June 13–21, 2013
The Yellowstone Institute is part of the Museum’s Educators of Excellence Program, which strives to provide exceptional educators with staff development opportunities that transform the way they view and teach natural sciences. The Yellowstone Institute provides a unique opportunity for educators to learn about wildlife, geology, and conservation in America’s first national park.
Today was our final trip through Lamar Valley. Although it was an optional trip, everyone wanted to go. Lamar is full of bison, deer, elk, and pronghorn, who are most active in the morning. So we all piled in the car at 5am with binoculars in hand.
Our first sighting was a black bear sitting in the dawn of the day. As we drove further we saw a spectacular sunrise. Next, we encountered pronghorn fighting and wondered if they were playing or really fighting. We drove up and back through the valley keeping our eyes peeled for wildlife and were excited to finally see a bull moose munching on willow.
As we traveled one last time through this awe inspiring place, we all sat in silence contemplating on how fortunate we were to be involved in the Yellowstone Institute.
On the plane ride home we reflected on the tracks Yellowstone has left on our souls, just like the tracks we saw throughout the park.
“Then, with a fresh heart, go down to your work…and look back with joy to your wanderings in the blessed old Yellowstone wonderland.” John Muir
Despite hiking through freezing rain we discovered the scalding hot thermal features of the Upper, Midway, and Lower Geyser Basin. Some of our favorites were Old Faithful, Daisy, and Grand Prismatic. Park Ranger Rita Garcia explained that even though the four different thermal features vary in shape, size, and color, they are all caused by the superheating of water by magma. Using the estimated geyser eruption times we observed two out of three geysers. We saw Old Faithful and Daisy, but Riverside did not follow estimated predictions. At the end of Daisy’s eruption she makes a sound like a steam engine train. While walking through the Upper Geyser Basin we saw two coyotes carefully walking around a thermal feature. We traveled to Black Sand Basin to observe Black Sand Pool. We all lay down on the ground to feel the thumping of the Earth below us as bubbles rose in Black Sand Pool after each thump. The group was treated to a rare sighting of the sagebrush lizard, the ONLY lizard found in Yellowstone. At Midway Geyser Basin we hiked up a hill to get a bird’s eye view of the beautiful and colorful Grand Prismatic. We traveled to the Lower Geyser Basin to observe the “plop, plop” and bubbles of the mud pots. After leaving the thermal basin we started our drive back towards Mammoth.
Along the way we stopped at Gibbon Falls to view the beautiful waterfall. We spotted an American dipper fledging in the Gibbon River near a bridge. We waited for its mother to come feed it, but she was waiting for us to leave. The group made a quick getaway as a herd of Bison came walking down the road. As we passed the Obsidian Cliff, we listened to an expert topic about obsidian. We returned to Mammoth and had our final group meeting on the hillside overlooking the beautiful Gardner Canyon. The group was treated to a rare sighting of five bighorn sheep on the crest of the Gardner cliffs. We all realized how hard it will be to leave this amazing place called Yellowstone, and our newfound friends.
On our journey from Yellowstone Lake south to Old Faithful, we stopped to hike the Pelican Creek Nature trail. We hiked to the lake and took some time to sit along the beach, observe our surroundings, and reflect on what we have seen and learned thus far. While taking in our beautiful surroundings, Melissa shared nature journaling activities with us. After finding a quiet spot, we each wrote poems, drew pictures, made watercolor paintings, or took photographs. We would like to give you a glimpse of a reflective activity that we have done on the trip. You can do the following activity anywhere outdoors, even in your own backyard.
1) Choose a special site where you can sit outdoors comfortably and think. You should bring some paper and pencils or art supplies outside with you.
2) Find your best view of your special site and sketch it, or draw/paint it if you choose.
3) Look around you. What do you see that is beautiful?
4) Close your eyes and listen. Write down the sounds you hear.
5) Take a deep breath. Can you smell the trees? The water? Write down words to describe what you smell.
6) How do your surroundings make you feel? Take a moment to immerse yourself in your surroundings.
After observing your special site, write a poem, draw a picture or maybe even make a painting that reflects your observations.
Our afternoon involved the smells of Yellowstone combined with a rainbow of colors. Today’s stop at West Thumb involved less noxious fumes than yesterday’s stop at the mud volcano, which was very sulfuric. West Thumb Geyser basin contained small, steaming pools of crystal clear blue waters with temperatures above 150 degrees. The darker, green-tinted springs had temperatures of around 125 degrees. The color difference is attributed to different types of microorganisms that can live at specific high temperatures. Organisms that can live in extreme habitats (high temperatures or high acidity) are called extremophiles.
The highest of our evening was seeing the eruption of Old Faithful with thousands of other onlooking tourists. We are looking forward to touring the geyser basin with a park ranger early tomorrow morning before the crowds emerge.
Throughout our journey through the park, we have observed plants and animals that are highly adapted to the climate and geology of Yellowstone. The uniqueness of this amazing place continues to inspire us to educate our students to protect and preserve nature for future generations.
Inspire. Educate. Preserve.
Our last safari through the Lamar Valley began at dawn. We weren’t disappointed. Herds of bison had charged downhill the previous evening. Here in the softer grass they had begun to breakfast. We said goodbye to moose and black bear.
Then we went south into the canyon and deep into geologic time. From the Mount Washburn overlook, we fit the puzzle pieces of rock type and rock formation processes that make up Yellowstone. Below us lay evidence of the catastrophic explosion that helped shape the park, and set the state for the creation of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and its famous overlook Artist Point. There we had an impromptu art lesson and each painted our own view of the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone, a site immortalized by painters since the 19th century.
We then descended into the sulphurous bubblings of Dragon’s Mouth Spring in the Mud Volcano area. En route we walked paths lined with spring beauty, white phlox, and other western wildflowers with North Carolina counterparts, blooming in what was once the scorched earth of the infamous wildfires of the summer of 1988 — fires that were not destructive, but rather the source of new life.
Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.
Every day seems to have its own theme and today’s seems to be mothers and babies. We saw our coyote and her babies playing again outside their den on the mountain slope. The spirit of their play energized us. On a hike above Cooke City we discovered a great gray owl sitting with her chick high up in an aspen tree. She radiated serenity and patience as she waited for her mate to bring food for the chick. We were told that she leaves the nest for only about twenty minutes a day to wash and feed herself. One trekker compared her to a reformation era Madonna with child. She reminded us of the ultimate mother. Later that day while hiking in the Beartooth Mountains, we encountered a group of mountain goats with several kids. The young goats jumped and hopped along, seemingly at ease high up on the mountain. A fellow hiker told us that golden eagles will intentionally swoop down and knock the kids off the cliffs, then fly down and pick up the carcass and return to their nest to feed their chicks. Again, nature tells us that one mother’s loss is another mother’s gain. A highlight of our evening was sharing our scopes with a young family on vacation. The human children thrilled us with their eagerness and enthusiasm about Yellowstone and its incredible wildlife. The human parents patiently kept them close and off the highway.
Of course, we encountered some single animals during the day; at Slough Creek we watched in amazement as a bull bison head-butted another bull off a bluff and into the creek. The bigger bull stood his ground for a long time watching as the loser plodded off dejectedly. We also watched a male pine marten run in and out of his hollowed out tree stump. We observed marmots and pikas scamper in and out of the rock ledges in the Beartooth Mountains. However, nothing compared to the thrill of seeing a female gray wolf run across the road in front of our vans. She stopped not far away from us, discovered an old piece of meat, and had a snack. Then she loped back across the road towards the river. What an incredible day with the wildlife of Lamar Valley and the Beartooth Mountains, both families and loners.