It was everything I had imagined it would be when I had stared at employees lounging on the dorm porch behind the Wawona Hotel years earlier.  It was more than I had imagined.  The Parkies and the tourists and the spectacular scenery eased their way into my heart.  And once lodged there, the elements of the Yellowstone experience never loosened their grip.  I surrendered to the power of the place. 

The hot springs never commented.  Their steam just rose into the clear air and disappeared, as it had for thousands of years before I, and everyone else, ever arrived on the scene. 


On a day off, during the early weeks of my sojourn in Mammoth Hot Springs, I went hiking on the six mile Beaver Pond Trail.  The route started at the fringe of the Mammoth hotel complex and wound back through the woods to the northwest, following the contours of the land.

I had made some friends already among the Parkie people with whom I worked, but that day, craving the solitude offered by the Yellowstone wilderness, I went alone on the hike, carrying water, lunch, a camera and notebook, and bear bells.  When I had sat through the orientation program presented by Park Service interpreters the day I arrived, they put on a little skit about bears.  Beyond the silliness of their routine (“This is what you do when a bear chases you….Eeeeek!”), the message came through that the best way to avoid a confrontation with a bear in the wild was to warn it of your approach and let it identify, through your sounds, what and where you were. 

I bought some bear bells at the convenience store immediately.  Though I did not take them when hiking with others, figuring that our voices would provide a satisfactory warning, I did tie them onto my day pack when I went solo hiking.  In addition, I sang as loudly as I could, in rhythm to my steps, to ensure that I would scare any bears away.  I was not a gifted singer, but I belted out tunes like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Country Roads Take Me Home” with gusto, all the same, so that any bears would know I was moving in their direction. 

I was especially wary of bears on the hike to the Beaver Ponds that day because the word had spread around the park that, a couple weeks earlier, a man had been mauled by a bear.  He was a biologist who had been studying bear behavior.  If anyone should have known how to avoid bear attacks, he should have.  He was alone, hiking in the middle of the day, when he surprised a sow with three cubs.  She attacked him savagely.  He was airlifted to a hospital in Salt Lake City and was said to be in critical condition. 

With the thought of the biologist lurking in the back of my mind, my mood was guarded for the first couple miles of the trail.  Gradually, the serenity of the woods soothed me and my fears dissipated like the steam of the hot springs into the clear summer air. 

I paused at one of the beaver ponds along the route to eat lunch.  The sun was shining and a warm breeze slid through the tall grass.  Leaves of aspen shimmered green and whispered against a perfect sky.  Hours earlier I had left behind the last painted sign, “Do Not Step Off The Marked Paths.”  I stepped, and basked in the swatches of sunshine and wind. 

Emerging from a reverie, I sensed movement on the far side of the beaver pond.  Frozen in place, I stared at the tall grass and presently saw a black shape moving slowly through it. 

My heart pounded.  A bear!  It was a lone black bear, no larger than those I had seen in Yosemite, perhaps 200 pounds.  The bear did not appear to be aware of my presence, so I remained very still and watched it. 

Thoughts flew through my mind like swallows.  I recalled the instructions given during the orientation skit about shouting and waving at a bear.  “Hey bear, how’s it going?”  I nearly laughed aloud at the thought of this ludicrous one-sided conversation.  Then I considered taking pictures, but quickly ditched that idea.  I had heard too many stories about people found dead after being attacked by a bear, while in their cameras were photos of the bear approaching closer and closer. 

After watching it move among the grasses for a few minutes, I began to enjoy spying on the bear in spite of my fear.  The creature moved with surprising agility for its size.  Somehow, I had held onto a mental image of bears as lumbering, heavy footed, clumsy animals.  But the one I was watching appeared comfortable and graceful as it rambled through the woods near the pond, searching for an afternoon snack.  The breeze combed through the bear’s coat like fingers.  It looked to be completely at ease in its home territory with neither fences nor civilization to restrict its movements. 

