Anticipation filled the cars as soon as we found ourselves driving right between the Absaroka and Gallatin mountains. As is tradition, we stopped at the prettiest rest area in the U.S. to introduce Project Yellowstone. The rain would not keep us from enjoying the view. While standing under the shelter by the Yellowstone River, we spotted the osprey nest. Bill talked to us a little about the river controversy outside of the park.
We decided to head further south and explore the source of this river. After arriving and checking in at our hotel in Gardiner, MT, we drove into Mammoth, the park’s headquarters, to walk along the terrace formations. It was here that Marty set the expert talk standard by leading a discussion about the geology of this place.
The terraces are made of travertine, a freshwater limestone that spring water deposits through chemical reactions. The vents frequently change locations as the precipitation of calcium carbonate seals them, forcing water to find a new opening.
We woke up early, ate breakfast, and headed into the park for day of thermal features. Car #2 (from here on out referred to as the lead car) was out in front. Swan Lake was our first stop of the day. We saw, red-winged blackbirds, yellow-headed blackbirds, sandhill cranes, and three bull elk relaxing high on the cliff. Dee’s spotting scope skills were on full display.
Construction delayed part of our trip, but it could not get rid of our excitement. The Norris Geyser Basin, our next stop, is the most volatile basin in the park. Many species of Archaea live here and are able to withstand the hot, acidic conditions. Sulfolobus is one example that inhabits this place. It’s ideal environment has a pH of 2-3 and a temperature of 104-131°F. Sulfolobus oxidizes hydrogen sulfide into sulfuric acid.
Next on the agenda was a discussion on Taq polymerase and DNA testing at Mushroom Spring. It was here the Maya led a discussion on the geothermal features of the park and on the Yellowstone caldera. The geology of the area even showed off a little while we were visiting with a 4.5 earthquake near West Yellowstone.
Old Faithful was again faithful and came through for us (as well as thousands of others). It is amazing the regularity of this most popular thermal feature.
Yellowstone Lake provided us a break from the crowds of people. It also provided us with the opportunity to learn from Frida and Saul. Frida gave us a lesson on the lake ecosystem, with its wildlife and thermal features. Saul talked to us about the lodgepole pine trees and their importance to this ecosystem. They need fires to continue from generation to generation.
We continued driving along the lake (lead car still in front), then turned north towards Hayden Valley. Right before the valley, we stopped at the Mud Volcano area where we walked around to view the mudpot as well as Dragon Mouth Spring. Acidity is a driving factor here as the sulfuric acid breaks down the rock. The bubbling is the release of gases. Dragon Mouth Spring is one of the most acidic sulfur caldron’s with a pH ranging from 1-2. This area was a highlight for many of this year’s participants.
In the Hayden valley, Ronny gave us all a history and ecology lesson. This valley was a natural route to Yellowstone Lake as trappers, explorers, and natives made their way up the Yellowstone River. The valley was once filled by an arm of the lake and now contains lake sediments covered with glacial till. This makes for a much different valley than another one in the park, the Lamar.
After eating at the Canyon Grille, we continued north to Roosevelt, then east towards Cooke City, MT. The participants were worried we would not have the chance to see any bison on this trip. Then, we entered the Lamar Valley, and those worries disappeared. We also had the chance to see a coyote waiting for traffic before it crossed the road.
Most of us had a restful night in Cooke City (that’s what they said, anyway). A 0545 departure is early, but is really the only way to do it in the valley. Car #1 once again did a great job following. Kenya spotted a moose cow and calf just to the west of the Pebble Creek pullout. We stopped and scanned some along the way spotting lots of pronghorn and bison.
We happened to see Rick and Nathan at one of the pullouts, so we pulled in. Sure enough, we got out of our cars just in time to see some of the Junction Butte wolves on Jasper Bench. The 3 blacks and 1 gray all starting howling. Rick McIntyre talked with the group about these Junctions and their former alpha, 911M. He explained that the Junctions made their den at Slough Creek last year, but now the Prospect Peak Pack are denning there. On the way to breakfast at Roosevelt, we passed a fox by the road that seemed to be looking for a ride.
After breakfast, we made our way to the Mt. Washburn trailhead. We saw two great-horned owl chicks at the Calcite Springs overlook. They seemed to be kissing each other.
We decided to hike to the top of Mt. Washburn from the Chittenden Road trailhead because of snowpack on the Dunraven Pass side. Barbee taught us about the whitebark pine while she was standing right beside of a whitebark pine. Is there a better classroom? It was a difficult climb, but we all made it. The mountain bluebirds and swallows made the trek a little easier. Lunch in the fire tower was just what we needed. The climb down was much easier, even though were occasionally got pelted with cold rain.
The canyon area was extremely crowded, so we decided to head back into the Lamar Valley for some wildlife scanning. We had pizza at the Miner’s Saloon for supper, and were treated to some mountain dulcimer music from Joe afterwards.
