June 15-23, 2016
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. Follow our journey through Yellowstone’s landscape by reading our blog posts and visiting our photo gallery.
Yellowstone Geyser Basin — “the place where the center of the earth finds an exit and gives us a glimpse of its soul” ~Anne Koe
Yellowstone is home to the world’s largest collection of geysers (more than 900!) as well as hot springs, fumaroles, and mudpots for a total of more than 10,000 geothermal features. Today we were able to witness the vastness of the Upper, Middle, and Lower Geyser Basins. The Upper Geyser Basin holds the majority of the world’s active geysers, including Old Faithful, Beehive, and Grand. It was amazing to both feel in ourselves and to witness the “child-like wonder” in those around us. We met with Ranger Rebecca who was so fun and incredibly knowledgeable about the geysers of the Upper Basin. We went to Blacksand Pool (also known as “Thumper”) and felt the ground “thump” beneath us as steam bubbled up from within the ground and exited through the pool. Then we saw the paint pots and mudpots. It was an amazing and awe-inspiring last day.
We had our final group meeting on a mountaintop overlooking the beauty of the valleys and peaks surrounding Mammoth Springs. We reflected on regrets, challenges, goals, and achievements. This week, surrounded by our nation’s greatest treasure, has been a week of personal valleys and peaks, challenges and successes. We have seen the geysers spew hundreds of gallons of water in a matter of minutes, the colorful prismatic pools, the blue of the mountain bluebird, majestic mountains, the colors of the wildflowers, and the sense of awe in the eyes of our neighbors. We have heard the swishing of the waterfalls, the howl of the coyote and wolf, and the grunting of the bison. We have felt the love of nature and sense of pride in this great land bubble up from our souls. The sense of urgency for conservation has been awakened within us. We have been asked over and over, why should we fight for this land to continue to be protected and safe. Why is this park important to us and the generations to come? This land is truly our land. It is an inheritance from those who decided decades ago it was a treasure, and decided to protect it. We have so much to learn from the geography, wildlife, and vegetation that springs up from this wild land. As a “civilized society” we have forgotten the value of being in nature, and the healing and restorative powers it holds. Our children spend less time outdoors than ever before and we are reaping the consequences. Our children need the wild. They need to feel the breeze on their faces, run in wide open spaces, dig deep in the dirt, and climb to the highest heights. Let them get scraped knees and pick up slimy frogs. They need to explore the land and learn from it. To experiment, be wild, take risks, and find answers to their questions through the power of direct experience. Nature provides all of this. As parents and educators it is our job to give them the gift of nature.
So as we leave the mountaintop and go back to the civilized world, we will take the heart of Yellowstone with us. We will carry the beauty of what we have seen and the restoration it has provided back to our homes and schools. Because as John Muir said:
Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike… Let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life.
Most people would think that our trip had ended as we pulled into Bozeman to board our flight home. But it didn’t. This trip is something each of us will experience for the rest of our lives. We were all deeply touched by the scenic views, geological wonders, and majestic wildlife. We developed new friendships, developed a greater love for wildlife and are leaving with a newly minted respect for Yellowstone.
As we departed Yellowstone there was a very profound sense of belonging. We joked as we drove back to Mammoth for our final night that we were coming home. Funny thing is, Yellowstone really is our home. It belongs to every single one of us. The need to preserve these wonderful 2.2 million acres is something everyone who visits understands. It allows each person who enters the park to have a common bond. It is a place where we all have a sense of belonging regardless of our age, race, gender, socioeconomic status or even wilderness knowledge. Our group of 12 teachers and two leaders are a testament to this common bond. We all experienced the park together but were each able to take away something unique and profound that we can store in our hearts until our final breaths. Whether it was watching the geysers, hearing the howls of a coyote pack, the graceful nature of the elk, the elusiveness of the wolves, the adorableness (probably not a word!) of the momma bear and her cubs, or the love and adoration we have developed for new friends, the park spoke to all of us.
To sum it up, this is a wonderful place. A wonderful world for all of us to see. A place with spirit.
Per our group meeting tradition of sharing quotes, we leave you with this:
Before leaving Yellowstone I feel that a word is in order regarding what I like to term the spirit of the place. With all due respect to other national parks, there is a spirit here that is found nowhere else. It is a spirit born of tradition. Started, perhaps, by the old-time stage drivers that swung their teams over the early roads, or by the guides of forty years ago who originated tall tales of the park phenomena, it is carried on season after season.
