National Geographic : 1985 Jan
"People sometimes ask what bears do all day in the high country. Mostly, I think they just sleep and dream about all the perspiring backpackers plodding up the trails loaded with prime steaks and ham, pancake mix and strawberry jam, nuts and raisins and chocolate bars. "When people and bears get to quarreling over the food, we try to determine who start ed it. If it was the bear, we just tranquilize him and carry him off into the backcountry. But too many campers foolishly keep leav ing food in their tents, against park regula tions. Sometimes we'd like to ship them off to the backcountry-or wherever they come from." H IKERS are supposed to stay on the trails, but they too often don't. I saw dozens of their shortcuts on the switch backs; it means plants and flowers get crushed; it starts erosion, which leads to gullies and washouts. Ranger Ferdinand Castillo has a particu lar problem with it. Hundreds of people stop every day at his 9,945-foot-high Tioga Pass entrance to the park, and this young-old Mexican American greets them with an in fectious grin and gift of gab. He's done it for 31 years and has the coveted Yosemite Award for dedication to his job. "They'd ruin this beautiful alpine mead ow if I didn't keep 'em on the paths," Ferdi nand told me. "You should see people walk right up in front of me, standing here in uni form and right under this American flag, and start picking the flowers!" Ferdinand's cheerful smile can also give way to fleeting shadows of hopelessness at some of the questions tourists ask: "Who plants the wildflowers?" "Which way to Old Faithful?" There's hope though, he told me. "People used to hack off branches of living trees for firewood or pine-bough mattresses. They don't do that any more." Increasing con sciousness about the environment is show ing up as new reverence by citizens for their national parks. Despite crowds and com mercialism, much of Yosemite's glory is being maintained unimpaired. For three days I hiked the Tuolumne Riv er's superb upper canyon. Its lower half, once perhaps as spectacular as Yosemite Valley itself, was inundated to form the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, to fill the taps of San Francisco. At least what I was witness ing now hadn't been destroyed-the Tuol umne dancing and plunging and foaming down this wild stairway of cascades and waterfalls. This wilderness valley was one of John Muir's passions; the decision to flood it nearly killed him. Down its remaining rocky reach a trail crew was building a handsome granite stair case. Like dedicated hikers, the trail crew, too, had John Muir books in their tents or packs. Most of them were youths enlisted in the California Conservation Corps, mod eled on the U. S. Civilian Conservation Corps that worked on Yosemite trails here during the Depression of the 1930s. Around their campfire these young CCCers told me their motto was "hard work, low pay, miserable conditions." They were proud of it. It was accurate, too, except for the food heaped on our plates by a black haired, 22-year-old Julia Child named Nadine Azevedo. She'd graduated from splitting rocks to a higher calling, creating gourmet dinners, and this one now hushed everyone for half an hour of sacramental si lence in this templed wilderness. The art of trail building owes a lot to a lit tle guy named Jim Snyder, whose sideburns are partly a tribute to his patron saint, John Muir. For 20 years Jim has developed ma sonry techniques that he first learned from studying the construction of ancient Greek and Roman temples. Trails, and Yosemite, are his religion. One day Jim and I climbed up miles of switchbacks to the top of Yosemite Falls. His crew was bringing this trail back from disaster. Four years before, thousands of tons of rock, loosened by earthquakes and water and ice, had collapsed off the canyon wall, wiping out the trail and leaving three people dead and seven in the hospital. "If it had happened in July instead of No vember, the toll could have been a hun dred," he said. To bring down hundreds of tons of still threatening granite, Jim had been lowered about a thousand feet down the Forbidden Wall to set dynamite charges. "It wasn't fun," he admitted. "I'd like to have let the rangers do it, but they weren't trained in handling dynamite. So they led Yosemite-Forever?