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Guardians of the Yosemite (1961) by John W. Bingaman


Chapter IX

SOME UNUSUAL EXPERIENCES

One day early in October 1922 while on patrol near Tenaya Lake, my saddle horse stepped in a squirrel hole and injured its ankle. It must have been very painful for the animal could hardly make it the short distance to our station, I doctored it with hot compresses and liniment but it did not improve. This left me with only my pack horse and Martha’s saddle horse.

It was near the end of season, fall was in the air and soon we could expect our first big storm. The Chief Ranger phoned that we’d better close the station and come in next day. It was decided I would take the horses down the Tenaya Lake Trail and that Martha would wait for Clyde Boothe, who was driving the Superintendent’s car with a special visitor, and should be by about noon. I got an early start with the horses for it was slow traveling down the trail with the lame horse. Martha waited at the Tenaya Lake Ranger Cabin for the car to pick her up. By the middle of the afternoon there was no car or word from Boothe. Martha was getting more uneasy as the hours passed. She finally telephoned Superintendent Lewis. He said, “Where are you Martha? The car broke down at Aspen Valley and we will not be able to get there today. You catch a ride down with any one that comes along.”

Well at that time of year rides were mighty scarce. But in about fifteen minutes she heard the sound of horses on the road. Martha ran out and it was none other than Bridgeport Tom with an extra saddle horse. I am sure Martha was as surprised as the Indian but in due time Tom was made to understand the circumstance and consented to let Martha ride the extra saddle pony. Tom said, “Squaw Horse no ride good.” Martha soon found this was an undersstatement. The pony had a tough mouth and wanted to eat all the grass along the trail. The Indian had been using it hard in packing the acorns across the mountains to their winter home near Mono Lake and the pony wouldn’t be hurried. Martha could not keep up with Tom who was riding a fast single-footer. “Squaw Horse” was old and stubborn and jolted hard when she decided to move at a snail’s pace. Finally Martha called Tom to come back and lead her horse as she couldn’t keep her going. This idea worked better in make-up time but the ride was rough and tiring for Martha trying to hang on without getting all jolted apart.

Near the Snow Creek Ford five Indians appeared with ten pack animals loaded down with acorns. In the lead was Harry Johnson whom we had known for some time as he was a Valley Indian. There was much talk in Indian and then Harry recognized Martha and asked what she was doing riding with Tom and what was the trouble? Martha told him why I had ridden ahead with the lame horse and about the promised ride for her that never materialized. There was some more talk. From then on Bridgeport Tom was quite solicitous of Martha’s welfare. He would say, “You good rider we get down fast, you make it fine, we have big Pow Wow tonight; you come.”

Martha was happy to see the end of the Trail at Mirror Lake and part company with her Indian Guide and his hard riding pony.

While patrolling the Big Trees, Ranger Sault and I were stationed at the little cabin and our horses in the corral in back. I was to feed the horses as Ranger Sault was acting cook. At 6 p.m. it was customary to feed the usual amount of hay and grain. On this particular evening I was about to perform this routine chore. As I approached the corral the four head of horses came charging to the gate at full gallop. One horse hit the top rail and knocked it free of the gate and struck me on the side of my head knocking me out cold. The horses then jumped over the bottom rail and ran down the road. Ranger Sault heard the commotion and came out to see what had happened. He found me still out and flat on the ground. There was a bad bump back of my ear and an open. wound. Sault carried me to the cabin and applied first aid which brought me out of shock. I asked, “What happened?”

Sault said, “Plenty” and continued his phone call to the hospital consulting with the doctor.

The doctor told him that if I had a headache to come in at once. I didn’t have a headache but was sore and dazed from the bump. Then a strange thing happened. While Ranger Sault was talking to the doctor the door opened, an arm reached in and placed a bottle on the table. A label on it said, “Take tablespoonful in hot coffee.” I took it as directed and it worked. In half an hour I was up walking around ready for our fish fry that evening at Ed Baxter’s Cabin in the Upper Grove. We never knew who left the bottle.

