Yellowstone and Grasslands

Sask map

Travelled independently.

2nd and 3rd October 2010

Touchdown in Calgary. Sky means something different in the prairies; the world is a grass table, raw, naked and tenacious, with this vast, vast bright dome pressing down upon it. It knocks brashly into you with light and wind, but today even the mountain storms are dozing. The sky is quiet, unhurried, as if content with a pause before autumn’s full-blown wrath.

My passport is speckled with stamps from this airport, all linking to different memories. In the immigration hall, photographs of Wilderness stare: mountains of Jasper and Yoho, eerie hoodoos of Dinosaur Park. Oil made Calgary explode into a giddy skyline of metal and glass – boom town of the new west, if you will – but if you know the highways, the skyscrapers soon fade.

The east is calling. I have an eight hour car journey through the prairies, those meadows of a hundred colours.

The subtle grandeur of the prairie gradually translates into an almost African vista.

Sea of Grass, it has been called. A road is a feeble thread within it, for the grass flows to the horizon, and over it, on and on further than the imagination can roll. Night comes with brilliant stars, but almost no lights on land, for there are almost no buildings to cradle them.

But the next morning, light returns with an ethereal glory.

The year is changing, the memories of the soaked spring melting like vapour off a river.

The fox cubs that I watched here in June have long gone from their den. And the wild creatures who will sleep throughout the winter are getting their last fill of sunshine.

Prairie dogs share the landscape with wildlife that casts much longer shadows.

Bison are built for this harsh land; they are much more efficient grazers than cattle.

But some animals are surprisingly lively. A flock of sharp-tailed grouse are busy displaying beside the road.

I haven’t seen this behaviour before.

A coyote puppy watches us leave the park, but it is too quick for me. Five days, and then I will be back. But for now, a different horizon is calling.

3rd October

Yes, this is the United States of America, the country of Times Square, Hollywood and Disneyland. Somewhere out there – a long, long way out there – you will find Boston, New Orleans, New York and Miami. But this America smells of pineapple weed and sagebush, hears mostly the wind and the grasshoppers, sees golden eagles soar above meadows sparsely dotted with cattle and pronghorn, and is connected by roads that march without end under a staggeringly vast sky.

The land may be big, and the wind that dances its grasses unobstructed, but the people are sparse. Amongst the states, Montana ranks fourth in size and 48th in population density. The first town of note that we travel through after crossing the Canadian border is, confusingly, called Malta, and it is considered a city for having a population of just over two thousand.

Most places on the map are just a grain elevator and a church, sometimes with an assortment of farm machinery and cars, clustered around some seemingly random point in the road.

Further south, some towns are a little bigger – but not much.

Before the ranches and the commercial bison hunt, this was a rich ecosystem, one marvelled at by Lewis and Clark. Wild prairie is gone here, mostly, just as it is in Saskatchewan, but the sense of dramatic space remains.

Most of the time. A forest has sprung up, and it is tended by trucks and engineers.

It is carrying part of a wind turbine. Driving between their shining white trunks is like entering a grove of sci-fi redwoods.

But away from the work of people, autumn has come to the valley of the Missouri, as it has done since the river itself was born.

Still the road goes on and on and on…and on.

But upon the final turn southwards, an altogether different sensation begins to take me. The mountains looming large on each side of the road are the most storied in America – the ramparts of the rock fortress that surrounds one of the world’s most sinister sleeping dragons. They double as the theatre upon which humanity played out an ecological tragedy – the deliberate extermination of a wilderness linchpin – and then, decades later, spent millions of dollars trying to correct the mistake.

I have seen several wolves in Canada, but Yellowstone’s open spaces are a much more reliable watching-ground. So books and websites say, and I know it is true, because I came here myself in September 2002, and left saying that only Africa had ever given me richer wildlife sightings.

It’s been a long wait to see that arch again.

