Friday, February 24, 2012

Free Heel and Wheel

2/21/12 (I'm a few days behind). 

Dude, where's my trail?

Helen Keller said, "Life is either a great adventure or nothing." I don't know when she said that or under what circumstance, but those words are sewn along the border of my heart holding it in place, keeping it together. When traveling with a pocket full of dreams, minor details like a lack of trail or limited visibility don't stop me. A long time ago, I learned things happen when you take a risk; more importantly, I learned nothing happens if you don't. Therefore, despite the blustery day and a snowed in route, I planned to XC ski from the hotel into the park. For 3 ½ miles, I broke trail alongside the Madison River. I crossed the park boundary and entered into Yellowstone National Park by ski with no one but the birds to keep me company. In an earlier blog, I wrote about the silence of Yellowstone, but I didn’t find the park to be quiet at all. Gone were the sounds of town that often mask nature’s noise, but the woods aren't quiet. It's just a different kind of sound. The river rippled and splashed on a course to the Missouri headwaters, gaining momentum as it flowed south to the Atlantic. The forest creaked and twisted as the wind that earlier tumbled over Firehole Falls now blew through the lodgepole pines along the Wyoming border; even the falling snow left a trail of sound as it filled the tracks behind me.

After a morning of XC skiing, I met Kimi at the hotel for an afternoon of snowmobiling. We hoped to connect with approximately 35 miles worth of trails that would lead into Idaho and to a lodge only accessible by snowmobile. Unfortunately, from West Yellowstone, there is only one way to get there, and when you leave at noon, it's likely you'll be traveling on a banged up and bumpy trail. We endured 10 miles of brutal pain. The trail was along a river and beautiful, or at least I thought it was from what I could tell as I bounced along trying to keep my eyeballs in place. Four bruised kidneys and two stiff backs later, we were back on groomed trails and fresh powder. There are more than 250 miles of snowmobile trails that connect Idaho and Montana with most of them groomed nightly. Why did we have to take the one that wrecked organs? :)

Crossing into Idaho on some sweet groomers

The ride to Meadow Creek Lodge was breathtaking as we went through alder groves and one particular birch tree stand that brought me straight home to the woods of Vermont and the heart of my dad. The name “birch” is derived from old Germanic and Indo-European roots meaning bright and to shine, and its bark is nearly imperishable.  I miss my father, never more than when I’m in places I know he’d love or when I’m in places I love because of what he knew. I cut the engine on the snowmobile; Kimi up ahead on the trail. Sitting in the snowy woods, I remembered being among the trees with my dad and sister talking hand in hand when we were young, walking shoulder to shoulder when we were older. Robert Frost’s words echoed quietly around me ~ the woods are lovely, dark and deep, and I have miles to go before I sleep. I love this life, Robert Frost, and I aim to make the most of it.

We made it to Meadow Creek Lodge in time for lunch. At least 20 snowmobiles were in the parking lot. Meadow Creek was homesteaded by the current owners’ grandfather in the 1800s. A sheep farm initially, I guess they realized there was better money in beef. I'm not kidding; the menu had about 15 different kinds of cheeseburgers to choose from, along with one chicken burger. No sheep, no salads, and no silverware! When everything must be hauled in by snowmobile, only the necessities make the cut. Thankfully, they considered Heineken a necessity, and we each enjoyed warming up with a cold one. I felt it was a well-deserved beer after XC skiing in the morning with only enough time for a change in headwear before climbing onto a snowmobile for the afternoon.

Meadow Creek Lodge in Idaho. Kimi prepares the snowmobiles for the ride to Big Springs.

After lunch, we found stellar trail to Big Springs. The constant snow provided powder refills all afternoon. The bumps and ruts caused by other snowmobiles were quickly filled. We also found long stretches of trail with no one on them but us. As much as I love Vermont's woods, I've never been in a forest as pretty as the Gallatin. Filled with lakes, rivers, tall trees, and streams, it invigorates the spirit and revitalizes old dreams. 

