John Muir: Semi-Skinny Dipping Under Nevada Falls

Heaven knows that John the Baptist was not more eager to get all his fellow sinners into the Jordan than I to baptize all of mine in the beauty of God’s mountains.” John Muir

A glorious sunrise spread its warmth over the eastern Sierra and began melting the frost on our sleeping bags. The Biodesign students grabbed a light breakfast of a power-bar, tea and gorp and quickly repacked their backpacks preparing for a 10-mile-hike, down 5,000 feet, to their base camp at Yosemite Valley. It was a great day to be alive and the students were still basking in the afterglow of spending the night on top of Half Dome.

Several hours later we had hiked 6 miles and descended 3,500 feet next to a spot near the pool at the base of Nevada Falls. We were hot, tired, sweaty and dirty and the prospect of taking a refreshing dip in the chilly water was exciting. After climbing over some large boulders, we arrived at the inviting pool.

The students quickly took off their boots and socks and then, as if one of them had flashed a secret signal, they all stripped down to their underwear. My face flushed red with intense embarrassment and my mind frantically raced to find a solution to the chaotic, unplanned event. The guys were covered adequately by either boxers or briefs, however, some of the girls were wearing scanty, lacy garments that could have been purchased at Victoria Secret. Knowingly or not, the girls were demonstrating the principle of, “less is more,” and were exposing anatomical parts that were normally considered inappropriate for public display.

At the beginning of each new Class I shared the adage; “If you want to find out what kind of friend you have, take him/her camping and you’ll see.” The adage proved to be profoundly prophetic.

I tried to avoid looking at them and looked upward at the trees and sky. I too was hot, tired, sweaty and dirty and longed for a dip in the refreshing water, however the thought of frolicking in the water with nearly naked students was terrifying. I turned my back to them and hiked a short distance away from the pool, remaining close enough in case they needed my assistance.

As I sat in the shade of a tall fir tree, it seemed like they had mysteriously returned to the Garden of Eden, before Adam and Eve ate the apple and were enjoying their newfound freedom from clothing. I was grateful that they elected to keep their fig leaves on. Then a wave of fear surged through my body as I shuddered to imagine how parents, my principle, the superintendent of schools and school board members might respond to news of the semi-skinny dipping event.

After a very long 30 minutes, they emerged from the pool, put on their clothing, socks and boots and joined me and we returned to the trail back to base camp. The rest of the hike was uneventful and we returned to base camp and began preparations for the evening meal. Later, as we snuggled around the obligatory campfire, students eagerly shared reflections of their hike down the mountain. One of the girls proudly proclaimed,” While I was standing under the 600’  column of pounding water a lot more than my body was being washed. I have never felt cleaner in my life!”

Several years after I retired from teaching, I decided to pay homage to John Muir by trying to combine some of my favorite stories (that he inspired) into a book titled, Biodesign Out For A Walk. Of course, the “semi-skinny dipping” story emerged and not coincidentally connected my panicked response to Muir. 

Muir described everything he saw in Nature in meticulous detail. However, for me to follow his style would require me to describe images that would more likely appear in Playboy Magazine than in an essay about high school biology students interacting with Nature.

John Muir is widely regarded as the wildest of the world’s great naturalists. He was my primary mentor and because of him I experienced many extraordinary adventures in the wilderness. Even so, I doubt that neither Muir nor I (in our wildest dreams) could have imagined encountering a high school advanced biology class semi-skinny dipping in a Yosemite waterfall.

Author’s note:

Although the semi-skinny dipping spectacle seems hilarious now, at the time it was profoundly scary. I was married, with four kids to support and the possibility that I could have been fired for creating the circumstances leading to the event was very real.

Lowell H. Young
Author: Biodesign Out For A Walk

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