Montana usually reserves the term Big Sky, but the boundary is blurry. My continued journey through Yellowstone in Wyoming was under a big sky, open and full of crisp stars at night and wide horizons during the day.
My journal for the period of 14-20 June is a report that reads like what I did on my summer vacation. It does not seem like a report of a birder in Yellowstone and Teton but a tourist skimming the high points, the panorama, and geology. There was hardly an entry about birding. For someone attempting to see as many species possible in a 12-month period, my recorded efforts were meager. A French fur trader, such as those that trapped up the Yellowstone River, probably would have called me a fainéant, a do-nothing idler. Insofar as birding results in Montana, I was on idle.
There were numerous species that were missed during middle June and others that were missed during the first two weeks of the trip. Before I crossed the Cascade Mountains in Oregon, would have been good location to find such species Oak Titmouse, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, and California Towhee. The last species is common in the chaparral regions of my point of origin, the Rogue River Valley. A pair calling just outside as I write this are likely to breed in the hedges outside the house. In the Cascades, it would have been great to locate a Blue Grouse, Williamson’s Sapsucker, Calliope Hummingbird, and Pygmy Nuthatch. Pinyon Jays were missed, probably because I was never in their optimum habitat; there was still a chance to find them in Montana, and if not, hopefully somewhere in New Mexico on the second leg of the trip. In all the sagebrush and scrub in eastern Oregon and Idaho, I missed Greater Sage Grouse. I missed owls right and left, including the Flammulated Owl at Malheur, Western Screech-Owls could have been almost anywhere and, of course my owl nemesis, the Great Gray Owl. If I had been lucky, maybe I could have found a Boreal Owl breeding in the Rocky Mountains. The species breeds in Yellowstone. I would have a good chance to find Flammulated Owls in Arizona. Time will tell. Did I mention not finding a bouquet of mixed Empidonax flycatchers, including Hammond’s, Gray, and Dusky? Hermit and Black-throated Gray warblers were possible in western Oregon. Both breed there. A migrant Townsend’s Warbler was a possibility but missed. Cassin’s Finch eluded me although I was in its breeding range, but so did Pine Grosbeaks and Red Crossbills whose territory I frequented. Leaving the Rockies meant the last chance find Spruce Grouse, according to the Fifth edition of the AOU Checklist, published in 1957 that I was using at the time; Yellowstone National Park, where the checklist stated the species breeds, did not list this species in 2004. Maybe I did not miss Spruce Grouse after all. Two species of the mountain loving rosy-finch did not show themselves. Gray-crowned Rosy Finches might have been at Crater Lake National Park although most of my trips there, before and after 1962 were rosy-finch free. Black Rosy-Finch might have made my trip list in Yellowstone and Teton parks. The two montane woodpeckers known for having just three toes, the Black-backed and American Three-toed woodpeckers stayed clear of my binoculars and ears.
On my way from Klamath Falls to Lakeview, Oregon, there was a good chance for Red-naped Sapsuckers. Of course, in 1962, Red-naped and Red-breasted Sapsuckers, missed west of the Cascades, were considered conspecific with the eastern population called Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. For anyone who has not heard by now, yes, there really is a bird with that name. Therefore, once I checked Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, I had the species; the others were then subspecies. I devoted less time noticing what field identifiable subspecies I found, such as sapsuckers, and more time attempting to make certain I was seeing an Audubon’s Warbler and not a Myrtle Warbler. I had no inkling that the different subspecies of sapsuckers might represent different species. Little did I know in 1962 that 15 years later I would report evidence of hybridization between what are now Red-breasted and Red-naped sapsuckers. Bendire, while at Ft. Klamath, Oregon, collected some of the specimens used in the study. Although I missed the sapsuckers, I have since found them breeding in the Ft. Klamath region. Missing species in 1962 would mean working that much harder for the return journey home. Should I have worked harder? If I had taken the time to taken an inventory of the species missed as I traveled, instead of being overly excited by those that I found, the list in 1962 might have an additional woodpecker and three or four more flycatchers. As I continued east, the probability of finding some of the missed species decreased. There were several opportunities to find at least one of the Empidonax species but each mile west meant my chances were fading. I had worried that I missed crossbills between Ft. Klamath and Klamath Falls in Oregon, but I believed I would find them eventually. I might have tried harder to find them while in the Rocky Mountains, a region where, with diligence and luck I might have found at least one of the rosy-finches, and maybe, just maybe a couple of owls. Who knows, maybe I would have even found a Great Gray Owl.
