Saturday, January 30, 2010

Yellowstone and Wilderness

As I mentioned way back at the beginning of my blog series on the Tetons and Yellowstone National Parks, I have been enamored with the west since childhood. I think a lot of kids are, at least my generation and older. The "wild west", cowboys and Indians, home on the range, vigilante justice, the OK Corral, when men were men and women were, well, mostly prostitutes but we'll look past that for now. Vast prairies and soaring mountain ranges, raging rivers and deep forests, wildernesses long gone here in the east.

The problem, of course, is that the wilderness is also long gone in the west. Sure, there are vast stretches of uninhabited lands, mostly owned by our government and corporations. The largest National Parks and Monuments in the contiguous US are out west, thanks in large part to the fact that a handful of folks, after seeing wilderness disappear within a century of our country's establishment in the east, had the foresight to preserve some of it. But uninhabited lands and National Parks are not wilderness. Much of the land is mined, logged, or grazed by cattle. The rivers are dammed to provide electricity and drinking water for people who have settled in arid regions where no sizable cities could naturally exist.

As for the National Parks, they too are not wilderness. Let's look at Yellowstone specifically. Sure, this is largely undeveloped land, set aside before it was logged or mined, although there was some cattle grazing going on inside what are now park boundaries. But there are miles and miles of paved roads, restaurants, gift shops, hotels. In many cases you can see the best "sights" by walking only a half mile or less. When we were there in 2007, there was a huge debate over cell towers within the park--I am happy to say that they are looking to limit cell service and are also looking to remove a cell tower near Old Faithful. Really, they put a cell tower near Old Faithful?

Even the wildlife is not wild. There have been disputes for years over park animals who leave the park boundaries. Wolves and brown bears often harass and kill livestock on neighboring ranches. Hungry bison leave the park during harsh winters looking for food. Biologists intent on gathering information radio collar wolves. There was some talk among the dissenters of this practice that the heavy (and no longer functioning) collars several members (including the alpha male and female) of the Hayden Valley wolf pack were wearing may have put them at a disadvantage in a fight with another pack and could have contributed to their demise.

For all the seemingly wild beauty of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, not a whit of it is truly wild. Those animals who venture outside the park boundaries are often killed as threats to cattle and their grazing lands. Wolves have been removed from the Endangered Species list in the region. Idaho, Wyoming and Montana all allow ranchers to shoot on sight any wolf, as they may threaten their herds. In addition, all three states have enacted hunting seasons for wolves. It doesn't seem to matter to the states, the Federal government or certainly to the ranchers that wolves are highly social animals whose pack function will be altered with each removal of a pack member. Add to that the loss of genetic diversity, and we could possibly be looking at a complete collapse of the wolf population in Yellowstone region in the future, one that we (since it was all funded by the Feds) worked so hard to reestablish. Woe to any wolf who does not understand the artificial boundaries of the park.

Bison too are managed. Not only do they sometimes compete with cattle on nearby grazing lands, but they can carry bovine brucellosis, a disease that can cause spontaneous abortions and ultimately sterility in cattle. Biologists say that bison are unlikely to pass this disease on to cattle, but that doesn't mollify the cattle industry. And so, over the past several decades, over 6,000 of the park's bison have been either shot in the park or rounded up and sent to slaughter. Elk too are a target, although it seems that they have not yet been culled in the Greater Yellowstone area. One website I was on was wondering if elk were as "charismatic" as bison and whether the public would freak out as much over elk as they did bison if they wanted to begin managing elk populations too. So, what, if elk aren't as popular as bison it will be more acceptable to kill them?

I have only recently begun to read about the debate regarding our parks, public lands and wilderness--what it is, how it should be managed, or if it should be managed at all. Are they solely for recreation, for beautiful scenery, for scientific study? How can scientists get any sort of reliable data studying a population that is artificially managed? Should lands be set aside to protect biodiversity, to offer the other creatures we share the world with a buffer from mankind? Should there be places where we just don't go?

