Sunday, October 15, 2017

Two days at Grand Tetons

There are some places that are magnificent at first sight, but have nothing more to add if you look deeper. Both of us found Grand Teton National Park to be like that. Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying we didn't love it. I'm just saying that the amount of love that we had when we first entered Grand Teton didn't increase over the two days that we stayed there.

We entered the park on a foggy morning, driving straight from Yellowstone National Park. We originally wanted to stay in one of the lodges in the park, because... grizzlies. But the lodges were all full when we had planned the trip five months earlier and we had no choice but to stay in a campground. Grand Teton has several campgrounds and all of them are first-come-first-serve. So we had to go and reserve a site early, and we chose Jenny Lake, the most popular one. It also happened to be one of the farthest from Yellowstone, so we literally saw most of the park even before we got to the campground.
The Tetons from Colter Bay
We missed a spot at the Jenny Lake campground by a whisker. The car ahead of us got the last campsite, while we got nothing. I'm sure this will sound like a classic case of sour grapes now, but we had not liked the Jenny Lake campground at all by the looks of it, and we were sort of relieved when we didn't get a site. The sites were all shaded and wooded and the whole area seemed cold and damp and full of bears. So we turned our car around and drove straight to Lizard Creek campground, which was the second most popular campground at the other end of the park. We found a nice sunny campground close to Jackson Lake here and set up our tent. Over the next two days, we stayed at the campground and went to the nearby Colter Bay village for our dining, fuel, souvenir-buying and ranger-consulting needs. The last of these things didn't go too well, because the ranger that we met there was the pontificating type. Our conversation went somewhat like this:

I: "Which are the best places for photography?"
Ranger: You have to find them. It's not as if I can tell you a spot, you drive there and click a great photo. Go all over the park, get a feel of the places and see what works best for you.
I: Uh.. thanks! Which are the best places to see animals?
Ranger: Right here. You are in the middle of it. Just choose any hiking trail and hike away from the road, and you'll come across animals. Since yesterday, people have seen all kinds of animals within a few miles from here. I cannot tell you where to go, you have to find them.
So we collected a map and a pamphlet from him and left. The pamphlet gave us more concrete directions about where to find animals and we spent most of our time at those places, but in vain. We hardly saw anything worth mentioning, apart from a bear. But I'll come to that later. First let me describe the park.
Evening at Oxbow Bend
The most impressive feature of Grand Teton National Park is the massive Teton mountain range standing right next to it. I have been to Colorado and seen a lot of the Rockies, but I have never seen a mountain range in this country that looked more imposing and majestic than the Grand Tetons. At 13,775 ft, it is only the 60th tallest peak in the US, but it is definitely one of the most photogenic. The park is full of tranquil lakes and calm-surfaced rivers that mirror this range and create picture-postcard scenes round the clock. Apart from the mountain range, lucky visitors also get to photograph moose, elk, deer, wolves, black bears and grizzlies, not to mention smaller animals and birds.

Meteor shower from the campground
We didn't see any of these animals on the first day, though we spent a considerable amount of time sitting by the river at a place called the Oxbow Bend. We did see a few deer when we were having dinner at the Colter Bay Village, but we see deer in our garden at home, so that doesn't count. Other than that, we saw a must-rat or river-otter (not sure which) swimming in the water, and pelicans. That night, we could see the Perseid meteor shower from our campsite and I was even able to take a few photos of meteors by putting my camera on my car dashboard and setting it up to shoot the sky automatically through the night. But in the tent, we slept uneasy because we had heard that there had been six bear sightings around the campground this summer.
Dawn at Oxbow bend
Next morning, we were up before sunrise and back at Oxbow Bend. This time, we saw hoof prints of moose or elk next to the water, but nothing else. After the sun came up, the number of people there increased, and we left. As we left, we saw a crowd by the roadside a mile from where we had been sitting. We stopped to inquire a ranger what had happened.
"Grizzly number 360 was sighted going into the woods next to these roads here ten minutes ago."
We parked our car and got out. I put my telephoto lens on my camera and joined the crowd of people waiting to see grizzly number 360. It was maddening to think that we were drinking tea from our flask standing next to our car at Oxbow bend ten minutes ago, while there was a grizzly on the road hardly a mile from us. While one may be forgiven for considering us unenthusiastic about the presence of bears at our campsite at night, our enthusiasm for photographing such bears in the daylight and away from the campground knew no bounds. If only we had not taken that tea break!

An elderly couple standing at the "bear jam" told us they had seen a black bear on Signal Mountain summit that morning. The bear had crossed the road in front of their car and later, they had seen it eating berries on the mountain slope. So we decided to go to Signal Mountain.

