YOSEMITE -- North America's tallest waterfall -- Yosemite Falls -- is peaking early, thanks to a May heat wave and a puny snowpack.
But even with Yosemite Valley sweltering in the mid-90s, people shiver in the freezing mist of majestic Yosemite Falls.
"The falling water creates its own breeze," said Yosemite National Park ranger and naturalist Shelton Johnson. "Of course, the mist is coming from melted snow. Put any number you want on the temperature of that water, but it is cold."
The 2,425-foot falls, considered the fifth-tallest in the world, are at their peak a few weeks early -- as are the other famous falls, such as Bridalveil, Ribbon, Vernal, Nevada and Sentinel.
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The reasons: The driest March and April on record added nothing to the Sierra Nevada snowpack, so there is less than half the usual amount of snow. Now, unseasonably high temperatures are melting the snowpack.
The peak usually is closer to Memorial Day or even mid-June. Many continue well into August before going dry. But there may not be enough water for such a long run this year.
That is bad news in the mountains. A dry, warm spring means vast forests will be more susceptible to destructive wildfire. The forests already were dry from subpar snowfall in the 2006-07 winter.
But fire season is not yet the topic of discussion in Yosemite Valley. Right now, it's the peak of the falls, particularly Yosemite Falls. The peak is the climax of spring and a sign of nature's rebirth after the Sierra winter, Johnson said.
Water fills creeks and leaves puddles in lush meadows. The warm sun brings out eye- catching blossoms on the dogwood trees. The Merced River stirs with white water. Such scenes have taken place annually for thousands of years.
It's part of a water cycle that starts with Pacific Ocean storms covering the Sierra with winter snow. The cycle ends months later and hundreds of miles away when melted snow rejoins the ocean at San Francisco Bay.
The falls are the most popular part of the water cycle for many people, Johnson said.
"People are drawn to the waterfalls," he said. "Water is within each of us."
Johnson waxes philosophical and poetic about Yosemite. He is best known for his one-man show called "Buffalo Soldiers of the Sierra," in which he celebrates the first protectors of Yosemite in the early 1900s. He has done the show at schools, museums, parks and many other places for years.
Park spokesman Scott Gediman said Johnson's talks on water and nature are a highlight for many visitors.
"I always learn something when I listen to him," said Gediman, who has been working in Yosemite for many years.
Johnson last week strolled with a reporter through valley meadows to Yosemite Falls. He attracted impromptu gatherings everywhere he stopped.
Tourists learned to watch for "water comets," small sections of water that seem to leap out of the main stream at the upper fall. Johnson said pioneering conservationist John Muir coined the term.
"They look like shooting stars," he said.
First-time Yosemite visitors Kate Gannon of Maryland and her father, Andy Innes of Massachusetts, listened briefly to Johnson. They stopped in Cook's Meadow, and Innes took a shot of Gannon with Yosemite Falls in the backdrop. They stared at the falls for a few more minutes.
Said Innes, "It's like a religious experience."