Sunday, July 31, 2011

Firsts: Hits and Misses

It's been a busy weekend here in my little town. Although I still have 2 1/2 months to go on my current job, things are starting to wind down for the recreation program with one of their employees leaving this week. Combined with the fact that my roommate's wife is visiting and I have the room to myself for a week, it has seemed like a time for reflecting on the year.

In some ways it has been a disappointment. Because of injury or illness or the winter's long-lasting snow, I haven't done several of the activities I was originally signed up for, from whitewater rafting and reaching higher elevations than last year to a hike into an area with lots of grizzlies (they saw one on a carcass which would have been a first for me).

But I was here in the months of March and April for the first time, and I'm going to be here in December, January, and February for the first time. I've been on ten or so hikes in the park that I didn't get to last year, ate the free test meals for the cookout and the restaurant, and I saw the first bear I've seen while unprotected by metal--more firsts. And we had the construction coyote hanging around for a couple weeks.

On Saturday alone, I had three big firsts. The one that was planned was kayaking. A group of us, mostly kayak virgins, went to Yellowstone Lake for an evening employee version of this trip. Unfortunately, the time on the water got cut short because of rain and wind and we didn't make it as far as intended but it was fun to get some basic experience. I'd probably do it again next year or even in a couple weeks when it's offered again if there's space remaining.

The ride back to Mammoth included my first trip over Dunraven Pass in the dark. It's close to 9000 feet high and considered by many the scariest road in the park.

I was considering taking my camera out on the water with me since I'm thinking of getting a better one anyway. But I took a few photos on the way to the lake which I didn't want to risk. The biggest first of the day--I saw my first moose!

That's the best of the shots I got through the window as we passed him lounging in Floating Island Lake. Even in the midst of a hit, there can be a miss--here's the photo I really wish had come out sharper.

I've been looking through my photos from the past two years to choose which to enter in the employee photo contest (limit of one in each of five categories--Landscape, Closeup, Wildlife, People, Humorous) and that one might have been a contender for my Wildlife choice if it had come out better.

Today I decided I couldn't stay off the trail any longer and decided to test my foot on the local five mile long Beaver Ponds Trail. Because it was a last minute decision, I didn't prepare as well as I usually do and made two mistakes for the first time--no bug spray and a short sleeve shirt.

It wasn't long before I was regularly rubbing my hands over my arms, but soon my hands would no longer slide, sticking to a glue of blood, sweat, and mosquito corpses. When I started wishing for a bear to come down the trail to take a bite worth taking out of me, I began to have doubts about my mental state. When I started wondering if bear spray would work on mosquitoes, all doubt was removed.

Along with the hordes of mosquitoes were many dragonflies and butterflies which were some compensation. But since they were making me stop and become an easier target for the mosquitoes, I wondered if it might be an anti-human conspiracy.

There were other insects most people wouldn't consider as attractive, but I loved the Darth Vader helmet up front and the metallic gleam in the rear.

But it's not just insects along the trail. There's red in green and a rodent in a root.

And you'll see a few flowers along the trail.

I swear this next one is not from someone's garden.

As for my foot, it started hurting a bit about 2/3 of the way through the hike. I considered turning around and going back, but decided to finish the hike. I'm icing the foot as I type.

There's an old Danny O'Keefe song with the line, "Now a story needs a moral, and a song must have an end." I'm not sure if that applies to blogs as well. But in case it does, I'd like to tell you that into every pile of horseshit, a butterfly must fall.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Summer Picnic, Thoughts of Winter

It was a lovely afternoon for an office picnic, being in the 70s instead of the 80s of most recent days. I spent most of my time playing with dogs of coworkers (unfortunately no one brought a cat), especially a border collie who, like all of them, refused to take no for an answer. I'd throw a stick, he'd return and drop it a foot from my feet, I'd ignore it, he'd pick it up and drop it two inches closer, etc.

I walked to the picnic and it was my first time on a trail in ten days since my foot went bad. Not much longer than a mile round trip, but a fairly steep trail and I didn't feel any major pain. A much needed good sign. But I'm still glad I won't be doing the long hikes I was signed up for tomorrow even though I very much want to do those trails.

Here are a few photos from that last hike I never posted.

I call this next composition "Four Whistlepigs Sitting on a Rock Looking in the Same Direction". Actually, I usually avoid the whistlepig nickname, but Uinta Ground Squirrels would make the title too long.

