First Time Exploring Hetch Hetchy
By John P. DeGrazio
The very first time I visited Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite National Park, I did not know what to expect. I was relatively new to the area and heard that John Muir once considered it to be a nearly identical valley to Yosemite and gave his life trying to save it. “It must have been pretty spectacular”, I thought. I first met James McGrew when he agreed to lead our initial trip in 2007. It was a trip to explore the beauty of Hetch Hetchy but not its politics. James agreed to lead a nature hike and two day painting workshop for our group. I didn’t know much about James McGrew, but I knew from our first meeting that he was one of the most dynamic people I ever met whose passion for Yosemite and the natural world were undeniable. Since then, we have developed a strong bond and have shared many Yosemite experiences together. In the past few years, James’ art has been recognized and he has won some prestigious awards, most recently at a Grand Canyon show. He is currently featured in a Southwest Art Magazine article as an Emerging Artist.
My first Yosemite experience with James was at Hetch Hetchy on a scouting hike for our upcoming trip and chose the trail to Wapama Falls. It was a beautiful late morning, and the trail was blanketed with a sensational display of spring wildflowers. From mock orange to harlequin lupine, James shared every nook of the trail in a manner that encouraged me to start asking questions. My mind began to work in ways I had never experienced. It was truly a transcendent moment for me. I was a guide in the sense that I safely led people on hikes in Yosemite, but James taught me so much that day that would help me become a naturalist. I made learning everything Yosemite my passion from studying trees, plants, and wildlife to learning finer details of geology and the history of the place.
We also encountered some wildlife along the path of our journey that day. I was introduced to this slow shiny creature. It is a California newt and its orange color is a warning sign for any predator. Farther along the trail, we saw three deer dart out of the scrub into a small meadow directly in front of us. I was amazed with their leaping ability and gawked at them until they disappeared to a rocky shelf below us. I turned to James in amazement and quickly became puzzled when I noticed his eyes had not followed the prancing does. He was actually turned in the opposite direction staring up the hillside from which they descended. I asked him why he was not fascinated by their display of athleticism. Matter of factly, his reply was “I’m looking for the mountain lion chasing them”.
When we arrived at the Wapama Falls, my body trembled. The force of the falls were great that year, but I was equally moved by the power these cascades had over my being. I had never experienced anything like it. Walking across the bridges as water crashed around me was an adventure in itself, but the feeling I received at the end of this misty route was indescribable. I took a few minutes alone to soak everything in so to speak. My body was paralyzed in a state of euphoria like none I had ever felt. In that moment, I understood why John Muir fought so hard. I also realized no dam could disturb that feeling. Although we were protected by a bridge, this was the powerful side of nature I have come to crave. The “Wild Yosemite” of John Muir and so many others. Since then, I have sought out so many adventures throughout Yosemite but always make my way back to these falls at least a couple of times per year.
James went on to successfully lead that workshop for our group and has led various other trips throughout the following years. The workshop highlighted so many of the similarities between the two valleys that the program evolved into the Yosemite Twin Valleys Waterfall Workshops: How Art Shaped the National Parks. We offer nature hikes, photo workshops and James’ painting workshop in both valleys during peak waterfall season in Yosemite. These exclusive workshops with James enable others to have the opportunity to see Yosemite through his eyes so they can paint their own scenes, take their own photographs, and tell their own stories about Hetch Hetchy and Yosemite. James and I have hiked many miles and backpacked in Yosemite, and I relish every opportunity to explore with him. After scanning all of my photos with James, I noticed there are none with the two of us in it together. I guess we’ll have to fix that next month. Who’d like to take it for us?