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Hoodoo Basin…an Eerie Place and a Story

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View from a peak in the Basin

It was June of 2012 when a man approached me on the top of Dead Indian Hill asking for directions to Parker Peak. At first I was perplexed where this Peak actually was. There are a lot of famous Peaks in the Greater Yellowstone that people come to climb. Parker was not one of them. Then he explained it was at the end of Sunlight road in the Park and I knew it was in Hoodoo Basin. He had a strange urgency about him, and seemed driven by an unseen need to get to this insignificant peak. 

The hike to Hoodoo Basin, where Parker Peak and Hoodoo Peak form part of the bowl, is epic. I’ve been wanting to do it for ten years from the end of Sunlight Road., and finally completed it this week. It’s six hard uphill miles and 2500′ gain to the Park Boundary. Then another five miles of high meadows and up and down to the campsite below Parker Peak. The Peak is just a ‘run-up’, nothing special, except this year the only water source was a small pond generated by the last bits of a snowfield. The pond edge was laden with tracks of elk, deer, sheep and bear.

In the shadow of the eerie formations of the Hoodoos, I told my companions the story of the driven man who needed to get to Parker Peak (emphasizing Paaarr-ker said in an ominous voice). Based on some observations at the top of Parker, below is what I imagined his story might be….

See my notes on the Basin at the end of the Story…

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Parker Peak

Parker Peak….

I heard it held a mysterious Presence, a palpable vibration, an unmistakeable aura. Where I heard this, I do not remember. But it all began with the dreams.  The first dream was of a mountain made of crystals, a mountain that could heal. On the very summit of the mountain peak I saw, in my dream vision, a large petrified stump. I touched the stump and found its top was broken. I pushed the lid aside to reveal a hole that went deep underground. So I climbed into that dark hole, deeper and deeper, till I was within a maze of tunnels.  Almost spontaneously a little person appeared. I had no fear. It was if I knew this person, yet I’d never seen him before.

“Come, follow me” the little person said. He guided me through the underground passage, and although it was dark, a soft greenish-blue light emanated from his body, illuminating the tunnels. The little man stopped at a shaft of light that shone from an opening above. On the ground before us were bones, big piles of bones. A natural trap cave where animals had fallen inadvertently into from high above.

“Do you know whose bones these are?”

“No” I answered.

“Bones of animals past that once roamed these mountains. You were once here, hunting Short-faced Bears and Cheetahs.”

We continued on till the cave passage opened wide, revealing extensive views of deeply cut valleys and steep ravines.

The little man pointed. “This is the Center of the World, formed by Fire and Ice.”

I looked out over the land. It was dry, smoke was blowing in from different fires. The air was hot.

It was then I awoke in a cold sweat.

Using the Internet as my guide, I came to the conclusion that what I saw that had been formed of Fire and Ice was Yellowstone Park, and my viewpoint was Parker Peak. Parker Peak held a mystery meant for me to solve. Now I had to go there.

_________________

June. I packed up my car and drove the twenty hours from Chicago to Cody. From my research, the shortest route to Parker Peak was from the end of a dirt road called Sunlight. It looked easy from the map, maybe ten miles. I planned on a day hike. I’d take some water and a lunch, hike in an out during the longest day of the year so I had plenty of daylight. Now just to find Sunlight Basin. I inquired at a Cody, WY gas station and they directed me to Chief Joseph Highway. The highway climbed out of the high desert into the mountains.

This must be it. I thought as I approached 9000 feet. I turned onto a dirt road near the top of the summit. I knew Parker Peak was around 10,000. Easy climb in and out I figured. The road ended after a mile and I saw a distinct trail. I parked and began my hike. It was then I saw two locals hanging around a sign that said ‘Wilderness Boundary’.

“Is this the Sunlight Road?” I enquired of them.

“No. Sunlight Road is another seven miles down the mountain.”

I told them I was off to Parker Peak from the end of the road for a day hike.

“You have to get past the Bear Gate, but that’s not open to cars for another month. So you’ll have an extra 5 or 6 miles of hiking to the Hoodoos. Why do you want to go there.”

“Just need to get to Parker Peak.”

