Saturday, June 6, 2015

East of the Sierra again

Yesterday we had huge, gigantic plans to go over Tioga Pass and see half a dozen things before coming back. We always do this and we never manage to get it all done. I think we saw about half of the list and it was still worth the drive.

Outside the fee station on the east side of the park is this lovely view. There were no cars lined up to get into or out of the park, and only one other car at the pullout, a far cry from a couple of weeks ago.

There's still a good distance to drive after leaving the park on the way to Highway 395 that runs north and south. It's the same road that Manzanar is on, south of here. 

Clouds were gathering over the Sierra. I love how the sky looks when they gather over the mountains.

I heard a Ranger at Yosemite say there is no such thing as the Sierras, or the Sierra Nevadas. It's just the Sierra. The name comes from the Spanish, meaning snowy mountain range. From this website comes a lively discussion on the irritation Sierra-philes feel with the pluralization of any part of the name. It also summarizes the history of the name

The great mountain range that dominates Tulare County has a Spanish name. The title dates back to April 1776, when a Spanish soldier named Pedro Font pushed inland from newly discovered San Francisco Bay and saw a range of high mountains far to the east.
Describing what he saw, he mapped the feature as una gran sierra nevada - literally "a big snowy mountain range." The name stuck. We still use it more than two centuries later.
Notice that Font, on that first day of European awareness of California's biggest mountains, got something very basic right. He grasped on that long ago day that California's Sierra Nevada was a single, continuous entity. This is why he called it the Sierra Nevada. If he had thought of it a complex of mountain ranges, he could have used the plural form: las sierras nevadas. But he didn't.
The Spanish language habit of calling a mountain ridge a sierra dates back a very long time. The word originally meant "serrated," and thus also came to mean "saw blade." 

One reason our eyes are always bigger than our accomplishments is we have never met a side road we didn't like. The plan was to drive directly to Devils Postpile National Monument but when I saw the June Lake Loop road approaching and asked HH, "OK?" and he said "Of course!" our itinerary was doomed.

The loop road not only goes by June Lake, but also Grant, Silver, and Gull Lakes. It's a resort community tucked away from the highway and the busyness of Yosemite, and altogether as pretty. There are many campgrounds along the loop, most of them on one of the lakes or another, and fishing must be good because anglers were out all over.

After driving the loop we continued south on 395 to the turnoff for Mammoth Lakes, Devils Postpile, and Rainbow Falls. Just before the entrance station to the Postpile and Falls is a turnoff to the viewpoint for the Minarets, peaks off in the distance. 

I like old interpretive signs. At least I think it's an old one; the newer ones are slick and colorful. This etched metal sign is classic.

Here is a far-off view of the Minarets, to the right of center. 

And here is a closer view. Because sierra means serrated or sawtooth, the term could also be used for that small part of the range if someone hadn't made the fanciful connection to Arabic architecture. According to Wikipedia, the minarets collectively form an arête, an almost knife-like ridge of rock which is typically formed when two glaciers erode parallel U-shaped valleys. They're a prominent feature of Ansel Adams Wilderness, formerly called Minaret Wilderness. Oh, the stuff I learn when I write this blog.

In the opposite direction is Mammoth Mountain, a ski area when they get snow. You can see the lift line on the far left slope and between the two peaks on the left. More WikipediaMammoth Mountain was formed in a series of eruptions that ended 57,000 years ago. However, Mammoth still produces hazardous volcanic gases that kill trees and caused ski patroller fatalities in 2006.

Here's something else I love about the old interpretive displays. At the top of the pole is a metal pipe that's parallel to the ground. Pivot the pointer to the sight you want to see, look through the pipe, and there it is. Old school, low tech, and eminently useful.

After I got to use my new Golden Age Pass at the fee station, thanks to being eligible for Social Security, we drove to the parking area for the Devils Postpile. It's a different kind of geologic feature that I haven't seen outside of this part of California, volcanic in origin, unbelievably hot conditions that slowly cooled, creating geometric columns. 

