Author Archive for admin

TIME TO HIT THE TRAIL?

Now that summer is almost here, I can feel the seasonal pull of the High Sierra. Usually, by this time of the year, I am busy laying out my summer trips into the wilderness backcountry of our local national parks.  

 

This year, however, I find myself facing confusion on all sides. Even hiking is getting more complicated these days.

 

It used to be so simple. All one had to do was wait for the snow to melt and then hit the trail to one’s favorite places. To figure out when the hiking season started, I simply kept an eye on Alta Peak, the 11,200-foot-high mountain visible from my house in Three Rivers. When the snow was gone from the southwestern side of the mountain, most of the trails were ready to be enjoyed.

 

But these days, the game has changed. In winters like the last few, when there is only a minimal snowpack, the trails may appear to be open well before it is wise to head into the high country.

 

The last few weeks provide a perfect example. Two months ago, with the snow already mostly gone from Alta Peak, I laid plans to hit the trail this past week with an early season trip to Silliman Pass and Ranger Lakes.

 

Circumstances intervened, of course. Unlike February and March, this May has proved to be unsettled and damp in our local mountains. We’ve had several high country snowstorms, in fact, which must have challenged those who did decide to make an early-season hiking trip.

 

Having no particular urge to camp while it snowed, I have put off my planned trip until June, but that brings up another set of new questions.

 

Not so many years ago, the last thing one usually worried about while hiking in the Sierra was finding water. Early in the summer, most streams surged with snowmelt, and the challenge was not finding water to drink but rather getting across all the streams safely.

 

But once again, the pattern has been different these past few summers. Even right now, in May, most high country streams are flowing at the low levels we used to think of as typical of late July.

 

Mid-summer hikers this year are likely to see even major high country streams reduced to bare trickles. Those who do not plan ahead may find themselves in for some long, thirsty stretches of waterless trail.

 

By now you can see my problem.  Picking a time to go hiking used to be so simple – we just waited until the winter snowpack was gone. Now, the trails open much earlier than they used to, but late spring storms can still trap you into uncomfortable conditions if you’re not careful. Wait too long, however, and finding water may well be a problem in many areas.

 

Summer thunderstorms can add another complication. In recent years, many high country observers have noted what seems to be an increase in thunderstorm activity over the highest peaks. In some recent summers, these storms have dropped enough water to even restart dry streams and green up desiccated alpine meadows.

 

Should I wait this summer for such storms? Whether they will actually arrive in significant numbers this summer to make a difference is anyone’s guess.

 

Are you confused yet? I am. Right now, I’m waiting for the current unsettled pattern to work itself out and the mountain sunshine to return. With luck I’ll be up on Silliman Pass in mid-June, but who knows. We live in a confusing world these days.

 

© Wm. Tweed

WATER FOR NATURE

I’ve been writing about water and climate in my last few columns, and I’m going to address these issues one more time before we move on to some other subjects in coming weeks. Today, I want to answer an excellent question that has come my way.

 

Now that it’s clear to almost everyone that there is not enough water in California to meet all our demands, everyone is looking for someone or something to blame. The basic argument here is that: “if only ____ didn’t use so much water, then there would be plenty for the rest of us.”

 

I’ve seen this phrase completed many different ways, but here in Central California, where the political thought tends to lean heavily toward the conservative side, the most common target has been “the environment.” More than a few local residents argue that “if it weren’t for all the water that goes to the environment, we’d all be just fine.”

 

I’ve even seen this one in print in the form of the argument that the environment receives more water in California than either our cities or our farms. Is this true?

 

Mark Twain, in one of his famous quotes long ago, remarked that lies often take the form of “lies, dammed lies, and statistics.” The “fact” that the environment receives more water than farms falls into this last category.  It is true, but only in a very distorted way.

 

According to the California Department of Water Resources (all the numbers I quote in this column come from this source), if one looks at the entire state of California, then net average water use by the environment does exceed that going to agriculture. The figures for the period 1998 through 2005 are 31 million acre feet each year to the environment and only 27 million acre feet to agriculture.

 

But, and this is a very significant but, almost all of this water “going to the environment” falls as rain in the remote watersheds of the northern Coast Ranges that flow directly into the Pacific Ocean. In fact, 87% of the water in California categorized as “going to the environment,” flows within this one region.

