Into the Wild

“How will we know when it’s really going off”? my 11-year old niece asked, watching the ground hiss and spurt random streams of hot water six to ten feet high. “Oh, you’ll know”! I smiled. What a delight it is to experience Yellowstone through the eyes of first-time visitors, especially youngsters. It’s like putting on goggles and seeing the sights in new, fresh ways.

Old Faithful Geyser continued to bubble and steam, teasing the audience with its pre-show antics.  I’ve seen the iconic geyser erupt more times than I can count but, this time, I waited with new-found anticipation — excited to share the experience with my sister Korri, nephew Caden, and niece Aly.  Finally, it burst, blasting scalding water more than 100 feet high in a grand performance lasting several minutes.

Seeing their smiles and hearing their happy chatter made me smile.

Our adventures began with a bald eagle sighting along the Madison River.  Perched in the pines on the river’s edge away from the road, it would be easy to miss, but Greg, the ultimate tour guide, doesn’t miss much when it comes to wildlife. Traffic streamed by as we stood along the river bank peering at the raptor.

“How come nobody’s stopping”? the kids asked.

“I don’t know”. I paused.  “Maybe they’re in a hurry to get somewhere”.

Eventually, a car stopped and we gladly shared our find. A few miles down the road, an elk jam halted traffic.  Vehicles stopped in the middle of the road and camera-faced tourists invaded the meadow despite signs reading: “No stopping or parking along the road”.  There’s something magical about seeing animals in the wild.

Aly and Caden focused binoculars on the elk herd and I heard one say, “we’ve seen elk before”, to which the other replied softly, “but, these are in the wild, no cages or fences”!

  

Through their eyes, even bison loomed larger and the typically annoying bison jams became entertaining.  I actually found myself hoping the herd would saunter into the road and clog traffic!  And it did — snorting, galloping, rolling in the dirt and plain old lollygagging past our car.

“It’s like a scene from Jurassic Park”, Caden commented.

“Look, they’re swimming”! Aly exclaimed. “Let’s get out”!

Greg pulled into a turnout and we piled out. A bison paddled across the river towards the road, shaking a small pond out of its fur as it emerged before us. Bison dotted the hills and meadows – so many that Aly gave up her tallying.

Each safari brought new surprises.

When Greg and Korri stepped out of the car to view some pronghorn, a furry-brown mass scurried past. At first, Greg identified it as a marmot and then it turned and glared at its intruders. It was a badger!  A mama moose and calf, a bull elk sporting velvet antlers, and a black bear rounded out the wildlife sightings.

But, the grizzly, that’s another story. It fixed its attention on the cooler and attacked it — clawing and biting the hinges, tossing it against rocks, wrestling it into the pond and hanging on like a surfer waiting for a wave

  

We laughed at the amusing antics, reveling in our good fortune to witness “cooler durability testing” at The Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone, Mont. If the bears can’t break into the cooler, filled with tasty treats, within 60 minutes, it is certified as “bear resistant”.  A display of failed food and garbage containers — the “container graveyard” — is a testament to the grizzlies’ prior achievements.

After days in Yellowstone’s wild kingdom, it was time to work the wild out of the kids. Like a protective Mama Bear, Korri watched Aly and Caden don harnesses, helmets, clips, and various contraptions and head off to flight school.

 

Soon, they were scrambling up ropes, spiderwebs and plank bridges at Yellowstone Aerial Adventures.

Cautious at first, Caden and Aly navigated the ropes course with teamwork and a celebratory high-five after a particularly challenging section. We watched in delight as the two flew across four ziplines at the top, connecting and disconnecting their flight gear along the way.  Rappelling down they headed back up again and again and again until they closed the place down.

All too soon,our visitors headed home. Thank you Korri, Caden and Aly for a fun, memorable Yellowstone visit and for helping me see familiar sights with new eyes.

Spring Babies

Like a scene from a Disney movie, Mama Grizzly stepped onto a vertical snow patch and skied down the mountainside on all fours. Her cubs followed suit and the crowds cheered in delight. It was one of nature’s rare glimpses into the wonders of wildlife. Spring in Yellowstone brings new life and the touching, hilarious, and sometimes sad antics of animal babies.

While Mama Grizz foraged for food, her twins tumbled and wrestled like kids, oblivious to the captivated spectators lining the riverbank. In a moment of realization, one stopped and stared at the audience as if to say, “You looking at me?!” The other, its face covered in mud, seized the opportunity to land a well placed choke-hold and the scuffle ensued.

It’s easy to forget you’re in an untamed kingdom — merely a visitor, an observer, subject to the wiles of the wild. I love accompanying Greg on his photo safaris. For me, it’s all about the experience, the waiting, the anticipation, the wondering of what will happen next. Each wildlife encounter delivers its own unique story.