Jack Turner, in his book of essays titled "The Abstract Wild," started me down this path of really questioning what our wild lands are or should be for. Edward Abbey's book "Desert Solitaire", which I just finished reading, was outstanding in its joyful reverence for wilderness and its disdain for the way in which our government--and the public--perceives and treats it. I would recommend both books to anyone interested in exploring how they feel about wilderness, and ultimately the role nature plays, or should play, in our lives.

I try not to think about Yellowstone in terms of it being a giant, drive through zoo, but that's kind of what it is. That fact does not diminish the experience of actually being there and making eye contact with a pronghorn antelope. It is a stunning, magical place in spite of its tourist plazas, and I am eagerly awaiting the day when I can return. But the more I read the more I hope that we can someday set aside un-managed, untrammeled wilderness lands, lands that we simply leave the hell alone, wherever we can find tracts left that are large enough to function as a healthy ecosystem. Canada's boreal forests , the jungles of Borneo, the Mongolian Steppes. Even if I never set foot in these places, there is some part of me that will rest easier knowing they are there. For now I will have to be satisfied with our parks and other public lands. As beautiful and inspiring as they are, they are far from natural, and no where near wilderness.

Friday, January 29, 2010

The Lone Coyote

We reached the Lower Geyser Basin around 11:00 am. This is the part of the park that attracts a lot of sightseers, so we didn't spend much time here. I have a great distaste for feeling like cattle in a chute, shuffling down a boardwalk with hundreds of other tourists taking exactly the same photos. But I did take photos, and I was aided by the addition of a polarizer on my lens. You see, at that time of the day, Silex Spring was between the boardwalk and the sun, so there were some strong reflections.

While most folks pictures probably looked something like this,

mine looked like this:

The lesson here of course is that if you have a camera that accepts filters, buy and learn how to use a polarizer!

As I write this, so far removed from the actual trip, I had to look up information about the spring. I got the following from the website (I'm just being lazy here!):

"Silex is Latin for silica, the major component of rhyolite, the primary volcanic rock in Yellowstone. Silica dissolves better in hot water than in cold water. It lines the bottom of Silex Spring and forms terraces along the runoff channels.

Silex Spring is a perfect example for the living thermometer provided by thermophile microorganisms living in the overflow. The green, mats are mostly cyanobacteria, which can live in waters as hot as 165°F. They become orange, rust or brown as the water cools."

Here you can see the spring with its variety of colors and silica shelves

The whole area is replete with thermal features. The boardwalk wound on for quite a while, but we didn't go much past Silex Spring. Too many cattle.

One of my favorite things about these thermal areas are the trees. We saw the same thing at the terraces, these stark, burned-up trees, looking for all the world like an art installation at some modern art museum. I love the way they break up the monotonous landscape, offer contrast to the white clouds and silica, give the impression of the impermanence of things. If you went back there today I wouldn't be surprised to see these trees had fallen.

We did not linger at the springs. Escaping the busy parking lot, we headed south along the entrance road and back toward Jackson Hole. But just before we made the park boundary, Yellowstone gave us one last gift.

We spotted this lone coyote trotting along the side of the road. We pulled over just as he stopped to sniff something on the ground.

What a scruffy little fellow, still in the process of shedding his winter coat. God only knows what happened to his tail. He skittered over a log and into the road, moving as we did, away from the park. What an amazing experience this was. Although we had less than four full days in Yellowstone, I was thrilled with what we had been able to see and experience. I absolutely cannot wait to go back.

"Welcome me to a haven given,
it's well received into my open arms.
I ran in my sleep through shaking tremors,
I had the splitting earth echoing in my ears.
I'll be the first to praise the sun,
the first to praise the moon,
the first to hold the lone coyote,
the last to set it free.

I said welcome me."

Amy Ray, Indigo Girls

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center

Our last full day of vacation was another busy one. We had planned a trip to the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone, one of the only touristy kind of things we did. I couldn't pass up the chance to see wolves and bears up close, and to gather some material for my artwork. Of all the animals we had wanted to see in Yellowstone N.P., bears--either black or brown--were the ones that we missed.

