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Volunteering at Yosemite is a natural

Visitors who fall in love with the park may return to help preserve it for all.

By Sherry ShahanCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 4, 2009

Cyclists ride along a bike path on the floor of the Yosemite Valley in central California. Half Dome (4,737 ft. tall), looms in the background.

MCT/ Newscom

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Yosemite National Park, Calif.

A calmness spreads across Yosemite National Park. It's an hour before the sun will begin to peek over the famed 3,000-foot monolith El Capitan and warm the wings of butterflies. Nocturnal animals, such as mountain lions, coyotes, bobcats, and foxes, have begun to burrow in for the long day. Bears make their own hours.

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Behind the scenes, a special group of people is also preparing to greet the day. It takes a host of people working together to ensure that Yosemite remains in good shape for the host of native plants and animals that call it home.

Approximately 10,000 volunteers signed up to work in the park during 2008, says Heather Boothe, Yosemite's volunteer program manager for the National Park Service. Their donated hours – 155,500 – equaled the efforts of 75 full-time employees working year-round. That's especially important in a time of reduced budgets.

"Volunteers are the future of the park system," she says. "They become stewards who share their experiences with others in their community."

They spend as little as a half day or as much as 30 hours a week tackling jobs as diverse as restoring a riverbank, serving as archaeology field assistants, and guiding tours. In their spare time, they enjoy the beauty and grandeur of the park.

Paula McNerney of South Dakota first visited Yosemite in 1992 when she tackled the top of Half Dome, an all-day hike listed as extremely strenuous. "I fell in love with the park's grandeur and diversity," she says.

As a result of that experience, Ms. McNerney has volunteered one month each summer for the past four years. She's often posted at the kiosk near the Happy Isles Trailhead to answer questions from visitors.

When asked the most humorous question she's fielded, she smiles. " 'How long is the four-mile trail?' I get that one all the time," she answers. "No one has asked how Mist Trail got its name."

No wonder, since the granite stairway receives constant spray from Vernal Falls, one of many powerful waterfalls in the park. The Ahwahnichi Indians called it Yan-o-pah, or "Little Cloud," an apt name for the drizzle that blows across the trail all summer. Some hikers protect their cameras with a plastic bag that has a hole cut in it for the lens to peek through.

Mist Trail is one of the more popular day hikes in the park. The 600-plus steep steps follow moss-covered rocks and vibrant wildflowers, such as yarrow, penstemon, columbine, and so many others that it would exhaust the most ardent listmaker. Rainbows arc over the boulder-filled torrent.

At the top, the path spills onto a large, flat area with a railing-protected overlook. Just upstream from the lookout, Emerald Pool is the perfect spot to wring out that wet T-shirt and kick back with a handful of gorp.

Below, the Merced River appears to be a trickle. Yet between Nevada Falls above and Happy Isles the river picks up 500,000 horsepower. That's the strength of about 100 locomotives barreling down the track at 60 miles per hour.

The geology of the 1,200-square-mile park is largely what attracts millions of visitors each year. The Sierra Nevada mountain range is the biggest continuous block of granite on the planet – a rocky spine running 430 miles in length. It was formed about 10 million years ago.

How to become a Yosemite volunteer

•Yosemite Facelift (Sept. 23-27, 2009) is the park's biggest volunteer effort of the year. More than 2,000 people are expected from all over the world, to remove tens of thousands of pounds of debris. It's sponsored by the Yosemite Climbing Association, www.yosemiteclimbing.org.

•HaPY (Habitat Protectors of Yosemite) is a weekly drop-in program. Volunteers of all ages gather at 9 a.m. each Friday at the Tuolumne Visitor Center in Tuolumne Meadows and in front of the Valley Visitor Center in Yosemite Valley. You'll work from 9 a.m. until noon. For details, see www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/hapy.htm.

•The Yosemite Association (www.yosemite.org) has provided important services such as publishing park literature and providing outdoor classrooms since 1923. Find out about volunteer opportunities by calling (209) 379-2317 or e-mailing info@yosemite.org.

To learn about other volunteer park events, visit www.nps.gov/gettinginvolved/volunteer/opportunities.htm and follow the links to Yosemite. Contact the Yosemite Volunteer Program by phone: (209) 379-1850, or e-mail: yose_volunteers@nps.gov. Or see Yosemite Partners, www.yosemitepartners.org/getinvolved.html.

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