Did you ever have one of those trips that was planned out in a certain direction but as it got underway, the world changed out from under you and you took a different path than planned… and it turned out better? I just did.
I needed a break, a vacation. I have to admit, teaching, which I have always loved, was turning into a rat race with the existential threats to non-academic programs being foisted in community colleges across the state. But our program in professional photography was so good that we were feeling, frankly, betrayed by the state, the district and the admin. The rats were winning. And the constant flow of just something or other to jab us in the ribs, the academic version of “death by a thousand cuts” was taking its toll on me. The sheer joy that teaching always brought was fading fast.
When Spring Break became a welcome escape on the horizon I contacted a great friend of mine and former student, Nikko, who lives in Oakhurst, a small l town just outside of the south gate to Yosemite Park. Yosemite is a very special place for me, full of natural spirits and energy; a wonderful place to recharge batteries and try to get things back in some semblance of order and sanity. I had initially contacted Nikko to check on local lodging (spring break in the park is insane) but it turned out she had some time off and I thought it would be great to do some quiet shooting with someone I liked and knew was a good photographer.
So lodging was arranged, and off I went for a few days escape. I arrived late afternoon, we met and had an early dinner. When discussing possible routes, she mentioned the area south of the park as being quite nice too. I’ve been to Yosemite almost a dozen times and never had a clue what lay around it. We took a short drive after dinner and even though the light was fading fast, it was clear that here was some beautiful terrain and I had never seen it — or even heard of it.
So we had breakfast and headed out, turning off of the road to Yosemite and heading south towards Bass Lake. Now I always have lots of camera gear with me but to be honest, I was not in a very creative mood. I thought if I saw something new it might jolt those creative juices into flowing again. And if I didn’t take a shot it was OK, the scenery was absolutely new to me, I had a most pleasant companion that knew the area so I was driving but essentially just along for the ride. And… I can always go back.
The forest was in trouble. Beetle kill was everywhere and taking over. Huge stands of standing dead beetle kill pines were everywhere. It was very sad but also, to me, a little frightening. Evidence of past but ferocious fires was everywhere and all this dead wood was simply a disaster waiting for a chance to happen. Crews had been working like an army of rabid beavers bringing down tree after tree but at this point, most were simply laying where they fell with a few bucked into shorter lumber length stacks.
In Colorado that would have been an incredible mistake since once the sap stopped flowing the beetles would just leave for better feeding. Perhaps here they are different…???
The sun was out and streamed through the trees as we arrived at a trail head leading to an overlook of Bass Lake that Nikko wanted to show me. As I said before I was not all that enthusiastic about shooting but could not break old habits and put my 17mm to 40mm on the 5DSr body and off we went. That has always been my general purpose lens for landscape types of opportunities. As we went on I grew sorry I had not put another lens or two into my vest pockets.
The first things that caught my eye were small, tasty little visual jewels where pinpoints of light picked out small pockets of forest life. Here is an old stump proving that there is a continuum of life from death
Or here is a drop of sun on some cedar branches.
The forest was thick, primeval, and the lichen and moss growing on the rocks also proves that life will find a way. It was like a magical forest filled with mythical beasts who were wisely staying just out of range.
The whole forest was a virtual labyrinth of tangled fallen logs and moss covered trees. This area had been virtually deluged with rain and vibrant spring green was everywhere. Tall grasses abound everywhere.
The trail led to a huge outcrop overlooking Bass Lake and a sole fishing boat out on the water. Nikko had no trouble outdistancing me and was already up there checking out the view. Oh to have the legs I had 30 years ago at her age.
On the far hillside you can see the areas of standing dead wood from the beetle. After following a loop back to the parking lot we went to a little village called North Fork for lunch then headed on south/easterly toward a road that allegedy loops back to Oakhurst. On the way was a delightful overlook to another lake down below.
While I was gathering some video B-Roll footage, Nikko used my idle DSLR and managed this interesting selfie in my vehicle’s very dirty window.
This was gorgeous terrain that was a lot like my beloved Rockies. We did however drive through a horrid scar on the land, the footprint of a giant burn.
Then the adventure started…
We had already driven through some small snow drifts but nothing of real concern. There were tricky sections where 1/3 of the road had collapsed or blown down trees covered a good half of the road, but they were easy to negotiate. We found the loop back toward Oakhurst and started down it. The forest service gate was open while others we passed were closed. It seemed like a good sign. But based on litter and debris on the road it was clear no one had driven this road for several days. We powered through a small drift but around another corner was another, somewhat longer and deeper drift. (GPS 37.510058–119.301494)
There were old tracks through it and it did not look all that tough. My mind was back on off-roading mode but alas my car is not a 4-wheeler. I made a classic mistake, I entered the tracks like a wimp and about half way through forward motion ceased and we were stuck. And we were a very long way from any help.
I got the shovel from my emergency kit and started digging around the buried wheels and Nikko gathered sticks and debris to provide some traction. Nikko climbed on top to add some weight over the drive wheels and we gave it a try. This time we made it another yard or two then bogged down again.
More digging, more sticks and this time we crawled forward, tires spinning, slipping sideways and back as the wheels hit packed ice and snow. And suddenly we were out of the drift and on solid ground.
The hope was that the road was better as we were losing elevation and perhaps would soon be dropping out of the snow line. A couple of simple low drifts were no problem until we came around a corner and there it was… the mother of all snow drifts laid out ahead. (GPS 37.511508 – 119.313103)
There was no way we could beat our way through it. With my one little emergency shovel it would take days to shovel though it. I normally hate backtracking, but reality was pretty clear; there was no rational way forward and we had no idea what lay beyond this drift even if we got through it.
So we turned around and made our way back up the hill to the drift that had grabbed us the first time.
We had to get through it but this time we were going slightly uphill. The problem was not only the snow and icy base, but we could see where it had actually high centered the body and undercarriage. The only reasonable option was to dig out our tracks BEFORE we got stuck. Nikko grabbed the shovel and started attacking one side’s track. I told her to trade off but she was devoted to this task. So I went and started gathering boughs to lay down in the tracks she was creating. She was a trooper… including giving herself a major blister.
I’m sorry I did not take any photographs, but the sun had less than 15 minutes to go before it dropped behind the mountain so there was no time to dally or commiserate. Soon Nikko had dug a set of tracks and I had padded them with boughs. There was really little else to do so it was time to take a deep breath, a deep seat… and go for it.
Nikko climbed back up on top, I backed up to give us a good run at it and after being assured she had a tight grip, floored it and off we roared. I am not sure who was the most surprised when we roared on through Nikko’s tracks almost like we were on dry ground. We were both amazed… but there was no time for self-congratulations, the sun was failing and we needed to get back to a reasonable road so we could negotiate back through the road hazards.
We were lucky. Well let’s be honest… I was lucky to have had such help on board. I’m sure I could not have both dug the tracks and padded them before dark; it is not inconceivable that I would have had to spend the night. My rig is equipped for that kind of emergency but there was no way it would have been a pleasant evening.
The rest of the trip back was quiet as night fell and we wound our way back to Oakhurst. In the twilight a small herd of deer crossed into a beautiful meadow and bounded off into the twilight. A very peaceful moment.
This was not at all the trip I had planned but it was, as it turned out, vastly better. I had seen terrain I did not know existed, spent time in great conversation and company, and was not in the least pleased that I had to head back south, during an appropriatly gray rainy day. These mountains felt most like “home” to me of anything I’ve experienced here in California. There are things here one could get very used to.