Nature's Temple

Galen Clark

Galen Clark
Galen Clark at the base of a giant sequoia. Scholars believe this is likely the first photo of a giant sequoia, taken by C. E. Watkins in 1858 or 1859. Although Clark is given credit for the discovery of the Mariposa Grove he was not the first white man there. In 1849 giant sequoias in Mariposa County are supposed to have been observed by Major Burney, the first county sheriff, and John McCauley. Measurements were taken and reported in the town of Mariposa but they were considered just another “tall story” of those pioneer days.

Note: Galen Clark was Yosemite Valley’s first Guardian and an early pioneer. He became sick as a miner and his doctor advised he go to the mountains for his health, or he would soon die. He started a ranch in Wawona, which later became a hotel, which is still in service, and discovered nearby Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoia trees in 1857. When Yosemite Valley was set aside as a park in 1864, he became the first official Guardian of the Yosemite Grant in 1866, and taught others about the mysteries of the giant sequoias and worked tirelessly to protect, maintain and administer the grant. Revered as a host, a tour guide and a protector for most of his life, he was appointed again and again to this important office by different Boards of Commissioners. He was also a charter member of the Sierra Club. After delivering his book The Yosemite Valley to be printed, Clark caught a severe cold. He died shortly after, on March 24, 1910, in Oakland at the home of his daughter, Mrs. Elvira Lee, at the age of 96. In his 1912 book The Yosemite, John Muir devoted an entire chapter to his friendship with Clark, “the best mountaineer I ever met.”

Galen Clark was the best mountaineer I ever met, and one of the kindest and most amiable of all my mountain friends. I first met him at his Wawona ranch forty-three years ago on my first visit to Yosemite. I had entered the Valley with one companion by way of Coulterville, and returned by what was then known as the Mariposa trail. Both trails were buried in deep snow where the elevation was from 5000 to 7000 feet above sea level in the sugar pine and silver fir regions. We had no great difficulty, however, in finding our way by the trends of the main features of the topography. Botanizing by the way, we made slow, plodding progress, and were again about out of provisions when we reached Clark’s hospitable cabin at Wawona. He kindly furnished us with flour and a little sugar and tea, and my companion, who complained of the be-numbing poverty of a strictly vegetarian diet, gladly accepted Mr. Clark’s offer of a piece of a bear that had just been killed. After a short talk about bears and the forests and the way to the Big Trees, we pushed on up through the Wawona firs and sugar pines, and camped in the now-famous Mariposa grove.

Later, after making my home in the Yosemite Valley, I became well acquainted with Mr. Clark, while he was guardian. He was elected again and again to this important office by different Boards of Commissioners on account of his efficiency and his real love of the Valley.

Galen Clark
Galen Clark in front of the Grizzly Giant Tree, Mariposa Grove, Yosemite National Park, circa 1858-1859

Although nearly all my mountaineering has been done without companions, I had the pleasure of having Galen Clark with me on three excursions. About thirty-five years ago I invited him to accompany me on a trip through the Big Tuolumne Cañon from Hetch Hetchy Valley. The cañon up to that time had not been explored, and knowing that the difference in the elevation of the river at the head of the cañon and in Hetch Hetchy was about 5000 feet, we expected to find some magnificent cataracts or falls; nor were we disappointed. When we were leaving Yosemite an ambitious young man begged leave to join us. I strongly advised him not to attempt such a long, hard trip, for it would undoubtedly prove very trying to an inexperienced climber. He assured us, however, that he was equal to anything, would gladly meet every difficulty as it came, and cause us no hindrance or trouble of any sort. So at last, after repeating our advice that he give up the trip, we consented to his joining us. We entered the cañon by way of Hetch Hetchy Valley, each carrying his own provisions, and making his own tea, porridge, bed, etc.

