The front desk at Yosemite National Park’s Wawona Hotel – the largest Victorian hotel in a national park – is flanked with white columns, making it look a bit like the veranda of a Southern mansion. But the woman working the daybreak shift at the desk in late April had anything but sunny climes on her mind. She frowned as she wrote the daily weather report on a board that visitors would consult throughout the day as they made their plans.
“Forty percent chance of snow,” she muttered.
Two workmen who had come inside to get coffee groaned loudly.
“Forty percent chance of snow over 8,000 feet,” she continued.
“Let’s just hope it stays up there,” one of the men said.
I was sipping an early cup of coffee on one of the Wawona lobby’s wicker chairs, savoring the early-morning quiet. My sister and I had had a fancy cocktail there the night before, enjoying the pianist singing Depression-era songs our mother once taught us and cocking our heads at the swirl of accents and languages from other travelers. But this morning, the piano was closed and draped with a cloth, the twin stone fireplaces were cold, and I was starting to worry that the weather report might thwart our Yosemite agenda.
I finally approached the woman at the front desk. “Do you think we’ll be able to see any frazil ice today?”
She quickly checked her list of temperatures and prognostications and shook her head. “It has to dip down to around 28 degrees at night for frazil ice to form.”
But my sister had assured me that it had been a cold spring, and I hoped—even if new frazil ice wasn’t forming this morning – that some might remain from previous cold days. That’s why we had come – that, and the fact that I was sure I was the only native Californian who hadn’t visited the glacier-carved wonder of Yosemite. Brass room key in hand, I went back to our cottage, woke my sister, and we began the drive through Yosemite Valley to Yosemite Falls.
Frazil ice is a phenomenon limited to spring, when the snow in Yosemite’s upper elevations melts and swells the volume of the park’s many waterfalls. The creeks below begin to surge with new vigor, but the air is still so cold that mist from the waterfalls freezes into crystals, which fall into the streams. They don’t melt and can’t solidify into solid sheets of ice in the fast-moving water, so they remain suspended in the water, forming a slurry. When this happens, the creeks behave like white, frothy lava flows, as clumps of frazil ice create temporary dams, forcing the creeks off course and even, sometimes, to run backward for a while.