4th October

Yellowstone is burning. I can smell it even in Gardiner, the little Montana town where I am staying – well, “town” is a stretch; it is hardly the size of Waterton village. The bulky mountains in the east are charcoal cutouts against a sky tinged with dark rose, but the smoke’s scent comes from the south, from Antelope Creek, where a wildfire has consumed a couple of thousand acres. Blazes are a part of life in Yellowstone, as essential to the health of the subalpine coniferous forests as the underlying volcano is to the geothermal wonders.

Yet, on the far side of Roosevelt Arch, the unquenchable fire in the sky sometimes distracts from both.

The grandeur of the world’s first national park is undeniable.

You can never quite forget that you are on the threshold of a gigantic and fitful volcano, but most of its visible symptoms are further south, within the most recent caldera. Yellowstone wears a mask of normality in the northeast, and rather reminds me of Scotland.

But nowhere in Scotland do you see a sight like this – a small coyote hunting for rodents around one of the Yellowstone’s many bison herds.

Native people often called the coyote the wolf’s brother in their legends, and while there is little affection between the two, they are both in the same family – the genus Canis. Coyotes, of course, are far smaller than their famed cousins, and while they do occasionally hunt hoofed mammals in packs, are much more inclined to catch small prey.

I’m looking for wolves – nearly everyone who travels into the Lamar Valley is. Yellowstone’s crowds centre upon Old Faithful; not there aren’t traffic jams in the north as well, but for rather different reasons.

The wolves are hiding today; the officials who monitor the signals from the radio-collared individuals say that they seem to be keeping far from the road. I continue onwards, to the tiny hamlet of Cooke City: But there is a distraction en route.

Yellowstone may not immediately spring to mind as ideal moose habitat but I saw several of these massive deer here on my previous trip. Like moose everywhere (well, almost everywhere) they like water.

But this has been the day of the coyote – our morning tally is lifted to ten on the return trip through Lamar, as no less than four of the little wolves scavenge on a distant bison carcass. And since successfully looking for the great predators means looking for the food sources that attract them, that carcass is certainly a point of note that will have to be checked again on future days.

Fittingly, the day ends with the herald of both rain and sun 🙂

Rainbow over the Absoroka Mountains

5th October 2010 (part 1)

I understand why the early explorers thought they had come to the roof of Hell.

The air is tinged with hydrogen sulphide. Steam rises from a thousand lakes and ponds and springs dotted about on the landscape of bare mud, and trilling squirrel and croaking ravens are overwhelmed by hisses, gurgles and roars.

There are lakes here almost as acidic as battery acid.

And hollows that churn mud like boiling soup.

Standing on the boardwalks, the crisp mountain air can be taken from you in a moment as a twist in the wind bathes you in a sauna-like fog…

…before releasing you, stunned, to gaze again at the impossibility of the vista.

From the vantage points amidst the trees on the mountainsides, you can see them – the heralds of geological mortality, for each is a testament to landscape’s impermanence.

There is a monster that makes its lair under the mountains of western Wyoming, a terror of such proportions that were it to fully awake, it would impact civilization like no disaster modern humanity has ever experienced. The last eruption from this volcano deposited ash from Texas to Canada, and left a crater longer than Mt Kilimanjaro, but even that was not its greatest. The size of the next one is beyond scientists’ guess, but you can see the monster flexing its muscles, pushing up domes like Sour Creek with the pressure of molten magma.

But this is Yellowstone, the place where you can see water leap a hundred feet high and look upon lakes that have formed in depressions caused by incomprehensible explosions.

The resurgent caldera underneath the plateaux and mountains fires half the globe’s thermal features, and to travel amongst them is to glimpse an unconquerable giant that laughs at humanity’s work.

There is a fear here, but there is beauty amongst that fear, and if it explodes land and water, it also explodes your senses, assaulting you with shockingly vibrant colours and sounds and smells.

Walking through Yellowstone’s geyser basins is one of the most surreal experiences that the natural world can offer. Life clings on with stubborn indifference, like a cowboy on a bucking dragon. Even in the super-heated water, warmth-loving bacteria form colourful mats.

