Adventure: Yellowstone

letter written to family 1 June 2016

Today, rolling out of bed before five is easier than most days. Red and gold hovers just above the mountains to the east, casting a row of lenticular clouds into shadow as they form over the low hills. The charcoal gray Tetons stand against a sooty gray sky as we pull on to the main road north. 

From Willow Flats pullout we frame up alpen glow photos of the mountain chain. It is so stirring to be witness to the somnolent valley slowly waking under the protection of the mountains, but neither celluloid nor digital photos can let us share with you the attraction and power we feel standing there. And so we don’t take many photos — it feels redundant and purposeless at the same time. Breathe. We press on.

On a lark we stop and pose for photos at the entrances to the parks. It is a misty morning at the gates to Yellowstone as the steam from thermal features and cool fog rising from the river swirl together and curl around the trees near the pullout. We’ve seen fog of so many forms this trip!!

 We arrive in Fishing Bridge 20 minutes before the ranger opens the visitor center, so we amuse our selves by walking through the general store. We chat with the store manager for a bit, asking about the building. Simple 1936 parkitecture style on the outside. As soon as you come through the front door you see a massive stone fireplace. I’ve seen taller, but never bigger! The hearth alone could hold a VW Beetle car. The manager said they can’t operate the fireplace because it makes the building too hot and the tourists complain. I pick out a magnet decal for the car, and we note the old-time fountain restaurant in the back for future reference.  Then head back for a chat with the ranger — we want to know what they have heard about animal sightings so we can choose where to go. 

The Ranger Station is one of the early architecture designs created for the parks that became known as Parkitecture. We are almost as excited to visit the building as we are to get the gouge. A young ranger is manning the desk this morning. This has been her duty station for three years, but she is not familiar with any of the hikes Dave wanted to know about. Fortunately, the service provides a handy-dandy three-inch thick three-ring binder that holds answers to guests’ questions. Yes, a few were closed due to bear activity and all she could tell us about animals were that they were out there. Often, the centers have a running list of reported animal sightings such as wolves, bear, or moose; general area where seen, and date seen. Oh well. At least I could confirm that one of the birds I saw at the cabin was indeed a Cassin’s Finch after observing the wildlife taxidermy display. 

the ranger station at Fishing Bridge — I’d call it home if I could!

Let’s go to Lamar. We’ll ride through Hayden Valley and see what we see. Along the way, we pick up ready made sandwiches from the vendor in the Canyon area, scope out where the campground is located and resume the trip. The last time we had been in this area was December 2014 — it was novel to see it without five feet of snow. And with people.

 The plains and hills of Hayden Valley are a thousand shades of green after the rains over the last few weeks. We see small groups of bison, often in the distance, and are trying to reconcile what we see with what we remember of herds covering the slopes like a speckled carpet. It is a little bit of a trick to both look around to take in the beauty you see — the snow covered mountains in the distance, the Tiffany blue sky above the sagebrush and pine covered hills — and to scan the horizon for any matches to the search image you carry in your mind’s eye for the animals. A snowball near the top of a tree for a bald eagle as an example.

And then we see one of the clearest signs of an animal being nearby — a dozen people lined up shoulder to shoulder with their spotting scopes all aimed in the same direction. Cars are pulled over as best they can in the too small turnout and along the shoulderless roadside. We join the fray, cross the road, and climb the bluff to find out what everyone is looking at. We end up  chatting with a couple that has saved for two years to buy an RV so that they can spend the summer working in Yellowstone and then other national parks over the next two years. Today is their day off. A Grizzly has been spotted in the brush at a distance Dave puts at half a mile or more. She’s gone into the brush and is invisible, but we join in the search for her reemergence with our little binoculars. I see brown movement against the green just as one of the fellows with a scope sings out “There she is!” 

In general, there seems to be an etiquette about these things. The fellow that spotted the bear again helps the other spotters line up their sights on her, and even walks the woman we were chatting with thru adjusting her camera to find the bear. And we are invited to look through the scope ourselves. When the big animals are spotted, it is often reported over radio so that other photographers can come and take advantage of the sighting. A lot of  ‘if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours…’  Dave tells me from his talks with Jim Halfpenny, the fellow he taught the Yellowstone Association class with and local wildlife expert, that as with anything there are personalities and personal politics that can get involved (at least with the wolf spotters) but thankfully we have seen no sign of it on our trip — quite the opposite and folks are very happy to share their scope and what they know. 

