I believe I have discussed in an earlier article how different the fall season at Mammoth is from the summer season at Indian Creek. I have refined my opinion somewhat on what makes the two seasons different. Certainly, the fact that the fall brings more seniors is part of the difference, but there is more to it than the age of the visitors. While the summer brings many repeat visitors, the fall is really dominated by repeat visitors. Many of the visitors we see each fall are professional photographers, while others are serious wolf watchers. All in all, the fall clientele are more informed and prepared than the summer folks. I say this not to be judgmental, just to point out the difference.
I find that both seasons bring some of the most wonderful people into the park. The folks I spent so much space talking about in my last post represent less than a fraction of a single percent of all the visitors we encounter one way or another. So, if my last post left you wondering why we keep going back, just remember that our enjoyment is driven by the majority, not the not so great players. I have already forgotten most of the bad things from my last post, which was part of my intention in sharing.
The Rewards of Service to Our National Parks
There was an event late this summer I failed to note in my last post which was quite important. Our wonderful friends and co-workers, Donna and Rick Dumar were presented with a Presidential Lifetime Achievement Award for their thousands of hours of volunteering in Yellowstone National Park. The Dumars have volunteered in the park for nine summer and fall seasons. While they are not the longest serving volunteers, they certainly have had a positive impact on Indian Creek and Mammoth Campgrounds. Along with our supervising ranger, Park Ranger Allan Bush, they were instrumental in getting Connie and me off on the right foot as we started our journey in Yellowstone six years ago. The Dumars have become very close friends of ours. We spend a good deal of our off-duty time with them touring the park and the Greater Yellowstone area.
Back to the fall season
While the pace at Mammoth for the first few weeks after we have resettled easily matches that of Indian Creek during the peak of the summer season, it seems less stressful. At least that is the case for Connie and me. At Indian Creek, our site is adjacent to the registration cabin. We escape little of any drama that may go on in the campground from that location. At Mammoth, we have always, except for our first fall season, been away from the registration office. What you cannot see will not cause too much stress. Another component making it a little less stressful at Mammoth is the repeat visitors who know what they want and in many cases where they want to be. Most, but not all, also know that regardless of how many times they have stayed with us they will still get to listen to all the rules. That is not always the case in the summer. People in the fall are a little less rushed as well. We have plenty of visitors who stay two or more weeks. Therefore, there is not the urgency to see and do everything in just a day or two. All of this makes for a calmer time for all. This year we were very fortunate to have our other host couple from Indian Creek Campground, the Wartmans, Bonnie and Ron, come to Mammoth to work the fall season. Whereas we have always known the other hosts who worked in previous fall seasons, it was nice to have the whole gang together for the entire summer and fall seasons. We all instinctively knew what to expect from the others.
An Early Fall Getaway
Not long after moving to Mammoth, Connie and I took a trip to Cody, Wyoming to visit a few museums and do some bird and wild horse watching. We get four days off between work cycles, so we took off early in the morning on our first day off and returned in time for dinner on our last off day. It was a wonderful time to relax a little and see some things we had never seen before.
Along the way out of the park, we stopped to get make a few photographs of the fall colors along the Northeast Entrance Road. The golds of the Aspen leaves were in stark contrast with the brilliantly blue sky.
One place we specifically wanted to visit was a World War II Japanese relocation camp. I have known for years that these places existed, but I had no idea how they were constructed or operated. Nor did I have a full appreciation for why they came to be in the first place. We visited Heart Mountain Interpretive Center on the site of the former relocation camp by the same name.
While we were there, I took not one photograph. I had made the decision to not photograph the camp before we arrived out of respect for the former “residents”. I am sorry I made that decision. These camps were a very small step from prisoner of war camps. The people who were sent to them were not our enemies, they were our neighbors. They were, for the most part, American citizens. Many were second generation Americans. Yet, they were required to give up essentially all they had worked for during their lives and be transported by bus and train to hastily built camps in parts of the country where few people lived. They were subjected to a nearly complete loss of privacy and identity, to include communal toilet facilities without even a curtain separating one toilet from another. They came from all walks of life. Bankers, business owners, students, farmers, factory workers were among the represented professions.
The underlying reason that caused our government to treat its citizens in the way that the Japanese Americans were treated was fear.
The following link will take you to the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center website where you can learn a great deal about not only the camp but of the process of getting people there and most importantly an opportunity to learn about the people who were detained within the barbed wire encircled facility.
