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Merced Misadventure

Close Encounters with Nature

"I gained a great respect and care for the various powers of nature."

-Kurt Rademacher

As a 13-year-old budding naturalist in June of 1960, I was clambering about some huge boulders beside the snowmelt-swollen Merced River in Yosemite National Park. I slipped and was swept into a notorious stretch of frothing cascades, which has claimed many lives both before and since.

The entire river squeezes between and over enormous boulders there, and I was dashed over five or six cascades, tumbling and plummeting into deep pools of frothy water — too bubbly to swim yet too wet to breathe — before being shot up and over the next fall.

At every turn I was bashed and battered against boulders. Realizing it was impossible to resist this overwhelming force of nature or to direct my course, all I could do was go with the flow and try to protect my head. After what seemed like an eternity, I found myself afloat in a level stretch passing against a vertical rock face. Grasping some crevices to slow the river’s icy pull, I managed to reach a place where I could climb out and escape the next cascade whose misty spray and deafening roar loomed just ahead.

Once my head stopped spinning, I realized I was on the wrong side of the river with no access to help, and nobody on the highway across the river could hear my yells over the river’s roar. Evening was fading to night, and in my sopping wet clothes I hugged my granite boulder trying to eek out the last vestiges of the sun’s warmth. Eventually some people who’d seen me fall and were searching for my body spotted me shivering on my rocky perch and called in the park rangers. Shortly before midnight the ranger rescue team — armed with floodlights, bullhorns and ropes — managed to get a ranger over to me and bring me safely across the aptly named Merced, and then whisked me to a hospital.

Though I was bruised and battered, I somehow had no concussion, no water in my lungs, and no broken bones. I had learned an immensely important lesson, however, which has served me well in my life as a naturalist, park ranger, wilderness guide and conservationist. I gained a great respect and care for the various powers of nature, and learned that when we flirt with them in our endeavors to experience the wild woods, mountains, waters and wildlife, we need to strike a cautious balance between treading cautiously and becoming too literally a part of them.

I’ve also found many parallels with our uses of natural resources and our practices of agriculture, which should be partnerships with nature — “going with the flow” — not arrogant dominion over it. Too often our tweakings of seemingly minor factors, or our over-reaching, have resulted in pollution, loss of species, reduced fertility or lowered water tables. And sometimes they’ve unleashed mighty forces of nature, from floods to dustbowls, and from massive oil spills to the holocausts bred of long-postponed natural fires.

My ‘close encounter’ with the merciful Merced did not deter my lifelong interest in nature. Rather, it was a respectful lesson learned about working with nature, not against it. And in my 23 years with the Conservancy I’ve seen a parallel success in our protection of nature by working with, not against the tide of human society. Pogo was right ("We have met the enemy and he is us."), but we are also part of the solution.

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