Thursday, May 24, 2012

Yet, get better it did - Glacier National Park
A brief interlude from mountains as we drove from Yellowstone to Glacier National Park through vast rolling prairies. Stopped off at the Benton Lake Wildlife Refuge for some quite productive bird watching, picking up a number of species that we hadn’t seen before. Not only does the changing landscape throw up new suites of species, but we are also moving into the range of more northern species, not to mention the fact that the migratory songbirds are finally starting to catch up with us. No “faster than a speeding bullet” for us. More like “slower than a migrating songbird”. 
From the plains we re-entered the mountains once again - can’t help it really - the western half of the continent is riddled with mountain ranges that cross your path pretty much whichever direction you go in. 
We ended the last blog with the observation “It’s hard to imaging how it could get better than this!” Well guess what? It just did!
Whilst Yellowstone had a really solid grandeur - rolling sprawling landscapes with not unimpressive mountain ranges - you tend to look across it and pass over it. Glacier, on the other hand is a real “in your face” sort of landscape. Huge towering craggy peaks sliced and diced by glaciers that have been grinding away in all directions, with gorgeous lakes in the valley floors and waterfalls everywhere and all of it is right there, towering above you and engulfing you, which makes kayaking, hiking, biking and snowshoeing the way to get around, rather than driving, as was the case for Yellowstone. 
Recovery break on the Going-to-the-Sun Road 
So kayak, hike, bike and snowshoe we did. One bike ride took us up the Going-to-the-Sun Road, reputed to be one of the most spectacular roads in the world - who knows if it is - but it certainly is impressive. Being closed for car traffic (the pass at the top is still snow-covered) the cyclists took ownership of it, and being mother’s day, everyone seems to have decided that they should torture their mothers by making them cycle up the mountain. Consequently we found ourselves among hundreds of others grinding up the hill, but the weather was stunning and the mood was festive, with everyone being incredibly friendly so it was great fun. Even the masses of mothers and grand-kids were not sufficient to phase one black bear which wondered across the road only  meters away from the passing cyclists. 

Hiking with the 3 bears
An afternoon hike took us up to Avalanche Lake. Someone coming back down mentioned that they had seen 3 grizzlies heading up the other side of the valley towards the lake.  We figured that if we positioned ourselves at the narrow entrance to the lake, we should get to see them go by. After waiting for a few minutes we heard some people behind us calling out and clapping their hands - turns out the bears had crossed the river below us and followed us up the track and come face to face with the other people going down. Both hikers and bears (Mum with two big cubs) got a surprise and backed off in opposite directions!

Taking Lionel out for a spin on Lake Bowman
We then took advantage of the perfect weather to kayak once more, this time on Bowman Lake, combined with some short hikes to other nearby alpine lakes.
 As the glorious, summer-like weather came to an end (yep - snowing again) we moved to the east side of Glacier where we hunkered down for the day waiting for the weather to pass.  As soon as the cloud started to lift, we took the kayak out on Two Medicine Lake. Under cover of cloud and beneath the towering, almost foreboding peaks we set out on the cold, black water, negotiating the ice-floes as we made our way to the end of the lake. By the time we got there, the cloud was lifting so we put the snowshoes on and hiked up to some waterfalls, by which time a few patches of weak sunlight started to appear, lighting up the mountain goats perched on the cliffs above. 
Breaking the ice on Two Medicine Lake
Followed by some snow-shoeing
End of the road
So on foot once again
Next day we tackled the Going-to-the-Sun road again, this time from the eastern side, starting of by bike and then switching to snow-shoes when we hit the end of the cleared road. Managed to progress a couple of kilometers before we hit “the big drift”, a huge, steep snow drift that comes down from the mountains above. Some crevices at the top of the drift suggested some slippage had occurred and the real potential for an avalanche so we were a bit leery about going further. We did however see some tracks across the drift so we went a little further to investigate only to find that they were extremely large bear tracks. Well, that decided it - we were on our way back down, interrupted only by a brief chat with some bighorn sheep that wanted to share the path. 

Out of the way Buster - you're in my way!

Another young grizzly entertained us on a subsequent evening as we took a late afternoon drive up the mountains. It took an interest in the newly repaired potholes on the road, digging up the fresh bitumen and then rolling around in it. We felt a bit more secure on this occasion as we watched from the comfort of our car!
One of the remarkable things about Glacier National Park is that it has a number of focal points, each very different from the next. Our final point of interest was called Many Glacier where again, bears were a highlight, this time a pair of grizzlies mating!
Just another campsite
So we’re not sure why Glacier doesn’t get the same rap as Yellowstone, but for us it was one of the best parks we had visited. Our advice? Add it to your bucket list. 
A concerning footnote: Glacier National Park now only has 26 of the 150 glaciers that were here in 1910 and the remainder are all projected to be gone by 2030, but we know its couldn’t possibly be due to climate change - no such thing here in the US - particularly in the Republican heartland of Montana’s cowboy country. 

