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Pikas and Prairie Smoke

June 20, 2017

Our day began at Hellroaring Trailhead where we met Youth Conservation Corps Educator and Yellowstone Park Ranger Matt Ohlen. He led our group in a citizen science survey of pikas at Floating Island Lake. Pikas are members of the rabbit family and are tailless, small, grey mammals with short round ears. Their habitat is rocky talus slopes at higher elevations.

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Conducting a pika survey – we were stationed around the base of a large talus slope.

One way to know pikas are present is by finding their small, spherical scat, which sticks together to form “towers,” and haystacks, which are piles of vegetation that they make as a means of saving food for winter. Studying pikas is important because they are indicators of climate change. Pikas have a normal body temperature near 102 degrees Fahrenheit, and only a few degrees increase in their body heat can be lethal for them, so they are particularly sensitive to increasing environmental temperatures.

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A pika “haystack” – a pile of grasses and plant material stashed for later use.

After a picnic lunch at Yellowstone River Picnic Trail, the group hiked up to a mountainside field of wildflowers to investigate the native flora. We studied the sticky geranium, death camas, arrowleaf balsamroot, and prairie smoke. During the 3.5-mile hike we observed a red fox, marmots, an osprey in a nest on a rock spire, a badger, and several native bird species. At the ridgeline above the Yellowstone River, we took time to reflect on a sense of purpose and a connection to our classrooms.

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Observing wildflowers

A Yellowstone acrostic poem:

Yet another day
Exploring the park
Looking at land features
Leaving the daily grind behind
Observing wildlife by
Wandering off the beaten path
Seeing creatures small on the
Talus slope (Where pikas live)
Oh, the humanity distracting from it all
Never wanting to leave this place behind
Endlessly grabbing hearts and minds

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All About Wildlife

June 18, 2017

What a fabulous day! Today was all about wildlife. We observed some of the members of the Prospect Peak wolf pack. Through the spotting scopes we saw one adult wolf and three pups. We had the opportunity to meet and talk with wolf biologist Kira Cassidy who shared her research on wolf behavior and how she collects that data. One interesting fact we learned is how all the adults in the pack work together to take care of the pups. Adult wolves eat their prey, return to the den site, and then regurgitate it for the pups to eat!

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Learning from Kira

Right after observing the wolves we met “Bill the bear man.” Bill is a long-time volunteer bear watcher (he started in the 80’s!) and knows LOTS of information about both grizzlies and black bears in the park. He was gracious enough to let us look through his scope and we were all able to see a grizzly bear!

Our next stop with Kira was to visit the site of a series of active beaver dams and a big lodge along Crystal Creek. Here we learned about the intricate connections between species in the park – a larger wolf population increases predation and decreases the number of elk. With lower numbers of elk, willow trees are better able to regenerate and grow without being eaten. The more willows there are in wetter areas, the better the habitat becomes for beavers, who are the master architects behind many small pools and ponds. By damming creeks and reducing the speed (and sediment load) of water moving through the ecosystem, beavers create ideal habitats for many amphibians such as the boreal toad. And guess what?! We saw a boreal toad today near the beaver dam!

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Beaver dam on Crystal Creek

As we headed away from Crystal Creek, a badger trotted across our path! Following it with our binoculars we were able to see it successfully corner a ground squirrel underground between two holes and the hunt was on! After several minutes of determined and coordinated digging and possible distraction at one hole with his tail, the badger successfully extracted and ate the ground squirrel! What an exciting morning! Then the clock struck 10:00am! Whew!

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Hunting badger!

Throughout the day we not only witnessed wildlife, but we also we shared our experiences and connected with people young and old, from near and far, who were simply enjoying all Yellowstone has to offer. We are also glad we packed our long underwear. June in Yellowstone is a bit cooler than in NC.

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Our group, out it the cool, windy weather, looking in every direction for more wildlife!

As we go to sleep tonight, and throughout this week, we will be reflecting on our conversation with Kira. She reminded us that, though it might sound a bit cliche, the Yellowstone ecosystem (and nature in general) is a bit more complicated than we might want, and it is always changing. But there is great hope in that getting to know animals helps us to build a connection to nature, and maybe even understand ourselves better. After all, we are animals too. Through these connections we begin to understand, and with understanding, we may learn to take better take care of and continue to preserve the world around us.

Today’s the day…

June 17, 2017

Today’s the day. The day we’ve all been eagerly anticipating for months. The day we willingly set our alarm clocks for 2am, drag our duffle bags to the car and drive through the night to the airport. Today we go to Yellowstone. Our eagerness is met with lines. Endless lines. Baggage check, security, boarding, un-boarding, more boarding, more lines. And in the end it’s all worth the wait: worth the o’dark thirty wake up call, worth the lines, worth the lack of sleep, worth the crowded planes. Our first views of Yellowstone are breathtaking. This truly is big sky country. Craggy mountains, snow capped and wild, wildlife at every turn; none of us can stop staring out the windows of our van in rapt attention and wonder at the sights that play out before us. Our team has not even spent 24 hours together, yet we feel a connection… with each other, with this place. We’ve already shared stories, jumped up and down excitedly while spotting our first elk, our first bison, our first ground squirrel, our first hike, our first field of wildflowers, our first geologic anomalies. We’ve already shared meals, inside jokes, and even a few heartfelt tears. Today’s the first day. Today is a day we’ll not soon forget, if ever. Today’s the day we took our first step into Yellowstone.

A cow and calf elk consider crossing the raging Gardner River… but don’t!

Stark contrasts at Narrow Gauge Terrace

T-Minus One Day!!

June 16, 2017

The call of the wild is not what you hear but what you follow.
~Terry Tempest Williams, in The Hour of Land

In just a few hours we’ll be meeting at RDU and hopping on a plane for the first leg of our journey to our nation’s first national park! We’re attending to last minute details… feeding the dogs, taking the kids to camp, watering the garden… Don’t forget to check your packing list twice! Do you have your watercolor pencils? Journal? Water bottles? Your photo ID? And your binoculars (the MOST important item)?

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Leave behind all worries of school… the broken AC… whatever it may be… Our blog is up and ready, and we are itching for adventure!! Stay posted for updates on all that we see and do over the next ten days! Yellowstone here we come!

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by Meg

A Sense of Wonder

June 23, 2016

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.

This may look like nap time, but we’re actually experiencing the hydrothermal explosions that shake the ground at Blacksand Pool!

This may look like nap time, but we’re actually experiencing the hydrothermal explosions that shake the ground at Blacksand Pool!

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.

The traditional group head-dunk!

The traditional group head-dunk!

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.

“What a Wonderful World”

June 23, 2016

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.

Emily at Beartooth Lake

Emily at Beartooth Lake

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.

Group at West Thumb Geyser Basin

Group at West Thumb Geyser Basin

To sum it up, this is a wonderful place. A wonderful world for all of us to see. A place with spirit.

Sunrise at Blacktail Ponds

Sunrise at Blacktail Ponds

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.
—Unknown Ranger

Blink and You’ll Miss It

June 22, 2016

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.

Looking in Isa Lake at blotched tiger salamander larvae

Looking in Isa Lake at blotched tiger salamander larvae

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?

 Beehive Geyser with a beautiful rainbow

Beehive Geyser with a beautiful rainbow

 

Grand Geyser

Grand Geyser

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.