Aug 4, 2021 – The Lake They Call Gitche Gumee

Before crossing the Mississippi River near its headwaters in Minnesota, we stayed one night on the river in an Army Corp campground.

After spending months exploring the red rocks, white sand dunes, deep canyons, glacial mountains, plains prairies, and badlands, we were now in the Great Lakes region of the country – the great north woods – the badger and wolverine states. And central to our short time in Wisconsin’s Bayfield Peninsula and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula was the greatest of great lakes – Superior.

After being surrounded by rocks and open prairies for three months, the green forests were a welcomed view.

On Sep 18 while researching ‘Lake Superior’ in preparation for this blog entry, the Google-search headline “One kayaker dead, and another reported missing at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore” appeared at the top of the results list. Six weeks prior, Vivian and I paddled a kayak along Lake Superior’s Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Along the peninsula shoreline, we paddled gently over sandy bottom shallow water that revealed a shipwreck and allowed us entry to small caves pock marking the vertical rock shoreline. The warm and calm waters were as far removed from Superior’s reputation as anything could be.

Our morning on Superior’s water brought back memories of our 2004-trip to its most famous island, Isle Royale, a National Park. A visit to the park requires one to fly in or ferry across Lake Superior. After three days hiking Isle Royale, our stay on the island was unexpectedly prolonged as our boat ride back to the mainland was cancelled due to inclement weather – waves reaching 10 feet or higher. At midnight, 12 hours past the normal schedule, we boarded the boat and ferried across “the lake that never gives up her dead” over glass flat water.

Point Iroquis, one of the many lighthouses on Lake Superior, this one near Brimley, MI.

Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, Ontario – The Great Lakes of North America are the largest collection of freshwater lakes in the world, by total area and the second largest by volume. Lake Superior, the most northern of the five is the largest freshwater lake in the world.

The Sault St Marie International Bridge on the day it reopened to non-commercial traffic from the U.S. into Canadian. The bridge is located over the St Marys River that connects Lakes Superior and Huron

The Ojibwe Tribe that once dominated the northern great lakes region for centuries named the lake “gichi-gami”, meaning “great sea”. Later, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow spelled it “Gitche Gumee” in his poem ‘The Song of Hiawatha’. In 1976, Gordon Lightfoot adopted Longfellow’s spelling for his song ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fiztgerald’. The name “Superior” originally came from the French explorers in the 17th century that referred to their discovery as ‘la lac supérieur’. The name was later anglicized by the British into its current name, ‘Superior’.

Highway 2 brought us here from Glacier National Park in Montana. Welcome to Michigan, my home state.
You know you are in Michigan’s upper peninsula when…
You also know you are in a popular Michigan tourist town when you can’t get more than 5 feet away from a fudge shop.

Following the Apostle Islands, we made a beeline across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to a town called Brimley. Our campground was 30 miles north of the Mackinac Bridge which we needed to cross sooner than later. But, before that, we had a couple more days left with Lake Superior. Not far from us was St Marys Falls, a non-navigable 21-ft drop that separates Lake Superior from Lake Huron. To bypass these falls, the Soo Locks were constructed.

The observation deck at the Soo Locks in Sault St Marie.
The Soo Locks tour ferry awaits the water to rise.
Several minutes later, the water levels are even with Lake Superior and the gates are open.
The little tour boat heads out of the first lock while a freighter comes in to the second lock. The two locks’ water levels rise and fall at the same time.

In 1855, the first locks were constructed, allowing passage between the two great lakes. Over time, commerce through the locks and canal had increased significantly and gained national importance. In 1881, the locks were turned over to the US Army Corp of Engineers that built two parallel locks that provide a gravity-powered 21-ft lift system. Freighters 1000 ft in length and holding 70,000 tons of cargo pass through the locks frequently.

90% Of The United State’s iron ore moves through the Soo Locks.

It is a wonderful thing to stand in the Soo Locks observation platform located in Sault (pronounced SOO) St Marie and watch a 1000-ft freighter enter a lock. From Superior coming in on an easterly direction, ships enter a lock filled with enough water to match the Superior’s level. Several minutes pass as water is released and levels decrease 21 feet. Once the water is level with Lake Huron, the eastside gates open, and the ship continues its course. The opposite occurs when ships go upstream from Huron to Superior. Approximately 7000 vessels pass through the Locks each year, despite it being closed between January and March.

It takes 584 Train cars or one 1,000-ft freighter to move 70,000 tons of cargo .
From Duluth, MN to the Atlantic Ocean via the St Lawrence Waterway Is 2,332mi or 7 days.
A typical shipping route from Lake Superior to Lake Huron, to Lake Erie, and next to Lake Ontario.

From our campground, we drove about 30 miles or so along the scenic Lakeshore Dr north through the tiny town of Paradise and ending at Whitefish Point where the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum is located. There’s a darn good reason why the museum is located at this cape outpost. Every vessel entering or leaving Lake Superior must pass Whitefish Point, the most dangerous shipping area in the Great Lakes.

Whitefish Point lighthouse, near the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum.

More vessels have been lost in the Whitefish Point area than any other part of Lake Superior. It is estimated by most sources that the Great Lakes holds 6,000 shipwrecks and a loss of life exceeding 30,000. One of those wrecks that came onto North America’s collective consciousness lies 530 feet below Lake Superior’s surface about 17 miles away from Whitefish Point.

With a crew of 29 men, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank during a storm on November 10, 1975. At 727 feet in length (considerably short than the more modern freighters), the Fitzgerald is the largest to have sunk in Lake Superior. A U.S. Navy aircraft equipped to detect magnetic anomalies associated with submarines, detected the wreck on November 14, 1975. An additional survey using a side scan sonar determined two large objects were lying close together on the lake floor, indicating that the Fitzgerald had been snapped in two.

On display at the Duluth Marine Museum is a model of the Edmund Fitzgerald as it was found at the bottom of Lake Superior.

The ship’s bell was recovered from the wreck on July 4, 1995. A replica with each of the 29 sailors’ names engraved on it was put in its place. The bell is on display in the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum.

The legend lives on from the Chippewa down

Of the big lake they called Gitche Gumee

Superior, they said, never gives up her dead

When the gales of November come early

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, Gordon Lightfoot

Whitefish Point, 17 miles from the navigation marker for the Edmund Fitzgerald.
To photograph Lake Superior is why I came to Whitefish Point.

Check out my previous Blog about our visit to Michigan 3 years ago.

Jul 28, 2021 – North Dakota’s Biggest and Tallest

A sculpted version of North America’s largest land mammal, in front of North Dakota State Library.
Also in front of North Dakota State Library stands a statue of Sacagawea with her infant son, of the famed Lewis and Clark Corp of Discovery. The Missouri River played big in their expedition.

Among the many things you can see in North Dakota are the largest scrap metal sculpture in the world, the largest land mammal in North America, and the tallest habitable building in North Dakota. I have already devoted at least one blog to the largest land mammal, which is the American Bison, so this one will focus on the other two attractions located in North Dakota “where possibility is as endless as the horizon”. Ranked #1 for the hardest working state (what else are you going to do when it’s biting cold), North Dakota was worthy of the 10 days we spent within its borders.

Looking south on the Enchanted Highway, somewhere between sculptures.

Somewhere in the southwestern quadrant of North Dakota is a town called Regent, population 157. Saaalute! To Vivian and me, Regent seemed to be another example of the many boom-to-bust prairie towns we have seen on our travels through rural America. But interestingly, Regent, which is surrounded by miles of rolling farmland never experienced a boom. In fact, the greatest census number I could find for Regent was 405 in 1950.

“Once they come in, they step back in history, they step back in time. They become enchanted”. Gary Greff

But then came Regent resident Gary Greff. Greff is quoted as saying the following, “I came home one day and was looking at my town and said, ‘you know, this town has gone from 500 people to a hundred’. I thought if someone doesn’t do something, it’s only a matter of time before we’re gone. We don’t have a railroad, we don’t have the population, we don’t have the infrastructure. Why would a major corporation come to Regent? Rather than sit around waiting for someone from the outside to come in and save my town, I need to do something.” And do something he did.

“Geese in Flight” which is listed in the Guinness World Book of Records as the largest scrap metal sculpture in the world.

“Nobody’s going to drive 30 miles off the interstate for normal sculptures, but they might drive for the world’s largest”, was Greff’s logic behind his sculptures that are placed along side a 32-mile stretch of highway. Indeed, the most observed sculpture located on the northwest corner of exit 72 where I-94 and 102nd Ave SW meet is “Geese in Flight” which is listed in the Guinness World Book of Records as the largest scrap metal sculpture in the world. In 1991, Greff completed the first sculpture (The Tin Family) along the unnamed highway that became known as ‘The Enchanted Highway’. Enjoy the slideshow, pictures of Greff’s sculptures along the highway.

The 21-story ‘Skyscraper on the Prairie’, North Dakota’s Capitol.

