Debbie Croft: How Yosemite celebrates, Part 1

Upon entering Yosemite National Park, no fireworks fill the sky, no fanfare plays to announce your arrival to its grand outdoor spaces. The only reception is nature’s beauty, majestic and serene, stretching for miles in expansive display.

The park on Oct. 1 welcomed approximately 1,500 people to its birthday party. Many of the visitors held umbrellas or wore plastic ponchos. With the weather forecast predicting rain, park staff brought in clear plastic tents to protect some of those in attendance.

But no one minded the rain. I mean, really, what better birthday gift could the Creator give to his drought-parched creation?

Tom Bopp played a keyboard and serenaded those waiting with fun, historic songs the listeners could join in on.

“Isn’t this a lovely day to be caught in the rain?” he sang.

Bopp has been a Wawona fixture since 1983, entertaining hotel guests nightly.

Scott Gediman, Yosemite public affairs officer, opened the program. Looking out on those assembled, he saw a whole lot of school kids holding up hand-painted signs and banners.

Then he welcomed them with: “There are 400 national parks – all owned by you, the American people.”

The Yosemite National Park Mounted Patrol presented the colors, and Grace Flanagan of Mariposa County High School sang the national anthem.

Gediman extended a big shout-out to the Yosemite region students who worked on preparations for the ceremony.

Frank Dean, president of the Yosemite Conservancy, and Dan Jensen, president/CEO of Delaware North at Yosemite Inc., presented the Yosemite region schools with checks made available through grant funds provided by local hotels.

Visitors were also greeted in the Southern Sierra Miwuk dialect, and Les James of the American Indian Council of Mariposa County Inc. spoke and gave a blessing.

“The highlight of the day for me was seeing so many students learning about the history and taking in the breathtaking sights,” said Ashley Mayer of Yosemite’s public affairs office. “Seeing their excitement and watching them fall in love with Yosemite was an experience I will not soon forget.”

Hundreds of students from the area and the Central Valley attended. Fourth-grader Xyann Runfola and her friend Sarah Sifuentes ate cake while telling about their experience. Xyann’s mom, Bleu, chaperoned her daughter’s Indianola Elementary School class from Selma.

“Mom, can you believe Sarah’s been to Hollywood, but never to Yosemite?” Xyann said.

Another highlight arrived with an official escort: Gabriel Lavan-Ying, honorary YNP ranger. Through Make-A-Wish Central California, this 8-year-old’s dream came true. He and his family were given a trip to Yosemite, and he spent a week last summer as a ranger.

“His wish day was truly one of the best days of my career,” Gediman said. “In watching him become a park ranger – putting out a fire, conducting a search-and-rescue operation, leading a nature walk – he was focused, happy, determined and ‘in the moment.’ It filled my heart with joy more than words can express.”

Because the park staff didn’t want his duties to end with his wish day, they helped form “Team Ranger Gabriel” and raised $14,000 for other kids to have their wishes granted. “Ranger Gabriel” also visited several other national parks, met NPS Director Jon Jarvis and was interviewed on radio and television.

Gediman suggested bringing Ranger Gabriel back this year as honorary chairman for Yosemite’s 125th birthday celebrations, including a kickoff in March.

“He came back as a veteran park ranger, received a plaque and spent time with local schools leading nature walks and ranger activities,” Gediman said.

Ranger Gabriel said he has two more goals for his life: starring in a reality TV show and becoming park superintendent of Yosemite.

Read more about his story at

During the ceremony, Ranger Gabriel and Yosemite Superintendent Don Neubacher presented free park entrance passes to fourth-graders, as part of a new White House initiative. Details are available at

And Lee Stetson gave a presentation as John Muir, reminding us of the treasures found in Yosemite: “Where I can wander free as the air, where a flower is born every day, and it always feels like home.”

To be continued next week.

(Corrections to last week’s column: James Beckwourth was a contemporary of Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, not John Beckwourth, and it was Pocahontas’ great-grandson who had eight children, not her son.)

Debbie Croft writes about life in the foothill communities. Follow her on Twitter @ghostowngal or email her at