This next one isn't a very sharp photo, but click it a couple times and check out that bluebird's perch.

Bitterroot, the Montana state flower.

You can't see me, can you?

It looks like I'll be spending the winter here in Yellowstone. I'm scheduled to start work December 1st, only six weeks after I leave here in October. Not sure if it's even worth taking my stuff out of storage for that short a time, whether my old landlord will have an apartment for me or if I'll be doing motel living, or if I want to stay here next summer (the winter contract will run to early June), but for now I'm looking forward to some quiet winter walks.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Very Brief Adventure

Last night, I fled from an animal for the first time since I've been here. It was raining shortly before 8:00 and I was headed to the local talent show (for the most part, the less said about that the better). I had my cap on and head down because of the rain. When I glanced up, I saw the four people ahead of me hurrying toward the rear door of the hotel--I thought they were trying to get out of the rain.

When they got out of my line of sight, I saw a bull elk running straight at me. I had a brief impression that he had a red banner tangled in his antlers before I turned to run for cover. I made it a few steps before realizing I wasn't going to get anywhere in time and looked back to see which direction the elk was coming. I veered to the left as he veered to the right and zoomed past me about twenty feet away.

Moments later a ranger in a truck came in hot pursuit as we frantically pointed in the direction the elk had gone. Looking that way, I saw that the elk had made it across the grassy boulevard between dorm and post office where many nights the three ring circus of elk, tourist, and ranger put on their performance. Only the rain and absence of elk avoided the magnificent chaos which would have ensued on a night like tonight. (I confess that my major interest in elk now is waiting to see if one is going to make a much deserved charge at a tourist--we look out our windows and root them on.)

Here are some examples of eyewitness reliability. I thought I saw a red banner--that turned out to be an orange traffic cone. Depending on who you talked to that cone was either in the elk's mouth or on his antlers. Some said those antlers were broken, some said the elk was bleeding, others said neither.

This evening my roommate went into town and on the way saw an elk by the river with an orange traffic cone on the ground beside him.

Later a young coyote trotted back and forth beneath my window, looking for a direction which wasn't blocked by tourists.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Fairy, the Mystic, and the Elephant

No, it's not the title of my new fantasy novel. They're the three hikes I did in two days which combined with the long hike earlier in the week may have ended my hiking season.

I just love the way the light seemed to make these flowers glow. I'm not positive I remember where I found them but I believe it was at a bathroom break on the way to Fairy Falls.

I always feel like I'm taking a risk when I try putting a name to something (and I care about the beauty a lot more than the name anyway) but I believe these are fringed gentians, the official flower of Yellowstone.

Both of these waterfall hikes start near geothermal features. The Fairy Falls trail passes by Midway Geyser Basin and Grand Prismatic Spring.

Other than that, most of the hike itself is fairly dull, traveling on an old road and then through a regrowth area burned in 1988.

But here's what waits at the end.

If you click on that photo you'll see a guy in the middle bottom of the photo to give you an idea of scale. Or you could just wait until I tell you that the water falls 197 feet.

Here's a look at the bottom portion. The water splits into so many streams that it barely makes a ripple in the pool at the bottom.

These were growing nearby.

We took a shortcut through Biscuit Basin to get to the trail to Mystic Falls. I've probably posted photos of these before, but in case you weren't paying attention:

Sapphire Pool is one of the most beautiful, deep in both color and depth, but it's not easy to get a good photo because of the steam. This is the best I managed this time.

We took the long way around to Mystic Falls, doing a climb which at the top has a view of the Old Faithful area in the distance. The trail brought us out close to the top of the 70 foot falls. I think I would have appreciated it more if we'd taken the trail along the river in the next photo and had a long approach to and view of the waterfall.

It was hard not to appreciate this nearby yellow columbine, even if I didn't get a very sharp photo.

The next day I climbed Elephant Back with a Yellowstone Association guide. They offer many natural history programs in the park, including some free ones to employees like me.

The first part of the hike is through predominantly lodgepole pine forest like this. I've encountered more hikers with bear bells in the past few days than I did all last year.

These trees have very shallow root systems and blow over easily in the wind. Based on the number of sawn trees, someone spends quite a bit of time keeping the trail clear.

The upper part of the trail is a series of sharp steep switchbacks with fewer trees to stop your fall as someone found out when he dropped his wife's camera. As usual, no photos from that section as I was just watching my feet and the loose gravel on the trail.

