Artistry Forged by Fire and Ice ~ Yellowstone Forever Field Seminar Series, Part II

“There are two kinds of truths:  the truth that lights the way and the truth that warms the heart.  The first of these is science, and the second is art.  Neither is independent of the other or more important than the other….The truth of art keeps science from becoming inhuman, and the truth of science keeps art from becoming ridiculous.”  ~  Raymond Thornton Chandler

Day 2 of the Yellowstone Forever Field Seminar “Observing Thermal Biology and Geology” took us to Mammoth Hot Springs, where art and the world of science collide.  Brace yourself for another geology lesson. 🙂

The geology at Mammoth Hot Springs, aka Mammoth Terraces, is older than that at Norris Geyser Basin, and without the “rotten egg” smell of hydrogen sulfide found in many of the thermal features throughout the park. Non-existent at Norris, limestone, a soft sedimentary rock with a high calcite mineral content, is found in abundance near Mammoth Hot Springs.  It is soluble in water and weak acid solution, dissolving into calcium carbonate, also known as travertine.  And it is travertine that has molded Mammoth Hot Springs in a big way.

Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces

Travertine is deposited here at the Mammoth Terraces faster than anywhere else on earth, at a rate of 5 mm per day or 7 feet per year.  Mammoth Hot Springs today would have looked far different to those early visitors to the park who actually climbed onto the Terraces to soak in these waters, seeking relief for their physical ailments.  In fact, travertine is being deposited at such a rapid rate that unstable rock formations have been created that often collapse under their own weight.  It is not surprising that no one is allowed onto these Terraces anymore.

As our class stood looking out over Palette Springs, found at the Mammoth Terraces, we were asked to describe what we were looking at.  I couldn’t help but feel like I had stepped onto another planet.  Almost devoid of trees, except for those left standing as ancient silent sentinels, this sculpted, terraced alabaster mountain loomed over me, capped by a dazzling cerulean sky.  Water cascaded over the edges in rivulets, and a patchwork of orange, gold, and green graced the sides and base, thanks to the work of a myriad of microbes.

Palette Springs at Mammoth Terraces. The large egg-shaped boulder on the left is Devil’s Thumb.

As at Norris Geyser Basin, microbes have created these intriguing formations.  This is how cellular life began on our planet, with microbes swimming in hot spring environments.  I have read that roughly 60% of all life on our planet is microbial, most buried deep below the soil we walk on.

Bruce Fouke, geobiologist who recently authored the book “The Art of Yellowstone Science – Mammoth Hot Springs as a Window on the Universe”, along with the help of professional photographer Tom Murphy, believes that it takes the blending of art and science to unravel the mysteries of hydrothermal features such as Mammoth Hot Springs.

Canary Springs majestically stands above the Mammoth Upper Terraces.  The white and gray travertine are older deposits.

He has said that “the water temperature, chemistry and flow at Mammoth are similar to that found on the early Earth, and the hot springs still harbor microbial life that evolved billions of years ago.”  And he should know, as he has studied this park since 1996, doing research for NASA and now through his own foundation.  He had the good fortune to meet Tom Murphy in 2008, whose photographic passion since 1975 has been in telling Yellowstone’s story in breathtaking images.  And I was fortunate to meet Tom Murphy and attend a slideshow presentation of his work several years ago, as well as listen to Bruce Fouke speak this past summer on his studies at Mammoth Hot Springs.  As volunteers we were given a copy of his new book, which I am in the process of finishing…a fascinating read.

“Daily it is forced home on the mind of the geologist that nothing, not even the wind that blows, is so unstable as the level of the crust of this Earth.”  ~  Charles Darwin

There are several boardwalks surrounding both the upper and lower Terraces.  As we wandered those walkways during our class, Joshua broke down the creation of these terraces, what we were seeing above ground, and what was most likely occurring below the surface as well.  To say he bolstered the elasticity of my brain matter these two days was an understatement. 🙂

Our fearless leader Joshua challenged us to participate in active observation.

When we arrived at the Upper Terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs, our naturalist assignment was made clear to us – find a pattern in color or structure and attempt to determine the microorganism involved and why the area we selected looks unlike others around it.  Huh?

This is the pool I studied for my assignment. The milky substance that floats upon the surface, then later sinks, is calcite ice.

