Carsten has often told me that there are so many beautiful places in the US that he wants to show me – especially the huge National Parks and forests in the Rocky Mountains. The landscape and wildlife there is unique and beyond words. I have to admit that Carsten has not been exaggerating; my experience so far has exceeded his descriptions as I have seen for myself these fantastic empty landscapes and their unmatched wildlife. Our pictures and videos cannot depict what we see and experience – but the impressions are forever etched in our memories.
As we sat down to plan our route, I was surprised by just how much national park and national forest area there is in the western US. Not to mention other federally owned lands that are just designated “Bureau of Land Management”. In these areas there is no internet and very rarely cell phone coverage. You are totally alone in the world and have no contact with what goes on outside.
Yellowstone National Park is our first destination. After three days and almost 1000 miles of mountain driving, we reach the entrance. Most of the Park is in Wyoming, although there is a thin sliver in Montana. Yellowstone was the world’s first National Park, established in 1872.
The entire Yellowstone area lies atop a died out volcano. In area, it is something akin to the state of New Jersey (a bit smaller) and virtually virgin land. There are three entrances and each year thousands of tourists arrive to drive the roads that wind their way around the ancient rim of the volcano crater. More thousands come and hike the interior.
When I write virgin land, it means just that. Virtually all the forests, canyons and high chaparrals are untrod by humans. Today the Park Service rarely even fights forest fires – it has been decided that naturally occurring forest fires are actually good for the undergrowth, the wildlife etc. So it has been for a million years and there is no reason to change it. There are several campgrounds and lodges within the Park – but they are woefully inadequate for the massive amounts of tourists that arrive each year.
We have chosen to frequent the parks “primitive” campgrounds, which are different from the campgrounds we know in Denmark. Here they are truly more “primitive”. The spaces are much further apart, set in between the pine trees. While we can see our neighbors through the branches, we have a lot of privacy. Campgrounds in Denmark are very open and everyone can see what everyone else is doing. The facilities are limited. In those campgrounds where there are showers, they are closed due to Covid-19. Only the toilets are open. In the National Forests, the toilets are “vault” toilets – meaning they are latrines, albeit they are very clean. As noted before – there is no cell phone or internet here. This is really the first time we have been totally cut off from the world – on Capri we have a sat phone or the short-wave radio if we really want to communicate.
As a camper, you might get lucky if you park next to one of the lodges – they generally have a wifi for their guests, otherwise you have to drive completely outside the Park to find some coverage.
Carsten and I live well in Caprise, despite her being a stately older matron showing her age. We have had a number of repairs (this, in case you are wondering, is sailing on dry land. Here you also repair your motorhome in exotic places). Everything on board works (unless it needs to be repaired), although we have had to compromise in regards to sleeping facilities. This is the first time in 34 years that we haven’t slept in the same bed. We have gotten older, less nimble and a few pounds heavier. We also need to get up in the middle of the night to pee, which means the upstairs sleeping ledge (above the driving cabin) is no suitable for the two of us. The sofa folds out into a bed, albeit a narrow one. If I sleep against the wall, I get claustrophobia and need to crawl over Carsten to get up. The solution, since I am younger and more nimble (Carsten will not agree with that statement), is for me to sleep up on the ledge and Carsten to sleep on the sofa bed. I do crawl down to him if we want to spend some intimate time together.
Regardless of your economic condition, the reasons for coming to Yellowstone remain the same. You come to see the unmatched landscapes, the panorama views, the wildlife, geysers and hot springs.
We plan to drive around the park for five days; unfortunately, one of the five is spent with a mechanic getting the fuel pump replaced. We also spent a morning just outside the park so Carsten could get internet and buy plane tickets for his sojourn to New Jersey and his 50th high school reunion. As we drive throughout the park, we are treated to ungodly beautiful panoramic views. They look like Hollywood backdrops.
Amongst other magnificent places we visited the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, a canyon with many-colored cliffs that has attracted many a landscape painter.