Close your eyes and imagine a world with no trees, no wildlife, and no natural beauty. We are fortunate that this is not our reality. The National Park System belongs to us and it’s important for us to keep our eyes open to all that is around us because if you blink, you’re going to miss it.
For seven days we’ve kept our eyes wide open from 5 am until 10 pm taking in all that Yellowstone has to offer. Have you ever seen the pouch of a white pelican wobble in the morning? What about a pine marten running through lodgepole pines at Pelican Creek? Most people haven’t. Not only because they aren’t truly looking for the small treasures within the park, but also because they aren’t aware of the natural beauty that can be found in our own backyards. This morning our group had the privilege of experiencing some of these moments.
As we approached the Continental Divide, we never would’ve anticipated the surprises that lurked below the lily pads in Isa Lake. From leeches to caddisfly larvae and, most impressively, the red feathery gills of a blotched tiger salamander larva, we explored the unseen wonders that so many people simply drive by.
Many people also do not realize the geological processes that are constantly rumbling below our feet. Today we gained new insight into the thermal activity and power that exists within Yellowstone. From the West Thumb Geyser Basin to the world-famous Old Faithful, we discovered how much more exists in our world that so many know nothing about. Within 60 minutes of our arrival at the historic Old Faithful Inn, we observed the reliable Old Faithful geyser, as well as the lesser-known, but more impressive, Beehive and Grand geysers. Some of the less popular geysers like Beehive and Grand are phenomena that the millions of tourists that visit here each year typically do not see. Why is that?
You may have read recently about tragedies occurring within the national parks. Today, we spoke with ranger Ali at the West Thumb geyser basin and she reminded us of how many great and wonderful experiences people have each day. The looks on children’s faces when watching a geyser explode and the adults ooooohhing and aaahhhhing as Old Faithful erupts prove that Yellowstone and all of our national parks have so much more than tragedy to offer. On the National Park System’s 100-year anniversary, it’s important to remember that these places belong to all of us. We must take advantage of the opportunities we have been given and explore them with our eyes wide open and our senses awakened. As we prepare for our final day in this amazing place, we will remind ourselves of what is truly important in life. We may be tired, but so much still awaits us. And after all, we can sleep when we’re dead.
Following in the footsteps of Thomas Moran, a painter who helped to encourage Congress to establish Yellowstone as a National Park through his beautiful artistic documentation of the landscape, we spent the day observing the many colors of Yellowstone.
Yellow: our morning started at 4:30 am with a drive through Lamar Valley when we decided to take a moment to observe the beauty of the nearly full Moon. The bright yellow Moon hung in the sky, reflecting in the river, as the coyotes howled in the distance.
Orange: as the Moon was setting, the Sun was rising setting the sky ablaze with oranges and pink. We watched as the sunrise unfolded before us, changing every minute and taking our breath away.
Red: we soon hiked up to Trout Lake and observed the Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout. Their name comes from the brilliant red marking on their throat. We observed as the trout spawned in the creek at Trout Lake.
Purple: continuing on to the Mt. Washburn overlook, Melissa treated us with an activity and lesson on the geology of the park. The short hike was dotted with many wildflowers and our curiosity led us to a purple flower. Through observations we determined the deep violet, bell shaped flower was a leather bowl wildflower.
Brown: our journey then took us to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Megan led us through a watercolor tutorial to aid us in capturing the majestic beauty of the canyon. Shades of brown were prominent in the rocks carved by glaciers thousands of years ago, and with Megan’s help we created our own paintings of the canyon.
Green: leaving the canyon we entered into the heart of Hayden Valley. The vibrant green grasses and sagebrush enveloped three bull elks whose antlers were in velvet. We learned the elks’ antlers can grow at a rate of 2 inches a day. The elks’ gorgeous brown coat stood out against the vivid green landscape.
Blue: venturing further into the valley, we stopped along the Yellowstone River to observe the many species of birds and waterfowl. Clear, deep blue waters helped us to spot ducks such as scaup, mallards, cinnamon teals, and green-winged teals. A highlight from this location was spotting a bald eagle soaring through the clear blue sky.
White: our day came to a close visiting the mud volcanoes. We were greeted at Dragons’ Mouth Spring with a deep gurgling sound and plumes of white steam billowing out from the Earth. We took the time to appreciate the rarity of these thermal features present in our world.
