Lodgepole pine forests, alpine meadows, sagebrush steppe, rolling grasslands, massive watersheds and wetlands, 2500 miles of rivers and streams, 600 lakes and ponds, majestic canyons and waterfalls, geyser basins scattered about a giant volcanic caldera, the Continental Divide, and home to a wide diversity of wildlife including endangered species. Ready?
I’m finally getting to the contrast that inspired this series of blog posts. Yellowstone.
Why? The San Diego Zoo, at the start of the series, represented the epitome of a zoo’s potential. Beautiful grounds. Botanical paradise. Humane habitats constructed to be as natural as they could be, considering they are still prisons for the wildlife residing there.
Asphalt pathways. Directional signs. Herds of people grazing on hot dogs, candy, and sodas. The animals scarcely move, except to pace the perimeter of their enclosures. The mammals lose the luster to their fur. The color fades from the birds’ plumage.
Depressed. Spirits broken. Many lose the ability to reproduce. Many die early deaths.
Contrast Yellowstone. It is zoo-like in the number and diversity of wild species, but there are no cages. People and animals can mingle with no bars, no fences, no nets, no plexiglass, no moats, no enclosure of any type between them. Nature trails through the middle of it all if you want to hike.
And there is no urban jungle surrounding this pristine landscape. No smog, no freeways, no towering buildings, no two million human residents. Although archeological evidence shows people have inhabited this area as long as 11,000 years ago and 26 Native American Tribes have connections with the park. And there are those four million tourists of modernity that can come and go in a year.
What behavior could we observe there?
I have to tell you it’s a bit strange. For one, I understand the dilemma that park rangers face. A lot of people just don’t get it. These are wild animals. Beautiful and magnificent. In the wild. And the people are in their territory and seem to be unconscious to the fact that they are in the wilderness, the real world. It’s not a human-made park, and you just can’t walk up to a Grizzly Bear and expect not to be killed.
The animals, having become accustomed to large groups of people who are prohibited from killing them, are not fearful, do not take refuge, do not hide. Of course, some, like the bear, never would have anyway. This is their land.
They’re alive, vibrant, free.
They roam where they want. Raise families. And balance. Yes balance. If you’d like a good vision of that balance check out my post “Of Wolves and Hominids.”
The situation is bound to result in some collisions. Bumbling people long removed from living in nature, believing food comes from grocery stores, now surrounded by nature. The source of all life.
You can get close, but not that close.
So, bring a camera where you don’t have to get too personal. Your cell phone camera ain’t going to cut it, except for some landscape shots. You’re not going to get a selfie with a Bull Elk or a Bison. Because by the time you’re close enough with your phone to get that great profile shot, you’ll be on your way to the hospital or to your burial.
Next, slow the fuck down. Please pardon my language.
This isn’t New York City, or any city for that matter. You’re not driving to work. There’s no trophy waiting for you when you reach your destination somewhere in the park. You are surrounded by your destination. You’re already there 🙂
If you try to hurry, you’re going to miss what’s around you. And you’ll miss a lot.
If you try to hurry, you’ll find yourself stuck and angry, and you’re not going to enjoy the experience.
The park is huge – 2.2 million acres! The speed limit is 45 mph at the fastest. There is a lot of road construction as they try to upgrade to accommodate the crowds. Tour buses drive 32 mph. Bison, Bears, Elk and Pronghorns will cause traffic jams.
Chill. Open your eyes. Enjoy the beauty.
A great deal of what I witnessed it terms of human behavior was people trying to drive insanely fast just to get to the next pull out. Then they would pop out of their cars – clown car images :-), snap a few pics, mostly selfies, although admittedly there was a great backdrop, and then pile back into their vehicles and speed to the next pull out and repeat.
Pull in. Pull out. Pedal to the floor. Document. Record. But fail to actually see and experience.
Rather, one should breathe in, breathe out. Stop and appreciate the beauty. My god, it’s incredible.
Walk around a little and feel the earth beneath your feet. Touch the tress and lichens. Listen to the Ravens. Smell the rivers and streams. Taste a wild Thimbleberry.
A crowd of stopped vehicles could tip you off to a good wildlife spotting. But remember the proximity rule. I saw a crowd of fifty people surround a Grizzly Bear. One step too close, or too much crowding could have provoked it. And they can move fast. I took a couple of shots from a safe distance and moved on.
The day after I left, a man was gored by a Bull Elk. That’s not a good way to enjoy nature.
Plan enough days to see the many attractions. I planned a week and I used every minute of it. I had no idea just how many hydrothermal features there were to see – some 10,000 of them, including 500 geysers. It would take months to see them all.
In addition to the familiar hot springs and geysers, there are mudpots (springs acidic enough to dissolve the surrounding rock), travertine terraces (hot springs boiling through limestone and depositing the calcite in layers), and fumaroles (steam vents).
Many of these features are rainbow colored by microorganisms called thermophiles. Microscopic in size, trillions of them amass and produce the varying colors. The temperature determines what organisms grow and those determine the pigments released.
One of the most spectacular features is the Grand Prismatic Hot Spring in the Midway Geyser Basin. I did a separate post just on that one because of its intense beauty.
There are some great trails and day-hikes and you should check a couple of them out. At least hike by the Falls at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. But also realize you can cover quite a distance just traversing the boardwalks weaving through the geyser basins. I got in seven miles on one of those days.
And don’t stray off the boardwalk thinking you can sneak a little closer to that hot spring for a better shot. There have been fatalities where that fragile crust of land gives way and swallows a person in 200 degree, plus or minus, earth, steam, and boiling acidic mud.
If you can, stay in a lodge in the park. I was 30 miles outside the park and once getting to the entrance, there was another 25 to get to the center loop that links you all of the park’s quadrants. I averaged driving 200 miles round trip each day I was there. But it was worth it for all that I took in.
Get out early if you want to see Grizzlies and Elk. That’s when they’re on the move, and with less people stirring, you have a better chance at getting that once-in-a-lifetime photo.
Accept the fact that you’re not always going to get a pic. Yes, I saw wolves in the Lamar Valley – with the help of another visitor’s high-power spotting scope. He was generous. Not everyone will be.
The wolves were way out of range for my 400 mm lens to capture more than a smudge of an imprint. A few pixels in that high-resolution frame. But I was thrilled to see them and that image will always remain in my mind.
Well, now I may be getting too touristy in my descriptions and tips, and be wheeling away from the theme of contrasts, but I think you get the idea.
This isn’t the city. You can’t behave like it is. This is the real world with a few paved roads running through it. It’s spectacularly beautiful. It can kill you if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Prior Chapters of Contrasts:
As I’ve been going through my pics, I realized I have so many that I’ve decided to post a couple of different galleries. Today, we’ll have a look at some of the wildlife. Even an amateur like me can get some great shots at Yellowstone 🙂