In 1861, President James Buchanan signed into bill the creation of the Dakota Territory, which included both Dakotas. In 1883-84, the first capitol building of the territorial government was constructed in Bismarck located in the northern region of the territory. Attempts to admit the Dakota Territory into the Union over several years eventually resulted in the formation of two states in 1889, North Dakota and South Dakota. President Benjamin Harrison hid the order in which each state’s proclamation was signed, so the exact order remains unknown. But, because North comes before South in the alphabet, North Dakota became the 39th state, followed by South Dakota.

Statue of Judge John Burke, the 10th Governor of North Dakota stands in front of the capitol.

One of the many travel goals we have is to visit state capitols. Unfortunately, until recently in Salt Lake City, this has proven to be impossible in the era of COVID. At last, we visited our first capitol building in Utah where we were impressed by the magnificent neoclassical revival architectural style and exquisite artwork. It’s a hard act to follow, but follow we did to Bismarck, North Dakota. Despite North Dakota’s capitol being only one of two on our travel itinerary, we could not have chosen more dichotomous buildings to visit. If the 50 state capitols were placed on a spectrum according to the ornate qualities of the architectural design, then Utah and North Dakota are on the far opposite ends of the spectrum.

You learn something every day! The French Gratitude Train was given to the U.S. by the citizens of France in appreciation for the US military involvement in WWII. Trains cars were designated to each state and this one stands in the park next to North Dakota’s capitol.

On December 30, 1930, North Dakota’s capitol was destroyed by fire. During the fire, North Dakota Secretary of State Robert Byrne broke a window to get to the original copy of the state’s constitution. Suffering from cuts and burns on his hands, he saved the document. Other state employees also risked their lives to save documents. The Governor George F Shafer organized a team and directed the use of 40 state prison inmates to scour the still smoldering building and salvage the vaults and other items that remained.

Photos of the destruction of North Dakota’s first State Capitol and the second one that remains tall.

The disaster meant a new building would need to be constructed during the Great Depression. Designed by North Dakota architects, the rebuilt capitol became the tallest building in North Dakota and became known as the ‘Skyscraper on the Prairie’. Just under 250 feet and 21 stories, its Art Deco design is anything but ornate. The capitol campus expanded over time with the addition of a State Office Building, the North Dakota Heritage Center and the North Dakota Dept of Transportation, and a Judicial Wing was added to the base of the capitol tower. While the state capitol campus and park were expanding over the decades, North Dakota’s population was decreasing. Today, North Dakota’s state capitol is a popular tourist attraction with its garden-style park, museum and monuments. Enjoy this slideshow of North Dakota’s classy state capitol and following that, a slideshow from its impressive Heritage Center Museum where we learned some history of North Dakota.

One last tidbit about our visit to North Dakota. After leaving our campground in Dickinson, we came to Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park in Mandan, which is on the outskirts of Bismarck. Just a few days past the halfway point of our 216-day trip, we camped on the western bank of the Missouri River for a few days, thus marking the end of our tour of the American West. On July 31, we packed and hitched up and drove the RV east across the Missouri one last time. Soon, we would cross the Mississippi River near its headwaters and enter the great lake states for a totally different experience. Stayed tuned. Enjoy the slideshow below of the Ft Abraham Lincoln State Park.

I invite you to check out a few more of my blogs that relate to this one in some way or another.

About a quirky roadside attraction by a South Dakotan artist.

About our visit to Utah’s State Capitol and other things about Salt Lake City.

Jul 27, 2021 – All the Pretty Horses

Sunrise over North Dakota’s badlands. The thick haze followed us from Montana as smoke from Washington and Canadian wildfires raged.

The early morning silence was hypnotizing, as I quietly stalked the horses from a safe distance to find a clear view of the small herd. Standing still with camera in hand, the only sounds I heard were the rapid clicks of the camera’s shutter. This went on for a couple hours. That is, until I heard the deep and alarmingly close bellow of a bison.

“Horses make a landscape look beautiful.”– Alice Walker. Here you see the entire herd, six mares, one foal and one stallion (in middle foreground).
The largest land mammal in North America.

One hundred days into our travels and 4520 towing miles later, one week ago Vivian and I completed our west-by-northwest route from Chokoloskee, Florida to Glacier National Park, Montana. We left the Rocky Mountains after having visited nine national parks beginning in New Mexico. Now in North Dakota, we were several hundred miles into our east-by-southeast route. On the morning of July 27, I was photographing wildlife in the badlands within National Park #10.

Theodore Roosevelt and his horse at the south unit’s visitor center.
It really is no secret, there are several animals that live in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, including the Prairie Dog.

The legacies of conservationist President Theodore Roosevelt are significant and far reaching. Every time a President designates a National Monument, we have Roosevelt to thank for the 1906 American Antiquities Act. The comeback of the Plains Bison from near extinction is owed to President Roosevelt. As president, he was directly responsible for adding 230 million acres of protected public lands, including five national parks. There I stood in Theodore Roosevelt National Park photographing a herd of wild horses that are also in some way associated with the park’s eponym and his legacy.

The watchful eye of the dominant mare kept me a safe distance from the herd.

I carefully walked toward the herd while examining my surroundings. Way too early for the drive-by tourists, I was alone with the wild horses. Meet equus caballus, the modern horse of North America. One of the mares, the largest of the group stood on a high hill overlooking the herd while giving me the eye. For the longest time, she did not move and neither did I. That’s fine, I can wait. The others paid no attention to me as they grazed casually. Eventually, the mare relaxed and went back to the calm demeanor of grazing. That’s all I needed – I was in.

Three of the six mares in the herd.

During the modern ranching era, of which Roosevelt was a part, feral horses were considered a nuisance and cattlemen worked to exterminate them throughout the west. Efforts to preserve them ensued and in 1971, the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act mandated their protection and named them a “national heritage species”. Theodore Roosevelt National Park is one of the few where free-roaming horses live and are part of the legacy leftover by Roosevelt’s open range ranching era.

I spotted the coyote only through my telephoto lens and tried to capture it as it stalked the herd. It did not stick around, possibly due to my presence. From these horses, I was about 300 feet away.

The small herd of horses gave me a gift in the form of a day-old filly and the mare she identified as mom. Almost entirely, my attention was drawn to the young horse with its long lanky legs barely able to keep her upright as she sprang back and forth in fits of energy, never straying more than a few horse lengths from mom. After short periods of activity, the young one would find a nice spot to lay down for a spell. Her watchful mom never let her out of her sight, and she most certainly was aware of the coyote that stalked the herd from a higher point for a short time that I could see.

Meet Dolly and her one-day old filly, Oakley. Dolly and Oakley have a sabino coat color, which is the white irregular spotting, largely on the belly and face.

For many years, the National Park Service attempted to remove all horses from the park. In 1970, the park changed its policy to recognize the horse as part of its history, yet another Roosevelt legacy. Horse management rather than removal is the park’s current approach. Occasionally, the park rounds up a small number of horses and takes them to public auction. Current management has evolved and includes contraception, genetic research, and low-stress capture techniques.

Meet Flax, the stallion of the group and Oakley’s daddy.

It wasn’t until after the fact when I began researching the horses that I learned about the North Dakota Badlands Horse, a nonprofit organization that monitors the herds in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. From their website, I found the link “2021 Foals” and discovered photographs of newborns. I was so delighted to find a picture with information on the mare and filly I had spent two hours photographing. The mare’s distinct markings made it easy for me to identify her. From the photograph description, I learned her name and her filly’s name, Dolly and Oakley, respectively. Oakley’s birth date was also provided, July 26, one day before I met her and Dolly. I also learned Oakley’s daddy’s name is Flax, the stallion who appears in a few of my photographs.

Here you can see Dolly’s sabino pattern on her belly. Oakley pranced around her momma in fits and starts to strengthen those day-old legs. Still a bit unsteady and awkward, Oakley never strayed too far from mom.
I learned that Oakley is Dolly’s tenth offspring, but apparently the first documented sabino among her siblings. Some of the offspring belong to Flax, but Dolly’s previous mate is Cocoa.
The little one tired easily and would often find a nice spot to rest.
The strange pattern on Dolly is called roaning, a mix of white and red hairs, which I understand to be characteristics of the sabino coloring.

From last year’s visit to Custer State Park, I recognized the loud snorts and grumbles that emanate from North America’s largest land mammal. So, when I heard the distinct bellowing of a male bison that came from the other side of a hill where the horses were grazing, I suspected there was more than one bison nearby. Bison run in herds, and I did not want to find myself in the middle. The horses had already begun to move further away, cueing me to leave as well.

The bison herd came through, the horses moved aside and I went back to my truck.
By now, the horses were out of sight and the never-ending trail of bison were closing in on the road where I was parked.
One of only two facilities along the entire scenic drive through TRNP and thankfully I didn’t feel an urgent need to use it.

Within his namesake park, perhaps the most direct evidence of Roosevelt’s legacy is the extremely large bison herd that interrupted my photo shoot with the horses. The Park is a relatively small patch of land that is part of the Plains Bison’s rich grassland once extending from Canada to Mexico. When you visit a park and see bison in great numbers, you cannot help but think about their comeback from a few hundred shy of total extinction. Among many ways humans caused the bison’s near extinction was the re-introduction of the horse into North America. Horses compete with bison for grazing, but it was the use of the horse for hunting by the Plains Indians that caused a much greater devastation to bison.

