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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Bear Baiting: The Toughest Job You'll Ever Love in Yellowstone National Park

What's a summer vacation in America without a visit to Yellowstone National Park? Lucky for me, the opportunity for a visit presented itself.

Here I am (front left in red sweater) in Yellowstone National Park in 1965 with my brothers and cousins and mother and aunt. Bobby the Bear Baiter is at front right in the blue shirt--more about that later. And look how cute my little brother, Johnny was--he's in the stripes. (Photo by my dad with his Polaroid.)

I grew up only a couple of hours' drive time from Yellowstone, and we camped there often. It was different way back in 1965: much less of an international crowd, much less crowded over all. It was always fun, but it was just our back yard camp out, not such the big deal that it is now. So I have a long and happy history with Yellowstone. Although when I think back, it could be that I hadn't visited Yellowstone since 1989! So I immediately said yes when my friend Diane invited me to go.

Peace Corps: The Toughest Job You'll Ever Love! (Photo by Alice.)

That's the tag line from an old commercial from the 1980's for the Peace Corps. And this is my friend Diane and me in Yellowstone Park. We've been buddies since 1982 when we met as Peace Corps Volunteers in the Philippines. It really was pretty tough, but mostly it was fun!

When Diane heard that I was spending the summer in America, she invited me to go with her and her friend Alice to Yellowstone National Park and Big Sky, Montana.  And bonus! Doctor Alice was attending a medical conference paid for by her hospital, so we didn't have to pay for gas or hotel rooms. Fun and free...well, partially free. We didn't have the nerve to try to charge our white water rafting excursion to the hospital. You'll hear about the whitewater in a later post.

Diane and Alice cruised on over to Utah and picked me up in Alice's Subaru and we headed for Wyoming.

First stop: the Tetons--Diane, Alice, and me. (Photo by a helpful passerby.)

Our first wildlife sighting! After so much time looking for animals in Tanzania over the last year, I thought I had spotted a lion here at the entrance to Teton National Park. But no, this is the land of crazy pet lovers, so it turned out to be a Pekingese with a stylish haircut.

The Three Tetons and the Snake River. Ansel Adams must have stood right here when he made his beautiful black-and-white image of the Tetons. The Grand Teton is that highest one pointing slightly to the right.

Early French fur trappers named them after the women they were missing back home, or at least after their breasts. We thought they must have been wandering the wilderness for a long time before they came up with that....or maybe these breasts had nursed seven or eight children already. 

Diane's grand tetons and the Grand Teton. Maybe we should submit this photo to the Peace Corps for their website? Or the National Park Service?

As we entered Teton National Park on the Rockefeller Memorial Parkway, the ranger checked Diane's annual park pass and handed her a park map. Diane looked at it and said, "Do you have the Yellowstone map?" The ranger said, "No, I don't. You can get it at that park entrance." Diane looked confused, so Alice and I jumped right in to point out that we weren't at Yellowstone yet and laughed at her. Alice followed every move on the GPS and on the paper map, so she always knew where we were. This was the last time I knew where we were, so I had to make the most of it.

First wildlife traffic jam and we're not even in Yellowstone yet! Our most effective wildlife spotting technique on this trip was to watch for cars pulled over to the side of the road.

 Most of our wildlife sightings were bison. The wolves and grizzlies proved to be more elusive. (Photo by Diane)

Our first wildlife sighting inside Yellowstone: this beautiful bull elk. Diane stalked him into the woods. I expected him to gore her at any moment, but she got away clean. (Photo by Diane)

Inside Yellowstone National Park, and in possession of a Yellowstone map, we made our first geyser stop at West Thumb Geyser Basin. Here are Diane and Alice on the boardwalk with the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake to the right and geysers to the left.

Boardwalks take you across areas of thin crust pocked with deep holes of boiling water or mud. Steam clouds drift across, warm and moist and reeking of sulfur dioxide (you know, rotten egg smell). Alice didn't like the smell. It left me with a craving for a hard-boiled egg.

The hotpots and geysers come in lots of colors. Some colors come from minerals, some from algae and bacteria and who knows what all.

The blue in the foreground is a hotpot, the blue in the background is the lake.

Mud volcanoes--that's right, made from boiling mud. If I was still in Tanzania, I'd have called them flamingo nests, but we did not see any flamingos here in Wyoming.

Here's the "No Fishing" sign on the famous Fishing Bridge. The ranger here told us fishing is no longer allowed because the native rainbow trout spawn in the gravel right under the bridge.

The water was rushing so deep and rough that we couldn't see any trout, except for the stuffed toy the park ranger was  carrying in his backpack. He directed us upstream to Steamboat Falls to look for trout. We caught the barest glimpse of three trout in rough water there. At least three species of large flies were hatching into adults and filled the air around us. Diane and Alice swatted and cursed the bugs. I pointed out that  the bugs were drawing us into the third dimension of our environment by utilizing the space around us that we usually don't notice. Alice said I'd breathed in too much sulfur at the geyser basin. And she's a doctor, so I guess she should know.

