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Norris Geyser Basin and a Wolf Serenade

October 11, 2006
Pine Edge Cabins
Silver Gate, Montana

We were in the park early again this morning. The ride down was more like the one we’re used to – minus the ghostly look of the snow, which has melted for the most part from yesterday.

The Lamar was silent, buffalo the only herd animals in sight. We stopped at Slough Creek and drove north down the road toward the campgrounds near where we left last night. There are a host of Wolf Watchers set up here. Rick McIntyre’s telemetry says the Slough wolves are out there. They are howling up a storm. But like last night at sunset, nobody can find them.

I feel a bit like those ivory-billed woodpecker folks who spend hours and hours in swampy, water-moccasin-infested water looking for something, anything. Everything I spot in my scope, upon closer inspection, turns into a rock or a bison.

This goes on for about a half hour. Nobody else can find them, either. Finally, Deirdre motions us over to the scope, and there they are under a stand of dead aspen. At first I see three, then three blacks and the grey, but after awhile all eight are in various states of lounging. Seven females and the alpha male Number 490. The Slough Creek pack that we watched yesterday. We get a half hour of wolf stuff. Lying down and raising their heads to look at each other. Urinating. Stretching.

Someone says there is a kill about a half mile away down by Slough Creek. Perhaps they are resting and howling after last night’s gorging.

A bunch of coyotes shriek back, but the wolves’ long, more mournful howls and harmonies dominate the airspace. The grey gets up and walks down a swale, sitting down maybe 30 yards away before walking back up and joining the rest again for another round of howling.

When they got up and started moving uphill, you could see the individual wolves, especially after a friendly older fellow brought out a Questar telescope. In the telescope, you could see expression and color in the wolves’ faces more than a half mile away. Soon they out of sight heading north over the hill.

Our reverie is disturbed by a shout from the woman with the beatific smile who we met yesterday. She has scoped a grizzly bear walking along a high ridge far above us south of the road. It’s the same ridge where we saw the Slough wolves running as we left yesterday. This one looks pretty large, especially the hump, but it’s hard to tell much from this distance. He finally disappears into the timber stage left.

About ten minutes later, following exactly the same trail, moving a little more quickly, is another grizzly. A little later, someone picks them up on an even higher ridge following each other over the pass into the Lamar Valley.

We are moving on to the Norris Geyser Basin today, which one website describes as perhaps “the hottest geyser area in Yellowstone.” In 1929, it says, an oil rig sustained damage trying to determine subsurface temperatures that rose to 401 degrees.

The barren, sulphrous environment at Norris is a result of the extreme acidity that makes it difficult for vegetation to grow and easy for algae and bacteria to thrive. We read that the sulphur, which has a smell that most people find unpleasant but that I have grown to like as a part of the hot-water experience, is pretty toxic stuff.

Steamboat Geyser, though less-known and less-active than Old Faithful, is actually the world’s largest geyser. Today, like all days we have been here, it is gurgling and spitting erratically out of the rock, almost ominously. The eruptions measure from two to perhaps ten feet, like a cauldron waiting for its chance to blow. When it really explodes, water cascades up to 300 feet. Steamboat exploded in 2000, in 2002, and twice in 2003, on March 26 and April 27. Below, about thirty feet from the hole, a steam vent loudly exhales like a locomotive in an old cartoon.

The Norris landscape is ever in turmoil and change. Leo Whittlesey notes in Death in Yellowstone: “An 1883 park employee, George Thomas, cautioned travelers that walking at Norris had to be ‘slow and careful’ because of the danger of ‘dropping into a hole and being scalded to death.’ Five years later, a warning sign was posted: ‘Visitors ought not to cross this basin without a competent guide, and then it is at the risk of their lives.’

Photos show that by 1905 wooden planks were being built (and rebuilt) to allow people safer access. Whittlesey can find no actual deaths at Norris, although that doesn’t mean early travelers might not have met their end by falling through into some remote hot pool.

The chaos continues. In March 2003, about the same time Steamboat Geyser blew twice in a month, a new thermal feature appeared west of Nymph Lake. Porkchop Geyser, a familiar landmark since its appearance in 1971, erupted and left the temperature of the water in the pool significantly hotter, which closed the area for awhile and necessitated the moving of the trail away from it. Porkchop is more active than the last time I was here.

