Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Yellowstone's Visitors

The "Tourists"

In a sense we are all tourists at Yellowstone, but many of the visitors at Yellowstone are there for the very first time. Some have only a day, others have several days. They may arrive in their own cars, an RV or camper, or a big tour bus. They come from all over the world. I met people from France, the Netherlands, Great Britain and Germany. I heard many foreign languages I did not recognize. I saw several Japanese tour buses. They've all come to see the amazing wonders of Yellowstone - the thermal features, the wildlife, and the scenic grandeur.

For a first time tourist, they may only watch one geyser, Old Faithful. They ride the historic yellow buses. They ride horses on trails. They ride the stage coaches at Roosevelt. They create "jams" as they stop suddenly to view elk, buffalo or deer. They've come to enjoy the park as part of their yearly vacation.

The Geyser Gazers
There are people who are fascinated by the geysers. Many belong to the Geyser Observations and Study Organization (GOSA.) They spend their time in Yellowstone watching for the signs of an immenent eruption. Some will sit for hours observing the action of just one geyser. Their work has made predictions for the Great Fountain geyser more reliable. I always enjoy sitting near an experienced geyser gazer, because their information about what they're looking for before an eruption is always interesting.
Many of the geysers have a pattern that is fairly predictable. To best enjoy the geyser basin knowing when the geysers are likely to play and to plan your visit around the basin accordingly. I was hoping that information would be online, but for now you can check in with any visitor center and they can get you the current predictions. But in addition to the predicted time, each geyser has "tells." For many it is when the water starts running over the top of the cone in ever increasing volume. It is worth it to buy one of the geyser books to help you know when it is worth hanging around because this one is about to go off. However, there are generally geyser gazers hanging around as well as helpful rangers. You'll spot the geyser gazers because they are usually chatting about what stage the geyser is and which one they just saw.

The Wolf People
The wolf people have a special interest in seeing Yellowstone's wolves. They usually have very powerful scopes for seeing the wolf high on the mountain across the valley.

They rise before dawn and stake out their spot in the Lamar Valley near Soda Butte, the northern slope of Mount Washburn, or one of the overlooks at Hayden Valley. They often hike up the hill to get a better view across the valley. Picking their spot with care, they will sit for several hours scanning the valleys, treelines, and ridges for movement. While their first interest is wolves, they also spot the grizzlies as they go by. Many of them know the wolves as individuals by their coloration and where they are seen. Some spend a month or more here enjoying and studying the wolves. They are usually more than willing to help other people spot the wolves. Sometimes you get to look through their scope. You can find them at the overlooks with their big powerful scopes set up. It is interesting to listen to them talk among themselves. They are usually glad to give you information about the best places to spot the wolves right now.

The Bird People
While I have not spent as much time talking with them, I have seen them at Swan Lake Flats seeking out the sandhill cranes that are feeding there. I've seen one photographing a bluebird entering its nest in one of the signposts near the Roosevelt junction. I saw another one photographing a flicker on the road to the Lamar Valley. While a lot of attention is given to the larger animals in Yellowstone, there is an amazing number of birds. I spent a few days checking out all the birds I saw in the rivers and ponds. I thoroughly enjoyed the baby owls at Mammoth. By talking with the people around me, I learned about the baby owls at Tower, the great gray owl near Canyon, the peregrin falcon nest, the osprey nest and the red tailed hawk nest as well as the owl nest at Mammoth. In addition to the waterfowl and raptors, we've seen grouse, pine siskins, mountain bluebirds, stellar jays, clark's nutcracker, gray jays, violet green swallows.

The Young Families
You can find them everywhere. They are interested in everything. The kids usually have binoculars and are trying to watch the wildlife. The kids enjoy the chipmunks as much as the large animals. I love to watch the kids enjoy the animals they are seeing. Occasionally you see the normal family squabbles - "He hit me!" "No, you must put down the rock . . . what would happen if everyone took a rock home!"

The Fishermen
Yellowstone has always been known for its fishing. Fishing Bridge used to be the place to stand and catch the Yellowstone cuthroat trout. At the time people did not realize how much that was affecting the trout population. Today the numbers of cutthroat trout are way down. The non native lake trout are one of the issues impacting the native cutthroat. However, fishermen still flock to Yellowstone. To me it is a scenic sight watching the fly fishermen in the Firehole and Madison rivers. Some are dressed in traditional fly fishing garb - waders, vests and hat. Others fish from the banks. Some areas of the park are catch and release. But in Yellowstone Lake, you can keep the lake trout. In fact, you are required to kill any lake trout you catch. Yellowstone's Fishing Regulations are a important read. Most of the fly fisherman are catching and releasing. But reading the guidelines lets you know where you can fish and keep your fish for dinner. While we did not fish this trip, we have in prior trips. I admire the folks who are skilled fly fishermen. Our fishing experience in Yellowstone was that the fish were "experienced" and just swam around our lures (which were legal at the time.) As we left the park this year, they were taking a survey of those who had fished the park. I suspect that is part of the ongoing study of the fish populations in Yellowstone.

The Geologists
The world's largest supervolcano has left incredible rock formations. Rhyolite lava flows, obsidian cliffs, outcroppings of gneist and schist are only a few of the formations you can see. Glaciation has left wide valleys, glacial ponds, and huge boulders (erratics). College groups come to learn from the formations. Interested amateur geologists marvel at the cliffs neara Tower. Professional geologists are studying ongoing volcanic activity. Yellowstone is still active geologically. There are two areas of the park where the ground is rising from the volcanic activity. There are thousands of small quakes each year. The New Visitor Center at Canyon gives a great overview of the volcanic history of the park. You may not see the geologists at work, but they are busy trying to unravel the history of the eruptions. And they are interested in determining if Yellowstone will erupt again. The Park Service Website has some great information to help people appreciate the geology as they visit the park. YellowstoneNationalPark.com also has several pages devoted to the geology.

The Photographers

In Yellowstone, everyone is a photographer. While we were there, we saw everything from tiny point and shoot cameras to the professional video equipment from the BBC cameramen. The BBC is creating a documentary about the Seasons of Yellowstone. There were several different crews all with individual assignments. My understanding is they had local guides to help them find the wildlife activity such as a grizzly killing an elk calf, the otters fishing at Trout Lake, etc.

However, there were times that it was amazing to see the large number of big lenses lined up hoping for a great grizzly shot or a cute coyote puppy shot. I saw Thomas Mangelsen three different times - the first when I was trying to photograph the coyote puppies, the second early one morning near lake (the grizzly jam was breaking up when we arrived), and the third up on Mount Washington when I was also photographing the grizzly and her cubs. Dr. Vernon Eugene Grove introduced himself to me. He noticed my Texas license tag and struck up a conversation. His family ran the historic Grove Drug on 6th Street in Austin. His book, The Joy of Bird Photography was one of the first books I read as I was trying to photograph the birds on my pond a few years ago. He pointed out some other local professional photographers that were also trying to get their shots of the grizzly. We watched the redtail hawk nest with an amateur who was filming video (with a huge lens) for his own enjoyment.

I'll be watching to see Mangelsen's print releases next year. I'm very curious as to what he will capture because I know he spent more time on some of those same subjects I tried to photograph. I know I came away with some great shots, but I want to learn by watching what those other great photographers captured.

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