One of Three Black Bears Strolls Down the Road in Yellowstone National Park

Two black bear cubs ran out of tree to climb and clung to the treetop, more than 50 feet above the ground. The tree swayed in the wind while the tykes shifted positions.  Mama Bear woke from napping on the lower branches, stood on her hind paws and scanned the meadow below. Her cinnamon fur shimmered in the sunlight. We arrived at the scene late and missed the earlier drama. A boar, on the hunt, pursued the cubs across the field and the twins scrambled up a Lodgepole Pine to safety. Conditions weren’t ideal for photography so Greg graciously offered his camera setup to fellow wildlife enthusiasts as a telescope-of-sorts so they could better view the bears. I cajoled (nagged!) him into taking a few shots despite the marginal lighting and distance!

  

Moose are strange creatures and not particularly social. But, moose babies embellish all the characteristics of any youngster.  They romp, stomp and splash in the river with child-like grace. And, when Mama heads down river, they abandon their shenanigans and follow her. Usually.

Melancholy notes filled the air — a bleating, hoarse and shrill. “What is that sound”? I asked. “It’s a moose calf across the river”, Greg replied. I focused my binoculars on the calf. It appeared to be a yearling, wading in circles, clearly in search of its mama. We trailed it as it disappeared into the tall reeds and re-emerged in the shallows. Time passed. The crying continued.  We departed, feeling helpless and hoping for a happy ending.

Rounding up the kids seems to be a challenge across most, if not all, animal species.  Like a carnival game, goslings paddled back and forth in the pond, almost bumping into each other.  I couldn’t help but laugh at Mother Goose’s failed attempts to corral her water babies and keep them moving in the same direction. In the end, Mama prevailed and the goslings’ swimming lesson was a success.

“Look at those big ears”! Greg chuckled as he setup his tripod. An elk calf peeked out of the brush, ears dwarfing its tiny face. Mama emerged from the trees and nudged her baby into the woods.  A few minutes later, the calf kicked up its hooves and galloped back, apparently playing a rousing game of tag until Mama put the kibosh on it.

As spring melds into summer, animal babies grow, their instincts sharpen to the realities of life in the wild, and guests, like ourselves, continue to marvel at the wonders of the untamed animal world.

Visitors’ Delight

You know spring is shoving winter off the weather pedestal when you stuff your super-undies — a “Greg-ism” for base layers rated at -20 degree temperatures — back in the drawer in favor of a lighter version. Warmer temperatures in the Yellowstone area are rendering them obsolete for the season.

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Sunset at Midway Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park

Spring is unfolding like a pop-up storybook. Snow mounds melt into volunteer puddles and lakes. Rivers swell and tumble with fresh energy. Soggy, muddy meadows morph into lush green pastures. Nature’s wildlife nursery abounds with cubs, pups, calves, goslings and owlets. And the most perplexing wildlife of all, visitors, descend upon the park.

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A Selfie. Hmmm….Wonder if They Know What’s Lurking Behind Them?
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The Grand Tetons!

“Hey, could you close your car door so we can drive past”? we called out to a driver who abandoned his car in the road to photograph a black bear. It was a typical bear jam – cars teetering on steep road edges; people traipsing through stopped traffic in both directions; camera-faced humanoids hanging precariously out of car windows and sunroofs; and rangers working earnestly to bring safety and order to the melee.

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“What’s all the fuss about?”

Mostly though, fellow wildlife enthusiasts are a fun, friendly bunch.

“You see the bear”?

“No, where is it”?

“See those two crossed logs on the mountainside? It’s the brown dot to the left”.

“I don’t see it”!

“OK, see the second line of trees? And the one with the round puff at the top? Now, look to the right”.

“I don’t see it!”

“OK, see…”.

And so the conversation continues until you pretend you spotted the critter just to bring a smile to your new-found comrade’s face. But, the best kind of visitors are our family and friends. To Greg’s and my delight, my sister, Donna, and brother-in-law, Clay, visited us earlier this month for several, fun-filled days of adventure in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.

  

I’m certain they packed some California sunshine in their hiking packs and called ahead to schedule wildlife sightings.

“There’s a huge black bear on the trail, just a quarter-mile up”!  A group of hikers warned at the Slough Creek trailhead in Yellowstone after aborting their hike. Not to be deterred, Greg armed Clay and I with bear spray and Donna diligently scanned the area. We didn’t see the gigantic bear and we didn’t hear the growl that a passing hiker experienced but we enjoyed many wildlife sightings where they should be — away from the trail! Here are a few select photos.

