Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Buffalo Bill State Park and Grizzlies in Wyoming

The moon was still flying high when we left Badlands National Park. We made a quick stop at the gift shop for some souvenirs and ice, then drove north to I-90. The refrigerator in the camper had quit working, so we were cooling our food the old fashioned way. The RV dump station at the park was busy but we remembered seeing dump stations at previous rest areas, and sure enough, the next one down I-90 had one too. That's a really nice feature some states' rest areas have, (hint hint, Michigan!), and I'd like to see more of them.

The moon riding high above the Badlands Sunday morning. (iPhone panoramic)

Our goal for the day was to cross Wyoming, ending up at Buffalo Bill State Park, about a half hour from the Yellowstone border. We would then get up early the next morning and drive into YNP, and secure a campsite somewhere. We were aware that all of the campgrounds that were still open (I think two had closed for the season, and the Slough Creek was closed because of the Buffalo Creek fire) were filling by around 11 am, and so we needed to get in as soon as possible.

People talk about the Plains and Upper Midwest to be flat, barren wastelands. I had not found that to be the case in my travels through the Dakotas, Iowa, Kansas and Oklahoma. Of course, we had been in the eastern half of those states. All that changes when you hit the arid steppes of Wyoming. The rolling terrain gradually gains elevation, and the sagebrush steppes are virtually empty save for pronghorn and oil wells. Of course, that's all you see at 70-80 mph down the highway--there are lots of animals that call this place home, but for a Michigander who has spent her life surrounded by trees, this was a truly alien landscape.

The treeless sagebrush steppes of central Wyoming, with the Bighorn Mountains in the distance.

We had several options for getting to Yellowstone's border. One was to take I-90 up to Billings, then come down the Bear Tooth Highway and into the park at the Northeast Entrance. But that seemed really out of the way, and the Bear Tooth Pass freaked me out--I'd never pulled a camper through the mountains, and wasn't sure I was ready to tackle that. It had already been closed twice this year because of snow. The other options then were to go through the Bighorn Mountains, either on US 14 to the north, or US 16 to the south. In Buffalo we saw signs saying it was an easier drive to take US 16, and we decided to trust them and go that route. It was a beautiful drive, and we got our first taste of the golden hues of aspen and willow as they began to change into their autumn colors. The van did pretty well chugging up the mountains, but I couldn't look around much. When I came to an empty pull-out on the downside I stopped to stretch and take a few photos.

Bighorn Mountains along US 16

From the Bighorns it's another 1.5 hours or so to Cody. We didn't have time to linger there, though it looked like a really neat town. We needed to get to Buffalo Bill and get a campsite before dark, which we only JUST managed to do. There was weather in the area, rain to the south and snow to the north over the Absarokas, but it didn't rain on us until well after dark. While we didn't have time to explore the park, we did make it in time to stroll along the banks of the reservoir, and watch the sun set.

Snow in the distance did not reach us here at Buffalo Bill State Park

Wild sunflowers on the beach

Looking east along the Buffalo Bill Reservoir

We were up before sunrise and ready to go as the sun painted the hills gold and red. But before we could reach the park entrance, we had our second wildlife close encounter.

Sunrise on the buttes in western Wyoming

As we made our way east towards the East Entrance of Yellowstone, we came across a few cars pulled over on the shoulder. There was room for us so I stopped too. Lisa got out to investigate, and she thought at first there was a moose in the shrubs along the road. But then she jumped back in the van, slamming the door, and said, "Oh my God, it's a bear!" So I, of course, jumped out.

Standing up against the back corner of the camper, I watched as this magnificent creature browsed its way through the shrubbery. Not even to Yellowstone and we had us a grizzly encounter!

A big griz grazing on berries along US 14 in the Shoshone National Forest, just outside YNP.

The bear wasn't interested in us in the least. I wish I had grabbed my other (better) camera with the other (better) lens, but it was buried somewhere and I didn't want to chance not getting any photos while I searched for my gear. I also didn't dare get any closer. There were other cars closer to the bear, but the folks had enough sense to shoot from their vehicles. I felt confident that if the bear started coming my way I could get back into the van quickly. But I needn't have worried--the bear was only interested in eating fruit.

Oh sweet face!

The bear eventually emerged from the shrubs to feed some more...

...then turned and headed around the far side. What I wouldn't give to have been on the other side of this image!

Thanks to the bear jam, we were a little later getting to into the park than we had planned. Once inside the park we still had an hour or two to drive before arriving at an open campground. Would we find a place to camp? Hmmm...

Requisite selfie at the entrance sign--Lisa, Lori and me.

Friday, October 14, 2016

A Sunny Day in the Badlands

Once the sun was flying higher in the sky, we abandoned our sunrise/moonset photo shoot and drove west along the park road. Not far from Norbeck Pass we came across a group of bighorn sheep rams, possibly the same boys we'd seen the night before. They were grazing right along the road, and we got really nice looks at them in the morning sun.