Armed with an infrared thermometer gun, pH strips, a book identifying the characteristics of specific microbes, and a journal, we went to work. Suffice to say, this assignment challenged me, but it was a great exercise in looking beyond the surface and making observations, something we often don’t take the time to do.  And, I passed the class!

If you love the national parks and would love to learn more, check out the Yellowstone Forever Field Seminar catalog. There is something for everyone who has a passion for the natural world.

Disclaimer:  The views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of Yellowstone Forever.  

“Humanity’s quest for a sustainable existence will define our present and future place in the universe.  The art and science of Mammoth Hot Springs provides an unexpectedly insightful vantage point from which to envision this future.”  ~ Bruce W. Fouke & Tom Murphy

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River Otters of Yellowstone ~ Yellowstone Forever Field Seminar Series

When I think of cute and cuddly mammals, both in kid and adult form, what comes to mind is the gregarious, charismatic river otter, which may be elusive but can be found in Yellowstone National Park.

I was preparing to support the river otter field seminar but I wasn’t confident we would actually see any otters.  It wasn’t that pessimism was rearing its ugly head, more that few otters had been spotted this summer.

There was a photography course running simultaneously with the river otter course and as the photographers were leaving for the field, I jokingly gave one of the instructors his marching order for the day – find river otters. His reply, “Since we are going to a lake, I guess we won’t be finding any river otters.” Ok buddy, I’m not that naïve.

Otter tracks…could sightings be in our future?

The otter class left for the field as well, hiking down to the Lamar River to scout for otters but, in lieu of the actual mammal, what greeted us was a fresh stonefly hatch. No matter how tightly I buttoned my shirt, those fat, juicy flies found their way in…lovely!  Although we found no otters that morning, we did find evidence they had been there recently – prints down by the shore, as well as denning signs and latrines.  We headed back to the ranch feeling one step closer to finding the real deal.

When the photography class returned later that morning they were gloating as they showed us photos of river otters at Trout Lake, just east of the ranch, where the cutthroat trout were spawning.  Our plan was to head there after dinner, hoping dusk would find these little cuties still romping around the lake.

Hiking around Trout Lake near dusk was lovely but devoid of otters so we headed over the hill to Buck Lake, where we found an otter trail but none in sight.  Thinking our day was going to be a bust, we hiked back over to Trout Lake and as we crested the hill we saw a mammal swimming across the lake and soon found not one but four otters on a fallen log, near the inlet where the cutthroat were spawning.  We spent two gleeful hours busily snapping photos of their antics – fishing, eating, and playing.  Nothing more would have needed to happen during this seminar and it would have been labeled a success.

Just a few stats on these little charmers:

  • The species found in Yellowstone National Park is the North American river otter.  They are a member of the weasel, badger, and marten family.
  • Mostly crepuscular, they can be best spotted at dusk or dawn.
  • They grow to an adult length of 3.5 to 4 feet and weigh from 11 – 33 lbs.
  • Long, stiff facial whiskers can detect prey, even underwater.
  • They close their ears and nostrils when swimming underwater, allowing them to easily stay under for 2-3 minutes.
  • They have large, fully webbed feet and a tail that serves as a rudder.
  • Females breed in the spring and the egg floats freely in the womb until winter, when it attaches to the uterine wall.
  • Typically 2-3 pups are birthed per litter.

We turned up ‘otterless’ the next two days but there was plenty of sign (scat) to collect, to clean and view under the microscopes, telling us on what these little guys were eating.  We were more than content with that. 🙂

Yellowstone river otters can most easily be seen in the winter, when their dark fur readily stands out against the white snow.  They do not hibernate like other park mammals, so can be seen slip sliding across the ice and snow.

If you are interested in learning more about the educational programs offered by Yellowstone Forever, go to www.yellowstone.org and check them out.  You won’t be disappointed.

Disclaimer:  The views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of Yellowstone Forever.  

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The Bison of Yellowstone ~ Yellowstone Forever Field Seminar Series, Part 2

It is 7:00 AM and the “Bison of Yellowstone” course is due to begin in a couple of hours.  There are a few of us mingling around the bunkhouse, enjoying our morning cup of joe.  As I look down the pathway to the cabins, I cannot believe what I am seeing.