“Well, you can’t make it in a day hike. Do you have bear spray with you?”

“Huh? Do I need that?”

“Big grizzly area back there. Lots of other peaks around here that are nicer and accessible now. Why don’t you go to the Beartooths? Or climb some other peaks in the Park? Parker is just a walk-up. Not that interesting.”

“Just gotta get to Parker Peak.” How could I tell them. They just wouldn’t understand the magic of this mountain. “I’ll come back in August.”

It’s been three years since that day in June and I still haven’t made it to Parker. But the dreams keep coming and someday, someday, I just know, I’ll get there.

_______________

At the top of Parker Peak there is a large petrified tree stump. And the summit has rock striations made of clear crystals.

_______________

The Hoodoo Basin is laden with chippings of obsidian flakes everywhere. My friends hiked up Hoodoo Peak, a scramble on talus which I do not like. Then they easily walked the ridge about 1.5 miles to Bootjack Gap, the passage between the Crandall drainage (Papoose trail) and the Park. Large obsidian pieces were scattered all over the ridge. Hoodoo to Sunlight and Miller Creek to Crandall Creek were hard-trodden Indian trails for thousands upon thousands of years. Native peoples traveled to Obsidian Cliff (and other cherished spots for stone to work) in spring to obtain new material for atlatls and later for arrowheads. Just like the deer and elk, they ‘surfed the green’ or followed the green-up, gathering roots and plant material. In the fall, they probably stayed in Hoodoo Basin to gather pine nuts from the Whitebark Pines there.

Today about 70-80% of those Whitebarks are dead, stricken down by beetles. (See photo below). The native peoples are gone, but the grizzlies are not and they are dependent on these nutritious high-fat nuts to make brown fat for the long winter. It was terribly sad to see so many dead trees, and once again made me think about the future fate of the grizzly with a delisting and subsequent hunt so close to being approved.

In addition to obsidian material everywhere, I understand there were at least forty wikiups observed by Superintendent Norris when he visited the Hoodoos or ‘Goblin Land’ as he called it.  These wikiups are no longer standing but still visible. I searched for them but was unable to find any, although I saw one that looked like a possibility. The wood would be down in a pile and very old. According to Orrin and Lorraine Bonney’s classic ‘Guide to the Wyoming Mountains and Wilderness Areas’, in 1880 when Norris and companions explored the Hoodoo area they

…found on the North side of [Parker Peak] a favorite campsite of raiding Indians with its commanding view of all approaches and handy striking distance to the high passes of Crandall Cr. He also found gory remnants of border raids–white folks’ blankets, clothes, china, bedding in & around the 40 rotting lodges. 

In the four days we were in the Basin, we did not see another person. The country was very dry, so this usual summer feedgrounds for elk were barren of elk and deer. Only old scat was around. We did see evidence of one grizzly bear and bighorn sheep. I also had an experience with five Short-eared Owls flying low over my head that rates among my top ten wildlife encounters.

It was an amazing journey. Worth the hard work.

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Park Boundary Line. Looking out into the Lamar Drainage

Hoodoo

Some of the Hoodoos in the Foreground. Hoodoo Peak in the background

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The Headwaters of the Lamar River. Smoke from fires makes the haze.

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Dead Whitebark Pines in the Hoodoos

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What the Lamar Valley has to offer in May

A cloudy, snowy, cold Mother’s Day.  I like to head into the park on Mother’s Day and try to see babies.  I’m so close to the Lamar Valley, just one hour to the Buffalo Ranch, that I usually don’t get much further, and don’t need too.  All photos below are from today.

A few Mother’s Days ago there was so much activity in the valley–wolves on wolves competing with bears, coyotes and bison babies, you-name-it.  Today was a different Mother’s Day.  The Lamar activity has calmed down in general.  With few wolves, there is just less activity.  But spring is always an excellent time to see bears and today was no exception.

