Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Grand Teton & Yellowstone NPs, part 2

We followed the eastern side of the Grand Loop road as we entered Yellowstone, because this was the easiest day to visit the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and later in the day would be a good time to drive through the Hayden Valley in hopes of seeing wildlife. We stopped off for a lovely lunch at the Lake Hotel, took in a thermal feature preview at Mud Volcano, then continued on to take in various overlooks of the striking Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, with both the upper and lower falls. As we made our way through the Hayden valley, we indeed got caught in a bison jam as I had expected...and finally we made it to our Mammoth Hot Springs cabins. This area was the original HQ of the cavalry when it ran the park in the 19th c., and it has its own historic vibe as an encampment/visitor hub. The current hotel and cabin buildings were erected in the 1930's.

While we were based at Mammoth, we had several interesting animal adventures. The first was a horseback ride from the Roosevelt Corral, through the scenic hills of the northeast part of the park. Unfortunately, when a hat blew off the head of the person in front of me on the trail, it spooked the living daylights out of my horse...who then freaked out and threw me! Apparently my flying through the air was "graceful" and I landed with a thud on my rear, surviving with only a few (but impressive) bruises and a sprained (and maybe cracked) pinky finger. While "nursing" my finger with a glass of wine that evening on the front porch of our cabin, I spied a cinnamon black bear sow and her two cubs scampering around on the hill behind the next row of cabins. I grabbed the super-binocs and checked them out as they started to descend. A ranger magically appeared in a vehicle, drove up a gravel road on the hill, bonked the horn or siren and scared the bears back into the treeline. The cubs were surely cute, but I guess they were just about getting close enough to the cabins to become a danger (the sow, anyway, probably not the cubs).

The next morning, we had what many would consider the wildlife highlight of the trip, one I had been looking forward to for months: wolf spotting. This required a 5:30am departure from Mammoth and four people chose not to come (their loss!). But the lighter load meant my father could just ride with me and not drive the second van, a nice break for him. We ventured out to the Slough Creek area, where the newly-designated Lamar Canyon pack had been lately seen. We were not disappointed! We were treated to an amazing display of natural wolf behavior by the seven pack members we saw, several adults and a passel of playful pups. They alternately tore up and consumed the carcass of some animal that they had stored behind a rock outcropping, and when they weren't busy eating, they were quite the frolicking family, both adults and pups running around, jumping on rocks, rolling around wrestling each other. We watched them for at least an hour with extremely powerful Nikon spotting scopes I had rented for the occasion, and everyone who went found it to be a memorable morning, to say the least. For me, it's made even more precious because the wolves are too far away to shoot with anything resembling a normal camera, so you have to capture and hold the pictures in your mind.

After regrouping and checking out, we meandered along the western side of the Grand Loop, stopping at the National Park Ranger Museum at Norris, and then at the Norris Geyser Basin. We arrived at Old Faithful Inn and soon went to join the Geyser Discovery Stroll. Typically, this ranger walk follows an informal path though the Upper Geyser Basin. But a particular geyser erupted as the walk began, and that geyser may indicate an impending eruption of the high-pressure, charming Beehive geyser.

So the ranger changed course, leading us up onto Geyser Hill instead, ad we were lucky enough to see Beehive blow its top. It's one thing to see Old Faithful go off repeatedly and on a schedule, but another thing entirely to see a geyser erupt when it only does so once or twice a day. As they say, timing is everything. We saw about five geysers erupt during that 90-minute stroll, worth the effort we had made to get to Old Faithful Inn with time to catch the stroll.

After dinner, we all met up on the OFI balcony to start our stargazing. Happily, our little crew decided to walk down towards the Upper Geyser basin, where there were no lights nearby to interfere with our night vision adjustment. We lay on the paved path with our blankets and among us we spotted around ten Perseid meteors streaking across the northeastern night sky. Unfortunately, a cold front was making its way through the region, and the sky clouded over after a bit. We played twenty questions to pass the time, and eventually gave up on our big night of stargazing in favor of our beds. It was cold enough that night for snow flurries, and the Inn even turned the heaters on.

We slept in that morning and later followed the Fairy Falls trail to the special off-trail detour one can take to get a bird's eye view of Grand Prismatic Spring--a view which is impossible from the official park boardwalks around the spring, but one which is seen in every book and postcard collection nonetheless. After a short uphill scramble, the Mon Voyage group members appreciated immediately the small effort required to yield such a big payoff! Some folks continued all the way to the charming Fairy Falls, while the rest of us enjoyed a picnic lunch down the road. The afternoon was spent exploring numerous other thermal features like Fountain paint Pots, with an early return to the inn. Dinner at the Obsidian Dining Room (next door at the OF Snow Lodge) was excellent, as always, and we had a delightful chat with the chef after dinner.

