Our Volunteer Life — written in Mountain View, Missouri on 21 October 2020
My humble apologies to those friends and family members who were looking forward to regular, textual, travel updates from me this season of adventure. I did have the best of intentions upon starting out. Like many battle plans, my intention did not survive contact with reality, and this year our posts lived on Facebook.
Our expectations of what our time in the park would be like closely resembled a Hollywood dream sequence. 32 work hours per week, divided any way we wanted between two people seemed perfect. Two days on, five days off to play, right!? What could be easier?! We hadn’t factored in COVID and its impact on the park, or having a single vehicle into our plans.
The seasonal ranger and volunteer staff was significantly reduced this season. COVID meant that traditional living arrangements with bunk houses and apartments with roommates was off the table. If housing couldn’t be found, people could not come to work. At the same time, COVID also drove people out of their homes and into RVs in unprecedented numbers. The campground with a reputation for filling only one or two nights a year in high season was filled every day well before noon for all but maybe five days during our four month stay. The nearby National Forest and BLM lands dispersed camping were overwhelmed, and many people broke the rules by camping anywhere they could pull over. The park set record numbers of visitors despite the absence of foreign visitors and the missing trains of tour busses unloading in the park.
Undermanned, the park could not even open all of the visitor centers and ranger stations. This meant they were desperate for help managing crowds from a COVID safety (distance, size of gatherings, etc.) and resource protection perspective when parking was a mad house by 9am, trail heads were mobbed, and people new to the wilderness opened themselves to dangerous interactions with bears and food.
COVID mask precautions make my ability to hear people, already less than perfect, a near impossibility. And so Dave volunteered to work 2.5 days at the String Lake area of the park in addition to a day in Lost & Found, and I would work three days in the office where e-mail was my primary communication tool. No longer working in the same area of the park or complimentary shifts meant we had to juggle who had the truck, etc.
We were amazed at how quickly daily conversations reverted to topics we’d covered before our retirement regarding work schedules, office dramas, and commuting arrangements! At the end of each work day we were exhausted. Hobby projects we had brought with us remained unpacked. Social media became the one place we would reach out with photos. At the time, I just wasn’t sure that ya’ll really wanted to hear about all that day to day “job”stuff. Maybe I just needed a little distance, because contemplating what to share now, I can think of a few nuggets. 😉
Rest assured, that while I may not have been equal to the task of weekly updates, we had an unforgettable and wonderful summer. Not for one minute do we regret the “cunning plan” of finding a way to volunteer in a national park that I mentioned in the first travel log.
Lost & Found
Let’s begin with the desk job — in a headquarters building nearly devoid of people. Rangers are out in the field, and staff teleworked from home. Luckily for me there were a few folks that worked from the office which meant I had a warm body I could ask for help — like when trying to sort mail!
Mainly I processed found items that were dropped off on my desk by rangers or volunteers, logging their description into a database, and naturally, paperwork. It all got stored in an outbuilding office. Then I’d process voice mails, e-mails, and paper reports of lost items, scanning the found log to see if I could make a match, which would trigger more e-mails and calls to verify the match and determine how to get the found item returned. We were both pretty proud of some of the methods we used to make matches. I googled a fellow’s name and company to return the credit card he hadn’t yet realized he’d lost. Dave called an elementary school to get a kid’s backpack returned to his amazed parents in Idaho. Sometimes we would get a thank you, many times with the conviction that they’d “never see it again!”
Lost & Found accumulated dozens of cell phones, wallets, water bottles, hiking boots, jackets, life preservers, paddles, jewelry, ball caps, leopard print roller skates, tents, sleeping bags, swim suits, eye glasses, sun glasses, ice axes, climbing rope, back packs, toiletry bags, cameras, memory cards, and even a cooler full of beer and wine. As a sample. We assisted law enforcement rangers when guns or drugs were involved. By October first, there were about 500 found items and 500 lost items. Fortunately as I said, there was overlap and we could return found items to their owners. That was part of mail duty.
