Monday, May 14, 2012

How I Spent My Spring--Travelogue: Part II America's Serengeti

May 12 was Chimene and my 28th wedding anniversary.  We had planned to go up to Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone and spend the night on Friday and then enjoy the park on Saturday all day.  Just before we were going to pull the trigger on the hotel room, I found out that I had a rehearsal on Friday and that I might have to work on Saturday.

Chimene was pretty bummed because it always seems that I have a show going on at anniversary time.  We have never really gone anywhere or done anything besides dinner or a movie on the anniversary so this one was going to be a big deal, we thought. 

After Friday's rehearsal, I talked to the director and he said I didn't need to be there as he was going to be rehearsing different things than what I was responsible for.  Chimene and I decided to do the Yellowstone trip but on Saturday only.  It would have been fun to spend the night in the old historic hotel, but we weren't about to miss Mother's Day with the kids to do it.

On the way to Yellowstone, we stopped at Swan Lake because there were three trumpeter swans there.  I've always liked swans.  The last time we were through, there was only one swan on the lake.  Swans always remind me of my Dad.

Three trumpeter Swans on Swan Lake, Island Park, Idaho
We stopped on the Henry's Lake Flats to get a picture of Sawtell.  Legend has it that Chief Sawtell was a great chief and a great man of the native people here and when he died, the wind and the rain carved his likeness in the mountain.  Before Mount Rushmore, there was Sawtell Peak.  When you look at the mountain, it's as if he is lying on his back, his face in profile towards the heavens.  His nose and chin are to the right and the ridges coming down the left side and towards the camera represent the full feathered warbonnet.  I've always liked Sawtell and always look for the likeness.

Sawtell Peak
When we left yesterday morning, we decided we wanted to see a bear and possibly a wolf.  When we go to Yellowstone, we usually decide before we go what kind of a day it is going to be.  Will it be a hot water day?  A cold water day?  A hiking day?  Yesterday was an animal day.  Yellowstone did not disappoint.

I have a colleague that calls The Lamar Valley in Yellowstone, "America's Serengeti."  That was where we decided to go to see the animals.  The largest wild herd of bison in the world makes its' home in The Lamar Valley.  Where there's food, there are predators. 

There are two routes from Norris to the Lamar Valley, the northern route through Mammoth and the southern route through Canyon.  The southern route was closed because several areas of the road had washed out in the spring, so we chose the north by default.  We stopped at Gibbon Falls.  I've seen Gibbon Falls hundreds of times and yet I never tire of it's grandeur.  I usually see it during the late summer, so seeing it in the spring with all the runoff was a treat.

The Hot Chick at Gibbon Falls
Gibbon Falls in the spring
We normally stop to see alot of the waterfalls in the park.  There are around 300 of them and we want to hike to and photograph as many of them as we can.  There's a beautiful one near Mammoth called Undine Falls.  We stopped there for a quick view.

Me at Undine Falls

Throughout the park, from about 7 Mile Bridge on, we saw large herds of bison.  I counted over a hundred individuals in a small herd in the Madison River valley.  I saw several much larger herds as the day passed.  I estimate that we saw over 1000 bison yesterday.

Small herd on the Madison River
A couple of big fellers near Madison Junction
An aggressive bull bison at Mammoth Hot Springs
Bison calf in the Lamar Valley
We also saw hundreds of Elk in the park yesterday.  Mostly females and no young.  We saw some scruffy females that had not yet shed their winter coats at Mammoth Hot Springs, and near the Lamar Valley we saw three bulls with their antlers still in velvet.  I believe it is still too early for the elk to begin calving so we saw no young.  Baby elk are not a common sight in Yellowstone, however because the mothers hide their young in the forest and in the tall grasses.

There was a rock in the Madison River, around a bend in the road that when we were little, my sister mistook for an elk.  Forever after, that rock has been called the "Jolene Elk".  I decided to take a picture of it this time.

The "Jolene Elk"

Scruffy elk at Mammoth
Bull elk with velvet coated antlers
We also saw about 45 bighorn sheep.  It had been decades since I had seen any bighorn sheep in Yellowstone and only a few at that.  These were fairly close, and were drinking in the Yellowstone River.  We were standing on a bridge and they were crossing under.  It was a spectacular sight.

Bighorn sheep near the Lamar Valley
We viewed a small herd of pronghorns near a bridge over the Lamar River.  Pronghorns are sometimes called antelope around here, but they are not related.  They are their own species.  Pronghorns are also the fastest land animal in the western hemispheres and second only to cheetahs in the rest of the world.  It is thought that their speed evolved during a time when there were faster predators in North America.

I loved seeing all the large herbivores, but the real story of the day, yesterday were the carnivores.  In the last large meadow before the descent through the Golden Gate into Mammoth Hot Springs, there was a large gathering of people with cameras, binoculars and spotting scopes.  We stopped and saw a very large sow grizzly with two cubs.  They were about 300 yards away, but we got a few photographs of them.  It had been a very long time since I saw grizzly bears in the park.  Later in the day, we saw another grizzly in the Lamar Valley.  That one was so far away that we had to see it with a spotting scope.

Sow grizzly bear and two cubs
Near Tower Junction, there was another gathering of people and this time we saw a sow black bear and two cubs.  That seemed to be the theme of the day, a sow and two cubs.  The sow was forty or fifty yards away from her cubs but seemed unconcerned even though there were about a hundred people out of their cars snapping photographs.  Later on during the day, we saw another black bear sow with two cubs about two miles away from where we saw the first.  We weren't sure if it was the same sow and cubs, but later decided it had to be a different family because they were quite a ways away from where we saw the first group.

Black bear cub
Black bear sow
There were four wolves in the Lamar Valley and we were only able to see them through a spotting scope.  They were around a thousand yards away, so we didn't get any photographs of them.  It was worth it, though to have just seen them.  It was the first time either of us had seen wolves in the park.  Later on as we were heading home, we rounded a bend in the road and I saw cars stopped and immediately looked where the people were looking and I saw a wolf loping off.  I stopped and tried to get a photo, but it was already gone.  One of these days I'll get a photograph of a wolf in the park.

It was very neat to see the bears and wolves.  That was dinner.  The dessert came when we were on our way back and saw a little red fox.  He was unconcerned about the people who had stopped to watch him and proceeded to run around the hillside and pee on everything.  We had hoped to see a bear and had figured we'd see a wolf, but the little red fox was completely unexpected.  I don't think I've ever seen one of them in the park before.

This was a fantastic day in Yellowstone.  It was a priceless experience.  This was the best animal day I've ever had in Yellowstone Park, and I was thankful to be able to spend my anniversary with the girl I love in this idyllic environment.

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