To reach Signal Mountain summit, one has to drive on a very narrow winding road with dense forest on both sides, and the place immediately screams "bears." Sure enough, Poulami spotted the bear browsing berry bushes on the hillside through her binoculars from the summit. Soon, we were showing it to a growing crowd of other tourists and taking photos. An Indian lady even borrowed Poulami's binoculars for a view, and then while returning them, glared at her husband and said "I told you, we need a pair of binoculars!"
Black bear on Signal Mountain
Snake River Overlook (on B&W film)


Poulami at Cunningham Cabin
It was all bright and sunny at this time, and it was quite warm when we drove to the Snake River Overlook and Cunningham Cabin outside the park gates. But the day went downhill from there. As Poulami tried to cook rice at the campground, the sky darkened and big drops started falling. The rice wasn't cooking because we didn't have a pressure cooker (we were at an elevation of 6,827 ft), but somehow we managed to cook it by weighing the lid of our pot down with a heavy rock. As soon as we had finished serving ourselves the food, the rain came down in torrents and we had to get into the car and finish eating there. Later, we tried to take a nap in our tent as a heavy thunderstorm raged outside, and let's just say that the experience wasn't nice. Firstly, being surrounded by tall pines isn't the best of situations to be in during a thunderstorm, and secondly, after about an hour of torrential rain, our tent started leaking water at the seams. It was only a drop or two coming in through the piercings in the fabric where it is stitched at the corners, but it made the inside damp. The thunderstorm passed after some time, but the sky remained overcast with promise of more rain in the hours to come.
Overcast Tetons at Willow Flats Overlook, second evening

Aspen grove, Willow Flats Overlook
As we sat in our car watching a fresh bout of rain at the Willow Flats Overlook that evening, we simultaneously said something: we were not enjoying this camping experience as much as we usually do. This was the first time we were staying in a tent without actually wanting to do it in the first place. The weather was cold and damp and we longed for a warm lodge room. There was a real fear of bears in the campground that we couldn't put out of our minds despite being repeatedly told the fact that bear attacks were rare. And the thunderstorms were not helping matters; according to the radio news there were more in the offing tonight. We needed a good night's sleep because we had another long drive ahead of us the next day. So we decided we were going to sleep in the car that night. The car was definitely safer than the tent, both from bears and lightning strikes. So after we had finished our dinner with pizza from the village and leftover rice from our lunch, we reclined the front seats of our car as far as they would go, warmed the inside to a comfortable temperature (and turned the engine off), and went to sleep. I woke up a few times in the night, and it was raining most of that time. At some point, I found the inside of the windshield and the windows all fogged up, and opened the windows a crack. I am happy to say, both of us slept a lot better that night. On looking back, I can now see why we had not been able to book lodges at Grand Teton five months before the trip, when even lodges at Yellowstone were available. Grant Teton National Park was on the path of the total solar eclipse of August 21, and people were trying to get in and stay at the park during the eclipse, even if that meant reserving campgrounds and lodges for over a week before the big day.

Arch made of deer antlers, Jackson, Wyoming
We had other plans, of course. We would see the Solar Eclipse from St. Louis, but before that, we had two other important destinations to visit. So the next morning, after coming back from an early morning drive through the park, we packed our stuff and were back on the road. We paused briefly at the Snake River Overlook again, because the Tetons were looking stunning in the early morning sunlight. We slowed down a little as we passed through the quaint town of Jackson where we saw pretty little houses decorated with flowers and arches made of deer antlers by the road. But soon, we were driving towards Salt Lake City, Utah almost six hours away.

Apart from getting my first speeding ticket, this journey was mostly uneventful and we reached Salt Lake City late in the afternoon.


(To be continued...)

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Last Day at Yellowstone

On our last full day at Yellowstone, we started early. I don't just mean earlier than the previous day, but also earlier than we thought we did. My new Casio watch was to blame.

Just before leaving for the trip, I bought a new wristwatch whose one flaw is that its hands can only be moved forward while adjusting the time. When we crossed over from Central Time to Mountain Time while driving to Badlands on the first day, I didn't set my watch back by one hour because that would require moving the hands forward by eleven hours. I just thought I'd remember to subtract an hour every time I looked at the watch. I didn't remember it this morning. So when we thought we were leaving a little before our check-out time of 11:00 a.m., it was not yet 10:00 a.m. We realized our mistake sometime later, but we were happy we made it.

Cow elk near Grant Village
Today our first stop was at the Lake Area. There wasn't much to see, apart from the large Lake Hotel facing Yellowstone Lake. In fact, we had been driving next to the lake all the way here. Wikipedia says
Yellowstone Lake is the largest body of water in Yellowstone National Park. The lake is 7,732 feet (2,357 m) above sea level and covers 136 square miles (350 km2) with 110 miles (180 km) of shoreline. While the average depth of the lake is 139 ft (42 m), its greatest depth is at least 390 ft (120 m). Yellowstone Lake is the largest freshwater lake above 7,000 ft (2,100 m) in North America.
Me in front of Yellowstone Lake
We didn't spend too much time here, but we did take some photos in front of the lake. Then we looked at the map and decided we wanted to do a short hike at the Natural Bridge trail nearby. We hadn't hiked much on this trip so we looked forward to it. We drove to the Natural Bridge trailhead, parked our car and got ready. I took the camera and accessories, and Poulami took her binoculars. We filled our backpacks with trail mix, water bottles and rain ponchos. We put on hats to protect ourselves from the sun, and sprayed ourselves with bug spray. Then we walked to the end of the parking lot and there we saw a sign at the beginning of the hiking trail:
GRIZZLIES AND BLACK BEARS FREQUENT THIS AREA. ALWAYS HIKE IN GROUPS. MAKE NOISE WHILE HIKING. CARRY BEAR SPRAY AND KNOW HOW TO USE IT. DO NOT RUN IF YOU ENCOUNTER A BEAR.
We came back to our car and put our stuff back into the car. Soon we were driving away towards our next destination, the Fishing Bridge.

