We spent a couple of days in the valley at a time when the crowds are few, the snow is in retreat, but the green of spring is still some weeks away. It was neither winter nor spring, but the waterfalls were full and the birds were becoming more active, and we had a marvelous time. This morning brought a sight we had never seen in dozens of previous visits though: the beginning of a controlled burn.
The native Americans who first lived and hunted in the valley knew the value of fire. They would regularly set fires to the forest and meadows to clear out undergrowth and maintain the extensive meadows on the valley floor. When the park was established in 1890, fire became the enemy and any hint of a fire was quickly put out. As a consequence the meadows shrank from the original 750 acres to less than 100 today. The forest became choked with young trees, and fuel built up on the forest floor. It was a major disaster-in-waiting. In recent years, the park management has sought to return the valley floor to something resembling the environment that existed prior to European colonization. Some of the activity has involved some controversial logging operations, and the controlled burns can interfere with the experience of visitors, but the eventual changes will be a vast improvement over present conditions.
There are many more stories to tell of the Merced River downstream, where it flows through the Mother Lode, the places where it lies trapped in the waters of Lake McClure and Lake McSwain, the dredge pits at Merced Falls, and the slow journey across the floor of the Great Valley where it ends in the San Joaquin River. Those will come another day!