I may have had indirect communications with park visitors, but there were still some doozies! Every other day I was contacted by “Barbara” who had filed a report about a hoodie that she’d left on a bench outside a bathroom in a specific part of the park. She just could not understand what was taking the ranger so long to get her hoodie back to her after she had so carefully explained right where she’d left it! Eventually, I had enough. I wrote her back, sharing that the rangers and volunteer’s duties in the park focused on the protection of natural resources of the park and safety of park visitors, and those duties precluded their being sent to locate lost personal items. However, if a ranger or volunteer happened to find an item, it would be brought to the lost & found office to be reunited with a rightful owner. Was there anything else I could help with? Funnily enough, many folks thought I could task rangers to go retrieve their stuff!
We also got scolded. Not as much as Dave experienced at String Lake (more on that in a bit) but it still happened. In filing a Lost Item Report on the phone, and in a follow-up email, a fellow I’ll call Jake explained that he had packed too much for a hike and had left an expensive shirt folded on a tree branch in a way that clearly showed he would return for it after his hike, but some reckless volunteer ranger had taken it and he wanted it back! In every contact after this, still looking for his shirt, his description of the misbegotten son of a volunteer got more and more mean. Why wasn’t lost & found doing its job, etc. The shirt was never turned in, and I wonder just exactly how would a shirt be folded on a tree branch to indicate someone would come back and pick it up.
When we found wallets or IDs, we would send a postcard to the address on the license that asked them to contact L&F because we believed we had something of theirs. If they identified the item we of course sent it on. The wildest story of lost and then found was a license and other documents dropped off by a ranger early in our season. We sent the postcard. Dave got the call from the owner — he’d lost his wallet on a hike Last Year! Somehow the wallet contents survived a winter and spring on the slopes of the Tetons before being found. Luckily we had a secure shredder to take care of the documents.
Of course the happy endings were the best. A young woman returned from a hike near String Lake to discover that she had lost her brother’s Go-Pro camera, which had wedding photos on it. Those are the hard reports to take. The next day, Dave was on duty when a camera got turned in and a short while later the young lady stopped by to see if anyone had turned in the camera by chance. She burst into tears with the happy news.
At some point in the past, Dave and I both joined some Facebook groups focused on hiking in Grand Teton. During the season we’d see folks post that they had lost something on a trail they hiked and asked if fellow hikers saw it, would they please pick it up — they’d be happy to pay for its return. And vice versa — folks posted they had found something, please describe it and it is yours. So, I started making artwork for little public service announcements to post on social media. I got lots of comments that no one knew that there was a lost and found. We got some stuff turned in as a result and matches made.
Once a month, because the stash of found items became too much, I would purge the items that had been there more than 30 days. Some items were so dirty that we just trashed them. Prescription glasses were set aside to be donated to the Lions Club. The rest would get rounded up for a government auction. I can tell you there are some very expensive carbon fiber camera tripods with even more expensive gimbal heads going into the next Teton park auction! You just have to be willing to buy all of the tripods to get one — it’s a buy-the-lot deal.
One of our tasks was to open the mail arriving at HQ. It is policy that checks and cash be collected from the mail before the mail gets distributed around the building. I had a process for logging checks before placing them in a safe. Usually they were donations made from non-profit organizations and sometimes individuals as a memorial to a loved one. Cash usually turned up in the Junior Ranger packets or in requests that a ranger stamp a passport page with the park’s rubber stamp, and they would tuck a few dollars in as thanks or to cover postage for our sending the badges. We loved the process for handling cash! It meant walking across the street to the main visitor center and putting it in the donation box. I would always check what state the sender was from, and slide it in the slot for their state. No paperwork and a chance to stretch our legs. Of course, being in uniform, we got stopped along the way to answer a lot of questions. Everything from * is this the Visitor Center, * where are the bathrooms,
* where should I take my three and five year old on a hike, and * are there are stairs down to the river? Oh, and “Where is grizzly bear 399?”
We were fascinated to learn how the park organizes itself. It is almost as if there are mini parks within the greater park. The most famous being Jenny Lake and Colter Bay. Poor String Lake is the unloved sibling caught between the two. No one is formally assigned to keep watch over this beautiful lake, but a young ranger by the name of Jess has taken String Lake under her watchful eye — in addition to all her regular duties. Wearing the hat of Volunteer Coordinator, Jess recruited local residents to donate their time to help at the lake.
