Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Rain, Moose, Elk, Mud (and Squirrel)

I could tell it was raining pretty hard when I stirred during the night, and when I woke up Sarah reported it was pouring and cold outside.  I took my time getting up, taking a shower, considering possible strategies for the day … and then went back to bed for a while.  By the time I got up again and we got motivated and packed it was still pouring out.  And this was not a summer shower, this was the kind of rain where large, frigid drops attacked you no matter which way you turned and got down your neck and in your face.  Besides that the weather wasn’t bad though.

It was 10:00 by that point and so we checked out of the hotel and went to the breakfast place they had recommended, Bubba’s BBQ across the street.  Had some good eggs, home fries, and toast as well as a lot of coffee and talked strategy.  The plan we settled on wasn’t much of a plan.  We were just South of Grand Teton NP and our first plan had been to hit up the Phelps Lake loop trail, which was advertised as offering fantastic views, but visibility at that point was non-existent and also Sarah had learned on Twitter that that section of the Park was closed with bear warnings.  So our plan B was to go to the Craig Thomas VC at the main entrance and get some ranger advice … and figure by then the rain would have stopped.

Just North of Jackson the National Elk Refuge was on our right and the scenery would have started on the left except the ceiling was pretty close to ground level.  We could see ahead, behind, left, and right ok, but not up at all … and that’s where the mountains are.  Also, the rain changed from “pouring” to “torrential.”  Lots of people working on the highway and stiles/fences for the Elk Refuge were just standing there getting drenched and wondering if they were being paid enough for this.  We took a left up the road to Moose, crossed the Snake River, and turned into the VC, where the parking lot had about 20 other cars, mostly with other people who wished the rain would stop sitting in them looking wistfully out their windows or using the WiFi.

The Craig Thomas VC at Grand Teton National Park is really very nice, with a large fireplace, a big relief model of the Park, lots of displays about geology, botany, sociology, history, climbing, skiing, biology, how to tell a black bear from a grizzly, tiles set into the floor that were showing movie loops, an exhibit of paintings of the Park, and a great bookstore.  We managed to spend over an hour looking at it all … and it was still pouring out.  The movie of the Park’s history and stuff was going to start again in their auditorium, so we grabbed a seat and watched it.  It was pretty good and it builds your excitement about seeing the Park and at the end the screen suddenly rolls up and the curtains behind it open to a beautiful view of the majestic Tetons.  At least that’s what we figured we would have seen if the clouds had let us and it wasn’t still pouring.  Oh well … no one booed but I bet everybody there was thinking of it.

So we went with the only thing left to do in the VC and talked with a Ranger about where we should hike.  She recommended the Taggart Lake loop trail and then heading up to the Oxbow Bend area where she said we would have a good chance of seeing otters or beavers or possibly elk at the end of the afternoon.  She told us we could pick up a brochure at the entrance station, but when we got to the Moose Entrance Station it was deserted (as was most of the parking lot at that point) and we had to return to the VC to get one; but the rain was stopping and so we figured our stops and starts had some purpose.  BUT … by the time we drove up to the Taggart Lake trailhead it had started pouring again and the visibility was as bad as ever.

But then it let up a bit and there was a rainbow as we drove slowly up the valley and pulled into the Jenny Lake parking area, planning to look at all their exhibits until the weather cleared.  But the VC there was closed for the season!  Nothing was going right here.  We got out of the car and put on our coats and then walked along the lake front a bit, thinking that at least we could head up to the Oxbow and peer out through the car windows.  But then we realized that we were wet but that we hadn’t died yet and probably wouldn’t for a while and that the trailhead for the loop around that lake was right there, and that even though we didn’t have our packs with our water bottles, extra clothes, and stuff (they were back in the car) we should just start up the goddamn trail and have fun.  So that’s what we did … and we had a wonderful 3-hour hike.

The trail was filled with puddles and was barely passable in some places, but the trees, the rocks, the lake, the bushes, and the sides of the mountains as far up as we could see were beautiful.  Sarah didn’t have her walking stick but some previous hikers had left their walking sticks by the trailhead and Sarah selected one her size.  The remarkable thing about the Grand Tetons is that they really have no foothills … they just rise straight up from the valley of Jackson Hole, basically because they’re on their own tectonic plate and the mountains are young and still lifting while the plain itself (“Jackson Hole”) is sinking.  This fracture is apparent in many places along the bottom slopes of the mountains.

