Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Avalanche Peak: 10,568 feet above sea level.

High on my list of things to do in Yellowstone National Park was to try to bag at least a couple of peaks that are over 10K feet above sea level. And I very much wanted to get at least one that was over 11,000 feet when we got to Grand Tetons. Although both parks are packed with peaks in that range (and over), many of them are parts of multi-day treks. Since Carole and Andy were with me and don't like to hike, I knew that I'd have to stick to day hikes to bag the peaks. So I picked out several that looked like easy to bag summits within a day.

My limitations turned out to be the road system in Yellowstone. Because of the low speed limits you can't really drive very fast (and shouldn't want to do so). Add to this the fact that there are often various traffic delays and it's even harder to get around the park. The Obama administration has sent a lot of funds to the National Parks to take care of the abuse and neglect that they suffered during the W. Moron Bush years. This meant that several of the roads in the Park were under construction and this caused detours and delays in excess of 30 minutes in getting from Point A to Point B.

The morning that I chose to hike the first peak on my list, Avalanche Peak, I didn't take into account the great distance from the lodging we were using, and the guidebook I was using had some just plain bad information in it that caused us to miss the trail head. Thus we overshot the location and drove past it needlessly and into a traffic jam caused by a road improvement project. By the time I figured out what was wrong we had to sit pass through the jam, then turn around and pass through it again. Thus, I ended up at the trail more than an hour later than I had intended. Instead of starting my hike at 9:30 am, I wasn't able to get started until a little after 11:00 am.

As I got ready to hike, Andy decided that the cut he'd gotten on the sole of his right foot the previous day was just too severe to allow him to hike. So he elected to stay at the car while I went ahead. It's supposedly really not a good idea to enter the back country alone, because of the presence of grizzly bears. Andy and I had just seen a griz shortly before we arrived at the trailhead. But the bear took off into a ravine and vanished as soon as it was aware of us. So that was a good sign that the griz really didn't want anything to do with me.

Still, looking at the warning at the beginning of the trail didn't do much for my confidence. "Don't travel alone" was the first warning there. In addition, I had just accidentally hit myself with pepper spray while checking out my bear spray! My thumb hit the button when I was checking the plastic safety on the bottle and I found my left hand covered in burning hot spray and some of it on my right eyebrow! Oh, joy. Luckily there was a creek at hand and I washed the stuff off. It's pretty potent crap and I can see how it can fend off bears. Deciding that the views and the experience would be worth the risk, I headed up, leaving Andy at the car to explore the picnic area and environs and listen to satellite radio.

The trail was, as advertised, pretty steep to begin. But nothing I hadn't experienced in the East. In fact, the trails in Yellowstone are so well maintained that they're like vast graded boulevards in contrast to the National Forest trails I'm accustomed to using. In addition, the air out west is so dry that I didn't suffer the long ordeals of sweating that I have to contend with here in the South. I hiked up that mountain relatively sweat-free!

At about 9000 feet I came out of the forest and onto the tree line. The trail flattened out and I was rewarded with a fantastic view of the bowl below the summits of Avalanche Peak! It was fantastic! I stopped there to get out my tripod and take many photos. After a short while another hiker appeared and we talked. His name was Russ Snider and he was from Colorado. He asked if he could join me and so we ended up hiking to the summit together and taking the unofficial loop trail down the peak and back to the Avalanche Peak Trail. One thing that I had originally wanted to do was bag Hoyt Peak in the same hike, but I was really low on water by that time and I was also worried about leaving Andy alone at the parking area any more. Five hours alone waiting for me was plenty, I figured. So Russ and I decided not to hike Hoyt Peak and pushed on down to the road.

It was for views like this that I went to Yellowstone! I was amazed!

The views from Avalanche were amazing. And I realized in an instant why the western hikers/backpackers/climbers who I encounter always have a jaded opinion of the mountains of the East and South. Yeah, we have some tough terrain in this neck of the woods, but what the high country of the eastern USA lacks is a true vastness and a sense of real wilderness. Our wild country is just so small and contained in comparison to that of the West.

