Out for a hunt

After the whale tour on Sunday, it was time to leave Anacortes and head southeast. We drove from Fidalgo Island to the mainland, and south on I-5. When we reached U.S. Route 2, we followed that east through the Cascade Range. Not as fast as the highway, but much prettier. On the way up the mountains we passed small towns with interesting names like Sultan, Start Up, Gold Bar, Index, Grotto and Skynomish. In Stevens Pass, we reached the highest point on the trip through the mountains in 4,056 feet. Then it went downhill on the east side of the Cascade Range. For some reason, the towns don't have nearly as interesting names on the east side of the pass. If these names are not interesting (maybe with the exception of Cashmere, Monitor and Sunnyslope ) at least one of the towns is interesting, namely Leavenworth. The whole town (or at least most of it) is constructed as a Bavarian village with houses and hotels and more in Bavarian style. Even Starbucks is in a Bavarian chalet. Inspired by the "Danish town" Solvang in California, a project to boost the city's tourism by turning it into a Bavarian village began in 1962. From Leavenwoth we continued down through the mountains to Wenatchee in the foothills, where we found a Walmart and got ice and water for the cool box.

Uintah Ground Squirrel at a rest area in IdahoFrom Wenatchee, we headed south on rather small roads to I-90, which we then followed east. We wanted to get as far as possible thaty day, so from here on, we decided, the interstate would be faster after all. We took the highway northeast to Spokane, the largest city in eastern Washington and continued on I-90 for the rest of the day. From Spokane there is only about 12 miles to the Idaho border which we passed almost without us noticing. State lines in the United States typically just have a sign that says "Welcome to Idaho" or the like, and it was just what was on the sign post here. After crossing  the border, we continued along I-90 towards Wallace, where we intended to stay overnight. When we got to this old mining town, I had been entertaining Tina about the area's silver mining history, the mine accident in Kellog and much more, and Tim had mentioned his dear bordellol museum in Wallace. Tina was not  interested neither in mines nor bordellos though and even the manhole cover that is the named center of the universe did not awake any excitement, so we agreed to continue to Missoula in Montana.

I-90 passes through several mountain ranges on it's way east, and on the Idaho-Montana border it passes through Bitterroot Range, which is a spur of the Rocky Mountains. The highest point of this part of the trip was reached in Lookout Pass in 4,710 feet. The state line is crossed right at the top of the pass. It was on the eastern descend from the pass that Tim and I last year counted 13 times, where the highway crossed the Clark Fork River. This time we continued a bit further on the interstate and managed to cross the river a total of 20 times before we got to Missoula, where we found a hotel and had something to eat - in that order. The 560+ miles from Anacortes to Missoula would prove to be longest drive on the vacation.

On to Yellowstone National Park

The long drive the day before, meant that we wouldn't have to drive quite so far today to get to Gardiner, Montana at the northern entrance to Yellowstone National Park, which was out next goal. We chose to drive to Gardiner through Idaho and Wyoming, which may sound like a detour as we were already in Montana, and it is slightly longer than the direct route, but not that much - and the trip is more interesting. We therefore continued east on I-90 the next morning, but only for around 160 miles. Then we turned south on minor roads through Madison Valley (where Madison River runs). The first part of the route lead through narrow valleys, where there were virtually only room for the river and the road, but as we got further south, the valley got wider and there was also room for ranches along the river. Many of these offered fly fishing and some even B&B, and in some places you could also do some horseback riding, but we were not interested in any of that - at least not for the time being. Tina wanted to go riding, but has already booked a horseback ride in Utah. All the way to the south the road ascended, but without us really noticing it. Missoula is located some 3,000 feet above sea level, while Yellowstone NP is located more than 6,500 feet above sea level, and in some places it reaches in excess of 8,000 feet.

As we approached Yellowstone, we passed Hebgen Lake, a lake on the Madison River made by the Hebgen Dam. The area is known for a violent earthquake that took place here in 1959. The earthquake occurred along a fault actually called Hebgen Lake Fault. It measured 7.5 on the Richter scale, a very powerful earthquake that cost 28 lives, although the area is relatively uninhabited. In addition, the quake created a new lake, Quake Lake, which we also passed  Along the lake there were several rest areas where there were sign posts, that explained different things about the earthquake, but we did not stop at any of these. Instead we continued to the town of West Yellowstone in Idaho just outside the park, where we switched driver for the second time that day. I had to go behind the wheel, because when we entered the park, I was supposed to pay the entrance fee. Then we continued to the park's west entrance where I bought an annual pass for all U.S. national parks for $ 80. At home I had figured out that with the national parks and national monuments, we had made plans to visit, it would be a good deal. Shortly after the entrance you leave Idaho and enters Wyoming.

