Thursday, September 29, 2011

Huckleberry Sauce

1 bag huckleberries
3 Starbucks honey packets
mountain stream water
mess o' grits (see below)

1. Pick bag of huckleberries. Watch out for moose!

You know what I mean!!!
Thank you.

The "Iraqi Voter"
2. Measure out enough mountain stream water to cover berries. Combine water with pilfered Starbucks honey packets. Heat water, stirring constantly, until honey dissolves.

3. Add berries. Bring to a boil, then simmer until berries begin to pop.

4. Allow sauce to cool completely, preferably overnight in a bear-proof food storage box. But be sure to close the lid on that shit, because if bears are gonna come to your campsite, they're gonna come for stewed huckleberries fo sho.

5. Follow package instructions to prepare approximately one mess o' grits.

6. Add sauce to taste. Huckleberries do not contain a lot of their own pectin, so the sauce is kind of juice plus berries, so try not to think of that one scene in "The Golden Child" with Eddie Murphy where the monk kid squishes the gruel and blood comes squirting out, despite not being able to get that scene out of your head since watching it at a premature age.

7. Enjoy your tart-sweet purple grits!

Yellowstone Back Country

As I mentioned, Yellowstone was nice, but a bit disappointing. This applied to my back country hikes as well as the overcrowded front country, but for different reasons. I went on two backpacks and two long day hikes while I was there (not counting the first night's "emergency" hike that was the only way to get a campsite), and none of them really went how I hoped.

Speaking of that first night's hike, here's what I found when I arrived at the campsite:

"Keep all food odors away from campsites" ...
The bones-at-the-campsite theme was consistent; weird and kind of dangerous given the bears and all, but sort of cool. Elk antlers are HEAVY. I don't know how the bucks hold their heads up.

Sevenmile Hole

My first hike was a one-nighter at the bottom of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, at a spot called Sevenmile Hole. (The joke is that it got the name "Sevenmile" because it's a five-mile hike down into the canyon that feels like seven miles up out again.) After getting lost in the strip-mall-like village near the trail head, I finally got into the woods. It was a generally unremarkable walk through the forest, with occasional views of the dramatic Grand Canyon.

I've decided to stop going out of my way to photograph waterfalls, since they never really look like anything.
There was also this ghostly dormant geyser cone, just sitting among the trees. If you take away all the people and infrastructure, you get a sense of just how weird the Yellowstone Caldera really is.

Then I descended the steep sides of the canyon, passing through a thermal area on the way. Unlike in the front country, there are no walkways or hilarious illustrations to warn you away from them. This thermal area was just, like, in the trail. I walked feet from active steam vents, past geyser cones, and even had to step over the outflow of some hot springs. A little stream just past the thermal area was bathwater-warm.

The campsite was at the bottom of the canyon. But when I got there, the site was again ill-kept; it was confusingly labeled, in gloomy trees well above the river, had no view, and was a precarious descent to get water. Yet right next to the river was a little shelf by a tributary stream, with a rock to make a headboard and some stately trees forming a shading shelter for the tent. I know it was VERY BAD of me, but I made camp there, outside the designated site.

The ground is a lot more level than it looks; my rain fly covers the tent at an angle.
A lower shelf extended out to the river, to make a nice cooking and lookout spot.

Looking upriver

Looking downriver
I only noticed after descending to the river to get water that a hot spring/steam vent was coming right out of the edge of the cooking shelf. You can see the strange stains and seeps leaking out of the rock on the left side of the photo above. It made for a smelly campsite.

It was an uneventful overnight, other than thunderheads making a lovely sunset and a waxing moon.

 Either the guidebook was exaggerating the "seven miles up," or I'm getting in great shape, because the hike out was also nothing special. I also saw zero wildlife, despite constant warnings about bears in the area. And once again, I was absolutely alone.

