Thursday, July 28, 2011

Highlights from a trip west

Highlights from a trip west

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If you’re familiar with Environmental Almanac, you know I can get pretty charged up about being outdoors, especially exploring places with plants and animals that are new to me. Well. Earlier this month, my family and I made a two-week excursion to Yellowstone National Park, with stops along the way at Badlands National Park and the Black Hills in South Dakota, as well as the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming.

It’s difficult for me to write about such a trip and not slip into a moment-by-moment retelling; the days were filled with so much that was new to us. But I’ll try.

We expected to see bison, of course, and we did. Long before we got to Yellowstone we saw bison raised as livestock and bison in free-living herds in the Badlands and at Custer State Park. But Yellowstone is the place to see bison, because it is the only place in the world where they have lived continuously since prehistoric times. And there we saw them everywhere: near boiling springs, where they wallowed in the warm dust to rub off the final remnants of their thick winter coats; on the road through a mountain pass, where traffic backed up for miles while three bulls moseyed along; right outside the cabins we stayed in, where they grazed and loafed through the day. [Photos by author: bison, pronghorn, yellow-bellied marmot young, burrowing owl, mountain wildflowers, bitterroot.]

We were also fortunate to see nearly all of the other charismatic animals that wildlife watchers from around the world look for in the American west, including black bears, mule deer, pronghorn (a.k.a. antelope) and elk. We watched bighorn sheep graze on the upper slopes of a 10,000-foot mountain peak, only to learn later from another hiker that we had failed to observe a grizzly bear feeding nearby.

Most exciting of all, we saw wolves. One was far off, speeding across a sage meadow to meet her pack in the forest, her movement so fluid we might have been watching a dream. The other was much closer—just across the Yellowstone River from where we parked to see him. He stood there on a high bank watching a bull elk clamber from the water. We learned from others on the scene that his pack had chased the elk into the river upstream, but whether they continued the pursuit we never knew, since darkness fell as the elk regained the forest.

Much as we valued our sightings of animals on the A-list, we found many of the pleasures of our western tour in unlooked for encounters. Who knew there were so many different kinds of ground squirrels out there? Or that yellow-bellied marmots would respond to calls meant to attract birds? In the Badlands, we could only laugh about the lark sparrows that surrounded our tent and woke us before dawn with their manic singing. And we were delighted to discover that prairie dog towns can also be home to burrowing owls, which were one of more than a dozen species of birds we added to our life lists.

Spring came late to the Bighorns and to Yellowstone this year, which meant our arrival there coincided with an explosion of color, as wildflowers dominated every unforested landscape. We found bitterroot in bloom at the top of a rocky outcrop, the pale pink petals of its flowers tattered by the unrelenting wind. Further down the slopes were the delicate white bells of twinflower, and the vivid red of Indian paintbrush. In the meadows, mountain bluebells mixed with green gentian and ladies tresses orchids, and everywhere there were the blue spikes of lupin flowers.

Do you get a sense that I’m not ready to be back just yet? Maybe I’m not.