Sunday, July 17, 2011

Shane & Sabrina plus Six!

"Aunt Sabrina, Aunt Sabrina it's a Bison!" squealed my 8 year old nephew. Adorned with a Junior Ranger vest and hat, his smile was priceless. He had been patiently counting down the days since school finished, for his vacation to visit his Park Ranger Aunt & Uncle in Yellowstone National Park, and now he was here! Accompanying him on his trip were 5 other "first-timers": His Dad, Grandpa, Grandma, Uncle Brent, and Cousin Hailie. Despite the 50 year gap between the youngest and oldest they all admired the sights with equal enthusiasm and zest, a testament that whether you are 1 or 101 yrs old, Wonderland brings a smile to every one's face.

I can still remember my first time to Wonderland. I was not a child yet I couldn't help but act like one. "A wolf", I exclaimed, my arm nearly knocking out my husband as he attempted to drive through Hayden Valley. A beautiful all white wolf was dashing at rocket speeds through the open sage brush of Hayden Valley.  I would later learn that she was the Alpha female of the Hayden Pack, and that summer (2007), she quickly became my favorite wolf.

But now Shane and I had the opportunity to share the wonders of Yellowstone with our family. We had six days to discover, explore and fall in love with the beauties of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Although Park Rangers have all sorts of favorite "off the beaten path" spots, our travels did not differ from that of which I would recommend to any other visitor. We found ourselves at all the must-see places such as West Thumb, Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, Fountain Paint Pots, Mammoth Hot Springs, Hayden Valley, Lamar Valley and of course the Iconic Old Faithful.

Arriving at Old Faithful on Friday, I had my Park Ranger uniform in my travel bag because I had been invited to assist with a film permit. America's First National Park regularly receives film permit requests for all sorts of reasons but this time it was for a reality TV show called Kate plus Eight. I was excited to be one of the rangers assisting with this film permit and even more excited that my family would get to see "Ranger Sabrina in Action!"
Old Faithful was predicted to erupted at 6:31pm, +/- 10 minutes and I was scheduled to sit next to the reality TV show family and share with them a little about Old Faithful. Teaching park visitors about Yellowstone is such a rewarding experience whether the visitors are your family or a reality TV show family! As we waited for Old Faithful to erupt  I taught them about the Yellowstone Super volcano and how a  geyser like Old Faithful works. Soon Old Faithful was erupting and simultaneously my family, Kate plus eight, and hundreds of other families watched as the iconic geyser blew- all of us in awe of the wonders of nature and the powerful force of the Yellowstone super volcano.  Watching Old Faithful erupt immediately brings about all sorts of questions to the spectators mind. Happily, I answered a variety of questions about Old Faithful, and soon the reality TV show family smiled and politely thanked me for sharing my knowledge, before they headed off on their next adventure. As I returned to my family, my nephew proudly proclaimed : "Aunt Sabrina, I want to be a ranger like you and teach people about the park". It was the perfect ending to a fabulous day!

But the next day "Shane and Sabrina plus Six" were also on their next adventure. Exiting the Park through the Northeast Entrance we soon found ourselves exploring the Beartooth Mountains. Climbing up higher and higher through granite domes we stopped at every lookout to snap some pictures. I had seen all these mountains before, taken pictures of all these views before; yet I still found myself mesmerized and snapping my camera at every moment. It's hard to ignore beauty even if you've seen it one hundred times. Stopping for lunch at Clay Butte I watched as my niece and nephew played in the snow patches, dipped their feet into the cold waters of Bear Lake and ran through the open meadows that were filled with shooting stars and other wildflowers. And as we drove home on our final day I looked down at my nephew who was curled up in my lap taking a nap. His sun tanned cheeks were a mixture of pink and brown. His shirt was dirty and his little feet were grimy. His completed Junior Ranger Book lie on the floor of the car.  And his face had a smile on it, with the look of a little boy who had just explored, discovered and fallen in love with Wonderland! I closed my eyes as well and soon fell asleep, with pink and brown cheeks, a smile on my face and a happy little boy curled up in my lap.    


Sunday, July 10, 2011

July Mayhem in Yellowstone

I have heard many year-round Yellowstone Rangers proclaim the same thing " I endure the summer in Yellowstone so that I can experience the Autumn & Winter".  I couldn't understand it at first. That was until July arrived with a heat wave and a monsoon of people, and now I find myself counting down the days till September, when a cool breeze will fill the air and the roads will not be a sea of vehicles.

July is the busiest month in Yellowstone National Park. Visitors from all over the world clutter the roads, fill the boardwalks and crowd into visitor centers. Verbal bets were placed by the staff as to what date Old Faithful Visitor Education Center would surpass 10,000 people in one day.  This is the month that we have all been preparing for both mentally and physically. And although we all knew it was coming, it seems that this July has been one that none of us will readily forget.