In the days of 1962, my bird finding skills were not terribly bad but my zeal for exploration, to discover what was around the next corner, and impatience to experience birding in the east prevented me from seeing the big picture. Had I been able to complete the circle around the United States in 1962, I would surely have realized the blunder of not trying harder for the western species I missed during that exciting June. Besides my lack of experience in 1962, bird-finding tools were limiting factors. The people I contacted along my June route were invaluable for finding birds. In today’s birding world, there is better and more available information. Today, there are more birders with whom to communicate. Most western birders in 1962 were isolated and regarded as odd, even suspicious. In 1962, the most definite source on birds in Oregon was 22 years old, Burleigh’s book on Idaho had not yet published, and knowledge about the birds of Craters of the Moon National Monument and Yellowstone and Teton National parks were far from definitive. Some of the best bird finding information was from the biologists and managers of the National Wildlife refuges I visited. Other than Pettingill’s useful tome, there were no bird finding publications, no birding hot lines to telephone, and no internet to plan a birding trip.
In 1962, I was thinking Chestnut-sided Warblers, Swamp Sparrows, Roseate Spoonbills, and more. I was even anxious to add Cardinal to the list. Cardinals would not be a life bird but there were many warblers, sparrows, and waterbirds, such as the spoonbill and Reddish Egrets, to add not only to the slowly growing trip list but also to my life list. By 18 June, I had not seen a new species of bird for days. High anxiety tempered my thirst to drive eastward and soon. However, it was hard to ignore the strange and magnificent geologic creations of the parks. Before I would see any new birds, I would enjoy soaking in the big sky country, the mountains, rolling hills and the badlands while on the way to the Plains. Before that, I would revel in the remaining unexplored portion of Yellowstone, where I would stop when I wished and check out what was around the next corner.
What was around the next corner was crossing the Snake River the last time when retracing my route from Teton to Yellowstone. Around the corner was also traversing the Continental Divide one last time in 1962. I then descended the summit into the eastern watershed. On my way to the next destination in Yellowstone, I would pass what would be the site of Grant Village about a mile south of West Thumb. The construction of Grant Village, in the 1970s, is controversial because its location is in prime habitat for grizzly bears; several major streams in the region are by habitat for spawning cutthroat trout. People fishing in the park must release any fish they happen to catch. The campground of West Thumb closed in 1980. There are 425 campsites at Grant Village, each costing campers $17.00 a night (as of 2004), but to get one reservations are required. Camping at West Thumb was free on a first come, first serve basis. The toilets at Grant Village smell better than the old two-holer I almost did not get to use one morning in 1962 when I tripped and nearly did not make it.
Tom Thumb has returned to a more natural state sans. Now, the grizzly has greater difficulty catching spawning trout but visitors have more civilized facilities. I didn’t see or hear any grizzly bears at Tom Thumb in 1962, nor did Linda and I in 1996, when we stopped at Grant Village to make a small purchase at the busy general store. The only bears dodged were cranky motorist vying for a good spot in the long lines at the gas pumps. Alston Chase, author of “Playing God in Yellowstone “wrote at least 48 different entries about Grant Village, and most of them were not complimentary. I wonder what the twin biologists, John and Frank Craighead thought about Grant Village. The Craigheads were known to me in 1962 because I read their book “Hawks, Owls and Wildlife,” from cover to cover several times during the high school daze, probably when I should have been hitting the algebra homework. The Craigheads specialized in grizzly bears and conducted extensive research in Yellowstone. The architects of the village that took so much fish and grizzly habitat must have thought the throngs of tourist would appreciate the new human habitat. Grant you, the village may be attractive to some with casual minds who like its gas pumps, stores, lodge, another visitor’s center, but it seemed to Linda and me as unattractive as it must be to grizzly bears.