I saw a total of 5 grizzlies in the Lamar–a mom with 2 yearlings, and two boars. Grizzly The boars had a brief face off for a few tense moments, but the bigger one just went his way.  Bighorn sheep rams stood by the roadside; a coyote was on a bison calf carcass, and the bison babies and moms were all along the road.  I watched a wonderful scene of a young frisky bison calf jump around, then come back and nuzzle his mom.  The mom and him butted and rubbed their heads, then he was off romping again.Bison and nursing calf

What strikes a person traveling through the Park is how many people LOVE to visit this area, and some many times a year.  I spoke with a fellow who travels here at least 4 times a year from Rhode Island.  He comes in winter to Jackson to photograph elk on the refuge.  Then he returns for the antler auction, trying to match up his photos with a matched set of antlers (75% goes to the Refuge, 25% to the local boy scout troop who do the collecting of the antlers).  He comes other times just for wildlife watching.  Many of the people I spoke with come out every May, staying outside the Park at the gateway communities.  Some people come from as far away as England.  Some have even bought second homes here.  And what are people looking for when they come–they all want to watch predators!  “I want to see a bear” one person told me.  They’d like to see wolves, bears, foxes.  It’s easy to see elk, bison, and antelope.  But predators are exciting for people to watch.Bison babies

And the predator that is now obviously ‘missing’ in the Lamar viewing experience is the wolf.  Although there is a pair there who have pups, two grown wolves are hard to spot, as compared to over a dozen in the pack just a few years ago.

From where I sit in my valley, the wolf hunt has hit the Lamar hard as these wolves travel back and forth in the winter time following the migratory Lamar elk herd outside the Park.  The Wyoming Game and Fish has proposed an increase in the 2014 wolf hunt numbers.  Most areas would have an increased quota–my area 2 would be increased from 4 last year to 5 this fall.  In 2013 5 wolves were killed, one above the quota.  There is a confirmed pack of 6 wolves here.  Why is the quota most of the adult pack?

Please take a look at this sane proposal below from Brushback Guide Services.  They propose Tourist and Science zones next to the Park with either 1. no harvests, depredation only or 2. extremely low quotas with a buffer of 10-15 miles around the Park, thereby tightening the areas or 3. very limited shortened seasons in these special zones.

This proposal would protect the tourist economy as well as balance with those who want to hunt wolves.  A continued increase in the wolf hunt will only have continuous impacts on the Park and the wolf population and pack structures in the Greater Yellowstone area.

Wolves, and all predators, should be appreciated for their necessary impacts on ecosystems.  They are needed in the ‘web’.  They manage the meso-predators, they foster healthy landscapes, they provide food for other large predators such as bears, and for thousands of years ungulates have been evolutionarily healthier because of their presence.  Ram

Yet the reality today is economics and dollars drive the argument and the management policies.  So here is what Brushback Guide Services proposes that I think works.  Proposal #1 is what I prefer:

Proposal 1- Science & Tourism Units

Units that are important to wildlife viewing would be considered “Science & Tourism Units” to allow scientists a chance to keep ongoing wolf studies without having so many wolves taken mid-life before their full potential data is reached. The other purpose for these units is tourism. Tour companies can show people wolves in areas where they are not hunted better than areas where they are hunted. These units have good road systems for tourism and border national parks for ongoing studies. Scientifically, these units allow us to know how to manage wolves in areas where they do get hunted because we know how it should be when they are not hunted or very limited hunting is allowed.

Proposal: Science & Tourism Units- Unit 2, 6, 8, & 9
Depredation only OR extremely low quotas of 1 or 2 wolves
Depredation only is preferred in “Science & Tourism Units”.

Proposal 2- Cut Units In Half Along Park Borders

Give units bordering the national parks an approximate 15-20 mile “wolf hunt free zone”. Delegate these by nearest large landmark such as creeks. For example: Creek No Name is 15 miles from east side of Grand Teton National Park border, hunters can hunt the east side, but not the west side of No Name Creek. Another option would be to START the hunt unit 15-20 miles away from the park designated by large, easy to use and not mistake landmarks/roads.

Proposal: Start wolf hunt units 15-20 miles from park border
Keep original quotas as Game & Fish has designated
Park wolves will be less affected helping science and tourism.
Depredation still in place.

