Phil Rambles

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    Mon, 22 Aug 2005

    Is Yellowstone awesome, or what?
    A couple of weeks ago we went to Yellowstone and environs for a 10-day trip: 2 days in Bozeman with a friend, three days in the Yellowstone backcountry with said friend and another friend, and 3+ days in the Lamar Valley at the northern edge of the park. First trip for both me and Juliet; neither of us had had overwhelming interest before, since we both pictured Yellowstone (especially in August) to be a scenic wonderland but packed with tourists causing traffic jams as they stopped their RVs to look at herds of semi-tame bison by the side of the road.

    Well, parts of that are right and parts of it are wrong, but the basic fact is that the trip was one of the best nature- and wildlife-viewing expeditions we've ever been on, right up their with our trip to Botswana.

    True enough, the central part of the park was packed with people. In fact, the giant parking lot complex and store area for Old Faithful was so packed that we bought some lunch and then high-tailed it outta there without a glimpse of the geyser, and had no regrets about it.

    The good stuff started the first day, after staking out one of the last "walk-in" campsites in the southern part of the park. "Walk-in" is a ridiculous misnomer, since all it means is that you pitch your tent 40 feet from your car rather than 10 feet from it (no lie), but it was a great call 'cause: no RVs and no kids in the area. Some dumb-ass couple did leave food in their tent, which got confiscated by the rangers, who checked --- no matter how many signs and warnings you put up about bears, some people are just not going to believe them. (I have a friend whose food got eaten and car got broken into by bears at Yosemite, when he ignored all of the posted precautions. Served him right.)

    Anyway, after staking out the campsite we went on a short hike to Lewis Lake. As expected, any hike of more than a few hundred yards isn't going to have other people on it, no matter how crowded the park, and sure enough we saw only two other groups on our two-hour hike. We saw beautiful wildflowers, some very interesting birds, and a bull elk with an enormous set of antlers. He completely ignored us, wandering closer and closer, grazing under fallen logs, while we just stood and watched from the path. Technically we were supposed to move away when he got within 25 yards, but we just stood and took photos, and he got much closer than that (!)

    Our friends Sarah and Sarah arrived later that evening, and the next day we backpacked in to Heart Lake; about 9 miles to our first-night campsite, although Juliet and I took an unintended long-cut that cost us an extra mile. A decent workout, what with the full packs and the elevation (over 6000 feet) but not really hard. We spent the next couple of days around the lake, at two different campsites. Again, very few people back in there, and lots of undisturbed country and wildlife. We got good looks at mule deer, white-tailed deer, muskrat, blue grouse, and a bunch o' other stuff. The animals are definitely not tame, but since hunting isn't allowed they're also not especially afraid of humans other than normal wariness. It was a really pleasant trip.

    Finally, we moved on to the Yellowstone Association Institute, located in a former bison ranch in the Lamar Valley, at the northern edge of the park. Most of the thousands of bison in the park are descendants of the 40+ bison that were "nurtured" at the ranch in the 20s and 30s, in the successful bid to keep bison from being wiped out altogether. The former camp, a set of small log cabins plus a barn, a bath-house, and a kitchen/classroom, is now used for educational programs like the one that we took: a few talks per day, plus 3-hour excursions led by wildlife researchers (and sometimes geologists and others). It was fantastic. The valley is alive with wildlife --- mostly bison and some pronghorn close to the road, but we also saw a grizzly off in the distance, and we joined a bunch of wolf enthusiasts (self-styled as "wolfers") in watching two groups of wolves off in the distance --- I say 'groups' rather than packs because they were actually two parts of the same pack. We could see and hear them howling to each other across the valley, each group taking a turn at howling while the other listened intently. We also saw sandhill cranes and white pelicans, and a flock of bighorn sheep feeding right near a fire trail that we were hiking on, and osprey and eagles and elk...and we didn't see these animals in contrived situations, but out in the wild interacting with each other and acting like they're supposed to act.

    The talks and researcher-led hikes were great, too: really informative but never dry or boring. It was terrific, and I highly recommend the Yellowstone Association Institute and the Lamar Valley.

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