Our last day we traveled east, stopping to engage in another close elk encounter...the afternoon was spent near the lake again, this time with lunch at the Lake Lodge cafeteria, followed by a beautiful scenic cruise on Lake Yellowstone. On our way out we made a farewell thermal pass at West Thumb Geyser Basin. It's not the most impressive height-wise, but the thermal features are deep and display a riot of colors, and you can't beat the scenery of those sights right along the shoreline of the lake.We spent our last night in the charming town of Jackson, in order to be near the airport for the early morning departure flights. As dawn broke and I drove myself from the airport back to the Cowboy Village Resort for a day of rest and one more night in the Hole, I spied one last creature that I had failed to spot on my first trip...two trumpeter swans gliding across the blushing sky.

Now that this trip is finding its place in the group's collective memory, I am starting to think about the next Mon Voyage Small Group destination. After ten days communing with nature, I may feel the need for an oenophile adventure!

Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, part 1

I have just returned from the first "official" Mon Voyage Small Group Trip, whereby I returned to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks after a five-year absence and with a dozen other people in tow. DH Bill was scheduled to be my escort/sidekick but due to illness he was unable to travel, and my father Louie graciously stepped in to assist me. Accompanying us were Joan & Harvey, Karen, Jeanie, Shirley & Ricardo, Jill & Tom with daughters Emma & Anna, and my trusty cousin Sara.

We arrived in Grand Teton NP on Saturday afternoon at Jackson Hole Municipal Airport, and went about getting settled and organized after making the obligatory stop in Moose to stock up at Dornan's grocery/deli, and more importantly, its handy-dandy and very decent wine shop. We checked into Jackson Lake Lodge cottage units and immediately set about enjoying our little patio with a cocktail and a view. Most of us had dinner together that first night at the Mural Room, and enjoyed the sunset vista of Mount Moran. Almost everywhere you go in the park, you are treated to magnificent views.

During our days in GTNP, we explored the peaceful, scenic Swan Lake/Heron Pond loop hike as well as the uphill ranger-led Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point hike on the west side of Jenny Lake. (You've got to get there early to get one of 25 tokens if you want to accompany the ranger--we were first in line, because we needed 13!)
One morning we took a breakfast cruise on Jackson Lake, which included a hot western food spread on Elk Island, again with a dazzling view of the Tetons and Mount Moran to make everything taste even better. We rode a replica pontoon ferry across the Snake River, and repeatedly ate fresh trout farmed in it. Animal sightings included an injured moose ensconced just outside the lodge, a beaver, plenty of bison down in the Antelope Flats area...but the best was following some scuttlebutt up to the northern border of the park, where we were "treated" to a grizzly bear roaming around and eating in the ravine next to the roadside where we parked, and then finally deciding to cross the road about twenty or thirty feet from our car. We had not seen a grizzly on our first trip here in 2005, so this was an exciting sighting for me!

We had excellent food at the Mural Room and Pioneer Grill at JLL, and fine views at Signal Mtn Lodge Trapper Grill, but the highlight was our lunch at Jenny Lake Lodge. I think we all cleaned our plates that day!

On the fourth day we packed up and headed north to neighboring Yellowstone National Park, which is our oldest NP and dates to 1872! Both parks have interesting histories, and I recommend Ken Burns' PBS series on the National Parks for the backstory on how each was created.

Cajun Mardi Gras, at long last was the first but definitely unofficial Mon Voyage Small Group Trip. I coordinated a small group of friends and relatives to go to Cajun Mardi Gras in February and les bons temps, they definitely rolled! I must have had a six-month hangover because I have failed to post anything about that trip. Better late than never, n'est-ce pas?! We were two aunts, an uncle, a cousin, a few friends of said cousin and of an aunt, plus Bill and yours truly.

We started the festivities by attending super-parade Endymion in New Orleans. With the Saints fresh off their Super Bowl victory, Mardi Gras had turned into Lombardi Gras, and I was not going to be so close to New Orleans without dropping in for a quick visit. The owner of the the Saints, Tom Benson, was the Grand Marshal of the parade, and he brought along with him his daughter Rita (GM), coaches, staff, and a bunch of popular Saints players. Every other parade watcher was garbed in a Saints shirt, and two girls were sporting pig snouts and wings, 'cause pigs flew when the Saints won the Super Bowl!

The next few days were passed cavorting around different towns on the Cajun prairie of South Central Louisiana, from Church Point to Eunice to Mamou to Basile and more. Each town has its own Mardi Gras traditions, variations on a theme. Riders in traditional costumes depart early in the morning, making a circuit around the local homes and farms, collecting the ingredients for a community gumbo (including chasing live chickens). This custom, an ancient European begging and masking tradition, dates at least to the middle ages. If you miss the departure, how do you find them? Just look for the trail of empty beer cans and horse manure. Later in the day--or in some towns, all day long--there's great Cajun music being performed for street dances, because in addition to chasing chickens and drinking, music and dancing are key elements of the celebrations. If you catch the riders while they are out on their run, don't be surprised if one of them starts dancing with you--there's usually a band wagon at the end of the horse assembly.

The whole affair is decidedly unlike Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and must be experienced to be understood. Dr. Barry Ancelet gave an excellent presentation on Cajun Mardi Gras, which only added to one's enjoyment of the trip. Enjoy these few pictures, and if you want to undertake the adventure yourself someday, I can take care of that for you...