Enjoying the many diverse colors of the park helped us to reflect and appreciate the beauty and wonder of Yellowstone.
Today (Sunday) was FANTASTIC! Our day started with a nice view of a pair of coyotes meandering through a big herd of bison, seeming to tease them a bit. Afterwards, we took our time watching the bison calves, mothers, yearlings, and big bulls graze the Lamar Valley. We loved their social, and at times, hilarious behavior. Then we shared and discussed some of our research about brucellosis, a disease that bison can carry that is transmittable to cattle, making it important for the Park and nearby private ranchers to work together. Of course, as we were enjoying the scenery and a teachable moment, we were interrupted by the appearance of a large female grizzly and her cubs on the high hills across the valley. Bear sightings always trump any kind of conversation!!! From there, we drove up to the town of Silver Gate for breakfast.
After breakfast we headed back down to the park for an afternoon of quiet moments and personal reflection along a rocky creek. Just after we packed up and started for our next location, the grizzly made another appearance – so of COURSE we stopped for that!
Thus far we are about halfway through our trip in the most beautiful part of our country. We’ve put in a few 17 hour days operating on 4 hours of sleep, but it’s ALL WORTH IT! The sound of the wolves howling, the sight of nesting owls, the view of the Lamar Valley at sunrise, and being able to avoid “tourist” crowds are all reasons to be up and exploring before dawn. We promise, you eventually will get your coffee or tea… But for now, let the sounds of this vast wilderness and the amazing wildlife which reside here be your caffeine.
If you are planning to tour Yellowstone with the museum or on your own, here are some helpful tips to get you prepared:
1. Practice squats! Some of the trails will give you a serious workout, especially if you’re not an avid hiker. In addition, using the bathroom in the wilderness or even at a smelly pit toilet requires some quad muscles. So get to the wall and start sitting.
2. Ask questions! Not only is this a great way to learn from our amazing knowledgeable leaders, but it also allows you to get a nice break on an uphill trek.
3. Talk to strangers: people who are already looking through binoculars and spotting scopes when you drive up have the inside scoop! And you never know when you might need a friend to help you find the grizzly or the wolves on the big landscape!
4. Get used to the smell of rotten eggs of you plan to visit the geyser basins. Enjoy the sweet smell of hydrogen sulfide gas and let it remind you of our incredible planet and its powerful geothermal forces!
5. Leave no trace: Become familiar with and comfortable with Leaving No Trace; a set of principles to follow when in nature and traveling. Take NOTHING! LEAVE nothing! From trash to an apple core, we want to leave the environment and this park exactly the way it is. The ecosystem in Yellowstone can be very fragile. You may not think that banana peel is a big deal – but it is.
6. Drink plenty of water! In a dry climate at high altitude dehydration can be a serious problem, especially because medical assistance can be a long drive away.
8. Have a set – yet flexible – schedule: When you come to Yellowstone, you want to make sure you know where you want to spend your time. However, if a wolf or a grizzly make an appearance (or a mountain lion *fingers crossed*) you will want to be flexible enough to stop and appreciate the beauty of these majestic animals regardless of your plans.
9. Get used to functioning on 4 hours of sleep. But even if you’re tired, this wilderness will wake your soul right up!
10. Be on time, Be open minded, have patience, and speak up! – Yellowstone is a huge place and there is a lot to see. Some people like to watch the bison graze, some like to travel the road looking for the unexpected, and others will happily sit and wait HOURS for a wolf or grizzly to appear as a glorified dot on your spotting scope for 30 seconds! In other words, be patient and understanding the people you are traveling with because everyone wants something different from the park. With that said, if there something you need or want, you should voice it! This is your world to see.!
One of our traditions is to end our days with a group quote, so that’s how we’re going to end this blog post…
“We can’t control the wind, we can only adjust our sails.”
Our internet has been spotty – sorry, no pictures this time!
Today was a 17-hour day in the field! It was filled with many wonderful things, but we’ve chosen our very favorite moments to share with you.
5 a.m the day begins! While you were sleeping all snug and cozy in bed, the animals that live in the wild were up, alert, and active. As we cruised through Little America, bison were grazing in the meadow, ravens were flying, and feeding on a day-old carcass. The alpha wolf of the Blacktail wolf pack joined in on the feeding activity. Farther down in Slough Creek, two wolf pups were already frolicking outside their den as the sun began to rise.
