2016 Yellowstone Summer Games


Every four years Yellowstone National Park puts on its very own Summer Games. This is similar to, but larger in scope, than the summer Olympics that occur for the human games, as it includes the entire park and all of its year-round inhabitants. Everyone participates according to their skill level and choice of events. We intend to periodically feature some of the participants as they train and get ready to win the gold.

This week we look in on little Ms. Lindsey Vethouf as she and her trainer mother, Constance Vethouf, get ready for Lindsey’s participation in the Synchronized Swimming event. This event is one of the most popular and watched events of the entire games as it features close to 75 young cow elk swimming together in synchronized patterns in the deep pool area of the Firehole river. Lindsey although young for her age is an experienced river forder and is expected to place very highly in this event if not win it outright.

Normally this area would be full of tourists swimming and trying desperately not to be  swept over the 40′ falls just downstream in Firehole canyon, but for the Summer Games this area is closed to the public so the elk swimmers can train daily and finally compete in this important venue. This is a limited access event and as such does not have formal seating constructed, no bleachers or skyboxes have been built as the edge of the roadway past this area is only inches from the sheer drop-off, so the spectators must find their own way out onto the sheer cliffs that line the pool area and locate something sturdy to cling to as they view the events. The small risk of losing their footing and plunging down in the pool area is outweighed by the excitement of watching this spectacular bunch of young elk athletes perform their intricate maneuvers.

In the picture above you see Constance Vethouf adjusting Lindsey’s fur to make sure it lies flat and shows itself as a fetching pelt, which helps not only with water resistance but aids in her ability to stay buoyant as she performs some of the routines that require her to float on her back. Constance, herself a medal winning Synchronized Swimmer having won the Bronze in the 2008 games, has a huge amount of knowledge to pass on to Lindsey. Everything from showing her the correct grass to eat to maintain her weight, yet have the energy it takes to stay in that cold water for the long hours of practice, to how to keep her head above water and not to lose points for gasping, spitting and looking like she is drowning when she is occasionally forced under water due to some of the more rigorous routines.

The games are shaping up to be even more spectacular than in preceding years and if you are lucky enough to get tickets for this event, remember to bring Crampons, Pitons, and a tested climbing rope as well as snacks and non-perishable water, as much of the seating requires technical climbing to reach. Watch for further posts as we feature more of this years Yellowstone Summer Games hopefuls as they train and dream of the Gold.


Before The Mist Clears


Sometimes people will ask “Where’d all the color come from in that picture, then?” Or they’ll say “I was there. I never saw anything like that.” This is usually accompanied by a suspicious glare. Other times they’ll simply say “No way, dude, That is a load of condensed owl manure.” What they don’t know is they are not looking in the right places for these images, or at the right time.”

These images exist in nature by the quintillious millions. You are literally walking through them every time you are someplace like the Firehole river here in Yellowstone. The deal is, it takes some practice to see them in their full glorious color like this. For instance this particular image was lurking within the mist just waiting for someone to stop and photograph it. Think of it like this. You know how a movie is made with 30, 60, 120 frames per second and when it is played back the rapid display of the individual images or frames merge into a flow that shows the movement and creates the scene or movie.

Well that’s exactly what nature does. These images are lined up one behind the other into infinity and as you look at the scene they are speeding by you so quickly that you don’t see each individual frame. An individual image like this is often missed. It had already gone by so fast you didn’t have a chance to get your camera up to your eye let alone take a picture.

The secret to taking a picture like this, aside from a rapid dunking in Photoshop, is to kind of check out where the next image might appear, then slowly walk by the place being very careful not to glance at it directly. If you do look it tips the projector guy off that you have seen what’s coming, and he’ll speed the film up, so to speak, making it that much more difficult to take the shot.

While you’re fiddling around pretending you don’t see the picture coming up, surreptitiously set your camera to all the proper settings, then whirl around and snap the photo. That’s all there is to it. The settings for this shot were 1/800,000 of a second at f 2100. Make certain you have set the HISS (Hidden Imaginary Scene Selector) switch located on the lower left side of the lens housing on most professional cameras, to Automatic. If you don’t have this switch on your camera then it is time to upgrade as it is nearly impossible to catch an image like this without one.  Check with your local camera dealer for the most up to date information So there you have it. Photography made easy. You’re welcome.