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Newborn Moose Calf Wobbles its First Steps – Jackson, WY
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Black Bear Kisses at Rainy Lake – YNP
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Bald Eagle in Floating Island Lake – YNP

 

 

The Call of the Wild

There’s a particular travel destination that entices my photography-loving husband to brave snow, sleet and 25-degree temperatures in the spring. It lures him to drive 200-plus miles in a day scouting for wildlife. It lulls him into waiting patiently, eyes glued to his viewfinder, for just the right image. This beguiling place is Yellowstone National Park.

It’s been eighteen months since we last departed and the separation tugged at our heartstrings like cupid’s bow at full draw. Our arrival in West Yellowstone, Mont. felt like a homecoming — reconnecting with friends, visiting familiar sites and anticipating the park’s spring opening. Officially, Opening Day was April 21st but the park wakes up slowly, sleepily over several weeks as snow melt gives way to snow plows.

There’s something magical about being in the park early in the season. In the stillness, you can hear snow tumbling off pine branches — close your eyes and it sounds like a crackling fire. Fresh powder remains undisturbed except for some telltale animal tracks and it’s easy to imagine that yours is the lone car on the road. Not all park roads and services are open yet, but each week brings new explorations as different areas become available.

“How come I can’t see through this”? I shouted to Greg. “Take the lens cap off”!  he called out from atop of the motorhome, shovel in hand. Snow, six inches deep, blanketed Betty, our diesel damsel. I had hoped to sneak a photo of him, but clearly, the camera is better off in his hands.

So, our wildlife photo safaris begin. Moose and bear have eluded us so far. Bison command the roads. Eagles rule the air and my photography-loving husband and I continue to be captivated by the call of the wild.

Hitchin’ It

As if traveling the open road in an RV is not vagabond enough, Greg and I hitched a ride from So. Calif. to San Felipe, BC, Mexico. The 283-mile road trip took two days with an overnight stop in the border town of Calexico, Calif. The first leg dropped us a mere 22 miles from our departure point at a rest stop on Interstate 10. With our roll-aboard suitcases bumping awkwardly along the uneven asphalt, we scanned the parking lot looking for our next ride. “We’ll know it when we see it”, we assured ourselves.

Moments later, we piled into the backseat of a four-passenger diesel truck towing a large box trailer and joined a mini-caravan of off-roaders hauling side-by-sides to the Baja California desert. Serendipitously, they too were destined for San Felipe!

If you know Greg and I, it’s hard to imagine us thumbing our way anywhere and, by now, you likely figured out that this was a well orchestrated tag-team trip — my romanticized version of hitchhiking!

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It had been 20 years since we visited San Felipe to help our friends, Vic and Deb, move into their newly-built beach house. Somehow, we never made it back, meeting up with them over the years in other destinations. When my brother-in-law, Mike, and sister, Sharon, shared their plans to rendezvous with 90-plus other off-roaders and motorcyclists in our friends’ hometown, we couldn’t resist hitching a ride.

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A few phone calls later and the relay team was set. Greg’s folks picked us up at our RV Resort and eighty-sixed us at the freeway rest stop — literally, Exit 86. Meanwhile, Mike and Sharon, along with friends, Bob and Debbie, left Bishop, Calif. 5-plus hours earlier on the second day of their journey from Reno, Nev. and arrived precisely on time for a smooth handoff.

Two hours later our convoy came to a dead stop. Calexico’s Friday border-crossing commute was in full stall. The sun set. Tail lights beamed red across two lanes like a string of Christmas lights marking a 2-1/2 hour wait. Fortunately, we planned an early morning crossing the next day. Our 7AM departure rewarded us with a traffic-free drive to the border which was uneventful except for one minor surprise.

“Passports and visas, please”, the Mexican border official asked politely.

“Visas?”

“Everyone needs to buy a visa. It costs $30 U.S. dollars each. Good for six months”.

“We’ll just be here a week”.

“You can pay there”, he said pointing to a small office.

Apparently, visas are required when towing off-road vehicles into Mexico. We anted up and crossed the border with visas in hand. The city disappeared into desert as we wound down the MX 5 Highway south for a couple hours. If you’ve ever driven in Mexico, you know to expect military checkpoints. To me, it’s a bit unnerving pulling up to these road blocks staffed with young soldiers clad in army fatigues and automatic rifles. They search for contraband, primarily firearms and drugs. After a brief inspection, we were waved through. I smiled at the guard and I think he smiled back – his bandana-type scarf covered his face but his eyes hinted a smile.

San Felipe greeted us with sunshine and the promise of a fun, relaxing week with our friends, who anchored the last leg of the relay.

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Thank you, Mike, for being our wheels to San Felipe!

The time passed too quickly.

