Welcome to my Wilderness Journal

You may enjoy my September 2012 blog: Sharing Experiences of Great Mystery, which describes the purpose of this wilderness log, photo-art gallery, and poetry corner. In Peace, Bob

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Regathering at Tuolumne Meadows after Forty Years

The autumnal Tuolumne River near Parson's Lodge

In mid-September 2013, as the Rim Fire raged just to the northwest, about a dozen researchers gathered with friends and family where we were privileged to work together four decades earlier. The place was Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows and the research was surveying backcountry use and evaluating the impacts of backpacking on Yosemite’s fragile subalpine ecosystem.

26-year old Bob taking the pulse of a Yosemite bear in 1975

In 1975 I was a long-haired graduate assistant helping the Park Service research and manage Yosemite’s black bears. The tent cabin I shared with my fellow bear researchers was located in the same Tuolumne Meadows “Bug Camp” that was the home base for the backcountry human impact researchers, who were mostly college students who hiked and camped for most of the summer in Yosemite’s backcountry.

Dan welcomes reunion participants

Dan was the lead backcountry impact researcher in the 1972-1975 study. As an undergraduate Dan initiated the project, hired his young researchers (most of whom had never backpacked before), enrolled the Park Service in the project and cobbled together funding and logistical support from friends (including an essential Dodge Power Wagon). The result was Dan’s graduate thesis which helped establish the ecological carrying capacity of Yosemite wilderness and led to the current wilderness permit system.

Tuolumne's magnificent Maybeck-designed and 1915-built Sierra Club Parson's Lodge

Naturally, it was Dan who organized the 40th Reunion at Tuolumne Meadow’s Parson’s Lodge. I was the only one of the bear researchers able to attend and I didn’t have a clear recollection of any of the backcountry impact researchers who attended (they worked mostly away from Bug Camp and we often worked at night and slept during the day). But I and my wife felt very much at home and welcomed at the reunion and we quickly made many new friends.

Dan and Jan reminisce and reflect on Yosemite wilderness research and management

Dan invited Jan, emeritus Park Service researcher, who was involved in the 1972-75 work and Mark, the current Wilderness Specialist who continues managing impacts on Yosemite’s backcountry. Those who wished to make a presentation shared how their careers and lives had unfolded since those formative summers in Yosemite. My presentation was Yosemite’s Cathedral: Entering Sacred Wilderness.

Sunrise behind Cathedral Peak

I was struck by four things: 1) the lasting value of this pioneering wilderness impact study, 2) Dan’s generous mentoring and support of his young students in the 1970s, 3) the wonderful personal and public accomplishments his researchers have individually created with their lives since their Yosemite work, and 4) how this group of talented people are a creative bridge between important wilderness conservationists and artists of the past and those just finding their voices today.

Obata's 1930 woodblock: Lake Basin in the High Sierra
My 2008 rephotograph of Obata's painting position and view

This intergenerational bridge includes reunion attendees who worked with or knew as family friends the wilderness activist David Brower, photographers Ansel Adams and Galen Rowell, and the artist Chiura Obata. Our common roots are interwoven with U. C. Berkeley, the Sierra Club, saving Mono Lake and Yosemite. I watched as Dan began to pass this wilderness preservation torch on to the next generation in the form of mentoring a young backcountry ranger named Chris who we met on our post-reunion backpack trip to Nelson Lake. Dan, whose mother was Obata’s last student, is encouraging me to get the unnamed lake that Obata painted in 1930 officially named Obata Lake.

Here are some of the achievements of this extraordinary gathering of Yosemite-inspired souls:

Anne, now a professor at Naropa Institute, has led western pilgrims on month-long trips to and around the sacred Tibetan peak of Kailas. Joe, an accomplished photographer and former student of Ansel Adams. Ellen, a professor at San Diego State, helps medical students learn compassion and patience by working with horses. Margo devised a process for building consensus among polarized stakeholders of Alaskan wilderness. Heidi, a professor at Whitman College, conducts bee research in the U.S. and Sweden. Steve helped start the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and received a Nobel Prize for his work on protecting the Ozone Layer. Avis was an early  designer and promoter of organic gardening. And Kathy, who successfully got the polar bear listed as endangered due to Global Warming, the first species to be so listed.

My most lasting impression of this reunion is how we share a special love for Yosemite and Tuolumne Meadows and how we value our formative time spent here. A century earlier this extraordinary landscape shaped a young John Muir and led to the creation of national parks around the world. This unique spiritual landscape continues to bless the world through the healing it works in the hearts and lives of generations--past, present and future.