April 27, 2015

Safe harbor for Alameda’s seals — M.O.U. ensures replacement haul-out site

Photo courtesy Andrew Reding on Flickr.

Photo courtesy Andrew Reding on Flickr.

There’s great news on a project in the City of Alameda that could have left harbor seals homeless. As part of a project to construct a ferry-maintenance facility at Alameda’s Inner Bay Harbor, the Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) plans to remove an abandoned dock that harbor seals currently use for feeding, hauling out, and even delivering pups. But following a backlash from environmentalists and other fans of the seals, WETA has signed a Morandum of Understanding (MOU) with the City of Alameda to build an alternate haul-out site for the harbor seals to replace the old dock.

According to the staff report, WETA will establish a $100,000 holding fund earmarked for planning, design, and construction of the new haul out. The location of the haul out will be determined in coordination with the City, but WETA will be the lead party responsible for permitting and building the haul out — construction on which must begin on or before August 2016 and prior to demolition of the existing haul-out site. If the City determines that WETA is unable to commence construction of the new haul out by that date, it has the right to take over the project and use the funds in the holding fund account. Once the haul out has been built, WETA will be responsible for keeping the structure in good repair.

As the WETA representative admitted at a recent City Council meeting, they’re already spending tens of millions of dollars on this project, so they wouldn’t not agree to spend a relatively small amount more in order to be able to move forward. Whatever the reason, we’re thrilled that the seals will have safe “harbor” in Alameda!

Caring for California’s natural treasures: support funds for State Parks

Mt. Tamalpais State Park. Photo via Flickr.com/photos/34186459@N00/3545531114.

Mt. Tamalpais State Park. Photo via Flickr.com/photos/34186459@N00/3545531114.

California State Parks have been underfunded for years, resulting in reduced operations, threatened closures, and lack of adequate maintenance.  State Parks are important state assets, providing protection for our natural resources, healthy recreation opportunities for our citizens, and economic contributions to the local economy from visitor spending.

The Governor’s ​2015-16 ​budget proposes to provide a very modest one​-​time increase of $16 million to the Department of Parks and Recreation to maintain current service levels at California’s State Parks. Th​is funding stability is essential to allowing park leaders to focus on the needed internal operations improvements recommended in the Parks Forward Commission report, the goal of which is to ensure the system’s long-term viability. The Sierra Club encourages the appropriation of additional funds that would allow the parks system to increase hours at some parks and restore some services at others.​       ​

The ​Governor’s proposed budget also includes $20 million to address the deferred maintenance backlog in State Parks. We support an even larger allotment​ for deferred maintenance, which will help protect these precious state assets from further damage. Last year’s deferred maintenance budget allotment was never enacted.

WhatYouCanDo

Please contact your local Senator and Assemblyperson to urge support for the State Parks Budget appropriations and increases therein. You can find out who your representatives are online at http://findyourrep.legislature.ca.gov. State Parks in the Bay Chapter include Mt. Diablo State Park, Angel Island State Park, China Camp State Park, Mt. Tamalpais State Park, McLaughlin Eastshore State Park, and Candlestick Point State Park. They are the gems of the Bay Area, and are all heavily used by Bay Area residents and visitors from all over the world. They must be kept open, accessible to all, and adequately maintained.

— Alan Carlton

 

 

Letter to the editor — NPS: “Golden Gate National Recreation Area works to help coho salmon survive in Redwood Creek”

Redwood Creek watershed location

Redwood Creek watershed location

Coho salmon have been in the news lately, including the last issue of Yodeler. The number of salmon in Redwood Creek and elsewhere on the California Coast has dropped to alarmingly low levels.

The National Park Service (NPS) appreciates the public’s interest in the status of Redwood Creek salmon and what can be done to reverse their decline. As part of our stewardship mission we have been actively involved for several decades in working to protect and improve coho populations in the Redwood Creek.

Why have the salmon numbers dropped so low? The absence of progeny of the class of 2007-08 was the subject of the article in the December-January issue of the Yodeler, titled “On the brink: Is it too late to save the salmon of Redwood Creek in Muir Woods?” The reasons are complex, and require an understanding of the salmon life cycle.

