Yellowstone National Park: Part 4. An unplanned and unexpected encounter!

As my friend Joan and I traveled through Yellowstone, we saw bison everywhere, in herds, small groups and sometimes in pairs or alone. Quite often this was on the road, so that we needed to be aware it might take us longer than planned to get to a particular place.

The many reports of human-bison encounters which I had seen and read about over the years made me quite aware of how dangerous it can be for a person to come close to a bison. They are huge animals – adults weighing between 1,200-2,000 pounds and standing 4-6 feet tall. If provoked or alarmed, they can be quite dangerous.

I was not above making derogatory comments about how thoughtless people took risks when they approached bison. For example, one day we stopped along a road and watched bison crossing the Yellowstone River, swimming with difficulty against the rapid currents.

Some park visitors had stopped down the road and a couple got out and descended into the valley, headed for the river. They apparently were hoping to get some close-up photos and I made some disparaging remarks about how they were taking unnecessary risks and should turn around.

A few days later, however, I discovered that not all encounters are the result of thoughtlessness.

Joan and I had stopped at a valley overlook where Park authorities had laid out a walking trail. It was a good distance from any hills and several people were out hiking the trail. As we both like to walk, we decided to go down to the trail as well.

As Joan walks faster than me and because I stop often to photograph, she went on ahead. I meandered along taking photos of plants, birds and what I thought were prairie dogs, but which were likely Uinta ground squirrels. There were some bison far down the valley, but they were mostly heading up into the hills, so we felt ok walking on the trail.

After a while, I was nearing the river and wanted to photograph some green-winged teal. As I approached their spot, Joan came walking back to my surprise. I’d thought she would go on for a while, but she said some people ahead of her were following the trail as it ascended a hill, and they were not that far from some bison. She didn’t want to be around any mammal-people encounters so she decided to return. I said I’d come back when I had photographed the ducks.

The sun was shining nicely and the teal were swimming back and forth. I checked my vicinity and saw no people or animals; the rodents had gone into their dens.

As I stood taking pictures, I suddenly heard a soft sound behind me, kind of like a grunt or snort. I slowly turned right with my camera still held up to my face and found myself facing a small group of bison with the lead male watching me from some yards away.

This is not the bison that faced me: I was not taking photos or making any noise at this point!

Joan had been watching from above the valley at the parking place along with a couple other people. She’d seen the bison come up over a hill and walk toward me, but she was too far away to let me know. I never heard them – or smelled them as the wind was blowing in their direction.

Not the bison who was examining me!

Joan considered calling 911 but phone coverage can be spotty. She also briefly thought about how to get medical help if something happened but hoped a ranger would come quickly as they did seem to magically appear all over the park when needed. We saw them often when groups of people stopped at roadsides.

Again – not the bison who was examining me!

In the meantime, I quickly considered my options. I can’t run; even if I could, it would be useless as bison have been clocked at 40-45 mph (65-70 km/h). I knew enough not to challenge the bison in any way, quickly looking away so I wasn’t gazing into the male leader’s eyes. I kept the camera with its long lens up in front of my face. Slowly, I pivoted back left towards the direction of the river, facing away from the bison. Then I stood completely motionless (camera still up in front of my face). I don’t know how long I stood there but at some point, I heard movement further away to my right and dared a look. The bison leader and his group had decided that I posed no threat and they had moved on down the valley.

I waited, still standing stock still, until they were a good distance away. I had to take a couple photos of the – now far off – group and then began walking as quickly as I could manage down the return path.

Photo heavily cropped; they were very distant!

My feelings were mixed: shock at what had happened, relief that I had known what to do in order not to provoke the bison, and elation that I had survived the close encounter unscathed. It also taught me that not all human-bison encounters are the result of complete stupidity – I was on a path laid out for visitors, there had been no bison nearby when we began walking, several other people had been on the trail and so I hadn’t suspected anything could happen. I likely won’t hike any paths at the park again if bison are in sight, even far away.

I continue to be in awe of the magnificent bison. I’m glad my love of wildlife and instincts helped me through a safe encounter and this will certainly be one of my most vivid travel memories. And I’ll continue to be as careful and watchful as I can when I go out into nature.

Yellowstone National Park: Part 2B.  The living creatures of Mammoth Hot Springs

Continuing our tour through the Mammoth Hot Springs. It was a surprise for me to learn that the hot spring colors are produced by living creatures! Thermophiles are microorganisms that thrive in heat. Those living in the hottest water are colorless or yellow.

The people of the Shoshone and Bannock tribes came to Mammoth to collect minerals to make white paint.

Cooler waters contain orange, brown and green thermophiles. Sunlight also influences which colors you may see.

 

 

When hot springs rise up through limestone, they dissolve calcium carbonate. The resulting calcite is then deposited, creating travertine terraces.

These are the Palette Spring terraces coming down from the thermal pool above them.

.To my surprise, there were quite a few birds hopping about, including a chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina) and very colorful yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata).

 

Mountain bluebirds (Sialia currucoides) were a delight to see.

