Monday, August 22, 2011

Yellowstone, Part A

June 11 – 16
Cledith and Dinah drove us to Bozeman on Saturday, where we met the NWF group near the bronze bear in the Airport waiting area.  The group leader was named Steve, as was the assistant leader, so those names were easy to remember.  The names of others in the group have not stuck with me so well.  There was another grandmother-grandson combination, but he (Lyndon) was only five years old (almost six).  They rode in the same van as we did during the tour, and he and Blake hit it off well, amused each other, and offered each other respite from the old fogeys.  There were a couple of pushy amateur photographers from New York in the other van, with whom I didn’t interact much, a female minister from Maine (also a photographer, less annoying), a couple from Hilton Head with whom I also didn’t interact much although they rode in the same van (she was carsick and peevish most of the time) and another couple from Pennsylvania, very nice, who moved into our van about half-way through the trip.  He had had a quadruple bypass and walked slowly, whereas she was quite athletic, but not aggressive.  So I had a walking companion for the treks around geysers on the last couple days of the tour; he took it slow for the sake of his heart and I walked slowly because my lungs wouldn’t allow a faster pace.  Blake was almost always up ahead with the other boy, except for the day we spent at Old Faithful, where he and I explored things together, and he was sweet and helpful.
I took a few notes during the trip, but had no time to write up anything during the course of the five days in Yellowstone.  The following impressions are reconstructed (July 6) from those notes and recollections. 
After we left the airport, we drove east from Bozeman to Livingston in view of the Absaroka Mountains, and then headed south to Gardiner, at the north entrance of Yellowstone.  During that drive, we stopped several times to view wildlife:  trumpeter swans, a female moose, elk, and bighorn sheep.  In Gardiner, we ate (buffalo burgers) and afterwards had a very interesting presentation by Jim Halfpenny on the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone.  He is a wildlife biologist and one of those involved in that original effort.  His talk included updated information on the numbers and locations of current wolf packs, as well as commentary on how wildlife managers were dealing with reactions to wolves by humans living outside the park who feel threatened by wolves that stray from the park.  He was, however, optimistic, and felt that the reintroduction project was successful, and that wolves are now firmly established in the area.  That evening, we stayed at a hotel in Mammoth Hot Springs, inside the park.
On the next day, we awoke early and left the hotel at 6:00 AM.  The day was gray, with intermittent rain and sun.  We drove through the Lamar Valley toward the north-east entrance; Steve thought this was the best area to look for wolves, but we didn’t see any.  However, we did see two coyotes, and we also saw herds of bison with their calves – on the road and off.  A fascinating sight was a bear (probably a grizzly), first spotted swimming across a small lake toward a herd of bison.  When the bison became aware of him, they began to run, and he seemed to run after them.  The bear’s running speed was rapid, matching the speed of the bison, which soon rounded up into a tight herd next to a steep incline.  Then the bear just ran on past them, not slowing his speed, as if he were really chasing different prey.   We also saw prong-horn sheep, mule deer, a couple of female moose with young, and elk; later in the day, we spotted a black bear with cub.  Whenever someone spotted an animal, both vans would pull over, the guides would set up spotting scopes, and we could watch, either through the scopes or with our own binoculars, as the animals went about their lives.  Their lives consisted mostly of eating (grazing) and caring for their young.  Indeed, the chief theme of the trip seems to have been babies, babies, babies.  We saw baby moose, and baby bears, and baby elk, and baby deer, as well as innumerable baby bison (called red-dogs).  Whenever we saw another herd of bison, Lyndon would shout out:  “Red-dog, red-dog.”  The immense fertility of nature was everywhere obvious (when left alone by humans) and poignant, as the land awakened from its harsh winter sleep.
We left the north-east entrance of Yellowstone, driving outside the park toward Cooke City through Beartooth Pass in the Beartooth Mountains.  That road had been opened just a day or two previously.  Snow escarpments along the roadside were taller than a person; Blake clambered up over the snow cliffs with most of the others in the group.  I didn’t climb onto the snow but got some great photos of scenery and of others in the snow.  Along the switch-backs going up to the pass and back down, we saw a couple of ski-gliders trying to harness wind and snow to give them a long, spectacular, swerving slide down the mountains.  In that gusting air and wildly uneven snow-scape, it was obviously not easy to keep glider cords from entangling.
We came back to our Mammoth Hot Springs hotel in late afternoon.  Before dinner, I went to the ranger station there, saw a video on Yellowstone, and bought a couple of books on geology.  The contours and movement of the earth fascinate me at least as much as the animals, having come to take a much longer view of time with age.  Yellowstone lies in the caldera of an ancient volcano of gigantic proportions, greater than anything that has blown through the earth in recorded history.  It lies over a “hot spot” in Earth’s crust (rather like the Hawaiian Islands), which has moved, relative to the surface, about thirty miles in the past two million years.  During that time, three huge eruptions ahve occurred.  Now the heat energy below just drizzles onto the land in steam vents and bubbling mud, but it could blow again at any time and if it does, it could lead to a global disaster as devastating as a nuclear war.

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