In many ways, there are three Californias, the urban centers along the coast, the vast tracts of agricultural land, and the sparsely populated deserts, mountains, and north country. This part of the trip investigated the ways civilization reaches out into these wilder areas.
We arrived in Yosemite in time to set up camp in light of the setting sun reflected of the glacially carved cliffs of the valley.
Yosemite national Park was one of the first National Parks, and the location of a defining struggle between John Muir and Gifford Pinchot over the meaning and value of wilderness. The immediate subject of debate was the City of San Francisco's desire to construct the O'Shaughnessy Dam, flooding the Hetch Hetchy valley within the boundaries of the newly formed Yosemite Park. Muir's defense of wilderness was based on its spiritual value, and led to the national recognition of the Sierra Club as a defender of wilderness. Pinchot's concept of the utility of wilderness as a source of resources is best manifest in the Forest Service (which he was instrumental in founding) motto "Land of many uses".
Wes at the O'Shaughnessy Dam (above) and the site of John Muir's cabin along the Merced River in Yosemite Valley (right). Hetch Hetchy Valley rivaled Yosemite Valley in its beauty prior to construction of the dam. That we would not today consider construction of such a dam in a national park suggests that though Muir lost the battle, and debatably even the war, he did win our hearts.
The bulk of our time in Yosemite was devoted to a hike up to Nevada and Vernal falls. The pictures beside and below are from that hike, taken to allow us all to experience the grandeur of the place.
The other side of the mountains is yet another world. The high desert of California lies in the rain shadow of the Sierra. The majority of the water in this area flows from the mountains to the west. Water from many of these streams, and the alluvial aquifers they replenish, is now diverted to the cities of southern California. Owens Lake no longer exists. When Mono Lake was threatened with a similar fate, the Mono Lake Committee formed to protect the lake and its waters. Following an epic struggle, the lake, and the ecosystem it hosts, were protected. Our visit was primarily to meet with representatives of the Committee, and discuss their history of environmental protection.
The committee's bookstore and information center
The whole group in front of tuffa towers
Sunrise at June Lake, out campsite in the Sierra
The central valley of California, prior to transformation, is described as having been an "American Serengeti". The two major rivers, the San Joaquin and Sacramento, and their many tributaries from the Sierra Nevada flooded annually, depositing rich alluvial soils and creating vast wetlands. The streams were habitat for prolific salmon runs, the marshes home for immense flocks of waterfowl, the grasslands home for herds of Tulle Elk. It is estimated that thousands of Grizzly bears inhabited the valley.
Now the only bears to be seen are on the state flag. The rivers have been dammed, the land leveled, the seasonal flood waters held back to be distributed throughout the valley as irrigation waters. The region has been transformed into one of the worlds great agricultural districts. The economic benifits are inarguable, so is the loss of habitat.
A few areas remain where it is possible to get a glimpse of what the valley must have looked like prior to its agricultural transformation. Here, in the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge large wetlands with native tulle reeds provide sanctuary for migrating waterfowl. The adjacent Kesterson area is infamous for having had water poisoned by runoff from irrigation projects.
Historically, the transformation of the valley began with the mining operations following he gold rush. Here, miles of stream valley still show the effects of dredging for gold. Elsewhere, hydraulic mining stripped topsoil from areas in the foothills and led to silting up of channels and flooding in the valley. Some of California's first environmental legislation was aimed at curbing these mining practices.
The San Luis reservoir is the lynch pin of the irrigation system on the western side of the central valley. Water from the north is stored here during periods of high discharge, to be released throughout the summer. Nearly all of the water enters and leaves through the canals.
The Nature Conservancy works to protect land through outright purchase and also working with local landowners and communities. We visited the Consumnes Preserve, where levees have been breached in places to allow a more natural flooding cycle. Here students hear about the benefits of this program, which include groundwater recharge and increased health of out-migrating salmon smolt.
Habitats and Cultures
Our trip began in Big Basin State Park, amid the coastal redwood trees protected in this park. Here we learned that the park owes its origin to the efforts of Andrew P. Hill, a photographer and artist and a group of concerned citizen/activists he drew together. The importance of individuals and non-government organizations was a theme that developed throughout the trip.
Much of the nation's fresh fruits and vegetables are grown in California. The Pajaro Valley has some of the richest agricultural and in the country, and is renown for its strawberry crop. We visited farms with exemplary practices. A large-scale grower, working on leased land adjacent to the Elkhorn Slough, has rehabilitated the property through development of buffers, leading to marked improvement in the water quality in the adjacent estuary. Live Earth Farms provided insights into a whole new agricultural paradigm of organic, community supported and serving agriculture.
Strawberry variety "Albion" met with approval!
At Live Earth Farms, the farmer avoids all chemical pesticides, rotates crops, and employs enlightened labor practices. His farm serves a local clientele. This model of community supported, sustainable agriculture is appealing, but challenging at the same time. We could see no difference in productivity, appearance or flavor between the organic and "chemically" grown strawberries. But, coming from Michigan, would we be willing to only eat what our farmers could grow locally?
Strawberries ready for the picking. Though many best management practices are used, this grower still uses methyl bromide periodically to fumigate the soil.
To "pay" for our time with the farmer, we spent a few hours helping out on the farm, washing produce, packing shares, moving seedlings out of the greenhouse and planting flats of vegetables.
While in the Watsonville/Pajero Valley area, we camped at Sunset State Beach, on a bluff overlooking Monterey Bay. Most evenings, the Sunsets lived up to expectations.
History and People
An interesting part of this trip was our interaction with Professor Dianne Guenin-Lelle's class in French Culture, which was also on a trip in the area. This allowed us to explore historical and cultural aspects in more detail than we normally do on these trips
In Lafayette, the historic center of Cajun culture, we visited Vermillionville to explore its living history displays of what life in the area was like over a hundred years ago. Here the group pulls a ferry across an inlet in the river.
Cajun culture today is expressed in food, music and dance. The group experienced all three in Randol's restaurant in Lafayette. Here Amy and Chie enjoy the omnipresent crawfish. The next day we say many examples of crawfish farms.
A group photo in St. Martinville on Bayou Teche. The owner of this property maintained that this is the true 'Evangeline oak", not the tree with the historic marker half a block away. Regardless, both trees, and the historic town, were well worth the visit. In this area, we also visited the Longfellow - Evangeline State historic site, with its early 19th century indigo/sugar plantation.
We ended our trip with a day in New Orleans. Here the group gathers in Jackson Square for a lecture by Professor Guenin-Lelle. People then dispersed to explore the City on their own. We were impressed that the city is a world that appears to be separate from the surrounding wetlands. The fact is, loss of wetlands means loss of the buffer that helps protect the city from the sea.