During my first trip to Yellowstone, where my father hurried us to Old Faithful’s eruption and got the family back on the road before the last camera shutter clicked, and in 1962, the coniferous forests were lush. The trees were tall and thick, stately and wild. In 1996, Linda and I found an environment very different from the one so fondly recalled. There was an openness. The air was not cool and fragrant. Billions of conifer needs were not there to filter and oxygenate the air, to lend the headiness we knew mountain air was supposed to be. Part of the problem was there were so many people and so many automobiles, trucks, SUVs, motorcycles, and snowmobiles. Anything that burns gas or diesel and that pollutes with noise and fumes has been the way of life and comfort for much of the last century. A few cyclists risk their lives by taking deep breaths of carbon monoxide and other pollutants in their attempt to preserve what was once pristine. In 1895, only 5,438 people visited Yellowstone. No internal combustion engines to hurry them past unseen beauty. By 1962, there were 1,925,227 visitors. Forty years later visitation about doubled. A total of 2,983,051 came to Yellowstone in 2002.
On the mid-September day in 1996, we were witnessing another cause of the change in environment. We were witnessing the result of the 1988 controversial fire control policy that allowed wildfires to burn unabated in Yellowstone National Park. As a consequence, 1.2 million acres went up in billowing smoke. In fact, 36% of the park burned! The park occupies 2,221,800 acres, which means 793,000 blackened acres. Not to mention the loss to wildlife, 67 human structures burned to ash. Total property damage was nearly $3 million. There are reports of “recovery” taking place in the burned region. What that means is subject to interpretation. Recovery, by any imaginative person, bears no semblance to what once was forest. I doubt that any animal requiring more than a blade of grass or bush to eat, or nest in, hide behind, or shelter from the weather would, if they had opposable thumbs and could talk, would have signed an agreement to the wildfire policy of let it burn. The scorched and burned ecosystems will not recover in our lifetime. The burned part of Yellowstone offers an interesting laboratory for studying the process of the recovery. However, there were plenty of mountains throughout the country that have burned to a crisp, some more than once. It is too bad the policy makers did not think that Yellowstone offers a perfect laboratory for the study of the development of climax habitats.
At the centennial of Crater Lake National Park, employees gathered one afternoon for a reunion. During the bygone summer days between college classes when my old roommates was a ranger and I was assistant fire control chief in the park. My roommate lived near West Yellowstone during the big fire, and told me that the fire in Yellowstone was the best thing that had happened there. He went on to mention that the fuel load (how much of the forest is flammable) was too high. Too high for what?
Now that the fuel load has been removed, the watershed is unprotected resulting in soil erosion, the soil is unprotected and will therefore become hotter which prevents certain, possibly rare, plants from ever thriving and the water table to go down. Since the turn of the century, Wyoming has experienced a warmer, drier climate. Increasing warmth and decreasing precipitation in the park will delay, if not prevent, recovery of the burned and scorched one-third of Yellowstone. The changes in the climate may have simultaneously contributed to an expansion in elk winter range, and caused a decline in the extent of riparian habitats that were dominated by willows (Salix sp.), with a concurrent significant plummeting in beaver populations. In other words, the super abundance of elk may be responsible for the demise of riparian shrubs. Add to this a policy of if you see a fire don’t tell, let it burn, and later deal with what is left is of an ecological mess.
If allowing naturally ignited wildfires to burn really means natural regulation of habitats, then why does Yellowstone build roads and erect buildings in the park? There is nothing natural about thousands of vehicles, summer and winter, or the millions of people driving and wandering through like disoriented ants. According to park statistics, lightening causes most of the fires in Yellowstone and that most of such fires “never” burn more than 100 acres. The word “never” appears in an official Yellowstone web site. How natural is never?
Since the climate of Wyoming has changed to warmer and drier, it would seem prudent to rethink the current (as of 2004) policy of fire control in Yellowstone. In the meantime, the park also practices what they call hazard fuel management. That means cutting or prescribed burning of plant material, usually fire hazardous bushes, especially if allowed to burn near human facilities. How natural is that? Forget about seeing any brush loving critters near all the lodges, inns, cabins, stores, gas stations, and other unnatural structures in Yellowstone.