Presently, the bear wandered out of my field of vision, toward a stand of aspen beyond the lake.  I understood that was my cue to make an exit from the bear’s domain.  Rather than continue along the trail, I decided to retrace the route along which I had come.  At the moment, it made sense to me that, since I had not seen any bears on the hike in, I would most likely avoid them by going out the same way. 

Once out of earshot of the black bear, I resumed the off-key singing and watched more closely for telltale signs of bears on the trail.  I saw no steaming scat piles nor any four-inch-wide paw prints, and the walk back to Mammoth was uneventful as far as bear sightings were concerned. 

My thoughts after that day were filled with bears.  It used to be that bears and Yellowstone were synonymous.  As recently as ten years before I had arrived in Yellowstone, bears were a common sight along the park roads.  Park Service workers, as yet unenlightened about bear management, had condoned the dumping of garbage in open pits.  They had even set up bleachers at a garbage dump, to provide tourists with a comfortable vantage point from which to view the feeding bears.  As visitation to the park increased, so did the incidents of “bear jams” – places along the roads where tourists parked four deep to feed the animals which shamelessly approached their vehicles begging for food. 

In that zoo-like atmosphere, the frequency of maulings and bear vandalism increased.  The bears of Yellowstone learned that humans equaled food handouts, and the tantrums they threw when they didn’t get their expected meal were devastating.  Tents and trailers were destroyed and several people were attacked by bears that did not understand the word “no.” 

Horror stories circulated in the park about tourists who failed to grasp that the bears were not tame.  The one told most often, because it was so outrageous, was about a woman who had smeared honey on her three-year-old daughter’s face and then took pictures as a bear licked it off. 

Finally, beginning in the late 1960s, park management adopted a different philosophy toward bears.  The creatures were wild animals, so rangers decided that they should be placed back in the wild.  One by one, the bears which hung around near dumps and campgrounds were sedated and moved to more remote areas of the park.

Unfortunately, no one told the bears that they needed to change their foraging habits.  Many a bear, transferred to Hayden Valley or Republic Pass, found its way back to the lucrative feeding grounds near concentrated human populations.  The rule followed by park officials was that a “problem” bear, that is, one that could not read its script from the bear management plan, had three chances.  If it was shipped out to the back woods and returned to civilization three times, it would be destroyed. 

The Park Service public relations people stated that problem bears were sent to a zoo.  That was what we were supposed to tell the Yellowstone tourists.  But in reality, the expense of shipping a live bear to a zoo – let alone finding a zoo willing to take yet another bear – was prohibitive.  So most of the time, these bears which has been taught by their mothers and grandmothers that humans represented a free meal were punished with the death penalty. 

I had the opportunity to see one of the so-called problem bears close up.  Early one morning the head cook, arriving to open the restaurant kitchen, discovered that the back door had been forced open and the kitchen torn apart by a bear.  His first reaction was to accuse wayward employees of having thrown a party in the kitchen the night before, because the pots and pans were knocked over, cans were off the shelves, and furniture had been overturned.  But teeth marks in the sides of cans in the pantry quickly revealed the true identity of the kitchen intruder.

Park Service biologists arrived the next evening and set up a bear trap outside the kitchen door.  The cylindrical metal contraption resembled a couple of 50-gallon drums which had been welded together.  A steak was placed in the trap as bait. 

Darkness fell.  About midnight, a loud metallic clang, like a jail door being slammed, was heard all over the employee dorm complex.  I joined several others on the porch of the girl’s dorm with a flashlight, to see if the bear had been caught. 

Cautiously, someone walked up to the trap and shined a light inside.  Looking out of the cylinder was a very irate black bear.  The flashlight in its eyes fueled its fury.  It went into a rage, roaring and leaping at the cage door with remarkable strength.  But the cage was built stoutly and the bear was unable to make a jailbreak. 

Presently, Park Service people arrived and took the cylinder and bear away.  I later learned that the bear they caught behind the Mammoth kitchen had committed strike two by breaking into the restaurant.  It had been tagged and transported to a remote area of the park near Madison, with the stipulation that if it returned once more it would not be given another chance to rehabilitate.  But nobody read that contract to the bear. 

