Tuesday, November 5, 2013


Sweet Curves of the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway
Grab an extra cup of coffee before you sit down to read this post... it's a long one. Yellowstone knocked our socks off :)

We had been advised in Cody, Wyoming to take the scenic Chief Joseph Highway and enter Yellowstone at the Park's North East Entrance. If the ride on Chief Joseph's through the Shoshone National Forest was any indication of what we were about to experience in Yellowstone, we were thrilled! The road wound around beautiful rock faced cliffs and steep drop-offs and the mountainous vistas were breathtaking. 

We knew that camping opportunities would be hard to find in Yellowstone as 90% of the park has already closed for the season, so we stopped for the night at a Shoshone NF campground, which we had all to ourselves... or so we hoped, as we piled all of our food/toiletry related belongings into the "bear-proof box" near our campsite. 
Shoshone National Forest Camping

Roel made a fire and cooked while I made our home for the evening, throwing anything and everything into the tent that could offer a bit of warmth... it was going to be a cold one! 
Evenings like this make us extra grateful that we purchased winter rated sleeping bags in New Zealand that can zip together... I don't think we've ever cuddled so much! 
The next morning we had planned to get out of the tent by 6am so that we could be on the road to Yellowstone in time to hopefully catch the early rising wildlife that frequent the famed Lamar Valley. No such luck. You know how difficult it is to get out of bed in winter when you're all warm under a thick blanket. Maybe the temperature in your bedroom is as low as 50-60F/10-16C. That morning, I looked around the tent when my alarm went off and noticed that the condensation from our breath had frozen, and the entire inside of the tent was coated in a thin film of ice. So I turned the alarm off and buried myself back under the sleeping bag until the sun had risen enough to at least give us false hope that it had warmed up outside. 
Ice ice, baby

Fortunately, we had remembered to bring our CamelBak water bags into the tent with us, otherwise we wouldn't have had any water for breakfast, as all of the water in the water bottles we left between the mesh of the tent and the nylon fly, had frozen solid overnight. Eeap!

While Roel rebuilt the fire, I set about removing everything from the Bear Box and putting it back into my boxes with some level of organization. Already, I found this addition to our morning ritual to be a bit tiresome, and it was only our first day in bear country. 

With the sun a bit higher in the sky, we rode to the Lamar Valley Entrance to Yellowstone, and were welcomed by a chipper Ranger who advised us that there had been a Grizzly sighted just 7 miles from the gate. WOW! What a welcome!

We rode on slowly, scanning the tree line for signs of a mammoth bear, but knew we had found the spot when we saw several cars parked alongside the road. With a  few other folks, we spent an hour or so fixated on the every move of this 600lb/270kg grizzly, as he threw aside small boulders to access the yummy grubs that lay beneath them.

We met a really nice ranger, John, who was stationed there to ensure that tourists didn't do anything stupid, and fortunately he was also there in time to convince some silly guys/gals from Fish & Wildlife not to carryout some blasting they were meant to do in order to create a dam in the river that ran next to where this grizzly was diligently preparing himself for his long winter hibernation. Fortunately for the bear, and us nature enthusiasts, John made sure they kept quite and understood that they would need to return another day to complete their work. 

John also educated us a bit about the wolf population in Lamar Valley and told us that we might be able to see some further up the road. 

So on we went, scanning the roadside for other wildlife, and we were rewarded for taking it slow when we spotted a grey fox darting across a prairie plain towards a small creek. A few miles later, we stopped to observe some mountain goats. On we rode until we found the spot where several cars had pulled off the road and avid wildlife enthusiasts had set up their super long-range telescopes. They were keeping an eye out for wolves that had made a kill in the area earlier, but at that time, there was just an elk carcass and some ravens lurking about. 

An elk bugling

As the sun was 

setting and the temperature was already dropping, we left and continued West in the direction of Mammoth, where there was still a campground open in the park. Along the way, we saw several elk, and a few herds of bison. 
Bison on the move
Once we reached the campground, I was excited to set up our tent, cook, and get into the warm sleeping bags right away... due to the temperature rising earlier that day, and me breaking out in an excited sweat as I maneuvered into strange positions to get photographs of the grizzly, I was already chilled. We had heard that the campground was $15 and would offer showers and shelter. Well, there were no showers, no shelter, the campground was $20 AND the main road through the  park wound right around it, so it would likely be noisy with truck brakes all evening. Still, I was cold and pretty desperate to fast forward to the part of the evening where I would tuck into my warm sleeping bag and stop shivering. Roel and I, however, were not on the same page. Even though I agreed that this situation was not ideal, neither was prolonging my discomfort that was growing by the minute. After a bit of, shall we say, "negotiating," I agreed to get back on my bike and continue searching, even though the sun was already kissing the tops of the mountains to the West. In all seriousness, I am grateful to my Dutch boyfriend who has taught me a lot about how to "sit on my money" and thanks to him, it's helped both of us get farther with what we have. I know there are times he is proud of this, but it was about to bite him in the a$$ ;)

We had seen a small National Forest on the map just outside of the park, and after riding through the small town of Gardiner, Montana, we found a tiny sign that read "National Forest Campground 2.2mi." Just in case, Roel checked out what the rates were for motels in the area while I rode ahead up the nice gravel road that led up the mountain to a beautiful campground that was only $7/night. It would only be us, a couple of horses, another tent and a resident bison. After going inside to the warm reception offices to inquire about rates, which turned out to be about $50/night, Roel was feeling pretty good about getting a room that evening. But as much as Roel has a thing about not paying too much for a campsite, I have a thing about not splurging on a hotel unless we can take full advantage of the amenities (read: free wifi, a sink for hand washing and shower rack for drying, and the in-room coffee maker) from the earliest possible check-in to the latest-possible check-out. 