Monday, May 21, 2012

Montana magic - a week in Yellowstone
2nd -9th May

We’re struggling to keep on top of the blog again - this holidaying is hard work - alarms set for 4.30 am and long days that don’t see us back into camp until after 9pm. So why would you do this you might ask? The see the wolves, and the bears, and the bison, and the coyotes and the...... Wow! This is the closest one gets to the African wildlife experience, with plains strewn with grazing animals and predators descending out of the hills (although the birds are somewhat lacking at this time of year). 
Within 10 minutes of entering the park, we were confronted with a herd of bison descending the hill slopes to then swim across the swirling river. It resembled the scenes of African wildebeest river-crossings, although on this occasion, no crocodiles to impede their journey!
Our first morning out in the park involved setting off in the dark with the snow swirling against the windscreen. With first light, we encountered our first bear - two in fact - one, a grizzly, chasing the other, a black bear across the river flats until the grizzly was only 20m from our car. This was the most informative introduction to bears that one could get. Their speed and endurance was astounding - a full gallop for over a kilometer - eliminating any notion that one could run away from a bear. We quickly moved the bear spray that we had bought in the Tetons to a more handy position. 
A little further down the road we had our next encounter - a pack of 5 wolves feeding on the carcass of an elk that they had killed during the night - a remarkable opportunity to watch the dynamics of the pack as the dominant animals took primacy and the others tried their most submissive strategies to gain access to the kill. 
Wolf on the move
Our next wolf encounter was a pack of at least 15. As we watched they moved leisurely across the other side of the valley from where we were watching, spread out about half a kilometer from the lead to the rear and 250 meters from the uppermost to the lowest on the slope. Their pathway brought them to a group of bison that started to form a huddle as the wolves approached and then with no apparent signal, all of the wolves were running and the bison took flight. One of the wolves caught up with a bison and went for its heels as a couple of others came up from behind but the bison, and a couple of its mates turned back on the wolves and started charging their attackers. After a standoff lasting about 5 minutes the wolves gave up and loped off and the bison resumed their grazing.
Our next bear encounter was a female black bear that had brought the traffic to a halt by repeatedly passing across the road, disappearing into a drainage culvert, emerging at the other end and then recrossing the road. This happened several times until she then re-emerged carrying a very young cub in her mouth which she took across the road and down to an adjoining river flat where the youngster practiced its tree-climbing skills under her close supervision. 
The next morning was yet another wolf interaction - this time a single  animal by the roadside which we watched for a while until it settled in among some fallen logs by the riverside. Others soon started to appear and it became apparent that they had another kill, only a few hundred meters away from that of the previous day. 
Mother and cubs - click to enlarge!
So, alternating the bear and wolf observations, our next bear was another black which we spotted while out hiking. It was perched precariously on a cliff that rose precipitously above a roaring stream and billowing sulfurous vents that are typical of Yellowstone. As we watched, it became apparent that it was a female with two newly born cubs. The mother was feeding them when we arrived but, when she had finished, she moved off across the rocks, where there was no obvious route. One of the cubs followed confidently, with stones and dust displaced by its steps rattling down into the abyss below. The other cub, on the other hand, wasn’t having a bar of it and remained firmly in its place in spite of the entreaties of its mother who eventually returned with the other cub. At this stage the snow and wind set in and we were forced off our ridge as the mother settled in again with the cubs on their rock eyrie. 
Next morning, we returned to the cliff to watch the ongoing saga as the mother and the bolder cub set off over and over again, trying to lure the smaller, less confident cub from its perch, coming and going over a dozen times, to no avail. From our position on the other side of the gorge we could hear the distressed call of the cub that didn’t want to go. It made one desperate attempt, clinging to the slippery slope with it front legs whilst its little back legs flailed about, failing to get a grip.  Eventually the mother returned to feed the distressed young and they looked like they were settling in once again, so we decided to leave for a lunch break. 