We had a scheduled meeting at 0530 at the Buffalo Ranch. Unfortunately, this meant that we had to leave Cooke City by 0445. Fortunately, we would be heading into the Lamar Valley and meeting Dr. Nathan Varley. There aren’t many people I would require an early leave time for, but Nathan is certainly one of them as he is basically a Yellowstone Wikipedia page (with two legs and a huge beard). We scanned the valley on and off as it rained on and off. Then, we spotted the Junction Butte wolves at Jasper Bench again. At Slough Creek, all 5 Prospect wolf pups were out with 394M. The pups were playing and even seemed to be wrestling one another.
We drove back through the valley with Nathan to stop and have breakfast at a pullout. It was here that we spotted a grizzly sow and her two cubs-of-the-year. Not many people can say they have eaten breakfast in the Lamar Valley while watching three grizzlies. We can.
We continued east to the Pebble Creek pullout and then to Thunderer where we spotting mountain goats high above. From there, we drove back west to watch a bald eagle’s next and then to the Specimen Ridge trail pullout, where we watched a red-tail hawk nest with chicks. This is also where Nathan left to go back to Gardiner.
On our way back to Cooke City, we stopped at Thunderer and had our annual foot-soak contest. Congratulations to Ronny, Marty, Saul, and Bill for winning this year’s contest. We took a mid-afternoon break back at the lodge before eating at the Log Cabin Café in Silvergate. We then drove into the Beartooth Mountains. Because of the heavy rain, we decided to go back to the lodge for some educational presentations. Dee taught us about the American bison, and Tom educated us about grizzly bears. These two talks were followed by a discussion on keystone species and trophic cascades.
Early this morning, a female mountain fox could be seen traveling back and forth from her den to the Bear Claw Café. This must be an indication that there was good food there, so we decided to give it a try. I think it is safe to say that we are glad we did.
After breakfast, we met Dan Hartman at his cabin, where we were also greeted by a resident pine martin. Dan is always so generous with his knowledge and time. This morning was no different. We followed him into the Beartooths and over the pass, where he saw pika and had to look down to see mountain goats. At one location the thermometer read 30° F. On the way back down, we stopped at a grove of aspen trees where we watched a red-naped sapsucker nest and a bluebird nest in one tree as well as northern flicker nest in another. Dan shared his knowledge of some of these birds and instructed us on how to get the best possible pictures.
We drove back to Dan’s house where he gave us a talk on his life as a naturalist. He even showed us some clips from the upcoming PBS special, “The Great Yellowstone Thaw.”
For some of us, lunch was provided by “Buns N Beds.” It’s hard to have a successful trip without at least one chedder bomb. We left Cooke City after lunch and hiked around Trout Lake where we were treated to a raven talk from Kenya and a cutthroat trout talk from Julia.
Since we had missed it earlier, we decided to drive to the canyon area to see the falls. On the way through the Lamar, we watched a badger successfully hunt a ground squirrel. On the way back from the canyon area, we got caught in a couple of black bear jams and a bighorn sheep jam. We stopped and watched the osprey nest right before the Lamar valley. Around the Pebble Creek area, we watched a beaver. At Warm Creek, we spotted a bull moose. We’ll call today successful.
Another morning and another breakfast at the Bear Claw Café. After packing up and checking out of our lodge in Cooke City, we headed through the Lamar Valley. We stopped a couple of places to scan, and eventually ended up at Slough Creek to see if any pups were out playing at the den. Our final destination for the morning was the Specimen Ridge trailhead. We hiked up the ridge that would eventually take us back to the Yellowstone picnic area. Joe gave a talk on pronghorn and Jim discussed aspen trees with us. The views of the Yellowstone river were incredible. We saw lots of bison, bighorn sheep, ground squirrels, and even a garter snake. However, the hike belonged to the yellow-bellied marmots, who seemed to be out entertaining us. We had lunch at the picnic area, then drove towards Mammoth.
On the way, we stopped for a discussion on the re-wilding movement. While discussing this, one of our group members noticed a coyote in the distance. We soon noticed a badger as well. They acknowledged each other, but never got close. There also happened to be a couple of pronghorn close to the action. It didn’t take long for the road to look like this.
Little ole’ Mitchell Community College caused a traffic jam in Yellowstone.
At Mammoth, we took some time at the visitor center before heading into Gardiner for the night. We had supper at the “Iron Horse Bar and Grill.”
After breakfast, we checked out and said goodbye to the park. We drove north back through Paradise Valley where we had one final discussion at the rest area.
This year’s trip was great, but it wasn’t so much the snow-capped mountains, the bubbling mudpots, or the wildlife. It was the wonderful people. Thank you for joining us on this adventure. Let’s do it again.
*This year’s trip and really this whole program is dedicated to Dr. Nelson Cooper, who passed away on May 18, 2017 after living life well. Coop was part of the early leadership team for this program. He helped write grants and had lots of good ideas for the structure of the program, but most importantly he was just excited about being outside in God’s creation, especially in our national parks. He loved teaching and sharing the experience with others. I always appreciated his willingness just to listen to ideas and offer advice. Thanks, Coop.