Yellowstone: Day Five!

Day five!  This turned out to be the greatest of our days for wildlife!  We got an early start and headed to the Hayden Valley.  We got up early enough to make the hour and a half trip to be there by sunrise.  We were well rewarded for our trouble.  As soon as we parked at the Alum Creek pullout, we were greeted by the local coyote.  He walked across the street and sat down right behind the vehicle.  What a great way to start the day.  But wait, it gets better.  As the coyote is sitting there, we have the windows rolled down, and suddenly we hear the most amazing sound.  The Canyon Wolf Pack was somewhere nearby, all howling in unison!  Wow!  As much as we loved the sound, the coyote did not appreciate it near as much.  The wolves have had a hand in thinning the coyote population since their reintroduction.  So, upon hearing the wolf choir, the coyote turned and trotted off in the opposite direction.  Given the circumstances, I can’t say that I blame him.

We hang around here for a while, listening to all the sounds of nature as the morning fog moves into the valley.  This really is a beautiful place.  Words and pictures simply do not do it full justice.  As time passes, we notice more cars entering the area so we follow them a little up the road to the next turnout.  By this time there are a few people with their spotting scopes set up, which can mean only one thing: the wolves have been spotted.  We park, I drag out the big lens, and point it in the direction they suggest, and there is the pack.  Of course, they are about a mile away across the valley, but they are there for sure.  That’s them, the spots in the picture on top of the knoll.

As futile as it seemed, I wasn’t the only one who drug out the big glass for a chance to see them.  Karen, sitting in the warmth of the car, snapped this one, while we were freezing our fingers catching glimpses of whatever activity happened to be going on over there.  Every once in a while, the pack would come together again for a howl-fest, and every time it was amazing.

We actually stuck around here watching the wolves playing around on the knoll for a couple of hours.  It was also an opportunity to meet a few of the other photographers and wolf-watchers who were there. They really are some very nice people.  Full of information and not afraid to share.

Finally, there is some action.  A few of the wolves take off toward the road, looking like they are chasing something.  Karen and I jump in the car, and take off, along with several of the others.  One of the others I met, Keith Alan Wright, was a photographer who knows the pack very well.  We trolled up and down the road several times looking for any sign of the wolves.  Suddenly, we pass by Keith who motions that he hasn’t seen them, and then as we pass each other, he honks and I see him speed up.  I turn around and catch up as he is jumping out of his car with lens and tripod.  I follow suit.  This was one picture that Karen missed that she said she wishes she had caught.  Me, running with tripod and big lens, chasing after a wolf (separated by a river).  I guess walking the stairs the past couple of months at work really paid off as I didn’t drop dead.  I was however, very excited, and upon seeing the wolf up close, began shooting a little wild.  This is the best shot I got as the wolf was running and I was out of breath and excited.  But as Moose Peterson says, I have broken the curse.  Next time will be better!

With that excitement, it was time for lunch.  Karen and I headed up to Canyon Junction and had a snack before heading back to the valley for even more excitement.

When we get back to the valley, we find most of our new friends at a different pullout looking at the side of a hill.  We pull up and realize that they are checking out the grizzly bears!  Pretty cool, but they were really too far off for any pictures.  About the same time someone mentioned that a bald eagle was flying around on the other side of the road.  This was turning into the best day yet for wildlife and it wasn’t even half over!

Our main desires for this trip was to see wolves and grizzly bears, and now we have.  Now it’s time to see what else we can find.  Our new friend Keith tells us that many times otters can be spotted out by Mary Bay, so we go.  We find the little pond he told us about, but no otters.  We did however find this Hairy Woodpecker.  That’s one I’ve never seen before, and now I even have photos of one.

Driving back past the bay, we catch a flock of ring-billed gulls flying overhead.  Chalk up another species I previously had no pictures of.  It may be “just a gull”, but I found it very graceful in its flight.

Working our way back, we stopped at the Pelican Creek pullout.  There was a truck parked there and the man appeared to be looking through binoculars.  Way out in the field, there is a dark spot that was moving, but we couldn’t decide what exactly it was, so we camped out there for a while.  Soon enough, the spot came into view enough that we could tell that it was a moose!  Now moose aren’t that common up here, as they are usually down in the Teton NP, so this was a treat.  We watched as it grazed in the field, still too far away for pictures.  Then, as the moose approached the edge of the field, it suddenly turned toward us and began trotting and looking over its shoulder as if something was closing in on it.  At this point, out came the big lens!  I manage to capture several good clear shots before the moose takes a sudden left turn into the wooded area and simply disappears, literally!  Me and another photographer ran into the woods to find her, but no luck.  We couldn’t even find her tracks.  This moose is good!