This one is a salmon fly, about as long as my thumb. I only identified it a few days later by showing this picture to our fly fishing teacher up in Big Sky. You'll read about him in a later post.

Boiling mud up the road at the Mud Volcano area. Don't they pay good money for this at posh spas? Maybe minus the sulfur dioxide fragrance...

Here's the sulphur cauldron across the road.

Mule deer buck meandering among the mud pots. 

Yellowstone River meandering among the sagebrush.

Another bison, engaged in the common activity of rolling in a dust wallow.

Look! He's licking his nose!

Yet another bison, engaged in the also common activity of grazing--which means you can never get a picture of their whole face.

I kept looking for bears. We used to see them all the time back in the 1960's. The Park Service now is more efficient at moving bears away from the crowded areas of the park. It's certainly necessary, what with the huge numbers of visitors here. But it was exciting seeing all those bears.

One night, once upon a time, my parents and my brothers and I were sitting around our campfire in a Yellowstone campground. A black bear ran right past the fire. Two park rangers with rifles followed. My mother sprang to her feet and blocked the rangers and ordered them not to kill that bear because, after all, we were in his territory and he belonged here and we didn't and how could they punish him for that. The rangers shifted from foot to foot and said, "Ma''am...these are tranquilizer guns." They just wanted to move him away from the campground. She was satisfied with this explanation and let them pass. Of course, by then the bear was long gone.

And here's the photo to prove my next bear story. (Photo by  my dad with his trusty Polaroid.)

We stopped for a picnic lunch at one of the park picnic areas and spread all our food out on the table, buffet style. My brothers and I made baloney sandwiches and wandered around eating them. My big brother, Bobby, looked through a long culvert that ran through the bottom of a small hill. He saw a bear at the other end. He swears now that it looked little and he thought it was a cub. He also thought it would be fun to see it up close, so he laid a few slices of baloney on the ground at our end of the culvert. Of course, the bear came through the culvert to get it. Bobby got excited and ran around warning us, "There's a bear coming! There's a bear coming!" My mother immediately started packing our food back into the car. When the bear approached, she threw her half-eaten peach at it. She used the few moments of delay while he enjoyed the peach to get all of our food safely locked into the car. The picture above shows the food that belonged to the family unfortunate enough to be having lunch next to us!

I have a million of these stories! But you could never get away with this kind of thing in today's Yellowstone. And I won't make you listen to all one million of my bear stories. Or my one porcupine story. I got that out of my system by making Alice and Diane listen to them all while we were driving around looking for bears.

We spent the next two nights in the not-quite-historic, but really-run-down cabins at Canyon Village. The windows wouldn't close, so we nearly froze early the next two mornings. We ate dinner at one of the Park Service concessions at Canyon Village. At least that hasn't changed since the 1960's--the food's still pretty bad and pretty expensive. But they were no longer selling the classic souvenirs I fondly remember from childhood: the stuffed bear with a tan nose and red collar and leash, the little cedar box with a hinged lid, and the narrow beaded leather belts in faux Indian designs. So I bought fridge magnets and T-shirts instead.

Oh, and when I was a kid we said "buffalo," not "bison." Apparently, that's wrong now.

Next morning, we headed out and found...

...another bison. He was just waking up and was apparently unperturbed by a nearby parking lot full of cars.


We headed to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and drove the north and south rims, stopping at every overlook for the incredible views. And we took a short but treacherous hike below the rim for a closer look.

Below the rim--Alice and me on the 398-step staircase that takes you down to a closer view of the lower falls. (Photo by Diane)

The view from step #327. We didn't go quite all the way to the bottom, because we knew we'd have to climb back up. One Japanese man was scooting down the steps on his bottom. He was afraid of heights, but he really wanted a picture of the falls.

The lower falls from a roadside overlook.

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

Our next stop was everybody's favorite, Old Faithful. 

You can tell it's popular as soon as you pull into the parking lot.

Our fellow tourists strolling the boardwalk in Old Faithful Geyser Basin, which is a large area including many hotpots and geysers in addition to the famous one.

Our arrival was perfectly timed (just by luck, we didn't plan it). Beehive Geyser goes off once a day and rangers can predict the approximate eruption time. It's the built-up cone to the left of the spouting water. You can see everybody lining up in anticipation.

Thar she blows! An impressive eruption and right on time. You can see all the people who lined up running up the boardwalk to get away from the spray amid lots of laughing and screaming.

Old Faithful was next. It mostly erupts at predictable 90-minute intervals. The next one was predicted for 10 minutes after Beehive Geyser. We walked a few yards up the boardwalk and waited and thar she blew, too!

Diane wonders about everything she sees and she remembers mountains of trivia. As we waited for Old Faithful, she told us that it used to erupt every hour (true, I remember that from the old days). But then, people threw coins into it and calcium deposits grew over the coins and it partially clogged the vents and lengthened the interval between eruptions. Sounds plausible, and she delivered it with authority. But the next day, I read that exact story on a sign in front of a now non-erupting geyser in another geyser basin! So now I am left to wonder how much of Diane's musings are true and how much of it has become tangled up inside her head. But it's very entertaining to ride along in the car with her and marvel at the things that catch her attention.

