ENP 19.2 Yosemite: Curious Characters in Nature - Parasitic Plants, Psychedelic Salamanders, And A Yodeling Ranger
09/23/2019If you tend to go it alone when visiting the parks, Danielle’s conversation with Yosemite National Park Ranger Erik Westerlund will entice you to seek out ranger-led activities and possibly even take a crack at yodelling.
Erik Westerlund teaching. Photo credit: NPS
Erik Westerlund is one of the most knowledgeable and passionate ambassadors you’ll ever encounter on Yosemite’s trails. A park naturalist since 1992, he’s been known to take backcountry hikes with an eight-pound copy of An Illustrated Flora of Yosemite National Park at the ready. His encyclopedic mind is filled to the brim with information on the park’s vast plant population. From Western Wallflowers to the Western Azalea, the weirdly wonderful Snow Plant to blueberries and cranberries, there isn’t a leaf he hasn’t overturned — and then some. “I'm really getting into the fungus and finding mushrooms,” he says. “So, if you’re going for a walk with me, that’s the sort of stuff that we’re going to try to bring out.”
Westerlund teaching in the field. Photo credit: NPSThat “stuff” includes Yosemite’s animal inhabitants as well. While bears and deer understandably enjoy top billing with visitors, Erik’s mission is to encourage a deeper appreciation for the park’s little creatures. Hummingbirds and squirrels can be every bit as interesting as the big mammals. Case in point, the Mount Lyell salamander. “My prized book possession is called Animal Life In The Yosemite... One of the highlights of that whole book was this little salamander. And if you startled one of these salamanders, they will roll into a ball and roll down the hill.”
But a nature walk with Erik isn’t all bullet-point facts. He’s fond of performance tools more akin to a seasoned vaudeville performer than a scholarly park ranger. “I love pop culture references. Any way I can engage whoever I’m with, connecting the plants, the animals, the bugs to a pop culture reference is always fun.”
Ranger Erik Westerlund uses artist Charley Harper's "The Sierra Range" poster to explore Yosemite's flora and fauna. Photo credit: Yosemite ConservancyHis effusiveness is routinely on display at Yosemite Theatre where he hosts Creative Fusion: Exploring the Nature of the Sierra Nevada. But you’ll most likely catch him out on a hike teaching through impersonations, songs, impromptu mini-dramas, and riddles. And, if you’re very lucky, you might even find yourself aboard Erik’s popular tram tour, yodelling as you take in Yosemite’s stunning seasonal beauty.
Ready to plan your own Yosemite adventure? Be sure to check out our Trip Report in episode 19.1 and our upcoming episodes in this series including conversations on President Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir’s famous 1903 camping trip, the Buffalo Soldiers’ legacy, photographer Ansel Adams, mountain climbing and more.
Charley Harper's Sierra Range poster, 1990. Photo credit: The Charley Harper GalleryDiscussion includes the following:
Snow plantErik Westerlund leading a nature walk. Photo credit: NPS
- Ranger Erik’s journey from department store clerk to naturalist at Yosemite with stops along the way at Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center and Keystone Science School. Erik also provides a helpful definition for the word naturalist [3:03]
- Turning people on to the wonders of Yosemite with songs and some silliness [4:39]
- Ranger Erik gets a little in-episode yodelling participation from your host [7:15]
- The distinctive artwork of Charley Harper and the show it inspired: Creative Fusion: Exploring the Nature of the Sierra Nevada at the Yosemite Theatre (Tip: If you or your children love I Spy games or Where’s Waldo, Ranger Erik suggests taking a closer look at Charley Harper’s National Parks posters) [10:50]
- Phenology or observing Yosemite’s seasons like a naturalist [17:35]
- Themed walks for every interest: flora to fauna and Native AmErikan history to pioneer stories [20:24]
- Summer: High season on the valley floor vs the park’s higher altitudes [21:30]
- Autumn: Changing colors and smaller crowds [22:58]
- Winter: Paradise for photographers and winter sports enthusiasts [24:20]
- Spring: Waterfalls and where to find gorgeous wildflower blooms (they’re not where you might expect) [28:52]
- The spectacular, psychedelic scarlet-red snow plant and the best place to spot it [31:11]
- Hummingbirds and Yosemite nature notes [34:26]
- The Mount Lyell salamander and Ensatina salamander [36:06]
- Biologist E.O. Wilson, an Ensatina salamander, and family star in Ranger Erik’s favorite Yosemite memory [41:20]