Ruffled Feathers and Spilled Milk

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Happy Birthday, America. Bear Territory.

Posted on | July 18, 2016 | No Comments

We stopped at Mount St Helens visitor center on Spirit Lake Highway on our way out of Washington state.

The video and the interactive displays had lots of information on the eruption. The pictures of the volcano before and after its eruption in 1980 were startling but the damage was easy enough to see with the naked eye.  Just outside the center was a view of the volcano with its top almost completely blown away.

Surrounding the center was nature trail where we could see how the land renewed itself.

We spent the night in Portland and then made a big push on to Yellowstone.  For 12 hours, the longest straight drive we made during the trip, we wound our way through Oregon before breaking away for Idaho.  We traveled through the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area which, of course, followed the Lewis and Clark Highway.  This then was the Pacific Northwest I had always imagined—lush forest, wide rivers, towering rock outcroppings, small towns nestled in valleys.

But I had not pictured the massive dams along the Columbia River.  I never knew about these gigantic fixtures but the The Dalles and the John Day Dam could not be missed.

On through Boise and Idaho Falls until we finally reached West Yellowstone.  We allotted 2 days for Yellowstone, which anyone can tell you is not enough to see everything the park has to offer.  Yellowstone was far more crowded than any of the other parks we visited and had an entirely different vibe.  The first thing we noticed was all the bear warnings.  There were signs posted everywhere warning us to be “Bear Aware!”  The rangers distributed bear pamphlets, bear spray was being sold and rented at the visitor centers, all the campgrounds had bear warnings, and last bear sightings were posted at trail heads.  I wasn’t really worried about bears until we got to Yellowstone.  Then every time I caught a glimpse of buffalo fur over a hill or on the horizon I was sure I was about to be mauled by a grizzly.

But it wasn’t bears that met us at the entrance.  Instead, we had our first sighting of elk.  We heard an elk bellowing in the woods back at Custer State Park in South Dakota but we hadn’t seen a single one in any of the parks or even along the roads.  At Yellowstone they are all over the area.

We headed north through the park stopping along the way at Gibbons Falls….

Norris Geyser Basin….

Roaring Mountain….

Obsidian Cliff….

and Mammouth Hot Springs.

We exited into Gardiner for the night and discovered that even the tourist towns close by 10pm.  Which left us eating our canned food at the Yellowstone River Motel.  But the next morning I discovered Gardiner did have a laundromat, a coffee shop with a bookstore (!!!), and a passable diner for breakfast.  We entered Yellowstone under the Roosevelt arch….

and proceeded to wait in line to enter the park.  Like I said, Yellowstone was crowded.  The overlooks were so full we often had to wait to take a picture and parking was scarce.  If there are going to be capacity limits set at any park, it should definitely be Yellowstone.  Still the elk greeted us upon arrival….

and we made it to Undine Falls….

and hiked to Wraith Falls….

and visited the Petrified Tree….

before hitting the slew of photographers at Slough Creek watching the wolf den.  We could see the wolf den without binoculars—-it’s the little sandy depression to the left of the stand of dead trees.  But there wasn’t any wolf activity while we there.  One of the photographers did get some video of the pups the day we were there, though.

I was disappointed that we didn’t get to see the wolf pack out and about but it was still cool to see their habitat up close and personal.  So we made our way along Slough Creek looking for a better viewpoint of the den.

Only to have a freaking bear get between us and our car!

Oh, no, wait….it’s a buffalo.

We stopped at a beautiful meadow and hiked up the steep grade to the top.  Nothing but the wind in the grass and birds twittering.

The trail grew very steep and the top was deceptively far away.  3 of the kids bailed and headed back down to the car, which I figured was safe enough since we could see them from our vantage point.  Me, Little, and The Other Half continued up, panting ans gasping for air.  Well, 2 of us were panting and gasping for air.   One of us had no problem at all.

At the top we looked back at our tiny kids by our tiny car and saw a tiny bear making his way in their direction!  Good thing the car (their only hope for safety) was locked and I had the keys!

I waved frantically to the kids, trying to indicate the bear, but they just waved back with their tiny, helpless arms.   I started rushing down the trail.  Luckily, before I had a heart attack, I got close enough to see it was just another buffalo.

Stupid bear warnings.

As we made our way through the park, the Yellowstone River that looked like this outside our motel in Gardiner….

morphed into this….

before tumbling over Tower Falls.

