Sunday, January 31, 2010

more difficult

About a week ago, when we had snow but no Internet, we did the Mallard Lake trail. After a dusting of an inch or so of fresh powder we decided it was the perfect time to attempt this "more difficult" trek. The description said it rose 760 feet in elevation and featured a number of "side hills." Even though we didn't know what a "side hill" was, we decided to do it anyway.

To get to the trail head we headed down the two hills behind the Old Faithful Lodge. These bunny slopes had been part of our ski lesson and our (at least) my first attempts to go down them were not pretty. But, now, almost two months later, we glided down them with ease.

The trail starts in a heavily wooded area. As we zig-zagged through stands of lodgepole pines, it was like hiking with skis on. At the top of the first hill we had to cross a small creek on a fallen tree. After another uphill the trail opened up a bit

to allow us to get a glimpse of the slate gray ski. As we got to the top of the ridge, we reached an area scarred by the 1988 fires, the largest in the Park's recorded history, where small lodgepoles grow among charred trunks

From the top of the ridge, we dropped down into a gully

before making another climb to the top of the ridge using a variety of switchbacks that made us both comment that going down was sure going to be tougher than coming up.

From there we continued through a canyon (aka, "the bowl"),

where we found out exactly what a side hill was as we skied along the mountain edge with one ski higher up on the hill than the other for a good mile plus.

Once out of the bowl, we pushed on through another heavily forested area until we reached a small clearing which we at first thought was the lake. That was until we saw that the trail kept going along the side of the clearing, which turned out to be a meadow.

We continued on up and down hills till we finally reached a trail marker saying the lake was .2 miles ahead. From there it was all downhill, literally, to Mallard Lake, which sits at about 8,100 feet above sea level

Mallard Lake also sits atop the aptly named Mallard Lake Dome, a resurgent volcanic dome that is still growing due to an infusion of magma heating up groundwater and causing the ground to bulge. In other words, lava is usually hundreds of miles under the earth's surface, but around here it can be closer to 1o miles down. Gulp.

We had planned to eat at the lake but with the wind whipping off the icy surface making us colder than we had been all day, we decided just to boil water and let our camping food stew in my backpack for the required 10 minutes as we headed back to a warmer spot to eat.

Heading downhill, we started making good time and were back to the bowl before we had a chance to stop for lunch. You are suppose to drop into the canyon and have to take a quick right but I missed the turn.

My fall was graceful but not enough so to keep from sending Pad See You all over my backpack. (Two washings still haven't gotten the smell out.) We gathered ourselves and managed not topple into the canyon as we flew down the side hills before managing to stop at a fairly flat spot to finally eat.

Rejuvenated, we hit the trail again, enjoying the ups and downs that brought us to the top of the ridge and our first glimpse of a blue sky

Going down from there was our toughest challenge: the switchbacks, this time going down. The first couple turns proved doable but the final curve, called the "Mae West" came up too quick. The trail description says it is "not that big a deal when you're going uphill, but when you come back this way it will be an achievement if you can round Mae West without falling." Needless to say, we were not achievers on this day.

At least we knew that that was our final challenge of the day. From there we zipped down the long declines,

past the stream crossing and up the two bunny hills toward home. It may not have been perfect but we decided, in honor of Ms. West, any time we've got nothing to do - and lots of time to do it - we'll go on up to Mallard Lake.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

more to most difficult

Due to our Internet being down for nearly a week, our blogs are a little out of date. About a week a go we got about 15" of snow over two days. The trails and the roads (you could see pavement in some places) were getting more than a little dicey so the snow was a godsend to skier and snow coach riders/drivers alike.

We decided to join a couple of mates and take advantage of the white windfall and do the Spring Creek/Lone Star/Howard Eaton trails. The Howard Eaton is a steep route and is rated "more to most difficult" so we kept our fingers crossed that the new snow would make it more manageable for newbies like us.

Being the slowest members of our party, we fell to the back of the pack as we headed up the Divide trail to the Spring Creek trail head. As the others broke trail we were provided with a beautiful path in the fresh powder

Going down the first hills on Spring Creek we experienced immediate benefits from the foot of new snow. Where, in the past, we were falling because we picked up too much speed down the hill we were now gliding from turn to turn as we descended into the canyon and along the creek

Even Turtle Rock, the sight of our two-pronged crash the last time we did Spring Creek, proved doable in the day's optimal conditions.

As we connected with Lone Star we were rewarded with a groomed and tracked trail until we decided to take a "short cut" to the Howard Eaton. With the new snow fall this makeshift trail was in desperate need of breaking

and having played the caboose for the 4+ miles of Spring Creek, I jumped to the front to break trail. It was slow going as the snow was up to my knees in some places but we slogged through to the Howard Eaton, which rewarded us with a series of quick uphill climbs.