Fishing Bridge is a small bridge on the Yellowstone River where we spent some time taking photos. Then we drove to the Mud Volcano area which has a handful of hydrothermal features. This place is also one of the most changing places in Yellowstone. The place called "Cooking Hillside", for instance, was a dense forest until 1978. Then there was an earthquake and the ground temperature rose to 94 degrees Celsius. The trees sizzled and toppled one by one until the hill became barren as we see it today. Names of other landmarks, such as Sizzling Basin, Churning Cauldron, Black Dragon's Cauldron, Mud Volcano, Sulfur Cauldron, Sour Lake and Mud Geyser, have equally interesting origin stories. I found the Dragon's Mouth Spring the most interesting of the lot. It is a cave with smoke coming out of it. There is also a constant rumbling roar coming from the inside, accentuated by rhythmical waves of water splashing out. I could almost believe that cave was home to a mythical giant or a real dragon.

Dragon's Mouth Spring
Next we passed Hayden Valley again. By this time we were so used to bison that we didn't even bother to stop. We had seen bison resting at the Mud Volcano area as well. We drove on straight to Artist Point near the Canyon Village. We had seen pictures of the waterfall on Yellowstone River taken from this point and they had looked amazing. On reaching there, however, we had to spend quite some time to park our car. If Yellowstone National Park has one flaw, it's that it is not equipped to adequately handle the amount of visitors it gets. Particularly, if they build a few more restaurants, and keep the existing ones open from morning till night, a lot of that problem can be solved. People don't stick to strict schedules for breakfast, lunch and dinner while on a trip, and so it is odd that restaurants should stick to that schedule and close down during the afternoon while there are people waiting outside to eat.
View from Artist Point
Artist Point is an overlook that juts out from the south rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River and offers a view of the 308-foot tall Lower Falls of the same river a mile away. The waterfall itself is magnificent, and the colourful walls of the canyon provide a fantastic frame for it, making it many times more beautiful. In fact, I can't remember ever seeing a place that looked so beautiful that it looks equally good in all kinds of photos, irrespective of the camera or the photographer that captured it. We spent some time here, taking our own photos, having our photos taken by kind strangers, and kindly taking group photos of strangers.

Next we went to the Canyon Village. We would stay at the Canyon Lodge here for the night, but right now we were only interested in lunch. We left for Lamar Valley after having lunch. Lamar Valley was the last major area that we were going to see in the park. It was famous for a variety of animals, but most notably for wolves. And it was easy to see why Lamar Valley was famous - we came across a big bison herd right by the side of the road as we were entering the valley. A lot of cars had gathered at the place and people were photographing the animals from the roadside. We did the same. There were rangers around to keep an eye on everything. Poulami had always wanted to have a picture with bison in the background, and here we had the perfect opportunity to do that. Although the bison seen in the background of this photo are at what is known as a 'safe distance', had they decided to run for some reason, they would have been on top of us in no time.

Poulami's bison-background photo
Further down the road we saw more bison in the grasslands far away below the road. This place was similar to Hayden Valley - a vast grass-covered plain far below the level of the road, crisscrossed with streams and dotted with occasional trees. As we stopped the car and scanned the valley below, Poulami discovered something light-coloured in the grass with her binoculars and we were momentarily excited thinking it was a wolf. It turned out to be a pronghorn antelope. We saw more pronghorns closer to the road while returning and we were also able to get photos.

Pronghorn
Bison herd at Lamar Valley
A little later, we hit the main bison herd. I speak figuratively, of course. There were bison of all sizes on both sides of the road as far as the eyes could see. They were standing, sitting, grazing and blowing up little clouds of dust close to the road. The traffic slowed to a crawl, and from time to time, even stopped long enough to allow me to take the camera from Poulami and click a few pictures on my side of the road. We passed through this place and then came to a part of the valley where there was a river by the road. There were people hiking and fishing here, and we felt that really destroyed any chances of us seeing bears and wolves. So we decided to turn back from this point. And while returning, we had our first bison-on-the-road moment of the trip.


 As I mentioned above, we faced quite a lot of traffic while going. However, while returning, we didn't face that much of traffic. As we approached the area where the most bison were grazing, we saw bison cross the road in ones or twos in the distance. Cars were avoiding them by moving to the other lane because there was little oncoming traffic at this time. Suddenly, there was some activity in the herd to our right and about twenty of the animals stampeded towards the road, just ahead of our car. Now I have bicycled among a stampeding herd of (domestic) buffalo in Allahabad during my school days, but I was young and silly in those days. Although I was in my car now, these were wild bison and I wouldn't want a score of these animals charging at my car.

I want to make it clear that the bison here were not aggressive towards us, or attacking us. In fact, all evidence seemed to suggest that they didn't even see us. But just because there were so many of them and they were starting to climb on to the road about 50 feet from us, I slammed on the brakes and waited. There were no other cars on the road for at least a quarter of a mile in either direction. As the first few animals climbed on the road and turned to face our car, I put the car in reverse and started backing up, and stopped again, unsure of what to do. Then, I saw the other car in the rear-view mirror.