I have witnessed three major floods in the Valley that caused great damage. 1937-1950-1955 all in the fall—November and December. I saw the spring flood, May 30, 1919, but this wasn’t as bad as the other three where roads, bridges and trails were severely damaged. In one flood up to ten inches of rain fell in three days. This helped to melt what snow there was left on the mountains adding to the rainfall. Seven major fall floods have taken place in the Yosemite history from 1861 to 1955.

December 22, 1955, torrential rains continued for several days, the Sentinel Bridge gauge registered sixteen feet, a dangerous flood stage. At the height of the flood there were fifty-two inches of water in the Yosemite Store building. The All Year Highway was closed by slides and wash-outs and damage was done to the main roads in and out of the Park. All travel both ways was stopped until December 26th. The Wawona Road was made passable on December 28th. The Merced Road wasn’t made passable until January 19, 1956.

July 21, 1955, about 5 p.m. a major cloud burst hit over the Lee Vining Canyon dropping about six inches of rain in a very short time. This was an unusual occurrence, and many cars traveling up and down the Tioga were stalled between big slides and wash outs. Several cars were damaged and washed down the slides. Ranger Eckhardt was off duty but he assisted many of the stranded motorists and may well have saved some lives. He did this on his own time and at his own expense. Deeds like this will be long remembered. This particular cloudburst destroyed most of Tioga Lodge at Mono Lake and Mrs. Cunningham, the proprietor, suffered a great loss in property damage. Fortunately there were no casualties. The Tioga Pass and Lee Vining Road was closed to traffic for two weeks before repairs made the road safe to travel.

January 1930, the local snow surveys were linked with the broad program for the Sierra Nevada project. The Yosemite National Park and State of California organized on a cooperative basis the High Sierra Snow Surveys. Once a month, from January through April, rangers were assigned on trips out to the designated snow courses, to measure the depth of snow and the water content. On the basis of the rangers reports much valuable data was referred to the State Water Resources in Sacramento. From these reports they could estimate how much water could be expected to flow into the storage dams.

Food and bedding were always cached in the cabins in the fall before the snows closed the roads. Cabins were located at Snow Creek, Snow Flat, Tenaya Lake, Tuolumne Meadows and Ostrander Lake. Over the years, a great deal of time and energy has been spent on these surveys. Skiing or snow shoeing was a necessity and had to be learned as this was the only way to get to the Snow Courses in winter. The snow would pile up from six to fourteen feet, and climbing out of the Valley over the steep trails was a man sized job. Any one riot accustomed to Skis or snowshoes was just out of luck. It took a great deal of practice to become adept to either mode of travel.

Here is an experience of a team of rangers on a Snow Survey Trip. Late in February 1930, Ralph Anderson, Barton Herschler, Jerry Mernin and Jack Sinclair took off on the long survey trip to Tenaya Lake, Tuolumne Meadows and other courses along the Tioga Road. After climbing the zig zags, which took about three hours, they arrived at Snow Creek Cabin. It was particularly difficult climbing the last lap for the snow was piling up rapidly under leaden skies. Ralph and Jack were novices and shouldn’t have gone along but they were determined to make the trip. After having a second breakfast at Snow Creek they took off optimistically following the blazes of the Tenaya Lake Trail until they ran out of blazes in the storm. Even on a clear day the blazes across the bare granite stretches were hard to locate and with the snow blowing, blaze and landmark were blotted out. By 5 p.m. the winter night closed in and they knew something had to be done. Barton had brought along a small hand axe on his belt. It wasn’t much of an axe but it proved a Godsend in helping to get a fire started. After the fire was going they beat down the snow around the burning snag until they were somewhat sheltered from the wind. It subsided during the night but gobs of light snow sifted down for hours while they sat huddled around the burning snag. There was no chance to relax for pieces of burning wood would thump down on them occasionally and they had to move positions from time to time for safety.

Alder Creek Entrance Station, 1926—Wawona Road
Alder Creek Entrance Station, 1926—Wawona Road
However, their best chance for survival was to stay by the fire until daylight when they would have a better chance of finding the Tenaya Lake Cabin. No one knew for sure just where they were during the night.

