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Pathways: A Story of Trails and Men (1968), by John W. Bingaman


Crises in Trail Maintenance

Minimum maintenance on trails was done by rangers during World War II. Most of our young rangers and Yosemite employees were called to the military and the war buildup in 1942.

The Author recalls his many experiences during the war years in Yosemite National Park, when he was in charge of a large park district. With no mature help but the same responsibilities it became a challenge each day to know what was best to do. The forest fire protection of the Hetch Hetchy and Lake Eleanor Reservoirs and the his mind. With high school and college boys, a few older men declared 4-F, we were able to maintain a 24 hour protection of the park. I was in charge of the Mather Range District, a high fire hazard area, during the early years of the war and was responsible for the protection of the Hetch Hetchy and Lake Eleanor Reservoirs and the entire watershed. The California National Guard was finally assigned to take over the protection of the two dams and reservoirs, which were priority number one. The rangers patrolled and maintained the trails, clearing trees and logs out of trails, repairing washouts, so pack trains could get through in case of emergencies. The suppression of forest fires was a big problem, due to lack of man-power. But we had the help of the California Guard in all emergencies. While the voune men fought in the war, we “older rangers” were left to guard our forests and parks. It was our patriotic duty to maintain and serve our rich heritage.

Our career rangers at that time were trying to carry more than their load. I recall one special detail, Ranger John Hansen, Ross Cecil, and William Bluett, working extra time on a short cut trail from the Lake Eleanor trail to Kibbie Lake. This new short cut was all inside the boundary of the Yosemite Park, and was in a hazardous fire area, where distance was an important factor in getting to a forest fire as quickly as possible. There were no helicopters, nor fire-jumpers in those days; all we had were hand tools. Hansen scouted out the location for the most direct trail and for protection patrols; so his trail was incorporated into the main Kibbie Lake Trail, and we call it the John Hansen Trail.

One day late in June, 1943, Ranger Bill Davies, two young high school boys, and I were clearing logs from the Hetch Hetchy trail. We had started that morning with food and sleeping gear, my two pack mules, and a saddle horse. We had planned to camp at the City Trail Camp about five miles distant at the Rancheria Creek crossing. Working along the trail bordering the reservoir we sawed out ten downed trees and arrived at the planned camp site about four-thirty P. M. While unpacking I heard a moan or low wail coming from an old tool house about three hundred yards up the trail. This was a Closed Military Area, and no one was permitted in here during the war. Then we heard the sound again, only this time it sounded more like a cry for help. I told Bill to watch the back of the tool house while I went to the front door. As I neared the building, a voice from inside called. I was armed, so trusting on the old 45 Colt, I kicked the door open. Inside, on the floor covered with pine needles, lay a man that looked like a skeleton. He said, “I am starved. Give me food. Today I was ready to die.” After eating some food, he said, “I came across country dodging the Draft, and saw I was in a Military zone, so decided to wait, and see what would happen.”

It was up to me to take him in to the California Guard, for interview, and later he was turned over to the Military Prison for the duration of the War.

In the Spring of 1940, an Army P-38, Night Fighter with two pilots aboard, was reported lost and probably down somewhere east of Fresno in the Sierra. This plane was not found until early summer when a patrol and some horseback parties were riding in the Moraine Meadows. As they were attracted to the scene by the horses, they smelled the dead bodies of the two pilots, what was left of them after bears had been working on the flesh of the two men.

Ranger Bell and I were notified to investigate. We started at once for the scene of the accident, to guard the plane and valuable equipment until the Army Rescue Team arrived from the Fresno Army Base. We assisted the Major in bringing out the salvaged equipment and bodies.

Much time and effort was spent in searching for lost persons. It was not only expensive for the ranger department but it also jeopardized the lives of all searchers. Many times on searches rangers took chances where one misstep could cost a life; so the ranger files of strange accidents through the years read like a story book.

During World War II when the number of rangers were at a minimum, such dangers and hazards were shared by a very few men. There was no time, no money, no workmen to maintain the trail system.

War is not the only deterrent of conservation. Lack of sufficient funds and thousands, yes millions, of tourists can have a devastating effect upon a system of trails. Weather and climate leave their imprint.

Mr. Hil Oehlmann, President of the Yosemite Park and Curry Company in Yosemite National Park, in a letter to Park Superintendent John C. Preston, dated September, 1965 made a specific report on the deplorable condition of our back-country trails. “In my opinion the funds allotted for maintenance of trails have been inadequate for many years. In my pack trips into various regions in the park I have observed that work has consisted largely of grooming the trails in the forest and meadow areas, while the rocky sections, which in many instances require virtual reconstruction, have received little attention, doubtless because money for such costly work has not been available. Many sections of trail have degenerated into rocky water courses, difficult for hikers and hazardous for stock.

“With the constantly increasing use of the High Sierra by hikers, backpackers, and saddle parties, it appears urgent that a large scale program of trail reconstruction and maintenance be undertaken.

“Suggestions of a hope that the Park Service soon will undertake construction of a new trail to connect Sunrise and Vogelsang High Sierra Camps. The many thousands who visit Yosemite’s superb back country for a true wilderness experience will greatly appreciate whatever can be done to make these trips more agreeable by reducing the hazards and discomforts of bad trail conditions.”

Numerous private pack parties, as well as the saddle parties Mr. Oehlmann refers to have made comments on the hazardous trail conditions at places where there should be more improvements made. Again it is the steep rocky portions that could stand major repairs.

The horse trail from Happy Isles to the Vernal Fall bridge is poorly laid out; it is too steep and should be relocated. This is particularly important because during the peak of the season two saddle parties a day go to the top of Nevada Fall, and most of the riders are inexperienced. There is only one place on the trail where two saddle or pack trains can pass in safety.

Beyond Nevada Falls above Twin Bridges the rocky section of the trail is quite dangerous. Over the years a number of mule trains have rolled over the zigzags.

I believe it would be advantageous for a horse and foot bridge across the Merced River in Yosemite Valley near the site of the former Swinging Bridge; because of large numbers of automobiles using the main bridges. Many hikers and saddle parties are using the trails throughout the season.

My philosophy is that the purpose of life is to spend it for something that outlives you. I feel that I found my niche as a member of the National Park Service, a conservation agency.

I quote from Secretary Udall’s book, “Guarding the Treasured Lands:” “So long as evening campfires burn throughout the land, so long as the park ranger stands beside these wonders of nature and of men, then will the spirit of Stephen T. Mather be pleased. For he will know that the National Park Service is keeping the nation’s heritage the way he wanted . . . safe and sound for the benefit and enjoyment of future generations.”

Much praise should go to John Muir for his persistent efforts to save the wild country and our National Parks. His many letters and numerous books are a source of great inspiration, and our readers will find it well worth the time to learn just a little of his vast knowledge and experiences.

Here is one of Muir’s sayings, “Then it seemed to me the Sierra should be called not the Nevada, or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light, and after many years spent in the heart of it, rejoicing and wondering, bathing in its glorious floods of light, seeing the sunbursts of morning among the icy peaks, the noonday radiance on the trees and rocks and snow, the flush of the alpenglow, and a thousand dashing waterfalls with their marvelous abundance of irised spray, it still seems to me above all others the Range of Light, the most divinely beautiful of all mountain chains I have ever seen.”

Next: Last PatrolContentsPrevious: Gabriel Sovulewski

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Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management