Category Archives: 2021 Post Covid Spring US Drive

Brief Update on Driving Trip North Thru Rockies as of May 13, 2021

I last reported on visiting the Red Desert of Southern Wyoming around Rock Springs. On my departure I made a second pass through the high ridge surrounding the Great Basin, where I enjoyed watching a couple of Pronghorn males sparring.  From there I continued north to Thermopolis, which I have visited multiple times for its  great dinosaur museum and proximity to the Wind River Canyon and Dinwoody rock art, carved over a period of several thousand years (probably by ancestors to the Shoshone) – I previously have included a number of photos in reports, so will not here. Thermopolis claims to have the largest hot springs in the world, although I’m pretty sure I have visited larger in the ancient Roman city of Hierapolis, Turkey.

From Thermopolis I drove northeast, crossing the Bighorn Mountains to Buffalo, one of my favorite small high plains towns.  If you have read either the best-selling Joe Picket Game Warden series by CJ Box, or the best-selling (and movie) series of Sheriff Longmire by Craig Johnson (I have read most of both), you may have wondered whether the fictional towns of Saddlestring (Picket) or Durant (Longmire), really exist.  Both fictional towns are based entirely on Buffalo, on Highway 16 at the base of the Bighorns.  I have twice looked at properties for a possible summer home in Buffalo, but this year houses are going under contract usually within a day or two of listing.  I traveled north just 30 miles to Sheridan where I also have looked at properties with no luck.  The weather was mostly very cold with way too much wind and rain.  I was surprised on my morning walks along Little Goose Creek to hear and see so many Ring-necked Pheasants.

I next drove east, well out of my intended northerly path, to the Black Hills of South Dakota and a favorite small town, Custer.  Every day I cruised the looped roads and dirt tracks through the Custer State Park with its rich wildlife and lake birds. I saw no Ring-necked Pheasants here even though it is the State Bird of South Dakota. Why would a state name as its state bird one originally imported from Asia as a game species???

Upon returning from my detour I drove on north through the Crow Reservation to Billings where I anticipated visiting the Pictograph Cave State Park. The cave was renowned since its excavation in the 1930s both for its pictographs and human occupation originally dated to almost 5,000 years ago, according to still existing signage at the cave.  When I went online to get more info on the very early occupation, I discovered current online information, from the official sites, is completely silent as to occupation dating results.  I then discovered a 2014 dissertation by a U of Montana archaeologist, who tested the much earlier archaeological dating claims, and found them probably invalid (not intentional, more sloppiness). The absolute oldest radiocarbon date from the bottom of the cave was just 3,800 years ago, more in line with dating of the earliest Plains Indian sites. Further, most of the 30,000 artifacts reported excavated and catalogued from the site have disappeared.  Mulloy, the final archaeologist doing excavations, claimed the 2,000 artifacts he catalogued had been shipped to the University of Montana, but the University claimed to have received at most half the artifacts.  Drawings of the artifacts don’t support early dates.  The pictographs exist, but are mostly now invisible from deterioration, leaving only smudged red pictographs which include rifles and a horse and very faint anthropomorphs, definitely post European arrival. The only evidence for 2000 year old pictographs is a single stone fallen from the cave wall with a charcoal drawing of a turtle which carbon dated to around that time (this evidence shows the charcoal used on the stone was 2,000 years old, not that the drawing was made 2000 years ago).  This new evidence, for me, more than somewhat diminishes the importance and earlier fame of the site, and left me wondering why the Montana State Park website has scrubbed information on the sites importance and is completely silent regarding the new dating, as well as the sad state of the few pictographs.

Today I traveled up the Yellowstone River to Livingston, just north of Yellowstone Parks north entrance, and have reservations in a couple of days in Gardiner right at the North entrance, where I intend to spend over a week driving the Lamar River Valley looking for big bear and wolf packs.

