Friday, July 26, 2013

Yellowstone Photos

I have some things to say about Yellowstone, our oldest national park. But I'm still thinking about how best to sum up what I learned about this 2.2-million acre preserve.

And that's the problem. Supposedly the average American vacation is 3.8 days long, according to the U.S. Travel Association.  Let's be generous and assume that one spends 5 days in the park. That's about 440,000 acres to cover per day.

The Grand Loop, the 142-mile road that works a figure-eight through the center of Yellowstone, makes it easier to cover the park's expanse. But at 45 miles an hour or less, with often bumper-to-bumper traffic, and so much to see and do along the way, the Grand Loop deceives. It makes the traveler think that Yellowstone is easy, and it most certainly is not. Seeing it by car is hard work—harder and less rewarding, I think, than seeing small bits of it at a time.

Rex and I stayed at Fishing Bridge campground on the northern tip of Yellowstone Lake for the entire 10 days of our visit. It was a good home base and the only one available to rigs of our size, but if we could do it over again, we would move to a different campground in a another part of the park every third or fourth day. That's what the Grand Loop planners had in mind when they designed it, I think. As it was, we really didn't even get to know Fishing Bridge, a very pretty, birdy, historic area of the park, because we were always driving to hike somewhere else. 

In our ten days, we barely scratched the surface. I didn't know anything about Yellowstone before we arrived. Sure, I knew a bit of the history, and everyone knows about Old Faithful, and friends warned me about the annoying crowds that carry one along—as well as the near seclusion just seven or so miles down the trail. 

And yet, I was completely dumbfounded by Yellowstone National Park. I at first found it off-putting. The wildlife didn't seem wild at all, but just grazed nonchalantly next to the road. The traffic was heavier, earlier in the day than seemed possible, considering that we were more than 500 miles from the nearest metropolitan area. There was an ecstatic exuberance in the air that often made it feel more like an amusement park than nature viewing ("I saw a pack of wolves! We petted a grizzly bear!"). 

But the longer I was there, the more I got used to all of this and realized that it was part of the Yellowstone experience. Humans are nature, too, and endlessly interesting. Most importantly, I realized that there is so much more to the park—as if it exists in multiple dimension—partly because of its sheer size, partly because of its subtle beauty, partly because of its wondrous geothermal features. Yellowstone brings out the kid in you, and Yellowstone is dangerous and awe-inspiring, too. It is a very complex creature that would take years to fully understand.

For now, I'll leave it at this: Yellowstone is perfectly American. It is a big, loud, wild carnival with freakish things to see and freaky people seeing them. It is also peaceful and sublime; strong and very fragile. All this adds up to Yellowstone being incredibly diverse and much, much bigger than you could ever possibly be. And it is yours, because it is a national park, and it is not exclusively yours. And you get out of it exactly what you put into it. You really must experience it for yourself. 

See it as we did— Top 40 photos of Yellowstone, posted on Picasa. Please enjoy.

Monday, July 22, 2013


On Saturday, my family buried my grandmother Joyce Lind in Tilden. She died Wednesday after a short illness. She was 91. 

Meanwhile, I’m 1100 miles away, hiking in Glacier National Park. How is that for family devotion? Pretty shitty granddaughter if you ask me. 

I did have enough time to get back to Nebraska for the funeral, thanks to my Mom, who kept me updated throughout. (Thank you, Mom.) And clearly I harbor some guilt about not being there. But mostly I am comfortable with my decision. I spent 10 days in Tilden before we departed on this adventure, and I visited Grandma three times while there. I do wish I would have stayed a little longer each time, held her hand a bit more, told her a few more things—like how much I appreciated the quilt she made for me, in collaboration with my maternal aunt, Letha. But that’s another story.
Grandma Joyce and great-granddaughter
Joyce gave me a lot of things, actually. For example, I have her strong, almost perverse conservation ethic. I used to laugh at her for saving for her plants the water she drained off boiled potatoes. Now I often do the same thing. Rex gives me hell for it, but he and I both dream of building a greywater system for our next home. 

I don’t think she realized how subversive this was, but Joyce also gave me Ranger Rick, the kid’s magazine of the National Wildlife Federation. I pored over those issues, and I credit them in part with teaching me the inherent value of nature, even if and when there is no money in making space for it. 