The Discovery Center is a non-profit organization that takes in animals who, for one reason or another, cannot be in the wild. Many of the bears (they had eight when we were there) were cubs orphaned when their mothers were shot after becoming habitual garbage eaters. The wolves are captive bred. I was just on their website ( and it looks like they have a bunch of new wolves. The Center was actually started by (I believe) a family in the area and was run privately. When the funds ran out, the community took the facility over and turned it into a non-profit, complete with educational displays, classes and, of course, great animal viewing opportunities.

The wonderful thing about the layout of the center is that you have unobstructed views of the animals. The center was nearly empty at 8am (gotta get there early with the hot weather) so I was able to stand on the top of the bleachers and get some great shots.

The center does its best to keep the bears entertained. Only two to three are let out into the pen at one time. Between groups staff will go out and hide food under logs and rocks so the bears have to go searching for it. The public can sign up to do this too, but we passed.

The enclosure included a large pool with a waterfall, and the bears were in and out of it all morning.

There are occasionally confrontations, especially if one bear wants to be where another bear is. They are mostly bluster, but are fun to watch.


I love the water flying in this shot.

The vanquished foe.

They have a sheet near the bear exhibit where folks can post bear sightings within the park. I was looking it over when I was struck by one particular post, from 1:30 pm the day before: "Female Grizzly with two cubs, north side of Mt. Washburn." I stared at the post for a while, thinking about where I had been the day before, mid-afternoon--walking, alone, down the north side of Mt. Washburn. I never saw any bears, though if you remember the pile of scat there were certainly signs of bears. I wondered, was she just over that ridge, the one that blocked my view and made me so uneasy?

After watching the bears for a while we moved over to the wolf enclosure. It was nice to get a view of them up close after seeing them in the wild.

The wolves were less testy. As pack animals they were not so confrontational with each other. I do have a hard time with animals in pens, especially ones who are wide ranging species. They pace around and look always unsettled. I have to remind myself that these animals serve a purpose, to enrich and educate the public, to help get people to care about the ones who live outside the fences.

The viewing area for the wolves was walled deck that jutted out into the enclosure. It allowed for some great close up shots.

Inside the center are some wonderful educational exhibits. Having worked on some murals and exhibits with Lori, I can really appreciate the work that goes into making these look natural.

I like that they're not behind glass.

We stayed for a while, hoping the captive wolves would howl for us, but they never did. Perhaps they did not want to spoil my memory of the wolves of Hayden Valley.

Our bags were packed, and we were ready to start the drive back to Jackson Hole. We planned one more stop before leaving the park, so we bid the wolves a fond adieu and hit the road.

Next: Hot springs and the lone coyote

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Artwork--Lone Star Cafe

It's done and it has a name: Lone Star Cafe. This was a fun piece, loved playing with the shadows. Got to watch real live red squirrels and blue jays while I worked on it too!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Sheep on the Mountain

Lisa and I split up on the summit of Mt. Washburn. She had the shorter but steeper hike, mine longer but more gradual. Going down can be nearly as difficult as going up, using a totally different set of muscles to keep you from rolling down the trail. Thighs would be burning by the end of this hike!

As I posted before, the skies were hazy from the smoke of the Idaho fires. I don't know how well you can see it in this small photo, but the trail winds from right to left through the center of the image. This appears to be a service drive for the ranger station atop Mt. Washburn as it was wide and marked with orange poles (as you'll see in some of the next photos) probably for better navigation in the snow.

Going down the trail alone was a treat for me. I love Lisa to pieces but sometimes it's nice to travel at your own pace, not worry if you're taking too much time taking pictures...just a chance to get lost in your own thoughts. Not too lost, though. This is grizzly country and I tried to be aware at all times to what was happening around me. The trail followed along the western side of a ridge, which I found rather disconcerting as I could not see what might be just on the other side.

After 15 or 20 minutes I rounded a bend, and there they were. Bighorn Sheep.

I love the sheep in front on the left. He/she was one of the only ones who paid me any attention. The day was hot and dry, and every time the group paused the little ones laid down in the dusty path.

I felt kind of bad for the little guys, they really seemed to be having a hard time in the heat.

