January 16 – 22, 2014
Since 2006, the Museum has offered a winter trek to Yellowstone National Park for educators. Snow blankets the landscape, steam fills the air in the geyser basins and wildlife struggles for survival. Yellowstone in the winter is a truly unique experience.
January 21 (evening) and January 22, 2014
As the late afternoon sun began to set, we asked Ranger Beth what ONE thing we should be sure to take home and tell our students. Her response? “Tell them that Yellowstone, and ALL of the National Parks, BELONG TO THEM!” Our government long ago (March 1, 1872 in fact) decided to set aside and protect Yellowstone for the benefit of all people, young and old, near and far. This park and all the parks are theirs to visit, enjoy, and protect. They are our heritage.
“The grizzly bear’s gift to man is the power of the present moment.”
—Leslie Patten, The Wild Excellence
At our final group meeting before departing, we reflected on our experience and what it had meant to each of us personally and as educators. Many agreed with Ranger Beth that Yellowstone embodied a perpetually renewed curiosity for the natural world. Something that never gets old, where there is always more to learn, and the inter-connectedness of everything was constantly surprising. We talked about living-out and teaching our students the importance of life-long learning. We all revived a passion for getting outside and connecting (ourselves and our students) to nature. We learned to see from different perspectives and sides of politically sensitive topics (e.g. wolf reintroduction). We had come to terms with the complexity and difficulty of balancing park visitation, management, and conservation. We were humbled, and we were inspired, by a beautiful string of present moments.
So, as we return back to our classrooms, our offices, our unique spheres of influence, we remind ourselves of the power of shared curiosity. This is our challenge that we all chose to accept — will you join us?
“A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that its gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength. If a child is to keep alive that inborn sense of wonder without any such gift from the fairies, the child needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with the child the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in. It is not half so important to know as to feel.”
—Rachel Carson, A Sense of Wonder
Signing off, the crew of Yellowstone in Winter 2014
January 21st, 2014
“Should the whole surface of the earth be gleaned, another spot of equal dimensions could not be found that contains on such a magnificent scale one-half the attractions here grouped together.”
—Excerpt from “A National Park” written in the Helena Daily Herald, January 31, 1872.
Eager to take in as much as possible, our last day started the earliest yet- a 6:15am departure from the hotel. As we drove from Mammoth towards Lamar Valley- we watched the temperature outside plummet. Two degrees. Negative ten. Negative 14. Negative 17. Negative 20. Stop. We hear Melissa over the walkie-talkie- “Is everybody ready to get out?! This seems like the perfect place to hike down to the river to watch the sunrise!” Anxious looks are exchanged. People fumble with gloves and mittens and hats and scarves. “Is she serious?!” Indeed she was, and though our early morning excursion was far outside our comfort zones, the experience did not disappoint. The Park must have sensed our reluctance to leave and it began what was to become our grand finale of a day in Yellowstone.
Just a few seconds after we stepped outside, we were rewarded with a symphony of wolf howls … first by the group across the valley in front of us, and then answered by at least two members of a pack across another hillside/valley behind us. The cold, crisp air vibrated with their deep resonant notes. They got closer and louder for a few minutes before we finally spotted them near the rocks and trees at the top of the ridge in front of us. First one, then three, and finally six wolves trotted and ran, and played, and sat regally in the gorgeous morning light. Once the wolves disappeared from view over the horizon, we fumbled back into cars (our toes and fingers were freezing at that point) to continue on down the road, but it was unanimously agreed to have been the most excellent decision, and in fact Maureen exclaimed, “We should always skip breakfast!”
A little farther down the road, Joyce’s eagle eyes discerned that two dark brown shapes on the horizon were not in fact bison, but bull moose! What luck! (The previous day we had seen 3 females). As we continued driving, the rocky cliffs near the confluence of the Lamar river and Soda Butte Creek yielded eight bighorn sheep grazing up above us, beautifully silhouetted with their white rumps against the blue sky. We also heard and saw American dipper (lovingly called the Water Ouzel by John Muir), goldeneye (a type of duck), and probably an otter (only Karen H. was able to see it before it dove beneath the surface). Only two hours had passed before we saw two more wolves curled up sleeping on the hillside at the eastern edge of the Lamar Valley. What a day! And it was only 10:00am!
Our return trip to Mammoth yielded more figurative fireworks as we discovered a fresh elk kill near the road (most likely the elk was killed by wolves, but we couldn’t rule out a mountain lion) with two coyotes, about a dozen magpies, a few ravens, and a bald eagle feeding on it! Karen was enthralled — “This is just like National Geographic, but in REAL LIFE!!!” Indeed. Only a few minutes later as we all gazed through binoculars and scopes, we heard the distinct clicking of nails/claws on pavement and one of the coyotes (his snout still red with blood from his fresh meat meal) trotted past us on the road behind. Incredible! Was this day really happening?! Passing a bull elk (with 7×7 points- Brandi taught us that elk antlers are counted separately, unlike deer, which we would have called a 14-point buck), and another moose just a few minutes later confirmed the fact that the day just kept getting better!
After lunch we met with Ranger Beth Taylor (a NC native), who has worked at the park since 1996. As we explored the Mammoth hot springs and terraces we learned that unlike many of the geysers and hot springs in the geothermal areas near Old Faithful, the travertine can be deposited rapidly — sometimes up to three feet per year! We also learned a little about the fascinating research of Dr. Bruce Fouke who has been investigating a potential symbiotic relationship with thermophilic bacteria. What a dynamic ecosystem!