In the morning of the second day out from Hetch Hetchy we came to what is now known as “Muir Gorge,” and Mr. Clark without hesitation prepared to force a way through it, wading and jumping from one submerged boulder to another through the torrent, bracing and steadying himself with a long pole. Though the river was then rather low, the savage, roaring, surging song it was ringing was rather nerve-trying, especially to our inexperienced companion. With careful assistance, however, I managed to get him through, but this hard trial, naturally enough, proved too much and he informed us, pale and trembling, that he could go no farther. I gathered some wood at the upper throat of the gorge, made a fire for him and advised him to feel at home and make himself comfortable, hoped he would enjoy the grand scenery and the songs of the water-ouzels which haunted the gorge, and assured him that we would return some time in the night, though it might be late, as we wished to go on through the entire cañon if possible. We pushed our way through the dense chaparral and over the earthquake taluses with such speed that we reached the foot of the upper cataract while we had still an hour or so of daylight for the return trip. It was long after dark when we reached our adventurous, but nerve-shaken companion who, of course, was anxious and lonely, not being accustomed to solitude, however kindly and flowery and full of sweet bird-song and stream-song. Being tired we simply lay down in restful comfort on the river bank beside a good fire, instead of trying to go down the gorge in the dark or climb over its high shoulder to our blankets and provisions, which we had left in the morning in a tree at the foot of the gorge. I remember Mr. Clark remarking that if he had his choice that night between provisions and blankets he would choose his blankets.

The next morning in about an hour we had crossed over the ridge through which the gorge is cut, reached our provisions, made tea, and had a good breakfast. As soon as we had returned to Yosemite I obtained fresh provisions, pushed off alone up to the head of Yosemite Creek basin, entered the cañon by a side cañon, and completed the exploration up to the Tuolumne Meadows.

It was on this first trip from Hetch Hetchy to the upper cataracts that I had convincing proofs of Mr. Clark’s daring and skill as mountaineer, particularly in fording torrents, and in forcing his way through thick chaparral. I found it somewhat difficult to keep up with him in dense, tangled brush, though in jumping on boulder taluses and slippery cobble-beds I had no difficulty in leaving him behind.

After I had discovered the glaciers on Mount Lyell and Mount McClure, Mr. Clark kindly made a second excursion with me to assist in establishing a line of stakes across the McClure glacier to measure its rate of flow. On this trip we also climbed Mount Lyell together, when the snow which covered the glacier was melted into upleaning, icy blades which were extremely difficult to cross, not being strong enough to support our weight, nor wide enough apart to enable us to stride across each blade as it was met. Here again I, being lighter, had no difficulty in keeping ahead of him. While resting after wearisome staggering and falling he stared at the marvelous ranks of leaning blades, and said, “I think I have traveled all sorts of trails and cañons, through all kinds of brush and snow, but this gets me.”

Galen Clark
Galen Clark at the Wawona Tree. Wrote Clark, in his book, The Lore and the Lure of the Yosemite: ‘The Wawona tree, photographed and known throughout the world, with a ten-foot roadway cut through its base, is very unique, and here the visitor may linger for a picture to carry home in memory of the golden moments spent in this grove of majestic beauty.’

Mr. Clark at my urgent request joined my small party on a trip to the Kings River Yosemite by way of the high mountains, most of the way without a trail. He joined us at the Mariposa Big Tree grove and intended to go all the way, but finding that, on account of the difficulties encountered, the time required was much greater than he expected, he turned back near the head of the north fork of the Kings River.

In cooking his mess of oatmeal porridge and making tea, his pot was always the first to boil, and I used to wonder why, with all his skill in scrambling through brush in the easiest way, and preparing his meals, he was so utterly careless about his beds. He would lie down anywhere on any ground, rough or smooth, without taking pains even to remove cobbles or sharp-angled rocks protruding through the grass or gravel, saying that his own bones were as hard as any stones and could do him no harm.

His kindness to all Yosemite visitors and mountaineers was marvelously constant and uniform. He was not a good business man, and in building an extensive hotel and barns at Wawona, before the travel to Yosemite had been greatly developed, he borrowed money, mortgaged his property and lost it all.