Big Springs is the headwaters of a fork of the Snake River, and it's one of the 40 largest springs in the world. Eventually, the water in front of us would join the Columbia River, roll past Portland, Oregon, and blow out to the Pacific Ocean where it would be pushed by the trade winds into Japan. If I knew that while standing there throwing bread crumbs to the muskrats, I might have also tossed a handful of hope into the water. Imagine a hope so big it reached Japan. Later, realizing the Snake River flowed to the Columbia and eventually the Pacific Ocean, I reckoned we snowmobiled right over the Continental Divide.

Big Springs was my favorite stop of the day. Two moose looking for food on the side of the road welcomed us as we approached the headwaters. The server at Meadow Creek had kindly given us a bagful of bread to feed the ducks and the fish. Little did we know we'd also be feeding muskrat! I'd never seen a muskrat before. They're cute little guys with lots of fur and some personality as well. We were the only ones, besides the animals, at this snowy start to the Snake River, and even now as I write about it, I can hardly believe I experienced this moment in the world. 

A raven and an eagle sharing the same tree at Henry’s Fork, Big Springs.

After Big Springs, we slowly started to make our way back to Montana and West Yellowstone. Darkness comes early in the woods and our gas tanks were low. Neither of us looked forward to the 10 mile stretch of pain that awaited us down the road. That’s when we remembered we had a different kind of tank filled with liquid goodness in one of Kimi’s pockets. Two swigs of Goldschlager later and we almost enjoyed the turbulent ride home! Why didn’t we think of that the first time?!?

Crossing into Montana

Snowmobiling is really fun, and it’s a great way for individuals who can’t cross country ski or snowshoe for whatever reason to experience the power and solitude of the back country.  They're also controversial and an easy target for environmentalists and animal advocates; however, environmentally-friendly machines are available. Ski-doo makes a four stroke that gets nearly 40 miles to the gallon, and after-market parts are available to lessen the noise of their engines. In terms of the animals, when I cross country skied into Yellowstone, I didn’t see a thing. The irony wasn’t lost on me that we saw two moose, muskrats, an eagle, a raven, and plenty of water fowl when riding snow machines. In the park, the animals barely lifted their heads to acknowledge us as we rode past them or stopped for pictures. Also, we noticed the snowmobilers in the Yellowstone/Gallatin National Forest area to be supremely respectful of the rules of the woods, especially in terms of speed and staying on the trails. Everyone, of course, is entitled to their own opinion, and there are a lot of them out there. Thanks for reading mine.

One of the top 5 trips ever

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Tripod People

You know you're on a different kind of vacation when alarm clocks are involved. President's Day didn't mean an extra day of sleeping in ~ not for us, not in Yellowstone. We woke to a snowy darkness on the streets, only the ravens were ahead of us. Today we were snowmobiling to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, a more than 100 mile round trip ride into the remote winter regions of the park. With Old Faithful, we booked a tour for only the two of us, but today we were traveling with 18 others. We figured it to be pretty interesting. The canyon would probably be pretty good too!

We arrived at the meeting place early that morning and were greeted with helmet cams, tripods, expensive lenses, expensive lens' hoods, and two people. We knew we were in trouble! Over the next 15 minutes or so, the rest of our group arrived excited for the day. Our guide provided us with the mandatory "here's how you start the thing, have fun!" training and off we all were to the most photographed area of the park except.... the "Tripod People" (a name they quickly earned from us). They were still strapping their tripods to their machines, adjusting their helmet cams in opposite directions (they were riding double), and generally lolly-gagging about as if the canyon had been there for 10,000 years and wasn't going anywhere.... oh, wait. Patience, Lisa, patience, I told myself. Little did I know, it was to be my mantra for the day!

Finally, they, or should I say, their tripods were strapped in, their helmet cams on, and their snow machine running. We were off. Whereas the day before was a stunning bluebird day, today was the kind of weather you imagine when you think of Yellowstone in the winter ~ gray, snowy, and cold. The kind of cold that bites at your neck and settles into your bones if you let it. The kind of gray that stretches across rivers and mountains erasing the existence of all other color. In a word, beautiful; the perfect Yellowstone day.