We make it back to the Hayden Valley and almost immediately find a bunch of cars suddenly pulled to the side of the road.  The grizzly bears have moved and are now closer to the road and everyone is out watching.  They are close enough to the people that a park ranger has now been dispatched to the area, for the safety of both the people and the bears.  Now is the time for the big lens!  What we have here is a sow and her two cubs.  The cubs are thought to be about two years old at this point, and one of them is blond!  Her facial features have been described as looking like a panda.  Very unique looking for sure.  If my information is correct, we have mom, her son, and her blonde daughter.  So…

Mom and son…

Mom…

Son…

And daughter…

Needless to say that at this point we are completely stoked!  What a day this has been!  And it still is not over.  We make our way back to the overlook where we saw the wolves and meet up with our new friends again.  We share stories of what all we have seen today and swap information.  At this point someone says, “Hey, there’s a bald eagle perched just below us!”  Yep, out comes the big lens again!  It’s not just that it is our national bird, but there is truly something regal about this bird.

So, it’s been a full day for sure.  We make plans to meet up with Keith for dinner, say our good-byes to the others, and head back to Gardiner.

But, as they say, wait…there’s more!

Not more than a mile down the road, our friendly coyote is mousing in the field.  Can’t pass up an opportunity to catch a coyote leap!

Wow, what a day!  As we approach Mammoth on our way out of the park, the falling sun is striking the side of the mountains.  What a beautiful end to a beautiful day!

As we start to exit the park, Karen and I are talking and mention that about the only thing we hadn’t seen that we thought we might was…SCREECH!!  BIGHORN SHEEP!  Right there on the side of the road!!  This day just won’t end!  Out comes the big lens once again!

Having never shot these guys before I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but for sure, their agility is truly amazing!  The way they scale the sheer cliffs and rocks without tripping or falling is astounding.  Just like they were designed for an environment such as this. Hmmm.

And as the sun sets and I lose light, I catch one last silhouette before heading back to our room and dinner!

This was an amazing day, and once again, we are thankful for all we have seen.  Thankful to the One who created it all!

Yellowstone: Day Four

 Day four begins slow.  Being worn out from the previous days, and with the beginnings of a head cold, we sleep in a bit and get a bit of a later start.  As usual, we meet the elk in Mammoth as we enter the park, but today there is a twist.  Apparently one of them has made friends with a magpie.  We watch as they seemingly “play” for several minutes.  It occasionally looks like the magpie is whispering in the elk’s ear.  It was amusing, but we move on.

 Since we got a late start, and being a little disappointed with the wildlife turnout over the first three days, we decide that today we would do the “tourist” thing and check out the features of the park, and if we happen to see wildlife, so much the better.  As we head south from Mammoth, the features begin to show themselves in very dramatic ways.  The steam coming from this river, combined with the smell of sulfur lets us know that this is not your normal river.  In fact, when you pull over and look, there are areas where the water is bubbling.  I never got a straight answer if the water was actually boiling or if the bubbles was just gas escaping, but I wasn’t going to stick my hand in to find out.

 Our first stop was at the Norris Geyser Basin.  There is a boardwalk there where you can walk out over the basin and smell the sulfur first hand.  What a treat (note sarcasm)!  It really is pretty cool to be this close to the exit ports of a live super-volcano when you really think about it though.  Like I told my friends back home before we came, if it goes off while we’re there, don’t worry about us cause we won’t have time to care.

 After leaving Norris, we come across this beautiful elk displaying his rack which begged me for a picture.  I know I have some relatives who are hunters who are wishing they had THEIR equipment right about now.  These truly are magnificent beasts!

 A little further down the road we catch this small, multi-colored geyser.  Again, note the steam coming from the water.  Very hot.  Do not touch!  Very pretty though.

 Next stop is a place called “Artist Paint Pots” which are essentially “boiling” mud pits and holes with colorful deposits around them.  The surprising thing to me was how much plant life there is that actually survives around these things.  I would have expected the toxicity of the ground to be prohibitive to such growth.  Guess that explains why I am not a botanist.

 And no trip to the Artist Paint Pots would be complete without the requisite “boiling mud” photo.  Karen caught this one at just the right time!

 After making the climb to the top of the paint pot area, we were admiring the view when a kind passer-by offered to take our picture.  So we handed him one of Karen’s cameras and I must say, it turned out pretty good!  Thank you kind stranger!