Right after we had entered Wyomingn, we made a stop next to Madison River, where we ate a sandwich, home made ​​from the contents of the cool box. From there Tim took the steering wheel for the first time that day. He drove us from the rest area into the "main road that as a figure eight meanders through the park's central parts. The road is called Grand Loop Road, and we drove a lot on that in the next few days. Part of the road is an unnumbered part of U.S. Highway 89, which we have often used, and which we would get to use also at later occasions this time. The first stop we made was at Gibbon Falls, a small waterfall on the Gibbon River that has its entire run inside the national park. Here we went for a short walk along the edge on a paved path, and took some pictures of the river and the waterfall.

Steamboat GeyserNext stop was Norris Geyser Basin, one of the national park's many geyser areas, and one of the more special. The area is on the edge of Yellowstone's caldera, the remains of the huge volcanic eruption that occurred 640,000 years ago. Moreover, two faults, Hebgen Lake fault and Norris-Mammoth Fault meets in this area. The many earthquakes, this causes (more than 400 a day, most of them so small that only a few people if any notice them),  lead to frequent alterations in the hot springs and geysers, that the area has plenty of. The springs are some of the hottest in Yellowstone, and many of them contains acidic water, not alkaline as most of Yellowstones springs does. The temperature and the acidic water are ther reason that other bacteria thrives here than in most other places in the park, which helps to provide other colors of springs than you see elsewhere. In Norris, we stayed for a while and went for a walk in one of the basins three separatge areas, called Back Basin. Here we passed among others the world's tallest geyser (when it bothers to erupt that is), Steamboat Geyser. We saw a lot of small eruptions that reached up to 15 feet or so, but the last major eruption took place in 2005, and no major eruptions occurred thise time either. It must be an impressive sight though to see the geyser send 200 degrees hot water 300 feet up in the air. A park ranger was explaining the geyser, but Tim and Tina would rather like to continue our walk (it was a very hot afternoon, probably about 100 degrees in the shade when you could find any) and we only had brought half a liter of water each.

We continued the tour and passed Echinus Geyser, the world's largest acidic geyser, which also didn't erupt and passed  several other geysers and especially hot springs and mud holes. Towards the end of the walk we could look out over one of the other areas, Porcelain Basin, but we agreed that we did not have the energy to walk any further. The hike had taken us about one and a halft hour, so we were hot when we got to the overlook and we preferred to return to the air conditioning and some cold water from the cool box. We continued north along Grand Loop Road passed places like Roaring Mountain and Obsidian Cliff. When we got up to the northern part of the Grand Loop, we drove to Mammoth Hot Springs, Upper Terraces, where you can also go for a walk, but we all agreed only to drive around the area in the car. This proved to be enough to get a look at the many limestone terraces which water from the underground have formed and that are not found elsewhere in the national park. After the round trip, we continued north through Mammoth Hot Springs Village, where the first fort was built after Yellowstone had become a national park in 1872, when it was the military that was responsible for taking care of and protecting the park. Later that responsibility passed to the National Park Services and their park rangers. Today  the old barracks buildings are used as accommodation for most of the volunteers who work in this part of the park.

From the village we continued towards the park's northern entrance and Gardiner  Montana, where we were to stay for the next couple of days. Along the way, at a place where the road was very narrow, a lot of cars were parked at the roadside. Such crowding in Yellowstone NP usually almost always mean that someone has seen or believe that they have seen one or another type of animal. Since we could not pass, we stopped too. It turned out that someone thought they had seen mountain goats on a nearby rocky slope. The park ranger present could not see anything though, and we couldn't either. So when the road got passable again, we squeezed ourselves past and continued out of the park to our hotel where we got ourselves accommodated.

All God's Creatures, Great and Small

The headline here is actually the title of an old British televison series about a veterinarian in Yorkshire, but I found it fitting for this next chapter.

