Thursday, July 03, 2008

Staying in Yellowstone

I'll tell you one thing you should not try to do, your first night staying at 7,800 feet. You should not try to sing. Yellowstone Lake Hotel has a pianist who tears off old favorites every evening in the lobby during the season. I went down the first night, and when she got to "I Left My Heart In San Francisco", I felt that the honor of the Bay Area required me to sing along, so I did. By the time I finished it, I was so dizzy I could barely stand. There isn't enough air in the air up there! And we'd spent a couple of days around 5,000 feet, to try to get acclimated; but with asthma, you just don't have the reserves...

There are places in Yellowstone where cell phones work - I saw a lot of people using cell phones at Old Faithful Lodge, although I never could get a signal - but Yellowstone Lake Hotel has no cell phone service. Zero, zilch, nada. No television, either; no ESPN in the bar there. People talk, or read, or play cards, or do jigsaw puzzles; I saw one couple with a folding Scrabble set. Or, you can just sit and look out the window; the scenery's pretty spectacular, after all.

Yellowstone Lake Hotel is a very nice, modern hotel (built in 1891, but thoroughly updated) and they keep it warm, which must cost them a fortune, because it doesn't, as I recall, have double pane windows! (Not that thoroughly updated...) We all became aware of that on Saturday afternoon when they blew out a transformer, and it took them until about 2 AM to get the power back on. For some reason about a third of the lights still worked; but no heat, and it was in the low thirties outdoors, and the lobby is a very large space with big windows on every wall, and glass doors. By the time dinner was over it was getting pretty nippy in the lobby.

Unfortunately, that was one of the nights we had dinner reservations at the Lake Hotel. We learned later that the Hotel kitchen, as you would expect, has gas ranges; but the exhaust hoods are all electric, and they, of course, were down. This happens occasionally during summer thunderstorms, and they have a limited menu that they cook outdoors on charcoal grills; but on this evening "outdoors" was around 32 degrees, so everything they cooked came to the table cold. On paper plates (no dishwasher). And you couldn't charge the meal to the room (no computer; the waiters were going nuts trying to keep track of the orders manually). The spinach and duck breast salad was pretty good even if the meat was cold; but I also ordered a grilled portobello mushroom cap. It came to the table entirely cold, and covered with soy sauce. I haven't been able to look a portobello mushroom in the eye since... It was really sad, because this is supposed to be the best kitchen in Yellowstone; but they weren't at their best. (We ate there 2 nights later and it was excellent.)

We were out and missed it, but I gather the power went out again Sunday morning during breakfast - and there was no coffee! A ghastly thought.

I assumed, going to a national park, that we'd be hiking, right? Wrong. We didn't have snow hiking equipment (although I had my trekking poles); but worse than snow is what happens when it thaws - cold, slushy mud. Furthermore, we got to Yellowstone much earlier than we anticipated - Yellowstone Lake had just thawed earlier that week, and the ranger-led hikes didn't begin for another week or two. So we spent most of our time driving around, and getting out for an occasional photograph or nature trail. In any case, I always have to be reminded that you can't just go out and hike in these parks because of the bears - you have to be in a group of at least 5, because no group of 5 or more has ever been attacked by bears. We saw bears, too, suitably far away. No solo hikes here.

You drive a lot in Yellowstone because the place is huge. I mentioned in my last post that it's 40 miles from Yellowstone Lake Village to Old Faithful. That's the short route. The long route is 60 miles, and all of both routes are entirely inside the park, and they're both in the southern half of it. We spent much of this trip in the southern half, going up and down the Hayden Valley looking for wildlife, with a couple of excursions to Canyon and Yellowstone Falls. We saw lots of bison, several elk, but no moose this time around. The bison think they own the road; they walk right down the yellow line. I'm not sure why, but I don't remember seeing any small ground mammals at Yellowstone - no squirrels, ground squirrels, or rabbits, just lots of birds (including, I regret to say, a record number of Canada geese) and the big critters.

