letter to family, written 26 May, 2016
5 am. Dave announces the morning sky looks marginal. We grab our gear and head for the car. The thermometer on the deck reads 36 degrees. It doesn’t say anything about the black ice on the steps. Dave and his camera take a nasty tumble down the three steps from the porch. I think I am stepping carefully when I start windmilling my arms and somehow dance my way down to the gravel path unscathed and help Dave get to his feet. He is going to be sore later. The night has similarly encased the car in thick ice and it takes some strong muscle to scrape it clear of the windows. Still, we are in the car and heading out by 5:25 am. I am impressed!
Just a few miles up the road from the cabin is a place called Schwabacher’s Landing. More than just a highway turnout, it is an access road down to the Snake River. I mentioned this place in an earlier travel log. Well, the parking lot was packed and a few vehicles dropped off a dozen photo excursion attendees. Almost instantly the riverbanks which had the magic combination of being aligned with the Grand Teton and a quiet body of water are claimed by a wicket of tripods guarding massive camera bags.
Dave picked a place he thought would work for him near the parking lot and I kind of free-styled it. Roaming around and looking in the opposite direction as all the ‘professionals’ intent on their perfectly framed vignette. Problem was, the weather wasn’t going to cooperate with their carefully chosen framing. There weren’t many clouds in the east when we left the house which meant the sun should hit the mountains in the west — great — except there was a long, curling rope of fog suspended over the river at the foot of the mountains. It could dissipate and make everyone happy, it could thin and provide whimsical atmosphere to the photos, or it could bollux the whole scene like a theatre ringing the curtain down and spoiling the show.
Care to take a guess what happened?
I’ll tell you …
For a brief moment early on the rope of fog frayed a little bit and let peeks of the peaks reveal themselves.
And then much to my delight — another possibility occurred. A beaver decided he needed to repair the dam that created the still reflecting pond treasured by we human photographers and began diving to the bottom for mud and weeds and swimming to the dam to patch a leak and then repeat the process. He may have been stealthy quiet, but he left a wake and ripples in the pond that drove the photographers crazy! I saw one of them come over my way like she was going to tell me to stop disturbing the water and then realized I was not the culprit. But what really cracked me up was that none of them adapted to the scene and photographed the beaver! Their body language was very tight, face frowning, arms crossed as they waited for the fog to reveal more of the mountain and for the beaver to stop working. Eventually, one wish was granted — the beaver went to bed.
Between the fog, occupied riverbank, and the beaver leaving the scene I started wandering again. I thought I’d see what Dave was up to. At the moment he was photographing a Barrow’s Goldeneye duck that he said was “extremely cooperative.” About fifteen feet upstream and tucked against the weeds was another beaver!! This one was munching away. I used my camera’s zoom and hoped to capture something through the fog. My favorite part of the day so far! Eventually this beaver climbed the dam and returned to the lodge. Really fun to watch!
Many of the photographers have given up — the fog and/or light is not giving them what they want so they are leaving. And now the fog is swirling around where we stand. But it has that dreamscape quality to it as the sun makes it almost glow.
I have a little fun with the shadows and make myself part of the scene. A different kind of selfie I guess.
So now I am back upstream at the beaver lodge. I decide to wait and see if the sun will catch the top of the beaver dam.
As I wait and watch, I listen to the birds singing. So many different voices! A little dipper kind of water bird is inspecting the top of the dam and announcing what she thinks. Songbirds, both seen and unseen fill the air with chirps and whistles. Geese fly in mini formations high over head announcing their passing. A mallard duck startles me streaking across the pond at eye level – a bolt of renegade sunlight electrifying the iridescent green feathers on his head like a neon sign. The sun has moved closer to the river, but it still does not touch the lodge.