From the truck, I photographed the bison including this mother and young one that is often referred to as ‘red dog’. I noticed several red dogs with one or two females. I also noticed the larger males were butting heads with each other and sometimes one took an interest in a female. I believe this was the beginning of rutting season for the bison.
One of about 300,000 bison living on Federal, Tribal, State and Private lands.

But that was then, and this is now. The North American wild horse is a popular symbol of freedom, bravery, determination, and beauty. And for that, I am privileged to have spent time photographing them and observing their equine culture for a short time. After spending two hours with Flax and his harem, Dolly and Oakley, it was time for me and the horses to move out of the way and allow the bison its space. The horse and the bison co-exist in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, but the bison is the landlord. The unnamed bison, the keepers of the grasslands. Thank you, President Roosevelt.

Check out my previous blog about our first encounter with bison, and our 2021 national park experience.

Here are a few more images from our time at Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

A morning hike in the south unit before temperatures rose above 90.
Evidence of bison are everywhere.
The large ungulate footprint of a bison.
We drove up to the north unit to see the cannonball concretions. These are created by the precipitation of limestone, forming “concrete” and through erosion become round.
A scenic view in the north unit.
As long as there are prairie dog towns, there are prairie dog photographs!

July 16, 2021: Bears, Gravity and Dynamite

On our first day in Glacier National Park, we drove to this popular overlook along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, where we stood looking upon Goose Lake with the tiny Wild Goose Island in its center. The haze was only the beginning as smoke from Washington state wildfires intensified during the next few days in Glacier National Park.
Blue skies over St Mary Lake would soon be replaced with a thick coating of smoky haze for the remainder of our visit. Shortly before this shot was taken, we saw a grizzly bear foraging for berries not far from the road.

In 1926, pack horses burdened with 80 boxes of dynamite and 500 barrels of black powder struggled over 25 miles of glacier terrain to the interior of Glacier National Park. Waiting for them at the high end were construction workers with ropes and drills. The men wore wool socks over their boots to avoid striking a spark from the explosives in hand. For hours, holes were drilled into ancient rock to be packed with TNT while detonating wire was run up the rock wall.

From a pull-off along the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
From the lookout, a short trail brought me to this view.
A graffiti-littered ice pack alongside the road where a guy named Jude left his mark. Fortunately, his name will melt away.

McDonald Creek Valley lay 1000 feet below the workers. As the charge was set off, 10,000 cubic yards of shattered rock exploded into the valley, filling the sky with dust. After the dust cleared, members of the construction crew were dazzled by a breathtaking view unlike any other. Before them stood a dozen white glaciers packed in rugged pockets of the Lewis Mountains that stood endlessly into the horizon. At the time, construction of the Sun Road was halfway into a 13-yr, 2.25-million-dollar project.

The view of the Triple Arches through a tour bus window.

Observing ice masses so large as to flow under their own weight is good enough reason to visit Glacier National Park, especially given their days are numbered. Ironically, the 26 remaining glaciers within the park are not easy to see because they tend to be tucked away in the mountains out of view. But that’s OK because what really brings people to Glacier National Park is the jaw-dropping scenery that was created by those glaciers and what makes “The Crown of the Continent” stand out among national parks. For most visitors, the views of glacier-carved craggy peaks that frame a U-shaped valley or reflect boldly on a clear glacier lake are seen by way of a transmountain highway. And it is this highway, known as the Going-to-the-Sun Road that draws our attention and demands our highest adoration for this national park, as well as for all others that followed in its scenic road-building footsteps.

Lo and behold, Jackson Glacier as viewed from a roadside lookout. It’s the large snow mass in the middle, located in a cirque or “ice-cream scoop-like amphitheatre”. I believe it is the only glacier we saw in the park, at least knowingly.
Classic U-shaped valley, near Logan Pass.

Aside from seeing a grizzly bear, the Going-to-the-Sun Road is likely the most anticipated experience for thrill-seeking visitors to Glacier. And for some, driving on it may be as feared as seeing a grizzly. When Glacier National Park was established in 1910, there were two obstacles for park planners – bringing people to Glacier and the greater of the two, moving them through Glacier. At the time, an east and west side of Glacier existed, but no automobile road connected the two through the park.

In addition to the Going-to-the-Sun Road, we drove north to ‘Many Glacier’ where we hiked to Redrock Falls, seen here. Behind me and to the left stood a very large moose partially hidden by tall bushes along side the creek. It was too far away for me to capture it with my wide angle lens.
A view of Swiftcurrent Pass from the trail to Redrock Falls. This was our second day in the park and skies were still blue.
From along the trail, water levels were low as they were throughout our entire trip out west.

The idea of building a road through Glacier National Park was popular at the time as the era of automobile touring and national park visitations had begun. Several ideas for a road were brought forth but the only one that never dropped from the original plans was for a road along Lake McDonald, up and over Logan Pass (elevation 6,646 ft), and back down into St Mary Valley. By 1920, road construction on the west side allowed better access to Lake McDonald and on the east side access to St Mary Lake. By 1922, the Transmountain Highway (before given its current name) had reached an end, practically speaking. Continuing it was an unprecedented and monumental feat.

St Mary Falls.
A view of St Mary Lake from the trail.

The first director of the NPS, Stephen T Mather was hired to help give the underfunded park system a boost. Automobiles were being manufactured at high rates and in 1916, 335,000 people visited the 11 parks that existed at the time. Mather took the idea of a transmountain highway and ran with it. He hired engineer Frank Kittredge who led a survey team into Glacier in 1924. He started with a ragtag team of surveyors and was later quoted as saying “There were really three crews; one coming, one working, and one going.” Every day, someone quit as the team bushwhacked brush, skirted narrow ledges, crossed paths with grizzlies and endured blizzards. Kittredge came out of the survey and presented his proposal for “a road so marvelously engineered as to be an attraction in itself.” A new route was established, and funds and efforts began on the 12 ½ mile stretch from McDonald Creek (west side) and over Logan Pass.

Thick haze in the morning thinned out enough by afternoon, making the sun visible again over St Mary Lake.
Evidence of wildfires along St Mary Falls Trail.

Glacier National Park has explicit restrictions for driving the 52-mile Going-to-the Sun Road including vehicles longer than 21 ft (including bumpers) and wider than 8 ft (including mirrors). Consequently, Vivian and I were not keen on taking our 21-ft long, 8-ft wide truck up and over the hairpin turns of Logan Pass. With campground reservations in East Glacier, we were saddened to think we would miss out on West Glacier. Acquiring a shuttle reservation had to be done online at specified time periods and the chances of that were looking dim. Rather than taking the chance of missing the road experience, we signed up for a tour led by a Blackfeet company. The tour bus met us at the Saint Mary Visitor Center, took us up to to Logan Pass and then tracked back to the Visitor Center. Our tour itinerary meant that the infamous westside 12 ½ mile stretch from McDonald Creek to Logan Pass would elude us.

A Columbian ground squirrel at Logan Pass. We did see pika on the ground and from a distance, we saw bighorn sheep scaling the rock walls.

On October 20, 1928, the western leg of the Transmountain Highway finally reached Logan Pass. Bears, gravity, and dynamite were each a concern during the construction of the road, but the latter two posed the more immediate threat. To help compensate for dangerous work and weather conditions, meals for the workers were abundant and gourmet. While the highly valued cooks did a superb job keeping the hungry bears at bay, the Sun Road claimed one life during those three seasons of construction (Charles Rudberg fell 60 ft after losing his grip on a rope one mile above The Loop). The dangerous work conditions created a whopping 300% turnover in workforce during the first three months alone. The road was open to car traffic on June 15, 1929, followed by a 46% increase in auto visitation to the park.

The lobby of Lake McDonald Lodge.
If I had been driving, I never would have seen Glacier National Park. Both eyes on the road!

While waiting for our tour bus at the visitor center, we learned that scoring a shuttle bus seat was not as difficult as the online system led you to believe. Local knowledge given to us prompted our return to the visitor center the next day where we boarded the shuttle. After transferring to another shuttle at Logan Pass, we continued all the way west to Apgar Visitor Center. The ride was spectacular. From the large bus window, there appeared to be no ground between us and the valley floor as the bus driver skillfully negotiated the narrow space between sheer rock cliffs or drop offs on one side and a passing vehicle on the other.

A couple hours past sunrise yielded a hazy view of the sun from Logan Pass Visitor Center parking area while we waited to transfer to the shuttle bus taking us to Lake McDonald.
From the Logan Pass Visitor Center parking lot. The smoky haze worsened with each day.
Near Apgar among the cedar trees.
Avalanche Creek north of Lake McDonald.
Trail of the Cedars, north of Lake McDonald.

Two years after the 12 ½ mile western route was completed, the eastside construction began, and the name Transmountain Highway gave way to “Going-to-the-Sun Road”. There, 60-ton capacity pontoons lashed together were used to bring in power shovels and other gear to the head of St Mary Lake. The most challenging section of the east side would be the 408-ft tunnel, 2 miles below Logan Pass. Engineer in charge, A.V. Emery, expected a man in good physical condition to carry a 50-lb box of dynamite down the trail and ladder in 30 minutes. According to one worker, “On several occasions men stood at the top of the cliff, looked down the ladder, and turned in their resignations.”

