Posts Tagged Sierra Nevada

A Cross-Section of California

Sierra DetailIn the 1850’s, with the California Gold Rush in full swing, the United States was looking into connecting the Atlantic and Pacific coasts with a transcontinental railway; thus, the Pacific Railroad Surveys were born. After Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Survey bill in 1853, four east-west survey routes were quickly approved by the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers: within months, Corps lieutenants Robert S. Williamson and John G. Parke were given the orders to survey between the West Coast’s 32nd and 35th parallels for potential passes through the Sierra Nevada to connect the San Joaquin and Tulare Valleys with the Colorado River. Accompanying Williamson and Parke was geologist and mineralogist William P. Blake.

The party departed July 10, 1853, taking a ferryboat across the Carquinez Strait to Martinez where, skirting the flanks of Mount Diablo, the expedition headed south, reaching the vast San Joaquin Valley in a week’s time. By August 8th, the travelers had reached the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and established a camp they dubbed “Poso Depot” after the nearby and near-dry Poso Creek (also referred to as “Ocoya Creek” and “Posé Creek”) in present-day Kern County. Two days later, Williamson and Parke set out for the Sierra, leaving Blake and Heermann at the Depot to explore the region on their own. At some point during the expedition, the geologist Blake began preparing what would later become a series of panoramic fold-out geological section maps for publication in the survey’s final “Geological Report.” One of these maps, the 1853 “Geological Section of the Coast Range and Sierra Nevada,” charts the change in elevation along a cross-section of California from the Farallones (Farallon) Islands sea stacks and islands off the Pacific Coast to the Walkers (Walker) River in the Great Basin of west central Nevada.


 (click to enlarge)

Painting this 270-mile cross-section with a broad brush, the breadth of Blake’s panorama includes, from west-to-east, Point Lobos (Land’s End), Fort Point (the ruins of the old Spanish fort, the Castillo de San Joaquin and the present-day Presidio of San Francisco), San Francisco, Yerba Buena (Yerba Buena Island), the Bay of San Francisco, Mount Diablo, Livermore Pass (Livermore), Elk Horn (undetermined), the Delta of the San Joaquin River, Stockton, Knight’s Ferry, Green Spring (undetermined), and Sonora. Blake’s geological section puts to paper the elevational rise and run of California with peaks that seem to dwarf the shorelines and floodplains in orders of magnitude. Rising from the sea stacks of the 1/16-inch Farallon Islands (~312 feet; actual = 357 feet) to the 3/4-inch peak of Mount Diablo (~3,750 feet; actual = 3,849 feet) to the towering heights of the Sierra Nevada’s 2 ½-inch Tower Peak (~12,500 feet; actual = 11,755 feet), at a vertical scale of 5,000 feet per inch, Blake captures California’s vertiginous vista with surprising accuracy.


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Book Review: Nature Noir

Nature Noir: A Park Ranger’s Patrol in the Sierra, by Jordan Fisher Smith, Mariner Books (, 2006, 224 pages, $14.95

Under the apt title Nature Noir, veteran park ranger Jordan Fisher Smith casts new light on what it’s like to serve and protect in a great outdoors damned to inundation. In 1962, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation began investigating the Auburn Dam site, proposing first a 685-foot earth and rock dam, followed later by a double-curvature thin-arch gravity dam that would have towered over 700 feet above its host, the American River. In fits and starts, a diversion tunnel, foundation works, cofferdam, exploratory tunnels, and the new 730-foot high Foresthill Bridge were pieced together even as the project fledged and floundered. Upstream, in the shadow of the proposed Auburn Reservoir, the land known as the Auburn State Recreation Area held its breath. And it was there, in a land for all purposes damned twice, that park rangers like Smith stood guard.

Beneath the Park Service olive greens and the regulation cavalry hats, Smith unearths a pedigree dating back to Yosemite and Yellowstone circa 1870, when park guardians hailed from military stock. Despite having evolved from cavalrymen to a civilian police force, today’s park rangers face no less a battle, especially when charged with policing a land given up for lost. In the then lost cause that was Auburn State Recreation Area, Smith writes, “We rangers could have been guarding some jewel-like national park celebrated in expensive coffee-table books. Instead, we would spend years in these purgatory canyons… where our fellow creatures – black bears, pileated woodpeckers, foothill yellow-legged frogs… – were consigned neither to the heaven of a national park’s perennial protection nor immediately to the cold hell of inundation.”