We weren’t sure if we had to worry about bears, but we figured it was a good idea and weren’t shy about making noise talking and blowing our noses.  We passed a turnoff for the Moose Lakes trail but didn’t take it.  Then a few hundred yards later, there he was just about to cross the trail about 50 feet in front of us: a bull moose in the flesh.  I got Sarah’s attention and pointed and she got the camera up just in time to get a good shot of him crossing the trail.  He realized we were there and wasn’t too worried about us.  We continued slowly down the trail while he kept alongside it and gradually left us behind.  We got a couple more glimpses of him and definitely heard him for a while, lumbering through the bushes and complaining about the rain.

Also on the trail were some significant dumps of waterlogged, hairy scat … signs that bears had been here sometime.  We were having a great time, as the magic of the woods and the lake sucked us in, and we were energized by the thrill of our moose encounter.  We met a few other hikers, including a bunch of drowned rats who had been camping up the Canyon and were done, a couple a little younger than us dressed in matching rain gear, and a couple of single hikers.  When we were almost halfway around the lake we were nearing the dock where the boat (if had been running!) from the Jenny Lake VC docked, and at that point the trail headed uphill towards Hidden Falls.

We climbed up the beautiful lower slopes of Teewinot Mountain (one of the mountains at the forefront of every picture of the Grand Tetons you’ve ever seen) and eventually reached the Falls, which were as spectacular as we hoped, crashing over huge boulders for hundreds of feet before streaming down crevices in the steep mountain.  We’d left the couple behind while they broke for some food, but they caught up with us and had just had a moose encounter themselves, with a huge cow.  Signs warned us that bear encounters were common in that area too, which caused a bit of nervousness, especially when we started back down the trail around sharp corners without much choice of an escape route and the sound of the falls was drowning out most sounds.  Oh well, no bear encounters were had and we were back down on the lake shore soon, retracing our steps back to the VC parking lot.

By the time we were halfway back the rain was still misting, but the wind had picked up from the South and the clouds over the mountaintops were clearing.  We actually saw a few shadows and got beautiful, teasing views up long green slopes toward the misty, snow-covered talus and boulders that rose up into the swirling clouds.  We caught a few glimpses up to the top of Teewinot, but the signature peak of the Grand Teton itself (at 13,770 feet) remained shrouded.  We stopped at the Moose Lakes overlook again and this time we saw a bull moose, just hanging around the lake like he had nothing better to do.  I figured the first one we saw was named Bob and this one was Derek.  Got back to the end of the trail finally and Sarah left her hiking stick in the stack with the others.

Back in the car and we were filled with the wonder we’d just seen and felt … also we were cold, hungry, and wet.  And we were startled to see that it was already 4:40 and we realized we’d better get a serious move on if we were going to make it up to Gardiner MT that night for our hotel reservations.  We turned up the heater and the defroster, ate some food quickly, and then steamed up the road toward the North, though we had to stop for a few more photo opportunities including a beautiful vista down Cascade Canyon between Teewinot and Mount St. John.  Cruised up to the Jackson Lake Junction and detoured to the Oxbow.  It was filled with bird watchers but was very peaceful and pretty in the setting sun, especially with the Tetons now mostly exposed in the background over Jackson Lake.

We hit the road North with a vengeance at that point, but we had to get some coffee.  The Jackson Lake Lodge was also closed, but luckily there was a convenience store open at Colter Bay and while Sarah got coffee I was able to get through (one bar on my cell) to our hotel to let them know we were on our way but would be late.  We then floored it up the Rockefeller Memorial Parkway and past the closed South Entrance station into Yellowstone National Park at 5:50, where signs warned us that chains or snow tires were required.

By our original plan we’d have had plenty of time when we got to Yellowstone and be able to meander through slowly and maybe find places to stop … but at this point we were desperate to get to Gardiner, the sun was approaching the horizon, and then it got even more desperate!  It suddenly became really overcast and dark and then it started snowing hard, big wet flakes that were piling up on the road at an alarming pace.  The temperature was dropping and the road was going up and up and we had to crest the Continental Divide before we could even get to the first civilized junction in Yellowstone.  The outside thermometer readout on the dashboard dropped to 36, then 35, then 33!  The roadway started to feel slick and dangerous.  We knew we were going up into the sky because the car was struggling uphill, but it was so dark that besides that we had no sense of perspective.  We finally crossed the divide at the embarrassingly meager elevation of 7988 feet, and then everything changed!  The snow stopped, the clouds parted a bit and the last rays of the sun came out, and the temperature started to climb again as we sped downhill towards West Thumb.