Unfortunately, the policy on fire management (another unnatural word) is in practice elsewhere. Yellowstone is not the only place in North America that is becoming warmer and drier. There are many areas that are well ahead of those climatic facts. Allowing vegetation to burn, as some have even said of Yellowstone, greatly reduces the impact of wildfires. That’s true. It is hard to burn bare ground. In addition, once that bare ground begins to recover, to use a buzzword, the natural sequence will be bushes before there are trees and a forest. Fire managers regard bushes as subject to removal because if allowed to burn, they will burn hot and fast. Probably the heat and flames would be too much for the next human structure that, contrary to natural structures, garners protection at all costs.
There are many good reasons for fire management. Protection of grasslands is an example. Controlled burns will keep such open habitat safe from encroaching wood plants. Growing populations of Kirtland’s Warblers is another success story party from proper fire management, but I am getting ahead of myself.
In the 18 June 1962, I was not thinking about wildfires. I was enjoying the unburned natural habitats. I was breathing the plant-cleaned air, the understory of bushes under the towering conifers, and feeling the lush habitat with the knowledge that Yellowstone is safe for the enjoyment of all generation. It was fortunate I could experience Yellowstone’s forests before the big burn.
My notes record that after passing West Thumb, I drove along the northern shore of Yellowstone Lake to Fishing Bridge. There was not one fisherman in sight. The bridge is famous as a place to stand over the water and wet a line; pictures I had seen showed people elbow to elbow, each holding a fishing pole. Where did everyone go? Just two days ago, the shore of Yellowstone Lake near West Thumb, I witnessed small hordes of people casting and reeling and casting and reeling, or whipping fly lines back and forth, from the shore and small aluminum motor boats. Possibly the people had been fishing but had ducked for cover as a dark cloud began to stand ominously overhead. By the time I drove about 16 miles down the road following the Yellowstone River, the dark cloud had billowed and grew, then stretched above as if a giant gaseous amoeba. It threatening arms occasionally opened only to close again, squeezing cold air over the already chilled Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The weather sent the folks at Fishing Bridge scurrying for cover.
I drove to Inspiration Point. Moments of sunshine pierced the clouded sky. I wanted to get a look at the Lower Falls where the river plunges 308 feet and deeper into the canyon. The river had already plummeted 109 feet just about a mile upstream at Upper Falls. The plan was to take a tour guided by a park naturalist the next morning but I could not wait. The shocking beauty of the canyon and thundering misty roar of Lower Falls took my full attention. I spent the remaining daylight taking pictures and gasping at the awesome panorama.
Early in the morning, the sky was blue, with a few wispy cirrus clouds scattered here and there. A small group of people led by a park naturalist assembled in the parking lot at Inspiration Point. The group then ambled through a wooden archway of trees and to a viewpoint. I followed. A guy just a few years older than me was just ahead of me, and we began a conversation. I was pleased to hear his admiration for the part service. (My experience in Yellowstone and Teton had convinced me to give up the idea of working in a wildlife refuge. Becoming a park naturalist is the new goal.) The man told me how much he enjoyed Yellowstone, and, in fact, he was a summer naturalist on his day off. He said, “I enjoy this place so much that I sometimes go along on the nature walks disguised as a tourist.” He seemed as awestricken as I did when we reached the canyon’s brink. The bright sun reflected the multihued wall, made of an igneous material call rhyolite. Every shade of yellow imaginable graced the canyon walls. Pale golds, whites, and the deepest of orange competed with the yellow stone. Ospreys spiraled and soared above the excited water 1200 feet below. With the help of the naturalist leading the group, and the naturalist/tourist at my end of the tour line, I saw several more Ospreys as well as two occupied nests. For about an hour after the naturalist terminated his talk, my naturalist disguised as a tourist and I continued down the trail. We saw more Ospreys, I learned more about the geology of the canyon.
With reluctance, I again moved onward. Just minutes from the canyon, I crossed the approximate boundary of the caldera. Inside the caldera or basin holds the sites of thermally heated waters that make Yellowstone so famous. The caldera is huge. I crossed the invisible line south of Madison when I entered the park. The boundary of the caldera nearly reaches the western boundary of the park, encompasses thousands of acres to the south on its way to Lewis Lake just off the road to Teton, meanders across Yellowstone Lake and north of the canyon before completing the circle near Madison. I would see more thermal activity before the day ended, but now it was time for lunch, and I was starving as usual. Tower Junction is a place I shall remember as cold, rainy, but worth the stop, not to mention I was ravenous. Lunch is at Tower Creek, just before it empties into Yellowstone River. A falls, aptly named Tower Falls, drops 132 feet. I had traveled about 20 miles from Canyon Village. I am not sure how many miles are between the rivers’ Lower and Tower Falls but the difference in elevation between them is about 1500 feet. Clearly, Yellowstone River was on a mission.
