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Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Look Deep Into Nature

Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better. -- Albert Einstein

Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you. -- Frank Lloyd Wright

 I never knew that these great men were lovers of nature, but I really like these quotes.

Recently I made my fourth visit to Yellowstone National Park since last year. I was with a group of nine other travelers, but one morning we had a few hours to spend doing whatever we wanted to do, so I opted out of a group walk around the upper geyser basin near Old Faithful Geyser. After watching the geyser erupt, I started meandering around the surrounding area.

I stopped to watch the eruption of Castle Geyser, photographed some thermal pools and looked in amazement at steam rising from numerous thermal vents in the distance. Although I found evidence of bison (fresh droppings and hoof prints in the snow), the big animals were nowhere to be seen. The sky was clear and the sun was shining. Best of all, it was as if I had the upper geyser basin to myself. I walked alone, the only sound the crunching of my boots on the packed snow and ice, and a woodpecker working in the distance. Because of much warmer than usual temperatures, there was no snow or condensation from the geysers on the branches of the pine trees. Still, it was a magical place, made all the more special by the solitude.

Sadly, I didn't get as far as I had hoped and had to head back to the lodge to join my group. On the way back, I encountered a couple who asked whether I had seen anything interesting and a park ranger who asked whether I had seen any geysers erupting. I told him the approximate time Castle had erupted.

Yellowstone is a very special place. It epitomizes wilderness, yet it's easy to explore. Where else can people go and have a good chance of seeing wild wolves, bison, elk, mountain goats, moose, bighorn sheep, pronghorns, eagles, foxes and coyotes? For me, wilderness offers solitude and renewal. I love looking at the great expanse of sky, at the mountains and hills, at the geysers and thermal pools.

For most of us, nature is far removed from our day-to-day lives. We have destroyed a great deal of the natural world, and we have done our best to distance ourselves from what is left. We may go visit wilderness areas a few times a year, but we are really out of touch with nature. And our species seems hellbent on destroying what nature is left.

There is so much beauty in our natural world. We need to get outside, turn off the cell phones, and enjoy the world around us. Fill your lungs with fresh air. Wonder at the beautiful blue sky. Look in amazement at the rushing waters. Be silent and observe the animals as they go about their daily business. Look deep into nature as the wellspring of a good life. Be in touch with the earth. Listen to its songs. Refill your empty soul.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Goodbye, Big Gray

'Big Grey' has died.

This wolf, alpha male of the Lamar Canyon pack in Yellowstone National Park, was attacked by eight or nine members of the Prospect Peak pack on March 6. He fought valiantly, aided by two of his yearling sons, giving his pregnant mate and other pups time to escape. Because he wore a radio collar, his movements could be tracked by researchers. Unfortunately, two days later they received the dreaded signal that indicated that this magnificent wolf had died.

For reasons unknown, the Lamars had wandered into the Prospect Peaks' territory. By the time they realized their mistake, it was too late and the Prospects attacked with a vengeance. Known as 925M, the alpha male died protecting his family.

The Lamars have always been my favorite pack. They were the first Yellowstone wolves I ever saw, in January 2014, and I got to see them on subsequent visits to Yellowstone. Just a couple of weeks ago, my group watched the entire Lamar pack trotting across the snow for several miles, until the fading light made it difficult to see them. I don't know whether the Lamar pack was less fearful of humans than the other resident packs, or whether their territory simply afforded better viewing opportunities. Whatever the reason, I will be forever grateful that I was able to see these wonderful animals on more than one occasion.

Wolves are devoted parents and mates, and as 925M showed, will die to protect them. It appears that his mate and at least two of his pups went to visit him after the attack, perhaps knowing how seriously injured he was.

The death of 925M hit me very hard. I am glad he died defending his family and not from being shot by some cretin with a rifle. But life will not be the same for his mate, 926F, his six yearling pups and his soon-to-be-born pups. How will his mate hunt? She is, after all, pregnant. Will his pups be able to help their mother hunt and provide food for the growing family? Will she be subject to attack without her mate to protect her?

Nature can be cruel. Wolves in the wild typically live no more than three or four years. Wolf 925M was between four and five years old. But this knowledge doesn't lessen the impact 925M's death has had on me and many others who avidly follow the Yellowstone wolf packs. My heart aches for the Lamar Canyon pack, whose alpha female, the much-loved wolf known as 06, was killed by a fool with a gun when she stepped outside the safety of Yellowstone in late 2012.

I hope and pray that 926F, a daughter of 06, has her mother's strength and resilience and will be able to keep her family together after this terrible loss.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Without the Beasts

What is man without the beasts? For if all the beasts were gone, man would die of a great loneliness of the spirit. -- Chief Seattle

Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect. -- Chief Seattle

I love these quotes by the great Indian chief, Seattle. They seem particularly relevant to me now, after spending a wonderful week in Yellowstone National Park (and a couple of days near Grand Teton National Park), searching for, observing and photographing the park's magnificent wildlife.

Although wolves are typically very reclusive and stay well away from humans, we saw wolves on four different days. And we were able to watch some animals without the use of spotting scopes. One cold and windy evening, just at sunset, we watched the entire Lamar Canyon pack of eight wolves (parents and six yearling pups) trotting across the snowy landscape. We saw a small group of wolves just hanging out together. The sound of their howls as they talked to the rest of the pack across the road was spine-tingling. The morning we were leaving Yellowstone, we were thrilled to see two wolves, a male and a female, lying in the snow just 100 yards off the road. We watched in awe as they eventually got up and walked up a nearby hill. And on the last day of the trip, we followed four beautiful gray wolves as they trotted in line across the National Elk Refuge in Jackson, Wyoming. Although I think all wolves are beautiful, these four were particularly magnificent. My eye saw what would have been a fantastic photograph, with three of the wolves back lit by the morning sun. Sadly, they were too far away for a photograph, but seeing them through a spotting scope was still a thrill.

One of the guides mentioned that while many people come to Yellowstone with the dream of seeing wolves, many never see them. But even then, they appreciate enjoying Yellowstone's sense of wildness. For them, as for me, just knowing the wolves are there is comforting. And getting to see them, as I did, and even getting to see and hear them howl to their brethren across the the road, was a special treat.

Elk cows on Wyoming's National Elk Refuge.
Bison were present, too, although in smaller numbers than usual. And bighorn sheep, pronghorns, foxes and even a grizzly that left hibernation months early due to the unusually warm weather. We saw bald and golden eagles, and beautiful trumpeter swans. And of course, elk were plentiful at Wyoming's National Elk Refuge. 

Wildlife are under attack in many places these days. Many ranchers hate wolves and coyotes and jump at the chance to kill them. Bison are under attack by none other than Yellowstone National Park, in conjunction with Montana cattle ranchers.

Grizzly bears are hunted in some places despite their limited numbers. Wildlife in other countries face threats from poachers, trophy hunting and human encroachment. I worry about what we humans are doing to this planet. We use it up, we
Mine it, we pollute it. Not only the wildlife, but human lives as well, may well be threatened if we don't change our ways.

Chief Seattle was a wise man indeed. So many of would "die of a great loneliness of the spirit" if we lose our magnificent wildlife. These animals, all of them, have a great intrinsic value far beyond whatever economic impact they have. Thousands of people visit Yellowstone every with the hope, however small, of seeing a wolf. We are thrilled to watch bison, bighorn sheep and other wild animals. It fills our souls with hope and a connection to something much older and greater than us.