The south side of Glacier National Park includes the Two Medicine area. The smoky haze had worsened on our final day at Glacier, spent hiking along Two Medicine Lake seen here.
Tour boat on Two Medicine Lake.

During the final summer of work in 1932, two more workers tragically lost their lives. By the time snow began covering the project in the fall of 1932, the road was almost completed. With just a few touch ups needed in the spring, the road was scheduled to open in the summer of 1933. Come June, the road crews began clearing the west side. On the east side, the road was buried with 80 feet of snow. Tractors and dozers cleared it out and by July 7 it was ready. The opening ceremony for the Going-to-the-Sun Road on July 15 was observed by 4,000 visitors that streamed into Logan Pass from both directions. That year, over 20,000 vehicles entered the park. Between 1938 and 1952, crews paved the gravel road and currently, it accommodates more than 3 million visitors annually.

Indeed, “…a road so marvelously engineered as to be an attraction in itself.” Think about the Going-to-the-Sun Road as you read the following quote from Stephen T Mather, national park director 1917-29: “Who will gainsay (deny) that the parks contain the highest potentialities of national pride, national contentment, and national health? A visit inspires love of country; begets contentment; engenders pride of possession; contains the antidote for national restlessness… He is a better citizen with a keener appreciation of the privilege of living here who has toured the national parks.

Enjoy this slideshow of more photos from our hike along Two Medicine Lake, Glacier National Park.

July 9, 2021 – Cowboys – The Art and Soul of the American West

Cowboy accessories from downtown Bozeman, Montana
A poster of an artist’s presentation of this year’s Livingston Round Up, from downtown gallery in Livingston, Montana.

We spent the better part of July in Montana. Consequently, we got a healthy dose of authentic cowboy culture. The myth of the cowboy that developed in the late 1900s remains strong today, even decades after John Wayne and the Marlboro Man passed away. Think of a cowboy and you’ll likely conjure up words like independent, free, rugged, and manly. The fact is, cattle herding was monotonous and numbing hard work, considered a lowly job on the fringe of society. But somehow cowboys got recast as the epitome of manly courage and rugged independence; men who, in Teddy Roosevelt’s words, “embody the hardy and self-reliant type who possess the manly qualities that are invaluable to a nation”.

For this cowgirl (in nontraditional garb), riding one horse is too easy. Two is better!
Under the big sky of Montana, team roping is one of the competitions we observed at the Livingston Round Up.

As far as the cowboy is an icon of the American West Heritage, Montana is authentic cowboy country with its wild frontier and rugged Rocky Mountains. And it is here where we first experienced the cowboy as an entertainer/athlete and then later as an artist. Neither Vivian nor I had experienced a rodeo before attending the Livingston Round Up (the word rodeo by the way is Spanish for round up). It was the 4th of July and rainstorms had sabotaged much of the day. By the time the rodeo began, clouds had cleared out and a cool crisp Montana evening unfolded. The arena stadium was filled with enthusiastic Montanans, some clearly there to celebrate the red, white and blue, but almost all to celebrate their Montana cowboy heritage.

This calf had just lost the competition against two ropers. What you see here is a trained animal leading, not being led by, a cowboy toward an open gate. Safely inside a pen, the calf will rest among others like it and likely be whisked away to another round up for another evening of competition. Trained as they may be, sometimes the animal does not cooperate. We did see an extremely large bull stubbornly lay down after bucking a rider. An agile and very brave cowboy had to prod it. What does an angry prodded bull do? It charges the prodder. Fortunately, bull and prodder made it safely back to the pen.

That evening under the setting sun of a Big Montana Sky and the bright lights of the arena, Vivian and I sat in the crowded cheap seats. My attendance at an outdoor sporting event is a rare thing, which is more than I can say for Vivian who has never attended one. So, it is of no surprise we both felt totally out of place for that reason and a few others, including being a small minority of hatless persons and most likely the only people who could genuinely claim Miami as home. Expecting a drunken frenzy in the spirit of rugged Montana independence and American patriotism, we pleasantly found ourselves surrounded by the politest strangers we have ever encountered, many of whom watched the rodeo competition with an obvious respect for their cowboy and cowgirl compatriots. Consequently, we caught the cowboy fever and enjoyed the show. More so, we learned a lot about rodeos.

As the cowboys & cowgirls train for the rodeo, so do the animals. We learned bucking horses are trained to buck off their riders and specifically bred for rodeos. This horse, like others is worth thousands of dollars and as a valuable investment, is kept in good health for many years. Same for the bulls. Some go as far as saying they are spoiled animals. On the other hand, I cringed watching these men’s spines get jolted violently back and forth. I could feel their pain as I watched them limp away. By the way, catastrophic injury rate among rodeo contestants is twice that of American football players.
The cowgirls do not compete in most events, such as bronc or bull riding. Here is one of the champion barrel racers which was the only competition we got to see cowgirls compete.

Shortly after that, we left Livingston and came into Great Falls where we parked for a week. While Livingston gave us a dose of cowboy pride, Great Falls offered up the cowboy artist and opened our eyes to Western Art. Great Falls, Montana cannot claim much to attract tourists, but it can proudly claim cowboy artist Charles M Russell. The city on the Missouri River has a significant connection to Lewis & Clark’s Corp of Discovery, so it is steeped in history. But unless you are a history buff, there is not much to see in Great Falls, except a treasure trove of western art thanks to Charles M. Russell.

Charlie Russell built his studio next to his home in Great Falls, Montana. He is pictured here inside it and with one of his bronze sculptures on display at the C.M. Russell Museum.
The cattle skull is a moniker used by Russell in all his paintings, sometimes as an actual part of the scene, but most of the time inked in as part of his signature. It is the inspiration behind the “Russell Skull Society of Artists“.

Art and the cowboy never came together more perfectly than that of C.M. Russell and his paintings and sculptures. Born in 1864, Russell is known as the “original cowboy artist”. Growing up in Missouri, he drew sketches and created clay sculptures of animals, and had a strong interest in the “wild west”. After learning how to ride horses (he was taught on a famous Civil War horse named Great Britain), Charlie left school and went to Montana to work on a sheep farm and eventually on a ranch in the Judith Basin. It is there where Russell learned to be a cowboy and an artist.

Russell was inspired by many artists including Karl Bodmer (1809-93) who etched this drawing of a native warrior. The second drawing is Russell’s attempt to emulate Bodmer. The drawing is amateurish & crude, which makes his later paintings even more extraordinary coming from an informally trained artist.

But Russell was a quick learner. He and wife Nancy took several trips to New York City beginning in 1904. He mentioned a desire to learn how to “lay on color” and got his wish when he visited the studios of several successful New Your artists to watch them work. His piece here titled “The Fireboat” from 1918, clearly illustrates his acuity. Having made friends with many Native Americans, he painted from their perspective as they experienced the coming of the white man. In this painting, they watch from above the steamboats on the Missouri River.

He remained in Montana for the rest of his life, but it was during his time as a cattle herder working for a number of outfits that he began documenting the cowboy life through watercolors. He also spent a great deal of time among the Blood Indians, a part of the Blackfeet nation. From them, he gained knowledge of Native American culture. Both the cowboy culture and Native American culture come through realistically by way of Russell’s vivid and detailed paintings.

Two artists, two friends. On the left is CM Russell, the right OC Seltzer who learned from and was encouraged to pursue his art. They shared a great interest in Montana’s wildlife, landscape and history and often took sketching trips together to wilderness areas such as Glacier National Park.
We learned of a strange and interesting story concerning these two artist friends. This is an OC Seltzer painting titled “Lassoing a Longhorn”. At some point, Seltzer sold the painting, his signature was removed and replaced by a forged Russell signature (bottom left corner). At the time, Russell’s paintings were worth 10 times more than Seltzer’s. Long story short, there was enough evidence for it being a Seltzer original and a couple of lawsuits to boot. I took this photo in the OC Seltzer exhibit with his portrait hanging on the wall behind me, reflecting onto his painting.
Russell’s signature skull was sometimes painted into the scene like in the bottom left corner of this painting titled “Wanderers of the Trackless Way” from 1887. Even with no formal training and before learning to “lay on color”, Russell understood composition with his use of interesting foreground objects.

In 1896, Charlie married his wife Nancy who became his business partner and promoter. Too humble for self-promotion, Russell could attribute much of his fame and success to his wife. As an artist, Russell broke through at a time when interest in the cowboy and American West was great among eastern urban dwellers. Among some of Russell’s collectors were Will Rogers and Douglas Fairbanks as well as fellow artists of the West.

The CM Russell Museum stands on the grounds of the Russell’s homestead where their house and studio remain. Visitors can tour the buildings where everything inside is authentic, like this typewriter used by Nancy as Charlie’s promoter and business partner.