 

The reasons for this are simple. It usually rains more along the North Coast than anywhere else in California, and capturing and moving water away from the many rivers of this mountainous region have always been seen as physically difficult and prohibitively expensive.

 

So what about our region? In the San Joaquin Valley, how much water is consumed for environmental purposes?

 

The Department of Water Resources divides the San Joaquin Valley into two hydrological regions. In the south, we find the Tulare Lake Basin, the region that includes the watersheds of the Kings, Kaweah, Tulare and Kern rivers. To the north, we have the area drained by the San Joaquin River and its major tributaries including the Merced, Stanislaus, and Tuolumne rivers. The two regions work quite differently.

 

Let’s look first at the Tulare Lake Basin. This is where we live. How much water is consumed here by the environment versus the share given over to agriculture?

 

The answer is about what you would expect. In average times, in the Tulare Lake Basin, 95% of net water use is by farmers, about 4% by cities, and less than 1% goes to the environment.

 

In the region drained by the San Joaquin River, the net numbers are 81% to farming, 5% to cities, and about 13% to the environment.  The environmental number is higher here because this is the water that flows downstream to the Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta and keeps that region from being invaded by salt water from San Francisco Bay.

 

Desperate for more water, local residents often forget that if we divert too much of the water that flows into the Delta before it gets there, then the Central Valley Project and the California Aqueduct will be pumping salt water in the canals upon which we base our valley economy.

 

So, how much total water is going to the environment in the two halves of the San Joaquin Valley combined? According to the best numbers I can find, the actual net amount is about 7%. At the same time, agriculture is consuming 88% of the water while our cities take the balance.

 

As I said earlier, all this is for the period 1998-2005 when our climate was providing more water than recently, but still you get the idea. Like it or not, Central California is not investing huge amounts of water in the environment or “wasting” it either,  if that is the way you refer see it.

 

If you don’t believe me, take a drive on State Route 152 toward Los Banos and see how much water is flowing down the San Joaquin River toward the Delta and San Francisco Bay. What you’ll find, of course, is that the river is bone dry, just as it has been consistently for most of the last forty years.

 

Whatever your politics, we’re not going to solve our water shortage just by focusing on getting water back from environmental uses, or from any other single user for that matter. We’re all in this together.

 

© Wm. Tweed

STUDYING NATURE IN DRY TIMES

This is the third in a series of columns about our climate in Central California and the ongoing cycle of dry years that we have no choice but to endure. In previous columns I have written about the amazing warmth that shadowed this past winter and its having such a drastic effect upon our Sierra snowpack and also about whether we should continue to think of ourselves as being in a “drought,” by which I mean a temporary spell of dry weather that should end sometime soon.

 

This time, I’d like to explore in another direction. Let’s take a look at the natural systems of California and see what they can tell us about survival options in times of prolonged aridity.

 

We begin with an obvious point. Since California has a long record of suffering periods of intense dryness, the native plants of the state long ago found ways to deal with that aridity. To put it another way, plants that cannot adapt to prolonged dry spells no longer grow in our part of California.

 

Living as I do in Three Rivers, where native vegetation dominates the landscape, I can simply walk out the door and observe what is going on. I’ve been doing that frequently this winter and spring, and there is much to learn.

 

I have been paying special attention to the native woody plants that grow wild in my neighborhood. Three  in particular — whiteleaf manzanita and blue oak and interior live oak – have caught my attention. All three grow on dry sites and are long-lived. How they have fared during our current four-year-long dry spell is thus of considerable interest.

 

Let’s start with the blue oak. This deciduous tree has displayed both enormous flexibility in its response to very dry conditions and a high survival rate.  I haven’t counted trees precisely but I would estimate that the survival rate this past year for blue oaks, even in this time of very high stress, has been in the upper 90% range in the area where I live.

 

I have seen a few blue oaks that have died, including one in my immediate yard, but most were trees that had seen their roots disturbed in years past by things like house-site grading or road construction. Deeply rooted trees in undisturbed soils have done amazingly well.

 

In addition to their deep roots, the blue oaks have a secret weapon – they are deciduous. Traditionally, this meant that the trees dropped their leaves in autumn in anticipation of winter.

 

Last year, however, many blue oaks shed most of their leaves at the beginning of the summer and began growing new ones once the rains returned this past November. In fact, the blue oaks near my house were opening new leaves by early January – a startlingly different life cycle when compared to behavior in more favorable times.