In 1910 mining interests wanted to blast this area in order to dam the San Joaquin River. Thanks to a few good men, President Taft named Devils Postpile a National Monument in 1911, quick work when you think about the glacial pace of most government work. 

Isn't that amazing? There are areas of tortured rock in Death Valley that go against everything you think you know about rock not being bendable, and here's another graphic example.

When we drove over Sonora Pass a couple of weeks ago I made a quick turn into a parking lot labeled with the sign Columns of the Giant - too good a name to pass up. It's another example of the same ancient rock formations as the Postpile, but here there are no prohibitions against climbing:

Almost back to the parking area was a pretty framed scene of river, greenery, mountain, and clouds. There were people fishing along the river, a nice place and way to spend the day.

After returning from the short walk to the Devils Postpile we drove a little farther down the road to the trailhead for Rainbow Falls.

The Rainbow Fire blew its way through the area in 1992, ultimately burning 8,000 acres of dense forest. It seems renewal has been slow, but a nearby sign says sun-loving ferns, herbs, and berries are providing food for a variety of animals, who themselves are food for animals up the food chain. The sign also said that prior to settlers moving in, fires occurred every eight to thirty years, but due to grazing, fire suppression, and the decline of the Native American population (which regularly burned off the land) fuel in this area had accumulated for 117 years, contributing to the severity of the blaze.

I found the stark landscape photogenic...

...and had fun with forced perspective. You've seen photos of people holding up the Tower of Pisa? This highly sculpted tree trunk held a mountain top in its pincer grasp.

It was an interesting fire-made totem and I told myself I'd stop on my way back from the falls to get more photos, but I was getting rained on by then and didn't linger.

Here was the goal at the end of a mile-and-a-quarter walk. The 101-foot Rainbow Falls is so called because at midday a rainbow arcs across the mist just above the river. It wasn't a day for sunshine and rainbows but the falls were beautiful nonetheless.

The tiny side falls are especially pretty.

The walk back to the trailhead was uphill. What is it with this country? Even though it was just over a mile, the elevation is in the neighborhood of 8,000 feet and I felt every step.

We continued to Mammoth Lakes for lunch, then decided to go home. Bishop, and the Bristlecone Pine Forest, were another 45 minutes south and the day was getting late. There's so much to see on that side of the Sierra so we know there are more trips we need to make across the mountains.

The clouds continued to move in and we drove into rain, and then snow, as we approached Tioga Pass.

The ranger at the entrance station welcomed us with a Merry Christmas, also saying that there was no snow all winter and this is June in the Sierra.

Note the temperature: 34 degrees at 10,000 feet. By the time we got home, the temperature was back to about 75 and the house air conditioner was going full blast.


Thought of the day:

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Tioga Pass and beyond

We were in the mood for a road trip a week ago and decided to tackle Tioga Road and, consequently, Tioga Pass, last weekend. The idea was to go over to Mono Lake, turn around and come back, but it didn't work out that way, and aren't we lucky that it didn't.

First stop was Olmsted Point, named for Frederick Law Olmsted and his son, Frederick, Jr., when Tioga Road opened to car traffic in 1961. I'm kind of fascinated with Olmsted and when I saw the point on the map, I knew I had to see it. 

It can be said that Olmsted was a late bloomer, or to paraphrase Edison, he tried several ways to make a living that weren't going to work for him - among others, as a seaman, merchant, and farmer. He was more successful as a journalist: he traveled in England to visit and write about public gardens, and to the American South in the pre-Civil War years writing about his conclusions on economic and social conditions resulting from the institution of slavery.

He also served as Executive Secretary of the Sanitary Commission, a precursor to the Red Cross, during the Civil War, helped to organize three African American regiments in New York, and raised one million dollars for the Sanitary Commission. He was a cofounder of the magazine, The Nation.