Our guide spotted a herd of elk along the river and quickly stopped our herd of snowmobiles for pictures. The elk were our first wildlife of the day, and they were quite majestic as they foraged along the river's bank for food. They paid us no mind and had no idea how they consumed our minds at the moment. The whole group was excited. We also knew we had many miles ahead of us and within 10 minutes, most of us were back on our snow machines ready to continue the tour. In fact, all of us were except the Tripod People. While the rest of us were securing our helmets and pulling on our last glove, they were still snapping pictures with their tripods. Helmets and gloves? 16 other people on their snow machines ready to go? They didn't give it a thought. The elk they photographed 13 times just moved a little to the right and they needed that picture too! Still, I was intrigued. Why the need for tripods? Here's a picture I took with my phone:

Were they going for extended exposure or something? At our next stop, they whipped them out again, and I had more than enough time to ask. Nope, they said, they just wanted really still pictures. What about their helmet cams? Did they post their videos on YouTube? Maybe I would look for them. Nope, they just took the videos to show their grandchildren. I thought about that for the next 15 minutes as we waited for them to load up.

I also thought about the landscape of Yellowstone. In the winter, it inspires a freedom long lost to most of us today. Time is measured by millennia in Yellowstone; a moment may last a lifetime. I envy the animals who call it home, the rivers that wind through it on their own time; the wind that blows secrets and ancient wisdom to those who listen. Incredibly, a scene from today may have been witnessed more than 10,000 years ago by early American Indian tribes.

We continued to ride north through the park into canyon country and higher elevations. As we climbed, the temperatures dropped. We still saw bison herds, but not as many and their numbers were smaller. Many of Yellowstone's animals prefer the thermal areas of the park kept warm by the geysers and hot springs, but not all. Soon, 10 snowmobiles humming and a-buzzing came upon a fox sleeping approximately eight feet from the road atop a small snowdrift. The fox wasn't bothered by the noise of the snowmobiles. In fact, it didn't wake up until after we turned them off. After checking out the scene for about 30 seconds, it decided a snowdrift a little further back in the woods made a better place to continue its nap. Luckily, I was toward the back of the line and managed to get a few shots of it running through the snow. The Tripod People, not to be dismayed by missing the fox, proceeded to take about 10 minutes worth of pictures of the snowy white field on the opposite side of the road. I'm sure their grandchildren will be thrilled! ;-)

Meanwhile, a woman on our tour was not having a very good time. She and her husband spent the previous day on their snowmobile riding the trails through the Gallatin Forest. Her husband said her body ached because he "bumped and banged her up pretty good" out there. She tried to hang in there on the tour, but at lunch, she turned yellow and began to experience significant pain in her abdomen. Not a good thing when you're 40 miles away from town on roads unfit for car or ambulance travel. Our guide decided to call the Ranger EMTs who arrived by snowmobile about 25 minutes later. The woman, her husband, the EMTs, and our guide were in the building; the rest of us, including the Tripod People, were on our machines wondering how things would proceed. Imagine our surprise when the guide came out with the husband and said we were continuing to the canyon and the falls. We'd swing around on the way back to check on the guy's wife. He was coming with us. As he passed by me, I told him I hoped his wife was all right and that it was nothing serious. He said the EMTs thought it was appendicitis or possibly, a gall stone. They may have to call an ambulance. An ambulance in Yellowstone, by the way, is essentially a big Ford Excursion kind of thing on a snowmobile. Something like this, only imagine an SUV instead of an ambulance:

And he's leaving her? I'm pretty sure I wasn't the only one who thought him a jackass at that moment. We started our engines, and all of us minus the woman in the cold visitor center receiving medical treatment, took off for the falls. The Canyon was awesome and amazing, but this post is getting long, and I didn't take any pictures of it with my phone anyway. The Tripod People loved it too, carrying their tripods to every possible vantage point shooting picture after picture. By now, I enjoyed them. I'm teasing them in this blog, but they never gave up. They took those tripods off their snowmobiles and used them at each and every stop, including the bathroom! I came out of the restroom only to find the guy out in the snow with his tripod taking a picture of the bathroom. And it wasn't even an outhouse!

