Saturday, September 23, 2006

The Yellowstone Saga (with photos!)

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Day One: Enrico flies into Bozeman and drives to the nearby resort where Flora has been staying on business - seeing moose on his way up. The temperature has dropped 50 degrees in four days, and the weather is threatening snow. But we're excited to be heading into Yellowstone and we will not be daunted by weather!

Day Two: We wake up to snow on the hillside outside our hotel, and a good couple of inches on the car. We drive to West Yellowstone for lunch, and then into the park. On our first roadside stop in the park, we see a gaggle of girl elk running, running across a field. We've seen many elk before, but usually grazing calmly. What's up? Then we see the male - full head of antlers, bugling his mating call, chasing after them. It's mating season! We see this several times, and get used to the sound of bugling elk in the background. We also see our first bison, and play chicken with a bison walking down the road straight at our car. Since bison weigh 1200 pounds, they always win this game.

It's cold, never above freezing, and we spend the day in and out of the car seeing hydrothermal sites. Not just geysers, but steaming pools of amazing colors, steaming vents, bubblng cauldrons of mud and sulfuric acid. It's unbelievable how much of it there is.

We arrive at the historic Old Faithful Inn, built in 1904, a stunning log creation that's like Laura Ingalls Wilder meets Hogwarts. The towering lobby has three tiers of balconies with comfy leather furniture and old writing desks, with a big sunken fireplace below. A catwalk climbs all the way to the roof, but it's been closed since a 1959 earthquake. The rooms are rustic to say the least, and big fluffy snowflakes are falling at sundown. Before dark we go to see the Old Faithful Geyser blow - of course! Enrico likes it so much he goes for a second show while I sip hot tea on the upper balcony.

At 4 am, the neighbor's radiator starts making a noise like somebody is hammering on it with a crowbar. The lone kid at the front desk doesn't seem to believe us that this isn't just the normal tapping of an old radiator. The entire wing is awake. I hunker on one of the old couches in the lobby balcony and read a book about pioneer women on the Oregon trail, which puts my sleepless situation in perspective. It's a bad night of sleep, but it's still worth it to see this historic building.

Day Three: En route to our next lodgings, we hike along Lewis Lake to the Lewis River. Yellowstone experienced a huge fire in 1988, and this defines the views in much of the park. We hike through a burned area, seeing sculpture-like burned trunks surrounded by young new growth. It's still cold, but above freezing, and we lunch on cheddar-and-bison-salami sandwiches. We finish the day at the West Thumb Geyser Basin, seeing more unblievable hydrothermal features right on the shores of Lake Yellowstone - largest high-altitude lake in North America (who knew?). We arrive out our lodgings at Grant Village - modern - and enjoy showers.

Day Four dawns with a clear blue sky for the first time since we arrived. What a difference sunlight makes! We head north to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, which was just the Grand Canyon until people noticed the one in Arizona. To get there we cross the Hayden Valley, a wide, grassy valley of the Yellowstone River which is home to lots of animals. We see coyotes, and of course the ubiquitous elk and bison.

The canyon itself does not come out well in our photos - gold, white, red, umber rock with two large falls, 100 and 300 feet respectively. A rainbow glistens off the lower falls as we descend into the canyon. Lots of people are here. It's an amazing view, and we have lunch at the much-painted Artist's Point.

After lunch we want to get away from the crowds, so we pick a hike away from the breathtaking canyon and out into the dry, rolling hills of Hayden Valley. We've spent a lot of time in the great outdoors, but I have a strong feeling here of being in wilderness in a way that I've rarely experienced elsewhere. At the crest of every hill, coming out of each patch of trees, we respectfully check all directions to ensure we aren't startling any animals, since we are guests in their home. In the springtime, this valley is closed to people because the bears come to forage. We see only bison, and give them a wide berth. It's 3 miles in to a lovely stream surrounded by blueberry bushes - happily past their fruitful season, since we have no desire to interrupt a grizzly's dining.