Along with his journalistic and Sanitary Commission work, he sidled into the competition to design New York's Central Park with architect Calvert Vaux. As Wikipedia subtly understates it, until then "Olmsted had never actually designed and executed a landscape design." They won, and between the two of them, the term and the profession of "landscape architect" was born.

Olmsted and his son, the Jr. mentioned above, who continued the tradition, ultimately designed hundreds of public parks and academic campuses from sea to shining sea. Olmsted's vision was founded on the principle of open access, of egalitarian design, of public spaces belonging, shockingly enough, to the public. In 1863 he came west to become manager of a mining estate in the Sierra Nevada, and that was his introduction to Yosemite. He ultimately was chair of the first commission to manage Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, and wrote a report recommending a policy for the care and protection of the park's scenery and wildlife. An excellent biography of Olmsted is Genius of place: the life of Frederick Law Olmsted, by Justin Martin. 

So that was a long wind up to the few photos I have from Olmsted Point. Here they are.

There's nothing spectacular about this except the mystery of bare scrapes of rock that somehow support life.

Abundant glaciated rocks, identifiable by their rounded edges - as opposed to sharp-edged rock-fall rocks - look like a giant has scattered birdseed. Tenaya Lake is just visible at the base of the mountains.

A closer look at the lake and the thousands of acres of trees that were just the beginning of what we saw. We saw limitless swaths of conifers that day, more than I'd ever seen in my life. Thankfully most of it is protected in designated Wilderness, Forest Service, and state land.

Tenaya Lake comes nearly to the edge of the road. It's at an elevation of about 8100 feet and while popular for winter sports, it may be too cold for all but the hardiest swimmers. The same glacier that carved it out also created Half Dome in Yosemite Valley.

As we passed the entrance station at the east end of the park we made the decision to go the long way around to get back home. There were probably 500 cars in another single, glacial line, just like the entrance station near us at this end. I have a suggestion, Park Service: when there are few cars leaving, establish a stop line in the outgoing lane back from the station and allow one car at a time, holders of park passes only, to enter in that lane. When someone shows up to leave, let them out and then bring another car over to enter. Get a volunteer to be the traffic director and it will cost nothing. 
It makes sense to me.

We drove through the town of Lee Vining and stopped at the Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center. The most interesting thing there to me were nests built under the eaves at the front of the building. I watched the birds swooping into and away from the nests for a long time and went back into the building to ask about them. They're cliff swallows and the nests are built one mudball at a time. It's a labor intensive process, building the thousand-pellet nests, so much so that a pair of birds can work at it only about three hours a day. The rest of the time is spent resting and feeding. Nevertheless, a nest is completed in a week.

According to the handout I got at the visitor center, observers have seen the birds scoop up mouthfuls of mud and hover over the puddle, seeming to test the weight, and then fly off with it to the nest, which can be used for several years. They're sometimes abandoned if pests such as mites invade the colony but once the invaders' numbers have decreased the birds will again populate the nests.

What looks like beige beaks peeking out is actually coloring on the forehead; the beak extends from the bottom of the triangle.

Shortly after the center was built nets were installed to prevent the birds from moving in. I think common sense prevailed in the end because the birds continue to make their condo-like homes under the sheltering overhang.

Just past the visitor center is Mono Lake, these days a relatively nondescript body of water, to me at least. Many years ago Voldemort and I took a long motorcycle trip from Washington state down through much of California, including  over Tioga Pass in Yosemite and past this lake, which was gorgeous to me at the time, to say the least. 

I hate to think that because of all the places I've traveled, because of all the majesty and breathtaking sights I've seen, that I'm getting used to beautiful places. That I'm becoming immune. That I'm becoming jaded. I would hate that so very much, but this lake did nothing for me this time around.

