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Wednesday, December 9, 2015

My Favorite Place

I have been fortunate to travel to many wonderful places around the world the past couple of years. Yet the only place that brings tears to my eyes and a longing to my heart when I read about it or watch a video is right here in the United States.

That very special places is Yellowstone National Park, founded as America's very first national park in 1872. I first visited Yellowstone in 2013 on a January trip with the National Geographic Society. Most of the focus was on the park's many thermal features, such as geysers, mud pots and other hot-water attractions. And of course, watching the magnificent bison in the snow was an amazing experience. Yellowstone in winter is truly a magical place. Gone are the massive crowds that clog the roads during the summer. All but a couple of roads are closed, and access is limited to those participating in organized snow machine tours or group tours that travel in the park's famous Bombardier machines, with skis on the front and treads on the back.

I returned to the park twice in 2014 on wolf-watching trips, and I was hooked. Although wolves are typically reclusive and stay well away from people, I was fortunate enough to see a few of these amazing animals. Despite two more trips in search of wolves in 2015, I have not been able to get any really good pictures of them. They are simply too elusive, particularly given the large groups of people that gather whenever word of a wolf sighting spreads through the park.

Even so, I love going to Yellowstone. I won't go during the summer months, as there are simply too many people. And as much as I hate cold weather, the winter months are by far the best for spotting wolves. I have been lucky enough to watch the Lamar Canyon family
trotting across the snow at sunset as my group stop atop a nearby hill. I got to see a couple of members of a wolf family no more than 100 yards away one morning. And getting to hear a group of wolves howling to one another is an amazing experience.

A lone bull bison plods through deep snow up a hill.
I also enjoy photographing the bison that call Yellowstone home. I love seeing them sweep the snow with their massive heads to reach the scant grass below, or watching them lie down near thermal features in search of warmth (although they are built to easily handled the incredible cold of Yellowstone). Nothing says Yellowstone in winter like a bull bison covered in frost.

A red fox pounces on a mouse or vole with uncanny accuracy.
I have watched a grizzly bear foraging for food in preparation for a long winter hibernation, and a few minutes later watched a mama black bear and her cub dash up a hill. Elk, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, coyotes, moose, red fox, mule deer and mountain goats are other species that call Yellowstone home.
Yellowstone symbolizes the wildness, and wilderness, that we have lost in so much of the country. It has thousands of thermal features and countless water falls. It is the best place in the world for wolf-watching. It is home to the last wild herd of bison, untainted by cross-breeding with domestic cattle. It has some 10,000 thermal features.  

I have visited six countries in Africa and I have been in awe at the magnificent animals that live there. But my heart always returns to Yellowstone. I wish I could live there year-round, but the winters are just too harsh for me.

Yellowstone is the place where, if my final wishes are followed, my ashes will be scattered in the Lamar Valley. Then I will spend eternity with the magnificent wolves of the Lamar Valley.
The Terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs.