Hiking Through Drought and Wildfire

EarthTalk’s Chelsea Tyler contributes this travelogue about a recent trip backpacking through the wilds of Yosemite National Park…

Monday, September 21, 2015

Sea Level, 7:36 a.m.
Los Angeles, California

I ran until I reached the edge of the shore. As I stepped into the water, I celebrated what was my first time touching the Pacific Ocean. I watched children play in the shallow waves as parents joined, seeking cooling relief from the stinging sun. Standing in the largest body of water in the world, 3,000 miles away from my home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, it was hard to imagine the extent of California’s drought crisis. I generally never thought about the preciousness of water, until the moment I feared I might do without it, in the middle of the wilderness, surrounded by the scorched leftovers of a still smoldering forest.

9,500 feet, 3:05 p.m.
Yosemite National Park, California

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Scarred forest fresh from wildfires.

Driving higher up the teetering cliffs of Yosemite National Forest, Philip Cody’s excitement grew relative to each foot of elevation gained. An avid hiker, and my trip leader for the week, Cody is the definition of an adventurer. He is a person who seeks out physical adversity for sport, who is never satisfied with reaching the next highest peak. Once, he lost part of a finger during a climbing accident and, rather than wailing in shock or pain, he climbed down, found the remaining segment, put it in a Tupperware dish, and drove to the hospital only lamenting the climbing time that he’d lost after the ordeal.

I was traveling to Yosemite’s forests in part to investigate the extent of damage left behind by the region’s recent wildfires, and I needed someone with guts and experience to guide me.

Clearly Cody was the enthusiastic leader that I was looking for.

“Oh man, look at that!” Cody shouted from the passenger seat of our economy rental car.

“Where? What is it?!” I expected to see a bear standing in the road, a team of deer prancing through the mountain pass, a great ball of fire in the middle of the valley below us.

“Rocks!” Cody said, beaming.

I kept driving.

8,100 feet, 3:47 p.m.
Porcupine Creek Trailhead

Arriving at the Porcupine Creek Trailhead on Tioga Road, my anxieties started to rise. I got out of the car reluctantly, knowing that it would be a few days before I see the car or paved roads again. Cody and I did a last gear check. Bear canister? Check. Bear spray? Check. Food? Is there enough food? What if I need an acid reducer while camping? Did I pack any of those?..

Cody, eager to get hiking and to discover the terrain, reassured me that we had everything we needed, so we set out on the trail. The temperature hovered in the 70s, but with the sun on my neck and the pack on my back, it felt much warmer.

The hike felt easy at its start, but each time we reached a hill, I felt the burden of the 30 pounds of gear on my back. I took a much needed drink from my water bottle and then stopped in my tracks. Water. How are we going to get water? Is there any at the campsite? This is wilderness hiking, there are no campsites. Can we get it from the nearby creek on the trail? I glanced over to the side, the creek was dry. I turned to Cody, feeling stupid for not having thought of this detail earlier.

“So, where do we get water?” I asked nervously.

“Yeah, I was just thinking the same thing. We should have passed some by now. According to the map, we’ve been following a stream. Oh well, I’m sure we’ll find it somewhere!” He seemed unmoved by the revelation.

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Smoke billows from a still smoldering tree trunk.

Cody, accustomed to backpacking along the Appalachian Trail or other routes in the Northeast, rarely had to think about a lack of mountain streams available to him during hikes. This, however, was a California trail, in the grasp of a four-year drought, in the middle of sweeping wildfires. In all of our planning, we had foolishly overlooked this detail and only carried in three liters of water, expecting to find plentiful streams in the forest. Aside from drinking water, all of our meals consisted of dehydrated or freeze-dried goods, requiring boiling water for proper consumption.

Ahead, two day hikers, a man and a woman, approached us from further down the trail.

“Hi! Have you folks passed any streams on your way here?”

“Sorry, what?” His accent was French. Either he didn’t understand me or my question of finding water in this charred landscape was altogether so ridiculous that he needed to hear it again.

“Running water. Have you seen any on this trail?”

