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Yosemite: The park that has trouble with names

Published
August 31, 2021
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I PICKED up my rental car in Merced and drove through the rain to Yosemite National Park: a three-hour trip in view of the winter weather.

Yosemite National Park goes back more than 100 years as a park and has a much longer geographical and cultural history. The first people to reside in the area were there over 6,000 years ago. In the nineteenth century, the inhabitants were called the Ahwahnechee, which translates in English to the people of Ahwahnee, meaning a valley that resembles a gaping mouth. This is a reference to the spectacular entrance to what we now call the Yosemite Valley. It comes from the language of the Miwok people, of whom the Ahwanechee were a sub-group.

Yosemite is not the most ideal name for the locality. It comes from a word meaning a band of killers or renegades, an unflattering term for the Ahwahnechee that circulated among their tribal enemies in the 1840s.

The Ahwahnechee had been scattered to the four winds and absorbed by other Miwok clans because of the outbreak of a mysterious plague in the valley sometime around 1800: probably a European disease to which the Ahwahnechee would have had no immunity.

By the time of the California gold rush in 1849, the tribe had re-formed and reoccupied the valley. However, their tribal enemies claimed that the refounded Ahwahnechee weren’t the real thing anymore but just a sort of gang, a motley bunch of outcasts from the various other Miwok clans which had appropriated the name of the old and honourable Ahwahnechee tribe. White settlers in the gold rush era, the ‘forty-niners’, appropriated the term Yosemite, as they spelt it, in the mistaken beliefs that it (a) meant tribe of the grizzly bear rather than band of killers, and (b) was the true name of the Ahwahnechee, with whom the gold-seekers had come into conflict themselves. This conflict didn’t last very long. But nobody bothered to change the name to anything more PC before Yosemite became too well known to change.

And so, we’re stuck with a name that might be a gross calumny against an unfortunate group of plague survivors. Whatever we call the place, Yosemite is designated a World Heritage Site and sees millions of tourists a year. The very first tourist group arrived in 1865, and since then its natural landscape and stunning scenery have captivated people from all corners of the globe. I was going to become one of them.

The Yosemite area has been under formal environmental protection since 1864. There are areas of Giant Sequoias, California Oaks, massive granite rocks and a multitude of wildlife. The rocks in Yosemite are incredible with many cliff faces, granite fractures and glaciers.

I drove all the way along the Merced Road up into the Yosemite Valley. I saw El Capitán in the rain, and Yosemite Falls, and other magnificent sights.

Yosemite Valley, or at least the most famous part of it, consists of a steep, in places almost vertical-sided valley with a curiously flat bottom, long recognised by geologists to have been carved by a glacier which left an alpine lake behind when it retreated. The lake then filled in with sediments, creating a valley floor which, for several miles, is almost dead flat.

The high, steep sides, once supported by ice and now supported by nothing, are subject to frequent rockfalls, sometimes involving tens of thousands of tons of rock falling into the valley all at once; although in view of the numbers of climbers and tourists at Yosemite it is remarkable that how few people are killed or injured by these rockfalls; the most recent at the time of publication being a fall of some twenty-seven thousand tons of rock, killing a Welsh climber, at El Capitán.

I had a quick look at the Half Dome campsite which really didn’t do anything for me. You could stay in a traditional looking tent structure, with poles and things but it cost $120 a night and it was packed full of tourists. No thanks.

So, I then looked around the Half Dome village, and at the Yosemite Valley Lodge, which looked really good but was a little bit pricey. I ended up at a place called Historic Big Trees Lodge at 11pm at night!

I got a queen size bed for $70 a night. It was a beautiful colonial hotel that is 140 years old, in a really great location. The lodge was managed by the park rangers. They only had wi-fi in one room, which was cold!

I stayed for three nights there and used it as my base to get out and do day trips. The lodge was so big I couldn’t fit it all in one photo!

The lodge used to be known as the Wawona Hotel, an equally historic name, until it was renamed on 1 March 2016. It was renamed because of a ridiculous-sounding legal dispute between the US National Parks Service and their former Yosemite concessionaires, a firm called Delaware North.