We got up ungodly early on Sunday morning for a "photo safari" with one Doug Hilborn, and spent the morning wandering around in a van, looking for critters to photograph. I learned that the reason I rarely see any wildlife is that I don't get up early enough - at 8 o'clock in the morning the place is hopping with elk and bison, including babies - I'd never seen a bison calf before, they're much cuter than the adults. I only saw one elk calf, and it was a sad and sobering incident: they were away across the valley, and someone said there were wolves. We broke out the binoculars and found ourselves watching a small pack of wolves take down the elk calf - one minute it was there, and then the cow was chasing a black wolf down the hill and the calf was nowhere to be seen. The 2 wolves that weren't black were nowhere to be seen either, at least with my binoculars; I clearly saw their tails in the guide's spotting scope, but their camouflage is astounding. We also spent some time watching a grizzly and her yearling cub work on some kind of carcass - they were just over the crest of a hill from us and we couldn't see what they had, but we could see them stand up occasionally. There was a whole congregation lined up along the road with binoculars and telephoto lenses watching the bears. We did the customary visit to Artists' Point to photograph the astounding colors in the lower canyon of the Yellowstone, but the animals were what made
it great for me.


  1. It occurs to me just now--and I admit I'm no naturalist or field biologist--that the wolves may now have an unnatural advantage over those moose. In a balanced environment--one in which man hasn't co-opted all the open land--the grazers have unlimited amounts of rangeland in which to prosper, and their numbers are only controlled by (top of the pyramid) predators like bears and wolves. But with the loss of habitat, those predators probably have the upper hand. How many moose calves can a herd afford to lose before its population comes under real pressure? Much has been done to "bring back" the wolves, and to preserve the bear population in Yellowstone and surrounding territory. I just wonder if that might not backfire and end up causing the moose population to crash. I'm on the side of the wolf people, of course, but we can hardly make the claim that any part of the lower 48 is, in effect, in a state of natural balance. These parks have become just large zoos, and need to be managed as such.

  2. Anonymous5:51 PM

    Important point, Curtis.

    Enjoyed this travelogue, hedera. Thanks.

  3. I don't think you should draw too many inferences from the fact that I didn't see any moose on this trip. The only moose I've ever seen, in my whole life, were far enough back from the trailhead that the walk to get there took an hour or so; that was in the Tetons, in '93, during our last trip through this region. On this trip, we simply didn't get that far away from the road, largely because of the snow and slush.

    Elk and bison seem perfectly happy to hang out where there are cars and people; moose may simply be more stand-offish. Although Curtis' point is valid, and should be investigated.

  4. Hi, Doug Hilborn the Photo Safari Guide in Yellowstone Park as referenced above. The main reason for the decline in moose in Yellowstone is due much more to the loss of subalpine fir trees from the fires of 1988, which burned 36%of the park (793,000 acres of the 2.2 million that is Yellowstone). And by the way, of the 51 fires in the park that summer, of which 42 were lightning caused, and 9 by man, over 400,000 acres were from a cig butt and started the North Fork fire which burned the Old Faithful area, the Norris area, and the Mammoth area. That's right, over half the acreage was from man and started outside the park and was jumped on by firefighters from the get go! So back on track. 80% of Yellowstone's forested areas are lodgepole pine and just a little bit is subalpine fir. Some moose move higher in the winter where the snow is deeper to feed on the subalpine fir soft branches that grow from about 7,500 feet up to 8,500 feet or 9,000 feet. Most of the fir burned up so ever since 1988 the moose has had less food to eat in Yellowstone. I am not saying that moose are never killed by wolves, they are, but they were affected more by the fires. Moose populaton in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem's 18 million acres is estimated at somewhere around 600 and before the fires of 1988 was somewhere around 1,000. The tetons are the place to see the moose, and if you are really looking you should be able to find at least one on a one or two day trip there.

    Doug Hilborn