There's a view in one direction when you reach the top--fortunately it's in the direction of the lake. The big yellow building in the second photo is the Lake Yellowstone Hotel--a fancy, popular, and expensive place to stay.

There weren't many flowers on this hike, but I did spot this little beauty on the way out--the fairy slipper or calypso orchid.

On the way back from town with a coworker Friday evening, we found many cactus flowers in bloom near the Rescue Creek trail. I didn't have my camera then so I took a short walk this morning to try to find some closer. I found many other flowers but no cactus so was planning to try another direction in a couple days.

Now I'm not sure I'll be making that hike or any others any time soon because this afternoon I discovered the sole of my plantar fasciitis foot very swollen and tight. Oh well, I've fallen behind on my reading anyway.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Inevitable Grizzly Bear Post

I assume that everyone has heard of Wednesday's fatal attack here by a grizzly bear who apparently felt her cubs were threatened by two hikers. I can't very well ignore the first bear-caused death in the park for twenty-five years while I'm living in the park, but I don't have any inside information. When the name of the victim was released I immediately checked to see if I might have spoken with them. I did not make their reservation but I know the woman who did.

I've never been on the Wapiti Lake Trail, but I've been within a mile or two of where the attack took place. It's very close to the Canyon Village area where I was scheduled to work and live when I first came here last year, and even closer to some of the canyon's major viewing spots where I've taken photos and which are closed at this point.

Based on the news releases I've read, it certainly seems the park is making the right decision in not killing the bear. No one wants to blame the dead man or widow but based on what I've read to date, they certainly bear some responsibility for the attack, just as I would if I had been attacked on one of the many hikes I've taken alone or without bear spray. Two people is less than the recommended number for a hiking group here, they apparently did not leave the area the first time they saw the bears, they ran when the bear charged, and there has been no mention of them having bear spray with them.

It was their fourth visit to the park and they'd apparently never seen a bear before while hiking, just as I never had until last week. Quite possibly they had the sense of false security many visitors here have, not really understanding they've left the world where humans are (usually) in control. The trail they were on provides access from the northwest to the Pelican Valley, an area well known for its grizzly population. The area was closed to camping after a woman was killed there by a bear in 1984. I've never hiked in the valley but I'm scheduled to do a short hike there from the Lake area, twenty miles south of this fatality, in a couple weeks.

This event will provide some ammunition for those who think endangered species such as wolves and grizzlies should be extinct species, but although I've seen some stupid comments on newspaper websites and sensationalistic articles with lines such as "Killer bear roaming Yellowstone backcountry", I've seen far more comments which understand that the bear was simply doing what seemed necessary. These are very different circumstances than the fatal camp attack east of the park last year and most people seem to understand that. I do think this type of event will become more common with the increased grizzly population in the area. If humans choose not to educate themselves and take all possible precautions, it will probably be much less than twenty-five years until the next fatal bear attack in the park.

I'll be hiking to a couple waterfalls tomorrow. Saturday's hike to a high peak has been changed because of all the snow still up there. Instead we'll be climbing about 2000 fewer feet but should still get a nice view of the lake (Lake is still reserved for Superior).

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Slough Creek and the Outside World

Sad news from the east and the west in recent days (although for me it's actually east and east).

There's the oil spill into the Yellowstone River by our old friends Exxon. Combine a ruptured underwater pipeline--at one time cutting edge technology just like the newest version which can't possibly go wrong--(42,000 gallons spilled is the last figure I've read, which as usual is many more gallons and much more far-reaching than the company's early spin) and the longest undammed river in the country which happens to be at flood stage and you've got the usual mess. From a selfish point of view, I take a small degree of relief from the fact that the oily river flows away from my location.

And farther east in Boston, Kip Tiernan, one of the better humans, died. She cared about the people who needed to be cared about, an approach to life which has never been very popular in this country. I met her in 1990 during the fast she did at Arlington Street Church, a wonderful UU church which I used to attend. Her reason for the fast is mentioned in this article.

“We should atone for what we have allowed to happen to all poor people in this state, in the name of fiscal austerity or plain mean-spiritedness… . We have, as citizens, much to repent for, for what we have and have not done, to ease the suffering of our sisters and brothers who have no lobby to protect them.’’

She was an inspiring woman, and Boston will be a lesser place without her.