With my point-and-shoot camera super-super-zoomed in, I can make out a brown shape, about the size of a pimple in the vast field of green in my viewfinder. Low and behold, it is a momma grizzly with two cubs of the year (COY). And!, there is a second, larger grizzly (likely a male) left of the family group and heading off to the south. The three remaining dots wander around a bit and disappear into the same hedge they popped out of. We’ve spent an hour with nice folks and decide it is time to see what else we can see today.

believe it or not, there are four grizzly bears in this picture … a momma with two cubs on the right, and a lone male on the left

Snow lingers along roadsides and the deep woods. The road twists its way through towering stands of deep green trees and ghosts of beetle killed pines; across regenerating hillsides seedlings sprout among the bones of their ancestors following an old fire, around perilous hairpin turns without even a nod to a guard rail — all I can think of are grand tour cyclist riders’ death defying races down mountain roads like these in their quest for the yellow jersey. Somewhere above 8,000 feet we spot a lone bison munching in a field above a burned stand of trees and wonder what in his travels made making such a climb make sense. 

Near Roosevelt Lodge we see half a dozen teams of horses hitched to bright yellow covered wagons — practicing working together in preparation for all the visitors anxious for a taste of old west travel when the lodge opens in a few weeks. Up ahead we see flashing lights and a big back up of cars. NPS volunteers in bright orange vests get the traffic moving and don’t let anyone stop — for the black bear on the left side of the car. I tried to grab a picture across the car and out Dave’s window as we rolled past, but it didn’t come out. Oh well. Hey, that’s one Mr Grizzly, one Mrs Grizzly with twins, and a black bear all before 11am!

Ten minutes up the road and there is another animal jam. This time we are able to pull over. It is another black bear, down in the gully at the side of the road feeding. A black bear in deep shade. We took lots of photos, not knowing what we’d come away with. but it was so fun to see. When she’d either had enough of the greens or enough of the crowds she climbed up the steep embankment into the brush and disappeared. That was a fast ten minutes from parking to last photo. 

Ten minutes after getting back on the road again, we see a single car pulled over and a shaggy, white, horned, mammal on the side of the road eating weeds. Dave pulls over, I pop out to take a photo. I think at first it is a goat: short haired, shedding, small horns. Then I realize that there is a small herd of these guys up the embankment in a wooded glade. Dave and I join a few other photographers in the woods to watch them. The sun is high in the sky and makes the shadows strong and the highlights harsh. A fellow next to me with a lens the size of a football was lamenting how hard it was to meter the conditions in the mottled light and dark conditions. 

Turns out my goat was really a bighorn sheep ewe. We never saw a ram, but there were about eight ewes and one youngster in the area. Butt-to-camera, head in the weeds, or face in shadow were by far their favorite poses! Dave managed to get a few good portrait  type shots of them — and catching them eating creates comical looks on their faces. I made a 15 second movie of one young ewe, so frustrated by the itchiness of her winter coat hanging in rags on her flanks that she ground her shoulder into the side of a boulder, first her left side, then her butt, then her right side. I am not sure it removed much of her wool, but she looked a tad happier. 

Our cars parked on the shoulder attracted attention and other tourists stopped. One woman shouted at me from the roadway, “What is it?” First I wanted to tell her to quit yelling. When I told  her what we were watching, she rolled her eyes and said something to the effect of ‘is that all,’ and got in her car and rode away. I wonder if she is the same woman that complained she hadn’t seen any animals for two days. After about 45 minutes the sheep stopped milling around munching and settled into the shade for a nap. Twenty minutes to reach Lamar!

I have tried to think of how to describe the different character of the Hayden Valley to the Lamar Valley and have failed. Broad and green meandering river valley with rolling hills and snow capped mountains in the distance would describe Hayden as well. But on this side of the pass it just feels different. It is lovely, so we just take it all in and remain watchful for animals. Herds of bison are off in the distance, no bigger than rice grains to the naked eye. 