We thought we’d seen big lakes before, but the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake and then the main body of the lake itself stretched for miles and miles.  Could have been bottomless too but we didn’t have time to find out.  We spun the wheel back and forth as the road tooled along this beautiful, pleasant stretch.  Yellowstone can be an alarming place but we were only alarmed now and then in this stretch when clouds of steam surged up to our left with no warning.  We were now within the caldera of the volcano that was responsible for a good deal of the scenery we’d been seeing for hundreds of miles.  Snow and mist-capped mountains towered above us on the opposite side of the lake.  I had considered turning back when we were trying to cross the Divide, but the nearest town South was Jackson and that was far away.  We could continue East towards Cody at this point in Yellowstone, but that was far, far away itself and over another mountain range.  So we continued North at Lake Village/Fishing Bridge past more sudden clouds of steam and a few scenes of boiling mud towards the Canyon Village section.

The shining full moon came up and there were a surprising number of cars still out on the road, looking for wildlife.  We were determined we weren’t going to stop for anything (it was already 7:00) … like that porcupine on the road we just missed!  But about halfway between Fishing Bridge and Canyon Village we just had to pull over for one of the most incredible sights I’ve ever seen.  We opened the windows and turned off the car and there, just 100 feet away, was an elk bull and his harem in an open meadow.  The bull was keeping watch and his antlers were silhouetted against the full moon.  There was a little sound in the woods and they all startled for a second, their ears twitching in unison, then the cows went back to eating, the calves went back to being carefree, and the bull actually relaxed enough to start munching too.  Some of the moms and kids started strolling off into the woods, where it was apparently safer, while the rest took this opportunity for some good feeding time in the meadow.  We, and the other 4 or 5 carloads who saw this scene, were just entranced by the sight.  But we slowly pulled away as the herd decided dinnertime was approaching an end and started to file off into the woods.

We turned the engine back on and hit the road again, turning left in Canyon Village and then (after another 12 miles), turning North once more in Norris for the run up to Mammoth Hot Springs.  Normally we would have taken a less crooked route through Yellowstone but because of road closures we had to go this way, which was turning out great!  The only bummer was that our time for arriving in Gardiner was looking later and later, and there were still cars out on the road keeping us from going as fast as we might … which was probably good actually.  Coming down the steep twists into Mammoth Hot Springs there was a mule deer trying to cross the road that was brushed back by the car in front of us.  We finally made it to Mammoth and through the village there, and then went down and down some more, across the Wyoming border along the crease of the Gardner River.  There’s a stone arch marking the North Entrance to Yellowstone and when we eventually made it through that we were in Gardiner at 5314 feet, but were twisted around a bit.  Got our bearings in that tiny town and drove across the bridge over the Yellowstone River, finally pulling into the parking lot of the Absaroka Lodge at 8:10 where the desk guy was patiently waiting for us, sitting outside smoking a cigarette.

Many people would be freaked out by this hotel, but we loved it.  Check-in was pretty informal (the guy closed the office after we left), the hotel was a couple of cinder-block buildings, and there was a sign on the bathroom door saying not to wash your car with the hotel towels.  BUT the beds were comfy, the room was clean, the WiFi worked fine, and the location was great.  We were just outside Yellowstone and the rooms all had balconies overlooking the rapids of the Yellowstone River, lit up by the full moon.  OK, Gardiner WY isn’t the prettiest town but it was fine with us.

We had asked for dinner recommendations and there was really only one place in town to go: Rosie’s up the hill right next to their partner institution, the Blue Goose Saloon.  Our waitress was Emily and I had an excellent spinach and mushroom lasagna, Sarah had a buffalo burger (no meal tax!).  They also had great local beer (see digression on beer).  The place was closing down when we left and the streets were being rolled up in the small town, but we managed to ignore the spectacular moonlight over the Yellowstone River and download, charge, post, and blog before going to bed after a long, adventurous day.

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