Cautions, warnings and park regulations seem to have been thrown out the window for many visitors this July despite to concerted effort of the park staff. Safety information is given to visitors as they enter the park, cautions are given at the visitors centers, and dotting every trail in the park are warning & regulation signs.  But much to my dismay I still find visitors standing along the edge of Black Pool- a hot spring that averages 200'F and can cause 3rd degree burns in just 15 seconds. Just last week I had strategically place "stay on boardwalk" universal signs throughout West Thumb Geyser Basin yet I was amazed to discover that at least 100 or more visitors per day ignore them. While walking the basin recently, I watched as a father told his young teenage daughter to step off the boardwalk and sit along the edge of Black Pool so that he could get the perfect picture. Horrified, I ran down the boardwalk shouting at her to get back on the boardwalk and away from the steaming hot pool. I tried to explain the risk involved in what she had done- carefully pointing out that the area she had been walking on was unstable and constantly changing. Thus, what appeared to be solid ground was not, and potentially she could have cracked the surface crust and fallen into the hot spring. After my well articulated speech, they nodded their heads up and down with big smiles on their face- a clear sign that they were not computing a word I was saying. Maybe I needed to be more blunt: People have died in these hot springs, YOU MUST STAY ON BOARDWALKS AT ALL TIMES. The sudden change in my tone and hand gestures brought forth an "Oh, I am sorry". I walked away in dismay knowing that they will likely do the same thing at the next geyser basin.

Completing my walk around the basin I headed towards the parking lot and noticed a large amount of people congregating along the edge of the meadow. This had been a re-occurring event this past week and I knew it was either a Bear or Elk. As I approached the meadow I looked off a ways to find that some visitors were standing 15 feet away from an Elk with her calf. I asked the visitors to back up immediately. They back up 10 feet and began to snap more pictures. My tone became a little more forceful and I made my request slightly more direct "Folks, I need you to immediately back up to where I am, park regulations mandate that you stay 25 yards away from Elk and other large animals." Before I could even finish my sentence another responsible visitor chimed in. "Is that photo worth risking your life". Then a second, "You guys need to get away from those Elk". When the group had made their way back to where I was they explained that the "Elk seemed friendly, and were not bothered by them at all". I am continually perplexed by this idea that "wild animals seem friendly". Are there not enough reality TV shows where animals routinely attack? Are we so disconnected from nature that we as humans cannot distinguish between a wild setting and a domesticated farm?

Visitors are injured daily in Yellowstone despite all the warnings and signage. In our nightly "ranger discussions" it is amazing what is witnessed in just one day. One ranger watched a man holding his hand painfully through West Thumb- apparently he had decided to stick his whole hand into Black pool to see how hot it was. Well, he quickly discovered that it is hot enough to cause 3rd degree burns in 15 seconds. Another ranger described how she watch a mom and dad put grass into their 5 year old's hand and pushed the child toward an Elk and her calf.

Walking through the campground the other night a mother ran up to me and asked if I knew about the Bear in Mammoth. Not knowing what she was talking about she described how her family had been happily watching a Grizzly Bear meander along the edge of the road. From their car they took pictures and were genuinely elated. That was until a car racing around the corner hit the Bear dead center. The Bear, stunned for a quick second by what happened, suddenly jumped up and ran into the woods. The family wanted to know if the bear survived or if it ran off into the woods and died. The mother explained that her children were upset for the rest of the day over what they had witnessed.

But the lack of responsible drivers doesn't end there. Car accidents occur daily in the Park.This week, in the Grant area, a speeding truck decided to pass someone on a double solid only to come around the corner and smash into the back of another vehicle. At least one person was emergency helicoptered to the nearest ER for cranial damage. Early in the season the sound of the helicopter would startle me since Yellowstone is a normally a NO-FLY zone. But lately the sound of the ambulance, fire truck and helicopter are a re-occurring daily event, and sadly most of the incidents that are occurring are completely due to those who clearly ignore the Park regulations and the continual ranger warnings.

So how do you escape in the Nation's first National Park in July? Well, unlike the winter when I regularly ski and snowmobile throughout the park, I find myself staying closer to home. I avoid the roads at all costs and I try to hike the trails which are close to home.I wake up early in the morning and enjoy the park when most visitors are groggily waking up in the sold out campgrounds and hotels. I don't ever stop at Bear Jams, Wolf Jams or Uinta Ground Squirrel Jams! And I count down the days, because I know that while most Americans are enjoying their beautiful National Park with over 1 million other people in July, I get to enjoy it year-round. It is one of the many benefits of being a Yellowstone Ranger: I can enjoy the park any day...and I'll do that, preferably, during quieter times!  