Finalizing Our Report


Over the last few days we have been sharing items from our semi-annual inspection report of Yellowstone National Park. Every year we have made the arduous journey from The Institute compound, I mean campus, to our favorite national park to provide the public at large a comprehensive overview of the conditions and state of the various park elements. This year was no different. We worked hard to cover every line item on our report, no matter how small or large it appeared to be, we were up at the crack of noon, trudging into the park with all of gear, sometimes doing with only three or four cups of tea and a huge but hearty breakfast, to get everything done that we needed to do that day.

As noted in our opening post the park passed its inspection with flying colors, but as in every year we have produced this report, the park has been noticeably different each year. Some years, it is the year of the wolf, where you find yourself tripping over them as they scramble to be included in every picture. Some years It is the year of the bison where they deliberately have calves in plain sight, right in front of you, even though the park is rated G. Other years it is the year of the bear, that was this year with the bears so plentiful, some were being excluded from the many pictures taken because they weren’t deemed attractive enough by the more discerning viewer, who wanted only the most photogenic bears in their view finders. I know that seems unfair, but life is unfair, and often unkind.

This year the overall atmosphere of the park was, the year it rained forever. It rained everyday, sometimes three or four times at once. It was hard on our equipment, hard on our interns who had to sleep under the Mothership due to them smelling like the dumpster out behind our favorite Italian restaurant, hard on our ability to stay focused and get our work done. Hard to figure out a way of presenting this in a way that would engender sympathy for us doing a job that most folks would kill for, and whining about a little rain. Well quite a bit of rain actually, but even so.

But in many ways it was amazing. The weather in the park although volatile, is usually incredible. Bright blue skies, huge towering clouds, intense colors, incredible blooms of flowers everywhere you looked, everything approaching perfect nearly all the time. It was a  welcome change to see the park under different conditions. To see magnificent storms blow up in moments and have rain so heavy you couldn’t make out the buffalo herd standing twenty-five yards out in the meadows. Normally placid rivers became raging torrents of water, filling their banks, turning small waterfalls into Niagara’s, then just as suddenly stopping, leaving only the sound of raindrops falling from the trees. Places where the mist and fog changed into some kind of fairyland where sound was muffled and huge pine trees would suddenly loom out of the mist as you walked through the woods. It was different but magnificent.

It seems there is change in the park, but then that’s not surprising, seeing as how there is change in the world every where we look. The image above, taken along the Firehole  river as you traveled south towards Old Faithful, represents the endless changes in the conditions at the park this year. It is just clearing after a major downpour that had everyone pulling off the road as the windshield wipers couldn’t handle the amount of water falling. The sun is trying it hardest to break through the clouds, unsuccessfully this time, but long enough to get some of that late afternoon light to shine down on the herd as it grazed. The stark trees in the foreground add a melancholy look to the image but they are just symbols of the change happening every day here in the park. Tomorrow they’ll be gone but will be replaced by saplings that are sprouting around their roots. So will some of these buffalo grazing peacefully. Wolves, impossible winters, old age, all will take its toll but if you look closely you’ll see the bright orange of this years calves. They’ll be here next time, older, bigger, ready to take their place in the herd, filling in the spots that are vacant.

Although there has been a valiant attempt to show you the many different items on our inspection report we have been able to show you only a few of them. This is primarily due to space and time constraints, and partially due to the inability of The Director who will often start a project like this only to wander away and be found staring at a bug or something. Totally oblivious of his responsibilities as the chief creator of this report. But as in many other projects we have explored here at The Institute somehow it all gets done. You may be saying to yourselves ” Wait just a darn minute here. Does Yellowstone National Park really need to be inspected twice a year. Or are you just doing this because you get off on being up there, having fun, misplacing interns, watching animals, taking pictures, meeting new people, saying ‘Hey!” to those you already know, getting goose bumps while listening to the Lamar wolf pack howl. We want to know.” To that we can only answer “You figure it out, Einstein.”

Note : To those of you tuning in late the following posts will catch you up on preceding events. There is no extra charge for this service, it is included in the cost of admission. We know you don’t want to miss a minute of our fascinating but undocumented report.













Unattended Landscapes



Listen up America! we have just discovered a huge and growing problem in our favorite National parks. That problem is “Unattended Landscapes”. That’s right, some of our most desirable sought after landscapes, the very reason many of us go to these National parks, are being left unattended. Look closely at this image and you will see that there is not a single attendant anywhere. We even went down there and looked around the corner at the river and yelled a lot to see if anyone would answer and there wasn’t a soul.