I call over the students as I open the bunkhouse door.  A gorgeous bull bison, sporting a full beard, pompadour, and swaying pantaloons, is meandering down the walkway, heading for the bunkhouse.  His timing couldn’t be better!  He walks across the front porch and down the side of the building to the foot of the stairs at the back porch.  His behavior electrifies us as he grunts and snorts, then proceeds to urinate.  We believe he is agitated with us, as he trots off to the corner of the ranger residence next door.  He exhibits the same behavior there, then drops down, rolling in his urine.  As we look across Rose Creek, which runs through the ranch, another magnificent bull and the cow he is tending are watching, and this show is all part of the bull dominance so often displayed this time of year.  Welcome to the rut!

Beginning mid-July and continuing into the early days of September, the bison rut is on in Yellowstone.  Bulls do most of their communicating during this time of year, their breeding season.  Often during the rut the bulls could be heard from our cabins, snorts and bellows sounding more like a pride of lions.  It was eerie and exhilarating.

I watched from the bunkhouse as this bull was trying to tend “his” cow.
Here was his response to me when I opened the door to snap this photo. His bellow was hysterical.

During the rut bull bison focus their attention on the cows, trying to determine when they enter estrus, the time when they are receptive to breeding and can be impregnated.  A cow’s urine is full of information on when she is nearing ovulation.  The bull has a vomeronasal organ in the roof of his mouth than can analyze female urine and determine if she is receptive.  Sticking his nose into the cow’s urine,  he raises his head with upper lip curled, tongue reacting as if he is tasting a fine wine.  This action, called the flehmen response, is common in most ungulates.  We observed this behavior during our time in the field, after which the bull chased the female, a sure sign he felt she was ready.

So what does all this bull posturing mean during the rut?  Here are some of the questions that I had answered:

Q:  What does that raised tail mean?

A:  It could mean one of two things – charge or discharge.  When a bull or even a cow is agitated, they lift their tail into what looks like a question mark.  A raised tail is often seen on the bulls during the rut, as their testosterone levels keep them agitated much of the time.  As for the discharge, do I really need to explain that?

Two bulls…hmmm, wonder what that raised tail means? And what about that curled lip?

Q:  What’s all that rolling around in the dusty wallows about?

A:  All bulls wallow several times per day during the summer, probably ridding themselves of insects and perhaps reducing their body temperature.  No one knows for certain why a bull urinates into a wallow before rolling in it during the rut.  Perhaps he is showing his male dominance to other bulls, or is he trying to impress the gals?

Q:  How does a bull choose a female?

A:  Sorry guys, but the girl has the final say on who sires her calf.  The bull expends a lot of energy trying to “tend” a cow when he knows she is nearing estrus, but the cow is looking for a high-ranking bull, one who has been tested through a few winters, battles, predators, etc.  If she doesn’t think the guy lavishing her with attention is going to be a fit partner, she will take to running, prompting other bulls to chase her.  Who she ends up with may not be who she came to the party with.

Q:  Are bulls monogamous?

A:  Seriously, not even close.  Bulls are quite the cad, trying to impregnate as many cows as they can during the rut, in order to extend their lineage.  And if that wasn’t bad enough, they can’t be said to be good fathers either. After the rut bulls can be found alone, enjoying the warm sun, eating and ruminating, resting and preparing for the winter.  But I still love you guys!

A good-looking couple enjoying the sunshine in Hayden Valley

Q:  Now to the touchy subject of bison sex.  I don’t want to sound like a voyeur, but how does all that work?

A:  Don’t blink or you might miss it!  Bison sex takes a whole 4-5 seconds, with the bull putting his front legs over the flank of the female.  At the time of ejaculation, the force of his abdominal contraction is so strong that the bull is literally lifted off the ground, placing all 2,000 pounds of him on the cow’s back.  It’s no wonder that a cow can be seen limping for days afterwards.  It begs the question, can you blame a girl for not being that interested in sex?

Our bison class came upon this scene as we were heading to Hayden Valley to observe bison behavior. Two bulls were fighting for dominance, fur flying, stopping traffic.

Q:  How often during the rut do bulls fight, as in head-to-head combat, like we so often hear about?

