The grand finale of Yellowstone…
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.