Sheep and sunflower. He passed on the flower and ate some grass next to it.

Settling down to chew some cud in the sunshine.

Through the whole trip I was surprised at how many free-roaming pronghorn we saw. Starting here in western South Dakota and all throughout Wyoming, we saw countless small herds of this ungulate, which are not antelope, though they are frequently called that. They are the only surviving member of their family, which Wikipedia says contained 12 members during the Pleistocene, though only three were present in North America when humans arrived. Their closest relatives? Giraffes. While pronghorn are able to reach speeds upwards of 60 mph, the predators that they once needed that speed to evade are long extinct. Interestingly, they never developed the ability to jump, and are often trapped behind--or caught in--fences.

Small herds of pronghorn were sprinkled throughout the park.

Big rams were not the only bighorn sheep present in the park. We saw several small groups of ewes with young ones, some with a ram present. This little cutie was heading up into the rocks near an observation area.

Baby bighorn!

I loved watching these animals walk so confidently across this landscape.

Ewe and calf moving through the shade of a butte

We saw several coyote that day too, including one that had got itself a prairie dog. This not long after we had watched another looming within a dog town, wondering if they really have success hunting out in the open like that. This pretty 'yote came up empty, as far as we could tell.

Coyote hunts prairie dogs in the setting sun

One of the biggest moments of the day came while we were stopped at an overlook, next to a prairie dog town. I was feeding our dogs (not the best idea as the sight of them drove the poor rodents mad), and I saw a bigger-than-a-robin bird fly a few feet above the ground and land, at some distance away, atop a burrow. "Bird! Bird! Bird!" I hollered, unable to let go of the dogs to get my binoculars. Lisa came to the rescue and brought my binocs while taking the dogs. When I got the bird in my sights I literally jumped for joy. A Burrowing Owl!! It was too far away for any decent photos, but just to finally get to see one was fantastic. We watched it for a while as it flew from burrow to burrow, until we finally had to start heading back to camp.

Burrowing owl!

While the landscape of the Badlands is fascinating, trying to photograph it on a bright sunny day is nearly pointless. Early and late where OK, but the rest of the day the hills and buttes and gullies looked washed out. But we enjoyed exploring the area nonetheless.

The rocks and grasslands of the Badlands.

Three units comprise the Badlands, this being the northern-most unit. The other two are south in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, a place of abject poverty. I know that there were plenty of sacred sites in this area, places of great importance to the Sioux, but I can also see why they were relegated to this region--it's really a God-forsaken place. Arid and hot in summer, colder than Hades in winter, with a relenting wind. Poor soil and little water makes it useless for crops, and the topography makes it useless for much of anything else. In short, it's land we didn't want, or didn't find useful in any way, (until gold was discovered in the Black Hills, just to the west, but that's another story). I would love to see this place on a cloudy, rainy day.

As sunset neared we drove back to camp and hit the hay early. The next day we'd make our way across Wyoming and camp just outside the entrance to Yellowstone National Park.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Badlands Sunrise

Before I go any farther, I want to apologize for this post. I grew up on a lake so I know how easy it is to take a gazillion pictures of the sun rising or setting. I had gobs of them, and they seemed to pretty much all look the same. That's not quite the case here, although I am having as much trouble choosing just a couple of these as I did choosing sunsets over the water 30 years ago. So you are about to be subjected to eleven photos of the sun rising--and the moon setting--over the Badlands of South Dakota. It was not my intention to do an entire post with these images, but there you have it. I hope you can forgive me.

After the triumphant capture of the full moon rising over the Badlands, and Lisa's near miss with a large bighorn sheep ram, we ate a late dinner and turned in. We were to wake early the next day, because there would be a full moon SETTING over the Badlands, right about the time of the sun RISING over the Badlands. That's the beauty of the full moon--it rises and falls with the sun. We knew where we were headed this time--right back to Norbeck Pass and those dramatic buttes and spires.

I still did not have my tripod ready to go so I hand-held all these shots. The good thing about that is I could be a lot more mobile and get different things in the foreground, as well as easily turn 360°. What we were ultimately waiting for was the moment the sun touched the spires, but by golly it was all gorgeous.

There's not much more to say about it, so I will leave you with these images of the Badlands at sunrise. Remember--if you click the first image you will get a slideshow of larger images to scroll through.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

A Big Trip West: First Stop, Badlands National Park

 After years of threatening, we finally decided to make a return trip to Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Tetons. Being independent artists, it's a bit scary to take a few weeks and go on vacation--there's no vacation pay, and there's no one else who does our work in our absence. We had to pick the dates very early in the year as show scheduling begins in January. We had set aside the last two weeks in September for the trip, but for much of the summer thought we would probably not go. Then, in late August, we said to hell with it, let's just go. It will be spectacular, and we will get material to work with and from.