As I stood on the path, the sheep just moved around and past me, like waves on a beach.

I later learned that the older the sheep, the bigger the horns. Unlike animals with antlers (deer, elk) horns are not shed and in the case of some, like these sheep, continue to grow throughout the animal's life. This beautiful creature was undoubtedly the oldest of this herd.

They grazed along the verge, totally non-plussed by my presence. None the less, I stood as still as I could, moving little more than my shutter finger--I saw how sharp those horns and hooves were!

Once they moved past me they climbed back up to the path, and eventually the entire herd lay down. I continued my own journey.

If you look back to the first image of the sheep, you see a couple of folks on the path ahead of me. There was also a family some distance behind me. I could actually hear the folks in front talking, which I found rather annoying. However, they apparently were not impressed with the sheep and did not seem to have stopped to watch them. By the time I started back down the path, those folks were out of sight. Now, the people who had been behind me had their route blocked by a herd of snoozing sheep. I found myself utterly, blissfully alone on the trail.

What an afternoon that was. Sure it was hot, but it was bright, sunny and dry, filled with insect song. The slopes were covered with wildflowers,

and ghost trees left over from the fires.

If I hadn't been in something of a hurry to get down to the parking lot to meet Lisa I may have laid down in the grass. I could pretend, if just for an hour or so, that there were no cars, planes, televisions or cell phones. There was just me, the sun, the wind, and whoever made this huge pile of poop.

I'm sorry, what, did you say bear? Oh my. Well, sure, moose don't graze at 9,000 feet in open scrubby land, and sheep don't poop that big. I think it's a good thing that I did not realize at the time who or what made that pile. As I said the trail followed a ridge line, just to one side of it, and there was no way to see what was on the other side without climbing to the top. I was a little worried if I did that I would suprise something on the other side, so I never left the trail.

One last image of the rocks, flowers and lichens on Mt. Washburn before I came to the parking area.

I beat Lisa by about 15 or 20 minutes, so I sat in the shade of a scraggly tree and waited. I could have stayed on that mountain all day, but we were heading back to the Hayden Valley to look for the wolves again, which I wrote about a few posts back. After leaving the valley we headed back into town, but stopped a while to sit on the bank of the Madison River as the sun went down, some Native American flute music playing on the car's CD player. This was our last full day in the park and we wanted to sit back and enjoy it's peaceful side.

Next: The Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Artwork--jay and squirrel

Here's a quick shot of my latest piece in progress, as yet untitled:

This feeder, one I have designated for squirrel use, is behind my studio. I had quite a battle with these crafty critters to keep them out of the other feeders. I can't afford to feed them too! But this open feeder, one Lori bought at an art show, sits atop an old barn beam and is under a black cherry tree--impossible to keep the squirrels out. So I put a cup of mixed seeds and peanuts in it every morning and let them have at. The blue jays like it too, and will come and scoop up the best stuff first if they get the chance.

I love this old feeder, made from weathered wood and a piece of rusted corrugated metal. Don't know where the star on front came from but it adds that extra bit of interest.

Friday, January 15, 2010

To Climb a Mountain

We left the magic of the howling wolves and continued south on the Grand Loop Road toward the Fishing Bridge and Yellowstone Lake. I don't remember now why we went down that way, and where we ended up. Perhaps Lake Village? There was a small store and camping or cabins or some such thing. Anyway, we did a little shopping and then started back north towards Mt. Washburn. Along the way we stopped for a little bison viewing.


Gotta love the little ones. Not sure what they were looking at, none of the adults seemed to notice anything out of the ordinary.

Farther along the road we spotted this bull elk wading in the Yellowstone River. Not as mature as some of the others we'd seen, but striking none the less.


They seem so huge until you put them in the perspective of their surroundings.

We made it to Mt. Washburn around noon, the day already hot and dry. We had decided to hike to the trail here as part of our quest to see every non-human inhabitant of Yellowstone--we'd read there were bighorn sheep in these thar parts.