It was a white SUV with the National Park Service logo on it. It came from behind us, passed our car and stopped close to the bison - probably about ten feet from the front of the herd. Then a ranger put his hand out through the window and waved a white piece of cloth. The bison seemed terrified of it and they scattered back into the grass. The SUV started again and we followed it. We were not bothered by the bison anymore that evening. We saw a dead bison at one point while driving, and although we didn't realize it at the moment, it could have provided us an excellent opportunity to see wolves or bears had we waited on the road and kept watch on the carcass. However, we decided to drive on.

We saw one more animal that evening. Before leaving Lamar Valley, we saw a large crowd of people on a bridge, looking at something down in the river below. It seemed like an ideal place to see bears safely, and we were very excited. As I found parking by the road and we walked towards the bridge, we met a man returning from there. "What did you see?" I asked eagerly. "There is some sort of animal," he replied, "but I don't know what it is." Finally, when we peered over the railing and looked down at the river below, we saw a pair of beavers swimming in the water. Later they came up on the bank and gave me opportunity to take pictures. The gentleman standing next to me had a professional-looking camera on a huge tripod with an immense camouflage-covered telephoto lens attached. With every press of the shutter, his camera shot off at least half a dozen frames. He looked most comical shooting the beaver when it was right below us, and at one point I thought his camera was going to topple over the railing and fall to the riverbed below. However, we didn't wait for it to happen, because we were tired and hungry.

Beavers
The Chinese dinner at the Canyon Village was a welcome change, and we took it to our room in the Canyon Lodge. We also brought some grocery supplies for our onward journey. This lodge was the best one on this trip so far and the room was nice with a view of the parking lot. We even saw some deer from our window. We turned in soon, because we wanted to leave early next morning for Grand Teton National Park.

Next morning, we started at six, when it was still dark. We were driving to the Jenny Lake campground in Grand Teton National Park and we wanted to secure a campsite at this most coveted first-come-first-serve campground in the park. The drive was expected to be two and a half hours, but we faced unexpected problems right after we started. First, there was dense fog and second, there were bison on the road. I had to drive very slowly to avoid them. As we crossed Hayden Valley, we had to stop for bison crossing the road in the headlights of idling cars in the fog. Later on, we avoided bison several times, walking about absent-minded on the road. At one place, we found a bison walking towards us in our (right) lane, and some idiot was driving a car in the oncoming (left) lane at the same speed as the bison, so that they could stay alongside it. People inside the car were taking photos. I could neither pass by the bison on our lane, nor go to the other lane and hit the oncoming car, so I just stopped and waited. The bison would have probably walked by our car if it had reached us, but when it was about twenty feet away, the driver of the other car sped up and left, leaving me free to bypass the bison via the oncoming lane.


Bison crossing in the fog
As we drove by the Yellowstone River, the fog rising off the water presented a pretty picture. I mostly ignored it because I wanted to reach that campground on time, but when the sun showed itself, like a giant egg yolk, over the treetops on the far bank of the river, I decided I needed to stop and capture this scene. So we stopped at a suitable pullout and photographed the sunrise.
Sunrise over Yellowstone River
Then, as the sun rose higher over the treetops and the first rays hit the leaves, we exited Yellowstone through its south entrance and sped southwards. The word 'sped' is just used in a manner of speaking, of course. The area between Yellowstone and Grand Teton is also full of the same animals that live in the parks, and so I still had to drive slowly. Just seven miles after leaving Yellowstone, we found a sign welcoming us to Grand Teton National Park. After a brief break and selfie-session, we entered Grand Teton National Park and proceeded towards Jenny Lake campground.



(To be continued...)


Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Bison Jam

If you have seen any photos of Yellowstone at all, it is likely that you have seen photos of either Grand Prismatic Spring or Old Faithful Geyser. We decided to visit these attractions at the very beginning of our second full day at Yellowstone. After our over-ambitious plan of going out before sunrise to see animals fell flat, that is.

The plan we made was like this: have breakfast with stuff we had with us in our room. Then visit Grand Prismatic Spring, followed by Old Faithful. Then, we come back to Grant Village to have lunch at the Lake Restaurant (we weren't going back into the Grant Village Restaurant after the previous night's fiasco). Then we cross Hayden Valley, viewing animals, and reach Lamar Valley, to see more animals. Finally, we have dinner at Roosevelt Lodge Restaurant and drive back to our hotel.

We didn't consider that this plan involved a 200 mile drive. We didn't consider that restaurants closed after the peak lunch hour. We didn't consider that even when open, they have waiting times.

And we didn't consider the bison jam.

So we started with the Grand Prismatic Spring which is in the Midway Geyser Basin. This place contains several brilliantly coloured (and I mean surrealistically brilliant) hot pools whose smoking mineral-laden waters flow into the Firehole river. The place was already crowded when we got there. We crossed a small bridge over the river on foot and reached the pools. The first one is the Excelsior Geyser crater. This used to be a proper geyser until one fine day when it blew itself apart. Now it is a hot spring which constantly pours boiling water into the river. It serves as a constant reminder that this landscape is as volatile today as it was millions of years ago.