Friday, July 1, 2011

Caution: Bear Crossing

Looking down at my watch the other day I found that it was 5pm, and for the first time since the winter I did not have a mountain of work on my desk. I has just completed the last project on my neatly formed daily "to do" list and although I knew there were things to do tomorrow, I was done for the day. Lately, I can usually be found diligently working in my office till 6 or 7pm and I thought about diving into the next day's workload, but as I glanced out my window I saw the sun still brightly shining outside. There had been over one week of sunny skies and beautiful temperatures and there was no denying that summer had arrived. Suddenly a big smile came over my face and I said to myself "I am going home!"

I quickly gathered my things, put on my bike helmet and soon I flying down the road with the wind whipping me in my face. I passed the post office, the restuarant, the lodge, and just as I was making the home stretch I looked up to see an indistinct brown blob emerging from the trees just about 100 yards away. "Bison?" I thought. "NO, BEAR!"

There he was, a beautiful chocolate brown Grizzly Bear weighing upwards of 500lbs. As he crossed the street there was no denying the classic hump on the neck that distinguishes the Grizzly from the Black bear. Cars and RV's all came to a halting stop as this magnificent animal crossed over into the thick of the Lodgepole pine forest. Regardless of his impressive size he disappeared the minute he entered the trees, blending in with the brownish hues of the forest. I sat there in awe, and when the awe passed I sat there thinking "What do I do now?" After all I had no idea how far into the woods he had gone...the same woods that I needed to pass on my bicycle in order to get home. 

I glanced around trying to find a new route and quickly found my solution. It turns out my husband Shane was sitting in his truck at the next corner. With radio in hand he was calling in the bear sighting to the other staff. I rode over to Shane, threw my bicycle in the back of his truck and began assisting him with bear management. 

Within a minute we were joined by 2 Law Enforcement Rangers and 2 Resource Management Volunteers. And that's when the fun truly began. Shane indicated that the bear had walked down the power line road and we all knew where this led- straight into housing. Jumping in our vehicles, we drove over to housing where the power lines meet the back of the Quadraplex unit. Just as we arrived, we found Ranger Darlene with her radio in hand. She had been peacefully reading on her porch when she looked up to find the bear trotting down the road just 50 yards away from her deck. 

But the bear paid little attention to the team of six that had now grown to eight! Four of us were technically off duty but when a bear travels through your housing area it's amazing how many people want to be on duty!

We all jumped back into our vehicles with the knowledge that the bear, who continued to follow the power line road, was headed right for the employee RV housing area. Within seconds a stampede of Ranger's ran into Ranger Roy's RV lot.  With the parade of rangers, the bear went down into the ravene which lies behind the RV area. Now although we would never want to disturb a bear's behavior in a wild setting, please keep in mind that when it's in our housing area all bet's are called off! In fact, we regularly haze bears out of housing areas, campgrounds etc., as we do not want them to feel comfortable in these areas. The ultimate goal is to prevent any bad human/bear interactions.

As the bear meandered down the ravine we once again we lost sight of him. Our super-team split up. Two rangers headed towards the campground, two more back to the road and four of us stayed in Ranger Roy's yard! All of us trying to get a visual of the bear to determine it's location and course. 

Within just a few minutes I spotted him again all the way at the bottom of the ravine about 150 yards away. He had picked up the power line road once again but this time was heading away from our housing area. He continued to trot along without a care in the world. His meanderings though, had the visitors, rangers and surrounding wildlife in a tizzy! A herd of female Elk and calves took off over the hillside as soon as they caught the scent of the bear. They were fully aware that although the Bear seemed careless about their existence, he could change his mind in a heartbeat. As they bolted and dashed out of our view Shane quickly realized that those panicked mama Elk were headed in the direction of the main road. We called it in over the radio, and back into the vehicles we all piled, making our way to the main road. 

By the time we arrived there was a lineup of cars, trucks and RV's all over the road. They were watching the Elk unaware that a bear might be ensue. Our team of rangers advised the visitors of the possible bear while also making sure that they understood that we might be asking them to get back into their vehicles should the bear pass through. Together we all waited. And waited. And waited some more. It appeared our Bear was gone, lost from human view within the wild lands of Yellowstone. The visitors began to disperse as did the plethora of Rangers.

Heading home I was filled with excitement and adrenalin. My timing had been perfect and I was overjoyed that I had chosen not to dive into the next day's workload.  That evening we shared stories and pictures with our co-workers of the beautiful Grizzly that we had seen, tracked and admired. It was a perfect ending to a perfect day. That Grizzly Bear is just one of many reasons why millions of people flock to Yellowstone every year, for the hope and opportunity to see a truly wild animal in a truly wild landscape.