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The Lyell Glacier to Tuolumne Meadows

The adventure opens when we capture the melting drops of water at the Lyell Glacier near Donohue Pass, above Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park, and drink them. Those drops of water provide the thematic linkage for the trip, where we trace the Tuolumne River from “Glacier to Golden Gate.” We start our trip at an elevation of 8,600 feet at the trailhead at granite-edged Tuolumne Meadows.

The route ventures 10 miles on the John Muir Trail, where it parallels the trout-filled Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River, to our base camp at an elevation of 10,500 feet. That is our launch point to climb 2,500 feet to the Lyell Glacier and Lyell Peak, and capture and drink those first drops of melting ice. At 12,000 feet, the Lyell Glacier is the highest of the 14 glaciers in the High Sierra, and at 13,114 feet, Lyell Peak is the crown above all other mountaintops in Yosemite.

From camp, we then follow Lyell Fork as it flows through Tuolumne Meadows, one of the prettiest alpine meadows in the world. Donohue Pass and granite rims tower above. We hike on the Pacific Crest Trail en route to Tuolumne Meadows Proper, the staging area where we will prepare to launch down to the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne.

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On-Camera Experts:

Greg Stock (Yosemite National Park Geologist)
Tim Palmer (author/photographer with specialty on rivers and disappearing glaciers)

Storyline:

We will examine the effects of a warming planet at Lyell Glacier in Yosemite National Park and reduced snow accumulations on the Sierra Crest, and in turn, the reduced melt-off and how that affects California’s summer water supply.

Because of global warming, the Lyell Glacier is half the size as it was in the 1980s and could melt off and disappear in the next 25 years. Glaciers, of course, carved out the canyons, domes, and granite plates of Yosemite, including icons such as Half Dome, North Dome, El Capitan and much of the high-country wilderness. Glaciers are important indicators of climate change.

Yosemite’s geologist Greg Stock led a group of scientists that monitored the Lyell Glacier and neighboring Maclure Glacier over a four-year period. They discovered, that since 1900, the Lyell Glacier has decreased by 60 percent and has thinned by 120 vertical feet. In addition, the glacier has “stagnated,” that is, it has stopped moving as a living force, and that stagnation has occurred in recent years, likely within just the last decade. In the process, Stock continued work started by John Muir and then built on by a series of glaciologists in Yosemite’s history.

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The Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne

From Tuolumne Meadows, we hike with backpacks for six miles on the Pacific Crest Trail, where the route contours along the Tuolumne River. This is a river basin surrounded by landmark Yosemite peaks that include Unicorn Peak, Cathedral Peak, Fairview Dome and The Cockscomb. We arrive at our camp at Glen Aulin, located just beyond Tuolumne Falls, a sparkling cascade of white water that pours into a huge foaming pool.

The next morning, we then launch downstream and drop down into the head of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. This is a granite-lined canyon carved first by glaciers 10,000 years ago, with the river corridor contoured over the thousands of years since by the Tuolumne River. We will pass a series of spectacular, little-seen and unusual waterfalls. They include Waterwheel Falls, California Falls and LeConte Falls. The canyon walls tower above.

The Tuolumne River here is among the most pristine watersheds in America, with water that is among the most pure and low in sediment and algal growth anywhere. It pours over a polished riverbed of granite. As you descend, you pass pockets of coniferous forest, and as you near Hetch Hetchy, chaparral, manzanita scrub and oak woodland. We end this leg with our first glimpse of Hetch Hetchy.