We couldn’t help but compare the travertine deposits and bacterial mats at Mammoth to some of the others we’d seen throughout the rest of the park earlier in the week. The diversity of colors and shapes was amazing. To paraphrase a sign from the park, bacterial mats are like miniature forests with vertical structure and stratified functions. Microbe species living at the surface of the mat (similar to the canopy) use sunlight to perform photosynthesis, providing energy sources to the mat community. Different species of microbes living deeper in the mat (similar to the understory) derive their energy from the chemicals produced by the surface microbes, and they function to decompose and recycle nutrients, making them available to others. The interdependent microbial community functions as an entire ecosystem spanning just a few inches! The mega- AND micro- flora and fauna of Yellowstone never cease to amaze.
Being in Lamar Valley helps us to connect to the largeness of the western landscape and the wildness of Yellowstone. We’ve spent two days now in the northeast corner of the Park. We’ve seen the rising and setting sun highlighting jagged peaks, we’ve felt the cold seep from the ground and the air into our toes and fingers, we’ve smelled the crisp scent of spruce and fir, we’ve tasted the fresh flavor of clean white snow. But perhaps most importantly, we’ve heard the mournful howling of wolves echo across the Yellowstone River. That sound, more than any other sensation we’ve experienced, speaks to this place.
We’ve also abandoned our everyday selves and connected to childhood through the simple pleasure of forging new trails in the snowy landscape. As we looked back up to a snowy hilltop we had climbed, we saw tracks that told a story of joy: the impression of each of our bodies reclining in the snow, multiple winding trails meandering down the hillside, a few deep holes where we fell and laughed and arose to continue, and even a wide swath of disturbed snow where Joy lived up to her name and rolled down the hill!
I’ll conclude with these quotes to speak to our grand ideas of wilderness and our simple pleasures in life.
“May I never not be frisky,
May I never not be risqué.
May my ashes, when you have them, friend,
and give them to the ocean,
leap in the froth of the waves,
still loving movement,
still ready, beyond all else,
to dance for the world.”
—Prayer by Mary Oliver
“In God’s wildness lies the hope of the world – the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness. The galling harshness of civilization drops off, and wounds heal ere we are aware.”
And just because we like this image, even though it was taken yesterday and not today:
Before this day started a group braved the frigid temperatures to view Old Faithful erupt at 11pm under the glow of a full moon. After such a magnificent sight we headed to bed, anticipating an early rise. We awoke to the new day to see Old Faithful live up to her name beneath the full moon, and as the sun was beginning to rise. We then explored the geyser basin, listened to Ranger Rita, felt the earth thump under our bodies, and watched in wonder as diamond dust brushed against our bundled-up bodies. Through the expertise of Ranger Rita, we all connected to the geyser named Daisy as she boiled, bubbled and then let off a spray of steam and water. Yellowstone is truly a magical land. We witnessed ghost trees dressed in hoar frost and trees silhouetted against the bright blue sky. We experienced the morning temperature of minus 4°F as we shivered and then in the middle of the morning as we shed layers and the temperature climbed to 32°F. After a really quick lunch we boarded the snowcoach as we began our return to Mammoth. Off to Grand Prismatic where we were in awe at the living organisms that call it home with temperatures of over 100 degrees! The Fountain Paint Pots were next as we experienced all four geothermal features that are here in Yellowstone. We watched mud boil and bubble, felt the spray from geysers, smelled the sulfur, saw steam as it escaped from the depths of the earth, and witnessed the vivid colors of the hot spring. As we traveled the roads we saw a coyote hunting for dinner, a trumpeter swan floating, elk eating all along the banks of the mighty Firehole River. The Firehole has carved a magnificent canyon that we all had the privilege of seeing and stopping along as we looked at one of the waterfalls that helped to carve this canyon. As we left the caldera and traveled toward our final destination for the day we took a few moments to share our highlights of the day, and what a day it has been! To sum up our day we close with this: “Paint cannot touch it and words are wasted.” Frederic Remington, 1895.
Submitted with wonder and awe. “The bighorn sheep team”
Leah Buckley, Joy Shuck and Karen Davis
I can’t believe our first day is over! All of us got somewhat settled last night and had a great dinner as a group. This morning started extremely early as we all re-packed our stuff and loaded it on a coach to go to Old Faithful.
We met with our tour guide and new friend Lianna. She had no clue what she was in for, traveling with this crazy group of educators.
We saw many many things over the day. The highlights included a small herd of bison and their calves in the middle of the road that then slowly passed our vehicle on the left, viewing a wolf kill site from a distance, watching a coyote pounce, needle frost on the snow, and a red fox that Maureen spotted.
Overall everybody was taken aback by the various scenery – mountains, meadows, tons of snow, steam from thermal basins, waterfalls, smells of sulfur, dead trees still standing their ground from the 1988 fire and the slow new re-growth in the past 25 years.
We’re excited for what the next day will bring!
Today was a busy day full of travel. We left snowy Raleigh early this morning and journeyed to Salt Lake City. We passed time during our 4 hr layover by journaling, grabbing lunch, and getting to know new friends. On our short flight to Bozeman we felt the plane tipping slightly to the right as we all peered out to view the Grand Tetons and what we all feel sure must have been Old Faithful. On our scenic drive through Paradise Valley, we saw large herds of elk and mule deer. We all shared a feeling of awe at the vastness of the rugged landscape. Crossing under the Roosevelt Arch, we finally got our first glimpse of Yellowstone and our adventure began.