But the good thing is that uphills lead to great views

and downhills

Despite the trail's challenging rating, we flew down the first two set of downhills like pros. Each run flattened out to give us a great view of the Lodge, which, along with lunch, kept getting closer

and closer

Finally, we hit the last downhill that included a sharp turn with a reputation that had proceeded itself. Right after our friend pointed out the spot where he took a big digger his last time down, Wendie took a header in the same spot. Buoyed by having not fallen all day, I went headlong into the same turn only to perform a face-first landing for which I was rewarded a Santa Claus beard and a 9.8 from the Russian judge

Still, despite the fall, the new batch of powder has given our skiing new life, and, because of the fall, has given me decidedly more fashionable facial hair.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

the north: fish

In A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean writes, "I am haunted by waters." Well Norm, I know how you feel. Seven of Trout Unlimited's top 100 trout streams run through Yellowstone Park. Among these is the Firehole River, which flows right outside our door, and the Madison River, a hop-skip and-a-jump away. But since you can't fish in the Park during the winter I have been resigned to staring longingly at the rivers instead of fishing them.

Last week I broke down and hopped a snowcoach for the three hour (bumpy) trip to Mammoth so that I could get a day on one of the spring creeks near Livingston, Montana. Thankfully our car started despite not being used for 7 weeks and the next day I woke up at 6am and headed through Paradise Valley

to Bozeman, about 1 1/2 hours Northwest of the Park.

After running some errands, I drove to Livingston and stopped at the Yellowstone Angler to pick up a couple flies and a 2-day fishing license. The guy in the fly shop recommended some tiny midge nymphs as well as some larger conehead bunny tail streamers in green and black.

A little before 11am, I headed to the spring creek looking for the sign and the big white house "right out of Gone with the Wind" where I was told to check in.

The creek is on private property and you must pay to fish it. It is considerably cheaper to fish it in January as opposed to the Spring or Summer months. Signing in, I noticed I was the fifth person of 2010 to fish the river. Though they allow 16 fishermen per day, I was only one of three for this afternoon.

With the mercury hovering at around 40-degrees and stiff wind blowing through the valley, it might have seemed a little chilly to fish. But since the creek comes directly from underground it stays at a near-constant temperature (around 45-degrees) all year round making it fishable when the Yellowstone River, which it empties into, is frozen solid.

Following the advice of the fly shop guy, I (AKA, the old man on the stream)

geared up and headed to the north end of the property, past the sheep,

and set up a two fly rig with one small nymph trailing a small black and copper zebra conehead. This is similar to the way you fish on Massachusett's Swift River in the winter and I tried this outfit for pretty much an hour and a half with no luck. About the only thing I was catching was any number of the sticks and debris that had found its way into the river.

Finally I came to a stretch of fast water that flattened out in to a long pool before the river shot through a tunnel and dumped into the Yellowstone.

Here I switched to the green bunny tail figuring at least, given its weight, it would be easier to cast into the strong gusts that kept turning my line into a Jackson Pollack painting. The change paid immediate dividends. After letting the streamer drift through the fast water, I started stripping it in and on the third strip I had a strike. Thirty seconds later I landed my first fish of 2010; a decent brown trout.

That pool yielded a few more nice fish including a beautiful little cutthroat trout (sorry he was camera shy). As I fished the far shore down to the tunnel I landed brown after brown

At the mouth of the tunnel I caught a nice 19 incher that put up a good ol' fight.

I ended up losing my green streamer so I switched to the black as I headed back upstream to re-fish the pools I had tried with the nymph. Despite the color change, I had immediate success landing some more browns and a cutt-bow (cutthroat-rainbow hybrid). Just as my hands were getting a little too cold to fish, I hooked into a fat brown that gave me the fight of the day

Figuring I had used up all my luck for the day, and knowing I needed to pick up Wendie at 5pm in Mammoth, I decided to call it quits at around 4pm. Despite being stuck behind some slow-pokes for the 50 miles drive (guy in the Honda Prelude, the speed limit is 70mph!), my luck held and I arrived right as Wendie's coach was pulling up to the hotel entrance.

With the specter of unfishable rivers behind me, all I need is to stop being tormented by ghosts of East-Coast-pizzas-past.

Friday, January 22, 2010

the north: animals

On Tuesday afternoon I took the luggage coach up to Mammoth Hot Springs to meet Steve, who'd left on Monday to spend the day fishing. It was a bumpy ride, made all the bumpier by the lack of snow there was in Mammoth. It was a bit jarring to get "out" and see so many people, pavement, and drive around in our car. Old Faithful has become a nice little protective bubble...

We drove out to the Lamar Valley and spent the night at the Buffalo Ranch. There's no better place to wake up and fall asleep than the YA Institute cabins at the Buffalo Ranch (and that's not just because we work for YA). The view from the front door of our cabin was of Ranger Hill, complete with a herd of grazing bison.