String Lake is a gorgeous, shallow water lake that warms under the summer sun, making its narrow beaches extraordinarily popular for picnics, swimming, kayaking, and paddle boarding. Water activity has exploded with the variety of inflatables available. It is also the starting point for many hikes, so parking is premium. A marshy area at one end of the lake is prime moose habitat, and late summer berries on the trail are a bear’s delight. Adding to the existing pandemonium, are the new pandemic mitigation strategies. This, is Dave’s world.
To meet it, he was issued a park radio and call sign (nothing imaginative like “Dark Cloud,” just a number), a clipboard with citations for things like illegal parking or food storage violations, dogs on trails, bikes on trails, etc. A few junior ranger badges, and a reflective vest when on parking duty. Oh yes, and a counter — to roughly keep track of how many people he would interact with each day. I think was often between 450 and 500, and once was in the 600s.
String Lake Duty
PARKING — Beach goers everywhere love to find ‘their spot’ near the water, even if it means rubbing elbows with neighbors. In an attempt to curb the crowds at the beach and increase the ability to remain six COVID feet away from others, parking was only allowed in the parking lots, not along roadways. The lots would be full by 8:30 am! Like a Walmart parking lot on Black Friday, folks would circle the lot waiting for a space to open up. In an effort to reduce this chance for vehicular trouble, the “String Lakers” stood at the entrance and one-by-one asked the drivers what they wanted to do at the lake that day. If they just wanted to picnic, the volunteers could suggest other places in the park perfect for a gorgeous picnic. If they wanted a hike — trailheads with better parking opportunities were suggested. And so on.
Many park visitors understood, and complied with the “Lot Full” sign and went on to adventures elsewhere. Some locals got mad and let the volunteers know in language that was not very becoming to the abuser. Dave lost count of the number of times he was referred to as “boy.” Others felt supremely entitled and were vocally unhappy that they had paid an “exorbitant entrance fee” ($35/7 days) and therefore were owed a parking space wherever and whenever they desired to stop their car.
Some parking lot sharks decided to create their own parking spot, sadly crushing tender vegetation. A few were so egregious it earned them a boot from law enforcement, but I am sure the String Lakers felt not enough got tickets!
PICNICS — I have to say that we were very lucky to be offered the chance to attend bear management training by one of the park’s wildlife rangers. Tyler did an excellent job — given that he had to give his power point talk in the middle of a parking lot so we could all be safely gathered outside with masks. Boy did we learn a lot! The most valuable information was the Bear 101 descriptions for reading bear body language, and learning that humans should have different reactions to bears depending on where they encounter the bear. The reactions we are all most familiar with are what we should do if we meet a bear in the back country. This night we learned what to do (as a civilian & as a volunteer) in a bear encounter in a developed (people) area. Which is what the picnic areas of the park are considered.
Maybe the most important and traditional duties of a park volunteer are to answer questions and to educate park visitors regarding safety. When not on parking lot duty, the volunteers patrol the walking paths between the picnic spots with their giant brown metal bear boxes, checking to make sure that food and other odiferous items such as sun tan lotion are not just laying around, available to a passing curious bear. Dave loved greeting folks on his rounds and then asking them what would they do if he had been a bear and not a volunteer ranger. A few times the kids had better answers than the adults — which launched him to question them about their junior ranger status. I think once or twice he deputized the kids and gave them a badge! Most adults gave an answer that would match the most common advice, which was unfortunately perfect if they were in the back country — backing away and leaving the area. Unfortunate because that will result in the bear getting a food reward and will likely need to be destroyed as a result. Once they get a taste of human food it changes their behavior, often permanently to seek human food — which makes them aggressive and dangerous and leads to their destruction. Relocating just doesn’t work. And so a large part of the volunteer effort is devoted to teaching people to keep their picnic area small and easy to pack up in a rush and ensuring they make use of the bear boxes.
Tyler’s training paid off for Dave in a big way. One afternoon a visitor reported they had seen a black bear along the beach area, and Dave went off immediately to get eyes on. Just as he got near a family with their lunch spread all over the place he told them to pack their lunch “Now!” He could see the bear ambling down the path, curious nose twitching. The mom was so flustered she forgot to close the bear box, which Dave jokes just became a giant bear larder. So, with twenty feet between himself and the bear, Dave got the box closed up and radioed the situation to dispatch and the rest of the String Lakers for backup. Then he started talking to the bear, telling it to move on, there wasn’t anything there for him. Basically he and one other volunteer kept visitors safely away and gently herded the bear along the route it was already walking. Eventually the bear decided the other side of the lake looked like more fun and swam itself across. Dave thinks it was a subadult male.