I returned an hour later to find that they were no longer on the cliff. I anxiously  scoured the bottom of the precipice with my binoculars looking for a small black body but fortunately nothing to be seen. Then, off to the side of the cliff I saw some movement in the trees - one cub, then the mother and then, after several minutes, the second cub came lolloping out of the bushes and tumbled about with its sibling before following mum off into the scrub as the light faded.
And then, when you’ve had enough of the wildlife, its time to go and take in all the bubbling, gurgling, farting, spurting antics of the geothermals that contribute to Yellowstone’s fame, including of course, Old Faithful which, while somewhat of a cliche, is still impressive when you get to see it in the flesh against the setting sun.  

Then another snowy morning with steaming bison covered in frosty ice crystals, giving way to a glorious day as the sun breaks through revealing ospreys and great horned owls on their nests and broad valleys scattered with elk and deer with freshly snow-covered mountains in the background. It’s hard to imaging how it could get better than this!
Blue Grouse strutting his stuff

Yellowstone falls

Curious River Otter - specially for Helena

Friday, May 18, 2012

Spring in Idaho?
April 21 - 26
Journey to Hell with a free load of firewood

Free campsite in Hell's Canyon
Suddenly the weather has turned positively balmy. As we descend into Hell’s Canyon the temperature has risen (has that got something to do with the name?) and the deciduous trees are well on the way to establishing their new garb. Their bright, fresh green provides a welcome relief to the monotonous uniformity of the coniferous forests.
Hell’s Canyon is a huge rift on the border of Oregon and Idaho - the deepest canyon in USA apparently - deeper than the Grand Canyon yet less famous because it is more difficult to capture it’s grandeur in one hit as is the case with the Grand, but spectacular none-the-less. 
Mountain goat on the Hell's Canyon cliffs
On our way in we stopped at a local roadside store to pick up some firewood where we were asked where we were going. In response to our answer - to the Hell’s Canyon Dam - the shop owner offered us the wood for free if we were able to give a lift to a couple of guys who needed to get down to the dam. They were part of a rafting shuttle service and needed to pick up some rafter’s cars and take them to the bottom of the river. The more talkative of the two guys had lived all of his life in the canyon, as had his parents, his grand mother and great grandmother. He recalled his great-grandmothers tales of times when thousands of people lived in the area prospecting for gold; of times when the local sherif declared marshal law because of the level of lawlessness; of three day horse trips to the nearest town - one day to get in, one to party, and one to get back; of a lady who came in with all of her possessions in a wheelbarrow who disappeared into the canyon, only to re-appear once a year to refill her barrow, until one year she didn’t emerge and was never seen again - tough times in a tough, but beautiful landscape.
Having dropped the guys off at the dam, we found ourselves a delightful campsite on the edge of the lake under a grove of walnut trees with the walls of the canyon towering above. Apparently the fruit trees were originally planted here to support a bootleg liquor business but later became a renowned fruit and nut producing concern. Seems like it all “went under” when they put the dam in and the hydro company bought the land. 
Paddling Hell's Canyon
Our next couple of days were spent hiking up onto the spurs above, kayaking on the lake and watching the Mountain Goats moving carelessly about on their precarious ledges. Mum mountain goat paid no attention at all as one of her young seemed to look for, and then stand as close as possible to the edge of, the most dangerous looking ledge of all!
Lunch stop at Payette Lake, McCall
We exited the canyon via a winding gravel switchback road with precipitous drops below alternating with grassy slopes and glades of yellow flowers before disappearing into the pine forests once again where we encountered a male Blue Grouse in full display plumage - the females immediately bolted at the first hint of an intruder while the male, completely pre-occupied with matters other than short term survival, continued to strut about on the road flashing it’s orange eyebrows and red chest patches until it’s options were to flee or be run over. There seems to be something pretty constant about male behavior that transcends species boundaries!
Why other people take the freeways
False alarm - it’s still winter in the Sawtooth Ranges

Sawtooth Ranges, Idaho
Just as we were starting to shed our clothes - yes we were wearing sandals and t-shirts for a moment there - we climbed yet another zig-zag road to find ourselves in the snow once again, this time with the amazing backdrop of the Sawtooth ranges. I wonder why you would call a mountain range that? Probably something to do with the spectacular series of jagged, snow-covered peaks that completely dominate the horizon. 
The good thing about spectacular mountains is that they provide a great excuse to stop driving, so this we did, and donning snow-shoes we set off in the sun for a jaunt of a few hours, which was long enough for the weather to change completely, getting back to the van as the first drops of rain / snow began to fall.

Time to don the snow-shoes again
The down-side of this spectacular location is the fact that at least half, if not more, of the pine trees have died or are dying, the result of exotic beetles and possibly a fungal rust disease. Wherever you travel in the world, tree decline seems to be a constant threat as our pests and diseases are transmitted by our jet-setting and global-trading lifestyles (need to make sure we get the mud off our snowshoes before we use them again!).