About two hours of windy driving, I arrived at my last major destination in Yellowstone National Park, Mammoth Hot Springs. The first item on the agenda, as I had learned while camping in the park, was to stake out a campsite. The campgrounds, just north of Mammoth Village, the site of old Fort Yellowstone and is now the site of park headquarters. Mammoth Hot Springs are outside the caldera boundary where most of the explosive geysers, hot pools and caldrons of bubbling mud are located. Hot water flows underground from Norris, one of the first places I visited the day I entered Yellowstone, to Mammoth along a fault line. The road from Norris to Mammoth, which I didn’t travel, generally follows the fault line. The superheated water at Norris Geyser Basin has tipped the thermometer at 459 degrees. The water is 170 degrees by the time it reaches Mammoth. It travels to the surface through ancient limestone; water coming to the surface within the caldera travel through igneous deposits. The hot bubbling of 100 or so springs at Mammoth is hot enough to form travertine terraces on the hillsides.
The first buildings at Mammoth Hot Springs were those of Fort Yellowstone in 1891. Sadly, the fort existed because of human pressure on the park. For example, poachers were killing animals and souvenir hunters were collecting pieces of geysers. Both factions vandalized the park. Developers were also interested in the park’s hot water for various reasons ranging from alleged health spas to a cheap way of doing laundry. Fort Yellowstone was built upon an old terrace formation. Concern that the possibly hollow ground would not support buildings was not later shared when the Mammoth Hotel was built on the same site now called Hotel Terrace. In fact, the headquarters of Yellowstone National Park and many other buildings form Mammoth Village, a place of administration and a home away from home for visitors.
A look around the sparsely occupied campground revealed that it occupies on an old terrace also. My nearest neighbor was three campsites away (usually there were no empty sites by nightfall). The campsites, arranged in rows, parallel the peaceful Gardner River, and each row of campsites is on terraces. A closer inspection of the sides of the terraces that are made up of thin layers of deposited strata that looked awfully similar to the terraces of the active hot springs. The terraced campground was just up from Gardner River. Above this clear stream, heated by the runoff of the thermal springs, are barren hills and the thermal terraces of Mammoth. The whole region is different from most the park I had seen. Trees or any tall vegetation was missing. It was like being in the wide-open prairie but without the prairie. It was wide open with the mountains.
Leaving my tent to claim my campsite, I wasted no time driving back up to the hot springs. This area is different from Old Faithful as Old Faithful is to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. This giant thermal landscape is definitely less dynamic than Old Faithful or Grotto Geyser, but the placid water steaming all around, rimmed by clean calcium carbonate borders and towering white terraces is magnificent to see and to feel. The walk from the parking lot to the top of the Upper Terrace was hot and nearly exhausting. The view from the top of the trail was fraught with beauty of a rainbow of blues, ghostly whites and crisp grays. The brimming pools, each a different size, spill over their rims into the pool below. Many of the crusty walls once upon a time hold no water. Other pools hold steamy water destined for Gardner River. Some of the rims of pools of Pallet Springs, a small terrace overlooking the village, are only crusty remnants. Nearby, the depth of brimming and steaming pools revealed their newness. Far down and past the steam lay the buildings of Mammoth Village. The numerous buildings curved around a fat green expanse, and a set of dwarfed red-roofed structures appearing at the edge of the clustered hamlet sat near the steep road that descended to the campground.
Woke with the same strange feeling I had when first arriving at Mammoth Hot Springs. After breakfast, I packed the car for the trip across Montana. Just a few miles out of Yellowstone National Park, it hit me. I was beginning to understand what was meant by the Big Sky Country. Mammoth was at the cusp of the big, expansive, and open sky country many people attribute to Montana. The look of the Big Sky of Montana brings with it a feeling, the same that I was feeling at Mammoth, and the same emotion much of the west emanates.