Once the area was safe the volunteers start questioning other visitors to try and get the whole picture of events. One person who had been out on his paddle board had video of the bear investigating someones’ back pack lying on the beach. The bear got a nose full of something he didn’t like and ran off — thankfully the backpack didn’t have food, but it had something that made him curious! Dave was able to share the video with wildlife management — so they can keep an eye out for the bear and see if it develops dangerous habits.
On his hikes in the back country Dave saw plenty of bears, especially when the berries were ripe. They were like people, sucking in sweet fruit as fast as possible with a focus that left little room for registering anyone or anything else.
WEATHER — As I mentioned earlier, String Lake was often used a trailhead or jumping off point for hikes. Back country camp spots could also be reached from the lake, and sometimes folks used paddle boards to get to these spots, cutting out a little hiking and a bunch of heavy lugging. Not everyone was wise to the weather and often did not think about what conditions would be like on the return trip. String Lake connects via a short portage to larger and deeper Leigh Lake., where many campsites were located. Camping gear on flat paddle boards could easily be swamped and washed off by the waves that would kick up when strong winds slid down the mountain and across the lake.
Naturally Dave was always up on the weather because he was on the look out for good hiking weather on his off days, and of course to warn the folks he encountered starting out on their grand adventures at the lake. This then led to creation of a Facebook page with daily weather maps and forecasts the String Lakers could use themselves to brief visitors.
All in all I think Dave loved the String Lake experience. While the grumpy people and outlandish behavior of a few stand out, just because it is human nature to remember the negative, the vast majority of interactions were all quite positive and even fun. Although the parking situation meant that a lot of time was unexpectedly taken up being compliance officers (parking, dogs, food, etc.) the job was most like our/your expectations of a park job would be — outside in beautiful surrounds and helping people to enjoy the park you love.
Sometimes I would think that we had an “Ask Me” bubble floating over our heads. We could get interesting questions whether we were in uniform or not. The one that sticks out the most is the first one really. Dave was out in the sagebrush field near the campground entrance, in civilian clothes, when someone asked him “Where are the Tetons?” No matter from what direction you arrived at the campground, you *had* to have driven past that gorgeous mountain range. One wonders what their expectations were that had given them the impulse to drive here and yet not recognize what they had come to see. I hope they were not disappointed when they worked it out.
Possibly the most frequently asked question went something like this: “I have __blank__ hours in the park, what should I see?” One time the answer was ‘go straight to the airport, everything you see out the window on the way is all you have time to see and still catch your plane!’ Sometimes they had three hours. Sometimes one day. Heck, we did the same thing to the volunteers in Capitol Reef!
“What is the best hike?”
“I’ve been coming here for ten years and never seen a bear. I don’t have to put my food away, there are no bears here.”
“How much is the parking ticket going to be so I can just pay it and park illegally.”
“This dog is a service dog.” “No honey, our dog is not a service dog.”
“Where is bear 399? I know you park guys know, why won’t you tell me?”
“Don’t you now who I am?!”
“We are locals. We know everything.”
“Are you a ranger?”
“We didn’t think that meant us.”
“I gotta see a moose. This is my last day in the park, where are the moose?”
“Where is the grocery store? Why isn’t there a grocery store?”
Standing in front of the HQ sign: “Is this the visitor center? Where are the bathrooms?”
“Why is the visitor center closed at 5pm — I need them to give me a pass. Can you do it?”
Sometimes the kids wanted to talk science. Geology questions, glacier questions, weather questions, animal questions. I know it delighted Dave when the kids asked really good questions – and he could answer them.
As Dave told many visitors when they asked what they should see, it is a morning park. The most famous and iconic photos are taken at sunrise, when the alpen glow first blesses the mountain peaks. The only thing that changes is what you choose to put in the foreground; rivers, trees, barns, animals, fences, etc. The element in common (aside from the mountain background) is the color. Color of the sky. Color of that first light. Color in the trees.