Today I did a hike with a group in the Slough Creek area, which many people claim as their favorite part of the park for reasons ranging from the campground to the fishing to the scenery.

Although it was pretty, I can't really say I enjoyed myself because of the pace of the hike. It was scheduled for eight miles with a return time of 4:00; instead we hiked over ten miles and got back a half hour early. I've never seen the point of get there as fast as you can hiking--I'm a stroller, a saunterer, a meanderer who'd rather go half the distance and notice twice as many interesting plants and animals. By staying behind the group as much as possible, I did manage to find a few of those interesting moments.

Like this critter--at least no one stepped on him as they whizzed past.

And this frog wondering what the hurry was.

I was trying all day to find time to wait for one of the many butterflies to land. Finally found this one in the parking lot.

Of course, I've long known that I'm out of step with my time. There's a reason, after all, that I have that different drummer t-shirt. And I can't complain too much about a program that at least allows me to see places I might never see otherwise, even if the program doesn't let me enjoy them fully.

But there may be hope for improvement, for me and many other people. I don't think there has been public transit in Yellowstone since the days when the stagecoaches were the only way to get anywhere, but local bus companies are planning to start changing that this month with a program called Ride Linx in Yellowstone which will make stops at surrounding towns and in-park lodges, campgrounds, and attractions. I haven't seen info yet on frequency and fares, but I'm hoping this will provide a little more freedom, a little less pollution, and maybe slightly fewer road-killed wildlife.


Sunday, July 3, 2011

Mysterious Shapes

Can you identify this growth? Answer to follow.

I rode the group van to Bozeman yesterday. There was no way to fit as many restaurant meals as I would have liked to eat into the four hours I had to wander around downtown so I settled for a real bagel from one place and a spicy breakfast burrito from another. The pizza, and the Thai, and the Mediterranean, and all the others, will probably have to wait until October when I stay a few days there on my way back to the outside world.

I spent quite a while browsing at Vargo's Jazz City and Books listening to Chuck Berry's greatest hits, and wound up buying Squatters in Paradise about us Yellowstone seasonal workers, and Ranger Confidential about twelve years working in national parks. Although the sidewalk walking was making my foot a little sore, I decided to take the trail behind the library to recreate my first Bozeman hike and climbed a hill for view of snowy mountains in several directions. At my feet were a variety of wildflowers in many colors. I was wishing I could spend the night at my usual nearby hotel because it felt good to be back in town.

But it's just as well I didn't.

I went on a hike this morning to Lost Lake with one of the same people I visited it with last year. The standard bear warning sign had an extra note on it dated July 1st, which caught our attention.

Our first sightings as we climbed the steep trail were very much alive--a deer with twins. We didn't find the carcass, but we did find Lost Lake. Last year we were too late for the water lilies but they were blooming today. Oh, and see that rocky slope down at the far end of the lake? Keep your eye on that.

As we got a little closer to the far end of the lake, my hiking partner caught a glimpse of an animal moving into the water and thought beaver. We watched as the animal swam across the lake and shared thoughts along these lines . . . big beaver . . . too long . . . otter . . . probably some big mammal . . . elk . . . Lost Lake Monster . . . It wasn't until the animal reached the shore of that rocky slope that we realized we were watching a bear. My first bear sighting while hiking. And far enough away that I wished we'd been closer.

You might think that would be enough excitement for a four mile hike, but you'd be wrong. This was our next encounter.

We waited quite a while, but the bison showed no interest in moving off the trail so we decided to try to get around him which entailed climbing a steep hill on the left which was heavily covered in shrubs and fallen trees. It was quite a workout for the ankles which were easily imagined broken when not busy imagining being crushed by accidentally dislodging one of the big trees held in place by the smaller ones we were clambering over. I figured if my foot survived this bushwhack it would probably make it through the summer, but this week will be a big test.

Of course, just as we reached the point where we could start descending back to the trail the bison decided to move down the trail in the same direction we were going. They enjoy messing with us puny humans. We did get off the hillside and detoured around him again, this time on level ground.

Site of future thimbleberries:

Did you guess that the first shape was a great horned owl?

Although there are perfectly good trees around, the owls also like to hang out under the eaves of the park's administration building.

I haven't gotten any good photos of an owlet yet, but here's the best of the bad. This one looks much younger than the ones I photographed in June last year so the owls were probably delayed by the long snowy winter just like everything else.