I did not find out if that particular bear ever did return to civilization, but I hoped it would stay gone long enough to forget its association between people and food.  I understood what the park people were trying to do.  Truly I valued the glimpse of a bear in the wild far more highly than a full view of it propped up on hind legs outside my car window.  But the mistake had been made by unenlightened park managers, and the present generation of bears was paying for the mistake with their lives. 

Even more than the scapegoat role assigned by the Park Service to Yellowstone bears, I resented the ignorance of tourists who, even in 1977, were genuinely disappointed that they could not see bears along the road.  Many of this variety of park visitor had little or no experience in the wilderness.  Their comments about Yogi and Boo-Boo infuriated me.  Over and over I tried to educate them – “Bears are wild animals, ma’am” – but the faces kept changing daily and the attitudes stayed the same.  Finally I began to make sarcastic jokes about bears, suggesting to the most obnoxious that they leave their coolers open and line their sleeping bags with fresh fish. 

Maulings were still common enough that a statement such as that brought most of them to their senses.  A few, however, disappeared into the park, driving south from Mammoth, with the same cartoon-inspired ideas with which they had arrived.  Unable to change their perceptions, all I could do was shake my head at them and sigh. 

The woman who smeared honey on her child’s face, I was certain, must have been one of these. 

Chapter 1: Wawona

PLACES OF POWER (c) 1991 by Kathleen R. Kemsley

One of my earliest childhood memories is of watching the Firefall off Glacier Point.  I was only five years old in 1963 when Mom and Dad bundled us kids up in sweatshirts and drove us down to the valley after dinner to see the spectacle. 

We stood in a crowd of people on the grass, tilting our heads back to see to the top of the sheer granite walls sculpted by glaciers.  It seemed that I waited an eternity before the ball of fire appeared.  The bonfire hung on the lip of a rock, suspended in darkness high above my head.  Then it spilled over and tumbled down the cliff, throwing off sparks and glowing orange against the polished stone face of granite. 

The Firefall display had been going on in Yosemite Valley since 1872.  But it was one of those entertainment extravaganzas, like Hopi Indians performing rain dances and bleachers built around garbage dumps from which to view feeding bears, which was quietly abandoned by the National Park Service as cultural and environmental consciousness rose in the late 1960s.  Still, as a young child I was impressed by the visual impact of a ball of fire being hurtled off a cliff into the summer night. 

The oooohs and aaaahs of the tourists in the crowd reminded me of sound effects associated with a fireworks display on the Fourth of July.  The moon, almost full and rising like an Ansel Adams photograph over Half Dome, was temporarily upstaged by the human creation of fire tumbling from Glacier Point. 

My fascination with national parks could be traced to the fact that I spent part of every childhood summer at Yosemite.  My family owned a large, dorm-like two story cabin in Fish Camp, just outside the south entrance to the park.  Because my father’s job kept our family moving from place to place every couple years while I was growing up, visits to the cabin were the constant in my life.  I thought of the cabin as home; it was more like home than any of the tract houses we inhabited in suburban California.

The original cabin owned by Dad’s family had been located within the park boundary near Wawona.  My grandparents, along with Dad and his sisters, often journeyed to Yosemite to escape the heat of the San Joaquin Valley summer.  Many of the people who owned cabins near theirs were also their neighbors in Merced. 

Dad’s childhood, like mine, was intertwined with Yosemite.  He recalled a great flood in 1937 which overnight transformed the South Fork of the Merced River from a sedate flow of clear water to a boulder-choked torrent of melting snow.  He said the sound of rocks and trees being torn from the banks by the force of river water, swollen by spring melt-off, could be heard several miles away. 

The cabin in Wawona met its demise in 1948.  Dad and some of his teenage friends had come up from Merced one winter weekend to ski the slopes at Badger Pass.  Somehow, a stray ember escaped from the stone fireplace while they were out skiing.  When they returned from Badger that evening, the cabin had burned to the ground. 