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On-Camera Experts:

Jim Roche (Yosemite National Park Hydrologist)
Art Baggett (Tuolumne River Expert and historian)

Storyline:

We will walk in the footsteps of Muir, his ghost casting a shadow along the way, as we capture the experience of descending into the 4,000-foot deep Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. The river will be documented by scientists in its most pristine state anywhere along its journey to San Francisco. Each day, it runs pure, untouched and out of reach of mass civilization and its needs, just as it has since the ice age 10,000 years ago. The Mighty T in its Grand Canyon provides a point of comparison along the entire route. Muir called it a shrine, a mountain temple where those who venture here can find religion, and we will capture that understanding

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Hetch Hetchy

At the brink of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne, the first glimpse of Hetch Hetchy below will set off sensations of awe, ghosts and thrills. Across the lake, 5,772-foot Kolana Rock, like Half Dome’s little brother, towers over the canyon. On the north rim, massive LeConte Point rises up like a second El Capitan. Ahead you can make out the feathered wisps of Wapama Falls, like a hidden Yosemite Falls, that flows aside 6,197-foot Hetch Hetchy Dome. You might feel the shadow of Muir’s ghost looming over the lake, or that of the men who lost their lives when they built the dam and tunnel project. Hetch Hetchy is one of the prettiest lakes in America. Before the 312-foot dam was constructed to provide water and electricity for San Francisco and much of the Bay Area, the canyon was a second Yosemite Valley, one of the showpieces of the world.

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On-Camera Experts:

Jim Roche (Yosemite National Park Hydrologist)
Spreck Rosekrans (Executive Director – Restore Hetch Hetchy)
Bill Sears (SFPUC)

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Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, owned and operated by the City of San Francisco, has been the subject of contention for more than a century. From 1901 to 1913, John Muir led the Sierra Club in a campaign to protect Hetch Hetchy Valley. When he eventually lost the fight, some say he then died of a broken heart. We will trace the history of the valley, from its roots as a paradise home over thousands of years for Miwok Indians, to the present-day, and many believe, the irreplaceable value of high-quality drinking water projects and low-cost hydroelectric power. It now provides low-cost water and electricity for millions of people in the Bay Area. A ballot measure in San Francisco that proposed to investigate the feasibility of removing the dam and restoring the valley was defeated by voters, but a stubborn contingent remain who say they, just as Muir before them, will not give up. “Hetch Hetchy Valley, far from being a plain, common, rock-bound meadow, as many who have not seen it seem to suppose, is a grand landscape garden, one of Nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples.”

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Poopenaut Valley

From the brink of Hetch Hetchy, we will descend below the O’Shaughnessy Dam to the outlet for the Tuolumne River. The trail plummets 1,200 feet in a mile. You arrive along the river, what was once the head of the Hetch Hetchy Valley, where you can see remnants of what existed in Muir’s time. We walk along the moving water as the river pours into the lush Poopenaut Valley. This area has some of the river’s best flyfishing for trout. The valley then feeds into a deep and forested canyon. With no hiking trails, we will canyoneer into this wilderness terrain, following bear trails, wading, and fording the river where necessary to work our way downstream. We will bring small rafts to tow our gear and float small passable sections. This is the most physically challenging section of the expedition. Eventually we will make our way downstream for a beautiful payoff at Preston Falls, and then on to meeting up with our rafting teams.

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On-Camera Experts:

Bill Sears (SFPUC)
Bruce McGurk (SFPUC – Retired)
Sarah Stock (Yosemite National Park Biologist)

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Even though a paved road is located from O’Shaughnessy Dam and above the Poopenaut Valley, it is one of the most sensitive meadowlands in Yosemite National Park and with biological importance. To fill a vernal pool for macro invertebrates and amphibians, with roots that far transcend the construction of the dam, the Hetch Hetchy Water Department is experimenting with pulse releases. Bruce McGurk, who manages releases from Hetch Hetchy, will provide his insights on how climate change might impact the Tuolumne.

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The Rim Fire

The wild country where so many have felt the ghost of John Muir – 403 square miles, 257,000 acres of forest wild lands – burned up in late summer of 2013, the fourth largest fire in California history. It devoured a significant portion of the central Tuolumne River canyons and the watershed forests that feed it. It also burned the vicinity of Camp Mather, threatened power lines from the Sierra to San Francisco, closed highways and roads, and caused mass evacuations. In western Yosemite, it burned the forests down to the shorelines of Cherry Lake and Lake Eleanor to Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, and vanquished forests and meadows past Miguel Meadow to Beehive in the park. Much of this was Muir’s church, where America’s great mountaineer, conservationist and glaciologist ventured alone to find divine blessing. Prior to the blaze, this wild country was stunning; the deep Tuolumne canyons and the gorgeous streams at their bases, edged by rich forests, reached skyward up the steep terrain to the ridge tops. Much of that was incinerated.