While fun is not how I would categorize this visit, it was certainly educational and well worth the several hours we spent there.
What was fun, however, was our search for one of the herds of wild horses that makes its home to the east of Cody, Wyoming. We had a pamphlet with directions, which really helped because you must enter the property via a gate. I am not in the habit of randomly opening gates in barbed wire fences that line a highway. However, with the pamphlet, we learned that we were invited to do just that. Of course, there were specific gates at specific locations that access the area where the horses may be found. We didn’t have to drive too far once we entered the protected area before we spotted a small herd of beautiful horses grazing and moving at a somewhat hurriedly pace. We stopped the car and started taking pictures. Some of the horses approached closely. Remembering the park’s rules regarding wild animals, we tried to stay outside 25 yards, but these critters seemed quite comfortable a bit closer. That said, they were not interested in us in the least. I think they kept a close watch on us to make sure we were no threat, but they also seemed to not want to have a conversation with us.
We took a bunch of photographs and then just watched them as they did their thing. When we first encountered the herd, it was about 150+ yards ahead of us and working in our general direction. Within a matter of no more than five minutes they had overtaken our stopped position and were dropping into a ravine 100 yards or more to the left of our location. Had we gotten there five minutes later we likely would not have seen them at all. I hope you enjoy the photographs.
One of the reasons we went to Cody in the first place was to visit the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. As the name implies the center dedicates a lot of space and energy telling Buffalo Bill Cody’s life story. However, the center is much more than just Bill’s place of honor. We ended up spending parts of two days in the Center, but even then, we were not able to see everything on display. We must return with the mission of completing our tour of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.
Because the weather was so cooperative we spent what could have been many more hours of museum time wandering the backroads of Park County Wyoming looking at the fall colors. For my US East Coast readers, I know fall colors in the Mountain West do not compare to the absolute explosion of color you get in the east. However, we saw some great yellows, oranges, and golds while on our drive. Here are a few examples.
I will let the rest of these images go without any captions so you can enjoy the beauty of the area.
Not long before sunset on our final day in Cody we came upon a field of Sunflowers. I did my best with what nature presented, a strong breeze and difficult framing opportunities.
Prior to leaving the park on this journey and for most of the time we were in Cody, we were tracking the sightings of at least two different Great Gray Owls in the park. When we left Cody on September 28, we hoped we would be able to find at least one of the owls upon our return to the park. One of the owls had been frequenting an area alongside the road near the entrance to Bridge Bay Campground just south of where the East Entrance Road intersects with the Grand Loop Road. So, instead of turning towards the north, we instead headed south. Soon we were found ourselves in an animal jam without any large animals in view. We did see an ambulance and a fire truck, so we assumed we had come upon the remains of a traffic accident. Not so! As we slowly passed through the throng of cars and people out of cars, Connie spotted a Great Gray Owl perched on a snag not fifty yards off the road.
As it turned out, the ambulance and fire truck were returning to their home base in the Lake District when they came upon the scene which must have been much more chaotic at the time, so they stopped and began the process of organizing the owl watchers and getting the traffic moving for those who wanted to just drive by. We parked and made our way back to the perched owl and snapped a few quick images before the bird had apparently had enough of all the people smiling and snapping photos and took off towards the campground.
We started walking into the campground for what we thought would be a long search for a gray bird in a lot of thickly limbed trees. We were surprised to see that the bird had fetched up on a short snag even closer to the road than before and was now sitting in full sun for all to admire. I got set up and started to photograph with not so good results due to the harsh noontime sunlight. Just after getting the settings correct, and producing one good image, the bird flew a short distance to catch a small critter in the grass. Failing to capture its prey, the owl flew again. This time I was ready for the flight and made a few neat images. After the bird returned to its roost, I made a lot more photographs that are far less impressive but do make for good representations of the species.
Just seeing the Great Gray Owl was a treat for both of us, as neither of us had ever seen one before. Having the opportunity to take some relatively high-quality photographs made it that much more exciting. Of course, as I looked around at the other photographers at the scene I was once again thrown into a bit of lens envy. Oh well, I just need to work my way closer without being part of the problem and I will get the good shots too.
Once the owl flew on to hunt in a different area, Connie and I returned to the car and headed north. We stopped at the Nez Perce Picnic area to have some lunch and reflect on our sighting of the Great Gray Owl. While we were there we watched a woman catch a huge cutthroat trout. It was quite possibly her first such catch given all the excitement that ensued as she reeled it in. Before releasing the fish, she and her male companion took several photos of the fish and the fish and the fisherperson with their phones. How times have changed. Sorry, I didn’t get any pictures.
