Tuesday, May 20, 2014

2014--May: Yellowstone Safari

Bison on the hillside in the Lamar Valley
Third Trip to Yellowstone in May 2014

Yellowstone is my sanctuary.  I love it there.  I love all parts of the park.  I love it in all the seasons that I have viewed it in.  I have never been in the winter.  That's on the bucket list for next winter or the one after that.  I hope we can go.  I have a dear friend who is a snowcoach guide in Yellowstone in the winter.  I want him to take us.

On Monday and Tuesday the 12th and 13th of May, I celebrated my thirtieth anniversary with my best friend, my lover, my soulmate, my girlfriend, my wife.  Thirty great years.  We're hoping for another thirty and then we'll wing it from there.

We saw a lot of animals last week and so on the weekend we asked our boys if they wanted to go to Yellowstone to try to see some bears.  They worked out their schedules and we headed out at about ten o'clock Saturday Morning.  Our good friends, the Whitings were following our good example and spent the night at the Old Faithful Inn for their anniversary as well.  We talked about meeting up somewhere in the park.  We ended up doing so later in the day.

Our mission was to see as many animals as we could.  Mission accomplished.  Our route through Yellowstone was as follows:

Rexburg, Idaho to West Yellowstone, Montana
West entrance to Madison Junction
Madison Junction to Norris Junction
Norris Junction to Mammoth Hot Springs
Mammoth Hot Springs to Tower Junction
Tower Junction to the Lamar Valley
....and back again

As a boy, growing up in West Yellowstone, we went into the park a great deal.  Because of work schedules, though we only visited things in about a thirty mile radius.  We spent most of our time in Old Faithful and the Upper and Lower Geyser Basins in the south and Norris Geyser Basin in the north.  About once a summer we'd make it to Canyon, but that was cutting it close when we had to be back for a show.  About every five or ten years we'd end up at Mammoth.  I don't ever remember seeing Tower Falls as a young boy.

As an adult, moving back to the area, I have had an opportunity to explore the parts of Yellowstone that I never did when I was young.  Before, I lived minutes away from the West Entrance and saw only a fraction of the park.  Now I live an hour and a half away and have seen many times more wonders of Yellowstone than I had as a child.  And I have barely scratched the surface!  I have already been three times this May.  I'm looking to go to Yellowstone at least two more times before June!  I can't get enough.

Last year I got myself involved in a play.  I played a main character in "She Stoops to Conquer."  It was fun and I don't regret it, but it cut short my Yellowstone adventuring.  I'm making up for lost time now.

First Leg:  Rexburg to West Yellowstone
Nothing too earthshattering here, but it's neat to drive through Island Park, Idaho before getting to Yellowstone.  It's about fifty miles through primitive land with limited development.  Gets you in the mood. We Usually only make a couple of stops in Island Park.  If there are swans on Swan Lake and close to the road we'll stop to get a picture.  We almost always stop at the rest stop just this side of the Montana line.  There is a natural spring there that has been tapped and plumbed through a rock fountain called Howard Springs.  It's still too cold for the fountain to be online, but we stopped anyway.

Swan on Swan Lake.  First picture of the day, maybe the best picture of the day.

Another pic of the swan

Sandhill Crane grazing at Swan Lake

Band of Pronghorns on the Henry's Lake Flats

Nice pic of the spring water runoff at Howard Springs

The fountain at Howard Springs.  Still snowbound 
Second Leg:  West Yellowstone to Norris Junction
The first stop we made in Yellowstone was at Terrace Spring.  The locals all know it as Bathtub.  They call it that because they used to use it that way.  Bathtub was one of the nicest hot pots in the park.  I have done my share of hot potting, but never at Bathtub.  My brother Lloyd spent a considerable amount of time at Bathtub in his youth.  One time he arrived to a bunch of revelers already in the spring.  They were being loud and obnoxious.  Lloyd started chatting with them, asking them if they were having a good time.  They said, "Yes."  He said, "Good, because I'm a park ranger and I'm going to have to write all of you tickets!"  He said he had never seen naked people move so fast in his life.  When they had cleared out, he stripped off and climbed in and enjoyed the evening in peace.