Right next to the hotel in Gardiner is the Yellowstone Mine Restaurant, where Dorte and I had dinner with Jens and Annette in 2006, and where Tim and I had eaten in 2010. When it got a little past 6, we went here again and the food was certainly as good as at previous visits. After dinner we went back to the car that was parked at the hotel. It was in this part of the country, that Tim and I in 2010 was stung by so many mosquitoes that we almost had to have a blood transfusion, so this time we took our precautions before we headed out into the countryside. We sprayed outselves with insect repellant in large quantities to keep mosquitoes as well as other biting or stinging insects away. It must have worked rather well because we actually didn't meet a single mosquito, except for Tina who got three mosquito bites. I think that we may have put on so much repellant that all other mosquitoes had left northwestern Wyoming and southern Montana.

Wolves on the huntOur plan was to drive back to Mammoth Hot Springs Village and from there along the northeastern part of Grand Loop Road to a crossroads called Tower Junction. Here we would turn east on the road that leads to the park's northeast entrance. This road leads through the Lamar Valley, which is called North America's Serengeti because of the abundant wildlife in the valley. In 2010, Tim and I, besides the aforementioned mosquitoes saw elks and especially bison in quantity, some of which walked around on the road and stopped the traffic. One bull in particular stopped traffic for almost 30 minutes by just standing in the middle of the road. We also saw a bear on a distant hillside in the semi-darkness but so far away that all you can spot in our pictures is a dark dot, that might as well be a pixel error. But now it was as Tina's turn to see animals. And she must have had a good impact on the wildlife, because we got to see animals as we had not seen them in the wild before.

The first animal we saw, apart from birds and mule deer in Mammoth Hot Springs Village, was a beaver that crossed the road in front of the car not far from Tower Junction, but unfortunately it was impossible to stop and take pictures before it had disappeared into the trees along the road side. A little further up the valley we met the first bisons albeit they were at some distance. Of cause the dream of every tourist is to see larger wildlife like bison, wolf and grizzly, but the only predator I have come across so far, was the bear on the distant hill in 2010, and a mangy coyote in 2006 in Hayden Valley. That would change in a few minutes though.

After a few more miles of driving east, we could see a lot of cars at the roadside ahead, so we were aware that there might be something interesting to see, and when we arrived so we saw a small herd of bison very close to the road. It turned out, however, that it was not what made everybody stare, but the two wolves that crept around in the low vegetation a short distance from the bison herd. Later it turned out that there were actually four wolves in the bushes and two more on a hillside above the bisons. One of the wolves suddenly started howling, which we could not quite understand at that time since we thought that it would warn of the bisons, but I later read that wolves actually howls on the hunt to signal the rest of the pcak that prey is near, and it did actually made the two wolves on the hillside move in direction of the bisons. So maybe the howl just meant: "We are in place. Go get them!".  So not only did we see wolves, but we saw something as rare as wolves on the hunt. We were told by someone that normally you only experiences hunting wolves so close to the road during wintertime. They stayed at the bison herd very long, trying maybe to separate a calf from the other bisons, but it was to no avail. The large bison bulls continued to position themselves between wolves and calves, and such a bison bull is large, and when there are 10 of them, even six wolves was not enough to succeed. Eventually the wolves gave up, called it a day and disappeared up the slope and we could also move on - a great experience richer.

Grizzly feeding on bisonWe did not go very far though, for only about a half mile later we were stopped by a park ranger who was about to put up a sign telling not to stop, leave the car or otherwise walk for the next mile of road. He was wearing a vest with the text Yellowstone Wolf Project, so we figured that there were more wolves, but that was not the case. We were allowed to stay a while where we already were and could now see that a little ahead, in the tall grass about 150 to 250 feet from the road a grizzly bear was feeding on a dead bison. This view we enjoyed for some time before we continued around a mile, where we turned around and parked the car again. We were on the right side of the sign and could leave the car as many others had already done. We were now rather far from the bear, but could still see it, and also got some reasonable pictures of it, although it was almost a mile away and darkness was beginning to settle. Finally the bear layed down and became largely invisible behind the bison, and then we decided to return to the hotel. While we stared at the grizzly a black bear came out of the woods on the opposite side of the Lamar river. It was probably two or three miles away and the pictures only shows a vague silhouette of the bear.

By now it was almost completely dark, so we decided to head back. On the way we met only a few elks and when it was completely dark a moose with a calf crossed the road some distance ahead of us, but unfortunately it was now too dark to photograph at all, so we didn't get any pictures of the moose. We went back to the hotel, some amazing experiences richer; experiences which actually was worth the trip whole trip to USA and we agreed that it would be difficult to surpass this experience, but we came close a few times. I will get back to that in future articles.

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