All is well. Later, Dave


Travel Report from Yellowstone NP, Wyoming, May 30 2021

I last posted from Billings, MT. I drove up the Yellowstone River to Livingston, the original RR line junction which opened up Yellowstone over 100 years ago. From there I continued following the Yellowstone River south to Gardiner, MT, which sits at the Northern entrance to the Park.  Spending 8 days in Gardiner, I spent about double normal price for a room in the Big Rock Hotel. Elk doe grazed on the grass outside my room. I could not extend my stay in Gardiner after 8 days, so moved to West Yellowstone for an additional 6 days, where the small motel room was even more expensive.

Daily I departed my room at 5 am to travel either into Lamar Valley or Hayden Valley, generally arriving at sunrise, about 6 am.  Close to half of the days saw heavy rain, snow or ice storms, with wind – on one day the Park Service was shutting down all roads at each junction as I cleared them.  As in the past, I found I was joined in the early mornings by just a couple of dozen or so professional photographers and “wolf chasers”. Generally we had 3 hours to ourselves – then about 9 in the morning regular visitors and RVs would start to show up on the roads.  By 10 am the roads would become crowded and by noon there were huge traffic jams, and parking at all tourist sites would be overflow.  Every day, upon leaving the Park down the Madison River to West Yellowstone, I would pass cars going into the Park stopping in the middle of the road to take photos out the window of the first bison they had seen.  As over half the cars did this, I started measuring the length of the traffic jams behind the bison.  On two days I measured just over 5 miles of traffic jam, and then on my last day exiting this route, the start of Memorial Day weekend, the traffic jam ran all the way from Madison Junction to the entrance at West Yellowstone – exactly 14 miles.  These people would take 1 to 2 hours to just reach the first junction getting into the Park.

Lamar Valley contains probably the largest concentration of American Bison in existence; total numbers in the Park range from 3,500 to 5,000 animals – these are not re-introduced nor mixed blood, but direct descendants of the remaining original bison which in the great plains once numbered in the millions.  Both valleys also are the hunting ranges and den locations of the two most visible wolf packs, which generally prefer elk, but will take young or frail bison.

I averaged 7 hours a day over a total of 15 days inside the Park.  A great deal of the time was seeking relatively close encounters with grizzly bear and wolves, the highlights for wildlife photography in the area (most wolf and grizzly sightings are at around a mile distant, and although interesting to watch through a spotting scope, are not amenable to photography; decent photos require getting close, though the Park mandates a 100 yard limit, so large telephoto is mandatory).  I managed to photograph 2 different grizzly encounters – the first with the wonderful antics of a 7 year old “blond” female which the biologists had nicknamed “Snow” due to its light coloration. For two hours, between bouts of eating, she preened, sat like a dog, contorted to scratch, snoozed with a log for a pillow, stretched and balanced on logs. With about 25 other photographers (see photo), we lined the road for almost 2 hours enjoying the show, except for a brief encounter with a bull bison which wanted to pass through. The second encounter was with a very dark, huge, male and female turning stones and grazing some plants on a mountain side. These two looked far more menacing than Snow. The Park’s first grizzly mauling of the year took place just two days ago on a trail a couple of miles from Gardiner where I spent my first 8 days. The hiker survived, but no more details on the attack were available.

Wolves can be seen often near their respective dens in the spring.  If the weather is nice, the pups come out to play – I have included no photos as the dens are more than a mile from where visitors may go.  I did spend over 2 hours on a frigid early morning watching 5 wolves from the Hayden Valley pack devour an elk kill in very heavy fog – it made for some interesting photos.  I also watched a lone young wolf wind its way up and down the banks of the Yellowstone River, apparently trying to catch trout, and going after one Mallard duck, all without success.