Firehole River

Grand Prismatic Spring

Opal Pool
Then the boardwalk goes round past another hot spring whose name I have forgotten, to Grand Prismatic. Grand Prismatic is so colourful that even the steam rising from that pool seems coloured. True to its name, the spring shows a whole spectrum of colours, from intense blue-green to bright orange-red. We saw the pool edge-on, of course, so it wasn't possible to see the whole thing at once. We could see a viewing platform on a distant hillside that must have offered a breathtaking view of the whole basin, but it was quite far away and high up. So we didn't try to hike there. The narrow winding boardwalk passes two other hot springs- the Opal Pool and the Turquoise Pool. When we came out beside the Firehole River again, we found the crowd had increased even more. We took a few more pictures beside the river, and then left for Old Faithful.
Old Faithful Lodge (B&W film)
Old Faithful Geyser is a fountain-type geyser, and it is one of the six geysers in Yellowstone National Park that can be predicted. It lies in its own village, with a huge new visitor center and a lodge that is the largest log structure in the world. The geyser itself lies at the middle of a barren roughly circular area about 200 yards across. A wooden boardwalk with benches forms a large amphitheatre-like viewing area where a crowd was beginning to gather when we arrived. It was about 1:30 p.m., and the geyser, which erupts every 90 minutes, was predicted to erupt at 2:10, plus or minus 10 minutes. We took some front-row seats and sat down to watch, while a ranger arrived and started explaining facts about Yellowstone and the Old Faithful Geyser. The geyser is similar to a pressure cooker in some ways. There's a constricted plumbing system below the geyser which prevents water and steam from escaping unless it reaches a critical pressure. When that critical pressure is reached, the superheated steam escapes with the plug of water above it. Old Faithful can erupt to a height of 185 feet, and eruptions typically last 3-5 minutes.
Waiting for Old Faithful
Since the time we had arrived, Old Faithful was visible as a wisp of steam coming out of the ground. Exactly at five minutes past two, we saw the first spurt of water from the geyser. This was not the real eruption - the ranger had told us that this was the "pre-play", which is a series of short eruptions that occur before the true eruption. We got ready with our devices - I with my digital and film SLR cameras and Poulami with the video camera of her smartphone. After a few false alarms, and loud assertions from a child behind me that "It's already over," Old Faithful did finally erupt. What a sight it was! Snow white water and steam rising up in front of the brilliant blue sky. After the first minute or so, it seemed the steam from the geyser rose up to meet the clouds overhead. Then after a few minutes, though I'm not sure how many, the height of the water gradually decreased until it was just a wisp of smoke once gain. I looked at my watch: it was exactly 2:20 p.m.

Old Faithful erupts (B&W film)

We should have eaten lunch at this point, but we thought since the place was crowded, we would rather go and eat lunch at the Lake Restaurant at Grant Village. By the time we reached the Lake Restaurant, we found it closed. We had to be satisfied with just a photo of Yellowstone Lake.
Yellowstone Lake
This was a setback to our plan - we were hungry now and without a place to eat, but we decided we could still recover. We ate whatever we could find in our car (when your car is your home for half a month, it is surprising what you can find in there) - cereal bars, soda, even mangoes - and decided to push on towards Roosevelt Lodge. We would have to cross Hayden Valley on the way there where we hoped to see bison. "The bison herd at Hayden Valley has 1500 animals," the ranger had told us the previous day, "And the bison herd at Lamar Valley has 4000 animals," she had added.
The forest of dead trees

Our first bison at Yellowstone
We drove through the forest, scanning the road and the trees for any signs of animals. We even drove through a forest of dead trees. We have no idea whether these trees died of disease, of beetle infestation, or forest fires, or the ground just turned toxic, like other places in Yellowstone. Just before reaching Hayden Valley, we stopped our car at the side of the road because there were a lot of cars parked there and there was obviously some animal nearby. On crossing the road and peeking into the forest, we saw a bison standing close to us. The bison was huge - much larger than I had thought it would be, and  almost too close for comfort. He completely ignored the crowd and sat down on the ground. We also left, and immediately came upon a large meadow down below the right side of the road. This was Hayden Valley. We parked our car again and walked to the edge and looked down. The plain below was full of grazing bison.

Grazing bison at Hayden Valley

After a few minutes we started again, but the traffic crawled to a stop soon. Initially the reason for the stop was not evident, but then we started seeing bison by the side of the road on both sides and realized the animals must be crossing the road occasionally. At places, they were within 20 feet of us. I am no stranger to cattle stopping traffic, having grown up in North India, and the female bison and the calves look somewhat like our buffaloes back home, so the bison jam was making me nostalgic. Even with our windows closed we could catch the smell outside which was a mix of rotten eggs and bison dung, vaguely reminiscent of Allahabad. But one look at the male bison assured us that these were not our domestic buffalo. They were massive hairy beasts and it was obvious that they could be violent and dangerous at close quarters.

The bison jam
Young bison
The bison jam delayed us considerably and now we were doubtful about the feasibility of our entire plan. Also, we had not had any proper meals the whole day and needed an early dinner. The next place to have dinner along the road was Canyon Village, but we were not sure if they had started serving dinner there, so we decided to drive to Roosevelt Lodge anyway. Besides, the area around Roosevelt Lodge was popular with bears, and we wanted to try our luck.

