This Is Not Your Grandmother’s Sand



You know how you’re sometimes paging through a magazine or looking at pictures on the net and you come across one that stops you in your tracks and you say “Ok, Now that’s pretty neat.” Well that’s the kind of views you get when you look around Great Sand Dunes National Park, especially at sunset.  That’s when you get that great light coming out of the west. The kind that turns the sand into molten gold and the mountains into an icy blue backdrop.

This is not your grandmother’s sand. This isn’t litter box grey or the blinding white you get at your favorite beach. There are millions of colors trapped in these grains of sand just waiting for the light to release them, and release them it does. It just takes the right angle, the right intensity, the right time, and you to be there to witness them.

This was taken at the end of March at about 6 P.M. and although it was cold, as you can see by the snow still tucked in the valley there in the mountains, the light was fantastic. Because it was early Spring and fragments of Winter were still hanging on, there weren’t many people around to walk the dunes and leave their tracks across the unblemished faces of sand. Even if there had been the wind would have soon have re-sculpted the dunes faces, scouring them clean, erasing all signs that anyone had walked there. Tracks don’t last long on the dunes. This is not a place to permanently leave your mark. This is a place to view and etch the scene permanently into your memory or record it with your camera, or better yet both.

The Great Sand Dunes is a place where you can experience solitude, feel what it’s like to be out in the middle of nowhere with nothing but the towering dunes, the blue mountains behind them, the wind blowing by. To see the last of the sunlight making the dunes fire up in all their blazing glory, a place where you can experience Nature at her best.  If you’re out here wandering around the Southwest stop by the Great Sand Dunes and be prepared  to be amazed.




During our recent semi-annual inspection trip we have looked at many of the functions of Yellowstone National Park and found them to be mostly functional, performing as expected in a timely and efficient manner. We had been closely monitoring the animals and their behavior as that is what the majority of visitors to the park key on. Show them a wolf, or a grizzly, or a marmot, even a buffalo and they think everything is right with the world and they’re content with their visit.

But there are the more sophisticated visitors that come to the park for more subtle pleasures. Something quieter than the sound of a wolf pack murdering a buffalo, or the frenzied screaming of a busload of tourists sighting their first chipmunk. These folks are out viewing the park at different times than the average sightseer. They want beauty and solitude and spectacular views filled with color and drama while everyone else is back at the hotel watching reruns of Jeopardy, trying to find the number of the pizza place that delivers and raiding the minibar.

Consequently there are different items to be checked, to make sure the park is ready for these types of visitors too, such as reflectivity, which as you know is the ability to accurately mirror the sky and all its colors on a body of some reflective surface such as a lake or river, thereby adding to the overall viewing experience.

Checking this function is a little trickier than one might imagine, as there are forces at work here that the average viewer doesn’t take in immediately. Such as placing the reflective surface at the proper angle so that the setting sun shows up correctly on the surface. The cloud generation system must be at peak efficiency to produce the proper amount of cloud material at the time the sun is setting. This means maintaining an incredible timing system. You don’t run that on a Timex. Also the surface of the water must be properly prepared and correct filters and coatings maintained in the proper combination so the colors are even more intense in the reflection than in the sky.

Doing all this is hard, like Chinese arithmetic, or trying to figure out what was going on in Jane Fonda’s head when she toured North Viet Nam. Hard, really hard. Our usual spot to see if this function is working is that gentle bend in the Madison river just a little ways above the log jam not far from seven mile bridge. The only way to observe this phenomenon is to be there about 9:00 at night near the end of May. That’s it. You pull up at the parking area, get out, walk down to the shore with your clipboard and check off ‘Yes’ on the line item, “Reflectivity On: Yes or No”. That’s all there is to it. We’ve been doing these inspections for many years now  and never, ever have we had to check the ‘No’ box. Well that’s not exactly true. There have been the few times when the cloud generator went completely nuts and produced way too many clouds and even rain storms but then the park staff sets up a roadside notification saying “Reflectivity is turned off for a short time. This is not a permanent problem. Please be patient. Reflectivity will be restored momentarily.  We have had to send to Bozeman for a new O-ring for the cloud generator and expect it to be back on-line before Jeopardy is over. Thank you for your understanding.” That only happened to us once so we can’t really count it as a common problem.

All of the while we were evaluating this situation and remarking on how reflective this reflectivity actually was, only two other cars pulled up to join us. They were really nice people. They were from out of town, some urban area or other and set up portable lawn chairs and drank wine. Pretty good wine too, out of bottle not the boxed stuff you get at Value Jug for 3 bucks a box, which tells us that the person who seeks out reflectivity is just a skoshy bit more cosmopolitan than the average slam-bam, “I can do the park in an hour and fifteen minutes” kind of visitor. We liked these people.  At times like this you fall into quiet conversations about life and beauty and how you don’t really care for Jeopardy reruns. They seemed surprised that there is an organization like The Institute with its modest but incredible Director, that cares so much about places like Yellowstone National Park that we would take it on ourselves to make these inspection trips and publish the results for the public at large to see. We allowed that we were glad too.

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.




Into The Darkness



Sometimes wolves go off on their own. Perhaps they just get tired of being in the pack and want some solitude. Earlier this morning the pack had been feeding on an elk cow they brought down on the Cascade Creek drainage here in Yellowstone a few days ago, and there was the usual melee of pushing and shoving, snarling and snapping as all the of the pack members fought to get their share. The kill was fresh and everyone ate their fill. Even the youngest were stuffed. It wasn’t long until the carcass was reduced to a pile of bones and wolf bellies were bulging.

The wolves began to drift apart, singly and in pairs. The younger wolves chased each other and played, burning off the energy that is a constant state for them. The older ones moved off to find a spot to curl up and sleep. This wolf, not ready to sleep and not in the mood to play with the younger wolves, began to prowl around the area checking  for intruders. A grizzly had been in on the kill the night before and the pack was nervous as they fed. Grizzlies don’t pose much of a threat to the wolves as they can maneuver away from them and even chase the grizzly off if they’re determined enough. But they don’t want the confrontation if they can avoid it.

The valley this black wolf is looking into is prime grizzly country. It’s deep and full of brush, trees and large boulders, just the place a well fed bear would hole up. The wolf’s body language says he’s not alarmed or at least hasn’t caught any scent from the bear yet but he’s carefully watching for the slightest movement. Magpies lifting, brush moving when there’s no wind, any telltale signs that the grizzly has decided to come back and feed again. All appears to be quiet so he may lie down here to keep watch, even catch a little nap himself.

Quiet times like this are rare in the wolves life. Carefully looking into the darkness at the bottom of the ravine and feeling at ease, it’s time for a rest. Soon enough it’ll be time to hunt again.