From the park, the road meandered, following the twists and turns of the Yellowstone River. At Livingston, the first major town on the route I gulped down a strawberry shake and purchased a few groceries for the grand total of 97 cents. Keeping track of expenses was a necessity. My melted ice had to be replaced, which cost cents. About two hours later, I pulled up to the post office at Big Timber. It was a sultry day. Because the mail sent to Monida hadn’t been there about a week ago, and because I was anxious to hear from home after 18 days of being on the road, I wasted no time to ask for any general delivery for me. I figured that in seven days, any mail sent to and forwarded by the Monida post office would also be there. It was a relief to see the thick envelope from Oregon. There were separate letters from my mom, dad, and even from my sister. Dad reminded me to be careful and eat a good diet. My mom addressed my earlier question about whether sausage spoils more rapidly than hamburger, and wondered why I would be eating baloney since I did not like it. She suggested cheese instead, and, of course, reminded me to be careful. They also sent a photograph clipped from a newspaper. The caption read “Hungary Bear” and showed a bear said to be “just sizing-up a ’compact’ car.” In the picture, the car was a VW beetle.
I left the Yellowstone River and Big Timber to Harlowton, a small town to the north. I also crossed part of the famous Lewis and Clark Trail, or at least the route that was used to return east. A few days earlier, I was at Monida and just south of the Lewis and Clark Trail where the expedition had traveled near Dillon in August 1805. The terrain on the slow journey north on Montana State 19 from Big Timber to Harlowton began to flatten. I was in the edge of the plains. Harlowton was full of potential. Pettingill’s guide stated that Sharp-tailed Grouse perform “within easy view from the highway, and that early morning was the best time to catch their act. Unfortunately, my noon arrival was not good, and my June visit was seasonally past the best time to see grouse. They were mostly likely past displaying and were nesting. I also searched for longspurs. No Chestnut-backed Longspurs and no McCown’s Longspurs were found.
Although the trip to Harlowton was a washout, I discovered a free campground not far out-of-town. Apparently, no one had used the campground for quite some time; there were no freshly emptied car ashtrays, dog scats or any other kinds of litter. The night was peaceful except for an occasional hungry mosquito. Only once was the quiet warm air set in motion as a fast freight rumbled and clanked on the railroad tracks adjacent to the campsite.
Birding in Montana, other than at Red Rock Lakes, was not particularly productive yesterday or today. I decided to drive most of the day without making many stops. After 300 miles, the most I had thus far driven on any one day, I arrived at Glendive, a town of 7,000 that straddles Yellowstone River.
Since leaving Yellowstone Park just south of Gardiner, the river has flowed well over 400 miles and cascaded down 3,245 feet in elevation. Lewis and Clark spent their last night in Montana at what was to become Glendive. I made my last camp in Montana about 500 feet above Glendive in nearby Makoshika State Park. Makoshika is the Sioux word meaning badlands. I thought I would never reach the park as I drove block after block, turning right and left past house after house. The 56,000 acre park is a land carved and gouged by wind and water in harshly eroded sandstone hills and bare yellowish banks cut into the landscape. Scattered groves of evergreens trees seem out-of-place. Most of the hillsides that are not completely bare, support sagebrush, cactus, and yucca. Grasses and a few flowers are scattered everywhere. According to local information I should have found Prairie Falcons but I did not. I was beginning to feel discouraged. Camping among the almost grotesque and outlandish formations was an eerie experience, especially as I was the only person in the campground in this remote place. I felt a little uneasy, but I told myself, as I nestled in the darkness and the warmth of the sleeping bag, that I would soon be crossing the line where western and eastern birds meet, the 100th Meridian somewhere east of here, out in the Plain.
Tower Junction is now known as Tower – Roosevelt Junction. Compact cars are no longer curiosities but common place. The humbling and inspiring feeling of Big Sky Montana and the west nourished me. Many pilgrimages from eastern Virginia, where I resided, to Oregon helped renew my western spirit, the need to see lofty peaks covered with aspiring fir and pine, the need to see miles of trees or rolling chaparral, and hear the quietness of the expansive land under the open and clear sky.