On the summit ridge of my first 10K-foot mountain, Avalanche Peak.

After exchanging email addresses with Russ, Andy and I headed back to our cabin and Old Faithful Inn to get in some more day hiking elsewhere in the Park. But the experience of bagging my first over 10K-foot peak was under my belt! It was all that I had hoped it would be!

View from the summit of Avalanche Peak.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Becoming a Fan Favorite (The Talent of No Talent and Ass-Kissing)


I'll try to be as objective as possible in writing this bit.

As a writer I can't help but notice the career path of some other authors. And if you've been reading my blog for a while, you know my general opinion of other writers.

One thing that has baffled me is the (relative) popularity of writers who have no talent at all. Now, I will admit that "talent" is a subjective topic. It's largely a matter of opinion, but just bear with me. I've been writing for a long time and I've been critically following genre literature for decades. In the days when I wrote an opinion column about weird fiction, I was generally respected for my commentary, opinion though it was.

What I've realized is that some writers caught a certain wave at a particular point and were able to ride it for a long time, thus building up a loyal fan base. Perhaps they wrote a serial killer novel when such books were new and fresh and they were lucky enough to have their work appear on the shelves at just the right time. Or maybe they wrote a zombie novel back in the days when there was a desire for these things and not a lot of supply. They could have penned a vampire novel or a time travel romance or even a vampire-time-travel-romance or...well, whatever the flavor-of-the-year may have been when there just weren't a lot of that particular sub-genre to be had.

Then they flogged that horse to death and hopped on another mount and flogged that one.

It happens. I could name a number of such writers, but to be diplomatic I'll refrain from mentioning names.

The second part of the puzzling success of such no-talents lies with their abilities to network and to schmooze. An integral part of the networking lies in the talent to speak to other writers and editors and critics without saying anything at all to piss off any of them. Basically, this is borne out by keeping opinions completely private, or voicing only popularly held opinions. Dishonesty and boot-licking is at a premium and in display. And, of course, once the fan base is established, the author must dance like a fool or stand in one place like a vegetable to keep from saying or doing anything at all to displease that (probably) tenuous following.

It's all part of creating and keeping the "brand". This is exactly how a certain writer I sometimes encounter on the Internet referred to himself. He's a "brand". And, in a disgusting sort of way, I reckon that he is, indeed, a brand. His work is bland and vacuous, his only political statements are inanities like 'support the troops', 'I love Jesus', and such, and he never misses a chance to kiss the right ass.

Okay. I failed utterly in trying to remain objective. I couldn't do it. It's just too damned hard to remain objective when witnessing this kind of prostitution. Oh, well. I did try.

It's when watching such examples of calculated idiocy that I despair, just a bit How to do this when you hold many unpopular ideas and embrace philosophies that are at odd with the mainstream?

I guess I'll find out as the months progress. I'll do my best, but I won't kiss any ass. It just ain't in my nature.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Day of the Big Hike

It was time to get up so that we could get an early start for the big hike to the summit of Avalanche Peak. I wanted to wake up early, get dressed, and drive to the trail head to get in a full day of walking!

Come on Andy! Get up! Wakey wakey! Rise and shine!!

Cram it, old man!

Later that day, in Lamar Valley...

Hey! You didn't take a picture of me while I was scratching my ass, did you??!!

I would never do that! And even if I did, I wouldn't post that photo of William Andrew Smith of Charlotte North Carolina on the world wide web for everyone to see, including your pals and your girlfriend.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Rescued Swallow

One of the first hot springs we visited was a really nice one called "Old Caliente". It was a classic hot spring. It boiled and bubbled and splashed and steamed and flowed down a terrace into a cold river.

Here I am standing in front of Old Caliente.