So that night, we froze our rear ends off with the horses and bison on top of the mountain. In every relationship, you win some and you lose some. 

As the bikes had really begun to protest starting up in the cold morning, we strategically selected a campsite at the top of a small hill so that it would be easy to push-start them in the morning. We set up camp, had dinner, and again put everything food/toiletry related into the bear boxes. 

The next morning was the same... snuggle in the sleeping bags until there was at least a hint of sunlight, and then ride back into the park. 
We headed straight for the spot where the wolves had been sighted the day before and were thrilled to see double the number of people looking out over the prairie below - WOLVES!!!
Roel has been interested in wolves for his entire life, watching National Geographic documentaries, etc, and so now that he was about to finally see a wolf in reality, he was beside himself with excitement. Everyone watching the wolves, who were easily 500 meters away, spoke in hushed tones. And we all stopped talking entirely from time to time to listen to the beautiful howling of the 5 wolves in the sights, who were communicating with the rest of the pack that was hidden from our sight behind a small hill. It was really just a magical experience. 
Before: The photo Roel took that we hoped captured wolves

After: The best we could do with our zoom, some cropping and magnification: if you look really hard and have some imagination, you can spot one wolf at 2 o'clock and another one at 8 o'clock
If you listened closely, you could hear the real wolf experts who have dedicated their lives to wolf conservation, quietly discussing which wolf was which (those who have been identified have a number and M or F to identify gender) - they sound like astronomers identifying planets or stars. We were very grateful that they had shared their knowledge and telescopes with us, as otherwise, there was no way we would have been able to spot these wolfs so far off in the distance. I wanted to capture the scene at this overlook and snapped a few photographs of these champions of nature with their faces glued to their telescopes. A few minutes later, as we were about to leave, I was approached by one of these woman who inquired what I intended to do with these photos. As no faces were visible, I hadn't thought there would be anything wrong with posting a photo on this blog to better convey to you guys what this experience was like. However, this woman, and others, are so in fear of anti-wolf "activists" who have threatened not only their cause but there very lives, she asked that I not post any of the photos I took, just in case some element of the photo could be used to identify them. How sad that this is what the world has come to. But thankfully, these people continue to fight for the wolfs, despite intimidation and threats, in an effort to ensure that future generations of humans can experience the same spine-chilling thrill as they listen to the howls of future generations of wolfs echoing throughout the canyons of Yellowstone National Park. 

Wile E.
Mammoth Terraces
After spending the morning observing wolves, we headed South in the direction of Old Faithful, but didn't quite make it as there was so much beauty to stop and enjoy along the way. 

We headed back in the direction of our campsite in Gardiner, making a stop at Boiling River for a bath, where boiling water from the parks hot springs mix with the chilly water of the Gardner River. We soaked here for over an hour, enjoying the burning hot currents that danced with icy cold currents to form a most perfect natural bathtub. We waited until there were more stars visible in the sky than we could count, and we headed to our campsite. 

Determined to see Bozeman the next day, we headed North, making a quick stop in Livingston to visit old family friends who filled our pockets with granola bars, mixed nuts and good energy. In Bozeman, we realized that it was already much later than we had wanted it to be when we started our exploration of this cool town. But still, we checked out the university where the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance had spent some time, and eventually made our way to the brewery a fellow camper we met that morning had recommended we check out. The sun was already setting when we walked into the Bozeman Brewing Company tasting room, but we were determined to share a tasting of beer to see what this town had to offer, before getting on the bikes and heading South to camp somewhere near the West Entrance to Yellowstone. It would be a long, chilly ride... although the daytime temperatures had consistently risen to 60F/15C, as soon as the sun went down, they dropped to below freezing. 

Nonetheless, we slid onto a couple of barstools and ordered a tasting flight. While we were enjoying the first sips of the Bozone Terroir brew, made from hops their local customers bring in from their backyards, I noticed the gentleman quietly enjoying his beer on the other side of Roel... he looked quite familiar. My father had told me he had another friend in Montana, but hadn't given me his contact information, and since we were making such a quick visit to Bozeman, I hadn't considered contacting William. But, sure enough, of the three breweries in the area, and out of countless cool bars and lounges, William had also chosen to enjoy a beer at Bozone that evening. And that was how we wound up in a warm bed and the bikes wound up in a warm garage a few hours later. Simply amazing the way the Universe opens. 

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