June 12–20, 2012
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.
The 2012 Yellowstone Ecology Institute has come to an end. What began as a trip to renew the creative spirit and learn about the unique environments and connections among ecology, geology, and natural resources of the world’s first national park became a powerful experience that has forever inspired the lifelong learner and teacher in each of us. Yellowstone National Park awakened our senses in a multitude of ways.
We felt the deep vibrations of the earth beneath us at Black Sands Pool; the frosty morning air on our fingertips while watching wolves just after sunrise; the soft tufts of bison fur clinging to tree bark; and the surprisingly cool water that drifted in the air from nearby geysers after they had erupted.
We smelled the sulfur odors from various thermal features in the park: the fumaroles, geyers, hot springs and mudpots; detected the unique odor of a nearby black bear and her two cubs before actually seeing her; and the familiar smell of coffee after chilly early morning trips to Lamar Valley.
We sensed how sweet the white clover flowers tasted to the golden mantled ground squirrel that we observed just beyond the Morning Glory hot spring; sampled the variety of huckleberry foodstuffs and drinks found all across northwestern Wyoming and southern Montana; and a handful of us experienced what droplets of geyser water from Old Faithful tasted like as we were unexpectedly rained upon by it’s air-cooled water drifting in the wind.
We heard the bubbling mudpots as gas bubbles rose up and bursted before our eyes; the rush of water escaping from Old Faithful in the quiet of a bright morning; the barking of a coyote in the Little America area of the park; the trill of the chorus frog at Floating Island Lake; and the hauntingly beautiful call of majestic sandhill cranes.
We saw the vivid colors of a rainbow at Grand Prismatic hot spring; the different rock textures and geologic patterns in the mountains around us; the speed of a pronghorn running through the valley; the strength of spawning of cutthroat trout struggling against a swift stream current; the fluffiness of two young owls and the huge eyes of the Great Gray owl mother protecting them nearby; the impressive scale of a bison herd as hundreds of bison crossed the park road in front of our vehicles; and the mural of colors in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River.
Yellowstone National Park has linked our understanding of the internal workings of our planet to the dramatic thermal features, the dynamic shifts of wildlife populations and behavior, and the rocks and plants that blanket the landscape. Our childlike sense of wonder at this stunning and unspoiled territory has reinvigorated the teacher in each of us, providing us with the knowledge to explain to others how the ecological connections, geological history, and cycles of life apply to our experiences in North Carolina and beyond. Nature and wilderness are as essential to our survival as are water and air, and our direct experience of this will shape our understanding of the planet we live upon, and our place in the grand web of life.
By Meg, Meghan and Blair
One of our participants, Cindy, said how we are all feeling about the blessing called Yellowstone. She said, “We’ve been so separated from nature that when we do get to experience its wildness, it becomes magical to us.”
Today, our magic was geological as we witnessed the power and beauty of the geysers, fumaroles, hot springs, and mudpots that not only shaped Yellowstone, but also were the inspiration for the creation of the world’s first national park. The magic of the geysers, the mountains, the panoramic vistas, and the diversity of wildlife roaming freely is the magic of Yellowstone.
But there is more to this story: Yellowstone wants us to know something. We, too, are magical in our own way. We are as majestic and magical as Yellowstone. She knows this and is waiting for us to know, too. In her wisdom, she patiently waits, true to her timeless nature.
By Rowan, Ami, and Joyce
We had a great view of white pelicans this morning at Pelican Creek. We watched as they fed in synchronicity. White pelicans will sometimes encircle fish and feed on them, a very different strategy from our diving North Carolina brown pelicans. Afterward we stopped at Fishing Bridge where hundreds of anglers used to line the bridge, catching large numbers of cutthroat trout. Thankfully, this practice has stopped due to the diminishing numbers of cutthroat trout. At Isa Lake, which lies on the continental divide, Mike grabbed (and released) one of the huge leeches swimming in the lake so we could get an up close view.
We then trekked to Black Sand Pool, where we felt the earth rumbling beneath us, as the hot spring released intense waves of bubbles. Our group paused there for several minutes, lying on the warm obsidian sand as we contemplated the power of the earth.
Ranger Rita Garcia provided our group with an excellent interpretive walk in the Upper Geyser Basin. We were warned of the importance of staying on the boardwalk as several bison have met their demise in some of the hot springs, where their bones lie today. The highlight of our day was Old Faithful, erupting not once, but twice, while we were out on our walk. A few of us were sprayed with Old Faithful’s water as it blew over us in the strong winds.
We end our day in one of the most historic structures in Yellowstone, the Old Faithful Inn. Phenomenal!
By Pam. Cindy, and Lou
This morning we slept in and left at 7. We all became a little more human and had coffee before hitting the road. We weren’t five minutes from Roosevelt when we saw a black bear cub climbing down a tree.
At the Narrows, we learned about geology from Melissa and made a timeline of the geologic history of Yellowstone. As we climbed in elevations the temperature dropped — the wind chill was 44 – and we were all scrambling for our fleeces and wool. On the slopes of Mount Washburn we saw evidence of the 1988 fires and the regeneration of the lodgepole pine forest. During Meg’s expert topic we learned that about 1/3 of the park burned in those fires, and Pam talked about the fire dependence of the lodgepole pine community — the serotinous cones require heat in order to open. Studies have shown that large fires like this occur about every 100 years.