As we wandered around the place, Andy was curious if you could wade into the river below the hot spring terrace and find a spot where the boiling spring water mixed with the icy cold river water and made for some warm temperatures just right for soaking one's feet. So he pulled off his shoes and went in, finding just such a comfort zone. (This was days before we visited Boiling River.)

After a while, another tourist pointed out something in the water. "Is that a turtle?" the guy asked Andy. Since Andy was already wading around in the water, he shuffled over to see what it was. It was stuck in the water weeds well out in the river where the water was frigidly cold--about 50 degrees or so. Bending over, Andy saw that it wasn't a turtle, but the head of a little bird--a swallow--just sticking up. The little guy was about half-drowned and struggling to keep its beak above water.

So Andy picked it up, carefully cradled it in his hands and brought it ashore.

These swallows are bug-eaters. I think what happened was that it was diving, or maybe skimming along the river and just fell in. And it got stuck in the weeds. You aren't supposed to muck about with the wildlife, but we made an exception. The little fellow (or gal) was almost totally exhausted. It could barely pick up its head from having tried to keep from drowning for who knows how long before Andy found it.

We ended up putting it in the meadow beside a log so that it could recuperate (hopefully) and get itself airborne again. In retrospect, maybe we should have taken it to the car and held it in front of the heater vent for a while, but as I said you're really not supposed to mess with the wildlife in the park. We had already done enough to get ourselves in trouble, I reckon.

But I'd like to think we saved the little bird so that it could hunt bugs and live longer.

The tiny bird was totally exhausted from trying to keep its head above water in the terribly cold river. I hope it recovered. It could barely keep its eyes open while Andy was holding it.

Friday, August 27, 2010


I was playing around with the telephoto lens on the new camera trying to figure it out and experiment with the various settings. Finally, I found a way to take some decent shots of the night sky.

Yeah, now I'm looking in to buying some more powerful telephoto lenses and a more solid tripod for the camera.

The Moon, not quite full.

Working hard on the novel. Pushing to make the deadline.

Some great news! Lower birth rates!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Da Boilin' River

On the 18th of August, when we were staying at Mammoth Hot Springs, we took a little side trail early in the morning that led down the Gardner River to a spot known as "The Boiling River". This is actually a hot spring that bleeds off of the Mammoth hot springs that pours out of the earth adjacent to the Gardner. If you pick your spot just so, the scalding water from the hot spring mixes perfectly with the frigid waters of the Gardner River to give one excellent hot soaking water. While the spot is not on any official listing, it's widely known by--apparently--every tourist around, and is extremely popular. If you want to enjoy the place, I suggest doing as we did and rising early, getting a good parking spot in the lot, and hiking the half-mile graded trail to the springs.

We did just that and when we arrived there were only about eight or ten people in the Boiling River. And the water flowing into the Gardner River really is scalding hot. So you can burn yourself if you're not careful. Stay out of the stream flowing out of the spring and just feel your way along the Gardner to a point that's just right. People have formed pools along the bank that are perfect for sitting and just enjoying the muscle-massaging currents of the fast flowing, very warm water! We had a great time here and spent almost two hours just taking it easy.

If the water gets too hot for you, all you have to do is float out toward the center of the Gardner a few feet and you're suddenly in icy-cold water! I did this a couple of times. Very sobering!

This was the nice, level, graded trail to Boiling River. Easy walking!

Andy and Carole crossing a small footbridge along the trail.

Semi-arid terrain along the icy cold Gardner River.

Carole and Andy soaking in a perfect hot-spot!

This is where the Boiling River (actually spring run-off from the Mammoth Hot Springs a few miles away) runs into the Gardner River. Stay out of the channel on the left--it's scalding hot!

Me and Carole soaking in a pool that European kid behind us had constructed. I beat his kraut ass and took the pool from him. (Not really.)