Lamar Valley

Dave takes me to the Buffalo Ranch — in a past life a ranch raising buffalo, and in its current life an educational facility run by the Yellowstone Association. Dave attended a class on climate change here, and went back to co-teach it last year. As a matter of fact, today Dave is wearing the base layer he got at the school — and it has proved to be a great conversation starter with safari guides, spotters, and rangers. There is a log cabin class room and a dozen or so cabins for students, and the shower house nearby. The dining is what you bring and cook yourself. 

As soon as we turn back on to the main road, a small group of bison decide that now there is traffic on the highway, the grass on the east side of the road just won’t do and the grass on the other side is much more tempting … but they are not in a hurry to get there. One would get half way, then stand there. The second would haul his body up the embankment to catch up with the first bison who would then finish crossing while the second bull stood there. It was like watching Dave and I hike! He’d wait for me to catch up, I’d get there and he’d leave and I will still have to catch my breath! We took a bunch of thru the windshield photos, but the reflections were pretty severe. Still, it was pretty comical to watch — I’d swear they had a lot of practice and knew exactly what they were doing to the traffic!! Buddha was amused.

At a trailhead we decide to have our lunch. Sitting in the car (no benches) we have a comfy spot to watch the clouds skid over the valley. Birds seem to be rare here compared to Teton valley, and so it is the wind which we hear. Pushing on again we pull out at Soda Butte and discover a picnic area. Isn’t that always the way! The Yellowstone Association had a group of kids playing educational games and other fun activities there. They had a spotting scope out — and by some miracle had located a mountain goat — a real one, which they let us see for ourselves. Now I know the difference. I have no idea how they picked out that tiny fuzzy figure against the snow and stone of the cliff. Sighting them is rare, even with a scope, and we were blessed to have seen it with the help of these ten year olds!  

Dave couldn’t resist taking me out of the park to see the town of Silvergate (wide spot in the road) and Cooke City. Dave had come here with fellow YA instructor Jim Halfpenny back when the gas station was the only place to eat. A mix of western movie set souvenir shops, bars, and outfitters, its a town for people who like isolation but depend on winter and summer tourists for their living. We saw lots of signs forbidding snowmobile traffic on the main street. But we did see two bison on the wooden sidewalk of the one hotel in Silvergate. The other reason Dave took me out this park gate was so I could see the one remaining original entrance gate. My photo is lousy, but this building makes the other entrance facilities look like outhouses by comparison. 

We turn around and begin the long trek back to Canyon. But no trip thru the park is without stops and starts. We pull over at a unique limestone formation around which a small herd of bison mothers were relaxing with their calves. Most were laying down with a cinnamon colored calf completely zonked out and flopped by her side. One bull was there stirring things up a bit — getting in practice for the rut in the fall I guess. His nose was working overtime. 

Back over the pass and we can see storm clouds building north of us. It brings back memories of a hike with Katarzyna to the fire tower on Mt Washburn and being chased off the mountain by a thunderstorm. We’re glad to get over it today (and cross the continental divide two more times) without any rain, and arrive in canyon to check in around 5. Lot I-147 is a wide spot in the road with a picnic table and fire pit behind a couple of trees. We had envisioned pulling ‘in to’ a spot like a camper/RV. Okay, this is going to be weird. But we are grateful we have a place to stay and don’t have to drive another 2+ hours home.

We have dinner at one of the vendors and make camp, which consists of: setting up 2 borrowed camp chairs, starting a fire with wood from the cabin, shoving the hiking and camera gear in the front seat, and fluffing up the sleeping bags in the back. Ten minutes. Done. A front comes through and whips the tops of the trees so hard they creak and snap over our heads. The rain spits a bit and we worry. Should we pack up and climb in the car? It’s only 8 and still light — we don’t relish being stuck in the car. Then it all passes, the wind dies, the rain stops spitting and we are left to watch the mesmerizing pulse of the heat through the coals of our fire until the last log is spent. Time to see how comfy the back of a Subaru Outback can be…

our inn for the night
happy camper