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!  

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