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On-Camera Experts:

Maggie Dowd (Stanislaus National Forest Ranger)
Dusty Vaugh (Stanislaus National Forest Recreational Specialist)
Shelly Crook (Stanislaus National Forest Fuel Specialist)

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We will explore the area by air, by 4-wheel-drive, and on foot and horseback, to see and capture the areas burned to a crisp and those that were spared. Some people think that all fires are good – or they all are bad — but each one has to be assessed as unique, as we will this one. The Rim Fire, a fast-moving inferno, left behind burning stumps and smoking tree skeletons, and provided dramatic video footage with a smoke plume that spanned hundreds of miles. A long-term concern is that for years, storms will wash ash and topsoil into the Tuolumne River. Environmentalists and fire scientists agree on how to avoid these high-heat infernos, while keeping the forest landscape and habitat fresh and healthy at the same time. With lots of small, low-heat fires, fire scientists can burn out the Manzanita, chemise and pine needles and remove much of the starter fuels for big fires. In the process, small fires keep the soil fresh and charged with nitrogen, and give rise to fresh browse for wildlife food, and clear the brush from wildlife migration routes. Fire scientists also prescribe trimming the lower limbs of pine trees up to six to eight feet above the ground and to thin out tightly packed groves of smaller trees. That way a ground fire won’t spread “up the ladder” and get into the tree canopies, and in a worst-case scenario, start “crowning,” or jump from the tops of tree to tree in a fast-moving catastrophe where everything is incinerated. In the aftermath of the Rim Fire, there are examples of both extremes.

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The Mighty T

The Mighty T is one America’s most renowned whitewater rivers for rafting. Our trip will take us 30 miles through its legendary runs, rapids and falls, en route to Don Pedro Reservoir. This is a pool-and-drop river, with a series of Class IV rapids and just enough breaks to allow you to catch your breath – and yet features Clavey Falls, a Class V cascade with a series of foaming, frothing chutes and ladders. Running it is a rite of passage for expert rafters from across America. It can only be completed with experts at the oars, and we have the best rafting guide in the business ready to go, Marty McDonnell of Sierra Mac Rafting, who is said to have Tuolumne River water running through his veins.

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On-Camera Experts:

Marty McDonnell (First Outfitter on Tuolumne)
Mark Dubois (Tuolumne River Legend)
John Amodio (First Executive Director – Tuolumne River Trust)

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The Mighty T’s stretch of whitewater runs shows its value protected as a Wild and Scenic River in 1984. On the Tuolumne River, you can watch, listen and even smell the crackling fresh flows of water that cascade over boulders, into pools and on down the canyon. Then you can get into a raft and live it. It looks perfect out there. That’s because it is. California’s No. 1 whitewater river – The Mighty T – is in near-perfect condition in summer months, and because of coordinated decisions by the San Francisco Water Department, it stays that way all summer long. Behind the scenes, managers with the San Francisco Water Department and its Hetch Hetchy division work out flow regimes for summer so everybody benefits. The SF PUC controls dams at Lake Eleanor, Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and Cherry Lake, all which release water downstream into the Tuolumne and also generate electricity. Another element to this segment is wilderness life, where we camp along the river and have campfire stories with living legends.

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From Don Pedro to Delta

When the Tuolumne River enters huge Lake Don Pedro, the river is tamed, the flows caged, and much of the water is managed for farming, drinking water and to create electricity for millions of people in the Bay Area and San Joaquin Valley. After the outrageous whitewater on The T, we take it down a notch for a boat ride across Lake Don Pedro, spend the night, and get dropped off at the dam. From below the dam at Don Pedro, we paddle inflatable kayaks down the more sedate Tuolumne River to La Grange Dam and into the Central Valley foothills, amid habitat for salmon, waterfowl and a diversity of wildlife that thrives in the riparian habitat. When the water flattens, we switch to canoes or a tandem kayak to pick up speed, and then paddle down to Modesto and beyond to the Delta and the intake for the Hetch Hetchy Aqueduct.