There are three ways to get to the top of Mt Washburn. One can park at the southern side, at Dunraven Pass, and take a fairly switch-backy 3.1 mile hike to the northeast. Or, one can park on the northern side and hike south about 2.5 miles along a fairly straight trail. Either way you are gaining about 1300 feet in elevation. Or, for the more adventurous, one can start out at the Lower Falls and hike about nine miles along Mt Washburn trail that follows the eastern spur of the mountain.

We opted for Dunraven Pass, possibly because the parking area was closer to where we were coming from. We packed our lunches and water bottles, grabbed camera and hiking poles, and started the climb.

There were, of course, gorgeous views from the mountain side.

The bright sun made for some great contrast but also for some sweaty hiking.

There were butterflies all over the place, sipping nectar from thistles, like this sulphur.

This Edwards' Fritillary and Western White are playing nicely together.

The trail seemed to go on forever. There were a fair number of people on the mountain, some struggling up, some rolling down, some zipping past us. We kept a steady pace, trying not to over exert in the heat and higher elevation. Even so, Lisa got a little woozy towards the top. But finally, the summit was visible, capped by a Forest Service fire watch station.

The view from the peak was a disappointment to say the least. The fires that raged on in Idaho made visibility horrible. On really clear days the Teton range is visible 100 miles to the south. Not on this day, however. This image looks west.

Not only were the views non-existent, but we hadn't seen any sheep either. In addition the black flies, the only ones we'd encountered the whole trip, were just voracious, the top of the mountain was barren and had been paved over with asphalt, and the bathrooms stank. We sat on the rock ledge eating our lunch wishing we'd picked a different hike.

Then we overheard two women who were part of a youth group outing talking about the bighorn sheep. My ears perked up--sheep?!? Where? Apparently, they had hiked up from the other side of Mt Washburn, from the northern parking area. Lisa and I looked at each other. I really wanted to see and photograph sheep. But we couldn't hike down the north side since the car was on the south side, five or six miles back down the road. The only solution was to split up. I'd go down the north side to look for the sheep, Lisa would head back south to the car, then drive around and pick me up.

I took the obligatory photo of Lisa with the sign, we filled up our water bottles, and went our separate ways.

I would not be disappointed.

Next: Bighorn sheep and the descent down Mt Washburn.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Wolves in Hayden Valley

By eight am we had made it down into the Hayden Valley. The Grand Loop Road's eastern arm runs along the Yellowstone River as it flows north out of Yellowstone Lake along the eastern edge of the Hayden Valley. This is another "hot spot" for wildlife viewing and we had our fingers crossed. Must have had our toes crossed too because we could not have hoped for what we were about to see.

Once again, rounding a bend in the road we came upon a large clot of vehicles pulled to the side and filling a turnout. Out we hopped with camera and binoculars and approached a small group of folks talking excitedly. What was all the commotion about? A wolf pack, just on the other side of a copse of trees jutting out from the road toward the river.

There was no sign of them from our vantage point, but then a fellow's two-way radio crackled. Someone had gone up ahead along the road, and had found a clear sight line to the pack on the other side of the trees. It was like a scramble at an air force base, everyone grabbing gear, folding up their spotting scopes and running for their cars and vans.

I don't recall how far we drove, 1/2 mile to a mile I'd guess, before we came to another turn out. We all piled out (now I'm seeing the Keystone Cops) and rushed to the edge of the pavement. There, there they were, probably a half mile away, tucked just at the base of the trees, basking in the morning sun.

Don't see them? I couldn't very well either. Look to the left of the dead tree at the center of the frame.

Ah, there they are!

The aptly named Hayden Valley pack was cavorting and romping in the sunrise. The Alpha female was white, and she stood out like a firebrand in the sunshine. Her pups, probably 4 or 5 months by this time, were frolicking in the prairie grass. This wolf pack was fairly known, it turns out, as they tended to hang out very near the road, and could often be seen crossing the road. Lucky they didn't get run over!

Do you see the wolf on the right edge of this image?

I didn't have a tripod, so I knelt by the railing and balanced my camera on top, and took some shots, hoping against hope that something would be visible. I'm happy that I was able to get these, poor as they are (and super blown up at that).

