A Little Open Space

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Some of you around the country have been thinking of writing in to complain about the weather and how you’ve been feeling confined and when’s it going to stop, etc., like I would know, and I sense your frustration. And as one of our great, but impeached, political leaders once said, “I feel your pain.”

Consequentially I have chosen to give you a little open space this morning. I know a lot of you have been cooped up and can’t get out doors to do the simplest things, like dump your litter box, or see if you can find your car under all that snow, or get away from that significant other who has been singing “The Spirit of New Orleans” for the last three days. It seems like a little relief is needed.

So OK then, rather than look for the shells for the 12 gauge, take a moment and reflect on this image of the north end of the Lamar valley looking up at Barronette Peak. Take a deep breath and smell the clean cool air of an early fall afternoon. The sun still has some warmth left and it feels good on your back. The grass, though yellowed and dry for the most part, still has enough life in it that the grazers can graze, and way off down there, past the drainage of Soda Butte creek, a small group of buffalo are settling in.

You have the whole place to yourself today because it’s too far North for the tourist busses to come and everyone else is down in the Hayden or over at Swan Lake flats looking for grizzlies before they head uphill for the winter. The grizzlies not the tourists. The tourists will be heading back to the Holiday Inn in West Yellowstone before it gets dark and scary out here.

If you wanted too, you could take off and just walk straight towards the mountains as long as you wanted to, just remember you have to walk back, so maybe just sitting on the boulder there and finishing off your thermos would be enough.

Well we all know that this isn’t as good as the real thing but hey, it’s better than listening to you know who sing. And as long as we’re on that subject, after you’ve had your fill of whatever serenity you can muster from viewing this special part of Yellowstone National Park, why don’t you go and tell you know who that you’ll let him out of the basement if he promises to stop singing. Maybe even show him this picture and fix him a nice hot cup of tea, and if that doesn’t work the shells for the shotgun are on the top shelf in the hall closet behind the Christmas decorations. Good luck.

 

 

 

Not Quite Roundup Time

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Out here near Hovenweep National Monument the vegetation is sparse and water more so. In land that seems so inhospitable there is a strong ranching tradition. If you pay attention you can still see cattle spread out over hundred’s if not thousands of acres. They’re rangy, long-horned, fleet as a deer and people-wise. You can see one then drive for miles before seeing another, yet they’re there and when it’s time they must be rounded up. A job that requires locating, herding and gathering them for shipment to the meat markets back east.

That ‘s what these structures are for. Holding pens with spaces to separate the cattle as needed and chutes to load the cattle onto trucks to be hauled away. The area around Hovenweep is filled with small narrow canyons that drain what water there is from places like Cajon mesa up on the Utah-Colorado border into streams like McElmo creek and the San Juan river, creating terrain that is a very difficult environment to work in. Collecting the cattle means hunting through this country and getting them back over the hills and through the valleys to collection points like this one. A long, tough, hot job.

This cattle business is not for the faint of heart as the ranchers battle the desert with all its hardships and try to keep their heads above water, if there was any. These are tough folks and many of them have been doing this for generations, somehow managing to keep it working and kind of productive. Like the beautiful but harsh red rock country it feels like there will always be someone out here trying to make a living. The country alone, with its bands of colors and incredible shapes, makes some of the struggle worthwhile. The occasional dollar helps too.

For the traveler passing through none of that is apparent. They are more intent on watching the buttes and mesas, the intense color of the hills and the wide open spaces, thinking more about getting to the next town. The holding pens that are so important to the rancher are just another feature to take in on the way to somewhere else, another view of the southwest, seen, enjoyed and forgotten in a moment. But for the photographer and someone who loves everything about this country, it is more than that. It is another story to attach to the image and add to the portfolio that is the experience of the Southwest. Life as hard as this shouldn’t be forgotten.

Following the Storm

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Hutton lake up in Wyoming is one of those places that depending on what time of the day or year you view it will determine how you feel about it. During the day it is fairly plain and nondescript with few distinguishing features other than the wildlife and birds that are there for various reasons. The light levels are harsh during mid-day and the vegetation is sparse and low-lying. The birds that you find here are usually passing through to somewhere else, as this is a stopover for many migratory flocks.

The mammals that frequent this area, such as Antelope, coyotes, and prairie dogs are seen more often when some natural event takes place, such as when the antelope drop their calves in the spring. Coyotes are there because they’re everywhere and being opportunistic, take advantage of the food supply as it changes through the seasons. Nobody knows why the prairie dogs are there, one day one shows up and before long they’re all there. The Redtail hawks don’t mind their squatting however, especially when the young unwary prairie dogs are out and playing too far from their burrows.