It was.

And we did.

Lisa and I had been out west in 2007, but it was Lori's first trip. We planned the 24 hour drive to Yellowstone in three segments of  eight hours, plus stops, which put our road time at around 10 hours a day. I'm getting too old to spend 14-16 hours driving, trying to get to a place as quickly as possible. I'm in more of a "let's take our time and enjoy it" place now.

Our first day took us to Cedar Falls Iowa, where I'd done an art show a couple times and camped at George Wyth State Park. I wanted to make the days driving out feel more like part of the vacation, so we camped rather than stay at a rest area (as we did on the way home). Our goal each day was to reach the campground before dark, and we just managed to do that here, ahead of a drenching storm. Travelling with two other people and two dogs who need to be walked and fed means each stop can take 15-20 minutes or more. It can add over an hour to a trip, but since we'd kept our days short it kept the stress down.

Our second stop was the Badlands. We'd seen similar landscapes in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota three years ago (which I never got around to writing about), but the Badlands were an eight hour drive from Cedar Falls so it fit well. Plus, we could decide once we got there if we wanted to stay an extra day and check out the park, which we ended up doing.

We arrived at the gate about a half hour before sunset. While I wanted to capture the sunset over the Badlands, what I really wanted was to see the moon RISE over the sandstone formations--it was a full moon that night and I didn't want to miss it. We got the camper set up and jumped back in the van to find a spot to watch the moon.

South Dakota 240 winds through the park, becoming the Badlands Loop Road, and the campground lies at the junction of 240 and 377. Driving west on 240 we wound around buttes and spires and other strange formations, the eastern end of the park being the more dramatic by far. Up on Norbeck Pass we found a spot where the landscape opened up to the east, so we parked and got out our camera gear, and Lisa hooked up the dogs to walk them along the road.

A few quick shots of the setting sun, which had just dipped below the horizon, then I turned my attention to the east.

Sunset at Norbeck Pass, Badlands NP

As I rounded the edge of a butte, I looked to my right and saw this big guy eyeballing me. I stopped and took some photos, and motioned to Lori to be careful coming around the corner. There were five others laying down in the grass. He made no move towards us though, so I proceeded along the road.

Bighorn sheep ram, checking us out

I positioned myself where I was pretty sure I would see the moon, then turned back to the sunset for a moment.

When I turned back around, I noticed all the bighorns who had been laying down were now up and very curious about us.

Some mighty curious sheep!

I wasn't sure what they were looking at, but I had a moon rise to capture, so I turned my attention to that.

I wonder what they're looking at...

When I first saw the pink glow of the moon, I wasn't completely certain that's what I was looking at. It looked like a lighted sign or billboard or something.

The harvest moon peeks over the Badlands

But as it continued to rise, and I moved farther down the road, there was no mistaking it. I was so excited to be there to watch the Harvest Moon rise above the Badlands.

After several minutes the moon rose into a small bank of clouds and disappeared. I turned back to my right and saw that one of the rams had moved much closer to the road and was studying something intently. Lisa had come along with the dogs, and it seemed that they had garnered much interest from these sheep. I took some photos but then he moved around the back of a butte and disappeared from sight.

Big Daddy's got his eye on something

I turned back to the moon, which had cleared the clouds...

...then back to the sunset side.

Some other folks had joined us to watch the moon rise, and as I started to make my way back to the van, one of them mentioned that a bighorn sheep was standing feet away. I looked and saw this:

Oh! My! There he is! Hide the dogs!

I missed the drama, but apparently Lisa and Lori had gone back to the van with the dogs. Lori was holding them by the side doors. Lisa could see moonlight over a dip in the rocks and wanted to take a look, so started to climb up. Lori happened to notice, just above Lisa's head on the other side, a large pair of horns, and told Lisa she might not want to go there. Lisa looked up and was nearly face to face with this ram, about four feet apart. She jumped back and grabbed the dogs, throwing them in the van like sacks of potatoes, then climbing in herself. It was clear the sheep where not happy about the presence of these funny looking coyotes.

You can't wish for better looks at a ram than this.

I scooted around the back of the van and used it as a blind as well as a place to help hold myself still, as the light was quite low and I had not had time to set up my tripod. The ram stood stock still, waiting perhaps to see what came out of the van.

I was giddy. To be so close, to have him pose so majestically up on that rise! To be on the second day of our trip and get such great material, to be able to spend time watching and studying this fellow.... Wow. Usually, when you see these guys, their heads are down, or their backside is towards you, or they're laying down, so to see him in this way was magical.

He moved a little ways along the edge, so sure footed, so at home. Light was fading so I made a few more images then we headed back to camp. It was a great start to what would be a great trip.