Proposal 3- Keep The Current Plan/Units, Lower Quotas & Shorter Season

I’m going to focus again on national park border units. This approach gives “Science & Tourism” people a chance to have a better experience by showing and recording wolves. This will also allow hunters a chance to hunt units away from the national park keeping hunters happy. Quotas that would have less impact to us would look like this:

Unit 1- 3 Wolves October 1- December 31st

Unit 2- 2 Wolves November 1st – November 30th (Science & Tourism Unit)

Unit 3- 7 Wolves October 1st- December 31st

Unit 4- 4 Wolves October 1st- December 31st

Unit 5- 6 Wolves October 1st- December 31st

Unit 6- 2 Wolves November 1st – November 30th (Science & Tourism Unit)

Unit 7- 1 Wolf October 1st- December 31st

Unit 8- Depredation Only (Science & Tourism Unit)

Unit 9- Depredation Only (Science & Tourism Unit)

Unit 10- 3 wolves October 1st- December 31st

Unit 11- 2 Wolves October 1st- December 31st

Unit 12- 1 Wolf October 15th- December 31st

 

Please get your comments into Wyoming Game and Fish regarding the proposed hunt by May 30th.  

The Park NE Entrance Opens

Although the official opening date for highway 212 from Pilot to Cooke City is next saturday May 10th, the plow crews have been hard at work and as of today the NE entrance to Yellowstone is open!

Following the Plow to Yellowstone

Following the plow to Yellowstone

 

I took the chance, drove the road, and saw the plows were completing their finishing touches on the remaining slush by Fox Creek bridge.  It’s still mostly winter up there, with Pilot and Index covered in snow and the Clark’s Fork River barely muddy.

While Cooke City has plenty of snow, the Lamar is lower and so open, yet the green up has barely begun there. Tourists drive in from the Mammoth side, then turn around, yet a few passed me leaving the Park’s NE entrance towards Cody.

 

 

Cooke City today, looking towards the NE entrance

Cooke City today, looking towards the NE entrance

I’d left late since I didn’t know if the road was passable, so I just spent some time in the Lamar.  Here are a few sightings.

Grizzly

Sandhill cranes

Pronghorn

 

Coyote

Coyote

As of December 2013, the wolf count in the Park was 95.  Yet there were only 2 Lamar Canyons.  So seeing a wolf in the Lamar is pretty slim right now.  Who knows how many pups might show up this spring.  With an increased hunting quota being suggest by Wyoming Game and Fish for fall 2014, it’s likely that the Lamar pack will continue to stay small.  This pack tends to follow the fall elk migration eastward outside the Park.  Park wolves that are used to people are easy targets for hunters, whereas the wolves that have been through two hunts so far are rightfully scared of humans.  To me it makes good sense to create a buffer zone around the Park, or at least drastically reduce the quota in areas outside the Park where wolves tend to migrate or overlap in their territory.  Here is the link to comment on the proposed hunt increases for this fall.  Deadline for comments is May 30th.

Shhh…Mother’s Day access to the Park from highway 212

Shhh…don’t tell anyone but the Northeast road to the Park is open.  This is the usual time, the 2nd week of May, when they plow the nine miles of highway 212 and access is open to Cooke City.  But because of the sequester, the opening date was moved to ‘no later than May 24’.  I like to go into the Park on mother’s day and see all the new mothers.  Those nine unplowed miles are easy access and many times melt off almost or completely on their own.  So I was counting on still going up there.

Calf and mom

Calf and mom

Meanwhile, in Cody, their opening date, which is usually the 1st of May, was moved up to around May 15th.  The East gate, an hour directly east of Cody, is the most difficult entrance to plow.  During the winter, access to the gate is plowed, but from there its groomed for snowmobiles and skiers only.  The treacherous Sylvan Pass is subject to avalanches, rock slides, and is incredibly steep.  In the winter, the Park blasts to create avalanches.  It costs the park a lot of money, yet few people actually use the entrance.  Once you reach the entrance (as I said, one hour from Cody), you have another hour or so before you arrive to Pelican Valley or Fishing Bridge where you can see more wildlife.  Spring storm brewing in Yellowstone, NE entrance

Cody and Park County decided that they would lose too much business if the entrance were closed for two weeks.  The Park was saving money imposed by the sequester by delayed plowings.  The east entrance alone  costs approximately $100,000 to plow. All the roads leading into the east entrance need to be plowed.  Yet Cooke City to the North entrance is plowed all year long.   So in a strange decision, Cody raised the money and the city donated some matching funds just to open that entrance on time.

