The High Country, Part 2

Waking up in Wyoming showed me three things. First, I knew now that the cool dry air in the mountain west makes for terrific summertime sleeping. Summer in the south, even in the relatively northern state of Virginia, produces air that is warm, wet, and actively heavy, which can leave the sleeper feeling as though he is lying under a wet, flaccid mammal--perhaps a manatee. Second, that dry air does leave one a bit parched, at least if one has been sleeping with his mouth open. And third, the pollen that had given me hay fever six weeks ago in Virginia was still flying around out in Wyoming. As a result, we paid a quick call to the pharmacy while we were grabbing breakfast (once again at the Virginian) and got my upper respiratory tract back in order.

Stop number one was Teton Village, which lies on the far side of the hills on Jackson's border. Those hills obscure the fact that Jackson is all but under the Grand Tetons, but once you drive beyond them, the mountains are Right. Smack. There. And if you want to get close to them, you're in luck: the Jackson Hole Tram is there to give you a ride to the top of Rendezvous Mountain, 10,446 feet above sea level.

The 15-minute ride starts every half-hour, so Mom, Dad, and I spent some time in line watching the enormous colony of Cliff Swallows that nests in the eaves of the lower cable engine. When the doors to the car finally opened, I grabbed one of the very few seats, positioning myself near the front in order to watch the ground and trees below on the way up. This proved a very good strategy, as it allowed me my first glimpse of a Clark's Nutcracker flying over the rocks below me.

There are five towers along the length of the tram, each of which supports six cables: two that actually move the cars up/down and four that simply support the weight of the cars and their passengers (who can number up to sixty). And at about the time you're thinking you're about to reach the top, another ridge (and another tower) is revealed beyond the one you're approaching. For example:

Eventually, however, we reached the top of Rendezvous Mountain, and I was now at the highest elevation I'd ever reached outside of an airplane. That lofty spot offered a variety of beautiful views, but the most arresting in some ways was the one to the north: the peaks of the Tetons. Since my folks weren't planning on staying at the top, we persuaded a family from Alabama to snap a photo of us before Mom and Dad joined them on the downward journey. I'd be staying on top for a while to do some birding.

The summit was, unsurprisingly, almost entirely bare rock, except for where there was still snow. It's well above the treeline, and except for a handful of hardscrabble evergreens, there's no cover for birds. I should not have been surprised, then, to see so few, but with my new trekking poles in hand, I bid adieu to Mom and Dad and set out downslope. A few hundred yards down from the summit, I found one White-crowned Sparrow perched atop a spruce, singing gamely, but no one answered him. I wandered probably half a mile down the trail, thinking unhappily about all the height I'd have to make up when I turned back, but there was simply nothing there to see. Well, there was the amazing scenery, sure, but certainly nothing with feathers. Just stuff like this:

When I finally turned back (VERY glad to have my trekking poles, which made the uphill journey considerably easier), I finally got a little birding luck--but not much. A small dark bird whipped by in the wind, calling jeew jeew jeew and vanishing over the ridgeline. Not much to go one there. A little farther up the hill, though, I got a glimpse of two birds. I couldn't quite ID them at first, thanks to their gymnastic flight in the summit's high winds, but luckily, they ducked into the lee of a low spruce, which gave me time to get close enough to see their pinkish sides. They soon took off again, but as they did so, I spotted a crucial field mark: white stripes on either side of their tails. They were "Pink-sided" Juncos, the fourth variation of the Dark-eyed Junco I've logged. The bird I'd really hoped to see at the summit, however, still proved elusive. Mel White's book had told me that the Black Rosy-finch nested amongst the scree and snow fields, but I sure couldn't see one. I checked my Sibley guide to make sure that the rocks and snow were REALLY the right nesting ground--they were--but I also noted that the Rosy-finch's call was listed as jeew jeew jeew. I'd already seen one.

Returning to the bottom of the mountain, I jumped into the car and headed north into Grand Teton National Park. We were heading for lunch at the Jenny Lake Lodge, about which dad had heard good things, but we found ourselves unable to get very far without being ambushed. Repeatedly. By scenery. Click on any of these shots if you don't believe me:

DSC00856.JPGYes, apparently the scenery actually CHEWED OFF part of that guy's trailer. AND IT KEPT ATTACKING:



Frankly, it was getting kind of silly after a while. We'd drive a few miles, then look back at the SAME MOUNTAINS WE'D BEEN SEEING FOR THE LAST HOUR and have to pull over for more pictures. I was able to break my gaze away from the Tetons long enough to log a couple of birds--a Broad-tailed Hummingbird (a lifer) near the entrance, a Clay-colored Sparrow calling in a sagebrush flat--but the creature that most drew our attention was this mysterious critter that rolled up to the Lodge while were dining:

DSC00866.JPGHis size suggested a beaver, but his bushy tail denied that possibility. The park has yellow-bellied marmots, but this guy seemed both too large and too dark. Hoary marmots are big enough, but they live a bit farther north--up in Glacier NP, for example--while groundhogs, which this guy strongly resembled, don't make it into the Tetons either.

We moved north from Jenny Lake, heading in the direction of our hotel in Cody, but the Tetons jumped out at us a couple more times, such as here at Willow Flats:


Eventually, however, we escaped the clutches of the scenery and got back onto the road where we'd be safe, we assumed, from the temptation to pull over and take pictures every few miles.

About half an hour later, we crossed the border into Yellowstone National Park.


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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on June 16, 2013 1:54 PM.

The High Country was the previous entry in this blog.

The High Country, Part 3 is the next entry in this blog.

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