 Down the road from the paint pots we came upon Gibbon Falls.  This is yet another of the Yellowstone waterfalls which are literally right off the roadway.  But as each of them have their own character, more pictures must be taken.  Something about the roar of the water just puts me in a mood, a very good mood.

 From there, we continued along the Grand Loop road, around the southern part of the park, and then turning north, we passed by the West Thumb of Lake Yellowstone.  There Karen caught this photo of the small island with the single tree.  It looks so lonely out there, but also very peaceful.  Of course, the mountains in the background don’t hurt either.

 A little further up on the West Thumb, we spotted this elk, just standing out in the water.  Not really sure what she was doing, but it gave me another chance to pull out the 600mm lens so I stopped.  I carried that thing all the way up here and I’m going to use it!  At one point she looked over her shoulder at me and I snapped…the picture that is.

 We continued on and crossed over the Fishing Bridge area and out to Mary Bay.  By now the sun was beginning to get low in the sky and clouds were building.  Kare caught this magnificent shot of the cloudy reflections in the water.

 And as the geese begin flying home, we also headed back to Gardiner for the evening.

Since my main goal for this trip was wildlife, I was beginning to feel a tad disappointed, but at the same time, I truly enjoyed being here nonetheless.  This is a beautiful place, with or without wildlife.  Once more, we are thankful for the things we saw.  Time to rest up for day 5.  It will prove to be a very exciting day!

Yellowstone: Day Three

Day three began much like the others, up early and try to catch the critters while they are yawning.  By this time, we’re starting to do a bit yawning ourselves.  But we get up, pushed forward by the excitement knowing we will see wonderful things today.

We enter the park, and as usual, we are greeted first thing with wildlife.  The silhouetted mule deer on the ridgeline, (one with a bird on its back) brings us into the right frame of mind for the rest of the day; peaceful and calm.  But then of course, pretty much any day this time of year in Yellowstone will bring you that feeling.

As we increase in altitude driving into the park, the temperature drops.  I think this was the coldest temperature we noticed on this trip.  19 degrees is quite chilly for this Texas boy, but it sure does feel invigorating!  I could learn to love this weather.

We decide to make our way to the Lamar Valley again today.  On our way we spot some bison, which, as you have noticed by now, is not uncommon here.  However, the contrast between the bison and the frost covered grass was not to be missed.  The entire place had a sense of “wonderland” to it with the animals, the cold air, and the frost.

After finding nothing but bison hanging out in Lamar this morning, we headed back to Mammoth and then down to the Hayden Valley.  Normally, this would be a short drive over the Dunraven Pass, but that road closed for the winter a few days before we got here, so we have to go all the way around the park.  Someday we’ll make it here when all the roads are opened at once!

Heading south from Mammoth, about a third of the way to the Norris Junction, I spotted this scene and had to pull over.  Something about blue rivers winding through evergreen trees just cries out to me for a photograph!

As we continue south, we begin to see more thermal features.  With a chill in the air, the steam rising from the warmer streams brings an air of mystique to the area.  We’ll see even more of the thermal features tomorrow.

Once in the Hayden Valley we see… more bison.  This seems to be bison day!  They are everywhere.  This herd was just hanging out near the river, grazing on the grasses and resting in the sun.

Continuing on through the valley, we head down to the Fishing Bridge area in hopes of spotting the reported grizzly sow and her cubs.  We drive, and look.  Look and drive.  No sow.  We do however, enjoy the beauty of the scenery and the mountains across the Yellowstone Lake.  Trivia points:  Yellowstone lake is the largest freshwater lake above 7000 feet  in North America and has an average depth of 139 feet.  In the winter the ice on the lake can get up to 3′ thick and stay frozen  from December to May or early June!

After no critter sightings in the Fishing Bridge/Yellowstone Lake area, we head back to the Hayden Valley.  On the way we decide to stop at the LeHardy Rapids, another spot where bear are known to be spotted.  Once again, no bear, but we did notice these little guys sitting on the rocks in the middle of the rapids.  There was a fish and game officer there and I asked him what they were.  He said that they were harlequin ducks.  He also said that he was worried about them because most of the others had already migrated away and wasn’t sure why these were still here.  Here’s hoping that the little guys made it.

