Monday, October 18, 2010

There was a bear right there...

We spent most of our time in Yellowstone driving around looking at the animals that live in the park. The bison walk on the road and my sister is crazy about them so we saw lots of bison. At times they walked right beside the Suburban, their massive heads almost scraping the windows. We even saw one licking the bumper of the car in front of us. Never did figure out what you have to do to get that to happen, but it was a good threatening point with the kids. (Behave or we’ll smear you with peanut butter and tie you to the bumper!) It prompted the advent of the “peanut butter list.” (Mommy, am I on Aunt Julie’s peanut butter list?)

We also saw moose, coyote, mountain sheep, a black bear and some little spots I’m sure were wolves. Mom and Dad were locals and knew exactly where to go to see the “good animals.” At one point my brother-in-law went on point like a bird dog jumping out of the vehicle to see a mama grizzly and cubs. They were very far away – only visible through the binoculars and without his keen powers of observation we would have missed them. That was not true of the second grizzly bear.

It was our next to last day when we encountered the “bear jam,” a pile up of cars that usually meant a good animal sighting. I was sitting in the coveted shotgun seat. I’m shorter than everyone else in my family so I don’t get to sit in it often. We rolled down the window and a lady told us they had seen a grizzly bear, but it had walked off into the woods. By this point we were animal connoisseurs and didn’t stop for just anything. Besides the ranger was walking away from the bear jam and he wouldn’t be leaving if the bear was still there. The rangers are great at showing up when the bears do and protecting tourists from themselves.

We kept driving slowly; traffic wasn’t moving much. Eventually we pulled up beside the ranger and the bear was RIGHT THERE mere feet away. A huge grizzly bear was outside my window – my window. A man was eaten by a mother grizzly and her cubs a few weeks before we arrived in Yellowstone and my sister had read us excerpts of Death in Yellowstone. Grizzly bears are fast and unpredictable with really big teeth and claws. My mom handed me her camera to take pictures. I didn’t. I rolled up my window and tried to stay off of the peanut butter list. My family teased me mercilessly for being scared. I prefer to think of it as prudent, but I don’t think they will ever let me ride shotgun again.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

This is Yellowstone

My three sons and I along with my sister and her husband- God bless them, packed ourselves into the rented Suburban, left the Great Salt Lake and headed to Pocatello, Idaho. I was operating on two hours sleep and the residual adrenaline of getting myself, three carryon bags, three backpacks, a laptop bag, car seat and three small boys through airport security (Get your shoes back on now!) I admit I was not paying as much attention to the passing scenery as it deserved, but we were definitely not on the east coast any more. The beautiful countryside was dotted with fields made green by rolling irrigation systems all set against the backdrop of spectacular mountains.

We spent the night in Pocatello and woke up closer to human the next morning. After my sister pried my middle son away from his waffle we were off to meet Mom and Dad in Ashton, Idaho, the self proclaimed seed potato capitol of the world. The irrigated fields along the highway were covered with gorgeous green Hesston bales. Much larger than the square bales I’m used to, these bales were like Legos on steroids and were stacked uncovered in the fields. My sister asked the boys why the farmers could leave the bales uncovered (She’s worse than I am for never missing a chance to educate.) My oldest - never one to let a question pass without giving an answer – said it was because it didn’t rain much.

He’s right. Average rainfall in southern Idaho ranges from around 10 inches a year to just over 20 inches. Rainfall increases the closer you get to Yellowstone (a volcano-created valley funnels moisture to the park), but it is still less than half of what we normally get in southwest Virginia. The fields filled with nutritious hay and delicious potatoes would not grow without irrigation, and the animals and people they feed would be forced to look somewhere else.

One of my favorite freelance jobs was writing for In addition to the nice people I worked with, the part I liked best was researching the history of lakes across the country. So many of them started as reservoirs to irrigate crops and often the idea to divert water from area rivers went back to the time of the Spanish missionaries – people who saw the potential in the land if only there was just a little water. Irrigation has changed our rivers and our agriculture.

Some of the changes are obvious. When the Rio Grande runs dry before it hits Mexico, conservationists and Mexican farmers are right to question what we are doing with all the water. Those of us on the East Coast eating potatoes covered with butter made from milk given by cows fed on those beautiful hay bales need to be aware before we condemn. We are more connected than we realize.

My middle son wanted to be connected to his breakfast, but my sister was on a schedule. Turns out she was right to be concerned; Mom and Dad were early. When we pulled into Ashton my kids flew into their arms. It is one of my life’s true blessings to see how they love each other. We all missed them so much and having a week stretching in front of us to explore our Nation’s first national park was a bonus. Spending time together was the real treat.

I’m so proud of my mom and dad. Ignoring all the reasons why they shouldn’t, they left in July to go work in Yellowstone. It was one of the items on their bucket lists. They are having a real adventure together, but my sister and I can’t wait for them to come home.