Lake Chronicopia

Aug 14, 2015
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:

Today on SNAP JUDGMENT, from PRX and NPR, Crash and Burn. My name is Glynn Washington. Buckle up because you're listening to SNAP JUDGMENT.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WASHINGTON: We're going to start off today's Crash and Burn episode back, back, way back to the Berkeley of the 1970s. You know, it was the late days of America's cultural revolution. Young people everywhere experimenting with alternative ways to live full and more peaceful lives. And because of that, this story does mention substances that may or may not have been legalized depending on where you live. But Dale, Dale just wanted to climb rocks. And he wanted to do it in Yosemite Valley.

DALE BARD: When I used to climb there and do hard routes, I used to walk up to the rock and smell it. The wind and the smell of the pine needles, I can't even describe it.

JULIA DEWITT, BYLINE: Dale Bard, first and foremost, was a rock climber. It was the 1970s, and the sport was still very young. Historically, mountaineers rock climbed as a way to practice for larger peaks they wanted to get up. So if you think climbing up rocks for the sake of climbing up rocks seems silly, back then people thought it was totally absurd.

BARD: At the time, probably there was 50 rock climbers in the United States. People recognize my talents, told me I should go to Yosemite Valley, and I quit college to my parents disbelief, left with no money and hitchhiked up to Yosemite Valley with a tent and my climbing equipment and almost no food an insulate pad and a sleeping bag. Oh, I did have a pillow. I forgot. Yes.

DEWITT: The valley is defined by smooth granite cliffs that reach thousands of feet up from the valley floor. At the base of these cliffs, tucked back in the forest at a place called Camp 4, Dale found his people.

BARD: And that's when I got involved in the scene.

DEWITT: A handful of climbers had set up a permanent camp. These climbers were some of the first climbers in the country. And they would later become legendary for their climbing achievements. But at the time, they were just some dudes in the woods that loved climbing rocks.

BARD: A day in Camp 4 was not really a day in Camp 4 because we really didn't spend much time in camp. We would go climbing all day. So train, climb, train, relax, go to sleep. My annual budget one year was negative $15.

DEWITT: How did you pay - like how - what - how did you have no money? Like, how does...

BARD: We had connections in things. You know, we had friends in places, and sometimes I'd be given food. We did pilfer from the local grocery store every once in a while, but it wasn't a lot. But it was enough to get by.

DEWITT: Living like this - seeking out the free food, sometimes stealing a little on the side when necessary - these guys got this life down to a science. And for a little while, the rangers looked the other way. That is until the riot.

BARD: In the '70s, there was a riot in Stoneman Meadow. And it's a very famous one.

DEWITT: Some hippie kids were camped illegally in a place called Stoneman Meadow. When the Rangers came out on horseback to break up the crowd, the kids pulled the rangers off their horses and chaos ensued.

BARD: When that happened - it happened with, you know, hippies and people that smoked dope. With that, the rangers had to change their whole style because it's the U.S. government. And they had to be able to control a situation like that. And so they created a department called LEO, which stands for Law Enforcement Officer. So in other words, they created a police force. And the camaraderie between the climbers and the rangers diminished pretty rapidly. We called them pine pigs. How we felt at the time - this isn't your park, it's our park. All they wanted to do is drive around in cars with, you know, 45 caliber guns on their hips. We actually appreciated the park and used it the way it was supposed to be used.

DEWITT: After Stoneman Meadow, the climbers kept doing exactly what they had always done. Until one morning, when Dale went to the lodge for his morning cup of coffee, and the rangers decided it was time to teach the climbers a lesson.

BARD: We had learned some tricks. We'd get free cups of coffee and possibly eat off of people's plates that left and left their plates to be, you know, bussed into garbage. I just came in one morning and kind of groggy. As I'm walking over, I look over at a table, and I see this coffee cup, put my finger through the handle and walked over to the table. And I never even made it that far. And a security guard came up to me and, you know, just said that is - wasn't your coffee cup. And I'm looking at him going, OK, come on. You're kidding, right?

DEWITT: The officer was not kidding. They cuffed Dale on the spot, and threw him in county jail for a week. He was stripped and put in the delousing tank. The bigger guys in his cell stole his sleeping pad and his pillow. And Dale slept on the concrete floor.

BARD: I had a very sobering experience, I will say that. Finally, I get shackled and put in back of a van again and driven back up to Yosemite for the trial.

DEWITT: The judge looks incredulous.

BARD: And he goes, you spent a week in jail for a cup of coffee? So he dismissed the charges.

DEWITT: But even though Dale was free from prison, the park service still wanted to make an example of him. So they handed down maybe the worst punishment they could think of.

BARD: They suspended me from the park for 90 days.

DEWITT: Why not just leave for 90 days? You know, three months isn't that long a time for the risk - you know, given the risk.

BARD: You don't love rock climbing obviously.

DEWITT: (Laughter).

BARD: I mean, that is a long time. And it's too long of a time. If you're used to climbing every day, that's not an option. So what I did is I packed up my tent, and there's a giant boulder field behind Camp 4. And I went up into the boulder field, and I lived up in the boulder field where I was out of sight, out of mind. I still climbed every day. I just had to be very careful to not be seen. Also, you know, a lot of times, I was up on a big wall. So, you know, that's a place where rangers can't find you.

DEWITT: Dale came out of hiding to climb and to hang out with friends at camp at night. It was on one of these sites when Dale and some buddies were sitting around at the picnic table that their friends Frank (ph) and Arnold (ph) rolled back into camp, visibly excited about something.

BARD: Frank and Arnold, they came in, and they said my God, you won't believe what we found.