 

The relative success of the blue oaks stands in stark contrast to the troubled performance of whiteleaf manzanita and interior live oak during the same period. The great majority of the manzanitas in my neighborhood – including very large specimens easily a century or two in age – have died. These are tough plants, and it pains me to watch them fail. In many cases only dead skeletons now remain.

 

The interior live oaks have done better than manzanitas, but not nearly as well as blue oaks. Locally, more than a third of these trees have died altogether, or have died back so significantly that they are now mere shadows of their former selves.

 

Significantly, both manzanita and live oak are evergreen plants – trees that maintain their green leaves year-round.  The problem with this is that in these stressful times, year-round leaves are simply too expensive for the trees to sustain in terms of the water and nutrients needed to keep them functioning.

 

Will manzanita and live oak disappear from my hills? The answer is no – the plants will simply reduce their numbers, abandon most of their previous range, and retreat into a few favorable locales where they will wait for better times.

 

Are there lessons in this for our human endeavors?  Absolutely.

 

Blue oaks have wired into their genes hidden flexibilities that allow them to react in surprising ways when conditions change. Whiteleaf manzanita and interior live oak possess much less flexibility and suffer accordingly.

 

Can we apply this lesson to our own society and how we live in Central California?  I believe the answer is clear.

 

If we humans and the society we have built are to survive in stressful times, we are going to need to be highly flexible, seeking ways to live under conditions that continue to change. In short, we need to approach aridity like blue oaks.

 

The alternative, of course, is that we can be like manzanitas and live oaks, which means that we, too, will have to drastically reduce our numbers and retreat in defeat from many of the locales we currently inhabit.

 

And that’s what a naturalist sees in these dry times when he walks out his front door and compares nature and human society.

 

© Wm. Tweed

A DRIER FUTURE FOR CALIFORNIA?

In my last column I wrote about the significance of our very warm winter and what it means to the natural water regime upon which we so profoundly rely. This time I want to explore several issues related to precipitation. Be forewarned – this is another “tough love” column. I want to introduce some difficult facts we are going to have to face.
 

By most accounts, we are now in the fourth year of a “drought.” By this, we mean an exceptional period when our average precipitation fails and we are left unnaturally short of water. Everyone is waiting for the drought to “break” and for conditions to return to “normal.”
 

But what if this isn’t true? Is there any evidence that suggests that what we think is exceptional may instead be a new long-term pattern?  Sadly, the answer is yes.
 

I regularly read that our current series of dry years (I’m going to step away from the word “drought” for a few paragraphs) is “unprecedented.”  I frequently see two arguments for this assertion.
 

The first is that we have not had four successive years this dry since we started keeping modern weather records in California in the second half of the nineteenth century. The second argument is that tree rings and other data collected from nature suggest that California has not been this dry for a millennia or so.  
 

The problem with these arguments is that the periods involved – even the thousand-year term – are not long enough to capture the full unpredictability of California’s highly variable climate.
 

Sadly, there is substantial precedent for our current situation. To find it, all one has to do is take a look at the huge amount of data scientists have collected in recent decades about the climate history of California. Such information can be found in the growth rings of trees, silt layers in natural lakes and bays, and even pollen samples taken from the lower levels of mountain meadows.
 

All this information adds up to tell us some fascinating – and truly scary – things.
 

The first fact is that the past century – the time we tend to look back on as “normal,” was one of the wettest periods in California in the last seven thousand years.
 

Another fact is that there was an astounding prolonged dry spell in and around the ninth and tenth centuries (850-1090) and another half a century later (1140-1320). Note that these two events persisted (respectively) for 240 and 180 years.  In addition, over the past thousand years, there have been repeated dry spells of 10-20 years duration.  
 

Ponder these two “droughts.”  Those who lived through them – the native people of California were already long established then – surely didn’t see them as temporary dry spells. These long periods of dryness were simply the way things were.
 

And there’s more. Going back further into time. Between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago, the Sierra Nevada was so much drier than now that areas that currently support dense forest had only scattered pine and sagebrush growing on them. That was also, we should note, a period that saw temperatures like those we are moving toward very rapidly as the climate warms.
 

All this, by the way, has been written up repeatedly by climate scientists and paleoecologists and also generally ignored by both our elected officials and the voting public.
 