For food they munched on the left overs from lunch and at least didn’t suffer from hunger. They had “Old Trapper Nelsons” along with the detachable knapsack which served well that night. They rested with one hip on the frame work section and a shoulder on the knapsack part and got some short naps. They needed the rest to restore energy for the morrow. All they could see beyond the firelight was the snow covered hemlocks drooping their heads like hooded monks at some death ritual and it wasn’t a comforting thought under the circumstances.

The weather cleared at daybreak so they took off up the canyon and were soon out on top. Far in the distance lay the great white blanket of Tenaya Lake. It was tough sledding and they took turns breaking trail through the deep new snow. It was tough, slow going but at least they knew where they were and heading for safety.

They reached the Tenaya Cabin around 10 a.m. and ate their fill. By noon they were in bed catching up on some much needed sleep. They slept all afternoon then got up for another big meal and back to bed for the night. Everyone was back to normal by the next morning. Then they decided to split up the Party. Jack and Ralph would head back to Yosemite Creek to take courses enroute, while Barton and Jerry would go on to Tuolumne Meadows to take courses there. They figured this would save time.

Jack and Ralph proceeded on to the top of the hill above Yosemite Creek and decided to take a short cut straight down to the cabin instead of going the half mile further around by the road. That was a mistake. When they reached a spot where they thought the cabin should be there was no cabin. After searching for some time in the waning daylight with no success, they had no choice but to make preparations for another uncomfortable night in zero weather. Morning broke clear, and after some scouting, they finally found the cabin buried with snow. They shoveled open an upper window and crawled inside. The cabin was dry, wood and food had been cached for such needs so there was sufficient. They stayed there that night. The next day they took the snow course readings and returned to the Valley none the worse for their experience.

Both ranger teams returned to the Valley with only minor frost bites. Luck was with these rangers for such trips are hazardous. Present day safety precautions would not permit such a dangerous trip.

February 11, 1930, Ranger Bill Merrill and I rode our saddle horses over the Wawona Road, inspecting the Ranger Stations enroute. We covered Chinquapin, Alder Creek and South Fork Canyon Tent. A temporary patrol tent near Wawona, established a ranger patrol station above the Private Property, Section 35, prior to acquiring the Wawona Hotel property. We made several patrols along the south boundary-before returning to headquarters.

On December 5, 1931, Ranger Ernst and I were assigned to the Engineering Survey Crew, with Engineers Shilko and Smith, to run a road survey from Glacier Point to the Sentinel Dome Summit. There was about five feet of snow on the ground at the time so we had to use snowshoes to get around. The job took approximately a week. We had our meals and lodging at the Mountain House. It was cold with lots of snow before we completed the job and returned to the Valley.

February 23, 1932, I was assigned with Ranger Eastman and Ranger Irwin to make the long snow survey trip to White Wolf Meadow, Yosemite Creek, Tenaya Lake and Tuolumne Meadows. We started by way of the Tenaya Lake Trail and half way up the zig-zags we encountered heavy snow and the going was difficult. Ranger Eastman suffered with leg cramps which bothered him for about an hour. The first night out we stayed at Snow Creek Cabin where food and beds were stored for our use. Park Naturalist Harwell accompanied us as far as the Snow Creek Cabin and returned to the Valley next day.

Bright and early in the morning the three of us started across country and came out on the Tioga Road near Porcupine Flat. From there we went to Yosemite Creek Cabin, where we stayed the second night. Food and blankets were cached here in a tin box. Dry wood was stacked in one end of the kitchen and soon we had a cozy fire ping and the cabin warm. Nights are cold at this elevation with temperatures down to zero and below at times.

The following day we reached White Wolf Meadow and took the snow course and inspected the buildings. To show how deep the snow was we took a picture of two of us on the roof where we’d snowshoed from the front of the building. A copy of this picture still hangs on the wall of the White Wolf Lodge dining room.