It seems our luck was out that day, because we didn't see any bears. The road around Roosevelt is hilly and full of hairpin bends (switchbacks in American English) and it wasn't exactly easy to look out for bears while driving. Finally, when we reached Roosevelt Lodge and tried to get dinner, we were told there was a 30-40 minute wait time and were given a pager. Hungry as we were, we had no option other than waiting for the pager to ring. Luckily, some of the rocking chairs on the porch were empty and we were able to sit down and scan the hillside opposite with binoculars. We were finally called in after 45 minutes. We were starving by this time and we ordered grilled trout once again. This time there was no doubt about the fish being trout and the rice being pilaf. We were happy with our food.

When we came out of the restaurant, it was 8:00 p.m. and the sun had set behind the hills. We still had to drive to our lodge about sixty miles away. So we had to scrap the plan for Lamar Valley, which meant our trip to Roosevelt was not very useful today. But as we started of our return trip, we had to stop and make way for horse-drawn tourist coaches that were returning from their trips and we had to wait for about ten minutes on the road until the last of these had crossed the road.

Horse-drawn tourist coaches

The only other thing worth mentioning that we saw before darkness was couple of women changing the diaper on a baby. They had stopped their SUV at a pullout by the roadside on the mountain, and had spread out their things on the ground next to the car. The baby was lying on the ground and the women were sitting next to it. We thought it was an extremely poor decision to change a baby at a bear-infested area of the park at dusk, but we didn't stop to tell them what we thought.

After darkness fell, driving was more stressful. I had to stick to the speed limit and watch out for any animals that might come out on the road from the surrounding woods, but we didn't see anything other than a few deer. When we reached Hayden Valley, the bison jam had grown to double the size of what we saw earlier. We realized this was because the bison were now leaving the valley on our left one by one, crossing the road, and climbing the wooded hill on our right. Since they were in no hurry to make this crossing, the traffic had to stand and wait whenever an animal was visible close to the road. A frightened coyote was running to and fro on the road in the headlight of all the idling vehicles, but for some reason, it was not going away. This time, we spent a much longer time at Lamar Valley due to the bison, though we didn't actually see the animals in the dark. Finally, we reached our lodge at around ten in the night.

The next day was going to be our last day in Yellowstone, and we would need to leave the hotel early to make the most of it.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Strange Dinner

"How can I help you, Sir?" asked the woman at the front desk. We were surprised by her question, because she had written down my name in the list of people waiting for dinner thirty minutes ago.

"I, er... you wrote down my name... you said there was a thirty to forty minute wait for dinner, and I said we'll come back and... the name's Banerji."

She glanced at her notebook. I could see my name had been scratched out. Clearly, she had thought we weren't coming back.

"Oh.. ah.. yes, yes! Please follow me." She showed us to an empty table for two. The time was around 9:20 p.m. Grant Village Restaurant closed at 10:00.

Soon, a waiter arrived to take our orders. "Hi, I'm Sam," he said. "What can I get for you tonight?" he asked, pouring us two glasses of water.

We were terribly hungry after our long day and we had already decided on our order. "Grilled trout and rice pilaf with steamed vegetables for both of us." I said. He wrote it down and went away.

Poulami and I sat and talked for some time. The restaurant was still quite crowded, even though empty tables could be seen here and there. "Would the order take long?" we wondered. We could see Sam serving other tables, but he seemed to be avoiding us. I signaled to him.

"Don't you serve dinner rolls with everything here?" The question was just a formality. It was written on the menu. 

"Yes Sir, we do."

"Can you please serve our rolls?"

"Actually Sir, the rolls are being warmed. They will be ready in three to five minutes." He went away.

We stared longingly at other people's tables. They had baskets full of dinner rolls, and baskets full of butter. "Well, at least we'll get the fresh warm ones." I told Poulami.

But the rolls didn't arrive. Five minutes passed. Then ten minutes passed. Then our food came. The main food, not the rolls. The portions were pathetically small. Whatever little rice they had served was just plain white rice. The "steamed vegetables" turned out to be half a dozen shriveled asparagus. We were aghast. It didn't look like food worth $23. I asked about the rolls again and were assured they would arrive soon as they were being warmed. Sam left again.

Then I looked at our dinner properly. The colour of the trout seemed suspiciously pink. I tasted a piece. It tasted exactly like salmon. Poulami agreed that it tasted like salmon. This was the last straw. Sam was nowhere in sight, so I called a nearby waitress.

"Do you find everything all right, sir?" she asked, surprised.

"No! Our waiter is ignoring us. We didn't get rolls. We didn't get the food we ordered. Nothing is all right." I barked. She fetched Sam. The subsequent conversations went somewhat like this.

"Sam, what did we order?"

"Rolls, Sir."

"No, what food did we order?"

"Trout."

"And what is this?"

"Trout, Sir."

"Are you sure this is not salmon?"

"Absolutely sure Sir. Would you like to talk to the chef?"

Now I am pretty confident about my ability to distinguish between fish, being a Bengali and all. But when it comes to calling a person a liar on their face on a fact which would be difficult to prove, I back out. So I said there was no need for the chef, just the rolls would be sufficient. Sam went away and returned with two rolls on two little plates.

Two rolls. On two side plates. One for each of us. Not a basket of rolls. No butter to accompany them. The rolls were cold, and pretty much the worst rolls that I have ever tasted. So much for the story about them being warmed.

I asked for butter. Sam vanished again. The chef showed up, grinning from ear to ear.

"I heard you're having difficulty believing that's trout?"

"Ah yes, I think this tastes like salmon."