And here’s another troubling fact. The region that adjoins California to the east – the Southwest – has been in a “drought” now for sixteen years. The big reservoirs on the Colorado River – Lake Powell and Lake Mead – are both so low that their managers do not see them filling again in the foreseeable future.  Many folks there have stopped talking about “drought;” instead, they’re looking at their difficult situation as a new reality.
 

Could the same things happen here? Perhaps they already are. And are we ready to talk about “new realities?” Perhaps it’s time.
 

Notice that I’ve gotten this far without even mentioning climate change. In my last column, I wrote about how our warming climate is likely to drastically reduce snowpack runoff. That’s what happened this year. But what will happen to our precipitation?
 

The answer, quite honestly, is that no one knows for sure. What the climate models do say, however, is that we should expect continuing warming and more extreme weather events – both bigger storms and longer dry spells.  This is exactly what seems to be happening in California.
 

Where does all this leave us?  I believe that it’s time to move beyond our current model of seeing ourselves as suffering from an exceptional “drought” that is likely to end soon and return us to “normal.” We might well be at the beginning of a prolonged dry cycle – a new reality. Perhaps it will last 240 years – no one really knows.
 

It’s time to face the possibility that dry weather is our “new normal” and that our circumstances are not merely temporary.
Will we ever see a wet winter again? The answer almost certainly is yes, but how such a winter will work is highly uncertain. A pattern of increased drought with occasional intense floods might not be a bad starting point. 
California now has almost 40 million people living within its borders, but it still also has large and rich remnants of its natural ecosystems. Our civilization has yet to deal with how to live in California if it turns dry for decades or longer, but this is not true of nature.

 

The natural systems of California that are here today exist because they were able to survive the challenges of the past including prolonged periods of aridity. What can they tell us?

 

We’ll explore that question in my next column.

© Wm. Tweed

THE BIG NEWS THIS WINTER

Like the great majority of Californians, I’ve been watching our recent weather with both interest and concern. Now that spring has officially arrived and yet another California “rainy season” has ended in disappointment, it’s time to take a look at the larger situation in which we find ourselves. What lessons can we draw from the world of nature about our circumstances and our future?

The answers to questions this big are far from simple, so I’m going to dedicate several successive columns to exploring them. Let’s get started.

If you believe our elected leaders and most of the news media, you would believe that the big story during our recent winter was the lack of precipitation. Quite simply, in this view, everything would be OK if the “drought” would end and we could get back to “normal” rainfall in California. 

Allow me to disagree. The biggest story this past winter was our extraordinarily warm temperatures.

If you were paying any attention to what goes on outside, you noticed. Not only did we see almost no frost in the San Joaquin Valley during the traditional wintertime, but at the same time temperatures often ran 5-10 and sometime 15 degrees above the statistical averages for long periods.

Amazingly, this was true both during our long periods of fair weather and also during the very occasional windows of storm activity. And the intensity of the warmth should have shocked us all. Significant changes in long-term weather are often measured as a degree or two. This winter, the averages jumped off the charts.

Let’s look at the numbers. According to NOAA, the average California temperature for the months of December through February for the years 1901 through 2000 was 43.6 degrees Fahrenheit. This year the average reached almost 50 degrees!

The implications of this are enormous, but let’s focus on the result that affects us the most.

Here are some more numbers – facts, if you will. Measured precipitation this past winter in most areas ran about 40-50% of the statistical average. At my residence in Three Rivers, where I have kept careful weather records for more than 25 years, I have collected so far this year 46% of the annual average for this site. By the time the weather year ends on June 30th, I will likely have exceeded 50% of average.

Many other sites in the southern Sierra have recorded similar totals, at least in terms of percentage of average.  But if that is the case, why are the projected snowpack runoff figures so incredibly low?

You must have seen this data by now, too. It’s been big news. The official numbers for the Kaweah River watershed document roughly 50% of average precipitation but forecast only 26% of average runoff.  

Why the difference — why doesn’t our snowpack match our precipitation this year? 

The answer – if you’re still with me — is: temperature. The extraordinary warm temperatures this winter have meant two things for the snowpack.

First, the storms we did have were so warm that very little snow fell below about 9,000 feet. Many areas that usually have good winter snow packs – locations like Giant Forest and Grant Grove — saw bare ground much of this winter. 

