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Knights Off The Grid

Yosemite Moonbow

USA | Wednesday, 3 August 2011 | Views [2534]

On June 15th, 2011, a rare thing occurred in the valley of Yosemite National Park.  The previous winter, the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California received a record two-hundred percent above average snowfall, which was followed by a breathtakingly fast spring warming trend that happened to coincide with a perfectly-angled full moon.  All these factors came together to create a blinding moonbow hovering in the large mist cloud below Yosemite Falls.     


By a completely random sequence of events, I was there that evening.  Based on a tip from a neighbor in the Upper Pines Campground – mentioned between the all-too-frequent Marlboro drags and AA stories – I learned the where’s and when’s of Yosemite moonbow photography.  With my brand new Nikon D-something in hand, tripod ready for the 1:18am mooncrest, batteries fully charged, nice whiskey-buzz to add to the excitement; I was ready.  


And, I blew it.  The photos were awful.  They came out as blurry half-moonbows, and the Big Dipper -- looming large in the background -- looked more like street lamps, not the sharp points of twinkling light that the Big Dipper is supposed to look like.   


I swore I wouldn't miss my chance the next month – the last opportunity before the end of the spring run-off.  No whiskey this time.  I'll read that damn Nikon Manual.  I'll pray.  I'll overload the memory card with photos from every possible angle and fiddle with every knob and gadget on the camera just to make certain, one-hundred-percent sure, I don't screw it up this time.


July 15, 2011: my night of redemption.  I was heading back into that godforsaken valley to get my full moonbow shot. 



So, while standing in the Ansel Adams Gallery, headquartered within the illustrious confines of Yosemite Valley National Park, I asked the seemingly obvious question that I figured was on everyone's mind, “If it’s called a moonbow, why don’t they call the daytime version a sunbow?"  The best photojournalistic moment of the entire weekend happened moments after that last syllable – “bow” – left my mouth.  The Senior Manager of The Ansel Adams Gallery looked at me like I was blowing spit bubbles.  Considering I was well within earshot of dozens of reverent A. Adams picture viewers, it should have crossed my mind to lower my voice when I fired off that query.  It didn’t.  Later, while sitting on the sidewalk outside The Ansel Adams Gallery, licking an orange Creamsicle as well as my wounded pride, I pretty much figured out that prior to my line of questioning he’d never even contemplated that thought; I honestly don’t think anyone had ever asked.  Yosemite, BTW, is ground-zero for world class moonbow photography even though it only happens a couple times a year.1  


Being the budding journalist that I am, I Googled “First expression of moonbow” and “Who made up ‘rainbow’”, etc. and came up with an interesting mixture of websites that I won’t go into.  Ok, I will.  Once you get past Yahoo Answers and Wikipedia, you get into sites competing for your viewing pleasure that include gay stuff, unicorns and Bible pages.2  That one thirty-second inquiry was as far as my sharply honed journalistic instincts took me.  I got bored and moved on to squirrel statistics.


Seven bears have been killed in Yosemite this year alone.3&4  There’s certainly more dead bears out there but the only ones the Park Service tracks are vehicle-related bear deaths.  The reason I know this is that you can see signs posted along the road wherever a bear got murdered saying “Speeding Kills Bears.”  The only reason I know about the Speeding Kills Bears sign placements is that I happened to ask a ranger. Without that unflappable journalistic inquisitiveness, I wouldn't have had a clue as to why those damn signs were placed so randomly -- and inconveniently I might add -- around the park. 


My 5am arrival at Camp 4, the Backpackers Campground, ended up being a totally useless endeavor.  I was 77th in line and at 8:46am when Ranger Kathy did the ticket endowment and I placed three short of the 74 lucky ticket holders.  This Filipino family right in front of me had two, literally 2, exactly kalog5 people waiting in line right up to the moment the Ranger started pixie-dusting the crowd with housing permits.  Suddenly, out of nowhere, their group swelled to nine.


Moments after I got screwed over by the Filipinos, Ranger Kathy mentioned, in passing, that Bridal Veil Falls Campground was opening that morning for the first time of the season.  This was an absolute godsend to the newly-homeless Yosemite population and we quickly hauled ass up the mountain -- obliviously speeding past several bears as well as several Speeding Kills Bears signs -- to claim our spot.  