I am looking carefully in the evergreens and the dead snags to see if I might spy the avian karaoke singers. I see a stump reflected in the pond. It has a small hole in the trunk facing me. Might a bird live there? In answer to my idle wondering, a pair of tree sparrows alight on the stump. One takes up guard position on branches just above the hole while the other sparrow pops inside and then peers out, turning her neck often to keep an eye on things. Occasionally they turn at just the right angle to the sun so that their own iridescent green-blue feathers shine. My zoom is barely up to the task but I cannot resist trying to capture the pair in this deluxe riparian home. Eventually they tire of their paparazzi and fly off. The light doesn’t look like it will find the lodge anytime soon, and it has lost the lovely warm quality of the golden hour. I look for Dave. He is packing up too.
As we head for the parking lot, two American Widgeons catch our attention with their bottoms-up feeding technique. Of course we have to spend a few more moments watching. Speaking of breakfast … we head into town for breakfast at a local favorite.
Satisfied with a hearty breakfast as a reward for the challenging start to the day and an hour and a half in the cold, we now head back to the cabin. The fog has cleared, the day is sunny, and the temperature is climbing. We can’t ‘waste’ this day — so Dave dreams up a new hike. “Flat,” he says. “40 feet of climbing,” he says. When will I learn???
We adjust our clothing layers to suit the plan and head for String Lake (north of Jenny Lake). It is about noon time when we start the loop. I think the 40 feet must have been a typo! Does this look like 40 feet to you?!!?
Just as we reach the highest point on this climb we see photographers on the trail. One up ahead motions for us to be quiet. Eventually I see that he has his camera on a tripod six feet away from a yellow bellied marmot that is standing on a large boulder — at just about eye level! We wait a bit, and then the photographer motions for us to come ahead. We move slowly. When I am even with him I get out my camera for a portrait. As we move on past, the marmot disappears — but we see his mate up ahead on the trail. She shows us her tail as she runs down the path and into the bush. Ten minutes later we pass another boulder, and there on the top is a marmot sunning himself. He looks like a four armed starfish, tentacles stuck fast to the boulder and laying as flat as he could. It is warm now, almost 60 and we strip to base layers.
By the end of the day we counted 2 beaver, 6 marmots, 2 elk, and dozens of pronghorns and birds.
As we complete the String Lake loop, we stop for a water break and to look at the map. Dave shows me where we’ve been and what else is around. There is a trail along another lake north of where we are. “Flat,” he says. Okay, let’s go. We only have to backtrack about .8 miles. This trail is very different from the one we just finished. It is much more within the forest — so there is a lot of extra watching for bears and moose. We see signs of moose from the nibbled branches trailside and the more obvious dung piles. My jinx holds and we never spot a moose.
But we did have another unusual encounter along the trail. Dave spotted two elk across an inlet and I stopped to see if I could get a picture. Another hiker stopped and asked Dave what had we seen and he told her. She said in all the years she’s lived here, she always looks for a moose in that spot and never sees one. We asked how long she’d lived here … and got to talking … and tuns out Libby takes people on art history tours to Spain! She and I got talking but we needed to move on. So Dave gave her his number and we are hoping to meet up for drinks in the next week or so. 🙂
Clouds move in over the mountains. A fifteen knot wind kicks up white caps on the lake, and the breeze is cold so we drag jackets back out of our packs. By 3:15, despite setting a pretty good pace and not taking as many pictures, we still have not reached the end of the trail and the last campsites. But we can see the mammatus clouds now over the lake, not the sun, and we have over an hour of hiking to get back to the car so we decide to head back anyway. Once we got back in the car and out on the highway we could look back and see the valley we’d been hiking in — the clouds were on the deck and there were showers in the area. Oh yes, we made the right call!
Home by 5 to dump hiking gear and head to town for errands and groceries. Dave picks up a day pack which should suit him better than the backpack — now he has a place to put his water bottle and bear spray in much more convenient and less annoying places. And of course, groceries. Amazingly, the sky has done a 180 while we are shopping. The sky is blue, the clouds have left the mountains (although we can see cumulonimbus to the north and east). We try eating dinner outside but the breeze drives us in. It is now 10:30pm and we are up later than I would have bet — given the early start and hiking 9.3 miles today. Man are we pooped!! But as Dave says, “a very successful day of vacation.”