For more than four decades, Bob Fry was one of the most popular, recognizable rangers in Yosemite National Park. To many, his passion for Yosemite was infectious, his knowledge of its plants, animals and geology encyclopedic.
Now retired, the 78-year-old Fry spends his summers at his home in Groveland, west of the park, where I met him one quiet June afternoon. After all those years leading tourists around the park, Fry seemed a little lonely - eager to talk.And talk we did, well into the night - and again the next morning. It was hard to get him to stop. My notebook quickly filled up with Bob's observations over the years,from changing hibernation patterns to vanishing amphibians to fewer cold snaps, more high-altitude forest fires and far fewer summer thunderstorms. He talked about those storms a lot: the darkening sky, jagged streaks of lightning, sharp clap of thunder and rain that pelted down in leaden sheets. He missed those storms - the sound and the fury of summer in Yosemite.
As I left, I asked Bob to jot down some of his remembrances,as a kind of ranger's diary of change over time. A few days later, I got an e-mail:
"It seems to me that at Tuolumne Meadows, the afternoon thunderstorms were more frequent and more intense during the '50s and '60s than now," Bob wrote. "Those viewing the event from down slope could see thunderheads boiling up to over 40,000 feet. For us beneath them, the fading light phased into a kind of darkness that was deeper than the dusk that occurs an hour after sundown. The wind would pick up rather abruptly; a special smell of moist-air freshness then would penetrate us, and shortly after that, crackles of distant lightening strikes could be heard. When the strikes progressed overhead, with thunderclaps following in a few seconds, we would be hit with big drops of rain that quickly grew steadily into a drenching downpour that lasted for an hour or more. Frequently there would be pea-sized hail that could cover the ground like a thin blanket of snow. If we were unprotected we would be drenched in only a few minutes. Summer storms added an extra 5 or 6 inches of precipitation to the winter's accumulation."
Bob also wrote about red fir and fire:
"The Sierran Red Fir, Abies magnifica ... is not adapted to fire as the pines are. Young trees have to have deep snow cover to protect them from severe conditions until they reach 10 feet or so. A 20-foot-deep snow pack is not uncommon. ...
"In the last 50 years I believe that the Red Fir forests have been hit by fires more frequently than in the past. When I observe the areas hit by the Walker Fire of 1986 (elevation 7,000 ft.), I see a very slow recovery. After 20 years the young trees are growing very sparsely, and living ones are less than 10 feet high. The fire regime is creeping upward in elevation."