Coho salmon are anadromous and generally spend one year in streams before migrating to the Pacific Ocean, to rear for another 1.5 years. Adults return to their streams of origin generally as three-year-olds, with little mixing among different year classes. During their lives, salmon are vulnerable to condition changes in the ocean and stream habitats. A study by National Marine Fisheries Service found that there was a 73% decline in coho salmon adults returning in winter 2007-08 to California streams due to unfavorable ocean conditions, particularly warm, low nutrient water that leads to lower food production. Almost no coho returned to Redwood Creek that year. When populations drop to extremely low levels, they are at a much higher risk due to inbreeding and unfavorable environmental conditions such as the droughts and extreme flood events that have characterized the past several years.

Since the early 1990s, the NPS has worked to improve habitat conditions for salmonids in the Redwood Creek watershed. While much of the watershed is in public ownership and managed by agencies and organizations with strong resource stewardship interests, there is a legacy of past land management activities including stream channelization and instream wood removal that reduced the natural capacity of the creek to support salmon.

Historical estimates of Central California Coast coho spawners (Source: National Marine Fisheries Service 2012 Coho Recovery Plan Executive Summary)

Historical estimates of Central California Coast coho spawners (Source: National Marine Fisheries Service 2012 Coho Recovery Plan Executive Summary)

In the early 2000s, the NPS participated with various stakeholders to develop a framework for habitat protection and restoration, including salmonids, at watershed and site-specific scales. We moved facilities away from drainages, added fencing to protect riparian habitat, and reduced adult salmon passage barriers. Several restoration projects are completed including instream and floodplain restoration at Muir Beach. We are working with other resource agencies and the water provider for the town of Muir Beach to improve summer instream flows for fish. Current projects include a captive rearing and release program to “jumpstart” the coho population, stream water quality assessment, and continued long-term monitoring of salmon and habitat conditions.

We have partnered with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) during the past two decades on this project. Gail Seymour, CDFW Supervisor, put it this way: “The NPS commitment to watershed restoration is a critical part of species recovery efforts in Redwood Creek as well as the overall Central California Coast coho salmon region.”

Helping the coho survive in Redwood Creek will take a concerted effort by resource agencies and the public. For those interested in helping, there are several winter volunteer opportunities. Visit http://go.usa.gov/zRVx to learn more.

— Darren Fong, Aquatic Ecologist, Golden Gate National Recreation Area

Help us protect Berryessa Snow Mountain on Friday, December 19

Tired hikers in the extreme south of the proposed National Monument get a glimpse of Lake Berryessa. Photo courtesy of Tuleyome.

Tired hikers in the extreme south of the proposed National Monument get a glimpse of Lake Berryessa. Photo courtesy of Tuleyome.

The Berryessa Snow Mountain region is the crown jewel of Northern California’s wild Inner Coast Range. Efforts to protect this wild place go back over a decade. Right now, we finally have the opportunity to protect Berryessa Snow Mountain as a national monument — and we need your help!

Please attend an important public meeting about the future of Berryessa Snow Mountain this Friday:

Friday, December 19, 2-4 pm
Napa Valley College Performing Arts Center
2277 Napa-Vallejo Hwy, Building 100 Napa, CA 94558

This meeting will be hosted by Representative Mike Thompson and attended by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Undersecretary of Agriculture Robert Bonnie, Representative John Garamendi and other officials seeking public response to the idea of protecting Berryessa Snow Mountain as a National Monument. Your attendance and enthusiasm at this meeting will go a long way toward protecting this important landscape and rewarding Berryessa Snow Mountain with the “star on the map” as a national monument that this place has long deserved. There will be an opportunity for the public to speak so please be ready to talk about why this area is important to you! National monuments are areas of public lands that have unique attributes that merit protection for future generations. Please help to make that a reality by attending the meeting on December 19th!

Transportation will be available from the following locations, but you must RSVP:

  • Davis – Amtrak Station, 840 Second Street
  • Winters – Community Center, 201 Railroad Avenue
  • Sacramento – Convention Center, 1400 J Street
  • Berkeley – North Berkeley BART Station, 1750 Sacramento Street

For more information and to RSVP contact: Mike Thornton, California Coastal Organizer, Sierra Club California/Our Wild America, at Michael.thornton@sierraclub.org or 916-803-5942.