Below is a section of Mono Lake with some of its tufa formations exposed. I've seen some spectacular photos of the formations but the spectacularity wasn't on exhibit when HH and I went by. Check out the wikipedia article on tufa to see what I mean.

The road over Sonora Pass tops out at just over 9600 feet, less than Tioga Pass but much more challenging to drive and, in my opinion, more beautiful. It runs east-west north of Yosemite, through Stanislaus National Forest. There are endless S curves, switchbacks, hairpin turns, a grade of 26% in one place, and not a lot less in others. This is not a road for those tending to motion sickness, and I was very glad I was driving. As we approached the road we saw signs warning about travel trailers and other rigs over a certain length, and as I continued the drive I could easily see the folly of heaving a 6-ton trailer around those turns. I couldn't have done some of them and stayed in my lane.

It is a breathtaking drive. We stopped just a couple of times, one of them being at Donnell Vista, an overlook showcasing a reservoir snugged deep in the canyon.

The puddles in the rock below made me think of the acorn grinding rock I saw on the Merced River. I think it possible that was the use made of this rock as well, or it could be a remnant of glacial carving.

The clouds were moving in. As I turned to go back to the truck the peak of a nearby mesa was being obscured by what looked like low clouds but were probably at 8000 feet. This was another good image for black and white.

I was getting tired and still had many miles over winding roads to go, but it was a wonderful trip. While I was looking up facts about some of the places I mention here, I saw that we missed a lot of places where we should have stopped. There will be another road trip, maybe when the leaves are turning in the fall.

Thought of the day:

Trees are the earth's endless effort to speak to the listening heaven. - Rabindranath Tagore

Friday, May 29, 2015


Last summer at the North Rim, and it's hard to believe it will be a year next week that we went there, we kept springing leaks in our sewer hose. Yes. Gross. They're not expensive, but they're also not free, and it bugged me that we had to replace a couple one right after another. We sprung for a heavier-duty one and it too developed holes, so back it went. (We, meaning HH, rinsed it out before boxing it up.) It took us a while, but we eventually concluded that it was ravens looking for water that were the culprit. I don't know that we ever saw any pecking away, but we nonetheless pinned it on them. They are smart animals, no doubt about it. The question then was, what were we going to do to keep them from continuing their bad behavior? 

Reluctantly I adopted a Sanford and Son approach, the only thing we could think of: we encircled the hose with lengths of aluminum stove pipe and resorted to zip-tying them on because, as I said, ravens are smart. It was pretty embarrassing to have a junkyard ambiance but that's what it took, and it worked.

Surprisingly, we had no problem with ravens at Death Valley despite less water there than at the North Rim, so fast forward to Yosemite. Here, I had to sign a paper saying I'd abide by the rules pertaining to animals, specifically bears. The saying is, A fed bear is a dead bear, and the stories abound. HH's son David told me about bears somehow learning that VW Beetles, known to humans for being airtight, could be popped open like a paper bag by jumping on them. Cheryl Koehler, in her book Touring the Sierra Nevada, says a Ranger told her that bears learn to recognize vehicle models that are easy to break into, and if one found food in a red car, that color car would be a target for weeks. Smart like a raven.

Signs at parking lots around the Valley say to leave just about everything out of sight, including baby wipe packages, coolers, and grocery bags, because bears have come to associate them with food found in vehicles. Hanging food from trees is no longer a solution in the backcountry; instead, a bulky and so far bear-proof canister must be used. The top is opened with a coin or something similar. And not just food has to be stored this way: toothpaste, deodorant, or scented anything has to be sealed away.
"Bear resistant food storage canister 1"
by Cullen328 Jim Heaphy - Own work. 

I saw a small sign in the building I work in about bears' diets in the wild versus the dangers of food items left around residential areas:

Dumpsters everywhere here have chutes that lock closed with clips. Throughout the park in parking lots, tent camping areas, some trailheads, and at the rear of our parking spot are heavy-duty steel food storage boxes with drop fronts that fasten closed with clips. They too have so far been bear-resistant. One of them holds our two small coolers. I had the large cat food bag in there too until I discovered that the boxes aren't insect-proof. Other items that need to go in, if we don't have room inside the house, even include canned goods because of odors from the packaging process that cling to them.