Discouraged from rebuilding by the National Park Service, my grandfather abandoned the land behind the Wawona Hotel.  Several years later, when the grandchildren began to arrive, he purchased a rustic cabin on three adjoining lots in Fish Camp, a couple miles south of the park entrance.  I suppose I was in diapers the first time I went to Fish Camp.  I could not recall a summer ever in my childhood which did not include at least a couple weeks spent at the cabin. 

Fish Camp in the 1960s had a permanent population of 13 people.  The town consisted of a general store, the Silvertip Lodge, and a pond which was stocked with trout.  Our cabin was one of a handful of summer residences scattered up a hill behind the store.  A spider’s web of logging roads led from the cabin far back into the mountains of the Sierra National Forest.  Those roads provided me and my brother John and sister Christie with numerous hiking routes to explore on the days we did not pile in the car and drive to Wawona.

The drive from Fish Camp to the river seemed to take hours when I was young.  In fact it was only ten miles, but the twisting road and summer tourist traffic slowed us down considerably.  The consensus among us kids was that Dad took the curves fast enough to make for a thrilling ride. 

“I’ve been driving this road since I was twelve years old,” he said in defense when Mom  complained about his speed.  We kids joined right in when he lost patience with tourist drivers.  Every time a camper ahead of us braked on a curve or crawled along at 20 miles per hour, we would shriek, “Use a turnout, Buddy!” just as we had heard Dad do. 

We always considered the South Fork of the Merced River above Wawona to be our own territory.  Certainly in the earlier years it was our exclusive playground, which we called Robinson Plunge.  We packed a lunch in Mom’s wicker basket, loaded the dog into the car, and drove to the Wawona Hotel.  An unmarked turn off the main road led to a rutted one-lane dirt road.  We passed the site of the original cabin where Dad had spent summers as a boy.  At the end of the road we parked and walked upriver until we found a place with room enough to spread out, and commenced to spend the day playing by the river.

Things for a child to do at the river were endless.  We floated the rapids in inner tubes in July and August, when the water level was low enough to render the current tame.  We discovered enormous colonies of ladybugs on the rocks at river’s edge.  The population of spotted bugs was so large that, when viewed from a distance, the river bank appeared to be a solid orange color.  We fished for trout and learned to skip flat rocks.  One day Mom and I saw a black bear ambling along the far side of the river; in those days the South Fork Merced River was a fairly remote section of Yosemite National Park.      

Once when I was nine years old, the river almost took me.  We were an the lazy day agenda, eating a picnic lunch sprawled out on the granite slab less than a mile from where we had parked the car.  I walked down to the river’s edge, barefoot, to retrieve a chilled can of orange soda from the icy water.  In early June the water was much too cold for swimming, but it functioned well as a refrigerator for pop. 

As I leaned over to grab the can, my bare feet slid on the glassy surface of water-polished granite.  Instantly I was in the river and swept away downstream.  Screams when I hit the icy water alerted my kin to my plight, but I was already moving downriver and out of their sight around the bend. 

After a moment of struggle, I gave up fighting the current and concentrated on flowing with it.  I could not touch the bottom of the swift river.  Around the bend, the channel became clogged with large boulders, placed during the flood of 1937 which Dad had described.

The current threw me into one rock, then another.  My head cracked against a third rock.  I began to feel weak, and scared.  Though I was normally a confident swimmer, the bone-chilling cold worked against me.  Perhaps three minutes had passed since I went in. 

Finally the water steered me toward an eddy.  Hardly able to feel my numb legs, I tested for bottom and my unsteady feet found it.  Out of the icy river I dragged myself.  I had just enough strength to pull myself completely out of the water before I collapsed on the rocky bank. 

I did not know how long I lay there, absorbing the healing warmth of summer sun.  Startled by the sound of footsteps, I looked up to see Mom running toward me.

“Oh, Kitty, we thought you were gone,” she said between gasps for breath.  “What happened?”