Back at Mammoth
This year, our fall parking place at Mammoth Campground, was site 41. This site is at the north end of the campground and overlooks a large sagebrush meadow that lies between the campground and the North Entrance Road. Typically, we have heard of a lot of elk activity in that area. In former years, I was not able to witness much of it while on my tours of the campground as my focus was generally more towards the interior of the campground. However, this year was much different. I frequently went to the motorhome to make our lunch or to get more coffee, so I found myself looking to the east much more frequently than ever before. I was amazed at how much time the area was covered in elk. One rather dreary and, as I remember it, cold morning I watched a bull elk checking on his harem while also keeping a close eye on a smaller, albeit brave, younger bull. It was quite fun and I made a few images to document the activity.
While the final numbers have not yet been published, 2016 will mark two years in a row that new visitation records were set in the park year over year. Our experience in the fall at Mammoth gave us no reason to expect anything but that outcome. We stayed full later into the fall than usual and we filled earlier in the day/evening than in previous years. Traffic in the park while much reduced from the summer season was, all the same, higher than we remembered from previous fall seasons. What we did sense, though was that even with the higher numbers, the frequency of incidents appeared to be lower than we remembered from previous years.
Knowing that the season was not quite over, we struggled with our decision to leave the park on October 21. It seemed, on the one hand, to be leaving the Dumars and the Wartmans in a bit of a tight spot for the remaining days of the October, but on the other hand, we had been working since May 9 and were nearly exhausted. Both of our partner couples seemed to understand our situation and expressed no objections to our leaving a rotation early. So, off we went the day after working a shift.
The Way Out of the Park
We had long planned to leave the park to the south. The road construction between Indian Creek Campground and Roaring Mountain gave us some concern as there had been a lot of rain and wet snow that had caused a good bit of deterioration of the temporary road surface through the construction zone. We had heard a lot of horror stories from visitors who had come north through the area adding to our concerns. Prior to working our last shift, we made a trip through the construction zone with an eye on how the motorhome would fare pulling the car along the route.
I was convinced that allowed to drive my drive, we would be just fine. I was also convinced that there was nothing keeping me from driving my drive except for any restrictions that may be imposed by the park. The alternative to going through the construction was to head north to Livingston, west to Bozeman, then south on US 191. That would essentially add a full day plus to our trip with few opportunities to find open campgrounds to spend the first night or two. Therefore, I was happy to find the construction zone to be manageable. However, I also noted that there was a last chance turnaround area just ahead of the construction zone should we have to make a last-minute change to the planned route.
That last work shift brought with it more rain and therefore, more road surface deterioration. We soldiered on, however, and driving my drive we made it through the construction zone and Connie learned just how long she can hold her breath.
Here are a few images of what we would not have been able to see had we taken the alternate route.
For the first few days, we drove rather hard by our motorhome driving standards just to get to Page, Arizona, our home base for exploring the North Rim and all that is in the area. That said, there were probably several places we could have and should have stopped and explored in more depth. As I frequently have said before, we will just have to go back some day.
We arrived in Page in the late morning and checked into the RV Park we would call home for the next several nights. Once settled, we headed out to see what we could see. Our first stop was to the Glen Canyon Dam where we had hoped to take a tour. Unfortunately, there were no places left for the rest of the afternoon’s tours, so we committed to return another day. We eventually did take that tour and among the many things we learned along the way was that Page exists because of the construction of the dam. While the dam was completed decades ago, the good people of Page have found other ways to allow their town to prosper with the dam no longer being the primary contributor to the area’s economy.
Since we could not see the bowels of the dam that first afternoon in the area, we decided to take the short drive to Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado River. Over the eons, the Colorado River has quite famously cut its way through miles and miles of limestone and other sediments forming the Grand Canyon known and visited by millions each year. To me, the Horseshoe Bend is about as spectacular a natural carving as the canyon itself. Like the Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park, the best of all views of Horseshoe Bend have got to be from directly above where one can see just how nearly the river has come to creating an island of solid rock. That said, the perspective one gets from the cliffs to the south of the bend are none the less fantastic. We took the short but moderately strenuous walk out to the cliff face rather late in the afternoon with a somewhat threatening sky overhead. As we got closer to the bend my heart rate increased as I took in the beauty of the scene. Of course, there were tens of others there as well making it a bit difficult to find a bare place along the face to stand to make photographs. I was quick to learn that the best photographs would be made from as close to the edge as possible so that the near view consisted only of the river and not the south side rock formation. So, that is exactly where I headed. My bride of nearly 35 years apparently is not quite ready to get rid of me, as I soon heard her pleas to backtrack while at the same time feeling her tugging at my belt making it very difficult indeed to make any sort of photograph. I got free long enough to make these images.