Finally tired of driving, we stop at a “wildlife exhibition” area near the Alum Creek pullout.  Nothing here but the ravens.  Karen thinks they are ugly, but I argue that their solid blackness has a certain allure to it.  We begin talking about some of the recent bear attacks and Karen mentions that at least the ravens aren’t known for violent attacks!  Just about that time, the raven sitting on the display sign, hops down to the ground on top of a field mouse, and pecks it to death!  I guess he didn’t like being taken so lightly in the danger department.  He then proceeded to feast on the little rodent right there.  Karen decided it was time to leave.

And speaking of the recent bear attacks, as you can see from this sign, the Mary Mountain trail was still closed due to the recent fatal bear attack on a hiker.  As we pulled up, a lone bison came walking down the trail, as if to say, “Those signs don’t apply to me, and even if they did, who’s going to stop me.”  I guess a 2000+lb bison isn’t worried about a bear.

Another day under our belt without a large variety of wildlife to speak of.  But as we exit the park, we see our only pronghorn this trip.  When we visited the Grand Teton National Park in 2009, these guys were all over the place.  Here in Yellowstone, it appears that the bison have taken over that spotlight.  Still though, it was nice to see and photograph.  Trivia points:  The pronghorn (it is not an antelope) is the fastest land mammal in the western hemisphere, and considered second only to the cheetah for speed.

And never let it be said that Gardiner, MT is a boring place.  Once again, right in the middle of town, more mule deer, feasting on the grass growing in the cracks of the sidewalk.  Karen and I discussed how cool it must be to have wildlife like this just roaming all over town and in your yard.  But then we thought about the mess they would probably leave behind.  I guess the free fertilizer is just the tradeoff for living that close to nature.

Once again, our day is over too soon.  And once again we are thankful for the things we have seen.  And once again, we are plum tuckered out!  I think we’ll sleep in a little tomorrow…

Yellowstone: Day Two

Day two started out in a magnificent manner!  I stepped out of our residence to this view!  Snow capped mountains right out the front door!  What’s not to love about that!  Gardiner is a very small town right at the north entrance of Yellowstone.  I’m told that the actual population of the town is somewhere around 800 people, but obviously, the number of visitors, especially in the summer months, is much higher.  The size of the town is perfect for its location, nestled in a small valley surrounded by the wonderful mountains!

We get a somewhat early start to the day, still recovering from our normal work-life and travel.  One of the places I wanted to visit is a trail over the Blacktail Plateau.  It is known to have copious amounts of wildlife, so we’re really hoping to see and photograph them.  However, this trip, it seems that about the only wildlife to be seen there is this herd of bison grazing in the fields.  Still, any chance to interact (even from the car) with a beast powerful enough to leap it’s 2,000+ pound body over a fence, is a chance not to be missed.  While these animals appear to be very docile, their looks can be deceiving.  In fact. more people are injured each year by bison than pretty much any other creature in the park.

Also, the safety of being in the car, give a great chance for those up-close shots that really accentuates the power of this beautiful animal.

One of the things Karen and I were really hoping to see this trip was snow, and we were not disappointed this day!  It wasn’t much, but coming from Texas where we just suffered through a record-breaking summer of heat, any change was appreciated.  Most mornings started out in the teens and twenties, which really didn’t bother us in the least.

After leaving the Blacktail Plateau, we headed to the Lamar Valley, known for wolf and bear sightings.  These are two animals we seem to always miss out on when we travel.  We are really hoping to get to see them this time.

On our way to the valley, we spot this lone elk in a field at the Roosevelt Junction.  This is another of the creatures which is numerous in Yellowstone.  The males, with their proud antlers always look so majestic.  This one was alone and we just couldn’t pass by the opportunity to capture a few memories of his image.

Once in the Lamar Valley, we traveled up and down the road with no luck.  Normally you can tell if there is wildlife (wolves in particular) in the area because there will be many people pulled off the road with spotting scopes and cameras.  Nothing was to be seen today though.  But even with this bit if disappointment, we were still privy to the wonderful mountain views from the valley!  It just doesn’t get much better than this.

After driving through the Lamar Valley a few times, we come across a guy and his dog Jake, (yes, I rememberd the dogs name and not the guy) and have an opportunity to chat with him for a while.  While talking, he casually asks, “Do you want to see some wolves?”  Well DUH!  He tells us that the Blacktail pack have been spotted over near Elk Creek.  That’s near the exit of the Blacktail Plateau Trail we were on earlier.  That’s all we need to hear and we are off, after we thank him for the information of course.