The low rolling hills that surround the lake continue on until they bump up against the mountains or continue in the opposite direction eastward until they reach Nebraska or any other of the middle kingdom states that claim they have prairie. The wind blows across the hills and lakes endlessly until you find yourself developing a semi-permanent list to one side depending on which direction you’re walking.

But there are moments of unsurpassing beauty here too. When a storm is imminent the wind will kick up into nearly gale force conditions, then suddenly stop, allowing deep dark clouds to roll in close to the earth. So close you feel like you could reach up and touch them. Then the rains will come. Not often but every once in a while there is no rain just the clouds and you, and the view to the horizon. There may be lightning then, but not always. It gets very dark, even in the middle of the day, and ominous thoughts can crowd into your mind. This isn’t a place for the timid.

These conditions can be found in the early spring when this place is reawakening from its winter imprisonment. It’s as if this storm is it flexing its muscles and stretching after a long troubled sleep. The image above was taken in early April around 6:30 pm and it was one of the rainless storms. The wind had been fearsome through the late afternoon and the clouds rolling in kept getting lower and it appeared that soon there would be no space left between the clouds and the earth for humans. It looked to be time to pack it in. To go someplace warm and maybe have supper. Then suddenly the winds dropped as often happens, and in the stillness of the early evening, the sun finally broke through the clouds to illuminate the lake with a golden reflection of the sunset, and a plain somewhat forbidding place was turned into a golden paradise, if only for a moment.

That’s part of the draw of this country, an everyday occurrence can turn into an adventure at the drop of a hat. All you have to do is stand your ground even when it feels like you should be running away for all your worth. The payoff is often golden.

 

 

Color Encroachment

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There is a growing problem here in the West. You don’t hear much about it in the media because there are powerful influential groups that profit by it, and by powerful I mean the entire states of Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Arizona, Arizona is a particularly bad offender, New Mexico, and yes, parts of Colorado. The problem is color encroachment.

Color encroachment is an insidious problem that insinuates itself into your experience of the west in many ways. For instance, lets say you are driving along one of the back roads in any of the afore-mentioned states, gazing occasionally at the  bland, unremarkable scenery passing by, all grays and tans and pale washed out, bluish tints of the sky, when out of the corner of your eye you notice a small seemingly insignificant amount of color creeping into view. It may just be a lighter shade of tan with a hint of yellow in it amongst the roadside vegetation. Or perhaps a reddish hue to the distant rock faces and a deeper purple-ish color to the low-lying mountains off in the distance. Then you come around a corner and it smacks you right in the face.

Incredible shades of indigo blue and deep purple, rose-colored hillsides and brilliant greens of trees next to lesser shades of yellow and pale oranges in the grasses, the deep earth tones of fences and boulders. This is color encroachment. This is raw elemental color and it is right in your face. This new spectrum of color doesn’t stay safely away in the distance, it comes right down to the roadside threatening to spill out right into your path. The dangers are obvious. Black tire marks on the pavement as vehicles screech to a stop. Burned private parts from the spilled coffee of unaware drivers who become GobSmacked by the sudden sight of this massive color change. Digital cameras of all types filled to the brim with the ones and zeros of abused pixels. The list goes on and on.

There have even been traffic accidents caused by this massive influx of color, none fatally so far, but it’s a real possibility that it could happen in  the future. Many of the states have begun to take steps to control color encroachment but so far it has been too little, too late. Wyoming for instance has started fencing in much of its color as you can see by the image above. This has helped a little but since the color can be overwhelming to those visitors who have never experienced it before, it isn’t enough. Utah and the main violator Arizona have begun running public service ads warning the unwary and first time visitors to their states about the dangers of color encroachment, but there is a powerful lobby of resort owners, tourist orientated businesses and the auto repair industry trying to keep these to a minimum, shown only late at night after the info commercials, and they are pressing fiercely to do away with them altogether.

What has been recommended by the various auto travelers associations to combat color encroachment, has been to prepare yourself before you leave on that trip of a lifetime, by looking closely at old copies of Arizona magazine, watch the various videos and documentaries that show the wonders and colors of the west and practice placing contrasting but harmonious colors on a sheet of paper with a selection of magic markers. This will go a long way towards making your trip a safe one and still allow you to look at the colors of the ever-changing scenery.

