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After years of living and working in Yosemite, Emily Brosk joined the Conservancy team in 2019 as our El Portal warehouse coordinator and took on a new role as director of our volunteer programs in early 2020. Since starting with the Conservancy, and especially over the past several months, Emily has, to quote a colleague, “worn a hundred hats,” including as creative champion of our multifaceted volunteer program, Preventive Search and Rescue star, morale booster, technology whiz, and much more. In this guest post, Emily reflects on the surprises, trials and successes of the 2020 season.

Way back in February, it was looking like 2020 would shape up to be a solid year for our volunteer program. That month, a group of dedicated volunteers donated their time to help direct traffic and assist visitors who had come to the park to see the fleeting Horsetail Fall (the ephemeral waterfall on the east side of El Capitan, sometimes called the natural Firefall — or the Firewall when the water isn’t flowing). After waving goodbye to that crew, we got to work reviewing applications for our summer volunteer season.

A Yosemite Conservancy volunteer offers guidance at the Valley Visitor Center in 2019 (pre-pandemic). Photo: Yosemite Conservancy/Mark Marschall.

Our volunteer information assistants – or “blue shirts,” in Yosemite shorthand – are normally on hand throughout the busy summer season to help visitors at key locations in the park, including Yosemite Village, the Mariposa Grove Welcome Plaza and Tuolumne Meadows. They answer questions, offer directions and guidance, and help people learn more about Yosemite.

While our monthlong information assistants are helping visitors, the Conservancy’s work week volunteers donate time to help with habitat and trail restoration. They’ve helped remove invasive plants from park meadows, planted pollinator-friendly flowers in the Valley, worked on a new climbers’ approach trail at the base of El Capitan, and much more.

Yosemite Conservancy work week volunteers clear brush on a high country trail in August 2019. Photo: Yosemite Conservancy/Mark Marschall.

By early March, we had matched hundreds of people with opportunities, including about 120 information assistants and 230 work week volunteers. But within a few weeks, we had been uprooted from our offices and were sheltering in our homes as the COVID-19 pandemic spread throughout the country. It was soon apparent that 2020 would be a very challenging year. Over the next few weeks and months, we polished our crystal balls and made difficult but necessary decisions to cancel all our volunteer programs for the rest of the year.

This was a huge blow to our volunteers, some of whom have been volunteering together for decades — but, as usual, they made the best of it.  We tried to keep our outstanding volunteers connected with Yosemite and with one another by hosting virtual tours for them. Multiple times over the summer, I headed to  Cook’s Meadow and, with a mobile WiFi hot spot and a laptop computer, gave our volunteers live views of this strange season in the park: free-flowing traffic, available parking spaces, bone-dry Yosemite Falls, smoky skies and ash-covered Half Dome, and so much active wildlife!  With fewer people and cars in the park this year, I saw animals roaming, foraging and hunting in their natural habit more openly than usual.

While we didn’t have any volunteers this year, we were still committed to supporting visitor services in the park, especially Preventive Search and Rescue (PSAR). The park’s PSAR program is designed to help people avoid preventable accidents by reinforcing key safety messages, such as encouraging hikers to avoid swift water and slippery rocks.

PSAR selfie! Emily Brosk, Yosemite Conservancy’s volunteer programs director, shows off a sign encouraging people to hike a loop, rather than out and back, to and from Vernal and Nevada falls.

Normally, a rotating crew of Conservancy volunteers supports PSAR throughout the busy season. This year, I and fellow Conservancy employees stepped in to staff the PSAR stations on the Mist Trail.

Cassie May, a Conservancy program coordinator, offers guidance to hikers at a PSAR station on the Mist Trail. Photo: NPS.

Our team worked with PSAR from July 4 through the end of September, a total of 70 days interrupted only by another park closure due to wildfire smoke and hazardous air quality.  With a mixture of six staff members and three local volunteers, we interacted with more than 10,000 visitors and shared the “Hike Smart” safety messages (which include reminders to stay hydrated, yield to uphill hikers, and take breaks). Our PSAR work also included COVID-19 precautions: We wore face masks, regularly sanitized the water fountain by the Vernal Fall footbridge, and reminded people about the one-way guidance that was in place to help hikers stay a safe distance apart on the Mist Trail.

Our lead naturalist, Cory Goehring, was one of several staff members who pitched in to support PSAR. Along with helping hikers, the PSAR team made sure the water fountain at the Vernal Fall footbridge was cleaned regularly. Photo: NPS.

Most of the visitors didn’t realize that many of the trail attendants from whom they were getting safety messages and trip planning suggestions were people with decades of professional Yosemite experience, including some of our most seasoned interpretive naturalists!

Even though we weren’t able to welcome our usual hundreds of volunteers to Yosemite this year, I was blown away by their outpouring of understanding, support and clear passion for the park. It was inspirational to hear from so many of the people who had applied to donate their time, to see the level of commitment they have for Yosemite, and to be reminded of the close connections many of our longtime volunteers have made with one another over the years. I have no doubt that dedication will help propel us into a successful 2021!

While we don’t know for certain what the pandemic situation and regulations will be next year, we are confident that we’ve learned enough over the past many months to operate a safe, effective volunteer program in 2021.  Stay tuned for details and logistics as our plans take shape, and please feel free to send inquiries and suggestions related to our volunteer programs to [email protected].

Are you interested in donating some time and energy to help the park? Keep an eye on our volunteers page for updates about the 2021 season!

Above: The Mist Trail steps. Much of Yosemite’s Preventive Search and Rescue efforts focus on keeping hikers safe as they head to and from Vernal Fall, Nevada Fall and Half Dome. In recent years,  Yosemite Conservancy volunteers have played a core role in supporting PSAR outreach; this summer, with volunteer programs canceled due to COVID-19, Conservancy staff stepped in to help out. (Photo: Kylie Chappell.)