Our safari began on Wednesday, early the next morning. It was our day to explore Grand Teton National Park. The name “Grand Teton” apparently comes from what the French trappers called the mountain range, “les trois tétons” or the three teats. The impressive geology of the area was created by a series of submersions under shallow seas followed by uplifts and erosions by the geological activity that created the Rocky Mountains.
Later earthquakes and glacial activity further sculpted the 310,000 acres that make up the park. The huge glacial moraine along the Gros Ventre River is one of many moraines that have impounded the many lakes in the park and make it a great area for trout fishing. According to our guides there are two to three earthquakes a year but they usually can’t be felt because they are so deep down in the earth.
In the 1890’s Mormons from Salt Lake City were attracted to the area and established a farming community based on the 1862 Homestead Act to encourage white settlement of the West, 160 acres of free land with a mule thrown in. The Mormons called their settlement Grovant after the Gros Ventre River. A few of their abandoned homesteads still remain.
Farming was exceedingly hard in Grovant because of the dry, sandy and rocky soil, the long, harsh winters and the short growing season. By the early 1900’s dude ranches had started to take off with wealthy Easterners looking for adventures in cowboy living. Eventually, all this tourist activity led to concerns about protecting the environment. Congress actually created a smaller version of Grand Teton National Park in 1929. Shortly thereafter, in stepped John D. Rockefeller, Jr. who proceeded to buy 35,000 acres adjacent to the park which he eventually donated to the park. In the 1950’s Grovant was acquired by the National Park Service.
In the afternoon we had a pleasant floating experience down the Snake River on rubber rafts from which we saw eagles and their nests and some beaver lodges. The river itself is a real wanderer, i.e. its course changes constantly. Geologists call this kind of waterway a “meandering stream.”
Our accommodation for the night was Jackson Lake Lodge where the Federal Reserve Bank holds the annual Jackson Hole Economic Policy Symposium. The lodge is a beautiful property with guest rooms and suites in the main lodge and separate cottages around the lake. There are no TV’s in the guest rooms per a National Park Service mandate that applies to all tourist accommodations on park land. I made the mistake of ordering elk steak for dinner. My gourmand friend from Casper would probably have put it into the same category as bison. Too dry. Better served ground.
I should make some clarification on Jackson the town and Jackson Hole. Jackson Hole is the mountain men’s name for the valley that lies between the Grand Teton Mountain Range in Wyoming and the Gros Ventre Range that borders Wyoming and Idaho in the north. Jackson is the incorporated town within the valley of Jackson Hole.
We had an early morning “game drive” through Grand Teton park where we saw lots of female elk with their characteristic white hind quarters. Elk are also called “wapiti,” an anglicized word for “white rump” from the Algonquin family of languages. Late summer and early fall make up the rutting season for both elk and bison. In the late evening and early morning you can hear the bugling of the male elk. Game drives in our national parks stick to the roadways, unlike game drives I’ve been on in Tanzania where we were more often than not off-road to watch lion prides, zebra herds, giraffe towers (yes, that is what groups of giraffes are called), and the like. The sheer number of visitors to our national parks makes off-road driving impossible.
Some of the peaks in Grand Teton have lingering glacial formations on them left over from the Little Ice Age that occurred between 1400 and 1850 AD. The most distinctive one is on Mount Moran shaped like a skillet. Our guide Jean calls it Jimi Hendrix’s guitar and it does, indeed, resemble Hendrix’s guitar (before he burned it, of course!).
Driving into Yellowstone, we noticed lots of dead lodgepole pines. I thought the damage was caused by pine beetles as in the Black Hills, but this is forest fire damage. 1988 and 2016 were huge forest fire years in Yellowstone.
Although charred forests are not particularly beautiful to look at, the cycle of fire and the subsequent new growth are essential to the health and diversity of the park. Before the late 1960’s the philosophy of managing forest fires was to extinguish them as soon as possible, but that changed when the National Park Service and the US Forest Service recognized that fire is an essential part of the natural system of checks and balances that the forest and the grasslands need to remain healthy.
A good example of how necessary fire is to the growth of trees is the fact that lodgepole pines which make up 80% of the forest only release their seeds when the high temperature from fires melts the resin in the trees that seal in the seeds. Fire also ensures that the seedlings have space to grow and lots of sun. Fire protects the grasslands that would otherwise be overrun by trees, thus starving grazing animals like elk, bison and moose. It’s possible the devastation caused by the native pine beetle in the Black Hills serves a similar function there.
The 1988 fire was the largest wild fire ever recorded in Yellowstone and called into question the practice of letting fires burn unless they threaten human life and property. However, the earlier practice of fire suppression greatly contributed to the scope and intensity of the 1988 fire because of the buildup of dry tinder on the ground that smaller burns would have consumed if they had been allowed to continue. As I write this, the state of California is fighting massive wild fires that have displaced hundreds of thousands of people and consumed thousands of homes. So far, letting the fires burn in Yellowstone is working for the park, but clearly not in highly populated areas like California. The issue is complex.
We arrived at the Old Faithful Inn just in time to see Old Faithful erupt. The inn is a truly beautiful building and is the prime example of resort architecture known as National Park Service Rustic. It is the largest log hotel in the world and possibly the largest log structure in the world. I was more impressed by the inn than Old Faithful.
Surrounding the hotel and the geyser are fields of thermal features, both geysers and hot springs, all easily reached by boardwalks. At another nearby location we saw thermal “paint pots,” thick eruptions of mud colored by bacteria that tolerate high temperatures.
Our guides Jean and Sophie regaled us with horrific stories of folks who ignored the posted warnings to stay on the walkways around the thermal fields and suffered horrible deaths.