By the time we got back to Silver Gate, the clouds overhead are moving west and south, and at ground level, the wind is keeping the Montana flag down at the general store almost prone in the opposite direction. Such is climate in Silver Gate. We’ll be home tomorrow.

October 12, 2007   No Comments

A Snowy Day in Silver Gate, Montana

Monday October 9, 2006
Pine Edge Cabins
Silver Gate, Montana

When we got up, it was white-ish, and I opened the front door of the cabin to horizontal snow blowing straight down from the pass west into the park, so we’re sitting here warming up as it gets light. The heater in the back bedroom keeps the whole cabin pretty toasty. Billie is frying turkey sausage, and I think we will take a walk after breakfast and see whether we can get into the park or not.

Our Aerostar is not equipped with a windshield scraper – didn’t Avis know where we were going? – so I head down for the general store, where Henry Finkbeiner and a couple of friendly Labs are at the desk. Though I have only met him a couple of times, Finkbeiner is one of the reasons we like Silver Gate.

“That was the early days,” he says as I tell him we are the people from Boulder who first rented a cabin in Whispering Pines in 2001 and to whom he loaned his spotting scope for our first wolf-watching trip.

A successful Atlanta urban developer who refurbished old buildings into lofts before it became fashionable, Finkbeiner bought a bunch of buildings in Silver Gate in 2000. Wearing several hats – he is an excellent wildlife photographer and also guides camping trips into the park and who knows what else — Finkbeiner has been slowly building an eco-tourist business. He has a long ponytail, and he has lost weight since moving up here. “They could have arrested me for the fire I got going last night” in his sweat lodge over by Soda Butte Creek in Whispering Pines, he says, laughing.

He talks about his plans for turning the Range Rider, a two-story barnlike cabin-style building that has served as lodge, tavern and whorehouse, into a non-profit children’s camp. “Course everything here is non-profit,” he adds with a grin.

He says he’s still working on the Pine Edge cabins, now open year round. He’s trying to get the other old motel next door open as well. Through the efforts of Bob, his manager, they are still renting the romantic and evocative Whispering Pines, the old cabins where we stayed the first couple of trips up here. On a walk we see some guy is working on one of the Whispering Pines buildings. Finkbeiner says they will keep it open at least for the foreseeable future.

Billie has joined us, and she thanks Henry for the gift of five free nights at Pine Edge donated for the Sinapu benefit, which brought $1600. Finkbeiner doesn’t seem to know about it, and says that Bob probably set it up.

Finkbeiner still would like to create a wildlife corridor on the other side of the creek, he admits, which might necessitate the demolition of some or all of the Whispering Pines cabins, leaving the conifer forest where it sits as part of the corridor. He knows that you can’t keep animals out of Silver Gate because “it’s right in the middle of where wildlife live.” But he says he would like to at least try and give animals a place to move through without interference. “It’s part of our commitment,” he said.

He says that the growing season in Silver Gate has increased by six weeks in the six years he has been here, which makes me start wondering how much this might have to do with the re-appearance of beaver and willow bushes in Soda Butte Creek. We generally are attributing that to the return of the wolves, but I’m guessing that the climate might have something to do with it, too.

Finkbeiner’s environmental activities have caught the notice of Montana officials, and not always in positive ways. He asks people not to run snowmachines on his property, “nicely,” he adds, which doesn’t endear him to the Cooke City snowmachine culture. He took down the old Whispering Pines neon sign after the state began bugging him about it, and I notice the Range Rider sign is gone, too. “Violence comes in many different forms,” he says of the hassles.

The weather has cleared enough to drive over to Mammoth Springs after finding no charismatic megafauna in the Lamar Valley or Slough Creek. A couple of bull elk, one with an enormous rack, have their harems feeding in Mammoth Springs. A nice, recently revived fountain on the lower side of the springs has taken out the walkway up to the next level. And we strolled through the acidic burn-out fountains that once flowed and whose beauty lured early visitors to this area.

After we get back, I tromp back down to the general store, where Paul, the photographer friend of Henry’s we have met in years past, is behind the desk. As he writes out the wi-fi password on a piece of paper – yes, we have net access in Silver Gate — he describes the service as “somewhere between dial-up and broadband.” In truth, it is closer to the former than the latter.

Paul also shows me the .pdf layout of a book to which he is contributing about Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. The photography is just stunning. Should be out in the spring. If the Net gets shaky and I really need it, he says, bring the computer down to the store and it will work better.

