Yellowstone National Park, Part 1. Wonders and delight

Yellowstone National Park (YNP), which is located mostly in Wyoming but also in Montana and Idaho, became the USA’s first national park on 1 March 1872. This year, the National Park Service was gearing up to celebrate Yellowstone’s 150th “birthday” and many visitors were expected.

Unfortunately, in June, storms led to catastrophic flooding of the park. Historic water levels caused mud and rock slides, leading to large-scale destruction of park infrastructure. Many road sections were destroyed and the town of Gardiner, at the North entrance, was devastated just as residents were welcoming the first summer visitors. Fortunately, significant progress has been made by the National Park Service throughout the summer and fall and entry into the park through the North and Northeast Entrance roads was restored in late 2022.

Wikimedia. Yellowstone flood event 2022- North Entrance Road washout. NPS/Jacob W. Frank

In late May, just before this episode of climatic devastation occurred, I had the very good fortune to travel through Yellowstone with my good friend, Joan. I’d visited YNP before, but this was my most enjoyable journey so far. I’d now like to share with you some of the sights we were privileged to see in a series of blogs (sometimes interspersed with some North Carolina wildlife sightings).

Yellowstone, which has a name based on an Indian word, is an area full of wonders and delight. You find yourself traveling through a large volcanic caldera — an immense depression left in the earth after a volcano erupts and then collapses in on itself. You are also in an area with the largest high-elevation lake in North America, a 670-mile waterway which is the longest free-flowing river in the Continental USA, and a spot where you are half-way between the equator and the North Pole. This area has had human occupants for at least 11,000 years according to archeological findings at nearly 2000 documented sites. Tragically, the settlers of European backgrounds and US authorities did all they could to drive the American Indian occupants away. Starting in 1886, when the US Army managed the Park, the US Cavalry patrolled it for 32 years to prevent the 27 modern-day associated tribes from hunting and gathering there. Finally, today, the Indian occupants are being rightfully acknowledged and highlighted in YNP educational and informational materials.In 1926, George LaVatta, Organizational Field Agent, led a group of Indians in costume into YNP. Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

To start off the blog series, I’ll introduce you to the place where Joan and I stayed: Gardiner, Montana, a town of only some 800-900 residents. The town comprises mostly hotels, shops and eateries. During the COVID pandemic, a couple restaurants burned down and were not replaced. We were there during the week before high season began and only a few of the remaining restaurants were open.

Neither Joan nor I were impressed with the cuisine on offer, so we began getting take-out at the local Gardiner market, a store with a nice broad selection of foodstuffs, some souvenirs and friendly staff who still served customers during a power outage.

While tourist season hadn’t begun, locals did show artwork and signs welcoming visitors.

                           

It was fairly easy to find places as there is only one main road with a limited number of side streets. A couple churches are prominent on the main drag, and one usually has some elk and/or or mule deer occupying space on their grounds.

Look well: there is an elk sheltering under the roof overhang.

  

There were warning signs here and there, reminding us of precautions for COVID and maintaining distance from wildlife, but this was disregarded in town.

   

Having walked through the backstreets to photograph birds, I can attest to the fact that it is not uncommon to turn around and find a deer or elk a couple feet behind you or moving just in front of you.

The Gardiner Catholic priest does attempt to prevent humans from taking up parking space.

A few of the houses along the main road had made some attempts at gardening, protecting plants from browsing mammals and being imaginative with rocks.

  

 

A little lending library was a nice touch, too.

As is the case in the Park proper, a great deal of care is given to avoiding trash on the ground. In 1970, open-pit garbage dumps were abolished in YNP, along with the nightly “bear shows” where visitors sitting on wooden bleachers watched bears eat garbage!

The local people do care about what is happening in the area and made this clear with signs.

     

In the park itself, visitors are warned not to move things around, like this geodetic marker.

$250 fine or imprisonment for disturbing this mark.

Our motel manager was friendly and told us about how the pandemic had made business difficult. In the past, many younger and retired people came to Gardiner and YNP to work in the motels, gift shops and other venues during the high season. I met some nice retired folks and students who had come for this reason (note the traveling home that someone had brought along).  The manager mentioned that there were now far fewer workers, however, and she and her son had been helping clean the motel rooms due to staff shortages.

When entry into YNP through the famous Roosevelt Arch was closed because of the June flooding, Gardiner took another post-pandemic blow. Hopefully, the town residents have been able to recover and can look forward to seeing more business in the seasons to come.

Next up: Visiting our first group of thermal features.

Wandering a flooded forest

The year 2020 ended up being the wettest year on record since 1944 in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, but the rains didn’t end in December. In fact, the area recorded its second wettest February on record in 2021 and it was noticeable in the amount of flooding we saw.

Whereas Jordan Lake at full pool (normal level of the reservoir) is 216 feet above sea level, the level rose to 230.3 feet on 23 February 2021 – the day that I unknowingly chose to go for a walk in the forest bordering the lake.

 

I didn’t notice the flooding immediately as I first walked through a meadow area to get to my usual walking site. What immediately drew my attention was the amount of canine scat on and alongside paths.

With a lack of human visitors, the foxes, coyotes and other animals obviously felt more comfortable wandering everywhere throughout the reserve.

Lots of flies were buzzing around the remaining dried flower stalks and I spied an early leafhopper – the first time I had seen a lateral-lined sharpshooter (Cuerna costalis).

Setting off into an area where I often saw woodpeckers, I discovered my usual walking trails had disappeared under an expanded lake.

 

A sweet Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) hopped into view, apparently wondering why a human being was again being seen in these parts.

 

 

I discovered it was a good idea, too, to watch where I was walking because the remaining forest floor was alive with thin-legged wolf spiders (Pardosa) crawling over the fallen leaves.

 

I wonder if there were so many in this area as they had all fled the rising waters to congregate in the same area. (Certainly a way to meet other spiders!)

Wandering further, I saw that I couldn’t get anywhere close the shoreline that used to be a favorite birding area.

 

The osprey nest, not yet occupied, is normally on a land-bound snag but now it was in the water.

There were still some birds around, but not as many as I was used to seeing. Off in the far distance, a ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis) was fishing.

Never had I seen this lake’s water so high – many of the areas where I usually walk were completely submerged.

I walked along the new lake edges and noted lots of tufted titmice (Baeolophus bicolor) exploring the waterlogged fallen logs.

 

 

The Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) were also flying down from tree trunks and branches to see what was near the water.

On the branches above, a a yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata) stopped by and a pine warbler (Setophaga pinus) showed off his beautiful yellow plumage.

   

To my delight, a pair of brown creepers (Certhia americana) were ascending the water-bound trees searching for meals.

     

I find these birds beautiful and admire how well they blend in with their hunting grounds.

For me, the brown creepers have some of the best camouflage abilities around.

Overhead a red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) flew by surveying the expanded water boundaries and I detected a Chinese mantis egg case swaying atop a shrub.

Because my walking area had been greatly reduced, I decided to leave after gazing into one more area where I usually wandered. To my surprise, I saw a wood duck (Aix sponsa, right) and a pied-billed grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) swimming over what is usually a leaf- and vegetative-laden forest floor. Perhaps they enjoyed visiting a new, albeit temporary, swimming area.

I do think that some wildlife may have suffered. This polyphemous moth cocoon (Antheraea polyphemus), which I had photographed in another part of the forest bordering the lake, was eventually submerged for some days under about four feet of water. When the area again reappeared, I found the cocoon and it was still intact but only about half its original size, so I think the moth was doomed. Now that the lake levels have fallen further, it will be interesting to see how the forest is recovering after having been submerged.