Following those few simple suggestions will get you there to that colorful wilderness you long for and bring you back again safely without harm.  And remember to pay attention to those signs posted along the highway saying, “Drowsy drivers cause accidents”.  When they should really say “Drowsy drivers fall asleep, run off the road and scream out over the cliff onto the canyon floor miles below much like Thelma and Louise. Don’t do that.” They haven’t posted the “Beware of Color Encroachment” or “Color Encroachment Ahead” signs yet but prepared drivers have them in the forefront of their minds as they drive the beautiful but colorful highways and byways on the West. Remember, Be Safe and as they say out here “Vaya con Juevos”.

The Tourists Are Coming, The Tourists Are Coming

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Every day here in Yellowstone about a quarter after six to around seven-thirty in the morning the local Osprey are charged with traveling up and down the rivers, as Town Fliers if you will, letting the other residents know that the tourists have been sighted and are on their way in. So everyone needs to look sharp and assume their usual positions along the banks doing what ever they do.

The elk will come down to wade in the water and pose as the first bus pulls up. The tourists all pile out amidst much shouting and gesturing, camera shutters blazing. On the days they are scheduled, the lone wolf on duty will lurk convincingly in the underbrush so it can suddenly appear for its photo-op, then move up-stream a half mile or so for its next appearance. This is just one of the many services provided by our nation’s premier national park.

There was a time not too long ago when all the animals had to punch in, get their assignments and go to work putting in their 12 to 14 hours a day. That was back in the mid 70’s, early 80’s when the parks ran a much tighter ship. However it made for a less spontaneous show and the tourists began to complain saying if they wanted a ‘show’ they’d go to SeaWorld or somewhere where they did a lot more stuff in a shorter period of time. New management was brought in that adopted a less rigorous style of running the park and although the various animals still had responsibilities they were left to their own devices as to how they wished to portray themselves.

This resulted in a much more relaxed, natural appearing park and the public loved it. It wasn’t long before the grizzlies were added and the occasional interaction between bear and human just added to the unexpected excitement as word spread that if you were lucky you could see a bear take down the occasional unwary tourist and drag it off into the bush. This was great stuff and before long the park was nearly over run by tourists wanting the ultimate spectacle. Fortunately for the targeted tourists this didn’t happen all the time so it became almost like playing lotto. If you were extremely lucky you might get to see it, screams, broken camera straps, the whole works. Repeat visits to the park became the norm and didn’t diminish in the least when the park raised its entrance fees. In fact it added an expectation that due to the higher costs you might be more likely to see the ‘big event’ and everyone wanted to be on The Bus that had the guy that got eaten by the grizzly bear.

Under these new wildlife management policies, the elk were left to battle it out during the rut rather than having to attend anger management classes, the wolf packs were allowed to consume a lot of those brand new buffalo calves without having to always stop and apologize, and the buffalo were just left alone period. They wouldn’t do anything they were asked to do anyway.

But as was mentioned previously, all of this activity starts every morning with the Town Fliers doing their part, flying up and down the Firehole and the Gibbon, the Madison and the Yellowstone, the Gardiner and the Lamar, Soda butte creek, Crawfish creek, Slough creek, Fall river and the Lewis and of course the Snake. Each river has it resident Osprey whose main duty of the day is to fly the rivers and lakes and call, “The Tourists Are Coming, The Tourists Are Coming”, as soon as they’re spotted so Yellowstone can start a new day.

The Thing About Badgers

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The thing about badgers is that they do not make good house pets. I know this is a surprise what with all those slick ‘adopt a badger’ ads you see on TV. The close-up of their beady little bloodshot eyes, the slow motion shots of the badger running towards its supposed loved one, the way it seems to want to be cuddled and held. However many people have found to their dismay after the fact that badgers, although taciturn and often grumpy, also have many other unsavory habits that tend to make them an undesirable pet.

Unfortunately they don’t have good prospects to be your new best friend because they are not genetically predisposed to be friendly loving creatures. Their background  includes being related to polecats, weasels, and wolverines and we’ve all known people who have been raised by weasels and how that didn’t work out. Breeding shows. I know that is a harsh statement but you will see as you read further that this condemnation is usually proved true. If it makes it any easier to accept think of them as being like politicians, they seem ok until you elect them and then their true colors come out.

First in a long list of problems is that they are very short. Squatty, actually. While shortness is not a bad habit in itself, it is what one does with that shortness that causes a problem. Several unfortunate pet owners have stated that everything was fine with having a badger for a pet until they introduced them to the household cat. The badger feigning friendliness quickly grabbed the unoffending tabby, and being short, easily dragged it under the heavy divan in the sitting room and made a short meal of it amidst much contented grunting and snorfling. There was the usual screaming and caterwauling from everyone involved of course, as the men in the family tried unsuccessfully to lift the heavy couch to rescue the poor feline. But this was too little, too late as badgers are known for taking hasty meals. Besides losing fluffy, what seemed to bother the new owners of the badger the most, was the unrepentant attitude of the badger after the fact. It was if the badger didn’t care.