Dave is an artist capturing wide landscape panoramas. I’m attracted to photos that capture an animal’s gestures. So it makes any photo session an interesting expedition. We can even try photographing the same thing and the results will be wildly different. Our time here this summer was a photography treat. Dave often used his off day when I was working to go on long (and high) hikes, seeing the peaks up close, the lakes far below, and encountering moose & black bears on the trails. On Thursdays I would drop Dave off and drive straight up to the Willow Flats and Oxbow Bend area in the northern section of the park to see what animals I might find. Then leave by 3 to be on time to pick him up.
But early in our season there arrived something unusual that we were both keen to photograph; a comet.
COMET NEOWISE — Oh my gosh, this was so much fun! Our first astrophotography. I’m still learning the camera, and the night sky is a challenging subject to capture. It was lots of fun to scout locations and try and figure out where we could go to get the most recognizable silhouette of the mountains in the same frame as the comet. Excitedly using a remote timer for the first time, I held the shutter open long enough to get star trails in the image, but not long enough for the trails to look anything other than out of focus. Oh well. But to stand on the bluff at Blacktail Ponds overlook, under a sparkling canopy to feel the warm summer night breeze on your face and stare at the rare and beautiful comet with its elegant tail is something I will never forget. I absolutely loved that Dave and I were out there together creating/capturing art together. Oh, and he read the how-to books and got some gorgeous photos!! We even gave photographing the Milky Way a try for the first time. We loved it, but our work schedules did not love us — too many late nights!
SMOKE — We, and I guess the western states were very lucky for a major portion of the summer, that wildfires were few. The mountains were available as a backdrop for photographers, when ever they wanted. As we all know, eventually that ended with the horrific fires that later grew in the west. Dave’s weather report expanded to include smoke forecasts. Visitors often asked the volunteers and rangers about the smoke they saw. Many days the mountains were obscured or even obliterated by the smoke of west coast fires.
In an experiment to make lemonade out of lemons, we decided to see if we could take advantage of the smoke, since it was here. A couple times we went out at sunset to see what kind of atmospheric impact the smoke would have on the evening light. Another interesting experiment with photography. Dave got a great photo of one of the barns on Mormon Row. He made it even more unique with his post processing of the image in Lightroom by cranking up the dehaze filter which had the effect of making the colors unnaturally intense.
About two weeks before we left, over a single weekend, the park firemen had to deal with twelve fires! One was significant enough to necessitate a road closure. Each morning Dave and I would read a copy of the park’s morning report that covered things like the weather, what time the campgrounds filled, any trail closures we should know about, and the incident report — think police blotter. The incident report would cover things like gate runners, out-of-bounds campers, Search and Rescue (SAR) events (there were a lot this year), and abandoned fires still burning inside and outside fire rings. The twelve fires that particular weekend were likely the elk hunters not properly securing camp.
SAFARI with Mike Jackson — We hired the local photographer I had a lesson with last year, to take us out for a day and work specifically on improving our landscape photography skills. Adjusting to deal with COVID, we traveled in two cars and kept in touch with walkie talkies. Mike took us to some of his favorite back-road valley overlook locations, and we found some new favorites we returned to. We stopped for a brown bag lunch in a corner of a meadow the local bison herd likes to hang around. We could see them in the distance when we started lunch. As we talked and munched we could see them strung out in a line and moving at a pretty good clip. To quote Mike, “The question is why are they moving?” A threat or thirst he decided. Given the time of day and how warm it was, Mike decided it was thirst and they were headed for the watering hole — which we had passed on our way to our picnic spot. So we headed back the way we came, got the trucks turned and parked so the sun was behind us and the watering hole, and waited. Sure enough, over the rise comes this Rockette kickline of bison, shoulder to shoulder strutting their way to this muddy puddle to quench their thirst.
It was exhilarating to be so well positioned (behind the truck door) and with a long enough lens to get “in” the herd and see their faces, trying to capture every slurp, head-butt, or dirty look they gave each other. Dave, Mike, and I were all shooting as fast as our memory cards could save a file. I am not finished post-processing all the photos from this shoot! Mike gave us a lot of great technical information about taking pictures as well tips in the more subjective areas of photography and gear. It was a really great day out playing with cameras.