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On-Camera Experts:

Peter Drekmeier (Bay Area Program Director, Tuolumne River Trust)
John Dye (Tuolumne River Expert and Principle Guide, Tuolumne River Trust)

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This section of the Tuolumne River is among its most environmentally contentious. The river has been dammed and diverted, the habitat undermined, the flows less than pristine. Yet it remains viable for spawning salmon in the fall, when those canoeing or kayaking can often look down and see the migrating fish beneath them. It also provides a route for easy, flat-water boating that has become a centerpiece of the annual “Paddle to the Sea” sponsored by the Tuolumne River Trust. For those who live in this area, it’s about water diversion and agriculture. That starts with La Grange Dam, completed in 1883, one of California’s oldest dams, from which irrigation districts secured some of the earliest water rights ever verified in the Western U.S. The dam benefits farming, but it also blocks salmon from reaching historic spawning areas — the base of the dam is as far as they get, where they can literally bang their noses against the wall.

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The Delta mosaic

In its path from the mountains to the sea, the Tuolumne River enters the vast complex of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Here the Mighty T is split, with a portion diverted through the Hetch Hetchy Aqueduct to the San Francisco Peninsula, the rest into the Delta to join with water from the San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Mokelumne, Cosumnes, Calaveras, American, Feather and Sacramento Rivers — that is, what is left after water from those rivers is diverted to points south. By boat, we will the trace mosaic of waterways, cut by levees, edged by islands, fed by rivers, sloughs and cuts amid some of the richest wetlands in North America. By helicopter, we will also scan across the brackish-water wetlands that provide habitat for ducks, geese, other waterfowl and shorebirds. The brackish-water marsh across the Delta is home to the largest breeding population of mallard ducks in California. We will then walk amid the marshes, farmlands and wildlife areas and capture an extraordinary wildlife showcase. It includes more than 200 bird species, 40 wildlife species, 50 fish species and hundreds of plants, that all need freshwater to survive. They include, tule elk to white pelicans, from mallards to fox, from salmon to Delta smelt. The Pacific Flyway Center will showcase the wildlife and waterfowl, and will show how freshwater flows to the delta support this wildlife paradise. The Flyway Center will be in the vein of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where visitors will come face to face with waterfowl and other birds. It will be the Sistine Chapel for ducks.

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On-Camera Experts

John Carlson, Jr. (President of California Waterfowl Association)
Claude Grillo (Board Member – Pacific Flyway Center)
Holly Heiser (Editor of California Waterfowl magazine)

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The Delta’s wildlife paradise is at risk. At the heart is the 88,000-acre Suisun Marsh. This area is the hub of the freshwater-saltwater mixing zone, that connects the snowmelt from the high Sierra to the saltwater from the Pacific Ocean. The Delta marshes supports wildlife, especially ducks and geese. This is threatened by conversion to saltwater marshes, which would support coastal shorebirds and little else. The issue is saltwater inversion from the bay. The plan to build twin tunnels to take high amounts of water out of the Sacramento River could allow saltwater to back up from the bay and into the Delta. That would convert wetlands to saltwater marshes. The vast resting areas and local nesting sites at brackish-water marshes for ducks and geese would be lost, similar to what occurred in the lower Mississippi River estuary. At present, 70,000 gallons of water per second is taken out of the Delta at the huge pumping complex near Tracy. Government projections show that saltwater could backup across the Delta as far upstream to Stockton in the San Joaquin Valley. The wetland habitat on which wildlife and fish depend would be destroyed.