Let’s protect Berryessa Snow Mountain – now and forever!

National Wilderness Conference inspires a new generation of activists

Vicky Hoover at the National Wilderness Conference.

Vicky Hoover at the National Wilderness Conference.

Enlightening. Profound. Sobering. Just a few adjectives for the National Wilderness Conference, held October 15-19, 2014, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. Over 1,200 people from dozens of organizations and federal resource agencies converged on Albuquerque for the first national gathering of the wilderness community in 25 years.

The conference offered a rich array of plenary sessions, presentations, panels, exhibits, films, field trips, and skill-development workshops. Six wilderness themes were woven into every aspect of the programming: stewardship, education, history, experience, civic engagement, and science. The companion Wilderness Celebration Exhibition showcased organizational booths surrounding a “Wilderness Awareness Trail” for students. The culmination was a free-to-the-public outdoor “Get Wild” festival with music, Native American dance, kids’ stories and activities, and keynote speakers rallying to action a new and more diverse generation of wilderness advocates.

Throughout the conference, a litany of threats to the integrity and very existence of our National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS) was explored. The Wilderness Act promised to “secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.” Yet, while the amount of land designated as wilderness has increased since 1964 by over ten-fold—from 9 million to nearly 110 million acres, 14% of which are in California—the wildness of those lands has not been well safeguarded. Human impacts from nearby development, population growth, climate change, and inadequate stewardship continue degrading wilderness values. Those manifold values include solitude and refuge from the sights and sounds of civilization in places where ecosystems remain undeveloped and intact, where natural processes unfold without direct human intervention.

When the Wilderness Act was signed into law, it was after years of effort building a broad public and political consensus about the “idea” of wilderness: that it is fundamental to our national character and must be protected. That consensus has eroded, even as pressures on our wild areas have increased from all sides.

Acknowledging these critical problems, leaders of the four federal agencies responsible for protecting the NWPS—the National Park Service, the National Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management—ceremonially signed a “2020 Vision” document setting interagency priorities for the next five years. The major themes are to: protect wilderness resources; connect people to their wilderness heritage; and foster excellence in wilderness leadership and coordination.

Energized and renewed by our experiences, several conference attendees from the Bay Chapter are collaborating to build on the momentum to improve and expand wilderness protection. Three current wilderness proposals in our area are:

  • Central Coast Heritage Protection Act. This bill would add roughly 300,000 acres of wilderness, scenic areas, and other protections and 159 miles of wild and scenic rivers in the Los Padres National Forest and Carrizo Plain National Monument.
  • The current Forest Plan process in Inyo, Sierra, and Sequoia National Forests, which could and should include Wilderness recommendations from the Forest (see “Help secure Wilderness designation for National Forest lands!” for what you can do to help).
  • Senator Diane Feinstein’s new California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act, a bill to be introduced in January when Congress reconvenes. According to the Senator’s website, “The bill builds on Feinstein’s historic California Desert Protection Act, which became law in 1994. The new legislation is designed to protect additional land and help manage California’s desert resources by carefully balancing conservation, recreation and renewable energy development.”

If you are working to mitigate climate change, encourage smart growth and effective public transportation, shift toward sustainable food and energy systems, and reduce our ecological footprint, then you are also working on behalf of wilderness. If you’d like to join the conversation and get involved more directly in wilderness advocacy work in our chapter, please contact Alan Carlton at carltonal@yahoo.com, Anne Henny at anneth16@sbcglobal.net, or Teri Shore at terishore@gmail.com.

—Anne Henny

Help secure Wilderness designation for National Forest lands!

The three National Forests in the heart of the High Sierra, Inyo, Sierra, and Sequoia, are revising their Forest Plans. As a part of this process, they are required to identify and evaluate lands that may be suitable for inclusion in the wilderness system and determine whether to recommend any such land for wilderness. The ultimate determination as to whether to recommend lands for wilderness designation is made by the Forest Supervisor. The Forests may also protect lands by other special designations.

Wilderness designation is the highest form of protection the government can give to a public land. No roads, vehicles or permanent structures are allowed in designated wilderness. A wilderness designation also prohibits activities like logging or mining.