A:  Surprisingly, bulls try not to fight with other bulls if possible.  They lose, on average, 200 pounds during the rut as they turn their attention to tending cows and having sex instead of eating.  Winter rapidly approaches after the rut, and they need as much energy as possible, stored as body fat, to help get them through the cold, harsh days.  Time spent fighting means time taken away from breeding and valuable energy expended.  Bulls try to modify another bull’s behavior instead, getting them to submit.  This is where all the posturing; e.g. grunts, bellows, rolling in wallows, stamping of hooves and shaking of pantaloons comes in.  The winners of this posturing don’t spare their rivals, rather themselves.  Some ecologists believe that it is typically the older bulls who are more likely to engage in battle to win the girl, as they have less to lose.   “An old bull is a bold bull”.

Because we have so much more to learn about these majestic creatures, doesn’t it make sense to preserve some wild spaces for studying them and other wildlife?

~  The Ends ~

If you are interested in learning more about the educational programs offered by Yellowstone Forever, go to www.yellowstone.org and check them out.  You won’t be disappointed.

Disclaimer:  The views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of Yellowstone Forever.  

The Bison of Yellowstone ~ Yellowstone Forever Field Seminar Series, Part 1

“Advice from a bison:  Stand your ground; have a tough hide; keep moving on; cherish wide open spaces; have a strong spirit; roam wild and free; let the chips fall where they may!”  ~  Ilan Shamir

Our summer volunteering gig in Yellowstone National Park has drawn to a close, a bittersweet moment for us as we hung up bus keys for the last time and helped pack up the ranch.  Our final days slowed to a leisurely pace as the crisp morning air announced the onset of fall.  As we drove away from the Lamar Buffalo Ranch we agreed that this magical place had seeped into our souls.  Without a doubt this summer, this park, has changed me.

One of many wonderful sunsets viewed from the ranch.

We are comfortably snuggled into a condo in the mountains of Colorado until we move to the big city of  Denver later this month for a family gathering, so it seems the best time to reflect upon a summer of learning and meeting some of the most interesting people who have ever crossed our paths.  We are always grateful to reconnect with old friends and meet other like-minded folks, and we did much of both these past several months.  What a soul-enriching summer it has been!

We each supported a dozen field seminars this summer and, if asked, I could not choose my favorite, although the ‘Bison of Yellowstone‘ has always stayed near the top of my list.  With two iconic instructors leading the course – Jim Garry, the consummate storyteller and expert of all things Yellowstone, and Harold Picton, one of the most seasoned Yellowstone Forever instructors and PhD bison extraordinaire, it made for a fascinating three days.  I have been so captivated by these big, beautiful beasts that I couldn’t stop reading about them, consuming four books this summer, my favorite being “The American Bison”, by Dale Lott.

A bison strolling through the ranch early in the summer, prior to losing his winter coat.
Yearling bison with a cowbird hitchhiker, who eats insects off the ground around the bison’s head.

Although so many who come to this first ever national park are in search of grizzly and wolf, and I too loved watching them through our spotting scopes at the ranch, I have always loved the bison, proud symbol of our American West.  After supporting this class, which took place during the bison rut, the love affair has only grown.

Who wouldn’t love this prehistoric-looking creature, whose history dates back over two million years to Eurasia? They have a long, beleaguered history and, with all they have endured through the centuries, they have still cleverly learned to adapt to their current environment.  Their complex anatomy allows them to thrive where other species would falter.  They have a blood supply that acts as a great temperature regulating system, cooling their brain as they expel water through their nose.  Their digestive system is a regular ecosystem, allowing them to eat various types of plants and grasses easily.  And due to the heavy insulation on their front-end, they fare far better in winter than other wildlife, with little change to their metabolism until temperatures dip to -40ºF.

A little red dog with mom, just a few weeks after birth.
Red dog with little horn buds.
No longer red but still being nursed by mom.

Each season provides an interesting study into the life of a bison – spring, when the calving occurs and the “red dogs” can be seen frolicking in the lush green grasses; summer, when the bulls become more agitated as they march towards the “rut”, the breeding season when testosterone-laden bulls strut their stuff and display their male dominance; fall, when the cows and calves band together and bulls begin their solitary foraging months, preparing for the desolate cold to come; and winter, when the bitter cold winds and the predatory wolf determine who will survive.

A small part of a larger herd seen in the Lamar Valley.

When I look upon the vast Lamar Valley dotted with bison, it is difficult to believe that in the early 19th century this herd had dwindled to no more than two dozen head, due to unconstrained poaching in the park. Today the herd has grown to ~ 4,000 in the northern range and roughly 5,200 throughout the park, thanks to the creation of the Lamar Buffalo Ranch around 1907.  There are no cattle genes in this herd, unlike all others, making it possibly the only true wild herd remaining and the herd with the greatest chance of survival.  Disease and sterility are the greatest threats to herds not truly ‘wild’.

