It was close to noon Sunday when we met in downtown Sonora and started the drive up to Hetch Hetchy. It was the first full-on sunny day we’d had since Thanksgiving and we were grateful for the break in the weather.
Given the recent rains and snow at higher elevations, we hoped there would be plenty of water at Wapama Falls. They’re less than a three-mile walk from the parking next to O’Shaughnessy Dam, the 430-foot high, 900-foot long concrete wedge that impounds the Tuolumne River and runoff from 459 square miles of watershed in Yosemite National Park.
We started walking about 1:30 p.m. It was nearly cloudless to the east as we walked across the crest of the dam. In spite of recent storms, the dirt and rock floor of the 500-foot tunnel on the north side of the dam was dry compared to previous times I’d visited.
Emerging from the tunnel with clear skies eastward we could see fresh snow on mountain slopes and ridges that form part of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River. Closer in the foreground, the bulk of Kolana Rock was already throwing a giant shadow across the reservoir toward Hetch Hetchy Dome.
Air temperatures felt like the 50s to mid 60s, warm enough for T-shirts in direct sunlight, and cool enough for jackets in the shade. About a mile up the trail we came to a junction, with a sign for Beehive, Laurel Lake and Vernon Lake. We kept to the right, where signs pointed toward Wapama, Rancheria Creek, Tiltill Valley and Glen Aulin.
We crossed several wet spots along the trail, with pools of runoff and the sounds of insects and small birds close by. Within an hour we were near the base of Wapama Falls. A stack of orange-and-white signs, warning hikers of lightning strike fires, lay next to the west end of the wood footbridges that traverse the falls.
Sounds and sights at Wapama Falls triggered memories of spring and summer snowmelt. We’d endured seven weeks of dry weather. They weren’t nearly as big and powerful as I’d seen in previous springtime visits but they were still awesome. The footbridges were dry and there was no spray from the falls in the air.
An upstream section of railing lay broken on the first bridge, with a reach of metal cable hanging loosely as a substitute for the missing railing. This is the same area where a Huntington Beach backpacker got swept off the bridge, into the reservoir and drowned June 2017. Two Los Angeles County men were swept to their deaths from the same bridge below Wapama Falls in late June 2011.
We crossed the bridges and I suggested we keep going for a bit, even though we hoped to be back at our vehicle by 4:30 p.m. We spotted a sunbathed point of rock a quarter-mile farther east and agreed that would make a decent turnaround.
I bushwhacked off trail to get to some boulders where I could sit and rest in the sun. I looked up at the black-streaked walls of Hetch Hetchy Dome and spotted a raven soaring above with bright sunlight glancing off its black beak. I looked down at a pile of what closely resembled bear scat.
We were directly across from Kolana Rock. Its summit looms about 1,800 feet above the reservoir surface. On snow-dusted ridges behind Kolana’s highest point we could see the tiny profiles of hundreds of pine trees clinging to steep slopes.
Looking west toward the dam, more clouds were building up and appeared to be moving slowly our way. We had maybe one hour of daylight left and I told my friends to go ahead and start walking back. I went slow, stopping frequently as the light began to change. Shadows grew longer and sundown colors began to show themselves.
One of my friends ahead of me came across a tiny purple, orange-bellied salamander-looking amphibian that turned out to be a Sierra newt. The creature was about the length of one finger joint and thinner. It had minute four-toed forefeet and hindfeet and bulbous black-green eyes. The newt was cold to the touch and moving slowly, seeking shelter as day transitioned to night.
Scientists say Sierra newts are cold-blooded salamanders and they’re related California newts and Pacific newts.
They have few natural predators because their glands can secrete a potent neurotoxin hundreds of times more toxic than cyanide. It’s strong enough to kill most vertebrates, including humans, but only if a human handles a secreting newt or tries to eat one. The one my friend found was apparently too cold to do anything other than hug his finger for warmth.
Sierra newts prefer to live among rocks, rock crevices, downed trees, logs and limbs. They live off a diet that includes worms, snails, slugs, lice, mosquito larvae, crickets and trout eggs.
The most remarkable things I saw at the end of the day came in a 15-minute window before 5 p.m. As I came out of the tunnel to get back on the crest of the dam, profiles of the rock walls around the reservoir were dark. Minutes later shafts of yellow and orange light from the setting sun crept through edges of cloud cover and began lighting up Kolana and Hetch Hetchy Dome.
We were the last to get in our vehicle and leave. It was full-on nighttime dark by the time we reached the Hetch Hetchy exit gate at Mather. We took Evergreen Road to Highway 120, stopped at Rush Creek Lodge for coffee and popcorn, and we made it back to Sonora before 7 p.m.
Reporter’s note: Before I began working for newspapers in the early 1990s, I spent seven years with VisionQuest and Outward Bound as a paid, certified wilderness instructor and emergency medical technician accountable for groups of felony offender teens, court-ordered children and adult Cuban refugees. I am in my mid-50s and anyone who walks OK on their own can keep up with me anywhere.
Contact Guy McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.