The Sierra Club and other allied groups, including the Wilderness Society, the California Wilderness Coalition, and Friends of the Inyo, have determined that certain areas in these three Forests meet the criteria of the Wilderness Act and should be recommended for wilderness designation. The final determination on wilderness will of course have to be made by Congress. Other areas should be given some other special designation.

WhatYouCanDo

The recommendations will be made in the near future. Please contact the Forest Supervisors in these three Forests and ask them to recommend the following areas for wilderness or to otherwise appropriately protect them in the Forest Plans. The easiest way is to copy the relevant message below and email it to the Supervisor at the provided email address. Of course, a hand-written letter might be even better!

inyoInyo National Forest:
Ed Armenta, Supervisor
351 Pacu Lane Suite 200
Bishop, CA 93514-3101


I support the following Wilderness and other Special Designations in the Inyo National Forest: Wilderness, Blanco, Dexter Canyon, Excelsior, Horse Meadows, and South Sierra.

For Backcountry Management designation: Paiute, Benton Range, and Black Canyon.

For Zoological or Botanical Area designation: Soldier Canyon.

For Special Management Area designation: Coyote Plateau, Mono Craters, Mt. Olsen, and Glass Mountain.


Lake_of_the_Lone_Indian_JMWSierra National Forest
Dean Gould, Supervisor
1600 Tollhouse Rd.
Clovis, CA 93611


I support the following Wilderness and other Special Designations in the Sierra National Forest: Wilderness, Ansel Adams Additions, Cat’s Head Mountain, Devils Gulch, Dinkey Lakes Additions, Graham Mountain, John Muir Additions, Kaiser Additions, Monarch Additions, Mt. Raymond, Shuteye, Soaproot, and Sycamore Springs.

For Backcountry Management designation: Chiquito Creek, North Fork Kings River, Peckinpah Creek, and San Joaquin River.


Sequoia National Forest
3_1_1_The_Giant_Forest
Kevin Elliot, Supervisor
1839 South Newcomb Street
Porterville, CA 93257


I support the following Wilderness and other Special Designations in the Sequoia National Forest: Wilderness, Lucas Creek, Lightner Peak, Mill Creek, Oat Mountain, Cannell, Chico, Bright Star Additions, South Sierra Additions, Golden Trout Additions, and Domeland Addition.

For Backcountry Management designation: Saturday Peak, Sunday Peak, and Lumreau Creek.

On the brink: is it too late to save the salmon of Redwood Creek in Muir Woods?

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Photo of Redwood Creek via Flickr Creative Commons, www.flickr.com/giofusco.

The federal government is spending billions of dollars in an attempt to save the endangered coho salmon, but the Sierra Club is concerned that these efforts are ignoring the real source of contamination—and meanwhile, our salmon are inching closer to extinction.

In Marin, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) collected comprehensive scientific research on our two most significant spawning grounds, Lagunitas Creek in the San Geronimo Valley and Redwood Creek, which traverses Muir Woods to reach Muir Beach and the Pacific Ocean (you can find the full text of NOAA’s “Recovery Plan for the Evolutionarily Significant Unit of Central Coast Coho Salmon” online here). As part of the habitat restoration effort, 15 million dollars was spent to restore Big Lagoon and Muir Beach. Yet these efforts did not save the latest generation of coho.

Thirteen adult spawners were counted this year but apparently none of the hatched fry from five observed nests survived. Scientists from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife confirm that for the first time in Redwood Creek’s recorded history, the local extinction of this year’s coho has occurred.

Earlier generations, now 18 months and three years old, are in deep trouble too. In August, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the National Marine Fisheries Service “rescued” the remaining coho in Redwood Creek and Mount Tamalpais State Park. They found no babies, instead transporting the 105 smolt-sized fish that failed to migrate out to sea to the Warm Springs Fish Hatchery in Sonoma. Although some of the smolt found this year may survive to spawn, the trajectory is not looking good.  Scientists warn of an “extinction vortex” for coho. A recovery threshold of 272 fish is the minimum indicated for Redwood Creek in the NOAA Fisheries Coho Recovery Plan.

All this begs the question: What happened to the coho young this year?

