Thursday, 27 September 2012

A Mammoth Bear Encounter

I couldn’t work out what had woken me on our first full day in Mammoth Hot Springs. It sounded like a whole flock of small birds were calling noisily outside our window while taking a bath in the rain. When I got up to investigate, I found that the ‘rain’ was actually the hotel sprinklers, and the ‘birds’ were actually Uinta ground squirrels. I’m sure the hotel viewed them as pests, because their burrows were everywhere in the lawns, but I found them quite cute.
Ground squirrel

As the hotel didn’t have a restaurant, we walked across the road to the Mammoth Hot Springs Dining Room for breakfast. It was already pretty hot outside and the glare from the sun was strong. It’s the first time I’ve had to wear sunglasses simply to get to my breakfast!

The food was nice, although the service was a bit slow, and we ate looking out at the Hot Spring Terraces which were just across the road. They would form the focus of our morning, although I did wonder how I would fare under the increasing heat of the sun. I was also nursing a painful foot, having discovered before leaving the UK that I was suffering from plantar fasciitis, also known in the UK as ‘policeman’s heel’. Basically it is inflammation of the ligaments which support the arch of your foot and it can be extremely painful, especially first thing in the morning. Mine had been caused by a circuits exercise class called ‘Nemesis’ (yes I know – the name should have warned me!) back in March. I still find it ironic that something which was supposed to help me stay healthy had caused so much discomfort. Beware of exercise – it can seriously damage your health!
Anyway, all throughout this trip I was having to be careful of walking too far, or even of standing for too long, which was a serious handicap considering the nature of the holiday. But I was determined not to let it stop me from seeing all these fantastic sights and, once we finished our breakfast, we made our way to the Hot Spring Terraces.

I have to say that they were magnificent. First there was the Liberty Cap, the solid inner remains of an extinct spring. This must have been quite spectacular when it was active, as it was 45 feet high. Then we moved onto the boardwalks and followed them around the site until we reached the Minerva spring and terrace. The colours here were unbelievable, as were the flowing ‘pillow’ shapes made by the ever-trickling water. The sound of the water would have been cooling if not for the clouds of hot steam wafting around our faces.

Liberty Cap and Minerva Terrace
The other thing that fascinated me was the amount of birdlife I could hear all around. Although I’m not fanatical about it I do love birdwatching, and I couldn’t resist trying to identify the birds I could hear. We’d acquired a leaflet showing some of the birds we could expect to encounter and while Dave searched the surrounding trees and sky with our binoculars, I dug out the leaflet. I was very pleased when we managed to see and identify a Northern Flicker (a type of woodpecker) and the exceedingly pretty Mountain Bluebird. We took photos but were fast coming to realize that our camera, while plenty good enough for ‘ordinary’ photography, didn’t have a powerful enough zoom to really capture things like small birds. This lack would become more apparent – and more frustrating! – as the trip went on. So although I do have pictures of those two birds, I will not be including them in this post. You can look them up on the internet if you want to see them!

We were both pretty hot by the time we finished our tour of the Hot Spring Terrace, and my foot needed a rest. So we headed back to town for an ice cream. On the way we passed the conveniences and were so tickled by the thought of a mammoth using a restroom (childish, but who cares?) that I had to take a photo.
Wow – how big would the seat have to be?
After lunch, we decided to take a drive east on the road to Tower-Roosevelt because we’d learned there were some spectacular waterfalls on the way. This was to prove a momentous decision because it gave us a truly fabulous view of some black bears. Quite by chance we came upon a ‘bear jam’ around a bend in the road. We stopped and got out, and there, maybe twenty yards away down a slope by the side of the road, were two black bears. Only one of them was actually black – this, the Ranger told us, was a male. The other bear was brown, and this was a female. Both bears were peacefully grazing, neither taking any notice of the vast hordes of people lining the road above, all clicking furiously with their cameras. I was entranced, still unable to believe I was standing so close to such an incredible, yet potentially dangerous wild animal. Suddenly, another bear appeared from the right-hand side, a light cinnamon-coloured bear which ran toward the male black bear. The Ranger got quite excited. “That’s another male,” he said, “he’ll try and lure the female away. This could get interesting.”

Interesting? He wasn’t kidding! I was so ‘interested’ I was glued to the spot! We all held our collective breath as the cinnamon bear slowed before approaching the male black bear. He turned towards it and moved closer. But instead of chasing it away, as the Ranger clearly expected, he began to sniff it with obvious interest. It wasn’t another male, it was a second female! I suppose we were all hoping to see some kind of territorial behaviour, either from the male bear or his original female, but in fact they didn’t react aggressively at all. The cinnamon bear made a pretty feeble attempt to lure the black male away, which he ignored, and his original brown partner cast hardly a glance at the prettier (to my mind!) newcomer. Eventually the cinnamon female wandered off, probably muttering under her breath.
A really close bear encounter
After that excitement, we carried on toward the waterfalls. Little did we know that our bear encounter wasn’t quite over!  