This does not count. 
So yeah, kind of nice, but kind of meh. I really wanted to see more of Yellowstone's famed wildlife, so I tried to get a backcountry trip up a river valley that the guidebook promised was positively teeming. It was also positively teeming with fishermen, who had booked all the backcountry sites for my entire time in the park. So I walked the valley on a day hike, out and back as far as I felt like.

Around every single bend, I thought to myself, "Right around here will be a majestic herd of bison." "The next overlook will be of a majestic herd of bison." "Where the hell is my majestic herd of bison?"

Finally, I went around a corner and saw this:

One bison. Luckily, he was photogenically placed.

That was about it for wildlife on that trip. The next hike was a long backpack around Heart Lake in the southern part of the park, with a side trip up Mount Sheridan, my first ascent above 10,000 feet.


I bought a tiny nonstick skillet, just big enough for one egg.

My egg-frying technique remains perfect, even outdoors.
Heart Lake

On the whole, the scenery in Yellowstone isn't as spectacular as Glacier or the North Cascades, because the mountains aren't as high. There's also the fact that a huge area of the park burned in 1989, leaving a landscape that reminds me of the devastation around Mount St. Helens, even all these years later. 

The area around Heart Lake burned especially thoroughly. If I wasn't walking through dead trees or standing snags whistling mournfully in the constant wind, I was walking through hyper-dense stands of seedling lodgepoles, all about 10 feet tall. That is exactly tall enough to block your view, but not to provide shade or wildlife habitat.

There was some color, though; mostly in groundcover, and I passed a couple of neat thermal areas on the way to the campsite.

The hot springs are almost always aquamarine, and often surprisingly deep.
And Heart Lake itself is very pretty.

Dawn from my tent. The sky in Yellowstone was always beautiful, bad weather or no.

The next day started bright and clear. It was time to climb Mount Sheridan. The way up was also fully burned, leaving lots and lots of huckleberry bushes. Huckleberries are so delicious. They're like sweeter, more deeply flavored blueberries. Bears love them. I saw lots of bear scat on this trail, but no bears.

By the time I got to the top of Mount Sheridan, clouds were starting to thicken, and with the elevation and constant wind, it was damn cold. The view, though, was absolutely astounding; photographs come nowhere near capturing it. I could see what felt like thousands of miles, with mountain peaks receding in all directions.

Heart Lake. My campsite is right on the shore. Makes me wish for a zipline right about now.

The Tetons. Makes me wish I were in the Tetons right about now.

The wind didn't quit on my way back down, and the clouds continued to grow heavy. I'd kept my campsite rain-tight, though, so I stopped to check out a thermal area just up from the lake, not far from my campsite.

It included a large and beautiful hot spring/thermal pool. I visited this spot several times while I stayed at Heart Lake. I think it might have been my favorite spot in the park. And yeah, I know it was VERY VERY BAD of me, but I had to dip a finger in the thermal pool. It was about as hot as your kitchen tap turned all the way to the left; too hot to hold your hand in for more than a moment, but not hot enough to scald.

Next to the pool was a little geyser. It erupted almost exactly every half-hour, to about seven or eight feet high. The timing was precise enough for me to get a video of the whole thing.

CHECK HERE FOR UPDATES. Grand Teton's Jackson Lodge wifi doesn't allow uploading something that large...

Next to it was another geyser that erupted inconsistently. It was a twin spout, though not as high as the half-hour one.

After two nights on the west side of the lake, I was supposed to spend the next two nights backpacking around Heart Lake. The trail extended way far south of the lake before returning to the eastern shore. But after two days of vicious wind, cold, and intermittent rain, I wasn't up for a lot more backpacking. I considered simply hiking back out that day, but the next morning seemed clearer and warmer, so I decided to loop the lake as a long day hike. Then I would spend one extra night at my same campsite and still hike out a day early. It is, of course, VERY, VERY, VERY BAD of me to stay at a campsite beyond the length of my permit. But the back country permit ranger had told me with chipper astonishment that I was the only one scheduled on the entire Heart Lake Loop that week, so no one would be waiting for my campsite. Again, I was completely by myself the whole trip, though by this point I was getting used to it.