We came across a couple of male bison at two different locations who looked much the worse for wear, exhausted from the rut. One was slowly limping down a roadway and another lying in an open field. I’m not sure he was able to get up. The rut is hard on males. That’s one reason the life span of females is much longer.
Our lodging this night was in Canyon City, Wyoming, in the northern part of the park. Again, no TV’s in the rooms, per the National Park Service mandate.
Rain greeted us early the next morning as we set out on a game drive. Actually, you can often see more wildlife when it rains. We spotted a couple of gorgeous bull wapiti and some young black bears. But the stars of the park continued to be the otherworldly thermal formations, particularly those at Mammoth Hot Springs (not to be confused with the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, South Dakota). Mammoth Hot Springs was actually used as the setting for the planet Vulcan in the first Star Trek movie.
The colors, breadth and dynamism of the thermal meadows are astounding to me. No human artist can possibly compete with natural forces on these levels. But artists have been of immeasurable service to the park. The most prominent was Thomas Moran for whom Mount Moran in Grand Teton National Park is named. In the days before color photography it was his paintings of Yellowstone that persuaded President Grant and Congress to declare the area the first national park in 1872.
The next morning we had a great early start to the day sighting lots of sandhill cranes and bison. We were now staying in Cooke City, Montana, right outside Yellowstone (TV in our room). The day before we had met up with a new guide named Tim whose specialty is finding wolves. On a ridge overlooking a stream where wolves are often seen, we parked our vehicles and our guides set up high-powered spotting telescopes. Sure enough, four, five, and then six young wolves appeared cavorting along the stream. Park rules forbid “willfully remaining near or approaching wildlife.” The recommendation is to keep at least 100 yards between you and wolves and bears.
We were much further away than that so most of our group decided to walk down to a closer ridge to get a better look. As we approached the ridge, we noticed a woman toting a large camera walking down the path that led to the stream where the wolves were playing. As she got closer, a couple of the wolves sprang up to within 10 feet of her. By this time, two park rangers had reached her and after some talking got her to return up the path to safety. She had committed a fineable offense that can result in jail time. The next day we were told that she tried to do the same thing again that morning. As a consequence, she was evicted from the park and probably called into court for her actions.
As we were hiking back to our vehicles, I stepped into a deep muddy trough, got my foot stuck and fell into the wet muck. Fortunately, it was a soft landing, but then Noel also fell trying to help me up. Need-less-to-say, we were both soaking wet and covered with mud. I should have taken my hiking pole and then the incident probably wouldn’t have happened. When will I learn!?
At any rate, our wildlife watching for the day was over. Our wolf scout Tim was drafted to drive me and Noel back to our motel, so we could clean ourselves up while everyone else continued on the drive.
After availing ourselves of the motel’s shower and laundromat, we were starving and decided to await our friends’ return at the bakery/café next door. As we put our lunch order in at the counter, we noticed a prominently displayed stuffed toy black bear around three feet tall wearing a perky baseball cap that read, “Make racism wrong again.” A hopeful sign in what is generally considered Trump country.
Later that afternoon I went with our group to visit the gallery of photographer Dan Hartman just outside Cooke City. During his presentation, he talked about the changing political environment in the community particularly around the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone. Until recently, he had been an outlier in the area because of his support of the various environmental efforts by the National Park Service, especially the wolves. But a younger generation is emerging with different values and a world view more in line with the environmental policies of the National Park Service.
In the early years of the park hunters were paid to kill wolves because visitors preferred big game like the elk and deer. By 1926 the wolves were all gone. However, with no predators the elk population exploded during mild winters and crashed from starvation during severe winters. Park rangers were forced to trap many and move them to other parks and finally had to resort to shooting them by the hundreds to keep their numbers within reason. Coyotes became the top predators and fed on smaller game that predators like foxes and badgers rely on. Coyotes also became experts at hunting pronghorn deer fawns, so that fewer and fewer pronghorn fawns survived each season.
Even trees and shrubs began to suffer from the large elk population that ate young shoots and bark so that many of the old trees and shrubs were not being replaced. In short, the whole ecosystem of the park was out of whack without wolves. In 1995 and 1996 wolves from Canada were brought to the park and over a period of time made the park their home and seem to be bringing the ecosystem back into balance. They now number about a hundred in five packs.
The reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone has its opponents, mainly ranchers who raise cattle and sheep and see the wolves as threats to their animals and hunters who object to the wolves’ killing game like elk and deer. There are no fences surrounding the park, so wolves often wander off park land and have been killed by wolf opponents.
It is not only the ecosystem of the park that seems to be changing for the better, but the human ecosystem of the surrounding community is evolving. That evening on our way to link up with our friends for dinner Noel and I stopped at a nearby hotel to have cocktails in the bar. We noticed that the hotel and bar seemed to be owned by folks who appear to be immigrants from India or Pakistan and the bar was full of local folks who seem to have no problem with that.
We also noticed that many of the seasonal workers in the nearby businesses were from foreign countries. I had seen a similar phenomenon in seasonal businesses in my home state of Maine. The seasonal workers are here on H-2B visas which allows citizens of designated countries to work in seasonal non-agricultural jobs for a limited period of time provided the businesses can document that the foreign workers are not taking jobs away from US citizens.
I believe the net effect of this kind of visa program is a cultural positive because it exposes often homogeneous communities to folks from other places and breaks down the isolated tribalism that we as human beings often retreat to when we encounter others different from ourselves. In spite of all the anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from the Trump White House, I believe Americans on a person to person basis are generally open-minded and welcoming.