by Patrick Macy
It’s our first High Sierra morning in Yosemite National Park, where this year’s Nature Camp Expedition is taking place, and all is blue sky and sunshine, deep green trees and gray granite.
From our group campsite at Wawona in southern Yosemite National Park, it’s a two-hour drive to our destination for today’s excursion: May Lake, a pristine alpine lake located roughly five miles west of Tuolumne Meadows on the northeastern side of Yosemite. I have a carload of 4th and 5th grade boys. We’re driving with the windows down; there’s the pungent scent of “mountain misery” in the air (this is a low-growing plant ubiquitous to this area, known to the Native Americans of this region as kitkitdizze). The boys are hollering indecipherable nonsense that could only be conceived in the minds of boys this age. One boy is trying to take pictures with a camera, but manages to capture the silly faces of his jostled peers much more than the scenery or wildlife. Occasionally, they make a serious attempt to scan the passing forest for signs of bear (of course, there are plenty of “sightings” that all the other boys have missed).
As we head along Highway 120/Tioga Rd., only minutes out from our destination, I begin to notice clouds gathering in the southeast. Anyone who has spent much time in the Sierras knows it is quite common for a summer thunderstorm system to suddenly appear on the horizon, and then blast through precisely where you are heading. This thought was crossing my mind when one of the boys stretches his arm out in front of two of the others, and yells with all the 4th grade authority he can muster, “Those are storm clouds! I know it! Just watch! It’s going to rain!” I peek in the rearview mirror and say, as only an omniscience-feigning adult would say in such a situation, “Well, there is always a possibility of rain; however, there is none in the forecast for today.” So sayeth the teacher. But it was apparent that the clouds did not care what I had to say, nor are the Sierras much for forecasts. Something was obviously mounting on the horizon…
May Lake’s elevation is 9,270 ft. with a hike in of 1.2 miles and an elevation gain of 500 ft. from the trailhead. Our crew of twenty-three students is standing in the parking lot at the trailhead with their backpacks, ready to hit the trail. One last head count, and we’re off.
The trail meanders gently up the mountain through a landscape of rugged backcountry beauty: among granite boulders and slabs, interspersed with sturdy conifers and a low-growing lupine spreading over the sparse soil. A dramatic cloudscape mounts above us, but nothing so foreboding as to confirm the earlier prophetic pronouncement of our budding 4th grade meteorologist. (Yes, I have been watching.) Although we are at a high elevation, the hiking hasn’t been very difficult for most of our students. Even the few who have physical challenges that make the ascent more strenuous for them are keeping a steady pace. Occasionally, we take a brief water break and enjoy the scenery. But we know we have a destination to reach that calls us onward. We press on. The upper third of the trail turns to switchbacks as the mountainside becomes steeper. More rests. More water. But we can see above us the ledge of granite over which the trail disappears from view, signaling what we’ve started saying to the those students who are giving way to fatigue and a distinct lack of desire to go any farther: We’re almost there.
The words of naturalist and author, Edward Abbey come to mind: “May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view.” Whatever way our students would describe their experience of the trail, it has certainly arrived at a view that is absolutely breathtaking. Cresting the ledge, we see the basin where we know the lake is, just concealed behind the firs and cedars growing at its edge––and Mt. Hoffmann standing above it all like a granite monument to God’s glory. This is when the students at the head of the pack catch the impulse to run to see who will be first to get to the lake. Restraint at this point is futile. And our tidy formation, which has been unraveling over the last half mile of the ascent, now stretches out to a couple hundred yards, from sprinters to stragglers––but all are making it.
We reach the lake. At first sight, you get the sense that the only appropriate response to the view is to remain quiet, even reverent. The water’s surface is a sky-mirror reflecting the ever-changing movement of clouds overhead. Rimmed by light gray granite and dark green trees, the lake is like a decorative stone basin being lifted into the sky, patiently awaiting in its ancient way the changes brought by time and season. I can’t help but think of the words of St. Peter to Christ at His Transfiguration on the mount: “Lord, it is good for us to be here…” (Mt. 17:4). Yet the teacher in me wonders what impact this experience is having on our students. Do they see all of this? Are they getting it? Is this lesson worthwhile?
Following the trail around to the south end of the lake, we come to a small cove where we decide to have lunch and give the students the opportunity to swim, despite the noticeable change in the weather. Clouds, gray and ominous, are now moving in steadily––and fast. The wind is rising and the temperature is dropping; you can feel the energy in the air: all of this being a clear sign that the front edge of a storm is now upon you, and the rest of it is not far behind. And the water is cold. Bone-numbing cold. But after all, these are kids and a body of water; the sensation of cold and common sense do not apply. They’re going in no matter what. So, with backpacks and towels tossed all about, their enthusiasm propels them onward into the water, some wading, some plunging, all getting wet.
That’s about when the first drops hit, and I have to concede that the kid was right: it’s going to rain. Of course, as is the case with most summer thunderstorms in the Sierras, an outright downpour rapidly follows those initial raindrops. But this one is just getting going, and it means business. We now hear thunder in the distance. Then we suddenly notice something very perceptible about the rain: it has turned into hail––pelting hail the size of large peas, striking the bare skin of kids in bathing suits and pocking the surface of the lake as if it were under heavy machine gun fire. Everyone on shore dodges for the cover of the trees. Concern, which is never far from the surface on these backcountry wilderness excursions, sparks in the minds of the teachers and chaperones. Taking in the situation, we realize that we have students and chaperones strewn throughout the water in the cove during a thunderstorm that shows no sign of letting up any time soon––and lightning could be upon us at any moment. Thankfully, our chaperones have enough experience to know that lightning and water are a bad combination for human beings, so they quickly call everyone to shore while those in the water lead the way or bring up the rear. Are those kids in the water concerned? No way. They are beaming. After all, how many students get to swim in an alpine lake while being pelted by hail during a thunderstorm on a school day?
As everyone climbs ashore, the storm begins to relent. Yet no sooner have the clouds parted revealing blue sky once more, than another front of clouds has moved in upon us unleashing yet another round of pelting hail. We run for cover and watch the multitudinous small white balls of hail bounce about the alpine landscape. As the thunderstorm continues to move through its cycle of unleashing and relenting, we are suddenly met with a most extraordinary sight: a flash waterfall forming high up the granite slope across the cove, rapidly growing in size and length, then plunging downward to the lake. The students, most of which are already exhilarated by their experience so far this day, watch in rapt astonishment. So do the adults. None of us have seen anything like this before.
It is moments like these when you remember why you have taken twenty-three students into the backcountry of the Sierras at the beginning of the school year. This is education, the curriculum that can’t be found in the comfort of the classroom, the lessons of sky and granite.