We arrive, and sure enough, there are all the wolf-watchers with the scopes and cameras set up.  We finally get a spot to park, and I grab the big lens and hike up to where they are.  Then I ask, “Where are they?”  I’m pointed to these little black and gray dots way out in a field!  Well, that’s even too far for my 600mm lens.  Disappointment sets in for a second, then someone says, “Listen!  The wolves are howling!”  How cool is that!  If you have never heard that sound in real life, you really should get to some day.  It is amazing!

But the adventure here isn’t over yet.  A couple of the wolves decide to come closer and cross over the road.  Still a ways off from where I am, but at least I can get a “I saw them” shot and crop it enough to tell they are wolves and not just dots.

Giddy with excitement, we leave the Blacktail pack and begin heading back toward the area of our home-base.  On the way, we spot a herd of Elk on the side of a hill, all grazing together.  We hike the trail at the bottom of the hill and are able to get a few shots.  The male elk was higher on the hill watching over his herd, taking a very masculine pose with his big rack and one of his ladies.  This situation just begged for a photo, so I obliged.

After leaving the elk, we stop off at Udine Falls, which is right off the roadway.  When out photographing areas, it is hard to grow tired of waterfalls, especially when they are surrounded by wilderness.  Waterfalls have that combination of power and beauty that just makes one feel right about the day.

Okay, for those that live in the area, the magpie is a nasty bird.  They are compared to our grackles here in Texas.  But for those of us who don’t live there, this is very pretty bird!  Very basic black and white color scheme just draws my attention.  I thikn I’d trade our grackles for the prettier magpie any day!

One of the craziest areas of the park is the town of Mammoth.  This is the area where the army set  up Fort Yellowstone when they were in charge of the park before the creation of the National Park Service.  This town almost always has wildlife roaming around the buildings.  Usually it is the resident heard of elk, but this day, we spotted this coyote roaming around like he was looking for something.  He didn’t seem to worried about us, as he gave us a single glance and then went about his business of sniffing out whatever he was looking for.

And the aforementioned elk.  This one caught our attention as it appeared he was about to bugle to his harem.  We paused, took pictures, but nothing ever came out of his mouth.  A silent bugle.  That was a big strange, but as you are about to see, strange is relative in this place.

As we get back into Gardiner, the strangeness steps up a notch.  There are elk everywhere.  We see them in people’s front yards and as I look across the river to the hotel there, I see elk, not just in the surrounding yard, but actually right outside the first floor rooms!  It made me wonder if when you check in they ask questions such as, “Smoking or non-smoking?  Elk or no elk?”

Bottom line: This is a very cool place, especially if you like close interactions with wildlife.  Today will not be our last interactions for sure, and the best is yet to come.

Day two comes to a close and we are thankful for all we have seen!

The Great Smoky Mountain Adventure – Final Day.

Today began the long (14 hours) drive back to Dallas.  We have came, seen, visited, reminisced, and now it’s time to go.  Back to the day-to-day life through which God provides us the means to take these occasional trips.  Perhaps someday in the future we will be called back to these mountains for another purpose.

(Note: these pictures were all shot from the car so forgive any blurriness.)

One last look at the mountains as we leave Chattanooga…

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We drive through Georgia…

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Alabama…

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Mississippi…

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I gotta say a couple of things about Mississippi though.  We were on I20 going through all these states from Alabama to Texas, and the condition of the road in Mississippi was horrible.  It was like riding a bumpy roller coaster.  And on top of that, I think the rudest drivers of the trip seem to hail from Mississippi.  Even in the GSMNP, almost every time someone would cut us off or do some other rude maneuver, their license plate would be from Mississippi.  Now I’m sure that not everyone from there drives like this, but from the sampling that I saw, the ratio is pretty high.  In fact, it was in Mississippi that we saw this…

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Now, we didn’t see it happen so I’m not going to make any assumptions, but this was the only state where we saw anything like this the entire trip.

Louisiana…

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and finally arrive at Texas.

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And we end the trip, safe and sound (and tired) with a sunset through a bug-splattered windshield!

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After we got to our house, I turned on the news to see stories of a tornado and severe thunderstorms that were crossing I20 where we had been just a few hours before.  But once again, God is good and brought us through all the storms to the harbor of our garage.

I hope this sharing has helped show you the beauty of the Smoky Mountains and Chattanooga, but not too much.  There are enough people there already and when it comes time for me to retire I hope there is still room.  🙂  As the great philosopher group “The Eagles” once said… “Call come place paradise, kiss it good bye.”  Here’s hoping that this part of the country has the right guards in place to prevent that from happening.

And now… back to work!