October 9, 2007   No Comments

Driving Through the Clouds Into Yellowstone

Sunday October 8, 2006
Pine Edge Cabins
Silver Gate, Montana

We left Thermopolis this morning. On our way to Cody, we saw the Squaw Teats formation for the first time, though just barely, at exactly the spot where our Roadside Geology of Wyoming said it would be. When I typed Squaw Teats into Google, the first entry linked to a 2000 story on stateline.org that says that “more than 1,000 different geographical features had Squaw in them” in the United States. Some states, Maine is mentioned in the story, are working to change all those names. Apparently, this Wyoming rock formation has escaped the wrath of politically correct Native Americans. It’s a wonder somebody hasn’t complained about Teats, too.

Looking at the map, there is serious wilderness on our left. That is the Wind River Range out there, and it contains many of the highest peaks in the state. No major roads for sixty to eighty miles in any direction and hundreds of thousands of acres of wilderness, it is an important buffer for wildlife coming in and out of Yellowstone from the east and south.

If the state has its way in a protracted struggle with the federal government wolf delisting plan, it would also be a place where a Wyoming citizen could kill wolves, for any reason, a position contrary to the wishes of the federal government, environmentalists or anybody with a lick of sense in their heads. This wilderness is the wolves’ best protection, and Wyoming wants to turn it into a shooting gallery. Assholes would line up twenty deep to kill a wolf.

After we stopped for a couple of forgotten items and lattes in Cody, we head out Wyoming 120 and then Wyoming 72 for Red Lodge, where we pick up Beartooth Pass. After stopping for the sublime banana-cream pie at the Hungry Bear restaurant in Bearcreek, Montana, we head up the steep drive out of Bearcreek valley, above the lovely-in-the-fall town of Red Lodge and onto U.S. Highway 212.

The 70-mile-long Beartooth, opened in 1934, was called “America’s most beautiful highway” by Charles Kuralt, but it still doesn’t bring a wave of tourists into the northeast entrance to Yellowstone. It crosses from Montana into Wyoming and back again during this part of its route.

There are two passes that lead into the northeast entrance, and we try to use both. This year we are going in over Beartooth and back on Chief Joseph Scenic Highway. Beartooth was closed last year after mud and debris slammed down and damaged the switchbacks in a couple of places. Beartooth is only open about five months max anyway, and it usually closes sometime in October.

The valley west of Red Lodge, heavily reminiscent of German alpine terrain, was socked in a heavy fogbank, which continued more than 4,000 feet through the narrow switchbacks, hairpin and U-curves that lead to the mesa at the top. We pulled out at one spot at about 6,000 feet and were blessed with a view of what we had just driven through, now looking like an overdose of whipped cream lapping at the entire valley.

At this turn-out, I finally solved a personal mystery. We stopped at this same spot on our first trip over this pass in the nineteen eighties, and I remembered the Precambrian rock across the valley looked like the crumbling remnants of ancient civilizations. When we came across two years ago, I couldn’t find this place. And though I couldn’t see ancient Jerusalem this time, I realized that it was the same rocks. The shadows of the early morning sun had given me that moment almost two decades ago.

As we climbed to treeline, snow was blowing across the road and sticking, and the swirling clouds limited our exposure to the twenty peaks of the Beartooth Range that are above 12,000 feet. You never think that you’ll ever reach the top after what seems like hundreds of switchbacks. It was a stirring passage, and the Aerostar performed admirably all the way up to 11,000 feet and back down.

Riding across the mesa at the top, I always like looking back down into the Bighorn Basin from whence we came this morning, but it was far too socked in for those kinds of views, which gave us time to concentrate on the wonders along the side of the road itself — rows of cliffs, scattered rocks and fissures and frigid lakes. The western slopes were blissfully free of snow, and we were in Silver Gate by three. By 4:30, with Anne Whitbeck, our friend and longtime wolf guide onboard with her walkie-talkie, the Aerostar was heading into the park.

Anne caught us up on the latest news about wolves, bears and the Wolf Watchers who keep track of them. The road across Dunraven Pass is closing tonight, and there has been activity up there, both wolves and bears.

And she informs us that Beartooth Pass also closes tonight.

No wonder it was so weird up there at the top of the world this afternoon. We were among the last few to get over before it was closed.

