Sunday, January 8, 2012


Half Dome

The Sierra Nevada dawned brightly on the western horizon as I rubbed the slumber from my eyes and stumbled out of the tent to watch the sky transition from darkness to light.  Our trip was also about to change.  Today would be our last day of exploration before we would have to drive hard for the motherland.  Today was also going to be a special day, because we were transitioning out of Mary Austin’s “Land of Little Rain” and into John Muir’s “Treasure of the Yosemite.”  For the first time in my life, I would literally follow in the footsteps of a guide whose spiritual path I have long traveled.  Like a similar pilgrimage around Walden a decade earlier, we climbed into the Sierra with hearts as open as our eyes.  If only I had weeks instead of hours….

"Waving onward in graceful compliance"
Trees! Their increasing diversity greeted us as we gained altitude and crossed the impossibly high 9,943 ft. Tioga Pass.  We stopped to look for Whitebark Pines (Pinus albicaulis), yet another large seeded species and, as if on cue, a Clark’s Nutcracker flew across our path revealing none of its secret knowledge of all the best pine nuts.  Gnarled trees atop granite monoliths splayed their branches to the mountain winds; as Muir so poetically characterized, they were “waving onward in graceful compliance.”  We descended into the park and the tree diversity continued to increase.  The variety of pines alone was astounding.  We saw Lodgepole (P. contorta ssp. murrayana), Western White (P. monticola), and Jeffrey Pine (P. jeffreyi) in the rocky subalpine, and Sugar (P. lambertiana), Ponderosa (P. ponderosa), and Grey Pine (P. sabiniana) on the lower elevation valley walls.  Red Fir (Abies magnifica) and White Fir (A. concolor) were also common and there was even a smattering of Douglas Fir (Psuedotsuga menziesii).  Being from cedar country, I was excited to see immense stands of Incense Cedar (Calocedrus decurrens), which has always been a novel tree to me.  John Muir’s discussion of the Sierra's trees can be found here.

Small examples of Black Oak (Qerucs kellogii) acorns
While we were in the subalpine, I kept complaining to Katrina about how choked the forests seemed with “dog-hair” stands of pine, which I expect was historically burned by the Native Americans to create a more open landscape that favored higher plant diversity.  Near the valley bottom I was surprised to see a large area of burned forest.  The park has started to embrace fire as a management tool.  We began to see Black Oak (Quercus kelloggii) and Canyon Live Oak (Q. chrysolepis) with increasing frequency.  Both of these species were important food resources for the Native Americans living in the valley and are more fire resistant than pine.  In the low elevation foothills outside of the park near Mariposa CA, I made my final collection of acorns from Interior Live Oak (Q. wislizenii) and Blue Oak (Q. douglasii).  

With a setting sun on the horizon, we bid adieu to Yosemite, the Sierras, and the distant landscapes that taught us so much about the wild foods of the Desert SW.  Our backs had grown accustomed to sleeping on the soil-less earth, and our skin, to the bright sun;  Our minds were full of new ideas, and our trunk was filled with acorns and salt.  We couldn’t have asked for a better winter holiday.  Leaving our last backroad and turning onto the highway, we set a course for home.  The coming months will be quiet ones for harvesting in the Pacific Northwest, but I look forward to experimenting with the many varieties of acorns that we picked on this trip and opening the larder for regular doses of the more fruitful month’s fare.
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