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It’s now 8 years since we visited the USA with our children to see my brother and his family. At the time our girls were 7 and 4 years old. We flew to San Francisco, California and took a trip for a few nights to Yosemite. We booked into a motel near El Portal. It was August and very hot.
It’s Snowing Ash!
When we pulled up at the hotel it was immediately obvious that something was wrong. We stepped out of the car and our clothing began to be covered in large white flecks. There was a distinct smell of smoke on the breeze and ash was falling like snow at quite a rate all around. We couldn’t see a fire and went to check in.
The hotel staff said that a prescribed burn of the forest was underway In Big Meadow to the west. Within just two hours it had got out of control. Communication from the authorities was very good, and we were told that there was no danger. Although some areas in the north-west of the park had been closed, we could continue with our visit. So we did.
It wasn’t ideal. Over the next couple of days we explored the park in the car and on foot but in most areas above the valley floor, there was a smoke cloud. Yosemite is famous for its views and mighty vistas, but a lot of the time it was like looking through a foggy window. At the time this was the biggest disaster in the history of the park and the biggest uncontrolled forest fire recorded there.
You can see smoke in all these photos.
My Camera Breaks Down
My camera was misbehaving. I was using a fairly average lens, the 17 to 85mm EOS on a crop frame Canon DSLR. It wouldn’t focus, the aperture wouldn’t stop down and there was big spot on the sensor. Even worse my darling husband wouldn’t really believe me either. The more I struggled to take pictures, the more my kids got impatient, the more we all became fraught. To give my husband his credit, he was keeping kids calm and couldn’t give me his full attention.
Yosemite is stunning and is the one place where you really do not want to have a camera failure or an obscuring smoke cloud. It was ruddy annoying. I gave up trying to take shots like Ansel Adams and just captured what I could of our family time.
I do have one tip for taking photos in smoky conditions which is to use a polarizing filter. It cut out quite a lot of the haze and I think that is because ash is a more angular substance than water droplets. So it’s possible to turn the polarizer to obscure some of the sunlight which reflects on the particles.
On the way back to El Portal on the first day, we saw the forest fire on the hillside opposite us. It was an astonishing sight. It was the biggest ball of flame I have ever seen in my life. We couldn’t stop right there so my photo is taken from a much lower altitude and you can’t see the mass of orange. We told the hotel staff what we had seen and they were startled that the fire had got so close. They checked with the authorities that we were going to be ok and thankfully we were.
Making a Family Visit to Yosemite
Yosemite is a natural park with a strong environmental emphasis. It is popular with thousands of visitors so the authorities are very keen on promoting recycling and the preservation of the habitat. There are no adventure playgrounds or strings of diners and shops. There are cafes and toilets and little museums and displays. There’s also a road train which tours the valley floor.
Our girls really did enjoy it. There were rocks to climb and streams to paddle in. There were impressive waterfalls and we looked through binoculars at rock climbers a mile high on El Capitan. We saw impossibly large redwood trees. It was all very enthralling for the whole family. The girls grabbed our compact cameras and took hundreds of blurry shots. This just proved to us how impressed they were with the views, because they were attempting to record it. It’s true they didn’t have patience to wait for me to take MY photos, but hey …. I just had to snap stuff from a moving car. Not ideal either!
Getting That One Photo
The one photo that I really wanted was a picture for the mantelpiece of our whole family in front of one of Yosemite’s impressive views. At Glacier point with Half Dome behind us, we found the ideal spot. But I needed to collar someone to take our photo. Suddenly, someone overheard our English accents and exclaimed “oh my gosh you’re English! My wife loves those princes of yours”. He was off on one. I felt completely exhausted listening to him chatter happily about our Englishness and how we probably knew the Royal family personally. (I didn’t have to say much, I just nodded in agreement every now and again). After ten minutes he walked away and I let him go without asking for help with the photo. I felt quite drained.
Discovering My British Reserve
I would have to approach someone to take our family photo and it became clear that a timid “er excuse me, would you mind terribly” was not going to cut it. For the first time ever, I understood that I had British Reserve. It was a moment of true self-discovery to realise this.
Summoning every scrap of exuberance I could, I approached a nearby couple. “Hi, isn’t that a great view? I say, would you mind just taking a photo of us?” I said many other things too which I don’t remember and kept up the chatter in a very non-British style. They were a bit slow to agree but that turned out to be because they had just walked 3 miles uphill. We got the photo, smoke cloud, Half Dome and all. It never went on the mantelpiece; I was too disappointed with the smoke. And I still cringe when I think about that unnatural conversation!
California is a very long way to go with small children but we were lucky that the journey went smoothly. Some friends got stuck there recently for 24 hours after visiting Yosemite because their flight was delayed. Sometimes you can claim compensation for a flight delay, perhaps take a look at Flight Delay Claims 4U.
More on California on this blog: Palm Springs, a Cultural Escape in the California Desert
You can see a shot of the Big Meadow fire looking how I remember it in this newspaper report.
Read about our cultural experiences in New York in the Travel category of this blog.
More photography tips can be found in the Photography category too.
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