Because of the Tripod People and all the time they took, and the medical emergency at lunch, we had to skip the north geyser basin. We were behind schedule and we still had to stop at the visitor center again to see about the guy's wife. When we got there, the ambulance-like thing was in the parking lot. Understandably, the guy barely turned off his snowmobile before jumping off and running inside. The guide was close behind him. About 15 minutes later, he came outside to tell us they were giving her oxygen and planned to take her to the hospital. Oh, he also mentioned that her husband would be out soon to continue the tour. His logic was that he could get back to town faster on the tour. The fact that his wife was yellow, on oxygen, and more than two hours away from the hospital didn't seem too concerning to him. He appeared to enjoy himself for the remainder of the tour, too, taking pictures and shooting video of the bison. As did the Tripod People. :)

Later that night, we took our snowmobiles to dinner and enjoyed a good meal and a good laugh ~ a great ending to a great day.

PS. The woman was brought to the hospital and treated for a bladder infection. She's fine. No word on her husband though!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Monday, February 20, 2012

Winter Roads

Snow machines, a park pass, a guide, and cameras mean one thing in these parts:

Over the snow vehicles are the only motorized vehicles allowed entry through the West gate in the winter because of the heavy snow and wintery road conditions. Personally, I found the road conditions to be perfect.

Within the first few miles, we came upon a pair of eagles perched high on the branches of a lodgepole pine and elk foraging for food across the river. As we watched the elk, we heard the yip of coyotes as they crossed a meadow, also in search of breakfast. Yellowstone was awake. The cold air and 360 degrees of natural beauty started to wake me up too. Standing on a river's edge surrounded by so much life, those parts of me that lay dormant in Portland began to wake. Portland is a beautiful city, but still, a city and I crave the wilderness. When I'm surrounded by big sky and tall trees, I'm alive, and all my senses are awake. The coyotes, meanwhile, didn't find what they were looking for in the meadow and swam across the river hoping for better luck. The beautiful simplicity of crossing a river for breakfast left me longing for a self-reliance I'll never know.

We had a 40 mile ride ahead of us into Wyoming and to Old Faithful, and although we weren't on a particular schedule, after awhile, we were content to leave the elk and the coyotes to their morning. Plus, it was 6 degrees out, and no matter how good your gear, that kind of cold rubs up against you when you're standing still. My snowmobile was equipped with hand and butt warmers, and I was ready for them!

The next few miles through the park were stunning panoramas of cold mountains, endless snow-filled meadows, rivers that remain ice free because of the geothermal activity in Yellowstone, and life. Throughout the day, I would find myself awestruck by the amount of life in the park time and time again. This park, where temperatures can drop to -60 degrees, is bursting with life and it all revolves around one thing - surviving the winter.

The big animals in the park are herbivores living mostly off stored body fat. The guides and rangers warn us to keep our distance not only for our safety, but for the safety of the animals too. Getting too close may spook them and cause them to run. The rangers don't want the animals to burn any of their precious energy with extra movements caused by visitors.

The park teems with life, but there is also death. Winter is a dangerous predator of Yellowstone's wildlife. More than a thousand trumpeter swans winter in Yellowstone from the arctic. All but a handful have left. We spotted one in the river on Sunday sleeping with his bill in his backfeathers. Our guide speculated he was injured and probably couldn't fly as he was alone (unusual for trumpeter swans) and still in the park. He will probably be coyote food soon, our guide said. We looked for him again Monday morning when we rode through on our way to the Canyon and were happy to see he survived the night. I hope he is an unusual swan, one who loves Yellowstone so much that he wants to be here in the summer too. I don't think so though.

Another ill or injured animal lay in the snow just beside the road. I heard he's been there for almost two weeks. I took a picture of him, but I'm not sure why. Maybe to capture the harshness of Yellowstone's winters, maybe because I have pets at home and seeing him dying alone under a tree in a snowdrift was heartbreakingly sad; mostly though, I don't want to forget him.

I asked about rehabilitation, but the rangers in Yellowstone typically let nature take its course. Food is such a scarcity in Yellowstone in the winter and early spring months, and animals like this bison end up providing sustenance for Yellowstone's hungry scavengers, such as eagles, coyotes, and ravens. I tried to feel better by thinking that the trumpeter swan from earlier in the day and this bison are a natural part of the food chain and how the ultimate last act one can do in death is to give someone else life, but I still cried for him as I got back on my snowmobile leaving him to die in the snow.