 

The trail through the Hot Springs complex winds around for more than 2 miles. As I was walking along one area at the bottom of a steep hill, some fellow tourists approaching me said there was a coyote going up the hill further on. I hurried on and caught sight of him as he neared the top.

You reach the Upper Terraces by climbing steep stairs.

There were more trees along the upper pathway with fumaroles (venting steam) nearby.

I did catch sight of some eagles soaring over the large flat springs expanse, but I was happy to go back down to the lower terraces. (Unfortunately, sliding my gloved hand down a wooden railing on the descent gave me a splinter in my palm that I did not manage to get out completely. I had a very sore hand for quite some time: unwanted souvenir!)

I lost track of exactly which places had which names — looking them up on the Internet is not always helpful because the Mammoth features have changed considerably over time. When a hot spring remains dormant for a long time, it will eventually be covered by soil and again create an environment for trees and flowers. To complicate matters, the names of sites have changed over time.

The name Cleopatra Spring has been given to at least three different sites over the years. The original Cleopatra Spring eventually came to be called Minerva Spring. This was, I believe, the current Cleopatra Terrace.

 

When trees are flooded by hot water, they absorb calcium carbonate. This hardens their veins so they cannot absorb “normal” water and nutrients and they harden into what look like petrified trees which may stand for decades.

The hot springs were an early commercialized attraction for those seeking relief from ailments in the mineral waters.

Today, to preserve these unique and fragile features, soaking in the hot springs is prohibited.

Next stop in Yellowstone: The adorable red dogs!

Yellowstone National Park: Part 2A. Mammoth Hot Springs and women in the park

On 19 May 2022, Joan and I had our first full day in Yellowstone National Park (YNP).  This two-part blog covers what we did in the morning: an excursion to the Mammoth Hot Springs, only 5 miles from the Gardiner/Roosevelt Arch entrance. Shortly after passing through the gate, we caught sight of a river running alongside the road. We had no idea that within 20 days, this river would rise and take out part of the road on which we traveled! The recovery effort has also been phenomenal and the National Park Service has done a great job opening up the park again.

About 10 minutes into the park, Joan called out that she had seen a bear! She pointed to my side of the road and, looking up, I saw the bear on a hillside beside some rocks — she was enormous (perhaps the biggest we saw). She was also accompanied by offspring so I began scrambling to get my camera. By the time we got to a pull-off, they had disappeared behind big boulders and did not reappear. She looked somewhat like the (blurry) bear below that we saw another day when we couldn’t stop (rangers were present and moved everyone along). This spotting was certainly an exciting beginning to our YNP adventure.

This sighting taught me that Joan would be an excellent wildlife spotter even when guiding the car along winding roads with sometimes steep drop-offs at the side! It was cold our first day and we dressed warmly – long pants, sturdy shoes, sweaters, warm jackets and caps.

I was glad that we didn’t have to gallivant around in the long dresses and headgear worn by the first women who visited the park. However, the early female visitors to YNP were no “delicate flowers” as I learned from a book of their writings (Sidesaddles and Geysers: Women’s Adventures in Old Yellowstone. 1874 to 1903. Edited by M. Mark Miller).

Carrie Strayhorn wrote, after her 1882 visit to YNP, that both men and women clambered all over the mineral deposits. She and her party traveled about 400 miles on horseback through the park, leaving her with memories of “the charms of nature which go with the wilderness and wonders in all their primal glory.” Strayhorn visited Mammoth Hot Springs and we made that our first stop. (Photo from “Fifteen Thousand Miles by Stage (1911) by Carrie Adell Strahorn)

At the entrance to the Mammoth site, we were met by brown-headed cowbirds (which we have in North Carolina) and black-billed magpies (Pica hudsonia).

The first thermal feature we neared is called the Hymen Terrace. Old records kept at the University of Wyoming Libraries contained an enthusiastic description of this site.

As our day had started off quite overcast, this thermal did not look very colorful or terribly fascinating, so we moved on to walk along the trail.

Off to the side was a structure of some 37 feet in height (11 m) known as the Liberty Cap.

It received this name in 1871 from people who thought it resembled the caps worn by French revolutionaries who fought for freedom and liberty. It looked a bit more interesting when the skies cleared and the sun appeared.

The Mammoth site’s thermals mainly include hot springs and travertine terraces. Joan generally walks much faster than me and I stop often to photograph, so we split up to see the sights.

As Joan took off down a boardwalk, I stopped to photograph my first view of a Clark’s nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana). I hadn’t expected to see many birds around the thermals so it was a welcome surprise.

 

Hot springs are Yellowstone’s most common thermal features. They comprise pools, sometimes quite deep, of heated water that may be calm and clear or froth like boiling water.

Rain and snow bring water that seeps into the earth where it is heated. It is still not certain which volcanic heat source is responsible for this.

It might be the magma chamber underlying the Yellowstone Caldera or another smaller place nearby. According to researchers, only 10% of the water in the Mammoth area is above ground at any one time.

What looks like steam arises from the hot springs and this seemed to be especially the case when we were viewing them in colder temperatures. Here you can see how our view of the Palette Spring changed as the day started warming up.

 

Read on to find out what causes the colors in the hot springs!

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.