Strange?  I call it that because in exactly the same amount of time it takes to get into the heart of the Park from the east entrance, Cody could have sent people to the Northeast entrance and the abundant wildlife area of the Lamar valley, and had to probably pay very little money for plowing those easy additional nine miles.

Yellowstone Lake

Yellowstone Lake

I’ve written about that orphan road before.  My neighbor says that when they paved the road, the idea was that would be the all year round access. But snowmobilers just won’t go for that.  Even though the concept of ‘share the road’ would be simple–snowmobilers could have an access drive area along the side to their trails, or park further up–the snowmobile lobby is too organized and vocal.  So those few miles are not plowed.  But the warm weather, wide fairly flat road, makes for quick plowing in late April and although last week it was still impassable, today the road was dry and the plows had already done their work.  The Park was lovely.  Baby bisons are being born.  I watched an osprey building her nest and saw a coyote hunting and catching mice.  I’ll be going in for my traditional mother’s day celebration and hope to see some bears.

Coyote searching sagebrush for prey

Coyote searching sagebrush for mice

Yellowstone and the Lamar at its finest–wolves, bears, and high drama

Yellowstone is at it’s finest in May, especially in the Lamar Valley.  Just less than an hour away from my home, I’ve been three times this week.  May is my favorite month.  First off, because I’m south of the NE entrance, the road into the Park is not plowed on the Montana side during the winter, making travel to the Park in the winter extremely difficult.  Once the Beartooth Highway is plowed (Memorial Day), traffic into the NE entrance is heavy.  But in May, the roads are almost completely free of cars.

But more importantly, its the time of the year for calving.  Bison, elk and pronghorn are all calving during this month and predator interactions abound.  Bears, wolves and coyotes move into the Lamar looking for young and afterbirth.  Plus you’re likely to see boars looking for sow bears to mate with.

Newborn with mom

Black grizzly

Grizzly in Lamar

Any day in Yellowstone is a great day but today hit the jackpot.  As soon as I arrived, I spotted two wolves on a rise.  A group of veteran wolf watchers had set up on what I used to know as Hill 44, but now they tell me its called Geriatric Hill!

This wasn’t just any old two wolves, but the Alpha female and her yearling of what is now called The Lamar Pack.

Lamar pack alpha female collared

A large grizzly lay on top of a bison that had died giving birth, its calf already consumed. Two wolves from Mollie’s Pack were also hanging around the bear.

Grizzly sits on carcass guarding it

What’s wonderful about these avid wolf watchers is that they know all the latest and past gossip about the Park packs.  Literally its gossip because wolves are extremely social animals, and very territorial.  These wolfers can recognize each wolf by sight, know their assigned numbers, as well as the history of each wolf and each pack.  Hanging around with them, I asked questions and picked up the back story.

Mollie’s Pack has been around a long time in the interior of the Park.  They’re well known because they were the only pack regularly preying on bison, which is quite a feat.  Now, 17 strong, they have returned to the Northern Range and, without any pups to take care of and keep them near a den, they are roaming and killing off other wolves.  I asked one of the wolfers why they aren’t denning.

“Their Alpha female disappeared.  No one knows what happened to her.  She was old though.  The Mollie’s paid a visit to the Lamar Pack’s den the other night.  Things seem to be okay as of now, but see those two Mollie’s are moving in on these Lamar wolves.”

The two Lamar’s were grey and smaller.  They sat on a rise with their eyes glued to the two larger black Mollie’s on the south side of the sagebrush plateau.  Between them the grizzly laid happily on the carcass.  For over an hour I watched the Lamar wolves glued to one area, while the Mollies moved closer then farther from the bear. The Mollies seemed restless.  One of them kept howling for reinforcements, which never came.  Obviously, their agenda was two-fold:  move the bear off the carcass and get rid of those Lamar wolves.