We stopped at Bathtub, er Terrace Spring and walked the boardwalk.

Buffalo Wallow at Terrace Spring

The first thermal feature at Terrace Spring

The granddaddy of all hot pots, Bathtub Spring

Headwaters of Terrace Spring

Terrace Spring

Sinter near one of the features at Bathtub

Slimy goo at Bathtub

More slimy goo at Bathtub

And even more slimy goo at bathtub

Small thermal feature surrounded by yellow monkeyflowers

Closer look at the yellow monkeyflowers

The Hot Chick and the boys at Terrace Spring

Me and the boys at Terrace Spring (I know that is bad grammar.  I did it on purpose)

The Hot Chick and Me at Terrace Spring.  (See I do know the right way to say it)

The view at Terrace Spring
Third Leg:  Norris to Mammoth
On the road to Mammoth Hot Springs is a side road called, "Sheepeater Cliff."  It's a cliff of columnar jointed basalt.  It's about thirty or forty feet tall and very easy to climb.  There is a field of toppled columns at the base that you have to scamper across before you get to the cliff.  Once there, the route is very easy to the top.

When we arrived there were three grad students from the University of Colorado, all studying engineering. One was named Osama and he was from Egypt, one named Alehandro and he was from Spain and one from San Diego named Mike.  Nice guys.  When we pulled  up, the Hot Chick saw them picking their way tentatively across the toppled columns so she told the boys to "show them how it's done!"  It was kind of naughty of her to do that, but it was fun too.  The boys scurried up the cliff pretty fast and Osama said, "I'm not that young!"  All the grad students eventually made it to the top and we had a nice visit.  I didn't get a photo of them.  Feel bad about that.

Rhys scampering up Sheepeater Cliff

Garrett summiting

Haydn went up so fast I couldn't get a picture of him climbing
We had intended to take a dip in the Boiling River which is where the hot water from Mammoth Terrace pours into the Gardiner River, but due to the high water levels from the spring runoff, that section was closed. We had hoped to get in there before the summer crowds.  Maybe we'll have to go in the fall.  The Gardiner River is legal to swim in and it's a place we love to go.  The Boiling River is situated approximately at the 45th parallel by the way.

45th Parallel sign

Fourth Leg:  Mammoth to Tower Junction
Last week we stopped at Undine Falls and I posted a pic of a bison skeleton that had winter killed.  I wanted to show the boys that.  I didn't take anymore pictures of it this time since nothing had really changed. While at the Undine Falls stop, I found a wildflower I had never observed before.  I identified it later as American Pasqueflower.  It's very pretty

Undine Falls
American Pasqueflower



Side view

Cool mossy texture

I liked the juxtaposition of the sage and pine needles.  The mottled light from the sun through the trees didn't hurt either.

Our next stop on this leg was at Petrified Tree.  I can only remember going to petrified tree one time in my youth.  Now we go several times a year.  There were a couple of large bull bison in repose in the small canyon.  We were telling some people about the other features in the canyon and Haydn decided to show them and climbed the mountain.  Rhys and Garrett couldn't be outdone so they climbed it too.  So I had to climb it as well.  Sometimes we even go see the petrified tree.  We didn't this time.  The canyon is rich in wildlife and a little later in the season it will be covered in wildflowers.  The petrified tree is only one of the wonders in that small canyon.  We have seen bears in the canyon the last three years.  Wonderful place.

Haydn up the mountain

Big ole bull bison

...and his buddy

Another American Pasqueflower.  

Might be a thistle, might not.  Haven't identified it yet

This might be another petrified tree.  Didn't investigate closely enough.  If it is,
there are a dozen or so of these up the mountain where we climbed

The view from the mountain
Fifth Leg:  Tower to The Lamar Valley
The Lamar Valley has been referred to as "America's Serengeti."  It's said that the diversity of life in this valley is greater than anyplace else on earth.  I don't know if that is true or not, but when I'm in Yellowstone it's easy to speak in superlatives.