A beautiful bull and his affectionate cow seen on the ranch during the rut.

Living at the Buffalo Ranch these past four months provided us with the rare opportunity to witness bison behavior up-close, from the safety of our cabin or the bunkhouse.  On many occasions large numbers of these beautiful animals, bulls, cows, and calves alike, graced us as they wandered across the campus.   Their presence reminded us that this is their home and we are just mere visitors.

If you are interested in learning more about the educational programs offered by Yellowstone Forever, go to www.yellowstone.org and check them out.  You won’t be disappointed.

Next Up:  The rut, filled with bison love and aggression.

Disclaimer:  The views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of Yellowstone Forever.  

One of the Top Drives in the World ~ Icefields Parkway

There is a dramatic stretch of highway that parallels the Continental Divide, melding together two stunning Canadian parks.  This two-lane highway, stretching from the picturesque little village of Lake Louise in Banff National Park to the vibrant little town of Jasper in Jasper National Park, has been rated as one of the top drives in the world by Condé Nast Traveler, 144 miles of soaring rocky mountain peaks, ancient glacier ice fields, and immense sweeping valleys.  I would not be classified a worldly traveler (more a wannabe) but I must agree that it is tops on my list.

This is more than a drive.  It’s a journey through natural history, jaw-dropping landscapes, and more than 100 ancient glaciers.  It is so much larger than my meager brain can wrap itself around.  The best way to describe the beauty of the Icefields Parkway is through photos.  Here are just a few of the dramatic sights seen along this winding stretch of road:

Herbert Lake reflection

Herbert Lake, sitting under the peak of Mt. Tempe, was our first stop of the day after leaving Lake Louise.  Its morning reflection was a great start to our day.

Bow Glacier and Bow Falls

Bow Glacier and Bow Falls , one of the many striking glaciers along this beautiful stretch of highway.

Peyto Lake

Peyto Lake, named for “Wild Bill” Peyto, one of the first game wardens in the park.  The unusually bright blue water of the lake, created by glacial “rock flour”, which scatters the blue-green rays of light, coupled with the wide view of the Mistaya Valley, make this one of the most scenic sights along the parkway.

Hilda Pass

Another glacier seen from Hilda Pass.

Sunwapta Pass view

And another from the Sunwapta Pass.

The Columbia Icefield, composed of eight glaciers and encompassing an area of about 200 miles, sits near the halfway mark on the Icefields Parkway.  This ice mass is one of the largest south of the Arctic Circle and is one of the most reachable in North America.  The Athabasca, Snowdome, and Stutfield Glaciers can be seen from the parkway.

The Columbia Icefield Centre, much like a large National Park Visitor Center, is where you can book the Columbia Icefield Glacier Adventure, a 90-minute excursion onto the Athabasca Glacier aboard a massive Ice Explorer.  Tours on the Glacier Skywalk, a glass-floored observation walkway 918 feet above the spectacular Sunwapta Valley, can also be booked at the center.

Not unlike most other visitor centers, there is a 20-minute film that can be watched here.  We experienced “Through Ice and Time”, the best film I have ever seen in a National Park visitor center.

Snowdome GlacierSnowdome Glacier, part of the Columbia Icefields.

Athabasca Glacier

And the mother of them all, the Athabasca Glacier, largest in the Columbia Icefields, is the glacier the Ice Explorers drive visitors onto.  In 1844 this massive glacier covered the area across the street at the Columbia Icefield Centre, where the parking lot now sits, another testament to how far these glaciers have retreated.

Sunwapta Falls

Thundering Sunwapta Falls, whose power can be felt and heard when you stand on the bridge above it.

Athabasca Falls

The massive power of the Athabasca Falls is created as the Athabasca River funnels into a narrow gorge.

Mountain goats

Mountain goats come down from the red cliffs of Mt. Kerkeslin to lick mineral deposits along the road.

A trip to the Canadian Rockies would be incomplete without experiencing this spectacular drive on the Icefields Parkway and the Columbia Icefields.  As we drove the winding roads, I was remembering a post I had recently read by blogger friend Sue, who had recently biked this route with hubby Dave and a group of other cyclists.  I bow down to you both. 🙂