Then something dramatic happened:  all of a sudden the Lamar Alpha female started running towards her den.  Through the sagebrush, she was coming directly towards us. With the wolfer crowd cheering her on (“run girl, run…”) she swam the river and ran across the road, presumably back to her den.  With some hesitation, her yearling pup followed, swimming the river for safety from the Mollie’s.

Alpha female hightails it away from Molly Pack

Lamar alpha swims river back to den

She emerges right below us by the road

“We might have to just cut off those Mollie’s if they try to follow.  It’s not kosher, but those Mollie’s have already decimated several of the packs here and we don’t want them killing off these Lamar wolves”, my new wolfer friends from Kansas told me.  “We come here four times a year–spring, fall, winter.  We’re going home next week.”

She got out her walkie-talkie.  “The pup’s coming across the river.  Stay in your places.  Don’t move.”  I asked who she was talking to.  “Anyone with a radio.  I’m just telling them not to crowd the pup or get in her way while she’s running back to the den.”

Lamar wolf pup swims away from Molly’s Pack

With the resident wolves gone, the Mollie’s began moving closer to the grizzly.  A feeling deep, beyond words, overcame me.  I was witnessing a drama so ancient that the genetic blueprints are hidden in the dusts of bear/wolf evolutionary history.   The Mollie’s harassed the grizzly for a time while the bear growled and swatted and the wolves growled back, then laid down nearby in the grass to wait their turn.  I had the feeling wolves have mastered the art of being patient for their chance at a meal from a bear.

With the high drama passed for the moment, I made my way down the valley to see what else was happening. Just as I was thinking that I probably wouldn’t see any coyotes with all the wolf activity going on, a coyote came trotting up the roadside.  I pulled over and watched.

Coyote searching sagebrush for prey

The other day I’d seen a coyote sneak up to a small herd of bison with calves.  The bison made a surround around their calves, and when the coyote got within 10 feet, the two bison moms put their calves inbetween them and made a tight fence with their bodies.  I thought this coyote might be up to something.  He was definitely hunting.

Coyote made a laser for a group of Pronghorn. I’d read that coyotes are the main predator of antelope calves.  It seemed to me there have been more Pronghorn this year than I’d ever seen in the Lamar.  With the introduction of wolves and the subsequent reduction of coyotes, I’d heard that the pronghorn were rebounding.

Coyote was definitely hunting for pronghorn babies.  The group of pronghorn got skittish and started following the coyote, trying on the one hand to keep their distance and on the other to push him away.

Coyote searches sagebrush for pronghorn calves with pronghorns on his heels

It was an interesting dance.  A lone male antelope oddly enough kept his distance, while the females were grouped around the coyote.  Coyote was unperturbed by all the pronghorn attention.  This time, it seemed, the coyote left without his meal.

Meanwhile, up the valley, a large herd of bison lazed with their newborn calves.  I stopped for a while to observe and heard a lone wolf howling over and over from the west side of the Lamar.

Sitting here listening to wolf howls from male of the extinct Agate pack

I turned around and drove back to the east end.  The wolfer crowd had moved west to observe the two Mollie’s, who had just run off an elk.  I got out and spoke with a wolfer from England.

“We’re from the U.K. but we come here all the time.  Last year we bought a place in Paradise Valley.  That wolf you heard over there wasn’t from the Mollie Pack, but the male from the old Agate.  He came through the secret passageway. (Note:  I have no idea where that is but it sounded interesting) The Mollie Pack killed all the Agate females and since the bloodline goes with the females, the Agates are now gone.  He’s been coming back and forth with a Mollie female.”

One can’t ask for a better day in the Park.  On my way home, I just couldn’t help but think about the intensity and fascination people have with wolves, and how many people now come to Yellowstone Park just to watch wolves.  Those people from Kansas would never have come four times a year every year before wolves were here.  And why would people fly all the way from England many times a year, and even buy a house here, if wolves weren’t visible in the Park.

