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.