Delaware North had managed the park’s facilities on behalf of the government for about twenty years before losing the contract to do so. In the meantime, it had trademarked many of the most famous names associated with the park, even the names of some geographical features it didn’t manage, and was now in a legal dispute with the Parks Service which wanted its old names back to give to the new concessionaire.

It’s quite common for such names to be trademarked these days, to stop some rip-off merchant putting them on a T-shirt without paying any royalties.

But somehow the parks service had been naïve or stupid enough to let Delaware North do the trademarking for it, and was now paying the price. Or rather, refusing to pay the price.

I have some printed maps and guides that have both the old and new names on them. These will be precious souvenirs for the future I think, especially if the Parks Service gets the old names back!

I did notice that there were certainly are a lot of places to eat out. There were all kinds of activities going on as well, such as snowboarding.

I walked to the Sequoia Falls to look at sequoia trees, and to Hetch Hetchy, a valley that was turned into a reservoir in the 1920s.

There are many mountain peaks throughout the Yosemite National Park and hundreds of hiking trails. The Half Dome and North Dome are famous cliff faces that have intrigued geologists as to how they were formed.

The Native American people have a story which holds that they are a couple who argued and fought, so that the spirits turned them to stone forever, facing each other so they would always have to look upon each other: the legend of Tis-sa-ack, which is documented online.

Over three million acres around Yosemite National Park have been dedicated to the National Wilderness Preservation System, in a long and continuous green belt along the Sierra Nevada mountains east of California’s Central Valley. It is a stunning place and I am glad they have done this to protect the environment.

The Mariposa Grove was an area I had really wanted to visit but it was closed for a restoration project. It is a popular tourist sight full of the giant sequoia, sequoiadendron giganteum, a larger mountain relative of the more common coastal sequoia, sequoia sempervirens.

Sequoia are also known in California as redwoods after the colour of their wood, which is full of fire- resistant tannins and was often used for exterior cladding for that reason.

The bark of most trees also contains tannins in order to protect the wood underneath from fire and insects. This explains why bark is normally dark in colour and also not as good for lighting fires as you might think.

Sequoia sounded to me like it might be a native American name, but the truth is that nobody knows the origin of the name. A botanist named

Stephan Endlicher gave the sequoia genus its Latin name and from that its English name in 1847.

There was a notable Cherokee named Sequoyah who invented a writing system for his people, and who had died shortly before, in 1843. Some people think Endlicher named the trees after Sequoyah, for Endlicher was also interested in languages.

Others favour the theory that insofar as the word sequoia also sounds like the Latin word for ‘to follow’, sequor, it had some technical significance to do with the botanical characteristics of the tree and its relationship to other conifers.

The giant sequoia is taller than some of the largest pine and fir trees and can grow to be over 3,500 years old, and for that reason giant sequoia have become symbols of strength and long life. In fact, they have been used as the symbols for the park and used in the park rangers’ uniforms.

Curiously enough, quite large specimens of sequoiadendron giganteum are a common sight in my home town of Queenstown, in New Zealand. When the first European pioneers arrived in the area they found it very barren and treeless, just like the Dakotas, though not as flat. The mountainous western shore of Lake Wakatipu, visible across the lake from Queenstown, is still like that.

Some were gold prospectors, lately from California. They knew that trees such as giant redwoods, which are also known as sierra redwoods, should be able to thrive in the Queenstown area.

Pines and redwoods were soon planted all around by pioneers anxious to make the place seem less barren. The irony is that, these days, there is probably nowhere in New Zealand that looks less typical of New Zealand, and more like somewhere in the sierras, than the tourist town of Queenstown!

At Yosemite, I went to my room at the Historic Big Tree Lodge, which was beautiful and quite a luxurious hotel. I thought I’d treat myself, but then it all came back to me why I don’t ever stay in accommodation like this.

While it was an amazing hotel, I was reminded of the reason why I chose hostels. Nobody was friendly. I tried a few times to strike up a conversation, during breakfast and while sitting in the lounge area by the fire and everyone ignored me, so I retreated to my room a bit deflated.