Besides the obvious ecological benefits wolves provide (think Trophic Cascade), there are new human economic benefits.  I just can’t understand why the East side of the Park can’t get with the 21st century on this.    Instead of plowing the 9 miles to the Park in the winter which would bring in throngs of wolf watchers (think Kansas people and U.K. people), the snowmobile lobby keeps it closed.  Instead of advertising wolf watching, the wolf hating crowd is playing a wolf hating movie in Cody during tourist season.  And soon there will be a hunting season here and my valley, which has premiere wolf watching in the winter, is slated for one of the highest quotas on wolves, more than there even are presently in the existing pack.

“The last wolf in England was killed in 1756”, the U.K. woman told me. “The reason some people hate wolves goes back to the Europeans who came here”, she said. “You know the ‘Little Red Riding Hood’  story?  Europeans told that to their children so they wouldn’t go off with strange men.  That’s not a story about wolves, but a story to scare little children into not trusting male strangers.”

Just a final note:  I arrived in the Park a little after 11 am.  I spent the morning watering my newly planted Limber Pines, then left after 10 am for a leisurely visit.  All this excitement in the Lamar occurred in just 3 hours.  I left the Park at 2pm and got home after 3.  Wow, what a treasure our National Park is!

Bison with newborn calves

Close to Open–Yellowstone Park

The NE entrance will be open on May 11th, they say.  We’re always the last for the Park to plow and I’m not sure why.  Its only a nine mile stretch and a heck of a lot easier to plow than the east entrance over Sylvan Pass.  Must be politics and economics driving the decisions. I had to see for myself today the snow pack left.  Besides, I was hoping to purchase a fishing license at the Crandall store.  So a friend and I took a ride.

Before we got too far, the Switchback Ranch on the other side of the Clark’s Fork was flying all their summer supplies over.  Unbelievably, there really is no access to this ranch from Clark, which is on that side of the canyon.  If you drive to the desert and up to the mouth of the Clark’s Fork Canyon, there’s a primitive (and I mean PRIMITIVE) jeep road that goes along the river’s edge.  At the 4 mile mark, the road climbs the side of the canyon in switchbacks–thus the name of the ranch.  I’ve been at the base of the climb, but not up it.  I understand that even in an ATV you do 3-point turns at every corner, and its’ a hairy scary ride.  The road itself along the river is more like driving in a dry riverbed, rough for even an ATV.

Look at the green area. That's the ranch across the canyon

The previous owner was connected with Ford Motor Co., a man named Bugas.  Bugas owned a lot of property in my basin as well.  The current owner is David Leuschen, a Wall Street Mogul.  Oddly enough when I first purchased my property I had a client in California whose husband is a trader.  While I was designing and installing their garden, he was over here on a retreat at the Switchback.

Because of the treacherous and arduous and impossible access to the Ranch, all the major supplies are flown over.  Their base is a forest service knoll by the highway, directly across from the Ranch.  The supplies are attached to a helicopter and flown over the Clark’s Fork Canyon, a thousand feet below.

Returning for a new load

All the gas and diesel fuel for the year are carried over in several passes

Catching the free line and ready to attach. A flatbed worth of seed

1500 pounds of seed in that sack.

Off it goes to the Ranch. The whole process there and back just takes about five minutes.

It’s a beautiful place but no matter how much money I had, I wouldn’t want my supplies and friends flown in.  The old Wright ranch on the Bench used to have a zip line across the creek and that was how you’d get over there.  Now there’s a bridge, but that’s up the road near Crandall.

For all of you thinking of trying to get into the Park early, I’d say not this week.  We got pretty far, but the snow was still over the road at around Lolo Pass.  Up on the Beartooth, you can drive quite a ways, but not as far as the lake yet.  The run-off though is beginning.  This is Beartooth creek taken from the road.

Spring runoff in the Beartooth is beginning

And a moose grazing happily undisturbed

Beartooth Cow Moose amidst last years logged area in Aspens

And home in my front yard

Buck with nubby antlers in front yard

Unfortunately, the Crandall store didn’t have their fishing licenses in yet.  Guess I’ll just have to go for another ride next week.

Yellowstone adventures and a close call

I came back a few weeks ago from an advanced tracking class with Jim Halfpenny in Gardiner.  But before the class, I spent a day and an evening hiking around the Park.

