As wildfires continued taking their toll near Yosemite National Park in the fourth week of July, San Francisco Rec & Park officials closed Camp Mather, its City-run summer camp. As a result, McLaren Lodge administrators offered seasonal Mather employees an opportunity to come to Glen Park and work with its Natural Resource Division.
Six young men and women, five of whom are college students, took up the offer and on August 8 reported for duty in Glen Canyon. There they manned hand saws and loppers, circling a willow cloaked trail that loops around Islais Creek.
The morning began chilly but soon turned warm, minus the poor air quality they’d left behind at Camp Mather, which was last closed in 1990 because of fires.
Had they stayed, they would have seen 38,000 acres ablaze, sending plumes of smoke high into the Sierra skies.
Isao Kaji, a NRD gardener, supervised the half-a-dozen Sierra transplants.
“For us being so shorthanded as a staff,” he said, “its been great having them here.”
The workers performed routine trail maintenance, very much the sort of upkeep they’d be doing if forests near Mather hadn’t been hit by fire.
Overhanging arroyo willow contorted above the canyon trail. With loppers, the visitors removed twisting branches, some coated with lichen. They severed thicker boughs with hand saws. Bulbous one would have to await chain saws, which Kaji could only utilize when another NRD gardener was present.
Five Friends of Glen Park Canyon volunteers, Wednesday regulars, joined the newcomer detail.
While they worked a walker approached, assessing the manicured trail.
He doffed his cap and pointed to his forehead.
“See this dent,” he said, fingering his brow. “A year ago I made way for a group of women hikers. Wasn’t looking where I was going and hit a low lyer.”
The TDY Camp Mather temps were given a choice to cash in as the Ferguson Fire raged or take a flyer and travel to San Francisco. Fifteen of them did, now posted throughout the City. Six were assigned to NRD, two went to Silver Tree day camp while two were sent to the recently opened Rec Center rock climbing summer camp.
The decision was a no brainer for the six who now tackled encroaching willow. While Kaji supervised, they made undercuts to encroaching branches, stuffing them butt-first into the leaf duff adjoining to the creek.
A septuagenarian Friends volunteer walked up. Seventy-five-years-old, known for being accident prone, he could easily be taken for the grandfather of one the Mather workers.
“There’s a big one,” he informed Kaji, about a limb the size of Rocky Marciano’s bicep. “I’ll let you handle it.”
Kaji pointed to a Yosemite twenty-something. The limb became history.
The senior shuffled off, banging his head against a wooden offender up trail.
A Mather employee, a young woman who attends City College of San Francisco, had turned too late to prevent the accident-waiting-to-happen.
“You OK? she asked.
“Occupational hazard,” he answered.
Out of sight, the duffer rubbed his crown.
Dog walkers trailed by, Silver Tree summer campers single-filed along the canyon’s eastern slope, a jogger padded closer.
“We got a runner,” announced Kaji.
The Mather crew lowered their hand saws so that the points faced downward and laid their loppers aside while the man jogged safely past.
Before they were evacuated from Yosemite Valley a few on the detail hadn’t handled the tools of the NRD trade.
“Some were lifeguards, other were office workers,” said Kaji.
One lives in Noe Valley, one in the Mission, one attended Lick Wilmerding while two hail from Southern California. When their Glen Canyon gig for Rec & Park, which occupies six to eight hours a day, is over they’d head off to Sycracuse University, Scripts College, San Diego State and Humboldt State.
That is if they don’t get reassigned to Yosemite first, once protective measures such as removing brush along the valley roadways is completed.
“This is awesome,” said the Scripts College young woman, surveying the 70-acre natural areas under NRD stewardship. “Every city should have such a place,”
“Yeah,” said another Southern Californian, the young man heading for Humboldt State to take up environmental studies. “Team work meets green work.”
There was a collegial familiarity about them. Like they’d known one another for a while, which they had before they’d decamped from the Sierra smoky pall.
They’d car pooled to the canyon, and around 11:15 a.m. Kaji announced it was time to put up their tools.
They returned to the RPD truck, parked within eye sight of Silver Tree Summer Camp.
Kaji put out water in the flat bed along with Dixie cups. They drank, then stuffed themselves into their waiting Hondo CRV.
“We’ll go to downtown Glen Park,” one suggested. “Burritos yesterday. What’s for today?”
Kaji signaled them to hold up.
He laid two bags on the tailgate. Paul Newman’s Own. Chocolate chip and ginger snaps.
The detail spilled out of the station wagon, consumed the cookies, drowning them with draughts of water in a matter of minutes.
Yosemite was scheduled to reopen on August 14. In Glen Park, the early afternoon air was clear, not even a cloud in sight.
Neither was there smoke.