Anne’s unerring senses are on once again, and we spend half an hour with four black bears in the high forest along the newly paved road.

First was a mother and cubs who walked along about fifteen or twenty feet from the road on a shelf about ten feet below us. They were foraging in the snow, mostly oblivious to the 20 people taking snapshots, pointing and shooting – when will these show up on YouTube?

They are in search of pine cones, and the mother gives two lessons: 1) how bears find food and 2) why they tell you not to climb a tree to get away from a black bear. Mom suddenly bolts up this conifer, and in less than a minute she is near the top, about 35 feet, after no real effort whatsoever. When she gets to the top, she begins to break off limbs with pine cones and dropping them for the young ones. (Her move appears to signal that she isn’t concerned about our proximity to the cubs, although I’ll bet she could come back down just as quickly and easily.

About a minute later, one of the cubs climbs an adjacent tree, just like a pro. Black bears learn to climb trees to avoid danger at a young age, and there are good reasons for that. I have seen a black bear treed by a grizzly over in Slough Creek, so if you’re a black bear, it’s a good skill.

But the cubbie, once it gets to the top, doesn’t seem to know what to do and is just swinging back and forth up there in the wind. Soon enough, both of them climb back down just as easily as they ascended, and soon the trio have disappeared down into the shadows of the forest. About a mile farther, we get a pretty good look at a cinnamon black bear beneath Mt. Washburn. It seems to indicate a desire to cross the road at one point but scampers back up in the trees high above the road as the voyeurs gather. Good bear.

It was our first time over the pass on the new road, which was completed again this year, and we stopped at a new pull-off with signage about the activity here – the major eruptions that have taken place here and the magma changes below Lake Yellowstone going on today.

One of the reasons we climbed Mt. Washburn two years ago was to stand at the northern end of that last eruption, and this place offers another good angle on the gap created more than 250,000 years ago. As the sun went down, the snow-capped mountains to the south turned first a fiery orange, gray and, finally, metallic blue.

October 8, 2007   No Comments

Night Screams in Silver Gate

Another journal entry from Yellowstone. Save for Alaska, there is no place we love more than the area around the Lamar Valley, the valley of the wolves. If you have never been there, you owe it to yourself to see this place.

Silver Gate, Montana
Fall 2004

It’s past dark, and I am lost in Life of Pi, Yann Martel’s ravishing novel about a spiritually overactive Indian boy, the son of a zookeeper, who is left in a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger as companion. It is equal parts Robinson Crusoe and The Revelation of St. John.

The novel’s narrative gets stranger and more trancelike as their ordeal continues. Near the end, the narrator, delirious, mad with thirst and hunger and close to death, includes a chapter about coming upon a strange, algae island that, without giving much away, is kind of a dream-state Meerkat Manor in the middle of the ocean. The chapter is delicious, an absolute hoot to read, very eerie and strange.

So I am tangled in the vines of this hallucinogenic chapter, with a little high-end bud and a gin & tonic going, when both our ears perk up. At first we write off the noise as a couple of college kids hollering at the moon before turning into their tents. Like what we might hear in Martin Acres from Roddy and the Boys behind us on 43rd Street on Saturday night.

But it’s not the weekend, and there aren’t any hard-partying kids up here in Silver Gate.

As soon as we get the cabin door open, it’s apparent immediately that the sound is not human. We can’t tell where it’s coming from, mostly because the cruel screams are bouncing around in the valley.

It sounded to me like more than one animal, some almost hyena-like screaming and a chorus of snarling victory and terrifying defeat. Billie heard it as screechy yipping, and she heard pain and howling, too.

This went on for almost ten minutes. A few minutes after it starts, another voice, this one a woman, from somewhere in town behind us, calls for her dog to come inside.

The sound of the animals, the woman’s increasingly nervous, plaintive calls and my absorption in the algae island tale convinced me that the poor dog being sought by its master was being torn apart by hyenas, or maybe a Bengal tiger.

Then, in a moment, silence again.

Coyotes? Wolves? Raccoons? Mountain lions?

I finished the chapter in Life of Pi before falling into restless sleep. I would hear the screams again sometime before dawn, and when I got up one time to pee, I looked out the window, imagining long-legged canine shapes moving in the shadows of the Whispering Pines motel, red stains on their coats, meerkats in their mouths, eyes blazing, on their way to Cooke City.

September 25, 2007   No Comments