Tuesday late afternoon called for a trek up Mt. Washburn, which I’d never done.  They say if you only have time for one hike, Mt. Washburn is your ticket.  Its a great view for sure of the Yellowstone volcano, but what’s more impressive is that during the ice age only 30,000 years ago, Mt. Washburn was the only land not covered with glaciers from there to the Tetons.  The hike is not far but a good uphill and the alpine wildflowers were impressive.  A group descending came bye and told me to watch for a grizzly they’d seen near the summit.

View from Mt. Washburn of the Yellowstone caldera

Polemonium

Pedicularis

Gentian close-up

At the top, a ranger is stationed and there’s a free telescope for viewing (Wow, something actually free!).

Wednesday morning after camping at Mammoth, I headed up past the Golden Gate looking for a nice dayhike.  I thought I’d do Solfatara Creek.  I parked at the isolated trailhead.  Not my favorite kind of trail presented itself.  An ’88 burn area, the trail was thick on both sides with young lodgepoles so tight you can’t move nor see ahead.  Essentially, these kinds of trails are like tunnels and I don’t like them because if you come upon a bear there’s no where to go.

I decided to try the trail and see if it opened up.  If it didn’t, I’d find another to hike.  Sure enough, after about 700 yards, the trail opened to meadow and an unburned forest.  As I approached the hot springs of Solfatara Creek, the trail showed lots of fresh bear sign.  The creek was a beautiful and unusual greenish-blue, warm, slow water, but the mosquitos were thick.  Between the bugs and the bear scat, which was thickening in tune with the mosquitos, I decided that since I was hiking alone I’d prefer to find another trail, one more open and less buggy.

I retraced my steps and when I got to the meadows, I noticed a troop of rangers off trail looking like they were doing some kind of vegetation studies.  I figured they must have come through the ‘tunnel’ that was approaching, so maybe they’d scared off any bears.  But just in case, as I always do when I can’t see well in front of me, I took my bear spray out of its holster, uncapped it, and held it in my right hand as I came through the trees.

About halfway through the forest, I came around a corner almost directly into a lone bison bull rubbing its horns on a sapling.  I watched for a moment while debating where to go to get out of its way.  He was coming my direction and I was headed towards him.  If I went backwards from whence I came, I’d be stuck in the narrow thicket of trees on the trail in his way.  I couldn’t slip pass him. Beside me was a teeny, tiny clearing of about 5′ square.  I moved as far as I could into the clearing.  He began to trot on the trail past me, but just at the last second he changed his mind and decided to charge me.  At only about 6′ away, he lowered his head; his horns now directly facing my chest.  Instinctively, I sprayed him with the bear spray I’d luckily been carrying unhinged and uncapped.

Immediately he made a right turn and trotted off down the trail, swinging his head side to side since his eyes were stinging.  I left the trail, totally beefed up on adrenaline and thanking my lucky stars that it wasn’t my day to die.  Bison scar me way more than bears as I feel they are much more unpredictable, way more dangerous, and definitely not as smart.  This guy didn’t seem threatened by me.  For him, it was more like I was challenging him, offering him a chance to have a sparing match. An old lone bull like him is a cranky old man.

Lone bison but not my bison

Grizzly lake, my destination after Solfaterre

On the way back to Mammoth, I got stuck in a bear jam.  Two black bears were feeding on one side of the road and decided to cross over.  What amazed me wasn’t the bears, but that people got out of their cars and ran as fast as they could towards the bears, getting as close as they dared to take photos.  Luckily these bears were used to people, but not all bears in the park are that amenable.

Guy in the white T shirt on left is almost right on the bear

In this one you can see the bear and the lady in front not even paying attention!

Halfpenny always leads a fabulous class, highly recommended.  The mornings were spent in the classroom and the tracking museum.  He has a fantastic collection of plaster casts and other assorted items to help you to learn to track.  The afternoons were spent in the field.  Here is a track of a badger of which I made a cast.  The upper left hand corner contains a coyote track as a bonus.

Badger track (coyote track upper left). Notice long claws

Young bull moose