The loop was about 17 miles. It passed through some pretty country, and included my first river fords of the wilderness trip.

The Fivefinger shoes really show their worth in the water; they have excellent grip, complete flexibility, and the ability to feel your footing. Plus they dry quickly.
On the trail around the lake, I saw plenty of bear tracks, and, thrillingly, wolf tracks.

Bear-Wolf Junction, apparently.

But I saw no bears, no wolves. I saw a deer, and at night I heard coyotes. But as I mentioned to my parents, if I wanted to see deer and coyotes, I could have gone to Connecticut.

That evening, a passing cloud actually dumped a spattering of sleet on my tent. But then it crossed the lake and did this:

And then, a Prince song.
The next morning, the water had iced over on my rain fly. I was pretty happy to hike out.

Escape From the Lamar River

I still felt like I hadn't seen the majestic herds of bison that were my due. So I planned one more two-night trip down the Lamar River valley, way up in the north side of the park. Where the Lamar River Valley crosses the road, it's a wide, golden plain, and there are often bison right by the highway. It's also where I saw the lame wolf. So I had high hopes for vistas of wildlife. But it turns out that once you hit the trail, the valley narrows way in. It becomes forested with more of those damn lodgepole saplings that make you feel like you're walking in an empty green hallway. The campsite was another gloomy, view-free spot, with litter that included someone's discarded underwear.

(It is disturbingly common to find discarded underwear when hiking. The first time I saw a pair of underwear on a hike, I poked it with a stick, wondering what would possess someone to leave behind their underwear. It turned out that the underwear had been irrevocably soiled. I have not checked again to find out whether this is a pattern. TREAT YOUR WATER, PEOPLE!)

Even though I'd backpacked five miles in with two days' worth of food, I was sick of being disappointed with Yellowstone. I ate a quick lunch, strapped on my pack, and hiked back out again. I drove all the way down to the south side of the park (an animal-jam-packed ordeal, as usual), and got one last campground that put me in a convenient spot to escape to Grand Teton, where I've rented a "cabin" (really, just a freestanding motel room) as a break before heading into the back country again.

I hope things go better here!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Yellowstone: America's Dryer Vent

Hey, all--

I just made a rather hasty exit from Yellowstone National Park this morning, and I'm currently sitting in my car poaching wi-fi from the Colter Bay Lodge in Grand Teton. Yellowstone and Grand Teton are basically adjacent, so there was no driving-and-hotel break between parks this time.

Yellowstone was a frustrating experience right from the get-go. I'd planned to make the short drive from my hotel in Bozeman, arrive at a campground, and have a leisurely day while I decided where to head in the back country. But when I got to the park at about 11:30 a.m., ALL the nearby campgrounds were already full to capacity.

Unable to find a spot at a campground, I picked a back country campsite less than a 5-mile walk from the road. I just needed a place to sit down, plan the rest of my visit, have dinner, and sleep. I got a permit for a site about an hour's walk out, and hiked in only to find a not-very-well-kept site where I was absolutely alone. It was my first time completely alone in the wilderness since I started this trip, and wouldn't be the last.

This was the pattern I had at Yellowstone. The front country was a complete clusterfuck, and the back country seemed like an afterthought. And I know I can't blame the park, but I also had the first stretch of bad weather while I was in Yellowstone. I still saw some cool stuff, but in general, it was a disappointment.

The park is arranged so that almost everything worth seeing is on the main roads. They form a giant figure-8 through the park, connecting the big hotels to the major thermal areas and prime wildlife-viewing areas. And since I spent entire days stuck on the roads either trying to get a campground or trying to find a trail head or generally trying to get from one place to another, I ended up doing what everybody else does--creeping through traffic jams and gawking at things through the windows.

Literally every mile or so was what I came to call an "animal jam." This is a spot where people pull onto the shoulder, slow way down, or even just stop right in the middle of the road to look at wildlife.