Russell’s remarkable illustrations of life in the Old West became a standard adopted by movies that became known as Westerns. Russell, who died at home in 1926 where he and Nancy resided in Great Falls for many years, produced over 4000 works of art, including oil and watercolor paintings, drawings, and sculptures of various mediums including bronze. On the day of his funeral, schools in Great Falls closed so the children could watch the funeral procession with Russell’s coffin displayed in a glass-sided coach pulled by four black horses (the carriage is on full display at the museum).

The Russell’s must have liked the design of these chairs, or the artist that created them, one is in house and the other in the studio.

Recently, I began downloading magazines through the Miami-Dade Library System to fill some of our “lack of wifi” time while on the road. I was happy to see among the collection a magazine titled “Western Art Collector”. Having been to the C.M. Russell Museum, it piqued my interest. Russell’s legacy permeates the magazine, and his influence is obvious among several contemporary artists’ work. I eagerly perused the pages, enjoying announcements of exhibits with titles like “Vistas, Varmints and Vagabonds” or “The West – A Second Coming”. Western Art has a large following and from what we have seen, it is no surprise to us. Here is a small sample of artwork from other artists (including one of my favorites, Thomas Moran) on display at the CM Russell Museum.

Seeing Russell’s work and other western artists’ work in Montana added a new dimension to our travels out west. Exploring the western wilderness via national parks is priceless but the revelations that come from the art of someone who interprets it as they lived it adds great meaning to our travels. We saw this in New Mexico where Georgia O’Keeffe revealed her intimate connection to the high desert landscapes. And now in Montana, Charles M Russell brought to life the Old West through the art and soul of a cowboy.

Enjoy more photos from our visit to Bozeman, Livingston and Great Falls.

Cowboy art on display in the charming downtown Bozeman.
Bozeman under the big Montana sky.
After dropping Vivian’s sister off at the Bozeman airport at 6:00 am, we wandered downtown Bozeman where the only place open early enough for us to have breakfast was the Western Cafe.
We found Livingston to be irresistibly charming.
Cowboys are not the only inspiration for art in Montana.
And Vivian gave it a go on the Missouri River near Craig, Montana. Notice the tiny specks in the air, that’s a massive trico mayfly hatch.
While in Great Falls, we visited the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center where a festival was going on. Snakes were on display and this is a hognose, completely harmless to humans.
Re-enacters describe life on the Corp of Discovery, including an actual beaver hide skinning demonstration. Not going to show you that, but you can see a dead beaver laying on the table in preparation for the demo. I am holding in my hand the beaver’s foot.

You can read more about how art plays a big role in our travels, including Georgia O’Keeffe, a photographer in a cave, the art of rock n’ roll, and our attraction to quirky, creepy art.

July 2, 2021 – The Sound of Music

At Isa Lake, in Yellowstone National Park. What makes a divide a divide? Water flows down one side or the other. In the case of the continental divide, water flows into the Pacific Ocean from one side and into the Atlantic Ocean from the other. Located on Craig Pass, Isa Lake straddles the continental divide, meaning its water flows into both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
What makes the American West what it is.

The Americas have several hydrological divides, one of which runs all the way from northern Alaska to Central America. Being the longest of all, this one is known as THE Continental Divide or sometimes as the Great Divide. Compared to the other divides, the great one is associated with the highest peaks along the primary mountain ranges of the Rockies and the Andes. The spine of the Rockies runs through Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico, and is likely the most outstanding feature that defines the American West. I always thought that if I could fly alongside the Rockies at eye level, I might envision the peaks to be an arrangement of musical notes and each mountain range might be a chord.

Coming into Grand Teton National Park after driving 114 miles, including the infamous scenic Highway 22.

While camped on the Henry’s Fork near West Yellowstone, we devoted one day to drive a long distance (110 miles one way) to Grand Teton National Park. Inside the park, we viewed the peaks named by the early French voyageurs, ‘les trois tétons’ or ‘the three nipples’. What makes the Teton Range so famous is that they have a dramatic elevation on the eastern side, which is where the national park is established. From the valley floor, the staccato-like peaks rise sharply 4000 to 7000 feet without foothills or smaller peaks to block the view. This is because the Tetons are relatively young and have not yet eroded into the slow tempo of soft hills. In fact, the Teton Range is the youngest among the Rocky Mountains. The young summits rise as high as 13,775 feet.

Yes, they’re real and they’re spectacular. From Schwabacher Landing.

When most people vacation in the American West, it is with the intention of being in the mountains, to stand in awe of the grand peaks, to hike up or climb on. Like a melody, the mountain peaks inspire us and evoke emotions. Consequently, I felt a touch of guilt as I stood on the Teton valley floor looking up at those spectacular peaks feeling a bit uninspired. Maybe it was the high-pitched expectations, after all we were told by a few that the Tetons would drown out Yellowstone on any day. Not so for me.

A quickie shot of Mormon Row. I found those clouds hovering around the peaks interesting. They appeared to grow out of the mountains.
One of the views from String Lake.

And here is why. We saw the Tetons, but we didn’t experience them. We heard them, but we didn’t really listen to them. Admittedly, we were in the park for a half day, barely enough time to hike along String Lake or capture a few shots of the peaks from popular locations like Schwabacher Landing and Mormon Row. The peaks remained a distant pattern, like the repeating sound of a jazz drummer’s ride cymbal. From our very short visit, we can only say we have been to Grand Teton National Park where I took a postcard photograph of the famous peaks. And that’s about it.

Our home for a week, near Livingston, Montana at the home of our friends, Kris and Mike. That’s Mike’s drift boat awaiting Yellowstone River.
We spent each evening enjoying the view from our friends’ back porch.

After staying near West Yellowstone, we pulled the RV a short distance north of Yellowstone NP where friends Mike and Kris built their home near the Yellowstone River. They generously gave us their driveway to park and then introduced us to the Beartooth Mountains, another mountain range offspring of the Rocky Mountains, but much more mature than the Tetons. Classical vs contemporary. These mountains are part of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, which makes them unique and diverse. Among them is Granite Peak, the highest point in Montana (12,799 ft) and through which Chief Joseph led the Nez Perce Indians while attempting to reach Canada in 1877.

I hear a symphony from atop the Beartooth plateau.
The peak in the distance looks like a bear tooth.
Called the “most beautiful highway” the 69-mile Beartooth Highway offers plenty of views like this one.

The Beartooth Mountains contain large plateaus that exist at altitudes above 10,000 ft and contain 25 small glaciers, and over 300 lakes, some with waterfalls. We had the pleasure of hiking a small portion of the Beartooth plateau (where no trees grow), which allowed Vivian to touch snow for the second time in her life. Unlike our Grand Teton visit, we were IN the mountains. An octave or two above the valley at 10,000 feet, we stood on large rocks (among some of the oldest on earth) and looked at the mountain peaks at eye level. We were in an alpine environment where winds can blow above 100 mph and temperatures can drop to 70 degrees below zero. It is where an inch of topsoil can take up to a 1,000 years to develop, and where plants and animals survive a growing season lasting three months or less. If this environment were music, it would be the harsh and loud brass instruments that can also be lured back into a steady and calm note to support the softer melodic woodwinds.

Don’t eat the red snow. The red is created from microscopic algae which can grow from the combination of dissolved nutrients, sunlight and carbon dioxide.
Alpine wildflowers seem to grow from rocks.
Early July and wildflower season had barely begun.
One of the many lakes in the Beartooths. At this subalpine altitude, trees grow.

Later, we hiked through a subalpine section (8000-10000 feet) where we found respite from the hot daytime temperatures that had prevailed for several weeks on our travels. Wildflowers were beginning to come out of dormancy and entice us with brilliant blues, reds and yellows. Small glacial lakes offered brilliant water reflections of rock and snow patches. I could almost hear the lilting sounds of a clarinet concerto. Avid hikers and climbers, Mike and Kris have spent many days and nights playing these mountains and memorizing the notes. A small sample was given to us as they pointed to sections of the range and described their climbs – the woodwinds over here, the percussion over there.

If the mountains were a grand symphony, then our short time in the Teton and Beartooth Mountains amounted to one note. But it was a spectacular note. Maybe on our next visit we will hear a few bars.

Over 10,000 feet altitude, no trees grow. But what a view!

June 26, 2021 – A Science Lesson Brought to you by Yellowstone National Park

Let’s start with this scene, 6 am at the West Yellowstone entrance to the national park. The line was short compared to the 3 miles of vehicles coming in at 1pm as we were leaving.

This blog is inspired by our first visit to Yellowstone National Park. But I will warn you now, I am going off on a tangent, sort of a Bill Bryson “Short History of Nearly Everything” kind of tangent.

The highlight of most people’s visit to the park is the eruption of Old Faithful, which occurs every 60-90 minutes. Here, I wait with a 1000 other people for earth’s most famous geothermal to spew a column of hot water and steam into the air.
There are about a thousand geysers on earth and most of them are in Yellowstone National Park. This was well worth the wait.

Many years ago, I picked up an oversized book at the local Borders bookstore titled “The Animal Kingdom”. I think I paid $10 ($2 per lb) for it as it was among many on a table of discounted books. As someone fascinated with how life forms adapt to their environments, I loved that 1000+-page book and referred to it quite often to indulge my armchair analyses of the natural world. And it was only when Vivian and I purged most of our belongings to live in a 300-sq-ft RV that I parted ways with it.