BEAR 399 — Yes, so, 399. 399 is the number the park service researchers gave to a female grizzly 24 years ago. Books have been written about her. She is considered the Queen of or the face of the park. Years ago, 399 figured out that if she raised her cubs near the main roads of the park, she could keep them safe from adult male grizzlies. So I’ve read. She learned that when she wants to cross the road, the wildlife brigade (usually is there) to stop traffic and let her cross the road. Essentially, she became famous by being so visible to park visitors. 24 is old in grizzly years, and when she went to den last fall, the locals figured that was the last they would ever see her. This spring she not only popped out of her den, but she paraded out with four, yes four cubs in tow! It is a rare event for a sow to have four cubs.
So now there is an absolute starved-piranha intense feeding frenzy to see and photograph this bear and her cubs. She does have an established territory that she roams in. Jackson Junction, Willow Flats, and Oxbow Bend north to Pilgrim Creek Road. Not small. The town of Jackson Hole used her image in advertising enticing people to come to the tourist town to see the bear. Social media such as Instagram further fueled the cache of saying you saw the bear. With record numbers of visitors coming to the park focused on seeing 399, it became even more of a crap shoot to see her than ever before. The crowds grew so big in anticipation and hope of seeing her that I avoided parts of the park. Parking was hopeless if there was a whiff she might be within a mile. Long story short, I gave up trying, glimpsed her once crossing the road from a few cars back in a bear jam, and wish her and the cubs a restful winter in their den.
KATHY & ANIMALS — While I did not specifically attempt to set up my camera in anticipation of seeing 399 more than once, I did try and put myself in areas where she might wander through. That strategy didn’t pay off in mammals most of the time. I took a lot of bird pictures because that is what I saw in abundance. I did use my solitary days to find and explore new-to-me access points to the river, including several stretches between the dam and Oxbow Bend, to add to my list of ‘places to take photos.’ My three favorite places were Cattleman’s Bridge, Oxbow Bend, and Schwabacher’s Landing.
Schwabacher’s is famous for beavers creating a pond that the mountains are beautifully reflected in, and exceptionally fine to photograph at sunrise and sunset. Several varieties of ducks can be found here. This year I found a quiet spot, where human visitors could not see me. I plopped down on the river bank and waited. Momma mallard and her chicks floated past. Being morning, the duckling’s down was backlit by the sun and glowed like a golden aura around their little S shaped bodies. Then a tiny bird I had never seen before (pine siskin) landed 18 inches away from me and had itself a refreshing little bath, not put off by the click of the camera shutter intruding on its morning routine. One of my favorite mornings.
Oxbow Bend is a famous spot for photographing Mt Moran reflected in the mirrored surface of a slow moving corner of the Snake River at sunrise or in fall. Over the years I have seen pelicans, cormorants, mallards, and Canadian Geese all paddling around and feeding in the waters here. Usually we were here for photos of Mt. Moran, and we did not stay longer than an hour (at least we do get out of the car, I’ve seen drive-by photography). This year I lingered to observe. Sometimes I just sat on the tailgate of the truck, munching lunch, scanning with binoculars, and just generally enjoying the view and not sitting in a cubicle.
On one morning I spotted something I could only label as “not a bird” swimming near shore. I climbed down to the waters edge and sat. Slowly I worked my way along the shore, stopping and sitting for 20+ minutes before moving on. A few yellow warblers investigated me. Eventually I worked out that I was seeing a muskrat going in and out of his den. The best part of the whole day was when the muskrat had returned to the den with a mouthful of underwater weeds and then started swimming along the shore, in my direction. I am guessing to crawl out and eat, or put food in a different den entrance. I held my breath, and barely moved the lens — because now he was too close and out of focus — when he noticed me about three feet away, and with a mighty splash was gone!
Another day I spotted four not-birds swimming around the point and realized they were river otters! So rare to see! I climbed down the bank and followed them along the water. They stuck close to the bank on the far side. The pull out was jammed with cars of people in desperate hope of seeing 399. Only 2 other people spotted the otters and followed with their cameras. I got to watch them fish and play, and fight off magpies attempting to steal their catch for over a hour! Loved it!!
