The High Country, Part 3

Our interaction with Yellowstone Park on this trip should be understood in the light of several important facts:

1) We were coming into the park--probably the most popular in the National Park System--on a Friday afternoon. In other words, we were expecting hordes of weekend tourists, and were thus a little leery of heading deep into the better-traveled areas, especially to the western section near Old Faithful.

2) Dad had been to Yellowstone before and had seen the most famous geological features, including Old Faithful, on his previous trip, while Mom and I were interested primarily (but not exclusively) in the park's wildlife, which would not necessarily be visible at any particular location.

3) On the same day we drove in through Yellowstone's south entrance, we had already been up a mountain in a tram and had driven all along the edge of the Grand Tetons

4) Our room for the night was in Cody, Wyoming, a good 100 miles from the southern entrance.

This may help explain why we opted to do a drive-through of the park, rather than targeting a particular geographic feature to visit. We also figured that if we decided there was something we really wanted to see, we could come through on Saturday morning on our way to our next stop (Butte, MT). Some may claim we gave short shrift to one of the continent's true glories, and there's validity to that claim, but after the astonishing beauty of the Tetons, I for one felt I probably wouldn't appreciate those glories for at least a few hours.

And thus we headed into the center of the park, following the ravine containing the Lewis River, past mile after mile of forest still recovering from the devastating fires of 1988. Spry young evergreens yearned upward toward the level of the pale, denuded trunks remaining after a quarter-century, and the far hillsides were still littered with fallen trees, but in places the old trees (or at least parts of them) could be seen to have survived the fires:


Eventually we reached the caldera of the Yellowstone supervolcano--and yes, I was mildly nervous the entire time that it might choose THIS weekend to finally blow its top--and after a few more miles began curling northeastward. There we saw the first traces of steam belching forth from the earth--the smokeholes of the West Thumb Geyser Basin--and the waters of Yellowstone Lake.

The high winds and cloudiness of the afternoon in no way spoiled the beauty of the scene, nor did they prevent me from calling for Dad to halt the car as we passed by a sheltered bay behind a long grey sandbar. I could see that a raft of ducks had formed in the lee, and I wanted a closer look. Borrowing his binoculars, which have a higher magnification factor than mine (10X instead of 8X), I strode rapidly down the windward side of the bar, fearing that the ducks would take off as soon as my head popped up high enough to be visible. Luckily, by the time I entered their view, I could see the white crescents in front of their yellow eyes. They were Barrow's Goldeneyes, another lifer.

We paid a brief visit to a roadside toilet, allowing me a look--much better than my first--at a pair of Clark's Nutcrackers, who treated the air as a convenient substance to move through, using as little effort as possible. One of them leaped down from a treetop and didn't even bother to spread its wings until it was a few feet above the ground. I remembered David Quammen's brief, lovely description of their cousins and decided it applied to them as well: "Crows are bored." It was a delightful look at a beautiful bird.

What we hadn't seen yet, however, was the classic Yellowstone traffic jam. We hadn't spotted any bears or moose or elk or anything that might bring a line of cars to a sudden halt, nor had we seen the cars. That would change soon after we turned east toward Fishing Bridge. As we came over the newborn Yellowstone River, we saw dozens of people with cameras all turned on the marshy ground between the road and the lakeshore, A bit of observation revealed a number of birds in the water--Canada Goose, Cinnamon Teal, even a trio of White Pelicans--but nothing that would cause cars to pull over, unless, y'know, they were filled with people like me. There had to be something else down there,

There was:

DSC00894.JPGThat is Canis latrans (or if you're Chuck Jones, Carnivorous vulgaris), better known as the coyote, working its way across the marsh toward the three pelicans. If you've watched as many cartoons as I have, you know already that this attempt at predation was doomed to failure, but alas, it was nothing close to the spectacular sort of failure one can attain only with ACME products; the pelicans simply decided they didn't want to be bothered and paddled rapidly out of the coyote's reach. It was, however, by far the best and most extended look I've ever had at a large wild carnivore; my two previous sightings of coyotes were much briefer, my sightings of black bears have generally been short and/or at a greater distance, and I've never seen a wild grizzly, wolf, or cougar. For me, it was well worth pulling into the parking lot and breaking out the camera.

In a few miles, however, we found ourselves without a convenient parking lot, and the long-expected wildlife-based traffic jam appeared before us as if by magic: there were bison.

DSC00899.JPGDad slowed for the traffic, but as you're not actually allowed to stop in the roadway for purposes of photography, this was about as good a shot as I could manage.

From there, however, Yellowstone's scenery faded somewhat. The curves of the road around the lake's north shore (and the occasional spout of geyser steam) caught our attention from time to time, but in general, I think our eyes were tired, and there was still an hour to go before we reached Cody. We climbed higher and higher, toward the park's East Entrance, passing through the stark and oddly beautiful remnants of a fire far more recent than the big burn of '88, where spring green was carpeting the earth below the bare trunks:

DSC00903.JPGBut there was one more surprise as we crested the last hill and descended into the valley that led to Cody: the Buffalo Bill Cody Scenic Byway. Somehow not one of us had known anything about this road, which proceeds from the high forests outside Yellowstone down into the beautiful Shoshone River valley through mudstone formations resembling nothing so much as the pillars and blocks of southern Utah or Arizona. We were simply waiting to see the town roll up under us, and here it came, still more scenery that we simply couldn't ignore. Mom was behind the wheel now, and Dad and I were looking about us like, well, gawking tourists. A day that had started with a ride up a Teton was now finishing with a ride down something like Capitol Reef, and the land around us remained ridiculously beautiful, especially against the waters of the Buffalo Bill Reservoir.

DSC00906.JPGWe rolled into Cody ready for a good night's sleep, uncertain about what we'd be doing the next day, but knowing that when next we slept, it would be in Butte, Montana--300 miles away.


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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on June 17, 2013 8:14 PM.

The High Country, Part 2 was the previous entry in this blog.

The High Country, Part 4 is the next entry in this blog.

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