A way to beat SAD? Volunteer, hike, camp in Yosemite

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.

That quote is from our local Martinez boy, John Muir, who helped start the modern conservation movement, and save Yosemite and other national parks. That’s where I was last weekend–Yosemite National Park–with my sister, her husband and daughter, and several of their friends from their time in Girl Scouts. For several years, since their Girl Scout days, my sister, niece and other alums have headed up to Yosemite for a weekend, usually in the autumn.
For one day, as “Habitat Protectors of Yosemite,” they volunteer to help clean up some area of the park. The next day they have fun, hiking if the weather permits, or hanging out, playing cards at the Owahnee if it’s cold.
One perk of volunteering is that you get to camp in a specially designated camping area in the Valley. Since a huge flood in 1997 wiped out other campgrounds in the Valley, this specially designated camping area is one of the few left, I was told. This campground is for volunteers and it’s in a pretty spot in the trees, far away enough from the road so that you don’t hear the cars going by. It is also within a short walking distance to a beach on the Merced River.
I was a bit worried about this trip, because several days prior to leaving, we were hit by that huge rain storm. I dreaded the idea of camping–I’m not a regular camper, and a world-class wimp–and sleeping in a tent in cold, rainy or even snowy weather. But the storm, as we know, passed, and the storm was a warm tropical one.
The storm hit Yosemite and dumped anywhere from 5 to 8 inches in the park, which turned out to be a blessing, because the rivers were full, and the famous falls were thundering down with almost spring-snow-melt force. The weather in the park last weekend was stunning: clear skies and warm, up into the low 80s on Saturday and only dipping down into the 50s at night.
It was very much like late summer, but the scene was autumnal, with leaves on maples growing amid the evergreens showing vibrant yellows, oranges, and even deep reds. On Saturday, we worked with a ranger and a volunteer coordinator to clear non-native, invasive blackberry bushes from an area near Yosemite Lodge. We did this with shovels, trowels, and clippers–while trying to keep the native raspberry plants in tact.
We got sweaty and dusty, but it was good work. And working in a place that you are visiting gives you a kind of relationship to a place that you wouldn’t get if you were just passing through as a regular tourist.
On Sunday, we did a 6.5 mile loop up to Vernal Falls, which took us up those steep, wet stairs along the famous “Mist Trail.” We then we continued up to Nevada Falls–a total 2,000-foot ascent.

At the top of Nevada Falls (pictured here) you can look down into the valley and breathe in that crystal air, as well as the sense of awe of being in a place that is so beautiful–but that can also be deadly.

A sign near a deceptively placid pool right before the drop of Nevada Falls warns you to not even wade in the pool. Unseen currents can knock you down and sweep you in and down over the falls. The sign doesn’t pull any punches by saying: “You will die.”
The hints of SAD (seasonal affective disorder) began to hit me before I went to Yosemite, and I was grateful for the chance to go there, rough it, be in nature, hike in the mountains, and get out of my regular routine. (I also got to get away from the Internet and Twitter and regular news updates about the unfolding Balloon Boy scandal. Hmm, how that story now seems a strange, distance memory.)
My sense of SAD came back on Monday when I returned to my regular routine. By the way, thanks, readers, for sharing your own stories about how the changing season affects your mood.
As it turns out, my sense of SAD lifted by Tuesday or Wednesday. Maybe that’s because I had some good talks with my husband about life issues. Maybe it’s because, the mild, sunny fall weather returned. But I’ll be watching my mood as the fall turns into winter, and more misty, rainy weather–which I have always usually loved–returns.
If you ever want to volunteer at Yosemite–I recommend you do it at least once–go to the Habitat Protector of Yosemite webpage. As the page says, you can “learn about the park’s natural history and native vegetation from Yosemite National Park staff, and help keep Yosemite healthy and intact for native plants and animals.”

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