My favorite may have been Cattleman’s though. Early in the season it remained largely undiscovered by crowds, but eventually the crush of people hunting 399 at Oxbow spilled over into my quiet corner of the world. Cattleman’s is the back side to Oxbow. Early in the summer I saw lots of Osprey as well as adult and juvenile Bald Eagles. One day I witnessed an Osprey catch a fish in the river, and a young bald eagle try and steal it. I saw rafts of mergansers dive feeding on the weeds and fly across the water when spooked by paddle-boarders drifting down river. We saw river otters again back here — hunting the same stretch as a bald eagle. An Eagle and otter had a bit of a staring contest. I watched two pelicans land in the backwater and preen before floating down river and allowing me to get my favorite bird portrait so far. I also really liked to take a small hike along the water to a little spit of land where I could sit and be quiet, and see what might come to me. We saw sand hill cranes and blue herons back here. As summer went on more birds migrated out. But still there was activity back here — gulls were hunting where the the osprey and eagles had. I never realized gulls were in the mountains. Five muskrats played for a few hours in the embankment across from me. Kayakers and paddle boards would come by and be startled to see someone sitting in the shrub willows. 😀
There is a dam on Jackson Lake which is open much of the summer to provide water to farmers in Idaho and south Wyoming, and water for the fly fishing and rafting companies to make money taking tourists out. Then it gets restricted to build the water back up for next year. The river gets very low very quickly, and I could now hike on river bottom to new areas. I even found a new place to photograph Mt. Moran.
Frequently on our commute to work when we did not want to be late, or on the commute home when we were dog tired, we would see animals. A bison bull in the morning sun at the top of a rise in front of The Grand Teton. A small herd of pronghorn not eating and with their heads up for a change. A lone bull moose painted gold by the setting sun. A moose and her calf being chased by an amorous suitor across the sage. And finally — it happened. That thing we had waited all season long for. Moose in camp! Once we had two bulls, half heartedly fighting with each other. One evening we had a cow and her calf munching next to the trailer. The campground closed on October 9th, but we had permission to stay a few days extra — when on the morning we were going to leave — Momma, calf, and Dad came calling. I spent a few hours outside watching them interact. It was wonderful to not have very many campground people or campers in the pictures (except of course our beautiful Airstream). It was an amazing send off!
The park staff and rangers all told us that the volunteer life is a very social life. Except this year. The big campfires, picnics, and year end dinner were all cancelled due to COVID of course. We spoke to neighbors in campsites while standing across the road. But this was a surprisingly social summer for us! Navy buddies stopped by on their trip to college orientation for their oldest. We shared a campfire while sitting six feet apart. An Airstream Addict pal stopped by to share a campfire too. We met a family that follows Dave’s RV Weather posts when they discovered we were in the same campground.
And we made friends among the rangers, staff, and volunteers we met. We even shared a campfire or two with them. Jess, the head volunteer coordinator is a lovely person and went out of her way to make sure the volunteers felt welcome and appreciated. Alex, a whiz baker, handles housing for the park and helps Jess a great deal with the volunteers. He started life in the park as their snow plow driver! Bill, a retired orthopedic surgeon was a good colleague and friend to Dave at String Lake. Many of the local volunteers work one day a week. Bill, despite living 45 minutes south of the park, comes almost every day, volunteering for people management at String Lake, patrolling bike trails, and is on ski patrol in the winter. A very dedicated volunteer! I quite liked chatting with him. Molly, a member of the Grand Teton National Park Foundation, showed us one of the early Jackson homesteads that was later incorporated into the park. A new place to love! Malak, a recent college grad and intern with the park made us a batch of the most delicious Lebanese hummus as a farewell gift.
So what about next year? Well, you know Penn Staters do seem to come out of the woodwork — and we worked with several this summer. [I got to use “We Are” in a department meeting — aren’t you proud of me Dave?!] Anyway, Dave has volunteered to work with the park’s social scientist & Penn State alum to investigate possible correlations between weather and the use of park resources over the winter.