During the middle of the day, we traveled up the Beartooth Highway, winding through valleys and switchbacks. The views were magnificent. On the way up we spotted a nest – it was a great horned owl and her baby chick! We kept on, making it up to the “Top of the World.” The wind almost blew us off the mountain! But the snowy peaks, gorgeous views, and tiny mountain flowers were worth it all!
In the evening, wildlife photographer Dan Hartman took us on an off-trail hike. Winding through tall grass, wildflowers, trees, and more, we arrived at a beautiful great gray owl nest. As we were setting up to view the owls, a black bear was spotted in the distance. Toggling between watching one animal and then the other, we were able to appreciate the beauty of both the owl and the bear.
We hope our words and pictures give you a hint of what a full day in Yellowstone is like.
It was a misty morning on Blacktail Pond, the sun was rising, somewhere around 5:30 am. The water was warm, the air was cold, and the mist enveloped us. My wife and I looked up to notice the humanity alongside the road. Our loud neighbors, the Canada Geese and the Ruddy Ducks were splashing about as the humans exclaimed, “Look! I see two Sandhill Cranes!” That’s when we realized that they were observing our every move through their scopes. They lingered for a little while and then were on their way.
There I was, minding my own business along the banks of Elk Creek, munching on my favorite flowers when two van loads of humans started a bear jam. What’s a bear jam you ask? It’s when all of the people stop dead their tracks, cars lining the street and causing traffic, to see me in my cinnamon-colored glory. I could charge at them and cause some serious damage, but they respected my space and remained at least 100 yards away. They even backed up as I moved towards them. I noticed that they were taking my picture, and I tried to smile, but my butt was itchy, so I had to stop and scratch along a log. That seemed to send them on their way.
Here we were, my brothers, sisters and me, all snuggled in our den overlooking Slough Creek. We peeked our heads out of the den to see what was happening. We noticed people were everywhere with their scopes checking us out. We’re pretty sure that we saw that biologist lady, Kira Cassidy, who put those radio collars around our family members’ necks (apparently, they really need to know where we are at all times). We also remember one time when dad came home pretty groggy and missing a whisker. He told us that the scientists use darts filled with a sedative in order to do some tests and learn more about us. They take the whisker to study our diets. We couldn’t believe that they could learn so much from such a little piece of us. We decided it was time to make an appearance and step outside into the sun. I was easily spotted because of my dark color, but my sister was able to hide because she’s gray and blended in with the ground around us. The adults in the Slough Creek pack took off to explore the area. We heard a rumor that one of them spotted some Bighorn Sheep and chased them for a bit. We guess he was testing them to see if they could be dinner (but I like elk better). After a few hours we all decided it was time to rest, which I guess was boring for Kira and her friends because we noticed that they packed up and left.
Today was an exciting day. We were minding our own business, out for a stroll along the hills over Slough Creek when one of those wolves decided to encroach on our territory. Our family stuck together and started running. The chase lasted for a bit, but we’re pretty sure that he knew he was no match for us. We know these hills and are able to outrun those wolves on this rocky terrain. He gave up and wandered away to find a new adventure.
The Circle of Life
Last night, while those crazy teachers from North Carolina were sleeping, other people were still out driving. It was so dark outside and suddenly I looked up to see two bright lights coming at me. I tried to move out of the way, but couldn’t move fast enough. Before I knew it, I was on the ground and rangers were helping me get to a safer resting place. I know I’m not the first bison this has happened to, and I won’t be the last, but hopefully the humans will watch out for my brothers and sisters in the future. As I drew my last breath, I realized that my death would serve a purpose for the many other species living in Yellowstone. The ravens would be able to feed their young, the coyotes would not starve, and perhaps a grizzly will enjoy a tasty meal.
Uinta Ground Squirrels
What a happy day! My siblings and I were running free in the meadows along the Specimen Ridge Trail. We love to nibble on the wildflowers that grow freely above our systems of tunnels below the ground. When we went for lunch today, we found a group of very kind teachers sitting amongst our food. They seemed to be studying and learning about the flowers in our neighborhood. We didn’t mind because there was so much to go around and they really seemed interested in what they were doing. After a little while, they continued on their hike and I’m pretty sure that they ran into a few more of my relatives farther along down the trail.