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July 30, 2008

Dan & Sharon's visit July 11-13, 2008

Sharon and I spent our first volunteer weekend in Yosemite July 11-13. Here's our story.

We booked the weekend on the group calendar a couple of months ago. When it got close to the day, Joe was out of town. Karen, his secretary, got in touch and Joe called on his cell phone from a training session at the Grand Canyon. For lodging he had one bed in a shared cabin at White Wolf, which wouldn't do for the two of us. He offered a campsite anywhere. We opted for White Wolf, because we'd never been there and wanted to learn the area.

When we arrived Friday night we looked up Tom, the camp host. His small truck camper is to the left of the entrance, just before the toilet house. Tom was pleasant and interested in our work. Tell him we sent you.

Our site was No. 2, second on the right. I ran my 80' snake out the back of the tent. It reached just across a trail (to Lukens Lake) and I set up my 4-channel array facing the younger trees that are actually near the edge of a meadow visible from the parking lot, but not from where I set up. The camp was pretty noisy in the evening, especially some rangers/employees chatting between cars in the parking lot around midnight. In the small hours I recorded several segments, but there was nothing happening--no frogs, insects, or owls.

I was awakened by Sharon saying "don't even think about it!" loudly. I thought she was talking in her sleep, but in the morning she told me something was snorting around the tent. Must have been a bear, host Tom said they don't have raccoons.

I started recording an hour before dawn. It was disappointing. Birds were singing somewhere, but my location-of-convenience seemed to be where they were not.

When (in the call mentioned above) I asked Joe for an assignment, he had two suggestions. One was to record birds that have dialects in Yosemite that differ from other areas. That wasn't a task I could tackle right away; I'm a soundscape recordist, not a species hunter, and I would want to consult with a Yosemite naturalist about what species, when and where, before taking that on.

The other was to record soundscapes in the sequoia groves. Sharon and I were happy to do that.

Saturday we went to explore Tuolumne Grove. Joe had told us we could drive to it "the back way" using Old Oak Flat Road out of Hodgdon Meadow (ask me for directions). It was a beautiful drive. The road was barely passable in a sedan; I imagine pretty soon it will be 4WD-only unless it is repaired. We were embarrassed when we drove into the area with the picnic tables and there were visitors there! We turned around and parked in a wide spot at the lowest sequoia in the grove, the Mile 2 marker, where there is a line of boulders at the downhill edge of the road.

I set up my 4-channel array 50' downslope there. While that was running Sharon and I went up to explore the interpretive loop trail. Sharon decided to do an hour of recording at the top of the trail, just to document the scene including visitors.

There are three potential values in soundscape recording in a National Park. Scientific, to document the biophony at that place and time. Political, to document the anthrophony, collecting evidence that might be useful in policy-making about aircraft and visitor traffic. Artistic, to use in natural sound compositions.

At mid-day we not only had the regrettably frequent high-altitude jets that plague Yosemite, and visitor foot traffic which is normal and proper, but also a very loud helicopter that kept circling back a low altitude. Perhaps there was a fire or an emergency nearby. So we documented just about the worst sonic experience that a park soundscape can provide! Work, but no joy.

White Wolf is mainly a gateway to the back country. There are two easy trails to nearby lakes. Saturday evening we hiked out to Harden Lake. I made a short recording on my pocket Nagra ARES-M of a talented chickadee. We were late getting back, missing dinner at the Lodge.

Tired from hiking and remembering my previous disappointing recording, I didn't set up mics at the camp that night. Wouldn't you know, there was a really nice dawn chorus right around our tent on Sunday morning.

Sunday we went to explore Merced Grove. Sharon set up a couple of hundred yards in from the parking lot, where there was some mid-day bird action. I tried to balance her shoulder-mic vest on a camp chair so that the mics pointed upslope. That was a mistake because the positioning was unstable and the recording had episodes of clothing noise from wind moving the vest. Sharon read in another chair a hundred feet off. At one point visitors asked her what she was doing, and she invited them to listen on the headphones. They got the usual consciousness-raising "wow" experience of listening amplified.

I went down the trail about 1.8 mi to the sequoias. I overtook one couple on the way down. Just then we saw a bear cub, didn't see mama.

We had agreed to roll at 11:20; it was 11:25 when I got to the first group of trees so I hastily positioned myself on a log just off the trail and started recording. I got an hour uninterrupted before a family group of visitors arrived. Well, uninterrupted except for my squirming and stomach gurgling. I wished I'd brought a stand or taken the time to drape my vest on a stump; body-worn recording for an hour isn't very practical. Mid-day there were no birds at all, only a few aircraft and squirrels. At one point I freaked at what sounded in my phones like a rockslide. I was afraid a bear was coming down the slope. I think it may have been a squirrel dislodging debris in a dead tree behind me; I haven't had the chance to listen closely to the recording yet.

In summary, it was a good scout. We know our way around White Wolf and the two northern sequoia groves now. We recorded a lot of noise pollution, maybe a few minutes of artistic value--par for the course in nature recording (sigh). Next trip (Aug. 8-10) we'll see if we can manage night and dawn chorus recordings at the groves.

-Dan Dugan

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