Friday, 21 September 2012

On To Mammoth Hot Springs

Waking to another bright and sunny day, I was amazed to find that I didn’t ache at all from yesterday’s trail ride. Maybe I was fitter than I thought! We went down to another sumptuous breakfast and then packed our stuff. Before we took our leave of Sherrie and the Wildflower Inn, we wandered round the beautiful gardens once more, taking photos. I also signed a copy of King’s Envoy for the girlfriend of the Inn’s chef, Michael.

Wildflower Inn gardens

After loading up the Jeep we began our drive to Yellowstone National Park and Mammoth Hot Springs, where our next hotel was located. Mammoth is in the north of the Park, so we would get to see much of its scenery as we made our way through. I confess that although I was eager to see Yellowstone, I was sad to leave Jackson and the Tetons. The valley was so beautiful and the surrounding mountains so majestic, and I had begun to feel quite at home there despite only having been there two and a half days. I could easily see myself living there, should the opportunity ever arise.

Our first stop after entering Yellowstone was at West Thumb, on the western edge (well, where else?) of Yellowstone Lake. Here there is a geyser basin, and I couldn’t wait for my first view of an actual geyser. It was seeing a picture of Old Faithful in a book probably owned by my older brother (we’re going back 45-some years here, so forgive me if I can’t exactly remember!) that ignited my lifelong desire to visit Yellowstone. I knew Old Faithful wasn’t at West Thumb, but the basin sounded well worth a visit. We would arrive there around lunchtime, so it would be a good place to stop. The speed limit in the Park is 45 mph, and some of the trailers and campers were going far slower than that, so even the driver had ample time to look around and drink in the spectacular scenery.

Yellowstone scenery

West Thumb lived up to its write-up. There were boardwalks across the thermal areas and the smell of sulfur wafted on the scant breeze as we walked along them toward the lake. Many of the springs had name boards, and it was easy to see how they had been given names like ‘paint pot’. I particularly liked the one named ‘Black Pool’ – despite the fact that it was clearly blue! It was nothing like our own Blackpool in the UK.
Black Pool

A couple of the springs were actually in the lake itself, only exposed at times of low water, and we were fascinated to see that the colourful yet toxic-looking stuff coming out of the springs didn’t seem to affect the fresh water of the lake. The other thing that amazed and delighted us was the profusion of wild plants that seemed perfectly capable of thriving with their roots buried in what looked like solid calcium deposits. Blue, yellow and orange flowers blossomed across this seemingly inhospitable and alien-looking landscape, which had clearly killed many of the surrounding pine trees.

Hardy yellow flowers

After our walk and lunch at West Thumb, we continued on to Old Faithful. It was on the way to Mammoth anyway but I think I would have wanted to detour had it not been. I had simply been waiting for this opportunity for too long, and I had to find out what times the geyser spouted and whether we needed to make special arrangements to see it go off. West Thumb had been surprisingly quiet and peaceful, with none of the overdevelopment, amusement opportunities or retail outlets that I had been imagining. The area around Old Faithful, arguably the most famous and popular site in Yellowstone, did have a more touristy feel to it, but even here there was none of the “Disneyesque” hype we expected (and dreaded!) to find. Yes there was a newly-completed Visitor Center, which looked a touch too modern to me, but it was actually quite attractive and it held some fascinating information and exhibits. There was also a large hotel, which was clearly quite old. And there was a very large building, Hamilton’s Stores, inside which were all the souvenirs, postcards, posters, maps, books, etc you could possibly want, as well as clothing and groceries. But it was the construction of this building that was most striking. During our drive that morning I had remarked upon some pretty unusual trees which had strange, gnarled and knobbly protuberances on their branches. I never did find out whether this was due to some form of virus or disease, or whether it was natural to this type of tree. Whatever the cause was, it was clearly a feature of the area and this large wooden building had many of these deformed and gnarly branches, called “burled logs” in its construction. The whole thing had been stained a very deep brown and the effect was striking.

Hamilton’s Stores.

From the Visitor Center we learned that Old Faithful erupts around every ninety minutes, and that there was twenty minutes to go until the next one. I hadn’t realized the eruptions were that frequent, and so we wandered around for a bit before taking our seats on the semi-circular benches placed around the geyser. The benches soon filled with other eager geyser-watchers and we got our camera ready, still not quite sure what to expect.

The geyser had been spouting steam the whole time, but soon we began to notice spits of boiling water being thrown up. The crowd made predictable “oohs” and “ahhs” each time one of these spits went a bit higher, but then the geyser would die down again, as if playing with us. But it was only a few more minutes before the pressure built enough to send the water rocketing skyward, and Old Faithful once again put on its ages-old display. I have to admit that I was enthralled, and found the geyser every bit as spectacular and beautiful as I’d hoped. I’m sure it would look utterly ethereal by moonlight, and even more beautiful during a gorgeous sunset, but I was captivated by its puissance and majesty on this simple, hot and sunny day. One of my lifelong dreams had been realized, and I was so grateful to have the chance to witness this natural and unique phenomenon. We took photos, of course, but I wanted to come back later with the camcorder. I needed to get this baby on film!

  Old Faithful

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Trail Ride Day!

