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The High and Dry Sierras

“It’s so beautiful, isn’t it? And great exercise!” says a middle-aged woman from the Bay Area with graphite hiking poles. We are standing next to two completely dry former lakes in the Plumas National Forest. There are many dry lake/pond basins all over the Sierra backcountry, and it’s June. Let me say that again—there are many dry lake/pond basins all over the Sierra backcountry, and it’s June.

I try to explain to her that it’s about a little more than her getting exercise, that maybe it’s not about her at all, or me.

I am watching a scene that fills me with dread—without the snow, the backcountry of the Sierras is open in the summer; it’s been open the entire year, but summer is when the throngs show up. There will be no rest for this region from the thousands who hike onto its worn-out hide. This summer especially, I am seeing hikers and mountain bikers in places I have never seen them before.

The snow meant rest for the region—physiological rest for the organisms that live there; and a reprieve from us. Now, a long line of mountain bikers on shiny bicycles wearing matching outfits goes by me, leaving behind smashed once-beautiful snow-white California native sego lilies. When I tell the stylish riders that the trail is not designed for cycling and not to smash the alpine wildflowers, and ask why they can’t stay on the dirt roads, the “leader” snarls at me that they can go anywhere they want. He comes close to cussing me out. I want to tell him off—I hate them—but I take the high road.

I try to stand the sego lilies back up again, build a little rock wall around them. I know it’s a waste of time. They’re dead.

Why don’t any of these people care that the lake basins they hike by with their REI hiking poles are dry? Do they get it? Are they capable of getting it—the implications? Or are the outdoors birdbrainnow just one gigantic open free gym—screw that aspen sapling you just ran over, the native wildflower you just smashed, the bird’s nest you just drove your bike through? I guess this is what it’s all about now—that it’s great exercise! “I’ve lost five pounds this month on my new mountain bike!” “So what if thousands of lakes are dry now in the Sierra high country!” (Uh, this is your water supply, California.)

There is nothing between us and the Sierra backcountry now. The snow used to come between us. The snow kept the masses away. The snow that allowed all the organisms to rest, shut down. The snow buffered the noise. The snow buffered the heat by reflecting off the sun’s rays. The snow. This is where the woman from the Bay Area and I would have stopped. This is where she would have said something like, “Wow, it’s getting deep. I think I’ll turn around.” We would discuss this. But we don’t discuss this. Instead, she thinks it’s beautiful and great  exercise while my heart sinks into my gut as we stand aside for that line of mountain bikers I have never seen on this trail before.

Upon our parting, I hope upon hope the lake I am hiking to, at 7,000 feet, still exists. I love this lake. It is a part of me. I have never been able to hike to it in June sans snow; there has always been some. On the way, I pass by a littler lake, a dying lake. I figure by the end of July, it will be dried up. Even at only a couple of feet deep, it’s filled with life—whirligig beetles, water striders, larvae of mayflies, dobsonflies, and thousands of tadpoles. They don’t know any different, though maybe some of them won’t be able to adapt to how warm the water is. It feels like bathwater and it makes me sad. I’m not supposed to be able to put my feet in the water at all. This little lake should be covered in snow. And even if I did put my feet in the water, I’m not supposed to be able to leave them in it. I am supposed to scream, “Damn, it’s cold!” and pull them out, my skin all pink and numb.

I sit with my legs in the water and let the tears fall. Is it selfish of me to miss the former world, the one I grew up loving? Or am I crying because my sadness is just overwhelming? I feel angry. Am I obligated to love the human species if I am one? Why is my species doing this to other species? Why is this OK? Is it OK? My tears hit the warm water and dissolve away. I look down and a tadpole has arrived. It is investigating my toes. It wiggles up my leg then sits, nibbles, then sits. I can’t stop crying.

Here we are, two organisms, neither doing what we should be doing this time of year, and both doomed.

This article originally appeared in the Chico News and Review.

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Virginia Arthur is a field biologist and writer. Her most recent book is Birdbrain. She lives in northern California.

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