Like all in Yellowstone’s shadow, they take their chances. Living things are not at ease here; this forest was killed by thermal activity in the 1970s.

One day the clock will stop again…

…but until then, Yellowstone will continue to excite and alarm, and also to protect the greatest concentration of temperate zone wildlife on the globe.

And people will continue to come to marvel at it.

5th October 2010 (part 2)

Yellowstone’s gates are watched.

Sheep above the road, elk next to it – too close, really, as these large ungulates can be quite aggressive at times. They are rutting at present and the bulls are wearing fearsome crowns of antlers. The hinds are in good shape.

We hear that yesterday’s bison carcass is still visible in the Lamar Valley. But Yellowstone is big, and choices must be made daily as to the focus of one’s attention. Today, the Hayden Valley, a wide, pretty meadow on the edge of the volcano’s most recent crater, wins, but to reach it, you must cross a near 9,000 foot pass – and travel close to possibly the most iconic vista in America’s national parks.

Lower Falls, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

Upon reaching Hayden, we find a crowd with spotting scopes – always a hopeful sign. I am used to locating large carnivores through their tracks and the behaviour of their prey. In Yellowstone, bushcraft consists of trying to find other people who have already located their targets 😉 And they have indeed! Three wolves from the Canyon Pack are relaxing peacefully in a meadow at least a mile away. With a borrowed scope, I can see them…just. Which is wonderful, but photography is out of the question. A black wolf and a grey wolf eventually rise to their feet and wander around, but there is no anxiety, no haste in their travels.

They are resting. The land is not.

The bay of West Thumb, Yellowstone Lake – the ultimate in deceptive tranquility.

Fishing Cone geyser has not erupted with any force for decades, but it may yet do so again. Yellowstone is always changing. About 162,000 years ago, a volcanic eruption created a caldera within a caldera; this picturesque bay lies inside the much larger crater left from the massive prehistoric eruptions. Today, Yellowstone Lake itself is gradually tilting southwards due to the movements of magma under the north-centre of the park, and the thermal features of West Thumb are occasionally drowned with lake water.

But not far away, a much larger geyser field is roaring.

Lion Geyser, like all the park’s geysers, is fed by volcanic heat and maintained by a complex internal plumbing system. The pale pink-grey rock that is deposited around the geyser’s base is derived from silica and known as geyserite. It is both water-tight and pressure-tight, and its presence underground forces superheated water and steam upwards out of the geyser’s various chambers.

The water itself, today erupting at Old Faithful, was once rain or snow that seeped into the ground – but chemical evidence shows that it fell to earth at least 500 years before contributing to this most famous natural show.

It is hard to articulate the scale of this most alien land on earth. There are other volcanoes, but there are not many can give the whole of human civilization pause. There are other geyser fields, but the rest of the world’s quota put together does not equal Yellowstone’s collection. There are other calderas, but I have only ever been to one that compares in size – Ngorongoro, and that is long dead. Yellowstone is very much alive. And you can only wander, for hour after hour, smelling the sulphur, feeling the drifting heat, hearing the dragon growl in its sleep.

It is a beautiful danger.

Chinese Spring

West Triplet Geyser

Anemone Geyser

5th October 2010 (part 2)

Yellowstone has an exceptional concentration of wildlife for a park in the temperate zone – that is, north of the tropics and south of the Arctic. But it also hosts several million human visitors annually, most of whom seem to come for the geysers and hot springs, and yet may also stop for roadside wildlife.

And that creates challenging situations for park management. Coyotes are often mistaken for grey wolves by visitors. Even when they are not playing the role of “tourist wolf”, they are illegally fed, and afterwards are inclined to hang around in roadside pullouts, hoping for more.

I’ve no way of knowing whether this particular coyote falls into that category, but I suspect from its behaviour that it does. On my last visit to Yellowstone, one parking area was closed due the presence of another “begging” coyote; there are obviously some safety risks when you have a wild animal that is inclined to approach people in the hope of handouts. Fortunately, the tourist season is now nearly over for the year, and perhaps the coyote will drift back into Yellowstone’s meadows during the silent winter.