"Actually, that's a type of trout called the red trout. The salmon comes without the skin on the fillet."

"Okay, I believe you. By the way, do you serve butter with your dinner rolls here?"

"Yes. Let me send you some butter." She left. Sam came back with a large plate heaped full of those little rectangular packs of butter that they give you at restaurants. It was a very weird way of serving, and I may have been imagining things at this point, but there was definitely an unsaid "Here's all the butter you can eat. Calm down now," hanging in the air.

We stopped complaining and tried to eat. We were still hungry by the time we finished everything. By 'everything' I mean the food and the rolls, of course, and not all the butter. We had also finished the water long ago, but nobody came to refill our glasses. We were too tired to complain. Since it was nearing closing time, it was too late to order anything else. And let's be honest, we hated everything about the place by this time. We knew we were being treated poorly; we just didn't know why.

We asked for the check. When Sam delivered the check, that question answered itself. The check was just for one order of grilled trout, not two. So they had judged us to be cheapskates who would order one entree and share it, and they had been behaving poorly towards us throughout the dinner because apparently that's how they treat people whom they judge to be cheapskates. Keeping aside the question of whether such behaviour was appropriate, we can say that we didn't even deserve that behaviour since we actually wanted to order two entrees and were hungry even now. I told Sam what had happened. I expected him to apologize, at the very least. I expected too much.

"Actually Sir, in English, when we say 'Grilled trout for both of us' it means split one order of trout for the two of us."

"You don't have to teach me English now, do you? This isn't the first time I'm ordering something at a restaurant."

"I wasn't trying to teach you anything Sir, I was just saying that the fault lies with both of us. Why didn't you say you had ordered two when I brought the food?"

"How was I supposed to know you had brought one order when you had split it equally into two parts? I thought maybe your portions were small."

He took away my credit card. When he brought it back with the receipt, I wrote down $0.00 for the tip, something I don't remember having done in a very long time.

"Open the trunk," Poulami said as I parked at our lodge. "I'll need to grab the cereal bars and bread and bananas for the night."


Wednesday, September 20, 2017

A Land of Water and Fire

Have I said it before? If not, I say it now: Yellowstone National Park is huge.

While Wikipedia tells me it is only the seventh largest national park in the US [fun fact: five of the largest six, and the eighth largest are all in one single state - Alaska], it is about a million acres larger than Grand Canyon, the largest national park that we had visited before. So, it becomes extremely important to plan the sightseeing around the park because driving can be a real time consuming part of the day here. Thankfully, the Yellowstone map and guidebook that they provide at the entrance is pretty helpful and we had no trouble deciding what we would start our day with. After checking out of Roosevelt Lodge where we had arrived the previous night, we drove straight to Mammoth Hot Springs.

Before we move on to describing this wonderful place, let me briefly describe what Yellowstone National Park actually is, geologically. If you already know this, please bear with me.

Click to enlarge
Yellowstone National Park sits on top of a supervolcano, which I guess means something much larger than a regular volcano. This supervolcano has erupted at least three times in the past, the last time being 640,000 years ago. Now part of the park is inside the crater of the last eruption while the other part is right outside. This huge crater, which is known as a caldera, is marked with an oval on maps of Yellowstone. There is a large magma chamber right under Yellowstone and some scientists feel it is about to erupt again (while others disagree). Today, while the earth's crust is 20-30 miles thick at most places on the planet, it is only 3-5 miles thick in Yellowstone. This causes groundwater to come in contact with the hot magma beneath the crust, and then form hydrothermal features. These hydrothermal features can be of four types - hot springs, geysers, steam vents and mud pots. Mammoth Hot Springs, as evident from its name, belongs to the first category.

As we drove along the road that goes northwards from Roosevelt Lodge, Poulami pointed to a dazzling white formation on a hillside ahead of us, at a somewhat higher elevation. It soon became clear that the dazzling white formation was Mammoth Hot Springs, our first destination. After spending some time finding parking close to the springs, we finally stepped on to the boardwalk.

Mammoth Hot Springs as seen from the road

The boardwalk and a section of the ground that caved in

A portion of the hillside made of mineral deposits
Mammoth Hot Springs can be described as a barren hill with water cascading down different sides. At places, the water has formed puddles and pools. But the real interesting thing about this place is that all of this water is smoking hot and heavy with chemicals. The ground is either white or various shades of rusty brown. Once, there were trees on this barren landscape; now only their blackened skeletons bear testimony to the toxic ground and water. The hillside itself is formed of scale-like layers and some of these places could collapse anytime, leaving a gaping hole underneath. That is why, a wooden boardwalk and stairs have been provided for the tourists, and we aren't allowed to step on the ground. A closer look at the cascades revealed pretty coral-like formations created by deposits of calcium carbonate and other compounds. The water flowed slowly, but in the most amazing rippling pattern. The pools of stagnant water looked like an alien planet - a dead and poisonous world with dead trees and the air heavy with the foul odour of rotten eggs (hydrogen sulfide).

One of the cascades or terraces with continuous water flow

A close-up of the deposits under the flowing water

Another cascade

It rained a little while we were on the boardwalk and I had to put my film camera away. I was carrying my father's old Pentax MX 35mm film camera on this trip with black and white film on this trip, since we were traveling by our own car and had no need to travel light. However, the rain didn't last long and we could see and photograph the place to our heart's content.