Many of the people there watching with us did this on a regular basis. Some were retirees who spent much of their time exploring the park. Others were private tour guides who knew the park inside and out and would take groups around to the best sights. These folks knew everything about the regulars of any particular area--I remember one fellow talking about the bald eagle pair and where they usually hung out and where their nest was. They were all gracious and friendly and let us watch the wolves through their spotting scopes.

While I knelt on the ground and the group of 40 or so chatted, one woman raised her voice above the rest. Without shouting, she calmly said, "If you listen you can hear them."

The group went silent instantly. And yes, there, rolling across the valley floor, was the sound of howling wolves.

First, one of a moderate tone, then joined by another, lower. Then a third, higher. Then a fourth. They howled and yipped and sang in the sunrise. I was utterly flabbergasted. Never in my dreams could I have imagined this, a morning beside the Yellowstone River listening to the singing of the wolves. I put my head down on my arm and cried like a baby.

We stayed for a while there by the river, but the day was wearing on and we had other things we wanted to do. If the wolves had been closer, more visible, we would have stayed longer. We decided to return in the evening, to see if there were still around. To our delight, that evening around 6:30 when we made it back into the valley, the wolves were still in the area.

Here, the alpha female, wolf number 540f, sniffs along the river's banks. Several of these wolves were collared for tracking purposes, to help biologists study them and learn their behaviors. They are never given names, to help those studying them be less likely to anthropomorphise, I guess. So 540f it is.

Whatever her name, she was beautiful.

Upstream from the white wolf was one of her pups with another adult, nosing around in the flats. The yellowed, hazy skies that hung over Yellowstone that day was from the smoke of Idaho wildfires.

Here they are, cropped.

For months after our return home I was haunted by the howling of the wolves. That moment followed me everywhere. Anyone who has had the good fortune of hearing wolves in the wild knows what I mean. It never leaves you, that feeling. Wolves were never really the enemy of man, not until we domesticated their prey. I would not be surprised if for millenia we didn't work together, one following the other to sustenance. How else did we end up with dogs? We have a certain kinship to these creatures, and I for one am forever grateful to those who made possible the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone.

By February of the following year I couldn't take it any more and decided to do a piece in honor of my experience. The alpha female, wolf 540f, was burned onto my brain. I didn't have images good enough to work from, so I stated a search online for photos. I came across some awesome shots of the pack taken near the end of October 2007, three months after we'd seen them. I do not recall the photographer's name, but I downloaded a few. Here's one of them calling in the pack. The fellow who shot these watched them take down an elk a day later.

From some other photos I found I created this piece.

With my prints I like to include information sheet about the animal, physiological info, habitat etc and my experiences with that animal. I wanted to write a piece about this magical morning, and started doing some research about the pack.

I was shocked by what I found. Here is the end of the story:

As we know, Nature is not sentimental. Nature cares little for beauty or mystical moments, as these are human inventions. A few weeks after finishing this drawing, I decided to do some research on the Hayden Valley pack. After some searching, the news I found was initially stunning—the Alpha male and female, wolves 540f and 541, had been killed in late October of 2007, probably by a neighboring pack, just three months after I had seen them and been so moved by them. It was a jolt to my psyche, yet at the same time a confirmation of how Nature works. Yes, life can be brutal, and often is. Life needs death to sustain it, whether to feed it or to make room for the next generation, the next ruling pack. There is no room in Nature for the sentimentality of a broken heart.

The Alpha female of Hayden Valley and her pack were, for many thousands of Yellowstone visitors, the first and perhaps only wolf pack they will see in the wild. I am only one of many who was moved by this powerful animal. The knowledge of her fate only makes my oh-so-human tribute to her that much more personal and intense.

Yes, by the end of October, wolf 540f was no more. No one is sure how many of her pack survived, although several months later an adult was spotted with one of the pups near Old Faithful. Life goes on. Perhaps they started a new pack, or were taken in by another. Life goes on.

I will never ever forget that moment, that experience that still brings tears to my eyes.

What majesty.

What grace.