Andy sitting on a huge boulder on the hike out. One of my regrets in life is that I was too busy and/or too poor to take Andy to places like this when he was a kid. Oh, well. Better late than never.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Animals We Encountered

One of the main reasons I went to Yellowstone/Grand Tetons was to view the wildlife. It's one of the finest relatively intact set of ecosystems in the lower 48 States. We were not disappointed. We witnessed more wildlife roaming free and essentially wild than I have seen since I cruised around the Okefenokee Swamp some years back. We experienced more large wild native mammals over our days in the Parks than at any other time in our lives. Here's a brief accounting of only some of the creatures we were able to photograph.

This was the only black bear we saw on the trip. It was high on Signal Mountain. Everyone thought it was a griz, but it was actually a brown-phase black bear. I think it was in the midst of shedding its summer coat and growing in its winter one. It never raised its head the whole time we were watching and was intent only on eating the berries growing all around it.

Click on this stitched panorama. It was taken of a set of bison herds in Hayden Valley. The bison are quite a lot of fun to watch. One must be careful, though, for they can be very temperamental. We went during the rut and a lot of the males were highly aggressive.

We saw several baby grouse as we were hiking out of the forest near one of the geyser basins. They were intent on feeding and seemed oblivious of the humans standing over them.

This was the parent of the grouse chicks. Unlike the young, she was very upset to see us arrive.

This was the first of the Grizzly bears that I saw. This one was in a field some distance away as I was getting ready to hike to the summit of Avalanche Peak in the eastern side of Yellowstone. This bear did not want anything to do with us and it vanished into a ravine before I could get any really good photographs. Good Grizzly bear!

I photographed this osprey with our old pocket camera as we were rafting down the Yellowstone River out of Gardner Montana.

I think Carole took this one. She got caught inside a herd of elk that was crossing the path to get across the road at Mammoth Springs.

This is the only bald eagle that we saw on the trip. It was flying around a high butte on which we were standing above Lake Yellowstone.

I could watch the bison all day. This one was rolling about in a wallow, kicking up the dust.

I took this one because the ravens in the Park are just so damned huge! This particular bird was walking around eating the bugs out of the grills of automobiles in the parking lot.

This bull elk had the best rack we saw on the trip. Still in velvet, he was very careful not to let his antlers touch the pine tree limbs as he walked beneath it.

These were bighorn sheep--ewes and kids on Mount Washburn.

I really wanted to see Pronghorn antelope. We didn't see one until we hit Lamar Valley, which was my favorite part of the park (which I'll explain in a later post).

This osprey family had its nest on a rock pinnacle in Tower Canyon. The mother had delivered a big fish just before I took this shot.

Carole wanted to see a moose more than any other animal. On our next-to-last day we finally saw three of them. Here are two of the three. They were really chowing down on the green stuff beside the Snake River.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Overview of Yellowstone National Park (My 1000th Blog Post)


We've been home for a whole day, now. Thank Jove I took today off, too. Just to recover from that long jet ride back to Charlotte! Going out wasn't so bad, but then I wasn't run ragged from hiking every single day.

What I'll try to do right now is get down my basic impressions before I get into too much detail.

First of all, I can see why so many western hikers/rock climbers/backpackers/kayakers that I meet are so smug about the South and the East. In a nutshell, what constitutes a state or even National Park here in the East is what's in most people's freaking back yards in the western states. I can understand their attitudes about our natural areas here. I always understood that it was different in the west, but now that I've experienced it I can see where that air of superiority comes from.

The western wild lands are vast!!!

That's the feeling you get almost everywhere you go. It's Big Sky country, for damned sure. It really hit home to me when I got up above tree line on my hike to the summit of Avalanche Peak (10,568 feet above sea level). I've hiked tougher peaks here in the South, for sure. I've hiked many such peaks that have far more elevation between base and summit here in the east, too. What was different was that once you're on the top of this 10K-foot peak, you are surrounded by miles and miles and miles and more miles of other such peaks. Above timberline terrain in almost every direction you look. And far away you can see peaks that loom to 11,000 feet and higher, on up to 13K+ feet!

