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Vol. 17  No. 21 Final Edition
Clovis Free Press
July 20, 2000
Hetch Hetchy Getaway
A Beautiful Corner of Yosemite
By Michael Boldrick

     YOSEMITE -- I was 35,000 feet in the air, flying back from a business trip in Denver, when the 767 crossed the eastern escarpment of the Sierra Nevada.
     I looked out my window hoping to see Yosemite Valley, where my wife, Kathleen, and I had recently celebrated our wedding anniversary at the Ahwahnee Hotel. The valley was below the airplane, visible only to the cockpit crew. But looking north, I saw a lake and a V-shaped dam bathed in twilight.
     On the lake's north shore, a vivid white streak looked like a wide ski slope going down to the water's edge. But ski runs don't empty into lakes, and this one was well below the snow line. If not snow, what was down there?
     Then it dawned on me. I was looking at one heck of a waterfall.  Back home, I grabbed a Yosemite map. It soon was obvious what I had spotted: Hetch Hetchy, the reservoir that supplies drinking water to the San Francisco Bay Area. The map also revealed the name for the accompanying white streak: Wapama Fall.
     Last month, a year after that plane ride, Kathleen and I ventured to that very spot. We stood on a redwood bridge looking up at Wapama, a raging 1,400 tall waterfall. We felt as though we were in the eye of a hurricane--white water plummeting above us, below us, beside us.

Wapama Fall
     Neither of us could talk above the roar--the volume of water was twice that of Wapama's more famous neighbor Yosemite Fall. But most remarkable: We were on the bridge on a summer weekend, and not another tourist was in sight.

     This little-visited area of Yosemite is about 325 miles north of Los Angeles, but our adventure started from our apartment in Menlo Park. (Kathleen and I split our time between homes in San Mateo and Santa Barbara counties.)

     After three hours on California Highway 120, we approached Yosemite's Big Oak Flat Entrance. A half-mile-long line of cars moved at a snail's pace toward Bridalveil Fall, Half Dome, Yosemite Fall and El Capitan.
     We turned north onto Evergreen Road, continuing about six winding miles, skirting Yosemite's boundaries and Stanislaus National Forest. We passed verdant, wood rimmed meadows and crossed two tumbling forks of the Tuolumne River before reaching Evergreen Lodge, where we were to spend the night.
     The 79-year-old lodge is rustic, with forest-green shingled roofs, unpainted cedar siding and rough-hewn-pine porch railings. It rents 20 one- or two-bedroom cabins for $69 to $105 per night.
     Emily Mills, a lodge employee and self-described Yosemite fanatic, greeted us and gave us a 1950s postcard of the lodge. The picture showed old cars--a Hudson, a slope backed Pontiac, a svelte Chevy coupe parked between nearby pines, but otherwise the place looked unchanged.

     After a drink in the bar, where we found a stunning 1911 photograph of Hetch Hetchy Valley before the reservoir, we moved to the lodge's restaurant. Kathleen ordered barbecue chicken, I had the steak, and we shared a piece of blueberry pie, a good, hearty meal in anticipation of the long hike awaiting us at sunrise.

     The next morning we drove less than a mile to the northernmost entrance to Yosemite, where Hetch Hetchy Road begins its eight-mile descent along the edge of Poopenaut Valley to O'Shaughnessy Dam.
     In the late 1800s, San Francisco officials first discussed building a dam here on the Tuolumne River to catch the Sierra Nevada melt. Hetch Hetchy Valley seemed perfect: High granite walls form a narrow canyon, and dam builders needed to span a gap of less than 1,000 feet to create a reservoir eight miles long, covering 1,861 acres and measuring nearly 370 feet deep.
     As first president of the Sierra Club, John Muir fought Hetch Hetchy vehemently. "Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water tanks the people's cathedrals and churches," he wrote, "for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man."
     But in 1906, fires from the San Francisco earthquake proved the city's water supply to be woefully insufficient. Politicians and local media pushed for Hetch Hetchy. Congress finally authorized the reservoir in 1913, and Woodrow Wilson quickly signed the bill.
     O'Shaughnessy was completed 10 years later. Crews used about 674,000 cubic yards of concrete and 760,000 pounds of steel to create a dam that's 308 feet thick at its base. The whole project, including pipes and tunnels to carry the water west, cost $100 million.
     Manipulating water flow at the dam keeps the reservoir deliberately below the high-water mark, leaving a bathtub ring of sorts: a 10-foot-wide stripe of discolored granite, the only eyesore in an otherwise breathtaking view.

     Our first glimpse of Hetch Hetchy came at Inspiration Point, a turnout about 1,500 feet above the Tuolumne River. To the south, we saw 2,300-foot-high Kolana Rock, whose spire resembles Yosemite's Cathedral Rocks. To the north, Hetch Hetchy Dome's granite brow rises abruptly more than 1,000 feet, then forms a rounded top much like Half Dome.
#160;    We continued down the narrow road, no other vehicle in sight until we reached the dam, where seven others were parked. Backpackers can stay at a nearby campground, which has restrooms and a water faucet. But for day hikers like us, the main draw is a five-mile round-trip route to Wapama Falls.
     Kathleen and I started our walk across the top of O'Shaughnessy Dam. We looked down the sheer, 430-foot face. At this spot in 1987, an environmentalist painted a giant crack. The stunt was just one protest against the dam.
     The movement reached its zenith that year when Interior Secretary Don Hodel endorsed a study advocating removal of the dam. California politicians, led by then-San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, quickly led a successful campaign to defeat Hodel's proposal.
     The Sierra Club's opposition lives on through a Hetch Hetchy Task Force, a Web site and "Restore Hetch Hetchy" bumper stickers. It's easy to see why people are so passionate about this place. Kathleen was impressed with its solitude--the clear blue water, the wildflowers that border the trail. Because the reservoir is used for drinking water, the park bans motorboats, Jet Skis and even swimmers and rowboats.
     A 500-foot rock tunnel, built during the dam's construction, led us to the trail head. During our four hours to Wapama and back, we encountered only a dozen or so small groups of people.
     The trail is rated easy to moderate, and we passed mostly senior citizens and some backpackers. A family cavorted in natural granite pools filled with cold water from nearby Tueeulala Falls, which drop off the brow of a rock resembling El Capitan. While Wapama beats like an anvil against granite, Tueeulala floats like a butterfly in the wind.
     After a day of hiking, we headed back home. Along the way we looked for the 37 miles of tunnels and 156 miles of pipeline that transport Hetch Hetchy water to the Bay Area. Gravity alone moves 225 million gallons of water to 2 million people each day.
     Back in Menlo Park, I drank a glass of water with new appreciation for its magnificent source. Then I felt a little guilty knowing it came from the largest reservoir in any national park. Maybe we'll get one of those bumper stickers.

     [Editor's Note: Michael R. Boldrick is a freelance writer who lives in Santa Maria.]

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