DEWITT: By now, there are probably 20 or 30 climbers that lived in Camp 4, and when they heard the commotion, a crowd gathered to see what was going on. Frank told the story.

BARD: He had just taken a short tour out to this lake with a friend of his. And they were skiing back. And they looked out on the lake, and this is, like, early spring so the lake is basically what is termed as candling, and - meaning it's thawing out. And they saw this tale of an airplane sticking up out of the lake. The first impression was - is that God, we've got to let somebody know. They also started going man, there's probably bodies. So they started looking around. And they didn't see any bodies. But in the waters, this big thing pops up, and it's a burlap bale. And so they shimmied out there and hooked the bale with a ski pole, drug it over the ice and got it to a safe spot and realized what it was, opened it up and just went a oh [expletive]. Marijuana. Pot.

DEWITT: Inside that burlap sack, they saw the treasure they had never even known to dream of. They saw their ticket to many more years of elective unemployment.

BARD: Then they looked out on the melting part of the lake and saw multiple bales. So they came back to camp, and they told everybody. And they said man, there's stuff out there. And everybody had dollar signs in their eyes at that point. Hank (ph) and Stephan (ph) said let's go. They got up the next morning, and when they came back and there was visible proof that this was real, it was - what do they call it? - a run on the bank. Like, everybody and his mother were grabbing whatever pack they could have and marching into the lake; bring packs out, bust up the bales and take as much as they could - as they could carry and bring it back in.

DEWITT: Over the course of the next few weeks, they got more and more efficient at extracting the weed; pulling it out assembly-line style. They hiked out with chainsaws that they stole from the park service. One guy would cut a square of ice, the next guy would pull the ice out, the third would fish for the bales. This lake in the middle of the woods in the middle of nowhere was suddenly crowded with climbers and their friends stuffing their packs with as much pot as they could possibly carry. But Dale wasn't with them. Driving the main road out to the trailhead was too risky. He might be seen in one of the cars.

BARD: And so I opted to not go to the lake.

DEWITT: But this didn't stop Dale from getting in on the action.

BARD: By job was to dry the pot because I could do that in the boulders.

DEWITT: He'd been hiding from the rangers in that boulder field for weeks. So he also knew exactly where to hide the weed.

BARD: The down side to the pot was that it had to be dried because the plane crashed, and so there was jet fuel in the water. The first couple pounds that we dried out, we didn't dry it out enough. And when you rolled yourself a joint, it was like spontaneous combustion when you put a flame to the joint. It was just called airplane weed. If you knew it was airplane weed, you knew it had - it was tainted with jet fuel. My job was pretty simple, although I will say that every once in a while, I got a little bit nauseous from the fumes 'cause you had to rake it and stir it. And imagine 900 square feet of marijuana that you're raking, and the jet fuel fumes are coming off.

DEWITT: Once Dale was done drying it, the pot was then transported to LA and San Francisco to be sold. It took about a month to clear the lake of all the pot they could find.

BARD: Later, we figured that a bale was probably 50 pounds dry. After all was said and done, we retrieved over 200 bales of pot; 200 bales at 50 pounds a bale. Whip out your calculator.

DEWITT: By the end of the run, Dale estimates they moved 10,000 pounds, or five tons, of marijuana.

BARD: Climbers that truly needed some financial, you know, sustenance so to speak, they got it. I mean, some guys bought brand-new cars. Some guys bought homes. I didn't make very much. But it was enough for me to live very comfortably for, you know, four or five years. By the time the park service found out about it, everything was gone.

DEWITT: When the park service recovered the plane once the ice melted, they didn't find much pot, but they did find two bodies. This story might sound kind of hard to believe, but there is actually a photographic evidence. One photo is of a huge burlap sack with dark brown leaves in it; another is of some guys chain sawing through the ice. Yet another is of some climbers wearing full backpacks grinning from ear to ear. They look young and fit and happy.

BARD: I guess the biggest frosting on the cake because of the LEO section of the park service was touche - we got the weed. You don't even know who got the weed. You can only guess who got the weed. And we got the money, and you guys got sandbagged.

DEWITT: There were 50, maybe even over a 100 people going up to the lake that spring. So we figured it couldn't be that hard to find someone that had gone up to the lake. The people we did talk to, most of them now in their 50s and 60s, some of them with grandkids, they all fondly remember those carefree days where all they had to do was climb and dumpster dive. And of course, they all remember the lake full of pot. But when we asked them if they were there at the lake stuffing their packs full of it, a wry smile spreads across their face and a glimmer is in their eyes. Nope, they say, definitely not me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WASHINGTON: Big thanks to Dale for that story. And for the protection of the people involved in this piece, pseudonyms were used. I want to personally thank, though, Cisco DeVries, who, as we walked through Yosemite Valley a while back, he told me this story, a story that his father, Papa Tom DeVries, had worked on as a reporter many years ago. Thanks also to all the climbers that helped us, and a big huge thanks to the filmmakers Greg Laut and Nicholas Rosen from Sender Films. Check out our link to their amazing documentary on this very story, "Valley Uprising." We'll have a link on our website, snapjudgment.org. The original score and sound design for that piece was by Leon Morimoto, and it was produced by Julia DeWitt and Anna Sussman.

When SNAP JUDGMENT returns, sex, drugs and rock and roll - well, at least we'll have one of the three, and the biggest roller in the universe when the SNAP JUDGMENT Crash and Burn episode continues. Stay tuned.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Support for SNAP JUDGMENT comes from NPR member stations, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and from Zillow, with millions of homes for sale, apartments for rent, photos, historical pricing data and other resources. Available on zillow.com or on their moble and tablet apps. Zillow, find your way home. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.