“I slipped on the granite and fell in,” I told her.  “Then I found a place to get out, so I did it.”  I did not tell her about getting slammed into boulders, though the bruises would soon become evident. 

Mom helped me up.  “Listen, you have to respect the water – respect all of nature – for it can be very powerful.  You must watch out for yourself, Kitty.  Nature does not make exceptions, even for little girls like you.  Never turn your back on the ocean, do you know what I mean?”

“O.K., Mom, I will be more careful,” I promised.  The rash promise of a nine year old….I never forgot that wild ride down the rapids.  There were to be many more experiences for me in the wilderness, on its own terms, before I truly came to understand the meaning of her words. 

 * * * * *

Besides the natural wonders and the natural hazards of my river world, there beneath the yellow pine “puzzlewood” trees and spotless blue sky, I became interested in some of the more ancient inhabitants of the Yosemite region.  I first became aware of previous occupants along the South Fork of the Merced River after Dad had an accident.  Losing his footing during a hike in the woods, he tore a three-inch gash in his ankle.  He was on crutches for the rest of the vacation and unable to swim in the river with the rest of us because of his stitches.  While we were all down by the river one day, he hobbled off alone toward some cliffs overlooking the river.  Returning a couple hours later, he brought a tiny, perfect arrowhead crafted out of obsidian, which he had found on the hillside. 

I got the fever after seeing that arrowhead, and began to search for more of them.  My technique was a combination of serendipity and an ability to walk around gravel washes bent double, eyes glued to the ground, for long periods of time, while the sun beat down on my back, turning it a rich shade of brown. 

Besides arrowheads, we picked up some of the chips and flakes of obsidian we found.  Obsidian was not indigenous to the area.  To get it, the native people traded with Mono Indians on the east side of the Sierra Nevada.  Skillfully they chipped the soft, slick black volcanic rock until it formed a tiny sharp point, suitable for hunting birds and fish.  As far as I knew, no one else was aware of the existence of the artifacts of that long-gone civilization, scattered across gravel washes above the river.  We shamelessly collected ever piece of obsidian and every arrowhead we found. 

My family never had a run-in with the National Park Service over that one.  We were either unaware or unconcerned about park regulations prohibiting the removal of artifacts.  I did not learn about the retribution for that crime until years later.  At the time, we rationalized that almost no one ever went to the places where we found the arrowheads, so they would never know the difference if we removed a few of them. 

By the time I was a teenager, our privacy along the South Fork Merced River was challenged.  We no longer went to Yosemite Valley at all by 1972, because the crowded conditions and a layer of orange smog visible at dusk reminded us too much of Southern California.  Shuttle busses hauled tourists around the Valley; Ticketron began taking reservations for the Valley campgrounds.  Around that time, too, other people began driving up the one-lane rutted dirt road to the river.  When our private space at Robinson Plunge began to fill with tourists, we responded by moving upriver, farther into the headwaters of the South Fork Merced River. 

One of our favorite destinations, several miles up the river, we named “Double Falls.”  There the river split into two currents and splashed over the smooth granite in twin cascades 20 feet high.  A big old tree had fallen across the top of one of the falls.  We spent many exuberant hours leaping and diving from the log into an emerald green pool so clear that we could see right to the bottom, fifteen feet down. 

A few times, we even found people at Double Falls – hippies and nudists who thought they were in the wilderness and had not counted on the presence of our noisy clan up there.  Mom begged us to avert our eyes; Dad took movies of them and later spliced them into the home movies, after which a title would appear: “Oops, wrong subject!”

Even as other people began to move into our territory on the upper river, we had never in all the years on the Merced River seen a representative of the National Park Service, a ranger.  One day in 1974, however, even a ranger made it up to the haven of water-polished granite and obsidian fields.  On a hot July day, he appeared at the brink of the steep bank above our picnic spot, dressed in a heavy green shirt, wool pants and a Smokey Bear hat. 

