“We’re all native to this planet, but we’ve made a mess of it by using our intelligence very unintelligently,” Ron Kauk said, as El Capitan towered over us. “It’s just mind boggling how we’ve managed to damage our own home,” he continued — not with condemnation, but a sincere concern for life in all its forms.
The bona fide mountain man (Ron hiked Half Dome for the first time at age 12) is quick to point out that had he not been introduced to the raw power of the outdoors at a young age by enthusiastic teachers, his life could be very different now.
It all started when his high school organized a 20-day backpacking trip to Yosemite National Park. “This was before litigation had gotten out of control, and our teachers were into it enough themselves to enjoy leading us into nature,” he said. “Now, as an adult, I want to be able to share this same gift with today’s youth.”
And so he does. The famous climber founded Sacred Rok, a nonprofit that brings incarcerated youth to Yosemite, a few years back with help from a few friends — including Yosemite’s chief ranger, Steve Shackelton, and Kenji Hakuta, a professor of education at Stanford.
But, for Ron and everyone else involved, it’s more than just an extended field trip. It’s about confronting a deep-rooted menace in society today: our disconnect from nature.
The tangible negative effects we suffer as a result of that disconnect can cause psychological and behavioral problems, especially in children, a phenomenon Richard Louv dubbed “Nature Deficit Disorder” in his book Last Child in the Woods. That’s something Ron hopes to change.
“Yosemite is a sacred space, and we mainly try to stay out of the way and let it work on the kids,” Ron explained. Sacred Rok’s ethos is rooted in doing “education nature’s way,” and the belief that learning to respect nature will in turn cultivate self-respect and internal healing.
“The kids get out of their jail cell, often trucked in via a barred van, and come out to this,” he said as he looked up and lifted his arm to the sky and El Capitan.
So Ron’s goal isn’t to give the kids a heavy-handed message, but to get them tuned in to nature and help them find balance again. In his role as a youth guide, Ron insists that humility and compassion are the two most important qualities he can possess. “I try to be like the breeze: subtle, hardly seen, but still having a profound effect.”
After meeting with Ron, I decided to flush out any of my own lingering nature deficiency by doing something I’d never done before, but had always wanted to try: fly-fishing. And I was lucky enough to have Jimmie Morales, owner of Sierra Fly Fisher in nearby Oakhurst, as my instructor.
Jimmie has been fly-fishing since he was 9 and has been guiding trips all throughout the Sierra — from the northern tip of Yosemite to the southern tip of Sequoia — for nearly two decades. “My office is pretty nice,” he mused.
I was a week too early for fishing season in Yosemite, so we donned our waders and scrambled through the gentle rapids at another sweet spot for trout just beyond park limits. Jimmie taught me everything from how to approach the fish from downstream so we wouldn’t frighten them off to why the “red dots” held such powerful appeal (they were modeled after salmon eggs).
When showing me how to cast the line — keeping the wrist pinned to the rod and only going up with the forearm to a 90-degree angle, then snapping the line forward again gently — he made it look effortless. I was a different story. The harder I tried to keep my wrist flat against the rod the more it rebelled, sending my rod too far backward and allowing the wind to commandeer my line.
By the end of the day, I had earned praise from Jimmie for a nice cast, but I never was able to fool any fish.
But that wasn’t really the point. Like the kids Ron leads into the wilderness, Jimmie and I were being worked on quietly by the river. The water streaming around our legs, the sun shining on our shoulders, and the osprey flying overhead were all telling us a little something whether we heard it or not.
After my day in Yosemite, I decided it was time to listen more closely.