But after reflecting on it for the past few days, I realize the thing I will miss most from Grandma will be her letters. They were not exactly well-written, although Joyce did have an above-average command of the English language. Her notes and cards were magical because they were, well, her, revealed on the blue-lined page. She wrote about what she thought about, including the weather, the crops, her garden, her family, the work she needed to complete, her own shortcomings. Each letter would contain at least two weather reports, maybe more, as she started a note then returned to it later in the day or week. Every missive also contained a minimum of one apology for not writing sooner—never mind that I never returned her letters any faster than she did—as well as a critique of her own handwriting. I loved her handwriting because she would occasionally include shorthand notions, evidence of her time at an Omaha secretarial school. 

I saved Joyce’s letters, as I do all letters. How could I discard a piece of someone who cared enough to put themselves on the page and send themselves to me? And that’s what a good letter is—some else being there, with me. Yes, I know—printed symbols on the page are not an adequate substitute for physical presence. But we would all feel less alone, I think, if we embraced the art of the letter, which, at its best, transports the author into the presence of the reader. 

Smart people have offered much deeper thoughts on this topic, and savvy ones in my field are now thinking about handwriting versus mass printing versus digital communication, and how our experience of the other and the self changes between media. And maybe that is why we love Web 2.0 so much--it transports more effectively and efficiently than does a written letter. I touched on this briefly in my dissertation, and I hope to return to it someday.

Right now, though, I really wish I had some of Grandma’s letters.  

Cobalt Lake Hike

Faithful blog readers have been clamoring for more photos. We aim to please.

Glacier National Park is known as a "hiker's paradise," but you'd better be a fit hiker. There are plenty of backcountry campsites for long-distance treks, but the closest campsites are generally five or many more miles from the trailhead, plus a few thousand feet up. This makes it difficult to break day hikes into shorter multi-day backpack trips.

For our first hike, we settled on Cobalt Lake, which leaves from the south side of Two Medicine Lake in the southeast corner of the park. It's a moderate climb of 1400 feet over 5.46 miles, but almost all of the elevation gain comes in the last two miles.

We were on the trail at 8:30 a.m. and back at the truck by 3:20 p.m. Here's some of what we saw along the way, ordered as we saw it.

New birds sighted included two Pacific wrens and two lazuli buntings.

Sinopah Mountain from the Two Medicine Lake parking lot; we walked up the ravine on the left side of this photo, just right to the of the lamp post. 
Early and easy water crossing, thanks to great trail engineering and construction
Lovely Aster Falls 
Steady Rex!
Signposting; yes, we carry bear spray
Rockwell Falls

On our way up; Two Medicine Lake as seen from above

Not far now
Almost there

Our destination: Cobalt Lake

Headed back down

Mid-afternoon at Two Medicine Lake

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Three Nights in Missoula

I got a good vibe from the moment we arrived in this cool mountain town. We left West Yellowstone and followed the Madison River much of the way as we headed toward Missoula. The town is situated along the Clark Fork River and has grown to a population around 70,000 people, with the University of Montana having around 15,000 students. It has been called "the Hub of Five Valleys" because five mountain ranges converge here.

Kettle House Brewery, north side

Beers on tap at Kettle House, downtown Missoula

Missoula is home to the three largest breweries in Montana. Maybe that had something to do with my good vibe?  Probably.  On our first night we checked out the Kettle House Brewery's new location in an historic warehouse in Missoula’s Northside railroad district. We liked their Cold Smoke Scotch Ale, the Fresh Bongwater Hemp Pale Ale (which included Canadian industrial hemp), and (our favorite) a Cold Smoke with elderberries.

The (excellent) Riverside Cafe on Front Steet, downtown Missola
From the tap room, we headed south to the Riverside Cafe for an excellent meal, including grilled rainbow trout, yellow-pea fritters, and, of course, a beer. This one was from Elysian in Seattle, which Colene and I discovered on a trip many years ago.