One thing I noticed pretty quickly about Bridal Veil Falls Campground, at least that weekend, was the diverse mixture of cultures you can’t find anywhere other than possibly a Benetton commercial.  My typical campground MO is to pour a heaping cup of merlot in a used Starbucks cup, shut off my headlamp, and wander around the campground listening to the competing dialectics and languages.  That night alone, I heard “Muy Bien” at least four times.  I also heard “Boat Ache” (Hindi) as well as “Ne How” (Sischuan Chinese) a couple of times each.  Once, I heard a highly emphatic “Cock Sucker” (Ohio). 


Seven bears and over one hundred deer involved in vehicle related accidents in Yosemite alone during the 2011 season to-date.  That seems like a lot but it's statistically on track to be an average big-animals-killed-by-big-vehicles year in the park.  Squirrel deaths?  They don’t track squirrel deaths.  I know this because I asked that very question during the 7pm Bridal Veil Falls Campground Junior Ranger Campfire Chat.  I don’t really want to go into it, but after I asked that question I received the exact same look from Ranger Mark that I got from the Senior Manager at the Ansel Adams Gallery.  My follow up question, the one about the average lifespan of a Yosemite squirrel, didn’t inspire that look from Ranger Mark – although it was getting dark so I can’t actually say whether it did or didn’t – but I do know for certain the pregnant pause that settled over the crowd prior to him telling me he didn’t have a clue was uncomfortable to say the least.  In my defense, I must not have been the only squirrel-curious individual in the group because, as we were leaving the talk, I overheard one of the dozen or so adolescents that had been sitting with me on the Astroturf mat ask her mother a litany of questions about car-related Yosemite squirrel deaths.  It was definitely dark by this point but the lady’s glare, as well as the direction it was being focused, was unmistakable.


Yosemite squirrel deaths should be tracked, recorded hourly and documented with diligent enthusiasm.  Each reported killing of the California Ground Squirrel, Spermophilus beecheyi, should be met with raucous celebration.  Yosemite squirrels are cute.  They’re also the animal kingdom’s version of Atilla the Hun.  The average common ground squirrel lives six years and Yosemite National Park was created on October 1st, 1890.6  A quick run of the numbers tells you that there’s exactly 20.167 generations of squirrels living in Yosemite Valley that have absolutely no clue what to do with the common American acorn.  I can easily imagine the first tourist season in The Valley where one squirrel is rat-holing acorns, busily preparing for that brutal, unforgiving Yosemite winter when he suddenly looks over to see his neighbor gnawing on a chunk of San Francisco Sourdough that’s bigger than the two of them combined.  That precise moment in history started the vicious cycle of squirrel vs. man in an all-out food war.  Sadly, the damn kids don’t help the situation one single bit; they think squirrels cute7.  And let’s be honest, squirrels are cute.  But, Yosemite Ground Squirrels are cute the same way a Box Jellyfish is cute; you reach out to pet it and suddenly all hell breaks loose.  Squirrels in The Valley are both evil and brave and are capable of coordinated, multi-pronged, tactical assaults executed with military precision.  One year, while hiking in the backcountry on a 5-day trip, a squirrel packconsisting of at least four individuals charged from the front attempting to relieve me of my Cherry Vanilla Cliff bar.  While I swatted and stabbed at them with my hiking pole, another squirrel snuck up from behind, chewed a hole through my brand new Osprey Weekender backpack and stole several much-needed Kit Kat bars. 


Another time, I must have stepped on a Raisinette or something because a solo squirrel chewed a quarter-sized chunk of polyurethane off the starboard side of my port boot.  With a large rock, I tried to beat that furry little guy into a furry little pulp.  I failed, but it wasn't due to lack of effort, I can tell you that!        



I can totally understand the eraser-sized brain of a squirrel failing to comprehend two tons of metal barreling down upon it at 55 mph while standing innocently in the road.  Squirrels are stupid; that’s why they die in such prolific numbers.  Bears, by comparison, are smart.  I’ve seen bears steal, quickly assess, then unlock -- within seconds -- bear canisters that I’d just spent hours trying to ‘bear proof.’  