When I noticed that all of the picnic tables have information telling people what to put in bear boxes, but none of them tell people what to do if a bear walks the trail and approaches their picnic, I volunteered to design some sign artwork they could add to the tables. So far Alex and Jess like my first draft. Jess has some other art projects in mind she’d like help with next year, and Alex thinks I can help the parks sign committee next year too. Dave had an interview with the park bear biologist who heads the Wildlife Brigade and is hoping for a spot on her team next year — turnover is slow. Fingers crossed!
For now, we are hoping to go back next year, even to our same campsite. Having been closed several months and with the concessionaires not having a normal business year to pay fees, the park is going to have some tough budget decisions. So, Jess and Alex may be willing to have us, but other department’s needs will have to be weighed as well. We shall see!
From the Road Home
Dave has handled all of the route planning and arrangements for our return home. Three things drove the direction & timing this trip: we’ve done the direct I-80 route more times than we can count and wanted something different, COVID means we won’t tour around the country and delay until Thanksgiving like last year, and I really wanted to see the National Quilt Museum in Paducah Kentucky “some day.”
We put a pin in Paducah and worked from that. Our first night was spent in the parking lot of a bowling alley in Wyoming. They had GREAT pizza. We were used to Teton county’s mask mandate, so it was a little startling to see staff and patrons alike barefaced. The state apparently left the choice up to individuals. We enjoyed our pizza in the trailer. The next night was at a golf course in Utah where we watched the last of the day’s players complete their game on the eighteenth hole, munching club house burgers as the sun set.
One of the String Lake volunteers suggested that we stop at the Capitol Reef National Park, which Dave adjusted our travel plans to include. Wow! It was our introduction to the ‘big five’ parks in Utah that feature massive and stunning rock formations. We stayed two nights about 45 minutes away in a town of three gas stations, an RV park, and two restaurants. The Mexican restaurant opened after COVID — and had some of the best tacos I have ever had. The margaritas were pretty good too! The park rangers gave us great information and we enjoyed hiking their top trail suggestions. Although I did pass on one — the trail was too close to the canyon edge for me, but Dave enjoyed it. And we did share a cherry pie made from the fruit trees left by the Mormon settlers that the park service maintains and takes advantage of. A great visit for photography too!
We stopped at a great little winery at the base of a mesa on the San Juan river, and camped under several massive cottonwood trees the color of campfire flames. I think we liked every wine that we tasted, so much so that more than one bottle found its way into the camper.
Outside Albuquerque we stayed at the campground we will use as stop over on our way, if all goes well, to the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta next fall. It was nice, flat, and clean. The camp also had a collection of old Hudson cars and vintage campers situated around the park. One looked like it could have been a prop in Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s Long Long Trailer movie. We stayed a day to do laundry and visit the National Petroglyph Monument.
From there we passed into New Mexico and stayed the night at an alpaca farm, even helping with chores and getting up close and personal with the farm tenants. Great fun! But ooh-boy, it was windy! The gritty soil blew into the trailer despite the windows being closed.
Our next night was in the parking lot of the Stafford Air & Space museum, paying tribute to a local boy who made good and became a general in the Air Force and an astronaut.
Dave had a long business call on the schedule, and luckily found a spot in the Tinker Air Force Base on Oklahoma family campground with full hook ups. Maybe the worst cell signal since leaving the Tetons! Our next night was to be another harvest host location, however someone had already reserved their one space and so Dave had to replan. By making the next day a long drive day, we could get to a private campground still open in the Ozarks. We crossed Oklahoma on a nice smooth toll road, and then the fog rolled in at the Missouri border. It was a scary trip for the last two hours or so. Many drivers did not have their lights on, road signs were almost impossible to see, and we needed to make a U-turn on the foggy highway to get to the entrance of the campground — they did not have median breaks for a lot of cross traffic. But we made it. The camp owner is very friendly. We are level, hooked up, and don’t have to drive. Too bad the fog has not burned off so that we could explore some of the beautiful sites the brochures assure us are just outside. Next up is Paducah and the much anticipated (by me) quilt museum!
We have 1,068 miles to go before we back into the driveway, prepare the rig for winter, and settle into enjoying our lovely home, holiday preparations, and tuck into the projects that have laid in wait for our return. And yet it is impossible to avoid a tingle of anticipation, circling a date on the calendar, of mental planning for a second year in the park, this time as ‘seasoned’ volunteers, in Grand Teton National Park.
Stay safe. Be well.