The second factor was that between storms, the warm weather melted much of the snow that did accumulate even at high altitudes. When I look out the window here in Three Rivers, I see an Alta Peak that looks like June did a decade or two ago. Below 9,000 feet, I see mostly bare rock.

It’s time to wrap this up, so here’s the headline you need to know. Our warm temperatures this past winter cut our snow pack runoff by roughly half and turned a dry weather year into a catastrophic runoff year.

So is this an anomaly? Will things return to “normal” soon? Don’t bet on it. Winter temperatures have been rising steadily in California for more than a century, and all the climate models suggest that our middle and long-term future will see sustained average temperatures very much like those we experienced this past winter. The winter of 2014-2015 may well be an introduction to the “new normal” that will define cool-season  temperatures in the twenty-first century.

What does this mean for snowpack runoff? The warmer our climate, the less water we will get from the mountains. This year shows us how it’s going to work. In the future it may well take 200% of average precipitation – something we almost never achieve – just to see what used to be “average” spring runoff.

I hope you are reading this as a “tough love” column, for that’s how it’s intended. Next time, we’ll continue this important conversation – focusing not on temperatures but instead on actual precipitation.

© Wm. Tweed

A BIRTHDAY FOR KINGS CANYON

Human cultures often have short memories, and once something has existed for a few generations we are likely to assume that it has been there forever. Such, I suspect, is our perception of Tulare County’s national parks, even if we should know better.

Last week – on March 4th – we passed the 75th anniversary of the establishment of Kings Canyon National Park. Today, only a dwindling handful of local residents remember the days before the park was created and the long and bitter campaign to bring it into existence.

The small Grant Grove Section of Kings Canyon National Park is older, of course, having been established back in 1890 as General Grant National Park. This was a part of the same federal legislation that created Yosemite National Park.

But that early park-creating work by our congress left unresolved the future of the spectacular headwaters country of the South and Middle forks of the Kings River – in many ways the scenic climax of the entire High Sierra.

In 1893, President Benjamin Harrison – responding to continuing lobbying by a group of Visalians that included Tipton Lindsey, Frank. J. Walker, John Tuohy, and George Stewart – withdrew the region from sale and designated it as the Sierra Forest Reserve. In 1908, under President Theodore Roosevelt, the Kings River high country became a part of the newly organized Sequoia and Sierra national forests under the management of the brand new United States Forest Service.

This left open, however, the question of how the region ought to be managed. Then as now two basic options existed: should the region be developed for human use with roads, logging, dams and the like, or left intact in celebration of its great beauty? This question would dominate debate for the next forty-plus years.

As early as 1915, Stephen Mather – founding director of the National Park Service – was in Visalia politicking for the inclusion of the region in an enlarged Sequoia National Park, but when Mather finally got a much-debated Sequoia Park enlargement bill through congress in 1926, it did not include the Kings River headwaters region.

The fight resumed in the middle 1930s with national as well as local battle lines clearly drawn. Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, strongly supported the creation of a Kings Canyon National Park, and nationally the proposal thus had the general support of the president and his party.

But before you assume that politics then were much like now when it comes to environmental affairs, it is worth noting that in the 1930s, issues like park creation were much more bipartisan than in our own time. Although he worked for a democratic president, Ickes was, in fact, a republican.

Locally, things were equally confused. Visalia’s democratic congressman, Alfred Elliot, took a position in adamant opposition to the creation of Kings Canyon National Park while Fresno republican Bud Gearhart became its leading advocate.

Elliot and Gearhart were not only from opposing parties but genuine political enemies, differing on most everything. In many ways, the battle over Kings Canyon was simply one more event in a continuing political war between these two men.

In the end, it was a close thing. Republican congressman Gearhart, working closely with the democratic administration in the White House, carried the issue over the objections of local democratic representative Elliot. Such were the politics of the late 1930s.

Now, seventy-five years later, Kings Canyon National Park has become an accepted part of the human landscape of California. Tourists and backcountry hikers come from all over the world to marvel at its beauties. It provides what most agree is the most scenic section of the famous Mexico-to-Canada Pacific Crest Trail. Its rivers still run clean and free, providing priceless irrigation water to the people of the San Joaquin Valley.

Nearly a quarter of Kings Canyon National Park falls within Tulare County; the remainder can be found within neighboring Fresno County. It is – like Sequoia National Park — very much our local national park. Local citizens played critical roles in the campaign to create it, and today we still migrate each summer in happy relief to its trails and campgrounds.