There are always people wandering across the road with giant telephoto-lens cameras or telescopes, staring and pointing. Sometimes, it was obvious what they were looking at.

The antelope stood there for like a minute. I kept waiting for it to shave its head and attack the photographers with an umbrella, but alas.
 But a lot of times, you'd slow down, look in the direction they were pointing, and see... nothing. I swear to god, half the animal jams happened when one person either caught a glimpse of something or just thought he did, pulled over, and then everybody else said, "Hey, that dude's pulled over! He must have seen something! Let's pull over, too!"

On the other hand, I can't deny that I saw the vast majority of the wildlife from my car.

It is undeniably comical to watch such a huge animal lie down and roll around in the dust.
Bison were everywhere, and they do not give a fuck. They hang out near and on the road whenever they want to. On my last night in the park, I was driving back to camp just after sunset when a huge bull bison appeared on the shoulder. Thinking he wanted to cross, I stopped and waited. He proceeded to step into the road and start strolling along his way, right in the middle of my lane. I had to follow him at casual-bison pace for like three or four minutes, hazards on, before he decided to amble away.

I also saw from the car elk, antelope, and, miraculously, one wolf. (The wolf was hobbling on three legs; later that evening, I barely heard one mournful howl, way off in the distance, and it made me sad. But the next ranger I talked to said the wolf was a regular in the area and had been lame for years.)

I guess I can't complain, since bison, antelope, elk, and wolves were my "goal animals" to see in this park. But I feel sort of rude gawking at animals from my car, not to mention annoyed at traffic when I was trying to get somewhere. It felt like trying to go to Starbucks when Brittney Spears and a mob of paparazzi show up. Sure, it's neat to see Brittney Spears, and you probably end up popping a couple of pictures yourself, but oh that poor girl and also give me damn coffee already.

The other things to see from your car are the thermal features. Unfortunately, many of the days I set aside to see geysers, mud pots, and hot springs turned up cold and rainy. When you add all the mist and steam from the thermal features themselves, I couldn't see a whole lot.

Just about every 4 feet, they warn you not to step on, poke, or throw stuff into the thermal features. Which makes it obvious that people are constantly stepping on, poking, and throwing stuff into the thermal features.
It's the sister looking on in helpless terror that really makes this work for me.
My typical view of a Yellowstone geyser.
... reality.
And of course, I went to Old Faithful. I figured a cold, rainy Tuesday morning would at least be uncrowded.

SPOT IT: Seltzor! (I didn't even notice until I uploaded the picture.)
People started heading back to their cars before the geyser even finished erupting
Eventually, I figured out that sunset was the best time to see the thermal features. The steam plus a moody sky make for great photographs, and people have mostly cleared out for the evenings.

Dusk reflected in the delicate formations of a mineral-rich hot spring

These are from Norris Geyser Basin, a less-visited but lovely thermal area near a campground.

I wondered more than once whether all the steam in the air contributed to the crappy weather.

From afar, thermal areas look like post-nuclear wastelands.
Steam vents have an intimidating/thrilling bass roar.
Sign reads: Blue Mud Steam Vent. And it totally is!
It matches my eyes! *blink blink*
Something in this water made it glow eerily.
Weird/icky mineral formation
Algae feeding off the minerals and warm water

One of the many geysers with a nearby informational plaque describing past spectacular eruptions and the sheer unpredictability of future eruptions. This makes everyone stand and stare at the still pool, waiting for a spectacular eruption at any moment. I decided that if I ever have a chance to name a geyser, it'll be "Waitforit Geyser."
And more thermal stuff:

Mammoth Hot Spring
Mud pots make really amusing Pit-of-Eternal-Stench farty sounds. Coincidentally, all of the thermal features reek of sulphur.
Volcanic stack formations around the rim of the caldera.

Bacterial mats with what I think are bison tracks
A steam vent on a clear, but very cold, day.
NEXT UPDATE: My hikes and back country adventures.