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Hetch Hetchy Aqueduct

Deep in the San Joaquin Valley, the Tuolumne River enters the remote reaches of the San Joaquin Delta to merge with the flows that drain 75 percent of the California’s Sierra and Cascade ranges. The Tuolumne is diverted in the Hetch Hetchy Aqueduct to provide some of the sweetest tasting water in the world, fresh from Yosemite, to millions of residents of San Francisco and the Bay Area. The heart of the system is devised around Roman-era engineering techniques for a low-cost, gravity-feed system. On our adventure, we take to the air and fly the aqueduct and pipeline in its path across the western San Joaquin Valley past San Antonio Reservoir. It then runs through Newark and by pipe through South San Francisco Bay (just south of the Dumbarton Bridge) and emerges on the Peninsula at the Pulgas Water Temple. Here there are striking visuals, where foaming, clear-blue water emerges in this giant Masonic basin in Woodside on the San Francisco Peninsula. In the process, we will also get on the ground to see the progress of a $4.6 billion program to repair and retrofit the aqueduct pipeline, and its value to residents.

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On-Camera Experts:

Paul Mazza (SFPUC)

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In the 167-mile journey from Hetch Hetchy Reservoir to the Pulgas Water Temple, the Hetch Hetchy Aqueduct passes three active earthquake faults en route to Bay Area faucets. Much of the pipeline was built in the 1920s and ‘30s with archaic construction methods where in modern day, leaks, repairs and ongoing vulnerability to catastrophic damage became a daily issue and long-term time bomb. In 2002, San Francisco voters passed a ballot measure for a vast infrastructure project, $4.6 billion to repair and retrofit the aqueduct pipeline to withstand a magnitude 7.1 earthquake on the Hayward Fault. The program will be completed in 2016. As part of the program, a new tunnel built 100 feet below San Francisco Bay will carry a steel water pipeline five miles from the East Bay to the Peninsula. The 90-year-old dam at Calaveras Reservoir is being replaced and enlarged.

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Crystal Springs to Golden Gate / Expedition Review

The 23,000-acre Crystal Springs Watershed is minutes south of San Francisco and sits amid 7 million people in the Bay Area. No other metropolitan area in the world has a swath of protected land like this, California’s only designated Fish and Game Refuge. At its center are the crown jewels, Upper and Lower Crystal Springs Reservoir and San Andreas Reservoir, which store Tuolumne River water for the use of millions of people in four Bay Area counties. On our trip, by bicycle, we ride through the Crystal Springs Watershed, past Upper and Lower Crystal Springs Reservoirs, and then San Andreas Reservoir. We then continue beyond on Skyline Boulevard to San Francisco to the Great Highway and Lake Merced, on the coast of San Francisco. From here, we ride the Great Highway past Ocean Beach, up to the Cliff House for a view of the mouth of the bay and ocean, and pick up the Coastal Trail near Lands End. We emerge at the Presidio and ride to the southern foot of the Golden Gate Bridge – where we take the elevator in the South Tower to the top of bridge for jaw-dropping world-class views of San Francisco and the Bay. Back on the ground, we walk to a faucet, and then drink the drops of that Tuolumne River water, thus completing the journey “From Glacier to Golden Gate.”

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On-Camera Experts:

Paul Mazza (SFPUC – Historical Perspective/Spring Valley-Crystal Springs)

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The final segment is electrified with stunning visuals of world-renowned landmarks captured from unique vantage points — the Golden Gate Bridge, the San Francisco waterfront, Land’s End, the Presidio, Ocean Beach, Fort Funston and many other points of scenic beauty. We also will provide an insider’s view of the 23,000-acre Crystal Springs Watershed and its state-designated Fish and Game Refuge, and its fish, deer, mountain lions and bird life. Throughout, the segment is thematically linked as we follow Tuolumne River water to San Francisco.

In the process, we will also review how we got here, our journey from the first drops of melting water from Lyell Glacier, the issues and people we met along the way, and that water’s path to one of the world’s best-known metropolitan areas, and how millions benefit from it, from start to finish. The viewer is left with evocative images and a story that will imprint them for life.

© Copyright 2016 - The Mighty T – The Tuolumne River.