The next day, following along the Old Tioga Road, we plodded slowly

Ranger Eastman on patrol near Lake Eleanor, 1925
Ranger Eastman on patrol near Lake Eleanor, 1925
through Porcupine Flat, and Snow Flat, arriving at the Tenaya Lake Ranger Cabin about 5 p.m.

We also had food, bedding and plenty of dry wood cached in the cabin. A day’s travel by snowshoes takes plenty out of one, and these cabins always looked mighty good at nightfall.

The snow measurements next morning were 8 feet on the level. We proceeded on to Tuolumne Meadows Ranger Station where the snow course measured 6 feet. Then on to Fletcher Lake the next day and returned to the Tuolumne Meadow Station. That night seemed unusually cold. I piled on six blankets but was still cold, and with reason, for the next morning I looked at the thermometer outside of the cabin and it read fifteen below zero. After completing our snow measurements we returned by way of Tenaya Lake and stayed in the cabin there one night. The next day we were back at headquarters with blisters on our feet and faces as brief mementos of the trip.

The winter of 1950 came early. I closed the Tuolumne Meadows Station and moved to the Tioga Pass Station where ranger Brown and I batched it for several days. The elevation there is 9,941 feet. The evening of October twenty-fifth clouds began to roll over the Pass and the wind increased to thirty miles per hour. By midnight it started to rain and kept up all night. We knew in the morning that we were in for a storm of possibly several days duration. I reported to the Chief Ranger’s Office on our short wave radio for the telephone connections had gone out some time during the night. After reporting the general conditions I told Ranger Hoyt that we would start closing the road and Station and for them to close the road at Crane Flat as it would be too dangerous for travel. I also told him that we would start down as soon as possible.

A visitor’s car was already in trouble having stalled near Tenaya Lake. The Curry Company tow truck was taking it back to the Valley. After draining the Station and boarding the windows securely Ranger Brown and I headed down the road towards the Valley hoping to catch up with the tow truck for company. We caught up with the tow truck towing the visitors car and the three cars stayed together, Ranger Brown was driving his personal car, I the patrol pick-up and the tow truck last.

After reaching the top of the grade near May Lake Junction, timber blown down from the high winds of the day before was all across the road. We would have to stop, get out and saw a dead lodge pole pine in two so we could get through. Then we’d go on until another roadblock necessitated our doing the same again. We sawed some twenty to twenty-five fallen trees before reaching White Wolf. It was snowing and blowing hard most of the afternoon. We had only a cross cut saw and were beginning to get tired and cold. The wind we estimated was about forty miles per hour. We were traveling slowly between White Wolf and Smoky Jack Meadow when a red fir tree fell across the road in front of us. This stopped us as there was no way to get around. We were just debating what to do when, with a swish and crash, a five foot thick fir tree fell on top of Ranger Brown’s car mashing it almost to the ground. It was a close call for all three of us. Sizing up the situation, it seemed the best thing to do would be to unhook the tow truck and use it for our transportation as the other two cars were hemmed in. We drove it around the trees and up a small bank of the road to get through. The four wheel drive truck finally made it around the two downed trees and back on the road. We hoped that the Road Crew would be coming out to meet us and clear the road from the other end, Crane Flat Station. Every so often we had to stop to cut down timber blocking the road and in some cases drag out the large tops of fir trees that had fallen off in the storm.

We reached Crane Flat Ranger Station about midnight tired, cold and hungry. After building a fire in the wood range, making some tea and warming up a can of soup we felt better. After resting a while we heard the sound of a power saw down the road a short distance. This was music to our ears and we went down and met the Park Service Road Crew working their way through from the Valley, as this road was also closed by many downed trees. A short way back was Assistant Chief Ranger Robinson driving a large V snow plow. We related our experiences for they had been concerned about us. Following the snow plow we made headquarters, arriving home about 2 a.m. It had been a long and mighty tough day.

All during the afternoon and evening of the storm, Martha and Ranger Brown’s fiance worried about our safety and were mighty happy to learn of our safe return to the Valley.

The following day a road crew removed the tree from Ranger Brown’s car and towed it to the Valley. One of the crew followed with my pickup truck.


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