Happy birthday Kings Canyon National Park – we’re glad that you’re a part of our local world.

© Wm. Tweed

THE RAREST OF THE RARE

Now and then this column likes to check in with some of the ongoing stories about Sierra Nevada wildlife. This week, I’ll share two encouraging stories and one that may not end so well. All involve creatures whose small numbers make them exceedingly rare.

Anyone who pays attention to wildlife in California is familiar with the gray fox. This common foothill animal is easy to see if one drives around in the foothills on summer nights, which is when the creatures hunt.

But are you familiar with the red fox? Bigger than their low altitude cousins, red foxes historically inhabited the snowy high country of the Sierra. Old park records document the presence of red foxes in both Yosemite and the Sequoia-Kings Canyon region but in very low numbers. As the decades passed, however, the animals seemed to disappear.

But now there’s good news – a motion-activated camera placed by wildlife researchers in the northern backcountry of Yosemite National Park has captured photos of red foxes this winter. The photos show a handsome fox strolling across the snow – the first confirmed red fox in Yosemite in several decades.

Scientists estimate the entire population of Sierra red fox to be fewer than fifty animals. A known population persists near Sonora Pass, and that locale had been the southernmost proven population of these northern animals in recent times.

It is possible that red foxes still endure in the southern Sierra? The answer is that no one really knows. Like Yosemite until recently, our southern parks have had no confirmed sightings for many years. But the habitat is right locally for this high country animal, so we can remain guardedly optimistic. It is just possible that red foxes still live in Tulare County.

More good news comes from the bighorn sheep department. By 1995, the known population of Sierra Nevada bighorn had dropped to barely 100 animals and the future of this iconic species seemed perilous. But since then, hard work has brought the animals back from the brink of extinction.

This past fall, the population of Sierra bighorn exceeded six hundred animals – the highest number in several decades. Many of these animals live in or along the eastern boundary of Tulare County.

Of particular interest locally is the recently re-established herd living in the Big Arroyo country just east of Mineral King. In coming years, as this group grows, many hope that some of these animals will begin to spend time on the peaks that rim Mineral King Valley.

Credit for this amazing reversal goes to an interagency team working under the umbrella of the Endangered Species Act. If you’d like to read more, check out http://www.dfg.ca.gov/snbs/RecoveryHome.html.

Finally, here’s an update on what must be the rarest animal in the Sierra Nevada. The known population of wolverines in the Sierra Nevada equals exactly one – that’s right, one animal. Once thinly scattered across the entire High Sierra, wolverines faded away until they were believed to be gone. Then, in 2008, a wildlife camera captured a photo of a solitary wolverine in the northern Sierra.

Since then, the presence of that single animal has been documented several additional times, but it remains alone. Studies elsewhere suggest that the average wild wolverine lives about seven years, so time may be running out for the Sierra’s smallest rare animal population.

Before we give up on wolverines, however, we should remember that we thought the red foxes were gone, too. The Sierra is still big enough – and wild enough – to provide habitat for rare creatures. That ought to be enough to bring a little cheer to us all.

© Wm. Tweed

MEMORIES AND GENERATIONS

Getting older has its advantages, and one of them is that our store of memories grows. Often all it takes to turn them on is something that returns us to a long-ago place or time. Recently, I ran across a book that did just that – it took me back to the time when I (along with much of the rest of my baby-boomer generation) discovered the joys of adventuring in the out-of-doors.

I had not seen a copy of the volume for many years, but I recognized it immediately when I ran across it. For a few short years the book was everywhere. It came out in multiple formats – both paperback and hardcover, and even in hardcover edition that came in a slipcover. The book was a best seller – you could find a copy in nearly every college dorm room.

Readers of a certain age by now know the volume I am writing about – On the Loose, by brothers Jerry and Renny Russell. It came out from Sierra Club Books in 1967.

To this day, I’ve never seen anything else quite like it. The entire book – some 120 pages – was printed in a way that reproduced the original hand-written calligraphic style in which it was composed. Much of the text consisted of quotes from an eclectic collection of writers – everyone from Mark Twain to Melville and James Joyce, but short essays from the two brothers appeared too, along with over a hundred of their photos.

As for the pictures, here is what the authors had to say: “The photographs in this book are of the lowest fidelity obtainable. They are as far from the photographer’s vision as cheap cameras, mediocre film, and drugstore processing could make them.”