On June 24, 1900, Los Angeles native, Oliver Lippincott became the first individual to drive a car into Yosemite Valley.  That same afternoon, unbelievably, he clipped a bear cub.  This became the first recorded vehicle related bear death in U.S. National Park history.9  You’d think bears would learn.  They don’t.  Vehicle-related bear homicide stats have remained stable in Yosemite for decades.   


Day four:  No moonbow.  No shower either.  I’ve noticed my new BFF, Campground Volunteer Olivia, is just as happy to see me when I wander over each morning to beg for coffee, she just seems to stand a little further away each time while we shoot the breeze.  I've also noticed she’s starting to strategically place herself up-breeze whenever I'm around.  I should mention that I forgot to pack soap for the trip and that quick one handed once-over each day in the Auschwitz like restroom in the Bridal Veil Campground is a useless cleansing routine that requires circus-like contortions. It’s one of those sink dispensers that doesn't work unless you have one hand engaging the knob which makes it ergonomically impossible to cleanse yourself unless you have three arms or have opposable digits on your feet.  


I’m certain the scariest moment of my entire adult life happened yesterday afternoon.  I was hiking around a place called Mono Meadow near Glacier Point when I jumped a tiny, blond bear cub.  I mean tiny.  He/she was so small; in fact, I first thought it was an adolescent marmot.  I chose Mono Meadow because the Glacier Point Day-Hike Tip Sheet said this particular hike was very strenuous and muddy due to the severe altitude gain/loss and above-average snowmelt.  These two factors are definite deal-killers when it comes to Yosemite Day Hike popularity contests.  It’s basically the same as saying you have Chlamydia and can’t go within 500 feet of a grade school on your Match.com profile.  I must have been right in my assumption because five miles down the trail I still hadn’t seen a single park visitor other than this Sikh couple hanging out in the parking lot.  I was walking through a heavily forested area on a trail basically made up of sand mixed with pine needles and, although I didn’t realize it at the time, was being utterly noiseless.  I must have been Ninja silent because the bear cub saw me one instant before I saw it and we were within spitting distance of each other.  The little guy screamed like I’d just kicked it and took off running across the trail to my right. 


Did you know baby bears sound like screaming one-year-old kids when they’re scared?  They do.  It's a terrible sound and definitely makes you question why you'd ever want to have a child.10  So, I watch this petrified cub haul ass in front of me - slamming into trees, falling ass-over-head trying to jump a downed log, getting hung up in some underbrush, extracting himself, look over his shoulder, screaming again, then starting the process all over again.  I was absolutely mesmerized until I thought, “Hey, a bear that young must certainly must have a mom arou….”  At that exact moment I heard a branch snap right behind me.  I won’t go into it but thank god I brought that extra set of underwear.  I didn’t move.  I didn’t breathe.  I tried not to pulse.  I stood there motionless, absolutely terrified, waiting for the inevitable mauling to begin.  Soon, the bear cub was well out of site, but there I was, stock still, too afraid to turn around.  Eventually, I slowly turned my head and right behind me was…nothing.  I know, it’s totally an anti-climactic ending but it scared the crap out of me nonetheless. 


Oh yeah, The Moonbow Photo.  Thursday Night: Cloudy.  Friday Night: Cloudy.  Saturday Night: Slept through my alarm.



1.)  Number of actual Ansel Adams moonbow shots?  Zero.  He filmed in black-and-white: a definite deal-killer when it comes to capturing the ROYGBIV spectrum of light.  


2.) Noah, floods, God's-promise-not-to-massacre-the-planet-again-and-here’s-a-rainbow-to-prove-it. :-)   


3.) As of the date of this post, there have been fourteen human deaths in the park during the 2011 tourist season.  Three deaths occurred the weekend I was there; although, for the record, I had nothing to do with them.  On average, there are twelve to fifteen deaths in Yosemite NP per year.  With 4 million visitors annually, that body count actually seems low to me.  


4.) Most common cause of death: stupidity.  


5.) The word for ‘two’ in Filipino.  


6.) See, I'm perfectly capable of journalistic fact finding.  I don't need fucking Ranger Mark spoon-feeding me all the answers.

7.) And when you’re a kid, the equation is simple: Cute = Feed It Something. 


8.) Flock, herd, school, gaggle?


9.) I totally made that up. 


10.) Or want to have a bear cub for that matter

Tags: bears, moonbow, squirrels, yosemite



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