Though the National Park Service and other agencies have spent over 15 million dollars on habitat restoration, they have failed to test the water in Redwood Creek for contaminants. Every year, an estimated one million visitors and several-hundred thousand vehicles use the road that runs alongside Redwood Creek, leading to Muir Woods. Along a four-mile stretch of that road, 15 of 43 culverts deliver contaminated storm water directly into the creek. Road runoff is a well-documented source of toxins in creeks, and water contamination could be a significant factor in the coho’s plight.

Car brake pads emit copper, a known neurotoxin. Government scientists have concluded that low levels of copper found in waterways harm sense of smell in young coho salmon, reducing their ability to avoid predators and confusing migration and spawning ability. Copper tests cost only 10 dollars.

Moreover, a 2013 study from NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Washington linked unidentified compounds in highway runoff to coho salmon death. In that study, toxic chemicals that washed into creeks in the rush of stormwater after a rainfall were found to be killing adult salmon before they could spawn.

coho salmon graph

Chart compiled by Laura Chariton.

According to a regional water board spokesperson, parking alongside Redwood Creek should not be allowed because of the known vehicle contaminants. Yet on any given day a mile-long queue of parked cars lines the county-owned road along the creek. The National Park Service has suggested adding a valet service and online registration system, which would only exacerbate the problem.

Many believe our government and agencies have failed in their responsibility to protect our salmon, favoring visitors over natural resources. This is an occasion for the County of Marin to step forward and do what the federal and state agencies are apparently incapable of doing; the county must follow up on the billions of dollars spent on plans and research and take active steps to save these fish. Marin County owns the roads and must manage them. If we want Muir Woods to continue in harmony with the legacy upon which it was founded, then we need to save its native wildlife from extinction.

The solution: give Muir Woods a break from individual cars. Clean the water and restrict use until we can begin to recover the two remaining coho populations that are on the brink.

—Laura Chariton

Read more about coho salmon in Marin in “Marin Supervisors pass toothless streamside ordinance–will our salmon survive politics?“.

Correction: an earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that 1.4 million visitors and 350,000 vehicles use the road that runs alongside Redwood Creek leading to Muir Woods. These figures are actually one million and several hundred thousand, respectively.

In Alameda, rare S.F. Bay harbor seal habitat at risk

harborsealPacific harbor seals have been coming to Alameda Point to find food, suitable breeding habitat, and resting area in recent years, taking up residence at a site adjacent to Enterprise Park and the Bay Trail. The seals have been using the Alameda Point Channel and Inner Harbor for feeding, hauling out, and even delivering pups. Rather than encouraging their homestead, the Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) wants to kick them out. If WETA gets its way, it would be a permanent loss for the seals and a lost asset for the community of Alameda and visitors.

WETA’s plan for the Central Bay Operations and Maintenance Facility in Inner Bay Harbor—a ferry maintenance facility project—will have a profound impact on the marine ecosystem. One of its most prominent inhabitants, the harbor seals, have not been adequately addressed in the Incidental Harassment Authorization Level B permit application by WETA.

Following the end of Navy operations at Alameda’s Naval Air Station in 1997, the Navy’s recreational boating dock fell into disrepair. The simultaneous lack of maintenance and lack of human presence on the docks was ultimately fortuitous for the harbor seals that frequent the protected waterway. The dock itself, along with odd wooden structural debris that lodged against the dock, became an easy and inviting haul out for the seals, and an ideal spot to rear their pups.

Shoreline development is one of the primary reasons for harbor seal abandonment of San Francisco Bay. When haul-out sites are disturbed by nearby development or regular human presence, the seals are prone to depart for safer surroundings. In the case of the WETA ferry facility project, it is not a traditional natural shoreline that will be disturbed or destroyed.  But the dock’s demolition and replacement with an active berthing facility for 11 ferries will leave the harbor seals little choice but to move on.

The Sierra Club recommends that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS)—which will decide on WETA’s harassment authorization permit—apply additional mitigation measures to the project to compensate for the loss of harbor seal habitat. Given the geography of the Alameda Point Channel and Inner Harbor, the addition of a new haul-out dock nearby, possibly an anchored floating dock, should be evaluated as a mitigation measure to help retain the colony of harbor seals that find respite along Alameda Point’s shore.

