by Peter Scott
Photo: Peter Scott
Back in 1993, in late October, while Celia and I were leaning against a comfortable granite rock in the Wawona campground not far from the banks of the South Fork of the Merced River, I wrote in our journal:
Among our most prized possessions are a pair of drinking cups. We take them with us when we go backpacking in the mountains. From afar, they look like Sierra Club cups.
They have that handy shape, invented many decades ago by some ingenious Sierra Clubber who wanted a durable cup that not only could be readily available for dipping cool fresh water from a mountain stream, but also large enough to eat a meal from, with a handle that would remain cool even when the cup was filled with the hottest stew or soup.
Our cups are not "Sierra Club" cups, however. Instead of having the words "Sierra Club" stamped on the bottom (the oldest ones say "Sierra Club of California"), there is a wonderful outline of a Water Ouzel, or Dipper, a small gray bird that was celebrated by John Muir. Encircling the image of the bird are the words "Watershed Dipper–Alaska to Mexico." They were created over four decades ago by the visionary John Olmsted to help with the promotion of his "California Institute of Man in Nature."
We speak fondly of these cups. They have been dipped into many a mountain stream to carry that sweet Sierra wine to our thirsty lips, and at supper times, served us countless delicious hot meals.
While sitting here by the banks of the stream, thinking of those memorable times, suddenly a miracle: We heard the unmistakable call of the Water Ouzel. And there he was, the little gray bird, flying characteristically down the middle of the burbling stream. Just as suddenly, he stopped to stand on a rock to do his exercises— little deep knee bends.
We identified with that bird. This was his home, with property lines remarkably well-defined by the edges of the stream. Never did he venture more than a foot or so beyond the stream edge. This was his property, not because he purchased the deed and title with a loan from the Bank of America, but because he was born there. This was his niche. Later we watched with vicarious pleasure as he and his mate flew together upstream, twirling in delicate maneuvers about each other, and later still we watched as he submerged himself completely in a burbling eddy, perhaps hunting for morsels on the stream bottom, then re-emerging a few feet farther down the stream, and finally hopping up on a rock— more quick knee-bends, as if to curtsy for our appreciation of his performance.
If I were the Ouzel, I thought, I would want to preserve my property rights, and want my stream kept flowing with fresh pure water.
Thereafter, whenever we used our Watershed Dippers we were reminded of our experience of sitting by the stream and watching those birds.
However, two years later, there was tragedy: One night, a burglar broke into the room above our garage and took a backpack, some blankets, our tent and numerous other items, including, alas, our prized pair of Watershed Dippers. It was a sad day. I called John Olmsted in Nevada City to see if we might replace them, but it was too late. He had no more, and no longer had the die from which they had been made.
Then this spring, over sixteen years after the loss of our dear cups, an article appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle about the closing of 70 of our State Parks— part of the plan to balance our state budget. An effort by one man had been launched to prevent the closing of the parks. That man was Alden Olmsted, the son of John Olmsted. John had recently passed away, and Alden's idea, as a fitting memorial to his father, was to collect one-dollar contributions from park visitors, so we mailed a contribution to Alden.
Shortly thereafter, a miracle: A small package arrived in our mailbox, with a return address of a person we did not know, in Occidental in Sonoma County. Curious as to what it might be, I opened the package to find, much to my surprise and delight, a Watershed Dipper! There was no note, just the cup, but that cup spoke all.
We are planning some trips to the Sierras later this summer, and for sure, our new cup will keep us alive, both with food and drink and nostalgic memories.