Much as I’d rather never see a food-habituated coyote again, it is at least an opportunity to admire the beauty of this tough little canid.


Evening is coming to Yellowstone. Other wildlife watchers have been keeping an eye on the bison carcass in the Lamar Valley, and it is surprising how quickly exciting news can travel around a large wilderness. A grizzly bear has apparently come to feed on the carcass. But Lamar is a long journey when you must weave a car through this bizarre landscape variously of steaming water, bubbling mud and tumbled rock.

And someone else is waiting to distract me…

Black bears might not have the awesome grandeur of the grizzly, but they’re old favourites of mine. This is a large male bear who has just about finished fattening up for the winter.

I am curious to see how Yellowstone’s rangers will handle a roadside black bear. I’ve regularly witnessed Canadian officials employ force beyond all reason against this usually non-aggressive species.

But it is actually is a pleasant surprise. A ranger quickly appears and opts for common sense. He is satisfied that people are not interfering with the bear and the bear isn’t interfering with people, and as night finally falls, everyone goes home without any harm being done.

It has been a wonderful day. But tomorrow, we are going to have to head out for Lamar and hope that the grizzly is still there…

6th October (part 1)

Only in Yellowstone…I keep saying it, but every twist of the road throws up another impossibility.

Cooled lava flow forming a wall

Basalt columns

Top of Tower Fall

But I came here for more than bizarre landscapes. The Lamar Valley is the setting for drama faster-paced than that of the fitfully sleeping volcano.

Bison wander the valley sides, but they are such a common sight here that they attract little attention.

It’s cold in Lamar, but they’ve come – come in numbers.

The diehard wildlife watchers of Yellowstone have settled with their spotting scopes and cameras upon a little hill, protected by tough coats and a tougher determination. Over the last few days I’ve seen several groups of them, but never as big as this. Something is definitely afoot.

Lamar has two masters: one solitary, strong and catholic in taste; the other intensely team-focussed, a dedicated hunter of large ungulates, and relying on brains as well as brawn to survive. And here they both are, within metres of each other: a monolith of a grizzly, and a persistent but cautious party of grey wolves!

Out there, the alpha female of the Blacktail Pack (known to researchers as 693F) is sitting.

She is oblivious to the people, oblivious to her status as celebrity wildlife, oblivious to everything except the bison carcass. But a 100% crop shows just how close they are willing to get to the bear.

I’ve seen quite a few grizzlies over the years, splashing through mountain streams or grabbing salmon from the coast. Mountain grizzlies are smaller than their coastal cousins, but all things are relative.

Even six wolves cannot shift a determined grizzly from a carcass. Time passes, and the wolves retreat to the bushes, watchful and waiting.

A second grizzly – a blonde grizzly, with a radio collar visible in the scope – enters the fray.

This bear, too, can do nothing, and lies down to watch the large male…

…but even when he is done, he rests on top of the carcass to prevent anyone else feeding on it.

I’m struck by the patience of the wolves. Unlike foxes, who eat little and often, wolves have a feast-and-famine lifestyle, and must work extremely hard to bring down dangerous prey such as elk. To have a bison carcass within a few metres of them, yet be denied by a massive bear, must be every bit as frustrating to them as an out-of-reach treat is to a dog.

But both they and the smaller grizzly have no choice but to let the big bear finish his repast.

6th October (part 2)

Grizzlies and wolves may quarrel over bison meat, but some bears in Yellowstone have more peaceful meal times. Winter lurks the horizon, and for the black bears of the park, it’s time to finish putting on fat for the long sleep ahead.

This is another solid-looking male black bear; I wouldn’t like to guess his weight, although the maximum for black bears in this part of the world is supposed to be around 315lb, much less than a coastal bear. Of course, he doesn’t have the diet of the coast – there are no salmon runs here. Instead, he is picking berries, quite delicately!