This particular landscape happens to be on the Firehole river in Yellowstone National park, a park known for its attention to wildlife and the comfort of its visitors, and we found that not only was this portion of the landscape unattended but there were great huge stretches of the river that did not have a single person watching it. We were stunned. What is happening here? We pay enormous taxes to run this country right and we find that there are huge gaps in the allocation of that money. At least as far as protecting our scenic treasures goes. What is that money being used for? Sneaky, stealthy new bombers that we can send to wreck other people’s scenic areas? What about us. What about our important problems?  Where are the concrete attendants shacks? Where are the white hybrid cars with the big national park stickers all over the doors? Where are the attendants? Where are the klieg lights to turn on to see if anything is messing with our landscapes after dark? This is shameful. Is this happening in our other National parks as well?

This is a question we intend to pursue and we will get to the bottom of this situation. There are the makings of a national disgrace here and we’re not going to stop until we have examined every national park, scenic highway and byway, every national monument, state, county and local park, all those scenic areas on federal land that are visible from the highway, anything that looks landscapey, until these areas are fully attended and protected. We believe the problem of Unattended Landscapes is going to be our next national crisis.

Some of you may be saying “What’s the big hairy deal, some of these places have been unattended for a long time.” Well our response is “Yeah, So what ? What are you a communist?” There’s lots of reasons we need to attend to our scenic areas. Things have changed since Teddy Roosevelt was around. We’ve got more people now and some of them are bad. We’ve got people who want to mow down all the shrubbery and drill for oil in the middle of the Firehole river and there’s terrorists that want to sneak in and blow up a tree or something. We’ve got no idea what can happen. Some of these scenic places are irreplaceable. You don’t just go in there and stand them up willy-nilly wherever you feel like it.

We know that some of you may have already noticed this situation and perhaps even begun acting on it but we need everyone to support this important movement. We cannot leave our God-given scenic areas to the happenstance of nonchalance. Get involved. Volunteer. If nothing else go to an unattended scenic landscape and park your car and watch these places. Be an attendant. If you’re unable to spend weeks or months at a scenic site, write your congressman. Send emails to politicians running for office, find out their viewpoints about this problem, then vote your convictions. We’re going to. Several times if it will help. OK then, this is our month to attend to a particularly scenic site along Highway 287 here in Colorado so we have to go. Remember, Pay Attention, Do Your Part, and Be Involved, it’s the right thing to do.



Buffalo Spawn



Boy oh boy oh boy are we here at *The Institute excited. It’s Spring and time for one of the greatest, if not the most unlikely, spectacles ever to occur in Nature. We’re talking about the Buffalo Spawn that happens every April along the Firehole river in Yellowstone National Park. This phenomenon was first discovered several years ago by one of our free range wildlife photographers working on a separate project in Yellowstone and we have been fortunate to document this amazing process ever since.

The Institute, as has been noted many times in the past, has many ongoing projects underway at all times and the one our photographer was working on at the time this spawning phenomenon was noted, was a study on why river banks are just wide enough to accommodate the water that flowed through them and no wider, when he noticed strange behavior in the buffalo herds. The buffalo began gathering at the riverside jostling and shoving each other until they began to frantically enter the water and begin moving up-stream. Sometimes singly or in pairs, cows and bulls alike struggled upstream against the current in a single-minded desire to reach the shallows at the headwaters of the river to begin their spawning.

No obstacle was too great to keep them from moving ever upstream, clamoring over rocks and boulders, leaping mightily up water falls, their coats and horns glistening in the sun as they swam exhaustedly against the raging current, struggling until they reached that final tributary where they had been created many years ago. There under the light of a full moon the cows released their eggs and the bulls their sperm and as the river slowly allowed fertilization the eggs containing the new buffalos began to tumble downstream through rapids and wide gentle bends until catching up against a snag lying across the  stream, or a pebble bed where they could sink into safety amongst the stones and germinate, the eggs rested, began to grow, and thereby begin a new generation of buffalo.

Life is never a sure thing here in Yellowstone and the eggs were at constant risk of being found and devoured by predators. Wolves hungry as only wolves can be searched constantly along the riverbanks looking for egg clusters that had attached to rocks or plants along the shore and finding them, greedily devoured them for the protein that future young buffalo calves could provide them while in their embryonic state.

Grizzlies could be seen out in the middle of the river casually turning over great snags, the remains of giant trees that had fallen into the river to float downstream until they lodged themselves in the shallows and found a permanent home. Ripping the snags apart with their tremendously strong forearms and sharp claws, the egg clusters of the new buffalo generation were easy pickings for the mammoth beasts to find and consume.

