• Otter Views: Rationales change; Yosemite endures

    by Tom Stevens

    Wheezing up a switchback trail in the high country recently, I reflected that Yosemite may seem changeless, but one’s reasons for visiting it can change.

    When I first saw the park in 1970, I wanted to experience its storied majesty, so California friends took me to Yosemite Valley. It was a beautiful spring day. The sky was blue, the river was swift, and the waterfalls thundered. Majesty abounded.

    We toured the valley, did the Bridal Veil Falls hike and checked out the famous rock climbers at Camp 4. Young and unprepared, we spent that night shivering under blankets in a dewy meadow. As compensation, the full moon rose and bathed Half Dome in a cool, surreal glow. All night long, the waterfalls unraveled in the moonlight like silver braids.

    As had millions of others, I fell under the park’s spell. In the decades that followed, no California visit was complete without at least one Yosemite trip. And having slept once in the open, I learned the virtues of down, Gore-Tex, rip-stop and fiberfill.

    Backpacking opened up whole new rationales for visiting Yosemite. While the valley afforded grandeur, majesty and spectacle, the back country added endurance challenges, snowy vistas and icy lake swimming. For me in those years, simply hiking up there and camping validated one’s fitness and preparedness. It was a sort of macho measurement for the meek.

    Once the macho years were over, I discovered Yosemite could be fun if you packed in an inflatable boat. Granted, the plastic boat and its aluminum oars slowed one’s hiking pace, but my pace had slowed anyway. The up side was that once I reached a lake, I didn’t need to hike any more: I’d just blow up the boat, set the pack on the stern, and row to an inviting campsite.

    “Boat packing” augmented Yosemite’s other allurements. Not only was there grandeur, majesty, spectacle and validation of personal fitness, but the boat enabled freedom and exploration. Aesthetic expression also flourished as drawings and moonlight photos were made from the boat. A wooden flute aimed at a lakeside cliff could harmonize with its own granitic echoes.

    Fast forward 15 years. At 66, I’m still in the plastic rowboat phase, but my rationale for packing it to the lake has changed. Where once I sought aesthetic expression, I now just want to drift, look and listen. The challenge this time is a sort of metabolic one: can I still my inner chatter long enough to savor the silence?

    Maybe “silence” is the wrong word. While a back country lake seems silent compared with city life, it’s not as if sound stops in the mountains. But sound is subtler there, and so is motion. Swallows and dragonflies aside, very little moves fast up there. Even the raptors circle slowly, slowly in the afternoon light.

    I’ve found that lazy drifting stills the heart and mind so nature can emerge: the flicker of aspen leaves, the slap of wavelets on stone, the buzz of a fly. In the green shallows, fallen trees whiten like lost bones. The granite cliffs overhead reveal a secret geometry of angles, lines, fissures and fractures. An osprey soars from a distant treetop.

    No wooden flute greets the full moon this year. Instead, silvery mayflies draw lake fish to the surface, and the dusk resounds with soft “plops.” Swooping from dark trees, a three-bat squadron pursues the same mayfly dinner, flitting silently over violet water.

    At length, hunger beckons me ashore. I pull the boat up onto soft grass and start searching the meadow. The Bear Proof Food Container is out there somewhere.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on September 14, 2012

    Topics: Otter Views

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