We woke up early on Wednesday morning and headed to the confluence of the Lamar River and Soda Butte Creek. There had been a lot of wolf activity there the day before--both the Druids and Miller boys had been spotted. Twenty minutes after we arrived, the Druids began howling. About an hour later we spotted a lone gray wolf way up on the ridge. He's apparently been hanging around the Druids with the hope of courting one of their females.

We had a great afternoon on the northern range:

We drove through the northeast entrance

and into Silver Gate with the hope of spotting a moose for my Uncle Donn. I caught a glimpse of one through the trees for literally one second--by the time I was able to say "moose!" he was gone.

It was snowing Thursday morning as we boarded the luggage coach at Mammoth and headed back down here to Old Faithful. We passed a herd of elk on the Mammoth Terraces, and then we were on our way. We followed wolf tracks all the way from Norris to Madison, and as we pulled into the warming hut at Madison we found out that the Canyons had been spotted on a fresh elk kill at Seven Mile Bridge that morning. Someone at the hut also had a photo of a wolf they spotted on Tuesday between Biscuit Basin and Morning Glory--a lot of wolf activity here in the park right now.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

bison! bison! bison!

On Sunday we decided to ski out to Biscuit Basin. I know we've been whining about the lack of snow, but we really mean it

The trail was slick and icy (from lack of snow!), and a herd of bison had also trampled through the middle of the ski trail. Not ideal ski conditions, to say the least.

When we reached the top of the hill we saw Artemisia Geyser erupt; it sounded like ocean waves pounding the sand.

No wolves at Biscuit Basin, but there was a very active herd of bison that we watched for about an hour.

Steve left yesterday for Mammoth, and I had an hour to kill between when he left on the snowcoach and when I needed to be at work. I decided to take a short walk up to Observation Hill--from the top of the hill I could see a few bison moving around,

including this guy, who was rolling around on the (snow-less) ground)

I checked my watch and decided to head back to the Snow Lodge and to work. As soon I got to the bottom of the hill I found that the bison were now blocking the trail.

I backed up slowly, and decided the best thing to do would be to try and wait them out, from afar. But after a few minutes a big bull climbed up on the trail and told me to move along. This picture is out of focus because I decided to move immediately, as instructed.

I backed up the trail even further and took a few shots of this squirrel while I waited.

The bison seemed to be moving into Geyser Hill, and off the trail, to the right. But that's when I noticed two bison on my left, and knew the only choice now was to climb back up Observation Hill and exit on the other side.

It was getting close to 3 p.m., starting time, so I hurried back up the hill, past Solitary Geyser, and down to the boardwalk. Only when I reached the end of the boardwalk I found that they were now grazing there, and there was no way to exit . Thwarted again, I had to take the boardwalk all the down to Castle Geyser and then back up towards the Snow Lodge. All in all, an hour--and 1.5 mile--detour. And that's when I realized that this is probably the only place in the world where "I'm sorry I'm late for work, I was trapped by a herd of bison!" is a plausible excuse.

Adding to the excitement around here, this morning I felt my first earthquake. Around 9:45 a.m. I was reading in bed and I felt my bed shake a little, as if someone had jiggled the bedframe. I had no idea what it was (I even looked underneath the bed!) until Steve called to ask me if I'd felt anything. He'd heard on the radio that we're in day 3 of "swarms," but I hadn't felt anything prior to this.

Today I'll hop on the snowcoach and meet Steve up in Mammoth. He went up a day early and is fishing one of the spring creeks south of Livingston this afternoon. We'll spend tonight and tomorrow night out at the Buffalo Ranch in the Lamar Valley, before returning to Old Faithful on Thursday.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

spring in january

While it still hasn't snowed (sigh), we decided to take advantage of the warmer temperatures and blue skies this afternoon before work. We dragged our snowshoes out from under the bed and set off for Geyser Hill and Observation point.

The snow is so packed down right now that we didn't need our snowshoes, we just hiked up the hill in our boots. Steve was kind enough to strap both pairs of shoes to his backpack.

From the top of the hill we could see the whole Old Faithful area spread out before us, including the building where we live. And we also spotted a small herd of bison grazing near the Firehole River

These are the first bison we've seen in Old Faithful proper--guests have seen them on the boardwalks and right in front of the lodge, but for some reason we've always been somewhere else when they're walking about in the basin.

Steve pointed out this squirrel and we watched him eat for a few minutes before he grew tired of us watching him and scurried away.

We continued on to Solitary Geyser, and you'd never know from this picture that it's the middle of January

Someone reported a wolf at Solitary two days ago, but with all the melting snow I couldn't find any tracks.

The trail dumped us out back on the boardwalk at geyser hill,

and that's when we glimpsed Old Faithful #2, our resident coyote, across the boardwalk.

Wolves were spotted again this morning at Biscuit Basin, so we're off to bed so we can get up early and try our luck tomorrow morning.