Mammoth Hot Springs on B&W film

The village around Mammoth Hot Springs also holds the administrative headquarters of Yellowstone National Park, and so, the place is always crowded. We decided to grab some fast food for lunch to avoid waiting, but even the fast food place had a queue that had reached outside the door. We ended up having chicken sandwiches and ice cream for lunch. The elk herd from the previous evening was still walking around the village, attracting crowds of photographers everywhere they went. We ignored them and went into the visitors' center. There we pestered a ranger until she had told us all about the places to see, and marked the animal viewing areas on the map. Then we set out for Norris Geyser Basin.

The strange thing about Yellowstone is the variety of landscapes seen here. When you go to Rocky Mountain National Park, you see mountains. At Grand Canyon National Park, you see the canyon. At Badlands, you see the prairie. At Yellowstone, you see all of that, and more. As we started from Mammoth Hot Springs, we passed through a region of huge boulders perched precariously on the hillside, as if someone had thrown that mountain into a blender. Later, we passed by a mountain river down in a gorge, and then tree-covered hills descending into serene lakes. We guessed later that this variety was due to the multiple volcanic eruptions in the past. Every time Nature built something new, it got destroyed in the next eruption and Nature had to start afresh. But since the tectonic plate under Yellowstone is shifting over the magma chamber down below, the eruptions have not been in the same place, and parts of everything managed to survive.

The road between Mammoth and Norris is undergoing some heavy construction at the moment and the traffic moved slowly. When we reached Norris, we had to circle around the parking lot twice before we could find a spot. But finally, we were ready to descend into Porcelain Basin.

The Norris Geyser Basin has the most number of hydrothermal features of any place on earth. The Porcelain Basin is a large flat area dotted with steam vents and hot springs, covered with a milky white mineral deposit and crisscrossed by flows of mineral-laden water that are vividly coloured by bacteria and algae. Trunks of long-dead trees scattered around the plain indicated that although the ground was not fit for survival now, it wasn't always that way. The ground here is unstable as well and so a narrow winding boardwalk goes all over the basin. We went down steps into the basin, passing close to a steam vent spewing thick white steam into the air.

Steam vent at Norris Geyser Basin
Steam vents or fumeroles are the hottest among the hydrothermal features. They have lots of heat, but very little water to cool them down. Whatever little water can trickle down into them, turns to steam instantly. A fumerole looks like a hole in the ground with steam coming out. There were fumeroles all around this place and we could see columns of steam rising from the distant hillsides like smoke from chimneys. We walked the length of the boardwalk and came back to where we started. On the way, we saw several small geysers and hot pools.


Porcelain Basin
After coming back on top, we took another short hike to a geyser called the Steamboat Geyser. We passed a boiling pond of emerald-green water on the way that had so much hydrogen sulfide-laden vapor bubbling out of it that it was difficult to stand there. It left our throats and nasal passages feeling funny even after we had left the area.

All that steam smells like rotten eggs


Our next stop was a place called Artist Paintpots. This is also a hydrothermal basin like Norris, with scattered turquoise hot pools, steam vents and dead trees. The new thing that we saw here was a boiling mud pot. Large bubbles were forming and bursting in a small pool of thick mud with satisfying pops. The consistency of the mud was so smooth, and the popping sounds were so soothing that it seemed we could just stand there and watch it for hours. Poulami said she also felt an urge to touch and feel the mud. Thankfully, it was surrounded by a railing, presumably to suppress such urges. The sun was also getting lower in the sky and it was overcast anyway. So we decided to move to our next destination.
Artists' Paintpots

Boiling mud pot
Our next destination was supposed to be Grand Prismatic Spring, but we decided to push that to the next day as it was getting late and we were hungry. We did stop at a small hot pool though, and photographed its incredibly beautiful aquamarine water surrounded by bright rust-coloured deposits. The blue color is due to minerals and the red colour due to the presence of microorganisms. There were lots of dead trees everywhere.

Hot pool
Finally, we were ready to go to our hotel for the night - the Grant Village Lodge. It wasn't very close, but we eventually reached the place. Just before reaching Grant Village, we had one last experience for the day, or so we thought at the time. We saw half a dozen cars stopped at the side of the road and their riders roaming outside, looking at the forest with their cameras and binoculars, so we followed suit. But there was nothing to be seen except for two elk and an indignant man claiming confidently that he saw a bear vanishing into the woods. Some people were going into the woods to see the bear, but it was nearly dark at this time and we didn't want to follow any real or imaginary bear into the woods at dusk. As a matter of fact, we wouldn't have followed a bear into the woods even in broad daylight. So we returned to our car and drove to the hotel.

Grant Village Lodge has a check-in desk that is a block away from the rooms (which are in different buildings named after different animals; ours was Elk Lodge). It is also a block away from the Grant Village Restaurant where we planned to have our dinner. It was 8:45 and the restaurant closed at 10:00, so we decided to have dinner first and then go to our room. However, the restaurant had a wait time of thirty to forty minutes, so we decided to go to the lodge first, take our bags up to our room, and then come back. After a long day filled with hikes and a fast food lunch, we were looking forward to a satisfying dinner to end our first full day in Yellowstone.

Or so we thought at the time.

(To be continued...)