This bison may actually get a little help from the rangers. Because he is so close to the road, they will likely euthanize him and use a tractor to move him somewhere away from the road. He will still provide the needed sustenance to others, but not along the roadside where accidents may occur if too many animals catch his scent.

Around noon, we reached Old Faithful, Yellowstone's most famous geyser. She lives up to her name too, as she is both old and reliable! However, she is not the most predictable geyser in the park nor does she reach the highest heights, but it's the combination of the two that draws people from around the world to watch her blow. It's a sight to be seen, but you know what, so was this after riding through the park on a snowmobile all morning!

After Old Faithful, we stopped at Fountain Pot Geyser Basin. We walked through the geysers and were lucky enough to catch one called Jet blow. Bison dung and hoof prints were everywhere. Apparently, on the really frigid nights they roll the dice and bed down alongside the geysers for warmth. Sometimes they get burned, which was the prevailing thought for the one we saw earlier by the road.

I'd take that gamble on a 60 below night with the wind kicking and the snow blowing. Wouldn't you?

By now, it was getting close to 4 o'clock. We turned for West and started to make our way out of the park, but Yellowstone had one last surprise for us. A herd of bison were also using the road for travel. Our guide told us to go slow, don't stop, and stay close together. I gotcha, Guide! Passing by these animals on a snow machine really revealed their magnificence, especially their magnificent horns and hoofs! We got through safely with nobody overtly stressed. Another Yellowstone moment!

Later that night, we took our snow machines out for pizza. I'll tell ya, pizza tastes better by snowmobile and nothing beats bungee cording your leftover pizza to the back of your machine. Good times!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Montana Moments

We landed in Montana yesterday, and already it has been quite the experience. Montana always is. No really, it's true! HA HA HA (sorry, Montanans)!

After stopping in Bozeman for lunch and a local IPA, we hit the road to Yellowstone. The drive south was beautiful along the Gallatin River and forest's edge. My eyes were heavy from the early start, but the cold, stark beauty and a chance to see moose or elk kept me awake. I settled into the seat allowing all of my body to rest except the one part of my brain that knows to scream MOOSE! before I even know I'm screaming.


When everyone else thought the roadside picnic area was too cold for lunch, this guy thought it perfect. We took a bunch of pictures, all of them shot in RAW meaning you guys reading this are stuck with the pictures on my phone. The iPad doesn't like RAW. Such a JPEG snob! Anyway, he had a fine lunch of bark and brush while we snapped pictures happy for our good luck. We hadn't even been in Montana four hours yet!

Later, down the road, it began to snow through the sun. Golden flakes were falling through the trees as we rolled along the river. An eagle flew overhead, and I was ready to move here! But that's nothing new; I'm always ready to "move here" when I visit places like this.
Two hours, a moose, an eagle, and a snowstorm later, we arrived in West Yellowstone. We checked into the hotel, ditched the car, and made fast trax (it just seemed like the appropriate spelling!) to the snowmobile rental place. Who wants a car when you can have a snowmobile?
The town of West Yellowstone is just outside the park. Although you need a guide to enter the park on snowmobile, you can ride all over town and the 250-something miles of trails around town on your own. I guess we looked like pros because they handed us the keys, told us how to start the things, and hollered "have fun!" as we took off for home. Only.... we were on snowmobiles. Shouldn't we explore a little before heading back to the hotel or to dinner? YES!

We were pros, too ~ darting between trees, getting up to speeds of 40 mph, and finding pretty little spots in the woods that would have been completely inaccessible otherwise. That is, until I got stuck in the snow. The deep snow, the kind of snow that has been there for months and isn't going anywhere, and if it has its way, neither are you. Yeah, that kind of snow. The pro was stuck. Did I mention it was still snowing and nearing darkness? Also, we were about 14 miles out of town. Yeah, that kind of stuck. What can you do but curse, dig, curse some more, and keep digging? We dug hard for 45 minutes (I got unstuck and then stuck again) before finally, getting my machine back on the trail. Man power? I don't think so. That was brut Woman power!