He looked at me cautiously, “No, there is no water here. Do you need?…”

“Oh we have plenty to drink!” I tried not to sound desperate, “We were just looking for some cooking water.” It wasn’t a lie entirely, but my supply of drinking water was quickly dwindling and wouldn’t last through the night without resupply.

“Sorry, I don’t see any.” He and his companion skirted away from us, continuing their hike out to the parking lot to civilization, to running water.

Even though these foreign hikers were leaving the wilderness, they were still not exempt from California’s current state of emergency. When California Governor Jerry Brown started regulating the state’s water use in April of 2015, the desperation of California’s record-breaking drought was made clear. Living thousands of miles from California, it was easy to overlook this crisis in my day-to-day life in Cambridge – each time I turned to the sink, water flowed reliably. Out here, however, in the wilderness, with no faucets to turn on, the incredible lack of this resource became impossible to ignore.

After some deliberation about whether or not we should turn back to the car, Cody and I decided to continue on the journey and divert our path to a different trail coming up at a nearby junction. We held onto hope that we would find water for the night somewhere on that trail.

7,900 feet, 4:50 p.m.
Heading to North Dome

After another hour of hiking, we came upon a sign strapped to a tree with bright pink tape. The sign warned of the recent wildfires along the trail. “This trail is open, but please pass through quickly,” it read. Upon entering the area, I wasn’t sure why anyone would want to stick around. The thick smell of burning wood hung in the air. Tree trunks still sent billows of smoke out from their tops, as if the burning ash was coming up from the hellish center of the earth.

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Fallen, burned tree along the trail.

Another scent suddenly arose, overlapping that of the smoke – sweet, overpowering. We quickly realized that it was coming from a thick, pink powder covering the rocks and trees untouched by the fire. The flame retardant, known as “slurry,” is a concoction of water and fertilizer dropped by aircrafts to protect the foliage threatened by nearby fires. The scent of the slurry mixed with the smoke turned my stomach. I could feel my lungs resisting and I hiked slower to avoid breathing in the mixture too deeply.

It was strange to enter this natural place, usually so full of life and verdure, only to find myself walking on a dead and dusty trail, flanked by black ash on one side and pink slurry on the other.

According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the number of wildfires reported between January and September jumped to 5,496 in 2015, up from 3,818 for the same time frame last year.

Jonathan Silva, a Visitor Center Coordinator for the Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association, an organization dedicated to educating visitors to the region, said these wildfires are not altogether unhealthy for the forests. Predominantly caused by lightning, these fires help the forest from becoming too overwhelmed. “They help keep the balance and promote regrowth,” Silva said. Silva also said that the park service starts what are called “prescribed fires.” These contained fires are initiated in order to burn dead and fallen limbs, which prevent larger, more dangerous fires in the future.

Silva said California’s continued drought is the reason for the ferocity of this year’s particular wildfires. The drought kills the trees, increasing their flammability and thereby increasing wildfire risk.

7,100 feet, 5:56 p.m.
Nearing Royal Arch Creek

“Ouch! Damn mosquitoes.” I slapped my arm.

“Mosquitoes? That’s a good sign!” Cody said.

We continued walking, knowing that water wasn’t far if mosquitoes were present. We hiked silently, listening for any sound of running water. Then, less than a quarter-mile later, we heard the bubbling of a mountain stream. Cody rushed off the trail to search for the source.

“Found it!” he yelled back to me.

I walked out to meet him. Hidden in the brush, it wasn’t much, but we had finally found a small spring of running water. We filled up our bottles and extra containers for cooking. I felt a surge of relief and then sudden embarrassment at how scared I had gotten at the prospect of not having water for just a few hours. This situation was in no way as bad as it could have been, or, I realized, as bad as it could be in the future if this drought continues.

Over our next five days in the wilderness, we never overlooked an opportunity to refill our containers with water.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

233 feet, 6:15 p.m.
I-5 South

During the six-hour drive back to Los Angeles, I stared out the window into an expanse of endless desert and thought about this moment I’d experienced in Yosemite. Even though there was little real threat to our lives during our search for water, the prospect of not having access to it was frightening enough. We finally arrived back to the bustling city and the Pacific came into view once again, but this time, as I watched the children play, the sight of the ocean did little to wash away my unease about the future.