Yosemite’s Wilderness – A Journey of the Mind and Soul
I first moved to Yosemite National Park (El Portal) in 1992, where I met my wife and was hired as a Yosemite Institute naturalist (now know as Nature Bridge). When I first arrived, I felt that I was given a unique opportunity as someone who admired the likes of Ansel Adams, Galen Rowell, and William Neill. Back then, I only saw pictures of Yosemite through photographs, film transparencies, and books. For me, this was my golden age in the park. But after the digital revolution and the rise of social media, I sometimes felt that there was nothing else to accomplish in this iconic landscape. Yes, Half Dome is never dull, especially after a snowstorm, but there is so much more to this crown jewel national park. Yosemite is about the size of the state of Rhode Island (3080 km2), yet Yosemite Valley makes up less than 5% of this endless playground. The real Yosemite (at least in my opinion) is in the high country. The problem is one will have to work to get there.
My perspective of the park dramatically changed during the summer of 2015. My wife, Mara, and her colleague Dave, ( a summer ranger since 1982) were awarded a grant to backpack through Yosemite’s most remote wilderness for two months. The only way we could accomplish this was to get a crew to resupply us at crucial passes. At one point, we even had a mule delivery with fresh veggies and beer. The longest we ever went without resupply was 18 days which made for the heaviest backpack I have ever carried. By the end of the trip, I had lost nearly 20 lbs from eating light meals, yet I felt so strong.
What made this expedition so memorable was the fact that we did not see people for days or even weeks at a time. I attribute this to Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild from Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Thank you Cheryl, because of your book, everyone stays on one trail. So we avoided the PCT as much as we could and instead became attracted to trail-less canyons. Here we experienced some of the most remote wilderness ever, and at times it was hard to believe that this was Yosemite. I quickly came to realize why John Muir coined this the Range of Light. Like Muir, our experience was also novel and at times, spiritual.
While PTC hikers are known to carry very little and travel up to 20 -30 miles a day, our approach was the opposite. To my wife’s dismay, I brought a Nikon D800 and an Olympus EPL5. I’m sorry honey. I will never do that again. Some of our most intense days were traveling less than four miles but over trail-less ridges into remote canyons, mostly in the northern portion of the park. We had no cell phone and no park service radio. We were real pioneers and relied on ourselves and our common sense. At times we found ourselves in remote basins where we would spend up to five days just exploring — it was complete freedom. It was also strange and yet refreshing that we had no idea what was happening in the outside world. All we cared about was that our aging parents were OK and that we had enough to eat to keep our energy.
As a photographer, the Sierra Nevada Mountains is a difficult subject to capture, especially during the long days of summer. I hiked with my camera and lenses stuffed in the top of my backpack. The last thing a backpacker wants are items that are swinging around and not secured. This approach was a good idea, especially after falling into a creek. During most of the day, I would never dream of taking out my camera. Instead, I read novels and washed my socks and underwear while my wife painted watercolors. I also thought about where I might walk to when the lighting improved.
Toward the end of the trip, I became so acclimated to the mountain environment, and I started to dread the thought of having to leave. My entire sense of time had changed, as well as my daily routines. After 54 days, I had to return to my job as an elementary teacher at one of our local park schools. Meanwhile, my wife stayed another week while Dave scared me half to death by staying an extra two weeks.
As people who live in a close-knit park community, it was essential that we follow the rules of Leave No Trace. We didn’t leave anything behind, and we adhered to the rules and regulations of the park.
I recently watched a video by Ted Forbes titled Nobody Cares about your Photography that I found to be very insightful. Everybody in Yosemite is a photographer. At times I have asked myself what I” m trying to accomplish. But Mr. Forbes brings up a good point about creating work that matters. So what does this mean to me? Hopefully, my work represents the vital importance of wilderness and the conservation efforts of the organizations such as the National Park Service. My work probably shows passion and dedication, considering how many years I have lived here. And finally, my work represents the fact that there is more to Yosemite than just the Valley and that some of us can’t help ourselves. We are always searching for new places and have to be outside. Many people do not understand landscape photography, and that is OK. But if I can get just one person to open their minds to the possibilities, I think I have done my job.
I thank my parents for sending me on my first backpacking trip when I was 12 years old through our local church. I still remember the fear the first day and not wanting to return on the last day. Wilderness gives me hope and motivation to explore the world and better understand myself. It also gives me a sense of patriotism. Wake up America; our wilderness is something to be proud to celebrate. It is our natural heritage, and many countries have already ruined theirs.
Some More Images . . .
El Portal (Yosemite), California
Hugh Sakols has lived in Yosemite National Park for over 25 years. He first came seeking adventure in the mountains whether it was rock climbing, mountaineering, or the study of natural history. Hugh proudly teaches at Yosemite Park, El Portal School where he and his wife connect kids with nature.