This early morning sight awaits as you enter Yellowstone National Park from the west side. These are steam vents or fumaroles, and in the morning they are quite visible. These are basically waterless geysers.
The park does a good job giving people close access to the geothermals. This is the Midway Geyser Basin boardwalk into the Grand Prismatic Springs.
Water temperature in the Excelsior Geyser is 199 degrees F. This is a dormant geyser, last eruption well over a hundred years ago. Today, it is a thermal spring that churns out lots of hot water.

What left an impression on me from that book came from its introduction. In it, the main topic ‘Animals’ was placed into a broader context in which all living things are organized (biological taxonomy). The information was current enough that it described the three-domain system devised by Carl Woese in 1990. Basically, all life can be categorized into archaea, bacteria and eukarya. Stay with me here, this blog really is about Yellowstone National Park.

I can almost see where someone might be tempted to walk out into this scene which is the outer area of the Grand Prismatic. And people have, unfortunately. People also throw things into the hot pools.
Look closely at the bottom end of this picture and you’ll see footprints. Some are human and I suspect bison made the others. I also suspect the human footprints were officially made by a park service employee.
Turquoise Pool seen here from the Midway Geyser Basin boardwalk connects underground to Excelsior spring.

To put this into a casual blog context, there are two kinds of cells in this world. One is the well-known eukaryote which contains a membrane-bound nucleus where all the genetic coding exists. Eukaryotes are what animals and plants are made of, and thus, animals and plants (along with fungi by the way) fall into the eukarya domain. Whereas, the unicellular microorganisms of the archaea and bacteria domain are prokaryotes, cells with no membrane-bound nucleus. And here’s a fun fact, prokaryotes were the first life forms on this planet, eukaryotes evolved from them. Nevertheless, eukaryotes are profoundly different from prokaryotes.

The boardwalk contains a bridge that crosses the Firehole River. Here, you see the banks of the river that connect it to the hot springs.

In the 1970s, scientists began sequencing DNA and RNA. Applying this cutting-edge technology, Woese & colleagues discovered that bacteria were just as different from archaea as they were from eukaryotes. As a result of their work, Woese determined that any known life form could be classified within one of these three domains – archaea, bacteria or eukarya. I don’t know about yours, but in my mind that offers an interesting perspective on life considering that humans are only one of millions of species within the animal kingdom that is only one of four within one domain that is one of three on the entire tree of life.

Imagine coming upon an aquamarine pool like this, feeling fatigued from your exploration. So inviting! The blue indicates the center of the spring, where temperatures are the highest, up to 189 degrees F.

Upon my discovery of the three domains, I turned my attention away from the sexy topic of eukarya and discovered a more seductive one and while at it, picked up a new favorite word – extremophile. Almost entirely within the archaea domain are the prokaryotic unicellular organisms that live under extreme conditions. Having spent a better part of my adult life studying human physiological adaptations to physical stress, I was drawn naturally to the idea that there are organisms surviving, strike that, thriving in environmental conditions so extreme that a human could not survive beyond a millisecond. Our physiology allows us to endure a lot, hot and cold temperatures, excessive physical demands, and high and low atmospheric pressures. When our physiology reaches its limits, our brains devise ways to overcome those limitations. Up to a point, that is. To that end, extremophiles make us look like wimps.

The boardwalk takes you past Excelsior and then to the Grand Prismatic Springs. Here you see the outlying areas surrounding grand prismatic, with temperatures ranging from 147 to 188 degrees F. The rust-colored mats indicate extremophiles living in “cooler” temperatures.
Extremophiles, or more specifically, thermophiles are not wimps, but they can’t live everywhere. At temperatures of 189 degrees F, there are no living microorganisms, as indicated by the blue or hottest area of the spring. Blue indicates clear water. Why blue? When sunlight hits the water surface, it scatters. Blue light scatters the most and reflects off the water, which is what we see.
Of course, not everything can survive in extreme environments. Dead trees are common in Yellowstone as you see here. The springs are rich in minerals, like calcium carbonate. That’s the white stuff you see. It clogs the vascular systems of the trees.

Some extremophiles live in ice, some live thousands of feet under the ocean surface next to sea vents and some live in Yellowstone National Park. While you were self-isolating to avoid a tiny virus spreading across the land, you may have run across a story about a discovery in Yellowstone in 1966. On a visit to the park, biologist Dr. Thomas Brock made a discovery that microorganisms lived in the extreme heat of Yellowstone’s hot pools.

What you see here are microorganisms, archaea and bacteria, extremophiles, thermophiles. This was at the West Thumb Geyser Basin, next to Yellowstone Lake.
Yellow indicates temperatures around 165 degree F, thanks to cyanobacteria that produce carotenoids. Orange is another species of microorganisms that survive in slightly cooler temperatures, 149 degree F.
Red or burgundy color are microorganisms surviving in 131 degree F. Here you see a mud pot, not as attractive as the hotter aquamarine pools. Mudpots are lined with clay and have no direct connection to underground water. They are also stinky due to hydrogen sulfide gas. That’s Yellowstone Lake in the background.

A couple decades later, another scientist, Kary Mullis was attempting to make copies of a single DNA molecule. To do that, he needed an enzyme that could work at high temperatures. Guess where he found his enzyme? From Brock’s discovery of Thermus aquaticus in Yellowstone, scientists like Mullis could purchase a culture and grow batches to find the heat-resistant enzyme. It worked and those enzymes became the key to a widely used method to make millions of copies of genetic material. That method, called polymerase chain reaction or PCR, has such a significant effect on scientific advances, that a Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Mullis in 1993. And In 2020, scientists used the PCR method (remember the nose swab?) to detect the genetic material of COVID-19. You got to love science.

The travertine terraces of Mammoth Springs seen here and below. These are formed from limestone and the hot water that rises through the limestone.
The water carries dissolved limestone or calcium carbonate and deposits it at the surface. This forms the chalky white travertine terrace. The orange and rust colors are, you guessed it, extremophiles!

But I digress. The real reason most of us come to Yellowstone is not because of a fascination of tiny microorganisms that can live in temperatures above 170 degrees or pH levels below 3, but rather because our eyes perceive it as one of the most beautiful and fascinating places on earth. Earth needs to let off a little steam and heat, and it does so through its geothermal exit points – geysers, fumeroles, hot springs and mudpots. And where there are geothermals, there are thermophilic archaea and bacteria thriving among them. Because these extremophiles love to interact with heat and light, they become a feast of colors to the human eye. The creation of art through the collaborative efforts of biology and physics. Art on the edge brought to you by extremophilia.

And that is where we are left standing, in awe of earth and its life forms that present themselves beyond our human boundaries. That’s the nature of nature, and Yellowstone National Park offers one of the best ornaments on the tree of life.

June 23, 2021 – To the Moon and Back

A new state for both of us.

We drove north to Utah’s most northern border which meant we were very close to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. We could smell them in the air, that’s how close we were to them. But first, we had to take a detour and see the moon. Yellowstone would have to wait a few more days. So, let me tell you about our short time on the moon, and then we’ll get on with the granddaddy of national parks, all in good time.

Not far from the moon is the little town of Arco, where we stayed for three nights.
Only in Arco, where the first nuclear reactor was built near the town in 1955.

It amazes me that during the 1920s when laissez faire government dominated the post-war, pre-depression era, 11 national monuments that remain in existence today were designated. Among them is Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve that was declared in 1924 by President Calvin Coolidge. What is even more amazing is how it and many other parks and monuments came to be in the first place– through the passion and dedication of visionaries that insisted these lands be preserved and protected.

On our way to the moon.

Before describing a fascinating story of a fascinating Idahoan explorer who took up photography to document his adventures, let me introduce you to Craters of the Moon. In short, the park service describes it as a “weird and scenic landscape where yesterday’s volcanic events are likely to continue tomorrow.” On the Snake River Plain in Idaho are three young lava fields covering a half million acres. For about 15,000 years up until about 2000 years ago, lava erupted through several deep cracks that all together are known as the Great Rift.

Craters of the Moon, a landscape like no other on this planet.
Past volcanic activity shapes and colors these mountains.

When you come into Craters of the Moon, you will not see a large volcano like Mt St. Helens, for instance. Instead, you’ll see fields of rugged lava flows with several volcanic cones, cinder cone fragments and lava tube caves. This harsh landscape was created from fissure eruptions, along cracks in the earth’s crust. The eruptions were many, but relatively mild, thus producing several small cinder cones and extensive lava flows. Each cinder cone is a small volcano, the highest rising about 600 ft. Long ago, it would have been twice as high before the top blew off.

A cinder garden where wild buckwheat grows.
With little water and nutrients available, these little plants give each other plenty of space in between.

How did Craters of the Moon get its name? Here’s where the story of how it became a national monument turns interesting. During the late 1800s, people who traveled this area found nothing to love about the inhospitable lava beds that posed only as an obstacle to travel. One of Idaho’s most enthusiastic promoters thought differently. In 1918, Robert Limbert’s interest in the area piqued when he heard of a species of dwarf grizzlies. He made a couple short trips into the area and while he never found his grizzly, he did discover a great interest for exploring the lava fields.

