The Sierra Nevada Are Dying

Some of the most beautiful wilderness on the planet faces drought, heat, and fire

Hi everyone -

I’m back from hiatus (paid work has intervened the past few months)—but I have lots of pent-up writing to do. And I’m turning 40 in about six months, so this is all about to get interesting.

Also, not to be a downer my first week back, but this post is about climate change. Sarah Miller already said all I think can be said about the current state of discourse on this—you should read her brilliant post—still, I couldn’t help myself.

The fact is, the Sierra Nevada are beautiful, jaw-dropping, Instagram gorgeous, all picture perfect mountain lakes and jagged peaks rising from California desert, with groves of Sequoia tree trunks larger than that pickup I wanted.

We went to fish and hike, but it was the fishing that laid the whole thing bare: dry creek beds, low reservoirs, the 22-year-old salesperson in the fly shop telling us, “Yea, sure, go catch a few, at least while you still can!”

At the first mountain pond outside Mammoth Lake a trout jumped onto my line despite my not being at all a good fisherman, and the next day another, but after that there were none. My step-brother caught more than a few, but he also slugged through dry brush with a stoic look on his face the rest of the trip, shaking his head at the rivers and lamenting the low water.

“It’s one thing to read about it in the news,” he said. “Another to see it up close.”

Climate change, he meant.

Even as we moved north toward Lake Tahoe, the Beckworth Complex fire started prompting evacuations about sixty miles to our north. My son and I climbed a mountain one day near Markleeville, in the Mokelumne Wilderness. When we got to the rocky outcropping on top we could see Lake Tahoe and the haze behind it, and then we turned and saw, much closer, another thin plume rising from the opposite direction. Fires all around.

The fishing wasn’t as good as it once was, of course, and I get the sense the fishermen haven’t quite grasped the fact that their chosen past time of casting dry flys into river eddies in the hopes a fish will rise simply won’t be possible.

“I hate that term, new normal,” my step-brother said. We were talking about what the future might look like, especially for fishermen like him. “Well, what term would you use to describe the times we’re in now?” my dad countered. But none of us could think of anything better to say.

The 22-year-old at the fly shop seemed to have accepted it all, but that didn’t stop him from selling us the dream. Perhaps that’s what keeps him going: the promise of telling tourists they just may catch a fish, if only we get the right dry flies and nymphs in all the right patterns, for $2.50 each. And maybe try a dry dropper, something bright on top so you can at least see the thing.

All for sport, of course. We did eat two of the first fish we caught, which seemed only fair, but after that it seemed only fair that we release them back into the lakes and streams from whence they were stocked. They weren’t all that big, after all. It seemed un-sportsmanlike to keep a thing so small.

Then there was the heat. It was 108 degrees when we drove up from San Diego in my step-brother’s new Model Y Tesla, which is really far more practical than I had imagined. Fifteen-minute gas stops on your average road trip turn into 25-minute charging stops at the stations Elon bequeathed to us, which if you think about it is small price to pay in order to not burn through oil from the Middle East or the Gulf or the Alaskan wilderness (have they drilled there yet?).

We were in the mountains, mostly, so the heat dome—the third of the season, and Jesus if they don’t invent new climate catastrophe terms annually—felt more like a mildly oppressive dry summer day. But it was that heat that evaporated the water, which fueled the drought, which intensified the fires. All we had to do was remember to fill up our water bottles every morning.

Soon we left Tahoe and drove over to the Western side, down to Yosemite Valley, a place I’ve amazingly never visited. I gaped at El Capitan. I laid hands on its sacred granite. I climbed twenty feet up that first low-angle pitch of The Nose. I told my dad and my step-brother about how it was a woman, Lynn Hill, who first free climbed it in 1993, one of the greatest feats in the history of the sport. (My son already knew this, of course—I’ve taught him well).

We hiked through the valley. It was a brutally hot and dry day to climb 2,200 vertical feet, but we loved it nevertheless, even despite the height of summer crowds. John Muir said Yosemite was “by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter,” which seemed perfectly right to me. It truly is a temple, and not just for climbers. Yosemite is the kind of place us agnostics turn to for communion, for meaning, for purpose. Though I’d never before harbored that particular climber’s ambition to free climb El Cap, standing there in Valley, in the flesh, I immediately understood why some climbers decided to devote their full life to the place. It’s that special.

By the time I flew home to New Hampshire, that thin plume of smoke we’d seen from the mountaintop had turned into the Tamarack Fire, more than 18,000 acres large and zero percent contained. Parts of Markleeville were being asked to evacuate, as were several neighboring towns. Two days later, at home 3,000 miles away, the skies were hazy. I climbed to the top of Rattlesnake, as I do at least once a week when I’m here, and the usually crystal clear view of the Baker River Valley was hazier than I’d ever seen:

It was smoke from the more 570,000 acres burning in the West, according to the local news, traveled all this way to sully our sky and pollute our air. We can’t run from this disaster, much as we may want to.