Stormy one day...

Sunny the next

Warm enough for a swim - shame about the ice

Confused about the seasons - winter or spring?

Brief departure from planet Earth to visit the Craters of the Moon 

Moon Marmots
Well, there is little risk of being bored when a day’s drive takes you from classic alpine landscapes, through equally classic idaho farmland and then dumps you in a surreal place like Craters of the Moon. This charred and contorted landscape makes it clear that, while you think you are relaxed and comfortable where you are now,  the earth may have a different plan for you and could completely reconstruct your reality - fields of lava flows and lava tubes, peaks of cinder cones and spatter cones and piles of shattered and fractured rocks that have been flung about by someone who seemed a little pissed off - all suggest that tomorrow will not necessarily be the some as yesterday. Given that some of this occurred only two thousand years ago and it’s been going on for a lot longer than that (about the last 15m years), it seems that there is little reason to think that it has finished. With this thought in mind, we set up camp in the middle of it, with lightning and thunder broiling across the brooding moonscape, hoping that the next act would at least wait until after we had finished our pancakes and coffee the next morning. 
Fossilised croissants?

Exploring the lava tubes
Enough fire and brimstone - back to the glacial
There is something about a US road trip that makes it hard not to notice the power of the earth and the passage of vast amounts of time (unless you are still on one of those ‘60s/’70s sort of road trips). From the clear signals left by tectonics and vulcanism, you suddenly find yourself in landscapes scoured by glaciers that periodically (every 5 - 15 thousand years) drop in from the north leaving trails of lakes and wetlands when they have had enough and retreated to whence they came. 
As  a result of this we next found ourselves wondering around wetlands in the broad Idaho plains, spotting sandhill cranes, and the classic bathtub toy - the ruddy duck. These cute-as little blue billed ducks with stuck up tails bob their heads up and down as if someone has just turned a key in their bum a few times (there’s got to be a You-tube video of this somewhere - I’d suggest you do a search). Also our first encounter with a moose which I set out on foot to get a photo of, only to find out later that they are a bit like african hippos - the unlikely cause of a large number of unfortunate animal-human interactions! Fortunately, on this occasion, it chose to wander off through the marshes rather than trample me to death (or whatever it is that mooses do to people).
Into Wyoming - and if you think the Sawtooth Ranges are impressive - wait till you see the Grand Tetons
The very grand Grand Tetons - view from our free campsite
I suspect that the term “grand” could be easily over-utilised when describing landscapes, but the Americans seem to use it reasonably sparingly and generally quite appropriately. I reckon it’s not a bad descriptor for these ranges. Again, pretty sawtoothy, but with bigger and more intimidating teeth than the previous range. 
This has been the locale for some very early mornings and some reasonably strenuous activity. Our first morning was a 4.30 am wakeup call to join a group of people (couldn’t believe there were other people stupid enough to be doing this too) for a ranger led trip in search of sage grouse, birds that establish mating grounds, or leks, where dozens of birds come together and the males all do their stuff to impress the girls - this involves the inflation of brightly colored air   sacks on their chests, the fluffing of feathers, the spreading of tails(spiked like yukka plants) and lots of bobbing up and down with occasional inter-male skirmishes. At some point the females determine who’s most impressive and make themselves available to become the mothers of the next generation of silly-looking strutting birds. Whilst all this is going on, the elk and bison are wandering around in the background with the odd coyote passing through, all set against the backdrop of the mighty snow-capped Tetons. 

Hiking the Tetons
Taggart Lake - GrandTetons

This range also provides the backdrop to the relatively fast flowing Snake River (fast enough to make good kayak progress without working too hard) so we bobbed along on it, taking detours into oxbow lakes to view pelicans and bald eagles and lots of ducks as well as our first loon - which probably isn’t all that exciting for most but, given that we had adopted one as our mascot, we were impressed.  

Barrow's Goldeneyes

Bald Eagle

Least Chipmunk
Morning kayaking was followed up by an afternoon bike ride - Christine dropped me off at the top of a road that follows the base of the Tetons, which is open to cycling but not to cars. It’s hard to imagine a more scenic cycle with craggy, snowy mountains towering above and ice-covered lakes along the way. Christine picked me up again at the bottom of the ride and the next day we returned to hike around Taggart and Bradley Lakes. Being early in the season, much of the track was covered in snow and made for hard going as we regularly disappeared through the snow crust up to our knees and thighs, meaning we ended the day exhausted but well rewarded in our ridge-top free campsite overlooking the ranges.

Spectacular cycling

"Rough" camping