So, you will now ask – what was this hand-lettered book with its poor photographs about and what made it so wildly popular?

On the Loose was – I can use no other word – a “paean” to the beauty of the Western American landscape and the joy of wandering freely through that landscape.

Looking up the world paean on the web, I find the definition of “a song or lyric poem expressing triumph or thanksgiving.” And that’s exactly what the book was.

For a few short years in the early 1960s, brothers Terry and Renny Russell explored the iconic places that define the West. They hiked the High Sierra; camped in the remote backcountry of Death Valley; sought out forgotten tide pools along the Pacific littoral; wandered through the maze-like canyons of the red-rock country of Utah.

Everywhere they discovered beauty.

Overwhelmed by the fragility of what they found, they began drafting their own plea to the world around them to appreciate and protect all these special places. In the spring of 1965, older brother Terry finished composing his unique manuscript and took it to family friend David Brower, then executive director of the Sierra Club. Several months later, while floating the Colorado River, the brothers’ raft overturned and Terry drowned. The book came out a year later. It was both a celebration and a memorial.

More than any other book of its time, On the Loose captured the excitement about wild places that pulsed through young people in those years.

The generation that came of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s connected with wilderness in a way that no succeeding generation has done. By the middle 1970s, wilderness use in the High Sierra reached its all-time high point in terms of user numbers.

Today, nowhere near as many people are on the trails, and quite a few of those who are out there are stubborn baby-boomers, still on the trail after all these years. I’m one of them.

Like everyone else I knew, I had a copy of On the Loose when I was young. My original copy disappeared long ago, but the values it promoted lived on not only in my life, but also in those of many of my friends. That is why finding a copy of the book recently sent me spinning back into my own youthful memories of wilderness and adventure.

On the Loose helped define a generation. For some of us, those hand-lettered pages still send us to dreaming about places we have yet to go. Such is the power of books.

© Wm. Tweed

SEARCHING FOR THE SOUTHERN SIERRA

I found myself in an interesting conversation the other day, one that almost turned into a spirited argument. The question: where exactly is the “Southern Sierra?”

Since the 19th century, it has been common practice to divide the Sierra Nevada into three regions – northern, central, and southern. This makes sense because of the linear nature of the range. It is nearly 400 miles from one end of the Sierra to the other, and the various segments of the mountains possess strikingly different characters.

Past practice guides much of this thought. The first sightings of the Sierra Nevada by Euro-Americans in the eighteenth century took place from the hilltops immediately east of San Francisco Bay. The California Gold Rush that began in 1849 focused attention on the same region.

As a result, the Sierra Nevada was initially defined as being the snowy mountains visible to the east of the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta. And by default, what was north of that region became the “Northern Sierra,” while the region out of sight to the south became the “Southern Sierra.” No formal definitions were required.

Fast-forward to the 21st century and the definitions remain vague. All agree that it is useful to break the range into regions, but defining the frontiers that separate the three zones is largely a matter of personal opinion.

If one accepts the traditional definition of the Sierra Nevada as a whole – that it runs from Lassen Peak in the north to Tehachapi Pass in the south — the mathematical midpoint of the range falls almost exactly upon Yosemite Valley. Continuing with this same mathematical logic, the southern third of the Sierra begins at the Kings River while the northern third starts near Echo Summit, where US 50 crosses the Sierra Crest just west of South Lake Tahoe.

These divisions make logical sense, but few recognize them. The National Weather Service, for example, includes all of Yosemite National Park in its forecasts for the Southern Sierra. By this logic the Southern Sierra is larger than the central and northern portions of the range put together.

Popular usage also suggests that nothing south of Interstate 80 (Donner Pass) falls within the Northern Sierra, although this makes the northern “third” of the range notably smaller than the other two sections.

Looking closer to home, the Kings River is not a bad dividing line between the central and southern portions of the range. This major watercourse is the southernmost Sierra river to flow directly westward from the Sierra Crest to the Great Central Valley.

To the south of the Kings River, the Sierra takes on a significantly different form with a double crest and a very different drainage pattern. The Kaweah and Tule Rivers originate on the peaks of the Great Western Divide, the more westerly of the two ridges, while the Kern River comes to lire behind that ridge and flows southward some 60 miles to Lake Isabella before it finally heads for Bakersfield and the floor of the Central Valley.