Honestly, at least if you stay at a hostel people talk to you; and it’s a lot cheaper. Yes, you have to share rooms; but sometimes you can get your own rooms too, which is what I prefer.

Even with cheap motels, people like to congregate in the lounge area and say hello. Maybe if I’d stayed at the campsite in Half Dome I would have met a lot more people. At the very least it would have been a good base for walking and hiking.

I went to the Chilnualna Falls, which would take me about five hours. The signs were not that obvious as they were rusty and old. I was told by the hotel staff to take the strenuous way over the rocks, but there were no signs to say where the rock-way was. I wasn’t going to venture on trails that I didn’t know anything about.

I saw berries that the bears ate, and bear footprints, and I yelled all the way so that the bears wouldn’t bother me. So much for my no-alone rule formulated earlier in Glacier National Park.

Luckily, the bears in California are all from the somewhat smaller and less aggressive black bear species, which is still dangerous but not as dangerous as the brown or grizzly bear.

I met a local who goes up there, and he said that he saw mountain lions all the time, and you can tell because they go and scratch up all the rocks, obviously looking for prey. Mountain lions are an especially serious worry for the lone hiker, as they will actively stalk you.

Unfortunately, it turns out that we are more of a danger to the black bears than they are to us. Sadly, a common cause of death among the black bears of Yosemite is being hit by cars racing along the roads of the park.

The black bear numbers here were between 250 and 600 and I thought well, that’s not very many, and also, that it’s amazing that they don’t know precisely how many.

I went as high as 2,500 feet, and I was amazed when I got to the top of the falls and saw dead trees. Most of them were whitebark pine trees. It was quite sad that in amongst all this natural beauty in stark contrast there were these areas of emptiness and decay.

On that walk, I was excited to see a skunk or a racoon, and some deer. I went past the research station and I asked the woman working there why the trees had died. She wasn’t a biologist but she said it was because of global warming, that the beetle that was eating them was native but usually died off in cold winters, but they haven’t had cold winters so they haven’t died.

There has also been drought, which had contributed to a lot of changes in the environment there. I asked her what they were doing to combat the beetles and climate change and the woman simply said that everything depends on government funding: which sounds a bit like New Zealand really.

There was an area called Glacier Point which I would have loved to have gone to. It was 27 miles and you could camp along the way.

The next day I went to go to see some more sequoia trees and then I went to see a reconstructed native American village, which had some interesting architecture such a conical shelter covered with bark. It seemed similar to one of the designs of the aforementioned Sámi, the last people in Europe who still pursue ancient and indigenous tribal ways.

As I’ve mentioned, the giant sequoia is the symbol of the outdoors in California. A powerful conservation movement dates back to the founding of Yosemite National Park in these parts, and is associated with famous names like John Muir, who was agitating for the preservation of the giant sequoia from logging as far back as 1870.

The cause of conservationists like Muir was aided by the fact that the timber of a mature giant sequoia is as useless — a mass of brittle splinters — as the tree itself is impressive. Upon being cut down, the giant sequoia would often shatter on impact with the ground.

And so, the loggers soon turned their attention to the younger and more elastic trees, which were also easier to cut down. Even these weren’t much good for structural timber but, as with the coastal redwoods, they could be used to make cladding timber.

Muir must have got in quick to save the giant sequoia, because European explorers only came across giant sequoia for the first time in the 1830s. Nor was their existence publicized widely until the early 1850s. And what publicity it was!

The giant tree became an instant craze among naturalists, and by 1853 seedlings were already being grown in Britain. Perhaps because it had only recently become known to Europeans, Muir usually referred to the giant sequoia just as the ‘Big Tree’. That’s how the Historic Big Tree Lodge got its new name, too.

On my way back to Merced to drop my car off, I had to rely on the locals because there had been a landslip onto the road I had come up from Merced. I went to the Visitor Centre to ask when it would be cleared and they said they didn’t know, they said within the next couple of days, and I said, “Well can’t you just find out?”

But they couldn’t. One of the locals said I should take the 192 road. So, I did, and went all the way through and I got to Merced on a completely different road to the one I had come up on. It was quiet, and you could tell only locals used it. So that was really interesting; and that’s how I got back!

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