It is unknown when NMFS will issue a finding on WETA’s petition application to move forward with its ferry project. NMFS could also call for going from an Environmental Assessment to an Environmental Impact Statement, which would undoubtedly involve a full-blown study of harbor seals at Alameda Point.

Before the project can begin, WETA will need a construction permit from the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC). It is unknown when they will apply for that permit, but likely after NMFS issues a decision on the harassment permit—probably early next year. BCDC can also require mitigation as a condition of issuing a permit.

WhatYouCanDo

Add your name to the petition asking WETA not to harass and displace the seals. For more information or to get more involved, contact Richard Bangert at alamedaptenviro-2013@yahoo.com. Look for future alerts calling on the BCDC to protect these precious marine mammals.

Marking the passage of the California Desert Protection Act, 20 years on

The Old Woman Mountains Wilderness in 1992, before the passage of the California Desert Protection Act.

The Old Woman Mountains Wilderness in 1992, before the passage of the California Desert Protection Act.

October 31, 1994! 

Why is that date special for California and the nation?

Sure, it was Halloween, but that happens every year. Twenty years ago, rather than ghosts or pumpkins, the highlight of the day was President Bill Clinton’s signing of the California Desert Protection Act, the largest single land-conservation measure ever to be enacted by the U.S. Congress for the lower 48 states.

Soon after then-Senator Alan Cranston introduced the bill into the U.S. Senate early in 1986, the San Francisco Bay Chapter began to play a leading role in advocating for this monumental legislation. The bill established 68 new Bureau of Land Management wilderness areas in the California Desert, established the new Mojave National Preserve, and expanded both Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Monuments and upgraded their status to national parks.

Previous desert activism had been concentrated in southern California, closer to the desert, which comprises fully one quarter of California’s land area. But Bay Area activists realized that in order to pass such a large land-preservation bill, all of California must offer support. The Bay Chapter’s Wilderness Committee persuaded the Sierra Club California/Nevada Regional Conservation Committee to establish a northern California Desert Task Force and began advocating for the bill. Their efforts took a number of forms.

County resolutions endorsing the bill proved to be a significant tool. In time, each of the Chapter’s four counties passed a resolution, led by local activists. Overall, 14 California counties (out of 58) endorsed the desert bill. While this may seem like a small minority, these were the counties with big urban populations, meaning that desert advocates could claim the support of 75 percent of California’s population.

In order to get people acquainted with the places we were fighting for, the Chapter led outings to some of the desert areas slated to receive protection. The Bay Chapter “adopted” three desert Wilderness Study Areas in the bill and designed a series of trips there. Numerous Chapter volunteers got their introduction to the beauties of the remote California desert through these trips.

Other strategies in the desert protection campaign included: helping run national phone banks at key moments in the congressional battle to get Sierra Club members in other states to contact their legislators; keeping northern California activists updated on events via regular meetings of the northern California Desert Task Force; taking part in several volunteer wilderness lobby weeks in Washington, DC to educate congressional offices on why the desert needed protection; and informing the Club’s general membership by running regular articles in  the Yodeler, which were then picked up by other Chapter newsletters.

Soon after the California Desert Protection Act was signed into law, the Club’s California/Nevada Regional Conservation Committee began partnering with the Needles office of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) (which had the most new desert wilderness area to manage), on a series of service trips to help the agency enhance wilderness values. This series continues to this day! The next trip with BLM, set for March 26- 29, 2015, is planned to the Old Woman Mountains. Trip leader Vicky Hoover will take sign-ups beginning in January. For more information, call Vicky at (415)977-5527, or email at vicky.hoover@sierraclub.org; the trip write-up appears in the December 2014 issue of the wilderness newsletter Words of the Wild; contact Vicky to be added to the electronic subscription list.

Twenty years after the passage of the California Desert Protection Act, it is time to reflect on the accomplishment and savor, once again, the newly protected areas in the California desert.

