Mariposa & Yosemite

Yosemite ranger's fame is building

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK — Step into Ranger Shelton Johnson's outdoor theater. It was 19 degrees at snowy Ahwahnee Meadow recently, and he was speaking almost poetically about the stormy end of autumn.

"Last week, it looked like Vincent van Gogh had been here, painting the alders, Pacific dogwood, cottonwood and California black oak," he said. "Then on Monday, poof, the trees are covered in white.

"Many of our birds hit the road for the Caribbean and the Dominican Republic. That sounds pretty good to me right now."

Johnson, who grew up a city kid in Detroit, smiles at schoolchildren walking past him. They're mesmerized by Johnson and a big buck mule deer lying on the snow.

It doesn't matter if Johnson is describing a freezing storm or the history of national parks, he's an artist and a crowd-pleaser, as Public Broadcasting Service viewers learned in the fall.

The 51-year-old Yosemite ranger was a featured speaker in Ken Burns' acclaimed documentary "The National Parks: America's Best Idea." Johnson spoke eloquently about the concept of national parks, as well as Yosemite.

The students and other visitors at Yosemite on a Tuesday in early December didn't recognize him. Nobody asked for his autograph. But they might have flocked around him if they knew all his achievements this year.

Johnson's first book, "Glory- land," was published in September by Sierra Club Books. It is a fictional memoir of a black man, born in 1863, who became a Buffalo Soldier stationed in Yosemite in 1903.

Black troops served in the Southwest and Great Plains after the Civil War. Indians named these troops Buffalo Soldiers, some say, because their hair resembled the buffalo's coat.

In the fall, Johnson won the National Park Service's coveted Freeman Tilden Award for excellence in interpretation.

Johnson's higher profile has meant more travel time for book signings and a few interviews. He would like his book to be made into a film.

He wouldn't mind getting on the talk show circuit, he said, and would like a greater opportunity to speak for nature and national parks.

He has come a long way to land in front of national audiences and schoolchildren in Yosemite. He was a shy youngster who played the clarinet in high school. He later joined the Peace Corps in Liberia, then came back to the United States, looking for his niche.

From concession to ranger

He found it in Yellowstone National Park, where he first worked for the concession, then became a park ranger in 1987. Seven years later, he moved to Yosemite, where he became fascinated with the history of Buffalo Soldiers, who worked at the park in the early 1900s.

He put together a historical presentation called "Yosemi- te Through the Eyes of a Buffalo Soldier, 1904," in which he performs the role of a soldier from the time. His public persona was born.

In Yosemite earlier this month, he was just a park ranger, looking and sounding as if he were born to walk beneath the towering granite of Half Dome and El Capitan. He wasn't leading a tour, just taking a morning stroll with a reporter. But he still attracted attention.

A schoolgirl interrupted him to point out the buck deer, resting near a bare tree in the meadow.

"It's really beautiful," she said.

"I've never met an ugly deer," Johnson said. "That one looks particularly beautiful."

The encounter gave him the opportunity to explain why the deer would be lounging on snow. The animal was soaking up sunshine and conserving energy, waiting until it needed "a salad" — vegetation sticking out of the snow.

Winter is the most beautiful season, he said, but it is also the most dangerous for animals. Many live on the edge of starvation because there's a lack of vegetation to eat.

Bears avoid the issue by slipping into a state of leth- argy, Johnson said. They live on fat added to their bodies during the warmer months.

"Bears eat and eat and eat," he said. "There's never any guilt. Bears aren't critical of each other putting on a little weight. They're thrilled to get fat."

Some use snow for warmth

But many creatures simply adapt to the winter, he said. Some rodents live just below the surface of snow in about a 1-inch space created by melting and freezing within the snowpack.

Johnson said the phenomenon gives the rodents two skies — a snow sky above their living area and the real sky. The snow provides insulation from cold weather.

"I know it doesn't sound very warm, but the snowpack won't get much below 32 degrees," he said. "But when the ground is bare, it can become much colder. The snow acts like a blanket in winter."