But life always finds a way. And many of the eggs escaped detection and over time developed into their next phase of development which of course is the ‘buffpole’ stage where they began to grow their little hooves and tails and assume the shape we recognize as ‘Buffalo’. By now they had been fed steadily by the nutrients in the river and were beginning to break free from the egg sack that had enveloped them. If the light was just right these small fry could be seen forming little groups or herds, galloping from one place of safety in the water to another, gaining strength and nimbleness needed to leave the confines of the river and move on to land to begin their new lives as the Giants of the Plains, the buffalo.

Once established on land the new young buffalo, now known as ‘calves’, would be adopted by an adult female or ‘cow’ and be nursed and shown how to graze. They grew rapidly and were now totally independent of the river from which they formed. Yet you can still see some remnants of the behavior established in their early stages, such as when they gather in large groups or ‘herds’ and run thundering from one place to another for no apparent reason. This is a hold over from their schooling behavior when they were freshly formed fry in the river, and now it has become established as part of their genetic behavior on the land.

If you want to observe this spawning behavior of the buffalo you must hurry to Yellowstone because it doesn’t last long. Once it starts the buffalo are tireless in their obsession to get upstream and complete the spawning process that ensures that the new herd will be replenished. It is often over before you arrive, in fact if you are reading this now in May, you’ve already missed it. Sorry, but we can assure you that it does happen as proven by the huge number of buffalo seen grazing in the vast meadows of Yellowstone National park. After all where else could they have come from.

* Note: For those of you unfamiliar with The Institute and what it does, please see the page labeled The Institute on the Menu Bar above. That should explain everything. You shouldn’t have one single question remaining regarding The Institute after reading it. None. For those of you favored few who already know about the Institute, Nevermind. Return to your daily activities. Thank you for your support.


Like The Wind



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.




Firehole Gold


Every once in a while when conditions are perfect there is a phenomenon that occurs along the Firehole river. It is a rare event and only a privileged few have had the opportunity to see it.

As you might know, or are soon to learn, there is gold in the rivers of the west. In some of them more than others but every river has its share. The gold is in the form of almost microscopic flakes with the particles being small enough and light enough that they can be suspended in the water and carried downstream. Now you can walk up to the river anytime of day and scoop up a handful of water and you won’t see this gold, but it is there, its visibility is only brought out under certain circumstances.

The Firehole river that runs through Yellowstone National Park through valleys and meadows, past thermal geysers, along the highway where you and I can see it, is one of the most heavily laden gold-bearing rivers in the west. Where the source of this gold originates is still under speculation. Some say it is pumped up from a huge deposit underground by the many geysers that line the river. The scalding hot water softens the gold and in so doing causes the minute flakes to break off and rush to the surface to be swept down stream by the rivers flow.

Others say that there was once an enormous deposit of gold miles wide and dozens, if not hundreds of feet deep up north a ways, simply lying on the surface of the ground until a glacier came through and pulverized it, using its tremendous mass and weight to grind the chunks and nugget’s of gold the size of houses into the flakes we see in the river today.

Whatever its origin the gold is there and it will occasionally display itself when the conditions are perfect and the necessary components are all optimally aligned. There is a place along the river’s length that provides these needs exactly. It is a flat portion of the river’s bank that acts as a giant pan, where the water will flow over the many rough-edged pebbles and sift it self out of the rivers flow, much like a gold miner panning for gold will do, and briefly deposit itself just under the river’s surface, building up and up until the millions of flakes become visible as a solid sheet of gold only a fraction of an inch thick but thick enough that it can be seen.

This seems to occur near sunset as the sun must be low enough that its glancing rays can reflect the gold beneath the water’s surface. The heat of the dying rays of the setting sun are just the right temperature to cause the flakes to momentarily adhere to each other, forming what looks to be a solid sheet of gold. There can’t be any wind as the agitation of the water’s surface will break up the sheet and cause the flakes to simply continue on downstream. And one of the most important conditions is that you have to be there to see it.

You might think, Gold! let’s go get it. But it doesn’t work that way. The flakes are really too small to be filtered out of the water and although gold is still the most valuable object we can get our hands on, there is one thing even more valuable. And that is the fleeting beauty created by this rare interaction of the sunset, the extraordinary land the river runs through and your participation in the experience. You will spend the gold and it will be gone but the memory of this sight will live in your heart forever.

Posted and filed under “Things that are true, kind of”.