A life-size photo display of Robert Limbert at the Robert Limbert Visitor Center.

In May 1920, Limbert, his Airedale dog Teddy and friend WC Cole went out with 2-weeks provisions. Weighing in at 55 lb, his backpack included a large camera and a rifle. By this time, Limbert had become a well-known naturalist writer for magazines like Outdoor Life. To illustrate his articles, he became a photographer. He set out to discover the lava fields with intentions of recording his discoveries on film.

I love Limbert’s description of the lava flow.
“Perhaps the strangest features of this flow are its color and texture. Its tint is a deep cobalt blue, with a glossy finish, resembling varnish or wavy sea of grays, purples, blues, and blacks.”
Lichen adds yellows and reds to the basaltic lava.

After walking several miles through sagebrush, they came onto their first lava flow, thick piles of sharp, irregular rocks. Limbert described it this way – “Like a pile of millions of cups and saucers where every time you took a step you slipped and, every time you slipped, you cut yourself”. The trek over the irregular rocks took its toll on the dog whose paws became raw. Limbert and Cole took to carrying the dog or waited for him to pick his way through the rock. At one point, Limbert cut patches of leather from his jacket to cover and protect the dog’s feet.

The park has a nice paved walking path through the jagged lava flows.

They crossed 28 miles of jagged lava flows during the first three days of the trek. Setting up camp at night was near impossible with very little level space to lie down upon. Waterholes were located by following old Indian or mountain sheep trails and watching birds drop down from the sky to drink water. After 17 days and 80 miles, they completed their journey upon arriving at the base of the Pioneer Mountains. Limbert summarized his experience this way – “To stand and gaze with amazement mingled with fear at things of which the world knows nothing…passing alone through volcanic craters…crossing miles of folds of rock similar to the folds of a huge blanket was indeed an experience never to be forgotten”.

A lava tube cave.
The lava fields were more colorful than I expected.

After that, Limbert continued to explore the area (without the dog) and brought scientists and civic leaders with him while arguing for the protection of the volcanic region. During these trips, he made over 200 still photographs and 4,000 feet of motion picture film. Limbert described his experiences vividly with stunning photo essays accompanying his articles in newspapers and magazines, the most prominent of which was in the March 1924 edition of National Geographic. Limbert also sent President Coolidge a scrapbook with pictures and descriptions of his experience in the Great Rift. Within two months following National Geographic’s publication of ‘Among the “Craters of the Moon”, Coolidge proclaimed the establishment of Craters of the Moon National Monument.

Under the Wilderness Act of 1964, Craters of the Moon was designated in 1970 as the first wilderness area in any national park unit. In 2000, its territory was expanded by 495, 000 acres. By the way, Craters of the Moon is not an extinct volcanic area, rather it is dormant. In other words, those volcanoes are not dead, they are only sleeping – for now.

At one point, park management tried to remove dwarf mistletoe, a native infectious parasite that slowly kills their host, the pine tree. Consequently, the park cut down 6000 trees only to discover their removal caused more harm than simply allowing the native parasite organism to live among the trees as nature intended.
Limber pine and juniper pine are the dominate tree species in the area. A part of the park is called “tree mold” where lava incinerated trees leaving cavities molded to the shape of the tree.
Native American rock rings. People lived in the Snake River Plain before and after the volcanoes erupted.
Walking on the moon.
Plant life on a cinder cone.
Somewhere between Craters of the Moon and Arco, on Highway 26/93.

June 17, 2021 – Utah’s Headquarters

Our campground on a hill, overlooking Deer Creek Reservoir in the Wasatch Mountains near Provo.
After spending several weeks climbing rocks and hiking through canyons, a few days at Deer Creek State Park gave us some deserved respite.
Casual hikes in the hilltops along the reservoir was all we needed for a few days.

At this point, Utah’s colorful landscapes within premiere parks were the crème de la crème of our travels. For the past three weeks we had been exploring Utah’s iconic rock landscapes by way of four national parks, three state parks, and three national monuments. It was time for a change and a little down time. Utah’s exquisitely expressive rock formations will always remain vivid in our conscious and will be what identifies Utah for us. But while Utah’s geological history became front and center in our travel lessons, the state’s human history also piqued our interest. After several weeks among its national parks, we had additional time to spend in Utah as we necessarily drove through Salt Lake City on our way to Idaho. Consequently, we stayed in the Great Salt Lake area for six days, first at Deer Creek State Park near Provo and then north of SLC in Ogden.

Camped at Deer Creek SP gave us a chance to visit BYU’s impressive Museum of Art in Provo.
This is one of the paintings I found in the Museum of Art’s “Becoming America” exhibit. I was taken aback by “Lift up Thine Eyes” with so much detail and depth. I dare you to guess the artist. I was surprised to learn who it was, having thought of him as an illustrator rather than a painter.

Looking up in the museum’s lobby from various perspectives, I could not stop photographing these translucent filaments that refracted rays of light like a giant prism. This is the work of artist Gabriel Dawe.

Up until then, the fact that Utah is often identified as a “Mormon State” stayed on the back burner of our minds while we explored its remote and wild desert regions. It was only during our time in Bluff that we thought about Mormons while learning the fascinating story of how and why Bluff was founded. Each state in the union can claim it’s fame from something unique to it, and I suppose the fact that two thirds of Utah’s population (about 2 million people) identify themselves as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints is quite a unique quality.

Visiting the museum was a history lesson. The artist, CCA Christensen is known for his paintings depicting the history of the Latter-day Saints. In this painting, members of the church are chased out of Missouri by angry mobs.
In this beautiful painting by CCA Christensen, the Latter-day Saints cross the Mississippi on Ice, during the initial exodus in 1846. By 1869, approximately 60,000 Latter-day Saints pioneers journeyed west.
The artist Maynard Dixon is known for his paintings of the American West. Here, he illustrates Brigham Young standing before his followers with the scriptures in one hand and a plow in the other. Presence of the Divine is evident in the clouds.

Indeed, Utah is the only state where most of the population belongs to one church. As the President of the Church, Russell M. Nelson is given the exclusive right to receive revelations from God on behalf of the entire church or the entire world. The president is the highest priesthood authority on earth. That’s a lot of power for one person. One Man and one Church equals the majority rule in Utah.

Temple Square was undergoing massive renovation while we visited Salt Lake City. We were able to take the walking tour but certain buildings were still closed due to Covid. A significant impetus for the renovation was the 5.7 earthquake that shook SLC in 2020.

And by the way, during our tour of Temple Square that was led by two very young and enthusiastic members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I never once heard the word “Mormon”. Later, I learned that in 2018, President Nelson said that God had “impressed upon my mind the importance of the name he has revealed for his church”. Thusly, the church announced, that its members should no longer call themselves Mormons, or even use the shorthand LDS. Instead, they should use the full name Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Latter-day Saints for short. Because Nelson is revered as a living prophet, the announcement came with divine weight.

A monument to the pioneers that walked the Mormon Trail while pulling handcarts. By the way, proper use of the word Mormon, such as Book of Mormon or Mormon Trail remains acceptable.
In the halls of Utah’s state capitol, a statue of Brigham Young looms large. Who says religion and politics don’t mix?

So, the church that has been popularly known as the Mormons or Mormonism, wants people to stop using the ‘M’ word. As a person not associated with the Church of Latter-day Saints, or any Church for that matter, I can understand their reasoning. The word ‘Mormon’ has often been used to identify a specific group of Christians that don’t fit in with the other kids on the playground of Christianity. I have witnessed ridicule and derision toward Mormonism and this was in far-away Michigan where it’s doubtful many Mormons reside. One of the reasons for a certain disdain has to do with polygamy, although Utah was granted statehood in 1896 on the condition it ban polygamy. However, perceptions die hard.

In addition to Temple Square, we visited the state capitol where across the street, women’s suffrage was being recognized at the visitor center. The visitor center building was where Utah women cast the first votes on February 14, 1870. What is given can also be taken away. In 1887, that’s exactly what happened to women’s right to vote in Utah.
Rescinding women’s right to vote in 1887 was an act by Utah’s legislature to reduce the power of the Church by removing half its voting numbers. This outraged many people, including Emmeline Wells, who became a leading figure in the suffrage movement. In 1896, equal suffrage was included in the State Constitution.
Martha Hughes Cannon became a leader in Utah’s suffrage movement after Utah disenfranchised women in 1887. In 1896, she became Utah’s first female state senator after defeating her own husband. One can only imagine their dinner table conversations.

No other Church community can claim a “Great Migration” in the U.S or as great of a colonization as the Latter-Day Saints. The fact the Great Mormon Migration occurred from Illinois to Utah was due to the growing influence and power of its charismatic leader and founder, Joseph Smith. By 1847, Smith’s relatively new Church was expanding in numbers and gaining a foothold in Illinois politics. Outsiders perceived it as clannish and of course, there was the seedy polygamy issue. Following Smith’s murder by an angry mob, his successor Brigham Young gathered up the church members and convinced them to get out of Illinois where violence and persecution against them were ramping up.

