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Year in Yosemite: Water and Power

Upper Yosemite Fall & Merced River_04-29-08_Kenny Karst
Upper Yosemite Falls and Merced River.

Two days ago, I was walking down the road near our home in Yosemite National Park when a couple stopped me and asked for directions to the waterfall. Pointing down the road I said, "It's just down there but it's not running right now." With only an hour left before sundown, I sent these first-time Yosemite visitors on their way to see the Valley from Tunnel View. But I couldn't stop pondering my answer to them. I'd spoken of one of nature's greatest wonders as if it was a bathroom faucet. This being the driest fall we've had since we moved here my description was apt -- the waterfall is running but with all the power of a dripping tap.  

Come in spring or early summer and Chilnualna Falls is one of Yosemite's best-kept secrets. An 8.2-mile round-trip hike, it takes five hours of steady climbing with a literally breath-taking 2,400-foot gain in elevation along the way. Hardy souls -- wimps like me go in just one-half mile for the first spectacular view of the falls -- are greeted by wedding-cake tiers of water cascading over, under and across great, giant boulders of granite. But not now. Now spring's once explosive waters barely creep across the rocks. Looking at Chilnualna Falls in December, it's hard to imagine that water ranks as of the most important elements in the formation of Yosemite's grandeur.

Nevada & Vernal falls
Nevada and Vernal falls.

Over 200 million years ago, Yosemite and the whole Sierra Nevada started out as an inland sea. Over time -- lots of time -- sediments on the ocean floor compressed into sedimentary rock. Then, as so often happens in what is now California, a tectonic plate slipped and, as it did, it melted into sizzling hot magma. As the magma cooled underground, it became granite. Erosion stripped away the volcanic rock that sat atop the granite and then -- here it comes -- about 10 million years ago the Merced River and its tributaries took over. First, the river and streams carved out a deep V-shaped canyon. Then water carved it again, this time as frozen glaciers that left a U-shaped valley in their wake. Almost incidental to the process, but front and center in Yosemite's beauty, the glaciers formed shallower valleys from which many of North America’s largest and most spectacular waterfalls now flow.

But nature wasn't done (and, of course, never will be). Fifteen thousand years ago, as things warmed up to temperatures we'd recognize today, rock debris dammed in a shallow lake that lay on the floor of the U-shaped valley. Today The Ahwanhee, Curry Village and Yosemite Lodge sit on the sediment of that former lake. When the snows come, waterfalls set off that valley in perfect splendor.  

Chilnualna Falls.

But when the snows are late, locals like me tell park visitors not to bother with mere trickles that, in my very human hubris, I deem hardly worth viewing. I scare myself at moments like this and take an odd kind of comfort in the words of a Wintu Indian woman spoken more than 80 years ago:

The white people never cared for land or deer or bear. When we Indians kill meat we eat it all up. When we dig roots we make little holes. When we build houses we make little holes. When we burn grass for grasshoppers we don't ruin things. We shake down acorns and pine nuts. We don't chop down the trees. We use only dead wood. But the white people plow up the ground, pull up the trees, kill everything. The tree says, 'Don't. I am sore. Don't hurt me.' But they chop it down and cut it up. The spirit of the land hates them. They blast out trees and stir it up to its depths. They saw up the trees. That hurts them. The Indians never hurt anything, but the white people destroy all. They blast rocks and scatter them on the earth. The rock says, 'Don't. You are hurting me.' The water, it can't be hurt. The white people go to the river and turn it into dry land. The water says, 'I don't care. I am water. You can use me all you wish. I am always the same. I can't be used up. Use me. I am water. You can't hurt me.' The white people use the water in sacred springs in their houses. The water says, 'That is all right. You can use me but you can't overcome me.' All that is water says, 'wherever you put me I'll be in my home. I am awfully smart. Lead me out of my springs, lead me from my rivers, but I come from the ocean and I shall go back into the ocean. You can dig a ditch and put me in it, but I go only so far and I am out of sight. I am awfully smart. When I am out of sight I am on my way home.

At this time of year, Chilnualna Falls may look insignificant to me, but what's really there is all the magnificent, planet-altering power of water headed home. 

Photo credits: Yosemite Falls and Nevada/Vernal Falls are by Kenny Karst. Chilnualna Falls is by Jon Jay.

In May 2009, while hiking in Yosemite National Park, long-time Los Angeles resident Jamie Simons turned to her husband and said, "I want to live here." Jamie and her family have since lived in the park. Check out all of her blog articles by clicking here.

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