Bacterial mat in the mineral-rich shallow water around a hotpot.

The Firehole River flowing through Old Faithful Geyser Basin. There are steam vents along the bank, as well as warm water flowing in from the hotpots and geysers.

Osprey perching in a dead lodgepole pine. Diane and I waited, cameras at the ready, for at least 15 minutes in hopes that he would fly and we'd get a fabulous photo of him leaping into the air. It didn't happen. But I like this photo, too!

Castle Geyser .

Old Faithful Lodge, as seen from across the geyser basin.

The Civilian Conservation Corps built it in the 1930's. The interior is rustic, all of lodgepole pine logs.

Alice and I discovered a shop selling ice cream inside. They had huckleberry! I was very excited and immediately bought some. I explained to Alice that a huckleberry is a regional treat, similar to a blueberry but way better, and that she couldn't pass it by. So she bought some, too. We wandered outside onto a rooftop deck and enjoyed the ice cream. I was thinking Diane had gone back to the car and and was missing out on all the fun and felt a bit sorry for her. But no. It turned out she'd seen a second eruption of Old Faithful and thought we were missing out.

Now that we'd had dessert, we could move on from Old Faithful. Our next stop was Grand Prismatic Spring. Diane kept telling us something about a trail up the hill for an aerial view of the spring, but by now I wasn't sure I could believe her. Anyway, by the time we got this far, we were too tired to climb any hills, anyway.

The three of us at Grand Prismatic Spring. It was late afternoon, limping into evening and we were tired--just shadows of our earlier robust selves.

Mineral buildup (or bacteria? or algae?) in the shallow water of the spring.

And bison tracks. We saw their tracks in several areas of mineral crust around the boardwalks. Why don't they fall through the crust? Or is the Park Service giving us their typical too-cautious warnings about how dangerous it is to step off the boardwalk?

 Of course, I wouldn't like to see bootprints in there. Or fall into boiling mud or water. It was windy all day, and we saw several hats in the water around the geysers and hotpots. Diane had some interesting theories on how the rangers would retrieve these hats. My favorite was the long pole with the pinchers on the end, like they used in old-fashioned grocery stores to reach things on the top shelf.

Osprey fishing the Firehole River near the spring.

Water colors and steam in Grand Prismatic Spring.

It was dinner time, and we had already decided to bypass the cafeteria back at Canyon Village. We'd bought some really expensive things at the grocery store at Old Faithful, and now we went in search of a pleasant picnic area. 

But first--a wildlife traffic jam! A dozen cars parked along both sides of the road and people stood along one shoulder. Some looked through binoculars, some pointed off across the Firehole River in the distance. Diane slipped the Subaru into an opening and I ran over to the nearest group and said, "What do you see?"  "It's a grizzly!" I stared where everybody pointed, but I couldn't see a thing. Diane and Alice ran up and said, "Did you see the grizzly?" Well, no. They'd caught a glimpse as it ran along the river and disappeared into the trees. Darn!

On to the picnic area with this bear warning on the table. I bet bears like elk sausage. Maybe we'll see one now...

After dinner, pretty evening light on the Madison River.

The next morning, our last at Canyon Village, Diane got brave and petted a bison. Usually it's the French tourists who do this (and get gored). Ok, yes, it's a taxidermy mount in the visitor center.

But as we come to the end of this post, I don't want to leave you with the impression that I wasn't thrilled to see bison. They are beautiful, massive, strong. So don't take my bison jokes seriously.

I also don't want to leave you with the impression that Yellowstone is all cars and parking lots and crowds and huckleberry ice cream. We made a four-day tour of the park's highlights, so we saw the popular spots close to roads. But Yellowstone includes thousands of acres of backcountry. And like almost every National Park in western America, if you walk a half mile away from the road, you can experience beautiful solitude and wilderness.

Here I am in the Yellowstone backcountry in 1967. I'm in the red cowboy hat. Bobby the bear baiter is wearing plaid. And that's Johnny in the black hat, but he's never been a bad guy. And that's my mom making us lunch.

Stay tuned for my next post with more of Yellowstone: the Lamar Valley (where we didn't see wolves), Mammoth Hot Springs, and Norris Geyser Basin. If you'd like to see more pictures related to this post, click here to see an album in Picasa.


  1. I don't make stuff up but it does on occasion get mixed up with other, similar situations - we did ultimately find a geyser that had been blocked by pennys!
    You tell a great story Barb!!

  2. @Diane--because we had a great time! Thanks again for letting me tag along!

  3. Gorgeous photos! I've never been there. One day! You really should be writing for a travel and adventure magazine. Your descriptions really make everything come alive for your readers. Plus, I love the dry wit! Honestly, you rock!