And then into this, called Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon….

before falling over the upper and lower falls.

The scenery from Tower-Roosevelt to Hayden Valley didn’t seem real.  The sight from every overlook was a postcard.  Yet despite the crowds, very few people ventured onto the trails between vistas.  Which meant if you were willing to forego the wooden walkways and stairs for, you know, death from a sudden slip and fall into the canyon….

then you had the trail all to yourself.

It was after Lookout Point that we saw our first actual bear.  An irritated park ranger stood in the road directing traffic and pushing people back out of the brush.  I asked him what was going on and he huffed angrily, “There’a bear sleeping in the grass.  Not moving.  You can’t even see it.  Nothing to see at all.”  Then he rushed off to haul back another tourist who had bypassed the “Keep Back ” signs he had spread along the road.

We had noticed that the Yellowstone rangers were always irritated.  Earlier we saw a ranger holding up traffic as elk crossed the road.  He had lights flashing on his vehicle, more of those plastic “Keep Back” signs and another irritated ranger with him.  Later we found a ranger in the road angrily blowing his whistle at the traffic, urging cars along with hostile hand gestures.  When I asked a photographer setting up a camera tripod nearby what was going on, he told me there was black bear walking along the road.  I’ll admit those grumpy rangers were just too much resist.  Because after we finished our trail, we headed back to where a group of 50-75 people were jostling the ranger in the weeds.

Sure enough there was black bear, resting under a tree.  Except she wasn’t sleeping as much as she was lazing around, her ears swiveling to the sounds of the crowd, her big head coming up on occasion to scope us out.

And what the ranger forgot to mention when he was telling us there was nothing to see was that up in the branches of the tree were her 2 cubs.  Maybe stashed for safekeeping.  Maybe just too boisterous to sit still while momma took a break.

When we had our fill of gaping at the critters we headed back to our car, wondering why the rangers were so irritated.  Didn’t they want to share the wildlife of Yellowstone with the tourists?  Didn’t they relish showing such wonders to the people?  Didn’t they want to have to throw themselves into the oncoming path of a pissed off momma bear in order to save a bunch of tourists that got so close and so loud that the bear finally rose up to chase them off?  Jeez.  Rangers.

After the bears and all the majestic terrain in Canyon Valley, the Mud Volcano area with mud caldron, sour lake, and sulfur caldron was a bit um,…underwhelming.  In addition to smelly and eye-burning.

Dragons Mouth Spring did make me wonder, though.  The cave belched smoke and emitted rumbles and growls from the pressure of the hot springs deep inside and water splashing in the cave.  I wondered what Native people and early explorers made of these formations.  Did they understand the heat of the earth’s core and the causes of these remarkable features?  Surely they were shrouded in mystery and magic.

As a matter of fact, even as I stood beside signs explaining the geysers, the springs, the chemicals, and the steam, the thermal features seemed mysterious and surreal.

To look into the center of the earth.

Feel the heat of the inner core carried in the breeze.

We had a quick dinner at the terminus of the Yellowstone River, where its magnificent run ends in Yellowstone Lake.  The chilly wind off the lake certainly cleared our heads of the sulfur and ammonia from the geyser basin, but we missed the blasts of undergound heat as we huddled at our picnic table.

Then we hit the our last Yellowstone waterfall, the Kepler Cascades….

and stayed until dusk to see the eruption of Old Faithful.

I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings but both the Castle Geyser and the Beehive Geyser had better, longer lasting eruptions while were there.  I’m just sayin’.

As we headed for our hotel, we left the geyser basin slowly smoking in our wake.  And I wondered again what early people thought about the steaming pools, the crusted, cracked surface.  I marveled at this evidence of the earth at work beneath our feet, eternally awake even as we slept. All of Yellowstone sprinkled with these features so rare everywhere else in the world.

We had a late night back in West Yellowstone that involved a lost dog, a lost cop, and 2 meal vouchers for 6 people.  It was exhausting to live though and way too exhausting to retell.  But the next morning we were up and at it again, stopping by the geothermals we had missed, including the colorful Grand Prismatic Spring and the hot springs surrounding it.

There were a million more trails we could have hiked and more vistas to see, but there were still a thousand more miles between us and home and a whole lot more country to see.  So we headed south, crossing over the Continental Divide again, and following the Lewis River out of Yellowstone.

And the elk gave us a last fabulous farewell.

Thank you, elk.  Thank you, Yellowstone.

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