While the deteriorating weather conditions muted the colors some, the beauty of this remarkable landmark comes through. Another distractor to quality images is my challenged height. If I were a foot taller it would have been much easier and dare I say safer to get above the near side cliff for a cleaner shot.
As we made our way back toward the parking area, the wind came up a few more knots and the sky darkened a good bit more. Soon, we were hearing thunder in the distance behind us. We stopped and looked back towards the river and after watching several lightning strikes I tried to make an image with a bolt of lightning within. Here is surviving image from that effort.
The Main Reason for the Stay
The next morning, we headed to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The morning started out partly cloudy with patches of fog here and there. Our first stop along the way was near Lees Ferry, Arizona where the changing sky demanded our attention.
The North Rim of the Grand Canyon was everything we expected and more. I will let the photographs and their captions tell most of the story. Of course, since our visit was so late in the year, we were witness to the closing of the visitor accommodations of this part of the park. Having lived through the process for the last several years in Yellowstone we were not surprised nor disappointed to find a lot of “Closed For the Season” signs. We were also not disappointed to see that there were few cars in any of the parking lots meaning fewer people on the trails and overlooks. If there was a disappointment it was that the skies, clouds, and the sun didn’t always cooperate with this photographer. You should know by now what that means. We must return another day. Enjoy the images.
One Last Day in the Area
Our last day of playing tourist for the fall season was spent exploring the Navajo Bridge and surrounding sights.
The Navajo Bridge spans the Colorado River downstream of Glen Canyon Dam, but a good distance upstream of the Grand Canyon. While the bridges are wonderful sights to behold, we were attracted to the area in the hopes we would see California Condors who are known to frequent the area. We saw none but were told that they had been around earlier in the morning. So, next time we must get up earlier and stay longer in order to see and photograph everything we want to.
The original Navajo Bridge is no longer in use due in great part to its narrow road surface. A newer bridge sits alongside the old bridge and was constructed to be as identical to the original as possible, albeit wider and stronger. From the old bridge, I photographed to newer bridge in such a way as to capture the engineering that went into the design of the structure. Once again, I will let the photos and their captions tell the rest of the story.
After crossing the bridge to the west is the settlement of Lees Ferry. As the name implies Lees Ferry was built on the site of the ferry landing operated for a time by its namesake. The bridge, of course, led to the demise of the ferry many years ago. However, the area where the ferry once was anchored is now a launch and recovery point for river operators who venture along this portion of the Colorado River. I made a few images of the surviving structures from the old ferry operation days.
One final note regarding the Page, Arizona area. Not far southeast of Page is an area called Antelope Canyon, in the Navajo Nation Reservation. Some fantastic photographs have been made from within the canyon. On our next visit, I intend to take a photographer’s only guided tour of the canyon and make some of my own photographs of this incredibly beautiful place.
The remainder of our journey back to our winter home in Texas was uneventful. My days were spent behind the wheel of the motorhome making the best time possible to get home and resettled before our annual Thanksgiving visit to Connie’s family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
We stopped only for fuel and to spend the nights making the balance of our travel as uneventful as possible.
As I complete this writing, we are recovering from the Holiday Season and planning the details of our next adventure, a car trip to Key West, Florida and Dry Tortugas National Park. This trip will be a joint venture with our great friends Pat and Marie McGahan for the Keys and National Park portion. We will then a stop to visit another wonderful couple and great friends, Gary and Janet Dugan, on Florida’s west coast. Moving up the coast we will have a short visit with our grand-niece, Annie Kushner and her fiancé Alex Turbett. Last, but certainly not least a Florida rendezvous with our very long time and wonderful friend, Trish McMillan. Once we leave Florida, anyone who we know that is anywhere close to our route back to Texas becomes fair game for a surprise visit.
My camera bags are loaded and I am ready for what we hope are some wonderful photo opportunities. Who knows, I may even be able to get some on the run blog posts published. Wouldn’t that be novel?