The group was amazed at the power and beauty of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. We snapped tons of pictures! The varied colors in the canyon — pink, white, yellow, and orange – are caused by hydrothermal alteration of the rock, making it weak and easily eroded.
Our next stop was Mud Volcano, our first taste (and smell) of the hydrothermal features in the southern half of the Park. Dragon’s Mouth Spring is aptly named because from a gaping hole in the rock, you hear a thumping roar and watch clouds of steam billow forth. The gases from deep in the earth heat the water and cause waves to roll out of the spring.
Before pulling into the Lake Hotel, we stopped at LeHardy Rapids, known for its harlequin ducks and leaping cutthroat trout on their spawning run.
The elegance and timelessness of Lake Hotel were enhanced by a power outage caused by 25 mile per hour winds. We dined by candlelight, served by waiters with headlamps. The perfect ending to a day in Yellowstone.
It all started with Ranger Rick, the wolf specialist and the black yearling wolf of the Mollie’s pack. The wolf munched lazily on an old bison carcass as Rick described the wolf family tree to our group. We stopped at the Lamar River to check on 2 known baby great horned owl chicks in a nest. All was well with the owls, so we moved on to look for moose. Mike told us to look carefully for moose as we drove to Cooke City…suddenly we heard Lou exclaim “Moose, Moose, Moose!” He had seen a bull and cow moose in the creek, but the bull moved into the woods and the rest of us only saw the cow. “Such a strange and beautifully ugly animal,” someone said. Phew, and it was still only 10:30 a.m.
After a pit stop and photos of a big bison munching on dandelions in someone’s yard, we moved on to find mountain goats. In the tall cliffs we found 8 of these shaggy creatures. It’s hard to believe that anything could live on those steep, rocky slopes.
A wolf decided to grace our presence upon our return to Lamar and after we lost sight of him we moved down into the valley for a bison study. We spent time watching a herd of about 250 bison and learned how to tell male for female and young from old. We hiked up to Trout Lake to find cutthroat trout spawning. The hike was spectacular. We watched the trout run upstream in a shallow creek with a strong current. We also encountered a few garter snakes, mountain chickadees and a Barrow’s goldeneye duck.
Next we encountered a bear jam and found ourselves photographing a cinnamon colored black bear along the roadside mere minutes after watching a fox saunter down the road toward our vans. We headed out to find the owl nest once again. We were overcome with awe as we witnessed one little owl fledge from his hillside nest, flapping his stubby wings as he angled toward the ground. The sun began to set as we rode home. Returning early was not an option as over 600 bison crossed the road in front of us. This spectacular day ended with big smiles and a glowing sunset in Yellowstone.
By Meghan, Meg, and Blair
Raising families isn’t easy. There are challenges that must be overcome all the time. It’s a tenuous connection within the circle of life, too. Our team has been blessed to witness the wonders of nature’s families and the challenges they must overcome to survive.
Spending the day with Dan Hartman, a renowned naturalist and photographer, deepened our understanding of the inter-connectiveness of life. His passion for the preservation of all life energized our perspective and dedication to do the same upon our return to North Carolina. We renewed our awareness that our lives are not that much different than the wildlife of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which he works so hard to protect. Over the past few days, we witnessed a variety of family connections as we encountered a mother black bear and her two playful cubs during a hike, and then we marveled at the responsibility of a badger parent to make sure she took care of her litter.
Today reinforced this concept, as we witnessed the family dynamics of a Great Gray Owl family and the struggles the mother and her two chicks face every day. Then while traveling through snow-covered Beartooth wilderness, we were thrilled to watch a red fox hunt for food for its family. Shouts of glee rang through our vans as the fox stalked many rodents, lept into the air, and then plunged nose first into the snow to capture its prey.
Spending the day with Dan Hartman renewed our perspective about the circle of life.
By Rowan, Ami, and Joyce
Just when you think it can’t get any better, it does! We had an early departure from Mammoth to Lamar Valley. Upon arriving, we noticed a strange coexistence between predator and prey. Wolves and coyotes intermingled with the bison and pronghorn; who were tolerant yet wary. Family life was also very apparent as coyote pups and bison calves nursed. Both black and grizzly bears with cubs dotted the high meadows.
The highlight of our afternoon hike was when we stumbled upon a set of young badgers in their burrow. One peeked out, with curiosity, to pose for great photos. Just when we thought it could not get any better, momma badger came home with a freshly killed ground squirrel to feed to her young.
The day was also filled with incredible bird life. From the majesty of the bald eagle, to the sweet songs of the warbling vireos, birds filled the air and valley. The morning was highlighted with an assortment of waterfowl, including eared grebes, cinnamon teal, and the “daffy-duck” like ruddy duck. After seeing the mountain bluebird and the western tanager, our leader Melissa Dowland elaborated on a quote by Thoreau: If the bluebird carries the sky on its back, the tanager carries the sun.
By Lou, Cindy, and Pam