We stayed at the KOA because it was centrally located, which allowed us to get around on our bikes. On our second night we rode downtown with a packed lunch. We had planned to have a drink at the Tamarack Brewpub, then picnic by the river. But Colene suggested we first check out the Rhinoceros, where a local band ("Cash for Junkers") was playing in the back ally. See why I like this town? We sampled thee more local brews and danced a few two-steps before we ate our sandwiches and rode home.

Rhinoceros bar, downtown Missoula
While out shopping I noticed this steel-clad, mixed-use building. I found fascinating its unfinished, rusty metal exterior and Flat Iron lines. If you want to see more go to

Unfortunately, after a little fun and several errand runs, we had to leave Missoula.  On our first night in this west Montana town, our neighbor in the RV park--a retired Austinite--told me that he liked to spend at least one month most places they travel. I like that plan; it would let you get a better sense for the place.

Maybe someday I will have that luxury, but for now, we have reservations in Glacier, so off we go.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Out of Yellowstone

I wrote a posting on Tuesday evening and wanted to add photos when we returned home. Unfortunately after loading photos the blog had disappeared.
Leaving Yellowstone was hard because we left so many things undone. We did manage to get one more night at our campsite. But our truck was shaking bad so we needed to get it looked at by a tire shop in West Yellowstone. 

Bakers Hole, a National Forest campground, was recommended by the shop owner, Jake. We ended up with a great view and while eating dinner outside we were treated to an osprey diving for a fish in the river 70 yards away from us. The sunset was a nice way to close the day.

 After visiting with a couple of neighbors my eyes were opened to a lifestyle I was unaware of.
Both couples were on fixed incomes but one of them had retired at 50 and had been traveling for 14 years. The fee to stay in the campground was $16 or $8 if you are 62. You can stay up to 16 days so if you need to watch your expenses it is a good choice.Both the couples had sold their homes so they had no worries other than maintaining their rigs and fuel to travel. Many folks are volunteering in these campgrounds for free access or working in the the parks or campground to help pay their expenses along the way. 

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Why sleep the woods?

Lake Shoshone Geyser Basin
People have always walked to get places and luckily, we haven’t built roads to every pretty spot. Did the Hayden Expedition that explored Yellowstone discover all the geyser basins? No, of course not--they mostly followed the paths that had been used by the Native Americans for thousands of years. There is something special about walking on a trail that has been traveled for years and years by all kinds of people. In addition to the history, most of the trails preserved and maintained by the national park system are very scenic, so almost any hike in a national park will be special.

2nd night camp setup

We just returned from our first backpacking trip of the summer. On day one we hiked 6.5 miles to our first camp.  The next day, went on to the Lake Shoshone Geyser Basin.  We planned  this trip so that we could see of all the geothermal activity without all of the crowds around “The Loop.” We had never hiked around any active geothermals, plus the basin is on the edge of a beautiful, large, high-country lake. Of course Colene spotted an osprey flying across the lake towards us. We followed its path to a nest in the top of a tall pine tree. Its mate and baby ospreys were waiting.  We then headed back, made camp a second time closer to the trailhead, and finished our return today.

Is hiking a walk in the park? No, first you have to be in decent condition. Second, you need to assemble all the necessary gear. Then you have to decide which half of the gear is really necessary, otherwise you won’t be able to lift your pack let alone carry it eight or more miles a day. You also have to ask yourself if you can deal with millions of mosquitoes at times--usually dinner time. There’s also the risk of chiggers, ticks, or even a bear--you have to be prepared or live with the consequences. Can you go three days without a shower? Can you sleep on 1.5” on padding? All these things make backpacking difficult, but at the end of the trip, all of the inconveniences seem to fade from memory. All we can remember are the birds we spotted, the gorgeous meadows, the lazy creeks, and the beautiful wildflowers.

Above & below
Lake Shoshone Geyser Basin

Lone Star Geyser

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Grand Canyon?