Just past the Tower Junction we saw a band of pronghorns.  Most of them were minding their own business, eating, moving around, paying no attention.  But the pronghorn in the foreground was stock still.  The only thing that moved on it were it's ears.  It was all attention.  I had read about sentry behavior in animals before but I had never notice it before this spring.  The first animal I saw doing it was a yellow bellied marmot.  This pronghorn was the second.  I'm certain I have seen the behavior many times, it's just the first time I've recognized it for what it was.

We continued down that road and stopped for a herd of bighorn sheep.  There were between twenty and thirty of them in two groups.  Many of the rams had a full curl in their horns.  It was pretty spectacular.  Add into that a couple of blacktail deer for a bonus and it was a really cool event.

Later on, down the road we saw around a thousand bison, a hundred pronghorns and three grizzly bears way off in the distance. On my photo of them they look like specks but we viewed them through a spotting scope and they were grizzlies for sure.  The Lamar Valley is where our friends caught up with us.  They spent the morning watching a couple of grizzlies on the Hayden Plateau.  So by the time they caught up with us, their bear count was at two.

We stopped for some bison and visited with our friends.  While I was talking to Richard I turned just in time to see a wolverine cross the road.  Unfortunately I didn't have the camera with me, so I didn't get a shot of it. Richard saw it too, though so I'm not fibbing.  Later in the day, at a bear jam I told a young ranger I had seen a wolverine and he said he was jealous.  Definitely a first for me.  I hope it won't be the last time I see one.

The pronghorn sentry

Herd of bighorn sheep

Ram with full curl and a blacktail deer to boot

Juvenile male bighorn sheep

Blacktail deer hanging out with the sheep

Add a raven in for good measure.  I think this one reported to Odin

Bison rolling around

Only a few weeks old, this baby bison is already growing horns


At the treeline, there are three specks that are actually grizzly bears.

Bison climbing the mountain

Sixth Leg:  There and Back Again
On the way home, we saw seven more bears and a moose.  We also stopped and hiked to Tower Falls.  I didn't get a picture of the falls, unfortunately.  I'll get it at another time.  We're just a little aggravated because our friends' bear count is two higher than ours!  We saw ten, they saw twelve!  Richard and Bev, now it's on!  I need to go back and see thirteen!

We saw our first bears between Tower Junction and Tower Falls.  It was a sow black bear with three cubs. Think of the three cubs from the Disney movie "Brave" and you have seen these bears.  They were cute and after awhile they all ran to a tree and climbed it.  If I have ever seen that before it was when I was very young and I don't remember it now.  They were very cute.  That put our bear count to seven, but our friends bear count to nine!

We headed back toward Mammoth and a few miles west of Petrified Tree we saw a photographer with a giant telephoto lens.  I looked across the valley and there was a brown colored black bear.  Black bears come in black, brown and cinnamon.  This bear put to rest the saying about if a bear does certain things in the woods.  I got it on film but I won't show it here...  Bear count 8.

A few miles past that bear, the road broke out into a meadow and there was another black bear there.  It was fatter than the other bears I have seen this year.  I don't know if it was still pregnant or if it just had a good winter.  It was a big bear though.  Bear count 9.

We stopped in Mammoth for the obligatory ice cream, then we headed for home.
Somewhere between Mammoth and Norris we stopped for a moose that was across the valley.  I really need a bigger lens for the camera!  Don't have 13 grand for one though.  Yeah, that's how much some of them cost.

Shortly after the moose we stopped again for a cinnamon colored black bear.  Bear count 10.  Whiting's bear count 12!

Black bear sow with three cubs

Three cubs up a tree

Shooting star

Brown black bear

Black bear


Cinnamon black bear

We had a marvelous time in Yellowstone.  The only problem was it was too short.  I want to get back and soon.  Maybe this weekend!

Body Count
Bison             1000+
Pronghorn        100+
Bighorn Sheep   25ish
Elk                    10ish
Bears                10
Swans                2
Blacktail Deer    2
Moose               1
Wolverine          1

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