I didn't use them at first but got religion after an episode one night. We used the propane grill for a couple of steaks and I didn't store it when I finished with it. That night I heard a small aluminum table the grill was sitting on go over but I was drifting off to sleep and didn't get up. The next morning I found the grill strewn around. A jug of vinegar I'd left on the picnic table that I was going to use to descale some plumbing fittings was punctured and drained, and a plastic jug of cat litter that was sitting under the house had two big puncture holes in its side (but not tipped over; I'm still trying to picture how that happened).

One morning last weekend HH called to me to come quickly; there was a bear out the back window, just wandering the yard. I grabbed the camera only to remember that I had removed the card to transfer pictures to the computer, and I scrambled to pop another one in just in time to see the animal, tagged and collared, slowly moving away after cruising by the bear boxes. Our own personal bear paid us another visit in hopes we continued to disregard the rules. Not anymore. 

Later we noticed that the sewer hose was shredded. I wondered how desperate the bear could be if it needed to get into that nasty thing but then realized the kitchen sink also drains through it, carrying any small food particles that go out with the wash water. HH patched it up, pulled out the stove pipe from the storage compartment, and we now again look like Sanford and Son. I have no illusions that these flimsy sections of aluminum will deter this animal. They're not even zip tied on.


Thought of the day:


Saturday, May 23, 2015

Channeling Georgia

When I lived in Washington the first time, we had a house on almost four acres. A lot of it was fenced pasture, some of it was down a ravine, but close to the house was a collection of raised beds for vegetables and an open flower garden area. At that time I was working at a junior high school so I had summers off and I traded working with books in the school library for working with new favorite things - plants in my garden.

I was a city girl and had never had a garden like I made at that house. Maybe I'd plant a lilac here or there, but nothing ever on the scale of that property. I estimated that I spent more time outdoors the first summer we were there than I had all of my life until then. It was a full time job that I loved. The lengthening days filled me with an excitement to go to nurseries and into the garden.

A few weeks ago HH and I drove to Superstition Iris Farm. When I lived in Washington there were lavender, tulip, rhododendron, peony, and dahlia gardens and farms that I enjoyed visiting so I jumped at the chance when I saw iris were in bloom. Add to that the fact that HH had never experienced such a thing, which in itself is an event, and it was a done deal.

It really was gorgeous inside. I think we were there about mid-season, so some plants had already peaked and some were still in bud, but there was plenty to see and make me wistful that I still had a garden.

What color iris do you want? Yes, they have it whether it's a modern or heirloom variety.

These are all examples of bearded iris, so called because of the fuzzy strip at the base of the bloom.

Because I love flower close-ups, I've cropped my photos significantly. To my eye, angels, not the devil, are in the details. I share Georgia O'Keeffe's appreciation of an intimate view of a flower.

The spectrum of color is wide-ranging, from a deep purple that is almost black, to ivory, gold, or the frothiest pink.

The elegant petals of the bearded iris serve very practical purposes. The upright petals or standards act as colorful flags to attract pollinating insects.

The downward curving petals, or falls, function as a landing pad for pollinators.

Blotches and veining work like a map that directs the insect to the nectar.

And the distinctive, fuzzy beard attached to the falls helps the pollinators to hang on once there.

Back in the day I was a quilter and read somewhere that if you couldn't decide if colors "went together," consult with nature. 

Superstition Iris Farm has a catalog to order from, but there's nothing like seeing the flowers in bloom firsthand.

With thanks to the University of Minnesota Extension for help in describing the function of the flower parts.


Thought of the day:

If you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it's your world for a moment. - Georgia O'Keeffe