Tuesday was spent hiking all around the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. If you were unaware of this canyon as I was or maybe confused with the Grand Canyon in Arizona, read a little about this feature of Yellowstone.  The Yellowstone River drops 308 feet over the Lower falls  in this 20 mile long canyon.
Yesterday we drove the upper loop through Mammoth Hot Springs,  checked out the Albright visitors center,  and ate our picnic in the Lamar Valley. It was a long day of driving and to me it was more exhausting than a good hike.
Today we have permits to backpack into Shoshone Lake just south of Old Faithful. We plan to spend 3 days and 2 nights exploring the geothermal features of this area. We will give you a report on this area with photos when we return.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Talk to me, Yellowstone

Great news: My adviser has signed off on my dissertation conclusion. I am now in a mad rush to pull together  all of the chapters so that he can review the document in its entirety.

For this reason I have no business blogging for the next few days. This seems to be the perfect time to debut a new, perhaps regular blog feature: park sounds.

I recorded this video Sunday morning in West Thumb Geyser Basin.  Let me know what you think--just remember that my video-capture skills are completely self-taught.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Goodbye, Tetons

On Friday we left the Buffalo Valley, just outside of Grand Teton National Park, and drove 80 miles north to Yellowstone.

Thunderstorm over Buffalo Valley, west of Moran, Wyo.
We counted ourselves lucky to have called this place home for two weeks. As I have previously alluded, the RV park where we stayed was not a place for Happy Campers. I’ll save the details for Yelp, but if you are ever traveling this way, please mark Grand Teton Park RV Resort off your list.

Yet even this sad, broken-down, over-priced, misrepresented place had its bright spots. For one thing, it introduced us to this amazing valley, which had lots of wildlife and not very many people or much traffic. We found it relaxing to drive out of the busy park each day, and mark my words, I will be back to float the Buffalo Fork River from Turpin Meadow campground to the national park boundary.

The “Resort” also introduced us to lots of interesting people who came and went during the eight days we parked there. And thanks to Rex, of course, we knew most of them, including the early thirties couple with three big dogs, an even bigger kayak, and cutest little pull-behind camper you ever saw. I guessed that they were from California. Rex guessed Austin, and he was right—Hyde Park, specifically.
Rainbow Finds the TI at Grand Teton Park RV Resort, near Moran, Wyo.

We always assumed half of our adventure would be the people we encountered along the way. And as we headed into Yellowstone, we knew we would be encountering lots of people.

For our nine days in one of the country’s most-visited national parks, we will be staying within park boundaries at a place called Fishing Bridge, which is a campground built specifically for hard-sided trailers like ours. We are excited about the convenience of staying in the park, and I am really grateful that Rex took the initiative to make reservations in advance. But we are leery of what we will find in an 380-trailer park in the middle of Yellowstone.

Unfortunately, Fishing Bridge as no cell phone or internet access, so we will be posting only sporadically for the next few days. More as I can….

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Boondocking II

On Wednesday, we head toward the Box Creek Trail for a hike. On the way, we notice a dozen trumpeter swans (the largest bird in North America by weight!) and hundreds of Canadian geese on Tracy Lake. The hike highlight was a male and a female black-headed grosbeak.When we return to camp, Colene spots a bald eagle and its nest! For the rest of the week, we are constantly scanning the trees below our campsite to see if the bald eagle is home.

On Thursday, we drove into the national park to hike along String Lake to Leigh Lake. The birding here wasn’t as good, but the lake and mountain views were amazing. And we did identify several Swainson’s thrushes, singing their hearts out.
Swainson's thrush on the shores of String Lake, Grand Teton National Park

 After our hike we drive into the mountain town of Jackson to spend the entire afternoon in the county library.  For such a small town the library is phenomenal. We end the day with beer and dinner at the Snake River Brewery in downtown Jackson. As most of you know I have brewed more than 100 batches of beer, and we consider ourselves beer nerds. Snake River more than passed the test; they make excellent beers.

Friday we pack lunches and set out to tackle a very strenuous hike towards Amphitheater Lake--just the thing to get our legs sore. We didn’t make it to the lake, but the views were the best so far, and it was obviously Spring in the mountains as many flowers were in bloom.
Hike to Amphitheater Lake, Grand Teton National Park

The best bird of the hike for me was a western tanager; Colene pointed it out for me.  They are so striking with the red head on their yellow bodies!  In the afternoon we again go to Jackson so that I can run errands while Colene works at the library. We found very good microbrews and dinner at a place called Thai Me Up (ha ha).  They make several small-batch beers, including a “cherry freak,” which we loved, and the Thai food was very good, too.  On our way home there was a traffic jam that held us up for 10 minutes.