Down on the flats, none of us saw him approach.  Dad was drinking beer and Mom was lying out in the sun with her bathing suit unhooked in the back.  Christie was reading a book while John and I were busy throwing rocks at an empty pop can.  As the pop can bobbed in an eddy close to shore, we heaved grapefruit sized stones at it, taking turns trying to sink the can. 

Down the steep bank marched the ranger.  He walked up behind Dad.  “Excuse me, sir,” he said, clearing his throat. 

John and I stopped throwing rocks and stared over at him.  He looked ridiculously overdressed next to Dad, who was clad only in bathing trunks. 

“Please ask your children to stop throwing rocks,” the ranger said. 

“What are you talking about?” Dad asked sharply. 

The ranger cleared his throat again.  “Well, sir, if people throw rocks into the river, it damages the ecosystem, you see.  It upsets the balance of nature.  This is a national park.  They can’t do that.” 

Dad looked over at us and laughed out loud.  I began to laugh too, for we were standing in a virtual rock garden – acres and acres of rounded boulders small and large, deposited by years of spring flooding.  The rock carpet extended down around the bend and out as far as I could see, lining the river channel. 

Apparently Dad had noticed the same thing.  “See all those rocks the kids are standing on?  They cover the whole river bottom.  Throwing them ten feet is not going to upset anything. They get pushed around every year when the snow melts.

“I’ve been coming here since before you were born,” Dad continued.  “If you want to know about the balance of nature, let me tell you about the flood of ’37.  Now here’s a story about nature.  It changes, it doesn’t stand still.  I was up at the cabin one day, and suddenly I heard a roar….”

Dad kept the ranger captive for 15 minutes repeating the story we had all heard a thousand times before.  While Dad talked, I whispered to John that he had better fetch the pop can.  He waded out and grabbed it, and acted like he was drinking out of it, so that the ranger would not leap to the conclusion that we were littering as well as upsetting the balance of nature. 

Finally Dad finished his story, “…so you can’t tell me about changing the river ecology.  I’ve seen it firsthand!”

“Even so, please keep an eye on those kids,” the ranger said.  Already he was backing up.  “Have a good day, sir.” 

After the ranger left, we all had a good laugh.  “Upsetting the Balance of Nature” became a standing joke in the family, and if anything we threw rocks and sank cans more vigorously after that.  But always with a glance first over the shoulder….. Our river paradise had grown more crowded, and more regulated, over the years. 

Later on, I wondered about that ranger.  Where did he live, and what did he do during his free time?  Certainly he did not spend his weekends bombing cans with river rocks.  But he must have occupied his time away from the job with interesting activities.  Surely, living in the park, that ranger was never bored. 

I had noticed the concession employees too.  They lived in a dorm behind the Wawona Hotel, and often as we drove past it on the way up to the river I saw them lounging on the porch or feeding the deer whose fear of people had long ago been dissolved by a taste for human junk food.  Almost tame, the deer came right up to the side of the dorm and posed for pictures in exchange for a handout. 

The hotel employees were young, cheerful looking men and women.  They sat in groups on the dorm porch drinking beer and laughing.  When we stopped at the hotel one day to visit with one of Dad’s relatives who managed the place, I peered curiously at the employees I saw.  Dressed in identical uniforms, they walked past quickly, not looking at me.  There was a bounce to their steps. 

Who were these parkie people working at the Wawona Hotel?  Who were the good-looking young people inside the ranger suits?  Where did they come from, and where did they go at the end of the season?  Did they have parties, did they fall in love?  Did they like their jobs and the tourists, or did they just tolerate those things in exchange for the beauty of their surroundings?  Their existence intrigued me at a very young age.  It seemed to me that working in a park like Yosemite would be a great way to spend a summer.  Idly, I wondered how I might go about getting a job in a national park when I got to be old enough. 

Eventually, I learned the answers to all those questions, for I became a Parkie myself.  My relationship with parks and park people began on those childhood forays on the South Fork of the Merced River in Yosemite Park.  And it did not end until many years later, in the wilderness of Alaska. 

Through all that time, the parks loved me well.