I was at the edge of a cliff, contemplating a little scramble to get onto a rocky ridge that looked slightly more interesting than where I was. I was slightly nervous because it was very cliffy. As I looked at my two route options, I realized that the easier route was actually very easy. But, then I asked myself, “What would happen if I slipped or lost my balance?” My answer: “I would die.” There was no doubt about it. I decided to enjoy the view from where I was.

Last week, I was working on a swiftwater safety poster that points that, when near the river’s edge (or crossing it), you should look where the current will take you. As I was at the cliff’s edge, I realized this was good advice for hiking, too, especially when off trail. “If I slip here, where will gravity take me?” It’s not so much that you should never take risks–life is full of risks–but that you should at least be aware of the risks (and their consequences) so you can make an informed decision.

White 52 was a clever sow (female bear) who I had the pleasure (and, occasionally, displeasure) of meeting more times than I can remember. She was adept at getting human food, from campsites, cars, and buildings. We caught her in a trap a few years ago and figured… hmm, why not try to move her out of Yosemite Valley and see what happens?

So, we moved her out near Hetch Hetchy. At first, she headed up into Hetch Hetchy, then reversed direction and visited Camp Mather, just outside the park. Next we heard, she was lingering at a US Forest Service campground along Highway 108. We got a call saying that we should expect her ear tag and radio collar in the mail soon… because they were planning to trap and kill her for her behavior in the campground. She left the campground before she got trapped. More time went by, then one night that fall, we found her in a trap in Yosemite Valley! Earlier that year, she weighed in around 220 pounds (fairly large for a sow in Yosemite)… after her lengthy journey, she returned weighing 282 pounds! She traveled so far, but still managed to gain weight!

White 52 demonstrated almost all the reasons relocating bears doesn’t work:

  • Relocated bears usually return to where they came from. (If someone dragged you out of your home and dropped you off 50 miles away, wouldn’t you try to get back home?) Most bears return more quickly than White 52 (usually in a matter of days or weeks). (There’s an old joke that some bears beat the wildlife truck back to the Valley.)
  • Bears that don’t return to their home usually get in trouble somewhere else. This isn’t so good because, well, the bear’s behavior hasn’t changed. And food storage outside Yosemite isn’t as good as it is inside Yosemite. Not only that, but wildlife management agencies outside Yosemite tend to be less tolerant of bears, so bears spending time in developed areas are far more likely to be killed when outside Yosemite.
  • Speaking of food storage not being as good outside the park, that probably contributed to her major weight gain (although, she returned in fall, a time when bears naturally gain weight).
  • While we don’t know in this case, White 52 was a fairly dominant bear, so wherever she went, she may have displaced other bears. All the good bear habitat is taken and by adding a bear to an area already fully populated with bears, we’re messing with the bears that are already living there. For less dominant bears, putting them in areas populated with more dominant bears is an additional stressor as they scramble to find a place where they’re not so unwelcome.
  • Undoubtedly, many relocated bears die because they’re unable to find food or are hit by cars as they try to return home.
White 52 didn’t live much longer because we had to kill her as a result of her aggressive behavior, which began when she showed up in Yosemite Valley campgrounds as a young bear. Relocating her didn’t help her. Only proper food storage could’ve saved her.

If you didn’t see it when it came out a few months ago, you really need to take an hour or two and read Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek by John Branch of The New York Times. Not only is it a presented effectively, with audio and video nicely incorporated into the article (in a non-intrusive way), but  it’s just a great read and really interesting if you like to think about how people get themselves in trouble while recreating outdoors. In this case, a group of experienced, skilled, and (mostly) well equipped backcountry skiers went out for a quick backcountry ski, with tragic results. Even if you’re not a backcountry skier (I’m not), this story contains a lot of lessons about communications and decision making within groups. I found this article especially interesting because I’ve been involved with preventive search and rescue work the last few years, and especially this past year, when we started up a preventive search and rescue blog. I’ve been working with the amazing YOSAR staff to try to figure out how to more effectively communicate search-and-rescue-related safety messages (which, after all, is very similar to trying to more effectively communicate wildlife & food storage messages, which I’ve been doing for many years). So, anytime there’s a story like this one, I think of it through the “how did these people come to this decision?” mindset. Our last post of the season contains some of the lessons learned in 2012, including links to all of this year’s posts. (Disclaimer: our posts aren’t as well written or as interesting as Snow Fall is!)