What is the attraction of the desert in a culture more accustomed to regard the colors “green” and “blue” as emblems of scenic beauty? Activist leader Elden Hughes used to say, “You must get over the color green.” That may take a while for some, but once that is accomplished the desert exerts a strong emotional pull. I know of no one who said it better than John Van Dyke, an early desert enthusiast, writing his prose poetry in 1901:

In sublimity — the superlative degree of beauty— what land can equal the desert with its wide plains, its grim mountains, and its expanding canopy of sky! You shall never see elsewhere as here the dome, the pinnacle, the minaret fretted with golden fire at sunrise and sunset; you shall never see elsewhere as here the sunset valleys swimming in a pink and lilac haze, the great mesas and plateaus fading into blue distance, the gorges and canyons banked full of purple shadow. Never again shall you see such light and air and color; never such opaline mirage, such rosy dawn, such fiery twilight. And wherever you go, by land or by sea, you shall not forget that which you saw not but rather felt — the desolation and the silence of the desert.

—John S. Van Dyke, The Desert, 1901

 Article by Vicky Hoover

Rain, snow, and fire on the John Muir Trail

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Teri Shore on the John Muir Trail.

It was my 14th day on the John Muir Trail when the early morning snowstorm hit me as I ascended the 12,130-foot mountain pass. I crouched down next to a boulder and tree for safety, while I decided what to do next: turn back, sit it out, or keep going?

Thankfully, a group of hikers from Oakhurst soon came up the trail behind me, and together we chanced it to the top. The snow, wind, and cold followed us up and over. After two hours of mayhem, we dropped down below tree line as the sun emerged. We made hot water and warmed up. Later I learned that anyone who happened to have been on a high pass that morning was pelted by snow—and survived. But the bad weather sent many folks home.

Anyone who backpacks regularly in the Sierra Nevada knows that sudden afternoon showers are a regular occurrence. But this summer, monsoon-driven rainstorms dumped far more than was usual. And snow falling at sunrise took everyone by surprise.

After leading backpacking trips for the Sierra Club San Francisco Bay Chapter for nearly 20 years, I decided to finally through-hike the John Muir Trail (JMT) this year in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The JMT is an epic, 211-mile path through the Sierra Nevada Mountains from Yosemite to Mount Whitney—the tallest peak in the lower 48 states. Along the way, the Trail winds through three magnificent wilderness areas: Yosemite, Ansel Adams, and John Muir. It took me 21 days to cover 185 of the 211-mile JMT, starting in Tuolumne Meadows on July 7 and summiting Mount Whitney on July 27.

With food and water, my packed weighed about 30 to 35 pounds. I ate lots of oatmeal, Krave jerky and string cheese, and instant mashed potatoes. My food drops were at Red Meadows and John Muir Ranch, and I paid a packer to carry in my last resupply over Kearsarge Pass. Like most people who hike at high altitude, I lost my appetite and had to force myself to eat chocolate and nut butter, foods I usually wolf down.

I was impressed to see a number of solo women hikers like myself out on the trail. We all got the same questions before we left, such as, “Won’t you be scared?” and “What happens if you get hurt?” and even “Are you carrying a gun?” We all agreed that we felt safer on the JMT than walking downtown in any city.

After the terrifying snowstorm on Pinchot, my thoughts turned to the 13,152-foot Forester Pass still ahead. As with Pinchot, fellow travelers I met on the trail would help me over the pass—this time, Majoet and Denis from Quebec. And again, the ascent wouldn’t be without incident. As we approached, Denis spotted smoke. Then, hikers coming down the mountain told us they had seen trees going up in flames. First snow, now fire! Concerned, our small party continued climbing to get above tree line, where, at least in theory, there was no fuel for a fire to burn. Within an hour a state fire department helicopter showed up to check on the fire. We made camp short of the pass and eventually the small blaze died down, though we could smell smoke throughout the night. In the morning, we climbed three hours to get to the top of Forester Pass, where I said goodbye to my companions and went on toward Mount Whitney and home.

Teri Shore is an avid backpacker and wilderness advocate who has led Sierra Club backpack trips for the San Francisco Bay Chapter Backpack Section since 1996. She adores Yosemite, the Sierra Nevada and Trinity Alps. She has climbed Mount Shasta and many non-technical Sierra peaks over 9,000 feet including Mount Conness, Mount Dana, and Mount Hoffman. She has also completed long treks in Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

Read Teri’s trail journal and see more photographs from her trip online here.