A frozen lake on the trail

Back in West (as it's known around these parts), we headed to Bullwinkle's for dinner. Pulling up to a restaurant by snowmobile is really fun, even when you're stopped by the cops for going down one of the only two streets in West that doesn't allow snowmobiles. Luckily, we got off with just a warning, but I started to wonder if maybe we didn't need a little more than "here's how's you start it, have fun!" before they handed over the keys.

Leaving Bullwinkle's after dinner

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Saturday, February 18, 2012

Yellowstone Awaits

Sitting on the big bird preparing for take-off. If it's true that the early bird gets the worm, well, we're going to feast today! Things don't get much earlier than a 3 am wake up call. Ugh, alarm clocks! I think the only one happy in the house was the chocolate lab. She bounced up with tail wagging ready for breakfast! As much as a 14 year old dog can bounce anyway.
To save room in my luggage, I wore some of my cold weather gear on the plane. Not a good idea. Carrying xc skis, a suitcase, a back pack, and a camera bag through the airport in gear rated for -40 degrees makes for one sweaty traveler!
The call just came to shut down, so no time to edit. See ya in Yellowstone!

Weary Traveler

Weary traveler finds caffeine at 35,000 feet

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone
Location:On the Tarmac

Friday, February 17, 2012

Yellowstone in Winter

Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam,
where the deer and the antelope play...

Tomorrow morning at 4, I leave for Yellowstone National Park. Soon, my suitcases will be packed with gear rated for -40 degrees, including boots, jackets, and a multitude of clothes fit to be layered. Cameras and lenses will be nestled safely together in their cases and bags; the tripod still propped up against them because I'm never sure where or how to pack it. Suitcases soon filled with the same ingredients that fill me; mainly, excitement and hope. Excitement to leave the car behind and explore snow-covered miles by xc skis and a snowmobile; excitement for Old Faithful and her beautiful predictability that can reach heights of 185 feet. I hope to spot an elk, or perhaps a trumpeter swan, wintering in the park trudging through the heavy snow in search of their life source knowing warmer months will come.

I've read Yellowstone in the winter can get so quiet that you begin to hear things. Things like an owl's wing beating across a snowy field and branches snapping and bending from heavy ice. Things like the pounding of your own heart as you stand before, and within, a world that steals your breath in amazement as you remember, like the raven and the pronghorn, you too belong here. 

The park opens its gates to me tomorrow. Join me if you'd like....

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Flood Warnings

In 40 days and 40 nights, the New Year poured more than 20 inches of rain onto Portland, Oregon. Flood warnings were issued; orders to get to higher ground given. Yet, I remained unmoved.  Rather than leave, I clung tightly to my bedrock, as has been my habit the past few years; afraid to let go, afraid to lose the footing I’ve gained. It didn’t matter that I no longer recognized the shoes.

You should know, this flood is not a flash flood. This is a flood that took hours, months, even years to develop. More than once, I was given fair chance to evacuate, but instead I placed sandbags around my fears that protected my doubts and allowed me to roost safely within them. I built levees of the heart with impermeable soil that promised security and a future, but at what price? Well-constructed levees let nothing in, but shouldn't we also consider that which they keep out? One can drown in safety too.

Photograph by Jim Richardson

However, this isn't about levees and rivers, although the river is about. This is about roads still above water. Journeys of the heart that must be taken. This is about allowing the levees to fail and resisting the sandbags. This is about roaring louder than the roaring water. 

When floodwaters recede, they often reveal a foundation changed yet remaining. Nutrient rich silt fills the cracks, silt that has supported growth for millions of years. When one stands on a million years, there is no doubt time is on her side. Beneath the water is a mystery waiting to be unearthed with a shovel and a dream, just as things have always been unearthed. 

Tonight, a ghostly fog shrouds the visible. The rain has stopped, and a sound faint but detectable rings from the river. For whom the bell tolls, I ask as I stand at the cold door straining my ears for an answer. I’m thankful for the fog tonight, the way it sits heavily on the fence across the street. The bell continues to toll, although distantly. The fog lifts, briefly, but long enough to reveal a sliver of the moon and a question. Suddenly, it's understood for whom the bell tolls is only part of the question; we must also ask who rings the bell? 

We are our own bell-ringers.