It is amazing how such a powerful animal can pluck such tiny food.

But to watch one move through a berry patch is see a kind of natural vacuum cleaner in action! Researchers claim that a black bear can eat up to 30,000 berries per day and this bear seemed in no mood to say “enough”.


Today has been all about the wildlife. But even when you’re far from the volcano’s breath, you are still within its grasp, as the landscape born of lava shows only too well.

Basalt columns

And when night comes, it is painted over with the same fearsome beauty as the land.

Tomorrow is our last day in Yellowstone. I fully expect this restless place to have yet another surprise in store…

7th October (part 1)

“…this stupendous display of nature’s handiwork will be to me “a joy forever”. It lingers in my memory like the faintly defined outlines of a dream. I can scarcely realise that in the unbroken solitude of this majestic range of rocks, away from civilization and almost inaccessible to human approach, the Almighty has placed so many of the most wonderful and magnificent objects of His creation…truly has it been said, that we live to learn how little may be known, and of what we see, how much surpasses comprehension.”
– Nathaniel Pitt Langford, August 31st, 1870, reflecting upon his exploration of Yellowstone

That is Yellowstone: the sheer wonder of the place, breath catching in the thin air, listening to the water and smelling the sulphur, never knowing for sure what is around the next twist of the path.

A gigantic hill of travertine towers amidst the forested slopes of Yellowstone’s northwestern hills, its mantle of steam visible from afar.

It is called Mammoth Hot Springs, and is one of the volcano’s gentler yet most impossible manifestations. It has gradually been laid down over time by calcium carbonate deposited by the boiling waters.

On cold mornings the complex is a fantasyland of water vapour and strange colours and light.

It might seem that these eerie slopes would best be placed on a foreign planet…

…but, again, there is life amidst the abstractness. Thermophiles – heat-loving organisms – exist in the water:

A chipmunk is more familiar.

And not all of Yellowstone’s ravens chase wolves.

Some creatures are heard as well as seen – the hills around Mammoth are rutting grounds for elk. The other-worldly bugles of the displaying bulls are a fitting accompaniment to the landscape.

This truly is like nowhere else on Earth.

7th October 2010 (part 2)

Some Native peoples called him the Real Bear. I have just called this a shadow in the dying autumn grasses, a suspicion certainly taunting me but tempered with the reason that here, within a few hundred metres of the resort of Lake, brick and roof visible through the trees, any intruder must surely be a black bear or bison.

I am wrong. So very wrong.

It had been a relatively normal morning, if a place that has landscapes formed of Mammoth Hot Springs and the fumaroles of Roaring Mountain…

…can ever be described as normal, even if the rivers are as pretty as the rest of the west…

…and coyotes look for rodents, just as they do anywhere.

But all of a sudden, another corner in the road, and there is the most awe-inspiring creature in the Rockies, one that six wolves cannot shift from a food source.

And this is a problem, because the edge of a resort is not suitable grizzly habitat. I am a vocal critic of the excessive force that is aimed at bears throughout North America, most of which is based on the wholly unscientific idea that a fearful bear is less dangerous than one that has learned to coexist with us (research suggests the opposite). But there are times when bears need to be moved on for everyone’s safety, and this is one of them.

After some minutes, three park rangers enter the scene, evidently concerned as well. They opt for using loud noise as a way to teach the bear that this isn’t a good place to be. They fire cracker shells – harmless, but certainly noisy.

Hopefully this bear at least will keep a greater distance from civilization in the future.

In any case, he will be settling down for hibernation soon. Yellowstone’s time is running short for me, too.

7th October (part 3)

Midway Geyser Basin and surrounding area picture portrait.

Tiger stripes of heat-loving bacteria before Grand Prismatic Spring

Excelsior Geyser crater

Waterfall into the Firehole River

Bison tracks

Hot spring

Yellowstone vista

Fountain Paintpot

Steaming vents

Painted by thermophiles

Spasm Geyser

Trout leaping up the Firehole Falls :eyes: