Sunday, August 22, 2010

Color me disappointed

[Contiuing our "time-delayed" posts!]

Yellowstone was founded in 1872 as the world’s first national park. Not the first in the U.S. mind you – the first on this planet. And while our forefathers were prescient in their foresight to protect such important landscapes and their inhabitants, a lot has changed in 138 years, and Yellowstone is not at all what I anticipated.

It all started innocently enough. We had a fine Mexican dinner in Cody, WY and slept wakefully at our streetside campsite, secured just after a violent thunderstorm abated, but not before giving us some pause about our decision to pitch tent. The next day, we looked for some coffee for Alyssa, some Ben-Gay for my back (yeah, I’m getting old) and then began the 50-mile journey through the Shoshone National Forest to the east gate of Yellowstone. We had called in our reservations just that morning for a campsite at the centrally located Bridge Bay area, but for our day of arrival, nothing was available - we would be relegated to first come, first serve sites that day. Arriving at the gate around 10am, several sites had “open” listed next to them on the board, so we picked one of the more desirable destinations, Mammoth Hot Springs, though it was 60+ miles from where we were at that moment. Little did we know the mistake we were making.

Four hours later, after negotiating bear, elk and bison instigated traffic jams, we finally arrived at the Mammoth campground- frustrated, weary and not at all eager to head back the quarter mile to the visitor center we had just passed. To put it in simplest terms, Yellowstone is like the Disneyland of National Parks – it is viewed by many as a vacation spot, not a conservation resource, and people were abusing the privileges that such conservation provides them. Despite warnings everywhere saying not to approach wildlife, and to stay 25 yards from all animals – 100 yards from bears and wolves – people actually got out of their cars and walked right up to elk and buffalo as if these were tame creatures. Throughout our trip this annoyance would blossom into a full-fledged campaign on our part to “educate” the transgressors. And believe me, we were quite direct (would you expect less of me?). Enough of my tirades, back to our visit.

The first day, we walked among the hot springs at Mammoth, which were truly beautiful, revealing a myriad of jewel-like hues while reflecting the sky in their calm surface. Alyssa signed us up for a ranger-led day hike the next day titled “Gem of the Rockies”, and after we packed up our site Sunday morning, we joined Ranger Bill for a very informative 6-mile trip around Garnet Hill (hence the “Gem”). We saw badgers, beavers and a black bear and Bill filled us in on the flora and fauna that surrounded us, while expressing his own feelings about some of the park’s visitors: “People are going to turn Yellowstone into a petting zoo.” We liked Ranger Bill. Unfortunately, to get to our campsite after the hike, we had to travel back through Hayden Valley, which was the prime bison watching territory. Another 2 hours later, we had traveled the 20 or so miles to get to our home for the next six days.

How is it possible that one could take two hours to travel such a short distance? Well, people get so excited at the sight of bison that they just have to stop and look. And by stop, I mean right in the middle of the road. And by look, I mean get out of their car and go to the roadside to have a gander. Never mind the miles of traffic that pile up behind them! Of course, these are the same type of people who 150 years ago would have lined up for the train trips to hunt buffalo that were commonplace. “Tourists” at that time would board a train, be handed a rifle, and told they could should whatever moved of the sides of the train. Imagine the wastefulness of killing a one-ton animal, and then leaving the carcass by the tracks. Wait, I’m digressing again…

Our site at Bridge Bay was great. Despite having no showers, it was separated in a “tent only” section and was thus rather quiet and secluded. We woke the next day and decided not to further our frustrations by heading back toward Hayden Valley. Instead we did two local hikes in the Fishing Bridge section of Yellowstone: Storm Point and Elephant Back, each of which gave us excellent views of the lake, though from very different perspectives. On the Storm Point trail, we watched as bad behavior was learned by the next generation as two parents and their pre-teen children approached a marmot for a picture. When the marmot panicked and fled, the family encircled, and then cornered it. The father was no more than ten feet from the poor animal when I re-traced my steps down the trail and chastised him for getting so close. He apologized with embarrassment, but his slow retreat suggested he really wasn’t that sorry. As Alyssa put it, how would any one of them like it if four bears got them in a corner? There I go again…

Tuesday we ventured to the western side of the park to take in the Fairy Falls trail and visit Old Faithful. The Fairy Falls trip got a little contentious when Alyssa and I disagreed over an off-trail route I was taking us on, but the views were spectacular nonetheless. We traveled along the road a bit further to visit some of the other geothermal features along the way, and really there are just too many to name. One highlight of the drive was the Firehole Canyon scenic drive, which it seemed many visitors had not discovered. Thus we had a brief respite to enjoy the scenery in peace.

We headed back to Old Faithful and caught a show just before sunset. It lives up to its reputation of reliability, but after having seen geysers in Iceland, we were under whelmed (“Can you ever just be whelmed? I think you can in Europe.”). We had decided to dine out that night and try the Grant Village Restaurant, and on the trip there, we had a fleeting moment of what Yellowstone should be about. Off the side of the road, no more than fifty yards back, on the shore of a lake, sat a lone gray wolf. It caught my eye and I did all I could do to get Alyssa’s attention quickly and she confirmed the sighting. And rather than slow down or pull over like we had seen so many people so recklessly do. We kept driving, ear-to-ear smiles on our faces for having seen something so amazing, and knowing how few others would have such a moment.

Wednesday, it was back on the trails and we hiked the rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Sadly, the rim has been turned into one overlook after another, crowded with cars of people who pull up and peer over, only to snap a picture and be off, able to say they had been there, without really having experienced it. We traveled from Inspiration Point to Artist’s Point, enjoying the peace of the woods between each overrun viewpoint. All tolled, we racked up over twelve miles that day and still got back on the road in time to make burritos at a picnic site on the way home, and then stop at one of the Hayden Valley overlooks where Ranger Bill had said we might see some wolves, which had suddenly become one of Alyssa’s new favorite animals.

At the overlook, a man with a spotting scope generously allowed all comers to take a look out over the valley. While there were no wolves to be found that evening, we did have the pleasure of seeing a grizzly bear from a comfortable and safe distance of a few hundred yards. And it wasn’t just the one griz, but a momma bear with three cubs in tow. Though they would disappear behind the tall grasses every now and again, they still held the growing crowd’s rapt attention. When the possibility of a wolf viewing became remote, we hopped back into Sylvia to endure yet another bison jam – just one mile forward in 90 minutes!! – and arrived home late that evening.

On that car ride home, a nearly improbable discussion took place. Alyssa brought up the idea of leaving a day early – canceling our last night, asking for a refund and heading to Grand Teton Friday morning. None of our hikes had really helped us escape the feeling of being surrounded by craven tourists, and we were hopeful that a trip further south would afford us some peace. Not only was I on board, I said that even if we couldn’t get the refund, I had had my fill. We began this westward trip with hopes of relaxing and getting away from the hassles of the big city, only to find something far worse at Yellowstone. And I haven’t even told you about the showers!!! Don’t worry, I won’t.

This morning, we got our requested refund and hiked to Shoshone Lake, which easily became our favorite of the trip for its silence and seclusion. We took an ill-advised “scenic” boat tour on Yellowstone Lake that afternoon with two teen-aged tour guides who seemed to care little about informing us about the sights and more about entertaining themselves. After a hot dog and mac & cheese dinner, we were pleased to know that we would be on our way away from here in the AM.

A few of our very best days on this trip have begun with an early morning alarm, and tomorrow will as well. We need to be on the road before 6 AM to have any hope of getting a site at the most sought after campground in Grand Teton – Jenny Lake. Wish us luck. After the week we’ve had, I believe we’ve earned it.

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