Though not the first to see the Mariposa Big Tree grove, he was the first to explore it, after he had heard from a prospector, who had passed through the grove and who gave him the indefinite information, that there were some wonderful big trees up there on the top of the Wawona hill and that he believed they must be of the same kind that had become so famous and well-known in the Calaveras grove farther north. On this information, Galen Clark told me, he went up and thoroughly explored the grove, counting the trees and measuring the largest, and becoming familiar with it. He stated also that he had explored the forest to the southward and had discovered the much larger Fresno grove of about two square miles, six or seven miles distant from the Mariposa grove. Unfortunately most of the Fresno grove has been cut and flumed down to the railroad near Madera.

Mr. Clark was truly and literally a gentle-man. I never heard him utter a hasty, angry, fault-finding word. His voice was uniformly pitched at a rather low tone, perfectly even, although lances of his eyes and slight intonations of his voice often indicated that something funny or mildly sarcastic was coming, but upon the whole he was serious and industrious, and, however deep and fun-provoking a story might be, he never indulged in boisterous laughter.


A letter from Galen Clark to John Muir
A letter from Galen Clark to John Muir, March 11, 1885. The full text: Dear Sire I learned from Mr. Stegman the express agent here, that the box of things, which I sent the next day after you left Yosemite, was delayed some where enroute and I suppose that all the living plants and shanks? must have died from want of attention. Now if I can be of any service to you in assisting to get you more this season, I shall be glad to do so. Please write me and let me know what you would like and I will attend to it. We have had a very mild open winter here. There has not been more than about six or seven inches of snow at any one time here and none at all in the vally for over a month, and no storm of any kind for near two months The mercury in thermonete has been but little below freezing point at any time for six weeks, A little ice was scoured in the fore part of January, but not half enough for the needs of the valley. A Party of tourists? came in some ten days since in stage via Mariposa, only about a mile of snow in the route There are some forty persons big and little wintering here we have had no sickness and all are anxiously waiting for business to start up. I would like to hear from you. How you and Mrs Muir and the little boy are. With kindest regard to Mrs Muir and letters written in different hand on letter yourself I am as ever Your Friend Galen Clark

He was very fond of scenery and once told me after I became acquainted with him that he liked “nothing in the world better than climbing to the top of a high ridge or mountain and looking off.” He preferred the mountain ridges and domes in the Yosemite regions on account of the wealth and beauty of the forests. Often times he would take his rifle, a few pounds of bacon, a few pound of flour, and a single blanket and go off hunting, for no other reason than to explore and get acquainted with the most beautiful points of view within a journey of a week or two from his Wawona home. On these trips he was always alone and could indulge in tranquil enjoyment of Nature to his heart’s content. He said that on those trips, when he was a sufficient distance from home in a neighborhood where he wished to linger, he always shot a deer, sometimes a grouse, and occasionally a bear. After diminishing the weight of a deer or bear by eating part of it, he carried as much as possible of the best of the meat to Wawona, and from his hospitable well-supplied cabin no weary wanderer ever went away hungry or unrested.

The value of the mountain air in prolonging life is well exemplified in Mr. Clark’s case. While working in the mines he contracted a severe cold that settled on his lungs and finally caused severe inflammation and bleeding, and none of his friends thought he would ever recover. The physicians told him he had but a short time to live. It was then that he repaired to the beautiful sugar pine woods at Wawona and took up a claim, including the fine meadows there, and building his cabin, began his life of wandering and exploring in the glorious mountains about him, usually going bare-headed. In a remarkably short time his lungs were healed.

He was one of the most sincere tree-lovers I ever knew. About twenty years before his death he made choice of a plot in the Yosemite cemetery on the north side of the Valley, not far from the Yosemite Fall, and selecting a dozen or so of seedling sequoias in the Mariposa grove he brought them to the Valley and planted them around the spot he had chosen for his last rest. The ground there is gravelly and dry; by careful watering he finally nursed most of the seedlings into good, thrifty trees, and doubtless they will long shade the grave of their blessed lover and friend.











From The Yosemite, by John Muir

Free EBook available at Project Gutenberg



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