(We spent a couple hours walking around the newly renovated state capitol. Take a look at this slideshow and you’ll see why we spent so much time there.)

So, with handcarts and a handful of slaves to help them on the way, Young led his followers to a secluded place where they could prosper – the Promised Land. The pioneers made the 1300-mile trek from Illinois to Utah and on July 24, 1847, found themselves in the Salt Lake Valley where they settled – without the approval of the Mexican government or the indigenous people already living there, of course. Once settled in the valley, the pioneers proceeded to spread out far and wide across the Utah territory, forming a strong foothold in the area.

One of the places settled in the great lake basin was Antelope Island on the Great Salt Lake. At the state park, you can visit a working ranch and museum where Mormon pioneers lived and worked for several decades. And yes, that is a bison in the distance. And that white stuff, is salt.
In the museum, you get an idea of pioneer life on Antelope Island. Brigham Young’s portrait is very much a part of the scene.
The Great Salt Lake is experiencing its lowest levels of water in almost 200 years. Here you can see the road that crosses the lake from Salt Lake City to the island.

(Here is a slideshow with photos from our day spent on Antelope Island, where the bison and antelope roam free.)

Because the combination of religion and politics should never be brought up in conversation, I will leave you with one final point of interest – Utah’s state motto. It is one word – ‘Industry’. Do you know the significance of a state motto? It is representative of what is valued most by a state. For Utah, it is the legacy of its pioneers that relied on industry to survive in a place where few material resources existed. But then again, so did many people back in those days, including those already living there.

One last view of our time in Ogden, a few scenes from its historic downtown area:

Next to what was then 5th Street, a Union Station opened in1869 with the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad. Fifth Street became 25th Street in 1889, and by then was a popular hub for travelers and became the center of activity in Ogden.
Everything is historical in Ogden, even the beer! Apparently, the street was once known for lots of illegal and immoral activity including prostitution, gambling and drug dealing. So much so that it was rumored Al Capone deemed Ogden too wild of a town for him.
Now, downtown Ogden is a quiet place with some nice horse sculptures.

June 10, 2021 – Land of the Sleeping Rainbow

About 18 miles of Utah’s state road 24 passes through the northern edge of Capitol Reef National Park. This was our introduction to the park as we had to drive it to get to our campground in Torrey, our home for one week.

The Earth is old and wrinkled, and those wrinkles make the Earth look distinguished. The most prominent of them is in Utah. Earth’s crust has many “geologic wrinkles” where movement along a fault caused one side of the fault to shift vertically upward, creating a monocline or “step-up” in rock layers. Before all that happened though, sedimentary rock accumulated for hundreds of millions of years, forming distinctive layers that give evidence to time periods when rivers and swamps, deserts, and shallow oceans with tidal flats existed. Along the way, great tectonic forces uplifted these rock layers.

A view of Capitol Reef NP, looking east from scenic highway 12.
Gooseneck views are common here in Utah. This is Capitol Reef’s Goosenecks overlook, where Sulphur Creek runs below. This was our first stop on our first day in Capitol Reef.
A view of Capitol Reef with our campground location to the west and the routes to the Capitol Gorge and Grand Wash hiking trails.

The Colorado Plateau is a quarter million square-mile region contained in Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado that was uplifted relatively evenly. This maintained the sedimentary layers in a horizontal position, such as what you see in the Grand Canyon. Those eye-catching buttes that make the American southwest so iconic are “erosional islands” among the once continuous plateau of horizontal rock layers. I’ll get back to the phenomenon of erosion later because it is the secret sauce of the southwest landscape that we come to admire, and it plays a large role in earth’s wrinkles.

Hiking through a Capitol Reef rock canyon, I felt as humbled as I do paddling through the Everglades’ cathedral of mangrove trees.
Petroglyph from the Fremont Culture.
One early morning, I seemed to have the canyon to myself and it was magical.

Somewhere in the Colorado Plateau is a grand exception to the horizontal layers of rocks. It is the Waterpocket Fold, a “100-mile-long warp in Earth’s crust”, and what the Navajo referred to as “Land of the Sleeping Rainbow”. About 50-70 million years ago, an ancient fault was reactivated causing movement in the earth’s crust. The west side of the fault shifted upward about 7,000 feet higher than the east side. Basically, the layer cake was tipped severely. It is a classic monocline, and this one is the largest of its kind on earth.

So many strange and wonderful landscapes to explore in Capitol Reef.
I was enchanted.
I wandered off into this intriguing volcanic canyon area and could not keep myself from wandering further and further. Every view was a new one.

That wrinkle is what eventually caused the creation of Capitol Reef National Park. Remember what I said about erosion? If only one thing is learned from our time spent exploring New Mexico and Utah is that erosion is what makes this landscape stand out among all others. And we owe it all to water. Of course, deposition of sedimentary rocks over hundreds of millions of years and great shifts in tectonic plates are the basic ingredients, but erosion is the spice.

The Fremont River. Water is everything that is Capitol Reef.

Capitol Reef National Park centers around the Waterpocket Fold. Waterpocket is the name given to the ongoing erosion of rock layers in the monocline, the small depressions in the sandstone layers formed by water. Those eroding tilted rock layers provide us “colorful cliffs, massive domes, soaring spires, stark monoliths, twisting canyons and graceful arches” to view in total amazement and wonder. It is erosion that inspires artists and explorers, and it is what inspires the creation of national parks.

After a hike through Capitol Gorge, we stopped in Fruita, where apples, apricot, cherry, peach, pear, and plum trees grow.

Water attracted farmers to the Waterpocket Fold, beginning with the ancestral Puebloan and Fremont people. Petroglyph panels provide beautiful evidence of the Fremont Culture, named from the river that flows through the park. Looking east, Mormon (Latter Day Saints) settlers exploring the high plateau west of what is now Capitol Reef saw water snaking through the cliffs and domes of the Waterpocket Fold. The original community called it Fremont River and where the river joined Sulphur Creek, established “the Eden of Wayne County”. In 1902, the name of the self-sufficient settlement was changed to Fruita, in recognition of the fruit orchards cultivated by the 10 or so families that made it their home. While much of the settlement is gone (a few buildings have been preserved), the orchards remain and visitors can pick fruit when in season or more easily purchase tasty fruit pies.

And where remnants of the Eden of Wayne County can be found.
The white-tailed deer love Fruita.
What’s not to love. Very close to this orchard is Capitol Reef’s campground.

The Fruita residents were so proud of their little piece of heaven that in 1921 they organized a booster club to promote it. Local Ephraim Portman Pectol organized a nation-wide campaign to get the word out that he and his neighbors lived in paradise, many referred to as Wayne Wonderland. Pectol got elected to Utah’s legislature in 1933. He immediately contacted President Franklin D. Roosevelt and asked him to create “Wayne Wonderland National Monument”.

The Mormon Registry, a more modern petroglyph.
Coming into the park from the west side, on my way to Grand Wash.

He must have been quite convincing and perhaps Roosevelt himself visited the Waterpocket Fold and did not require convincing because in 1938, he signed a proclamation to create Capitol Reef National Monument. The original name did not stick and for that I am relieved (does a Chevy Chase movie or a Mike Meyers character come to mind?). The name ‘Capitol Reef’ by the way came from the many large white Navajo sandstone domes that resemble many capitol buildings in the U.S. including the one in Washington D.C., and for the fact the ridge crust of the Waterpocket Fold presents a barrier to travelers, much like a reef in the ocean.

“Whereas certain public lands in the State of Utah contain narrow canyons displaying evidence of ancient sand dune deposits of unusual scientific value, and have situated thereon various other objects of geological and scientific interest; and Whereas it appears that it would be in the public interest to reserve such lands as a national monument, to be known as the Capitol Reef National Monument…”

-Proclamation No. 2246 on August 2, 1937, Page 136 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt

In 1971, Congress legislated an act to establish Capitol Reef National Park, signed into law on December 18, 1971 by President Nixon. And that is the story of how a wrinkle on earth became a 254,000-acre national park. Well played Earth.

Enjoy this slideshow from my time spent in one of Capitol Reef’s canyons, the Grand Wash.

While staying in Torrey, we spent most of our time in Capitol Reef, but we did take one day to make a long scenic loop drive to continue exploring Utah.

We headed south on scenic route 12 through Grand Staircase-Escalante and visited two state parks, Escalante Petrified Forest and Kodachrome before topping the day off with Bryce Canyon NP.

Enjoy this slideshow from our day trip.

And we also took another day to explore the Fishlake area, northeast of Capitol Reef. It is there where we saw “The Trembling Giant”, also known as the “Pando”. And we saw our first marmot!

A beautiful day trip through Fishlake National Forest on the western edge of the Colorado Plateau.
The Pando is a clonal colony of individual aspen trees, known to be a single living organism by identical genetic markers. These trees have one massive underground root system!
We did see nesting white pelicans and black-crowned night herons, but all I have to show for it is a lone marmot. Can you find it?
Overlooking one of the many creeks in Fishlake National Forest.