Bison-Induced Traffic Jam, Grand Teton National Park
Well it’s now Saturday, and unfortunately, it is also our last day of “boondocking” in the national forest. I had one more chance to bike this road, and then we broke camp.
Buffalo Valley Road, Bridger-Teton National Forest

We would like to stay longer, but we are agreed that it is time to go back to “civilization” and stay in the RV park so we have better internet. This week has been a good first test of our solar system, and it worked like a champ. Every day was sunny so we never had to worry about conserving energy. We could run the vacuum, the microwave, the toaster, the bread machine, roast coffee, and turn on all the lights we wanted.  Maybe next time we will get a couple cloudy days to see how we do.  As far as water, we added 10 gallons on Wednesday to give us a total of 60 gallons but I dumped close to 10 gallons of clean water before we left the campsite, so we made it 6 days on 50 gallons. When Colene no longer needs internet connection every day for her job, we definitely plan to do more boondocking.

Happy Independence Day

The Red, White, and Blue of Two Oceans Lake, Grand Teton National Park

Wednesday, July 3, 2013


Our time in the Tetons is almost over, so I'd better hurry up and tell you about our first wonderful week here.

We arrive here on the first day of summer, Friday, June 21. Saturday morning, we got a nice hike in--just two miles from where we were staying. The hike highlights included a great view of the mountain range, a small herd of elk cows and calves, a pink-sided junco, a Brewer's sparrow, and a hairy woodpecker.
First hike, Bridger-Teton National Forest
So it was a great Saturday morning, but in the afternoon we realized that the RV park where we were staying was not for us.
On Sunday, we were up at 5:45 a.m., and I realized that we did have a good view of the Tetons out our dining-room window, even if this pricey park was a dump. I started some dried tomato herb bread in the machine, but that would get interrupted soon. 

After breakfast we headed up Buffalo Valley Road for another morning hike, when we came upon an RV breaking camp--100 feet above the valley. I had to stop and ask how they got permission to camp in this amazing spot. They said you don’t need permission and it is free. When I looked at Colene, she could see the pleading look in my eye. You see, I spied this spot from the road the day before, and it looked like something I had seen in a magazine--but never dreamed I might be that camper that got to enjoy a spot like this.

Our boondocking spot

 Anyway she must love me a lot because she agreed to go pack up and move our TI out of a paid-for spot in the RV park and go boondocking, which is trailer camping without any water, electricity, or sewer hook-ups. The Forest Service calls it dispersed camping.  It is free, you can stay up to 16 days. Like hiking in the parks, you should leave to trace that you were there.

Our TI carries 50 gallons of potable water, and we can store up to 50 gallons of "gray" water plus 50 gallons of "black" water (sewage). And thanks to the four photovoltic panels I installed on the roof, plus four storage batteries, we have should have had enough electricity as long as the sun shines--but this would be the first real test of the system!

Two hours later we are set up in this new spot and the bread is restarted, thanks to solar power. Now we are on our way to hike Lava Creek Trail about a mile on up this road. It is 1.5 mile up a mountain, with good elevation gain.  Hike highlights were a pair of red-naped sapsuckers feeding their young, a solitary western wood-pewee, and a western tanager spotted by Colene.

After our hike we come back and settle in to our new location.

The view from our office window, boondocking in Bridger-Teton National Park.

On Monday it's another morning hike, then office and trailer work in the afternoon. 

On Tuesday morning while Colene is working, I roast 4 batches of Guatemalan coffee with our inverter using solar powered batteries. I will talk more of this hobby later. 
Coffee Roasting
At 9:30 am we load up the bikes and head to Jackson. I get supplies while Colene works at the Jackson library. The highlights of this day were seeing yellow-headed blackbirds and ring-necked and gadwells at the visitor center. We ride our bikes into the wind south from Jenny's Lake and back. The view along the range is pretty amazing. On our drive back to the TI we see many people out of their vehicles because they are getting a rare view of a grizzly bear. 

Tomorrow, I'll finish the story of our week of boondocking.