The extinct volcano crater has over millions of years filled up and is now large meadowlands, filled with the wildlife Yellowstone is renowned for. In Hayden Valley we see large flocks of bison, indeed we meet these bison silently walking alongside the road or crossing it. One thing is sure – when you meet a bison by the road, you slow down and pass carefully. They don’t know the traffic rules and a collision with a 1 ton bison will seriously damage you vehicle. A fully grown bison is almost 10 feet long, seven feet high and can weigh in at just over 1 ton.
The bald eagle is the national bird of the US and a rare sight. We are extremely lucky and spot two bald eagles sitting in a small tree not far from the road.
It si just as rare to see coyotes in the daytime – they tend to be nocturnal animals. We have been hearing them howl at night and are lucky enough that we see them not less than four times during our visit here.
We know squirrels from Denmark, but here they have chipmunks and now I’ve them live and not just Chip and Dale in the Walt Disney Christmas cartoon.
Ever since we arrived and I saw the first “Beware of Bears” sign, I’ve wanted to see a live bear (at a proper distance).
There are signs everywhere in the campgrounds and throughout the park:
- Do not feed the bears – a fed bear is a dead bear – once they get a taste for human food they become dangerous and will be shot.
- Never leave food on the tables or outside.
- All food must be kept inside the car, the camper or in the bearproof food boxes found at all the campsites – never outside or inside your tent.
- Never leave any garbage
- Toiletries or anything that has an odor should always to kept locked up inside your camper. The odor will attract bears
In my naiveté, I ask the ranger at our first campsite if there are really bears in the vicinity and he replies, “Sure, just a few weeks ago, a grizzly had downed a moose by the river. One of our local guides decided he wanted to take some pictures, got his camera and apparently got too close. The bear attacked and killed him”. You can be sure that for here on in, I kept a sharp lookout for bears.
At another campground, one of the campers told us that the evening before we arrived, a bear walked through the campground and right past his camper.
I have to admit I’m a coward. I’ve yet to screw up my courage and trek some of the many trails there are here in the park. I’m afraid of running into a bear. Most who wander in the trails (and all the Rangers) carry a bearspray, just in case they run into Mr. Smokey. You have to know how to use it and you have to have it at the ready all the time. If attacked, you stand your ground and fire the pepper spray into the bear’s eyes when he is 25/30 feet away (this all sounds very easy when you are sitting around the campfire with a G/T in your hand – I’m not sure how easy it is if you are confronted with Mr. Bear).
Carsten and I have discussed buying a bear spray, but haven’t yet – our logic is that we stay away from the bears. Other pieces of good advice are:
- Never trek alone – always in groups of 3 or 4 so you make noise
- Speak loudly and with a deep voice (bears have trouble hearing sopranos)
- Make a lot of noise so you don’t surprise the bear – wearing bells doesn’t help – the ringing is too high up the scale for a bear to hear.
- If you get close to a bear – stop – don’t move and never run. If you run his hunter instinct goes into overdrive and he will run you down. If you stand completely still and he seems uninterested in you, slowly back away from him.
- If he attacks and pushes you to the ground – play dead.
- If he keeps attacking, try to cover your throat and stomach, roll into a ball.
All great advice – I wonder how many have survived a bear attack using it.
Black bear are found everywhere in the Rockies. Black bears, despite their name can also be brown and are mainly seen in the daytime. The females are very territorial when they have cubs, at other times they are generally quite peaceful unless they are surprised or feel threatened. They can live up to 20 years, stand almost 3 feet high when on all fours and typically weigh up to 350 pounds. They are generally found in open tree areas and can easily climb trees. The cubs stay with their mother until they are 1.5 years old.
We saw three bears in Yellowstone. I spotted a black bear on the other side of the river where we were driving and we turned around and took many pictures and a video. He wasn’t all that interested in being photographed, he gave a loud roar and lumbered back into the trees.