This state of limbo extended beyond the wild, growing to envelope its stewards. Reflecting on fourteen years below the water line, Smith recounts years spent doing battle with drunks, daredevils, drugs, dust, disgruntled prospectors, and parachuting chickens. Nature Noir tells a truth nature goers gloss over with picnic baskets and wildflower hikes – that park rangers are there to protect the wild from the public, the public from the wild, and the public from itself. These are stories told not in daisy chains, but chainsaws. Although Smith tells tales that leave even Mother Nature looking dirty, he ultimately betrays her dignity, offering redemption through the land’s staying power despite the odds. In the end, it is the dam that falls in a wilderness that outgrows its shadows.

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Stebbins, A Life and Times


Written when he was 95 years old.
There is no logical nor chronological order to the memories.

Post 1

Salamanders That Walk With a cane

The Museum of vertebrate Zoology at U. C. Berkeley, an institution devoted primarely to the study of land-dwelling vertebrates (animals with a backbone), was ready to hire a full-time person in herpetology, the science of reptiles and amphibians. I was lucky to get the job!

I arrived at MVZ in 1945, feeling I had gotten the best herpetology job in the country (perhaps in the world!). I was 30 years old! By 1946 I was on my way to my first publication (it appeared in 1947). I was that dedicated to my emerging profession. The subject was a study of the Mount Lyell Salamander, Hydromantes platycephalus, an animal that had intrigued me for years. This attachment resulted from many family vacation trips to Yosemite and, especially, during my training there in 1940 to become a ranger naturalist in the National Park Service.

During that period, on a high Sierran trip, I came close to the place where the animal had been discovered but was unable, at the time, to search the area for salamanders. I had especially wanted to see the site where the species had first been found –the “type locality” (vicinity of Mt. Lyell). A mating pair had walked into a snap-trap set for rodents by MVZ researchers. The salamanders were found dead, pinned down together, under the lethal arm of the spring-driven trap. What a way to go!

However, on July 28, 1946, my long-sought goal was achieved. I saw my first living Mount Lyell Salamanders! Seven individuals from the top of Half Dome (seeming to me an unlikely place at the time) were on exhibit at the Yosemite Museum. They had been found under exfoliating rock shells on top of the dome. I was enthralled. But how did they get there over the smooth, sloping, granitic surfaces?

I began writing notes on coloration and behavior. Almost immediately I was struck by their movements. They moved about as if the tail was a cane. They curled the tail forward and placed the tip against the ground every time a hind leg was lifted. When crawling along a horizontal slope, the tail swung its support to the down-hill side. If the slope changed to the other side, the support shifted to the other side, and if the animal crawled directly up-slope, the tail tended to swing its support from side to side, more-or-less in sinc with the alternating leg movements. Unfortunately I failed to check down-hill effects.

The tip of the tail is blunt, which helps the animal deal with slippage and wear-and tear on rock surfaces.

The feet are also notable. They are wonderfully structured in ways that support locomotion on smooth rock surfaces, as well as in other less demanding environments. The figure shows the underside of a foot. Note the broad somewhat concave surface covered with furrows that increases the skin surface. The area is also covered with adhesive glands. When the animal is placed on a glass surface, even vertical, the adhesion afforded by the feet is great. They are able to climb a vertical glass surface! This explains why they can move about and ascend steep. smooth areas such as are present on Half Dome, and why they can travel so effectively on slick glacial polish, an indispensible requirement throughout much of their range. The tail action is ingrained. Even hatchlings use their tiny stubby tails as a “cane”!

Many years later, when I got around to recording their locomotion on motion picture film, I persuaded daughter Melinda to stage the animal for me. I asked for so many retakes (trying to get them just right) she finally got fed up and burst forth with an explosive “Dad, I’ve had it! I’m out of here” or some such expression. Don’t get me wrong, Lindy loves nature and her father.

Editor’s Note: With the exception of minor typographical and editorial corrections, all efforts have been taken to preserve Dr. Stebbins’ text as originally recorded.

For more information on this serial column featuring the life and times of Dr. Robert C. Stebbins, please visit this post.

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