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Days filled with morning walks on the beach, candlelight dinners in the wine cellar, gourmet meals with me as the self-proclaimed “sous-chef” (which mostly meant watching our hosts create “cuisine de delectable”), margarita and chardonnay sunset toasts…

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…yoga backdropped by the sound of waves lapping the shore, tequila tastings, rousing afternoon table games, soon came to an end. Warmed by the camaraderie and joy that true friendship brings we jumped back into that four-passenger diesel truck and reverse-hitched a ride back — grateful for our family and friends. Now that’s the way to hitch-it!

Nature’s Lessons

Stealthily, they marched in like a dashed-black-line in motion, creeping into kitchen drawers and across counter tops, scattering only when chased by gigantic paper-towel-clad hands. Ants, they never give up!

The southern Calif. rains rolled in drenching Betty, our diesel damsel, washing away repellents, and subsiding just long enough for the ant invasion to begin again. You can squirt, squash or swat these pesky pests. You can belly-crawl under the RV and powder the tire and jack footings (if only I was so lucky to have a daily pedicure!). But, with indomitable persistence, they still find a way. Ironically, these determined little demons arrived right after New Year’s Day — as if they held a conference, penned their goals and forged an attack! “I could learn a lot from these insidious insects”, I mused, as I crafted my dreams and goals for 2017.

Relentless downpours raged for most of the month squelching our photo safari plans. But, we journeyed back to sunnier days through Greg’s photographs. One image, taken in an Arizona wind storm, mopped up my damp mood.

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A towering palm tree rocked back and forth, beaten by the wind. Fronds bobbed wildly in a jumping-jack motion. In the midst of the turmoil, high in the green canopy, a Great Horned Owl gripped a frond and rode out the storm. Sometimes, when our plans are foiled, all we can do is hunker down, hang on and be flexible.

Dream big in 2017 and follow nature’s lessons: be wise like an owl and persistent like an ant!

 

A Promise Kept

 

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Twenty-two of us piled into planes and cars to travel home for Christmas and keep a promise we made to each other 28 years ago.

Home this year was Reno, NV, but the location changes every year. Christmas was December 10, but the date changes every year.  What doesn’t change is the tremendous effort everyone makes to be there.  And, as my reflection in the plane window screamed, “We’ve been at this for a LOT of years”!

Just getting there offers travel tales from the hilarious to the miraculous.  Like the time my now-brother-in-law boarded a flight to Reno to meet the whole family at our Christmas gathering.  After hearing so much about him, I eagerly awaited his arrival. My sister tracked his flight… delayed… enroute… arriving soon… too much snow…. flight returned to the bay area.  “Come on”, I thought, “does this guy really exist”?

Or the time my sports-loving brother-in-law decided to hoof it to the airport and scope out a bicycle route to work along the way. It seemed a noble notion. But, after hiking several miles in the morning darkness through unfamiliar residential neighborhoods, he found himself lost.  A sinking feeling took hold — he could call someone but no one would get to him in time.  Besides, he didn’t know where he was anyway!  Just then, a taxi with its service light turned off, rounded a corner and rescued him!

West and east coast snowstorms, red-eye flights, and travel woes plagued family members over the years but to no avail.  Promises are meant to be kept.

Twenty-eight years ago, my mother, Alice, took her place in heaven.  She was the heart of our family.  Her love, humor, forgiving nature, and passion for family gatherings and traditions made her home the go-to place. We knew a visit to Mom’s house meant we would see each other.  Mom to seven, Mom-in-law to four, and Babcia (Grandmother) to three, she kept us connected.

And so, that first Christmas without her, we promised to set a date each year, rotate locations among us and gather together for “Family Christmas”.  It comforted us knowing that no matter where life took us, we would touch home every year.  I didn’t fully comprehend the meaning nor depth of this simple agreement at the time. Or maybe, it just grew over the years as many of us moved away, or as we retold this Christmas story to new nieces, nephews and in-laws crazy enough to embrace this lively family and its Polish traditions!  This year, our family grew by one more.  Mom’s third great-grandchild, Dylan Jay, arrived in November joining sister, Ava, and cousin, Rosalie, in the tyke generation. As we grow, it gets more difficult to get together, but we do the best we can.  Mostly, we gather at full count (30-plus!) and dearly miss those who can’t make it.

Twenty-two of us piled into planes and cars in Reno, NV, richer from time spent together, to return home before Christmas Eve and complete the promise we made to each other 28 years ago — to share Christmas with the “other side” of our families, celebrate our individual family traditions and make room for younger families to create their own memorable traditions.  Greg and I enjoyed Christmas with his family, as we have for many years, feeling grateful, connected and ready for the New Year.

Rosanne Wagstaff

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