Our National Parks are a great example of how place connects us. They connect us to our collective past and to the majesty of the natural environment, but also to each other.
The first National Park that I ever visited was Yosemite. It came pretty late in the father-son trips that made up my childhood, but certainly took things to a whole new level. Neither of us had done any significant backpacking before this trip or spent much time in the mountain wilderness resembling anything close to the Sierra Nevadas.
It’s a good thing my dad is a planner by nature. Him being unprepared is a rarity. The planning phase of our Yosemite trip probably started a year from when we arrived. It included enough research to write a doctoral thesis and involved a strategy that felt more like preparing for battle than going on vacation.
The trip was perfectly planned. We would get there before the peak tourist season, but during peak waterfall season. We would spend part of our time exploring the valley and part of our time in the high country of Tuolumne Meadows. We’d do some day hikes to get acclimated, and some backcountry trips to get away from the crowds. We had all the gear. We had all the meals planned. We knew how and when we were going to get permits. We knew everything before we even stepped into the park.
I don’t want to cheapen the significance of all that planning because ultimately it made for a great trip, but somethings you just can’t plan for, somethings are bound to get overlooked, especially when your experience is what ours was.
There were certainly some humorous moments early in the trip; the “easy” “get-acclimated” 4-mile hike that was actually 9.6 miles and 3200ft of elevation gain, the impromptu campground bagpipe concert from an overly patriotic camper that almost turned into a fist fight with some other camper. The list is long, but the most memorable part of the trip was our last backcountry trip. Fortunately, it was only our last of the trip and not our last ever.
The road to Tuolumne doesn’t open until the snowpack is cleared enough to make travel safe and even though this year was higher than average snowfall we happened to plan it just right. It was closed when we arrived and expected to open during our stay. So on the first day that it opened we drove up to the high country, amazed at all the snow that we were seeing. How cool, right? It’s the middle of June and there is all this snow. We really flew our midwestern flags at that moment.
The hike to Glen Aulin, which is one of the park’s High Sierra Backpacker camps, isn’t that strenuous or long. In fact, it’s probably one of the more moderate and rewarding hikes in the park. It meanders through meadows and winds its way along mountain streams and rivers into a dense forest. In the planning phases, it sounded like this was one not to be missed.
The whole way up there we didn’t see another soul. We felt like we had won. We had the entire high country to ourselves. As we packed up our gear in the lot to do our overnight trip to Glen Aulin another car pulled up. Somewhat defeated we introduced ourselves and learned that this father-son pair was celebrating fathers day by hiking out to Glen Aulin for the night. I don’t think we even realized it was father’s day, well I certainly didn’t.
Given our level of preparation, we were shocked to see that new father-son pair was outfitted in jeans and tennis shoes and carrying a suitcase. Wow, we thought. These two must be completely inexperienced.
Hiking out to the camp was amazing. The meadows provided amazing views of the surrounding peaks. Mounds of snow were being melted away and snow flowers were popping through. The snow melt gave the rivers an exciting rush of current. Eventually, we got to a stretch where there were a few bridges to cross. We took note that the water was high and near the edges of the bridges. We crossed three such bridges finally reaching our campground with plenty of time to set-up camp.
Eventually, the other father-son duo showed up and set-up camp. I’m not sure when it happened, but as we sat and listened to the rushing of the water it started to dawn on us that the water was rising, fast. Glen Aulin is basically situated across three bridges from the main trail and below one of them is a large series of falls. As night began to set we talked to the other group and decided to keep an eye on it.
I know my dad didn’t sleep at all that night. His preparation for battle and the guide books didn’t adequately prepare us for the fast-rising waters due to an unusually high snowpack. When my dad woke me at 4:00 a.m. his voice sounded as distressed as I can ever remember, my mind went to all the preparation that he had made, all the equipment that we were carrying and to trying to get a couple more hours of sleep. He told me we were going to need to get up and cross the rushing water with the other group. I told him we should go back to sleep and bushwhack our way back to the trail without crossing the water using our GPS units.
He won. We quickly broke down camp and met the others at the edge of the water. Somehow, the guy with the suitcase had amongst his jeans and hamburger helper a 40ft rope, just long enough to secure from one side of the turbulent water to the other. And it just so happened that he had spent more time in the Sierra Nevada’s than my father had spent preparing to be there. He waded across and secured the rope and we took turns easing across the water as he instructed us to do, shuffling our feet side by side facing upstream with our 40lb packs loosened. We all crossed and eventually made it to the other side. We continued to work our way across swollen river crossings until we had made it to relative safety.
I still think we should have waited until later that morning and bushwhacked our way out of Glen Aulin, but maybe that would have turned into more of an adventure than we were actually prepared to handle. The adventure that we did have gets brought up with immediate recollection anytime the idea of wilderness survival pops into out heads. Fortunately, it was not a severe situation, but what it lacks in severity it makes up for in a lasting connection, a connection to that place and to each other. As we hiked out we joked about our first impressions of the man who carried a suitcase into Glen Aulin and saved our lives. When we got back to the car I realized it was Father’s Day and told my dad thanks for an unforgettable trip.
As I look over the photos from this trip I realize that it is these moments when I learn the most about myself. I learn that for better or worse, mostly better, that I am so much like my father that it’s scary. Years after this trip I would get a master’s degree in planning. I would go on to embrace the role of coordinating complicated projects and adventures and that even with the most intensive planning, it’s not an adventure until something happens that you didn’t foresee.