Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Trapped in Yosemite National Park!

OK, Yosemite National Park in central California is a pure paradise, a Garden of Eden, a  Shangri-La.
However, myself and three family members were trapped there overnight on April 22, 2012 and it was not a pleasant experience, not being prepared for an overnight stay, or having a bed or any bedding.
A huge sulphur spill just outside the south gate to Yosemite closed Highway 41 completely for some 36 hours and created a problem for hundreds of visitors.
We missed booking the last room in the historic Wawona Hotel, on south side of Yosemite, and had to crash in the lobby there  overnight. (The alternative was driving some four hours on winding canyon roads in the dark -- on  moonless night -- to get back to Bass Lake, where we were staying.)
Several dozen other guests were in the same boat, as the 40 vacant rooms in the Wawona had went quickly.
But a good night’s sleep you did not get and my mother with Alzheimer’s was particularly a problem. (But I guess we stayed free and saved the $165-plus hotel cost.)
Wawona is only 7 miles from the Yosemite Park gate and the spill just outside that gate at 5 p.m. on April 22 started several small fires and the cleanup kept the road closed until the morning of April 24.
No one ever explained why such hazardous materials were being transported through a national park and on such a winding, narrow road.
Also, this experience again shows that America’s National Parks are simply not prepared for any kind of disaster. All national parks appear to lack any kind of emergency communication systems.
For example, this  sulphur spill happened at 5 p.m. and when I left Yosemite Valley after 8:30 p.m., there was no ranger, no system in place to tell anyone the road was closed one hour’s drive away!
Drivers had to fend for themselves and discover the road closure on their own. I guess I expect more in this high-tech world of communications.
Wawona Hotel employees said in at least a decade, even snowstorms had not closed Highway 41 before so completely and so long term.
Wawona employees did the best they could, but even this hotel appeared to have no official emergency plan in place to deal with the situation.
Couldn’t Yosemite have placed a park ranger with a flasher at the south tunnel leaving Yosemite along Highway 41 to tell motorists of what was an hour ahead? It could have, but it didn’t.
Now I could have had some emergency things along in the car, but who would expect such a closure?
I counted at least 40 cars that turned around and headed back to Yosemite and exited a different gate late that evening. They all drove some 2 hours out of their way just to exit the park. Most had to be headed for Oakhurst or beyond and so they had a longer drive ahead after leaving the park.
I felt such a drive when it was such a dark, moonless night and I was so tired was simply not a wise choice. And, the chance of animals on the road was a possibility too.
The others, like me and my group, stayed at Wawona, probably another 40-plus vehicles. And, they all had to depart Yosemite the next day a different direction, with the south entrance still closed.
Ironically this road closure happened during the annual free admission to national parks weekend.
If there was a much larger disaster in Yosemite, the park’s communications are sorely  lacking.
Ideally, if Yosemite had 4 or so electronic message signs placed around the park, these could quickly alert drivers at any one of the four exits to the park of any problems ahead.
This was the SECOND time in 22 months that I’ve seen big gaps in National Park communications.
In mid-June of 2010, I entered the north gate of Yellowstone National Park one morning and  headed  an hour-plus drive  away for Tower Junction. When I reached Tower, the road southward was blocked.
An ice storm overnight had iced the road and so it was closed until mid-afternoon, when the sun had  melted the ice.
The park ranger at the north gate was not told anything about this closure  and once again, visitors had to fend for themselves.

I lost hours in unnecessary travel time that day.
The director of the National Parks System needs to realize how both Yosemite and Yellowstone have no emergency communications plans in place. They are some of the most popular and largest in all the parks system and so if they are lacking, likely every other national park is too.

UPDATE: My mother came down with bacterial pneumonia a week and a half after her trapped in Yosemite experience. She'll survive and I can't be sure that one bad night weakened her, but it certainly didn't help her.
SECOND UPDATE: The park superintendent finally responded to my plight, but stressed that rangers are too busy saving lives of climbers/hikers and the like in Yosemite to worry at all about road closures.

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