Two stories are filling up my Twitter stream this morning. One is about Horsetail Fall, which, at this time of year, glows orange with the setting sun, and the other is about the alpine chipmunk, a high-elevation resident of Yosemite. What could these two stories possibly have in common (other than Yosemite)?
First, a little background.

Horsetail Fall is one of many tiny, barely noticeable waterfalls in Yosemite Valley, especially when compared to the nearby waterfalls that are much larger and more famous. It flows off the eastern side of El Capitan during winter and spring, and is positioned in just such a way that the setting sun colors it orange in mid to late February (if there’s enough water and not too many clouds). The effect is unusual if not unique, and very cool to see when conditions are right. It’s even more popular because of its comparison to the Fire Fall. (Beginning infrequently as early as the 1870s and recurring on a more regular basis later on, until 1968, park employees would build a bonfire at the top of Glacier Point, then, as it got dark, they would slowly shove the embers over the edge, creating the Fire Fall.) The result was what looked like a glowing waterfall.) Horsetail Fall with the right light looks similar and, better yet, is completely natural.

The alpine chipmunk is one of the species of chipmunks that lives in Yosemite. As the name suggests, this chipmunk lives at the highest elevations of the park. A recent study found that the elevational range of the alpine chipmunk had shrunk (risen) by over 1,600 feet since the 1910s (when it was found as low as 7,800 feet). Since the 1910s, the average temperature in Yosemite has risen by over 5 F°. It’s safe to assume that rising temperatures have pushed these tiny, temperature-sensitive animals higher in elevation because the lower portions of their range have become too warm. Now that their elevational range is smaller, the amount of land they have to live in has shrunk dramatically. I’m not sure of the numbers, but a large portion of the park is at or above 7,800 feet, but only a small portion of the park is at or above 9,400 feet. With such a loss of  habitat, it’s no surprise that this study found that genetic diversity had declined significantly (making the population more susceptible to disease and less able to cope with further environmental change). With (relatively) extreme warming over many more decades, the chipmunk could eventually have its elevational range exist only in the sky, above the highest peaks of Yosemite. But, with loss of genetic diversity, it could become extirpated (locally extinct) much sooner.
So, what does this chipmunk story have to do with Horsetail Fall?

While many people (but hardly any scientists) argue over whether humans are at least partially the cause of climate change, climate change is an observable fact in Yosemite. The impacts of climate change are not limited to the alpine squirrel or some of the other plants and animals that could be impacted with continuing change. Climate change is slowly reducing the majesty of Yosemite’s waterfalls. As average winter snow level continues to rise over the decades, the area of Yosemite getting a snowpack will continue to decline, which means less snowmelt to feed Yosemite’s waterfalls. Spring runoff in Yosemite will be less dramatic (runoff following winter storms might be the best time to see waterfalls). With its tiny and relatively low-elevation drainage area, one of the first victims of this change will be Horsetail Fall, which might rarely flow, even in winter.

Climate change is not only shrinking the alpine chipmunk’s habitat, but also shrinking Horsetail Fall’s already tiny snowpack. When the alpine chipmunk becomes an endangered species, Horsetail Fall and its elusive orange glow may, like the Fire Fall, become just a memory.


Yosemite Nature Notes has some quite excellent videos about Horsetail Fall, snowpack, and climate change:

Several people have had fatal accidents in Yosemite this year, which has brought up the question of why people die in Yosemite. In his classic, Staying Alive, Ranger John Dill mentions three states of mind that cause people to die or be injured: ignorance, casualness, and distraction.

Ignorance may be the most important of these, at least for casual visitors. I don’t mean to say that casual visitors are unintelligent, but many of them are ignorant. Put me in a rural town in China and I’m ignorant. Put anyone in a place they’re not very familiar with and they’re ignorant. (By calling some casual visitors ignorant, I’m not insulting them–just saying that they’re not fully aware.)