The Rangers, who are also the police here in the park, drive slowly along the roads trying to spot the bears. If they see one, 2-3 Rangers will set up shop and direct the traffic to keep moving. They are also there to prevent idiot tourists from getting out of their cars and trying to get close-up photos of the bears. Getting close to the bears is dangerous and there are signs everywhere telling tourists to stay in their cars if they see a bear. We see both a brown bear and a black bear as we drive past Rangers directing traffic. The brown bear has crawled up in a tree to get at some berries up there. The other one, a younger bear lumbers alongside the road and finally disappears into the brush and forest. All the Rangers we see are equipped with a large can of bearspray in a holster on their belt where they can easily get at it.
There are also grizzlies here, although not quite as many as further north in Canada and Alaska. Grizzlies tend to be active in the early morning and towards sundown. They are truly territorial and aggressive. Their fur is generally brown, but can also be either blonde or black. They can be identified by the “hunchback” they have between their shoulder blades, which consists of muscle. The grizzly is taller than the black bear, at least 1 meter at the shoulders and weighs in at over 225 kilos (500 pounds to you non-metric types). I can’t help but think about the movie with Leonardo de Caprio, The Revenant, wherein he is attacked by a grizzly with cubs. The grizzly’s claws can be up to 10 cm (4 inches) long. Like the black bear, it has a lifespan of approximately 20 years.
As an aside – do you know why children’s stuffed bears are called Teddy Bears? You all-knowing writer will now tell you. Theodore Roosevelt (a former US President) was a great hunter and at one point was in Yellowstone to hunt bears. After several days of hunting with no luck, the locals decided that Roosevelt should not be disappointed and tied a half-tame young bear to a tree. When they presented the captive bear for Roosevelt to shoot, he refused, saying that was purely murder and he was a hunter, not a murderer. News of this spread via the newspapers and there a stuffed animal manufacturer that seized on this, advertising his stuffed bears as “Teddy Bears”, meaning too cute and cuddly to shoot. The name caught on and stuffed children’s bears are known all over the world as either “Teddies” of Teddy Bears”.
So much for stories from the real world. As we drive through the Park, we see geysers and hot springs many places in the meadows and along the rim of the ancient volcano. I suppose it is a discussable point if the volcano can be labelled “extinct” when all this geothermal activity exists. Yellowstone also has frequent minor earthquakes. Yellowstone’s most famous attraction is the geyser, Old Faithful. Old Faithful erupts exactly on time and you can set your watch by it.
I’m learning the difference between hot springs and geysers (Carsten, of course, already knows all this – damn him). Hot springs are formed as underground water is heated up by magma (molten lava underground). The superheated water rises to the surface and are called hotsprings. Since there is no narrowing in its passage to the surface, it merely flows to the surface and does not erupt. Geysers, on the other hand, are water that is superheated the way, but where the passage to the surface narrows greatly. This constriction means that pressure is built up and once there is pressure the water “erupts” at the surface forming geysers of various heights. Old Faithful is one of the highest.
Yellowstone also has mudpots and fumaroles (ahhh-all this terminology). A mudpots is merely a hotsprings with very acidic water. The acid is actually volcanic gases and a mudpots always smells very sulfuric. The sulfuric acid destroys the stones on its way to the surface, forming mud and clay. Mudpots have limited water and true to their name look more like boiling puddle of mud than water. Fumaroles are the hottest of all these geothermal occurrences, since their journey to the surface is through the longest and narrowest of the “tubes” from the magma to the surface. A fumarole has almost no water and is exclusively superheated steam. As a result, it frequently whistles like a teakettle.
The geyser areas are popular sites for tourists. I’m surprised to read that many hundreds of tourists have been seriously burned when they venture off the walkways to get closer to the underground vents. The sign below is seen everywhere and these signs are sponsored by the parents of a nine-year boy who wandered off the walkway and when the ground underneath him gave way was scalded to death by the hot water.
After five days in Yellowstone, we are sated with impressions and experiences. Our road trip continues tomorrow as we drive south out of Yellowstone and into Grand Teton National Park. Carsten has been chewing my ear off for decades about the Tetons, so I’m wildly excited about seeing them.