Day Five: On the day we saw the bear and stood amid a stream of moving bison, we had decided to get up early in order to seek out early-morning wildlife, and also to cover the 100+ miles of park roads en route to our next night's lodgings. The room clock read 7:10 am as we lugged our bags downstairs and headed for the restaurant under dark but brilliantly starry skies. The restaurant was locked up tight, despite a posted 7 am opening time, as was the dining room proported to open even earlier at 6:30. This didn't surprise us much, as the whole park seemed to be in an unpredictable, transitional limbo-time between Labor Day and the start of snow season. Breakfast and coffee would be available somewhere up the road. I shivered in the dark car while Enrico scraped thick, stubborn ice off the windows. As he swung himself into the driver's seat, I said "Honey?" and pointed at the dashboard. We both stared stupidly at the glowing digits, which inexplicably but undeniably read: 5:36 am.

I remembered waking up during the night and realizing that the power had gone out, that the clock was blinking at me. So I re-set it - apparently for a random time approximately 90 minutes too early. So here we are. No wonder it's so dark, and nobody's serving breakfast.

We decide to press on anyway; going back to sleep for an hour would just leave us feeling groggy and terrible. So we drive in the pitch darkness along the shores of Lake Yellowstone, and see the first glimmers of light through the Hayden Valley to the ever-present bugling of the elk. Nothing is open for breakfast at the Canyon, so we eat some snacks and press on. We're now on roads that are new to us, and we climb, climb, climb into the mountains and see the brilliant orange sunrise from a roadside mountain viewpoint, as if it were just arranged for us.

We see a grizzly bearcub eating at the side of the road. We see mountain goats, and coyote. We pass through the Roosevelt Lodge - closed up for the season, so still no morning coffee - and head for a detour out the Lamar Valley, which is where wolves are most often visible. There is a resident pack there year-round, and researchers and groupies alike have monitored their movements closely since wolf were reintoduced in 1995. The wolves have some die-hard fans, set up with their long lenses and lounge chairs. But alas, we have just missed the wolves, who just headed off into the trees.

It's fine though. We see antelope for the first time, staple food for wolves, bears and mountain lions. Their casual ease tells us the wolves aren't coming back soon. We come to a huge herd of bison - probably a few hundred spread out around the spacious valley - and they are moving across the road. We have no choice but to pull over, and we stand behind the protection of our car and watch them cross. A big bull bison has picked his mate and is keeping her close, bellowing a warning at fellow bison and humans alike not to interfere with his plans. We hunker closer to the car.

By the time we get to Mammouth Hot Springs and breakfast, we have been driving for five hours and I have a caffeine-withdrawal headache, but it was well worth it. Mammouth is the site of the park headquarters in the original Fort Yellowstone, from which the U.S. Cavalry protected the park in its earliest days from poaching and destrusction. It feels like the classic little military fort, with the pretty officer housing around a big open green.

The sites around Mammouth are hydrothermal but of a totally new kind. The boiling water comes up through soft rock, unable to form the plumbing of geysers and pools. Instead, the minerals dissolve and then as the water seeps out on the surface, it forms elaborate terraces and slides and mineral formations turned brilliant colors by the heat-loving organisms called thermophiles. Where hot water still flows, you see color; where it does not, the formations turn a brilliant, pure white. Long term dormancy means the terraces crumble into shades of grey, like a black-and-white photograph. But things are always shifting underground, and all of the hydrothermals can switch between dormant and live at any time. We hike up, up, up the terraces to a spectacular view of the valley. It's hot, and we're in short sleeves. The ecosystem is different yet again here, and prickley pear cactus are common.

We spend the night in little cabins, rustic but comfortable. Our last night in the park.

Day Six: One the way out, we stop for a short walk to Boiling River, where a hot spring pours into the Gardner River and creates a popular swimming spot. It's cooler and drizzling today, but Flora takes her boots off and wades in for a soak. We also take a short hike along the Yellowstone River, seeing big-horned sheep for the first time on the trip. And then, we are out of the park.

On to Bozeman for lunch - very cute little downtown! - and to the airport. We drive through pouring rain and the airport is socked in by fog. It seems fitting that the weather should make yet another dramatic swing as a parting show of force. We loved this park - absolutely loved it. How is it that we've never been here before? How is it that we didn't know how diverse it is? It reminds me of the Vatican Museum, where you start out looking at every piece of art in detail, until you realize how much there is and by the end, you are swept along in a sea of humanity, numbly passing one Raphaeli fresco after another. It's a park that begs another visit.

Or, there was that great little bookstore for sale in West Yellowstone...who knows!

1 comment:

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