Three people slipped into the Merced River and went over Vernal Fall recently, yet they were no more ignorant and only slightly less lucky than dozens, if not hundreds, of other Yosemite visitors that day. Many, many visitors get too close to the water in dangerous places every summer day without realizing the peril they’re putting themselves into.

An article in which a coauthor of the great book Off the Wall: Death in Yosemite tries to explain how these accidents occur says, “But this is all conjecture. No one has survived one of these and has been able to say” prompted me to ask John Dill why these accidents happen. After all, plenty of people have gone into the river and almost over the waterfall, and he has 40 years of Yosemite search and rescue experience, which includes countless victim interviews.  Not surprisingly, he gave me a great insight.

Slippery slope below the Mist Trail

Here’s a section of the Mist Trail. It doesn’t look very scary (to most people) and most people wouldn’t be too scared to walk along the left (river) edge of the trail. Yet, a slip from the trail would result in almost certain death–if not from the slide, then from the river below (as happened this year and in 2009). Indeed, the slope you see here is just as dangerous as a 3,000-foot cliff. But people don’t perceive it that way. Most people have an innate fear of cliffs and are (usually) extra careful when less than several feet from the edge. However, along this section of trail, most people don’t exercise the same amount of care because it just doesn’t look as dangerous as a cliff.

Rivers and creeks in Yosemite attract people, if not just for the joy of being close to water, for some practical reason like washing their face or getting drinking water. But, in many places, these rivers and creeks are also just as dangerous as a 3,000-foot cliff, and most people don’t perceive them that way. This may explain why the three people went over Vernal Fall–they didn’t understand (they were ignorant of) the danger of the river and, as a result, made a poor (ignorant) decision. Like most people, they didn’t have an innate fear of the river; they didn’t equate the river with a cliff.

Most people also don’t understand how that “cliff” known as the river is surrounded by a slippery slope (literally)–the smooth granite adjacent to rivers is slick, and extremely and surprisingly slippery when wet. So, while some people are un-ignorant enough to avoid going into the water, they’re just ignorant enough to feel safe on the figurative crumbly rocks (slippery slope) at the edge of the cliff (river). I’ve known rangers who’ve made this mistake. I’ve made this mistake. My ranger friends and I made a poor (ignorant)  decision, but were just slightly more lucky than the three who went over Vernal Fall.

So, “ignorance” isn’t just a lack of knowledge, it may also be a lack of instinct, at least in some cases. Once again: a slippery slope or a river is just as dangerous as a 3,000-foot cliff.

Ignorance leads to casualness, one of the other factors. Casualness can operate on its own, though, and perhaps explains the case of the two hikers swept off one of the Wapama Falls bridges as water flowed over it [see also this near miss] and perhaps also the case of the hiker who fell off the Half Dome cables during a thunderstorm (where wet, slippery rock and/or lightning may have been a factor). In these cases, I believe these hikers knew the risk (i.e., they were not ignorant) and made a judgment call, which turned out not to be a good one. Travel in the wilderness involves a lot of judgment calls and any experienced wilderness traveler has made plenty of bad ones, but a little extra skill or luck has prevented tragedy. Crossing a high creek is akin to dashing across a road with oncoming traffic because you think you’ll make it across just quickly enough to avoid getting hit. With decent judgment, you usually will. But not every time.

The third factor, distraction, can affect even the most careful person. This was probably another factor in the Half Dome incident, given the storm and the fact that lightning struck Half Dome around the time of the fall (it’s not clear, to me anyway, whether lightning was a factor or not, but undoubtedly, the storm was distracting and probably also caused the hiker to be rushed).

Finally, I should point out that many people have scolded all of these victims for crossing a bridge with swiftwater flowing over it, for going over a railing and into the water immediately above a waterfall, or being on the Half Dome cables during a thunderstorm. We’ve all made similarly bad decisions, but were a little luckier and possibly more skilled/better prepared than these six people. I’ve gone off trail and put myself into potentially dangerous situations before. Anyone who has spent time in the wilderness has done the same, and has a story (or two). In the urban environment, you’ve sped up to get through the intersection before the light turned red, rushed in a left turn with oncoming traffic, and maybe even made an unsafe pass.  In these cases, we all made poor decisions. We’ve been ignorant, casual, and distracted, and the only difference between them and us, between living and dying, was a little luck and maybe a little extra skill.