We didn’t think our second day in the Grand Tetons could possibly be as thrilling as our first – not after seeing all those wonderful animals the evening before. But today was the day we would get our trail ride at the Mill Iron Ranch, and I was really looking forward to that. I have been a horse rider for most of my life, and trained as an instructor on leaving school. It was originally my ambition to become a show jumper, but sadly my woeful lack of balance proved too difficult to overcome. My riding skills never progressed beyond average, which was a disappointment, but I made up for it by enjoying the instructing side. I also got to buy my own horse – once I got a job that paid enough money – and that fulfilled another early ambition. I don’t have a horse now, so I ride when I can, and this trail ride was going to be a whole new experience.

We still had most of the day to enjoy though before heading off to the ranch, so after another wonderful breakfast, this one consisting of raspberry waffles, we decided to explore the town of Jackson. We had heard about the awesome arches made of elk antlers, and simply had to see them.


Jackson was only a short drive from the Wildflower Inn, and it was easy to find a place to park. We didn’t even have to pay! You have no idea how refreshing that was. We spotted the antler arches even before we got out of the car, and they were indeed awesome. There were four of them, one for each entryway into a pretty, small town park or square, and we went for a closer look. Each arch had an internal steel framework and the hundreds – or maybe thousands – of antlers that made up each one were skilfully woven together to make a stunning spectacle. It was also nice to know that these antlers had been naturally shed – no elk had died to make them. We both loved them, and took plenty of pictures.
Elk Antler Arches

The town of Jackson was friendly, and clearly prosperous, with a vast variety of galleries selling all types of artwork. There were huge bronze figures, both animal and human; pottery sculptures, ceramics, paintings, and more antler artefacts than you could shake a stick at! I particularly loved the antler chandeliers. All of these things, though, were so far out of our price range that all we could afford was a delicious hot chocolate and a cake! Well, that’s not quite true. Dave bought me a beautiful opal heart pendant and a shimmering blue opal and silver bangle. Anyone who has read King’s Envoy and King’s Champion will know that I have a ‘thing’ for opals – Sullyan herself wears fire opals!
After our visit to Jackson we drove to Teton Village, because we both fancied a trip in the cable car up to the top of the mountain. It was a great ride up, the sun was still out, but boy – was it cold at the top! Now I know we should have expected this, there was still snow underfoot after all, but we had forgotten how quickly altitude affects warm air. Neither of us had warm clothing with us, so after a brief time spent staring at the stunning panorama of the mountains and the valley laid out below us, we hastened into the cafĂ© for a hot chocolate and a cookie. Then we rode the car back down and made our way to the Wildflower Inn to change for our ride.

Cable car view

The ranch had sent us directions and Sherrie at the Inn told us that it was easy to find. She was right, and we pitched up at the ranch right on time. We could see all the horses in a corral, some saddled, some not, and spent a few minutes trying to guess which horse we would be allocated. Then we went into the ranch office to let them know we had arrived.
Arriving at the ranch.

Soon, more guests arrived and then the ranch hands began bringing horses forward. Being somewhat stiff these days (oh – the pleasures of aging!) I was pleased to see that we didn’t have to climb into the saddle from the ground. Instead, each horse was led between two mounds of earth, making it easy for us to mount. I suspect the idea was to protect the horses, more than to help the riders, but it was nice anyway! My horse turned out to be a pinto (in the UK we’d call this piebald) named Cisco, and he was very comfortable. Dave was allocated a kind-eyed bay named Roy, and he seemed quite happy with his mount. In the past I have given Dave riding lessons, and he has good balance, but he wouldn’t call himself a rider. He also sometimes suffers a stuffy nose around horses, and I really hoped this wouldn’t spoil the ride for him.
Me and Cisco

Our guide then mounted his own horse and led us up into the hills. We climbed pretty steeply up through wooded tracks, keeping our eyes open for wildlife. Dave had managed to secure himself a place near the front of the line – there were about eight or nine of us – and so he could hear our guide’s commentary. But I was second from last, and couldn’t really hear him. So I just enjoyed the ride.
Eventually, we climbed high enough to leave the trees behind. We had a glorious view of the surrounding hills, and stopped right on the crest of the highest one to take in the panorama. Two large birds were circling overhead and one suddenly folded its wings and dived, showing its beautiful bronzed feathers. It was a Golden Eagle! After that, our guide dismounted and took photos of all the riders with their own cameras, just to prove we’d been there.

Dave and me on Cisco and Roy

Then we began the descent, and this time both Dave and I were right at the back. This wouldn’t have been a problem had it not been so dry and dusty, but the trail was bone dry and the horses in front were kicking up vast clouds of brown dust. Dave and I had to breathe this in all the way back down to the ranch, which took about an hour. We were both sneezing fit to bust by the time we got back! I was also beginning to feel the effects of riding for two and a half hours and was quite glad to slide off Cisco’s back. My legs were pretty wobbly for a few minutes, but the feeling soon wore off.
Our final treat that day was a steak supper at the ranch house. I have never seen steaks so huge! They were delicious, but far too big for me to finish. Baked potatoes, salad, chips and beer completed the meal, and another thoroughly fantastic day. My only worry was that I would ache so much after all that riding, I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed the next morning!