Another problem is their reticence towards public speaking. It is difficult if not impossible to get a badger to make a speech or even carry on a casual conversation. They will sometimes answer a question with a single syllable grunt or a high-pitched squeaking sound if the question surprises them, but if you’re looking for a witty dinner companion do not choose the badger, they will constantly disappoint you.

But by and large the biggest problem and by biggest we mean freaking huge with having a badger around is their tendency towards drunkenness. If you think badgers are a handful sober try having them around when they’re hammered. In the wild you can often find drunken badgers sprawled out around the edges of an orchard where they have eaten fermented fruit for its alcohol content until they pass out and become nuisances of the first order. Often fighting, and scratching rude messages on the apple trees, they show a total disregard for others personal property. Farmers often have to circumnavigate their orchards in the morning, dragging the besotted creatures to a safer place to sleep it off so they don’t get run over by the farm machinery and gum up the works. Alcoholism and homelessness in the badger population is a huge issue in States that have large fruit crops such as Washington for its apples, and Wisconsin because it has cheap beer, to name just two.

In the home it becomes a more personal problem for the owner of these pets as they will raid the liquor cabinet and consume everything in it, often just before you plan to have a large party. They are particularly fond of fruit liqueurs but will even drink your most expensive Cognac, badgers don’t care. If nothing else is available they will drink beer having no problem pulling the caps off the bottle with their strong forearms and long claws which act as built-in church keys. The real problem comes when they wake up as they have ferocious hangovers and are completely unmanageable until much later in the day. It is best to simply coax them outside with an empty liquor bottle and lock the doors.

While it may seem like a good idea to have a badger as a pet it often doesn’t work out. Don’t be fooled by those slick TV ads where they show young children holding a homeless, bedraggled looking badger with the message of ‘give a badger a home, make a friend for life’, or ‘save this animal from a life of misery in the heartless out of doors’,  or ‘Open your hearts, open your home’ (and open your liquor cabinet) is often the hook used to get you to take in a seemingly innocent badger. Remember, the thing about badgers is, they don’t make good pets.

Like The Wind

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With powerful strokes of its wings this young Bald Eagle flies barely a wingspan over the cobalt blue water of the Firehole river. Its wings make a strong whooshing sound as the wind rushes through its primary feathers as they complete their cycle. Its flight is close enough to the water that the deep blue color is reflected off the nearly white feathers on its head and tail.

This is a young bird, less than five years old, as it takes that long for its distinctive head and tail feathers to turn completely white. Since the sexes are similar it’s difficult to determine whether it is a male or female. When the males are together with the females, the female is approximately 25% larger, which has earned them the name of “Big Mama’s” by those who don’t know anything about eagles. And which is why many times you will see a female eagle swoop down on a loud heckling tourist and swipe his Tilly hat and deposit it 60′ or more in the top of a pine tree. Being a strong-willed female and a symbol of our country they will not tolerate being made fun of.

Young eagles are left to their own devices pretty much as soon as they start flying. As they are the avian equivalent of teenagers their parents are pretty much sick of them and have sent them out to starve or prosper on their own. They have taught them the rudiments of eagle lore, philosophy and life skills, but from now on it’s up to them.

The young eagles of course believe this to be highly unfair and constantly fly up and down the river calling desperately for their parents to feed them. The parents however having anticipating this, as this isn’t their first eaglet, have decided that this is a good time to visit the coast for a little R&R and are long gone. This eagle will soon discover that it is more productive to look for something to eat than to look for absent parents, and thus its life as a newly minted Bald Eagle begins.

It will be tough for a while as they perfect that snatch and grab thing on unwary trout in the shallows, and after a string of misses they will soon settle for anything dead and edible they can locate. This can be anything from a dead fish washed up along the river bank to roadkill, to unfortunately stooping to raiding the landfill for anything edible. These hapless eagles become the white and black trash of the eagle community and will likely wind up as crack heads or meth addicts. They should have spent more time paying attention to their parents and less time out behind the nest smoking and listening to heavy metal music. But sad as that may be that’s life in the wild kingdom.

This young eagle will probably go on to have a happy and successful life. Why? No reason really, it just looks so good flying along the river that it’ll probably make it. Since, as the writer of this story, I can give it any ending I want, I think today I will give it a happy ending, so good luck young eagle, keep those tail feathers clean. Remember I have editing privileges.