Ten years ago, I envisioned a time in the future when Yosemite visitors would sit back in their chairs around the campfire and remember longingly how the bears used to walk into campsites to snatch food, just as some of today’s long-time visitors recall bears visiting the dumps (or, for really long-time visitors, the formal bear feeding shows). Like the bear feeding shows and the open dumps, some day, bears in campgrounds would be but a memory.

I no longer have this vision.

It all makes sense to me now why it is Yosemite Valley has such a persistent “bear problem.” It’s not really the bears. It’s not even so much the people. It’s the place.

Of course, Yosemite Valley isn’t the only area of Yosemite where bears get human food. We can get persistent problems in Wawona, Glacier Point, Crane Flat, Hetch Hetchy, White Wolf area, Tuolumne Meadows, and a few places in the wilderness. Yet, none of these places–not one of them–has a significant “bear problem” consistently from year to year. The only place in Yosemite that has persistent bear problems every year is Yosemite Valley.

So, what sets Yosemite Valley apart from all these other places? It is awesome bear habitat. It has lots of meadows (bears eat grass in spring), plenty of forest (and downed trees containing grubs), abundant berries, and large groves of oaks–especially black oaks (bears seem to prefer black oak acorns over the other oaks’ acorns). There’s also plenty of water. (And plenty of historic apple trees.) I don’t think you can find this combination and abundance of food sources, within such a small area, anywhere else in the park. Bears frequent Yosemite Valley because there is a lot of food there. Add people to the mix, and there’s even more food there. Add lots of people to the mix, and bears get plenty of experience being around people, which allows them to become habituated–that is, to become comfortable around people. A bear that’s comfortable around people is more likely to follow its nose into a campground and get human food, which causes the bear to become even more habituated as it tries even more to get human food, which often leads to the bear becoming aggressive.

Yosemite Valley is the main attraction in Yosemite National Park… not only for people, but also for bears, and the presence of people’s food makes it all that more attractive to bears.

We can improve food storage more and be more aggressive at scaring bears away, but there will always be a lot of bears in Yosemite Valley, and some of them inevitably will get into trouble, every year, forever.

Unless I’m wrong.

February 11 marked the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s departure from Springfield to Washington, DC, where he would become one of our greatest presidents. And, I don’t think he’s one of our greatest presidents just because he signed into law the act protecting Yosemite and, in effect, creating the first national park. This is not Lincoln’s mysterious connection to Yosemite, either.

If you have read much about Abraham Lincoln, you know of Ward Hill Lamon. Lamon became a law partner with Lincoln in 1852. When Lincoln was elected to the presidency, he asked Lamon to accompany him to Washington. Lamon became his personal bodyguard, among other things. They were close friends.

If you’re familiar with Yosemite, the name “Lamon” probably sounds familiar. There’s Lamon’s Orchard, named for James Lamon, whose grave you may have noticed in the Yosemite Cemetery. Are these two Lamons related?

Born in Bunker Hill, VA (now WV), James Lamon’s father was John Lamon. Ward Hill Lamon was born just 10 miles away to George Lamon, Jr. John and George, Jr. were brothers, making James and Ward Hill first cousins. Did they ever know each other? Did they keep in touch?

One has to wonder if, when Lincoln received the Yosemite act, if Ward Hill knew that his cousin was one of Yosemite Valley’s first non-Indian residents. Lincoln expressed a desire to visit California during his second term. Was it in part because of what he’d heard about Yosemite? Surely, he saw the amazing photographs Carleton Watkins had taken of Yosemite (which circulated around Capitol Hill before the Yosemite act passed). But, did he learn anything about Yosemite from Ward Hill Lamon?

I can’t help but wonder if, when Lincoln got the Yosemite act to sign, Ward Hill might’ve said something like, “Oh, Yosemite! My cousin is a settler there. I hear it’s a truly wonderful place!”

This is the mystery.

(The Lamon House has a Lamon family tree, which is where I discovered this connection.)