Following this logic, the natural dividing line between the central and southern Sierra ought to be Kings-Kaweah and Kings-Kern divides, which, as the names suggest, separate the headwaters of the Kings River from the watersheds to the south.

This makes perfect topographic sense, but we humans are not particularly famous for our consistent logic. All the Sierra Nevada people that I know place the Kings River within the Southern Sierra.

So, seeking some form of resolution here: what if we define the “Southern Sierra” as including all the territory drained by the Kings, Kaweah, Tule, and Kern Rivers? North of that, the “Central Sierra” runs to Donner Pass, which coincides with the northern end of the continuous high alpine zone with its barren peaks. Beyond that is the “Northern Sierra.”

These definitions work on the ground and reflect visible differences between the three regions. But are they likely to be universally adopted any time soon? Don’t hold your breath.

But just maybe, if we stop describing Yosemite as being part of the Southern Sierra, we will have a more accurate sense of just where we live within the topographic complexity that defines the Golden State.

© Wm. Tweed

SNOWSHOES AND SKIS

We humans have a love/hate relationship with snow. It all depends on where one lives.

Those who live where snow occurs with some regularity – a zone that covers the great majority of the United States – often hold little affection for the frozen white stuff that falls from the sky. To many it is just a seasonal hassle.

Those who live in locales where snow is rare — or even nonexistent — can afford to appreciate it a bit more. The residents of Tulare County fall into this latter category. Snow for most of us is something remote that we can enjoy if, when, and how we wish.

I was pondering all this the other day after I drove up to Giant Forest in search of a little winter recreation. There, I put on my cross-country skis and headed out over fifteen inches of snow along the unplowed summer road that leads to Crescent Meadow.

I’ve been cross-country skiing since the late 1970s, and it has long been one of my favorite forms of exercise. On a good day, the pleasure of gliding smoothly across the surface of fresh snow brings an exhilaration that is hard to exaggerate. And when the snow is icy and not so good, well, it’s still nice to be out in the woods.

Like many other baby-boomer outdoor pastimes, cross-country skiing has fallen in popularity in recent years. I still meet other skiers on the trail, but not as many as I used to. Instead, I meet folks using snowshoes.

In the same decades that have seen cross-county skiing decline in popularity, we have witnessed a true renaissance in snowshoeing. By any measure, the popularity of the sport has now reached an all-time high.

Both skiing and snowshoeing have long histories.

What we now call skiing developed several thousand years ago in northern Europe. Archaeologists have uncovered skis three to five thousand years old at Scandinavian and Russian sites.

Snowshoeing apparently developed in central Asia at an even earlier date than skiing developed in northern Europe.

Eventually, both forms of snow travel made their ways to North America. Snowshoes came first. The people who first settled our continent brought snowshoes with them as they crossed the Bering Straits.

By the time Europeans arrived in North American several thousand years later, the native people of our continent had perfected a wide variety of snowshoe designs, each adapted to different conditions and needs. Many of these designs are still in use today.

Skis came later — as you might guess – arriving on our continent with northern European immigrants in the past few hundred years.

Both skis and snowshoes are attempts to adapt the human foot for travel in soft, deep snow. As anyone who has wallowed in snow can confirm, human feet are too small for efficient over-snow travel. Instead we must make our feet larger – hence the logic of both snowshoes and skis.

Most folks agree that snowshoeing is the easier of the two sports to learn. No particular skill is required to get started, but travel in soft snow can still be very strenuous. Skis reverse the equation; one needs better skills but uses less energy.

The rise of snowshoeing in recent decades reflects both the low skill level required to get started in the sport and a revolution in snowshoe design. Beginning in the early 1970s, a new generation of snowshoes appeared that were made of aluminum and synthetic webbing instead of wood and leather. These new designs were much lighter and thus much easier to use.

Returning this column to where we started: one of the joys of living in Tulare Country is that we can enjoy snow when we wish but don’t have to live in it. On clear winter days, the snowpack that clothes the Sierra Nevada can be plainly visible from Visalia, and getting up to that snow is surprisingly easy.

Our local national parks have marked winter trails, and snowshoes and/or skis can be rented at several locations including the Wuksachi and Montecito-Sequoia lodges.

Give it a try. Maybe I’ll meet you on the trail sometime soon.

© Wm. Tweed