It's amazing!

And the other thing about Yellowstone is its size. It's enormous. And the variation from one section of the park to another was also surprising. Each quadrant was so much more diverse from the one before. I didn't know what to expect as I drove from one corner of the park to the next--every bend in the road and every walk into a valley or onto a summit brought a new kind of ecosystem to view. It was breathtaking.

I have to mention, of course, the wildlife. It was everywhere. And it's the only place I've ever been where large mammals are commonplace. With no fences or manmade barriers (other than roads) to hinder their movements. Of the large animals in the park I saw many. A brief count:

2 grizzly bears

1 black bear

8 black tail deer

1 coyote
3 moose
8 bighorn sheep
dozens of pronghorn antelope
scores of elk
thousands of bison (yes, thousands!)

We saw many birds, including Sandhill cranes, osprey, a bald eagle, huge ravens, trumpeter swans, and others.

Only the grizzly bears seemed disturbed by the presence of human beings. Of the two grizzlies that I saw, one left as soon as it became aware of me, and the other was fast asleep and at a great distance. Everything else we saw were creatures who appear to be only mildly suspicious of humans. It was nice to be able to photograph these animals at relatively close range. But we obeyed all Park regulations and did our best to keep our distance from everything we saw.

I can understand why the geyser basins and the thermal features are so fascinating to most park visitors. There's nothing like this in the Eastern side of our continent. Almost everywhere you drive or hike there are all kinds of active volcanic formations. Geysers are around, as are hot springs and mudpots and fumaroles. It was both exciting and frightening to stand before gaping caverns that literally roared, belching sulfurous hot fumes and expelling boiling water. You have to see this. The nation is lucky to have such a place. I am glad and happy and satisfied to have finally seen so much of this magical park.

Later, I'll write some details of our trip. We hiked every day. I doubt a single day passed where I failed to hike at least three or four miles, although I don't think I covered more than eleven at the most in a single day. We took a long raft trip on the Yellowstone River that was a great experience, too.

The only negative thing I have to say about the Park is that some of the lodging centers and geyser basins are just too goddamned crowded! We stayed two nights at Old Faithful Lodge Cabins and I sincerely wish that I'd booked rooms elsewhere. The huge numbers of human beings in that place are just too much to tolerate. I'd been told that I could have avoided these crowds by booking our trip for the early to middle part of September, but I was getting stir crazy from the lac
k of hiking time this year and I couldn't bear to wait any longer. Plus, I wanted to be sure that the weather was still going to be warm enough for rafting trips and dips in the rivers and lakes.

If you make it to Yellowstone and want to stay in the park, my recommendations are these:

Canyon Village Cabins. Great little cabins with good facilities.
Mammoth Hot Springs Lodge. (Don't use their cabins unless you enjoy staying in places where you can hear everything your neighbors say through paper-thin walls.)

No lodging in the Park was really bad...but some places were less than desirable for various reasons. All of the lodging at Old Faithful was tainted by the almost endless, horrid crowds and heavy traffic of everything from bicycles, motorcycles, cars, trucks, RVs, and tour buses and freight trucks. Go see the geysers early in the day and otherwise avoid this area during peak tourist season.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Grand Tetons

Well, we're finally home. What a long trip back!

One of my hopes in life was to see the Grand Tetons/Yellowstone ecosystem. It was amazing to see all of those large animals roaming free with no restrictions and no fences or physical boundaries. It was as close as I guess I'll ever come to witnessing our ancient Pleistocene megafauna.

In the days to come I'll post details of my impressions. For now I'm exhausted and have to get back to work on the latest novel.

The Grand Tetons from Jenny Lake.

Click on this photo.

On the way back home the jet we were using stopped in Dallas. Everyone but Carole and I disembarked. Thus I got the chance to take a shot of the aisles with absolutely no one (but Carole) sitting in them. It was a rare chance, so I snapped a few shots.