As usual I found lots of elk and, in one small corner of the Park (above Pebble Creek), moose.  The bulls of both species are just starting to grow their giant antlers, now stubby and still very much covered in velvet.  The Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, not often encountered, all look very ratty as they are losing big chunks of their winter coats. A band of males feeding on an almost impossibly steep mountain slope made for some unique photos. I also visited the Le Hardy Rapids on the Yellowstone where in mid-May the Harlequin Ducks do their diving and amazing maneuvering in fully boiling rapids (these ducks are quite rare to see except in far northern coastal waters).  The male Harlequins are one of the most striking of birds. Other uncommon birds are the American Dipper, the only songbird that dives and flies under water for its food, and the Barrow’s Goldeneye, photos of both of which are included.  I also lucked into a close-up session with a male Dusky Grouse doing a full blown mating display, with bared-breast spots and drumming, hoping to attract females. I am fortunate in being able to annually visit and photograph almost the entire population of Sandhill Cranes in existence, as they all winter in a single spot in Southern Arizona.  However, for the spring and summer they migrate to spread across the northern US and southern Canada for breeding.  In Yellowstone I got to photograph a female at her nest and an adult in breeding colors in the frozen snow. Finally, the Park is the home of huge numbers of Ravens – many have learned to acquire food from bear-proof trash containers – I have included a photo of a particularly handsome one getting ready to dine.

I drove yesterday to Cody outside the East entrance to the Park.  I will stay here a few days to catch up on some chores, and then have reserved a room in DuBois, WY, heading up the Wind River Range on the Continental Divide with the highest mountains in the state (and some of the highest in the continental US).  This range provides the most remote headwaters of two major river systems – the Yellowstone which runs North completely across the Park and ultimately into the Missouri and Mississippi to drain into the Atlantic, and the Snake which runs southwest, then north and west to join the Columbia River to drain into the Pacific.  I probably next will head basically South towards home.  I have been reviewing online a completely new set of Canon professional camera bodies and long lenses which would significantly improve my capture distance for wildlife photos, permit lower light capture while simultaneously reducing my carrying weight – in all, a seemingly impossible dream a few years ago.  I, of course, suddenly feel the need to own this new equipment before taking further photos.

Later, Dave


Report on Grand Tetons area, Black Canyon of Gunnison & Chaco Canyon, June 11, 2021

I last reported on leaving Yellowstone from Cody, and was headed to Dubois, WY to be near several river headwaters – more on the headwaters later. Before heading to Dubois, I spent a day traveling the famous Bear Tooth Highway, one of the most switch-backed highways through one of the highest passes in the Continental US.  It is open generally less than 3 months per year due to high altitude weather conditions.

Dubois is a small town in the valley which rises between the Wind River Range on the southwest, here comprising the Continental Divide, and the Absaroka Range, forming the wildest part of southeastern Yellowstone.  The drive northwest from Dubois crosses over the Divide at the high Togwotee Pass, then drops down into the Grand Tetons Valley, with the Grand Teton Range to the West.  Below the Divide, on the western side of the meeting point of the two ranges, I had my third and best encounter, twice in one day, with a grizzly bear, this one a huge healthy female with two small cubs. Later, upon discussions with a local and some internet research, I found the Mama grizzly was ear tagged with number 863, but was popularly christened with the folk name ‘Felicia’ (I still haven’t quite discovered how these names originate, but once they do, they stick). As grizzlies tend to stay in the same general area for life, local sightings provide a history of a female’s cub raising success. I got some pretty nice photos of Felicia and her two cubs, so the photos posted below are dominated by Felicia’s family.

I spent parts of two days in Grand Teton NP, and tried to reproduce some of the famous historic photos, particularly one by Ansel Adams. Actually, I tried to better Adam’s most famous photo of the Teton Range beyond the Snake River.  Adams used a huge 8X12 plate format camera and did his usual custom dark room dodging and burning to create his much reproduced print.  I used the latest digital equipment to take several dozen telephoto shots, professional software to stitch these shots into a single massive resolution photo, and Adobe Lightroom professional software to dodge and burn certain areas of the final shot.  My end result has more resolution (could be printed larger with better detail), and shows all of nature’s colors, while Adam’s remains black and white. In the end, I produced a very nice large color image of the Grand Teton Range.  Adams produced a masterpiece. A large scale print of Adams’ photo sold last year at auction by Sotheby’s for $988,000. I probably could sell mine for the price of the professional printer’s charge.

From Dubois I started my return trip, heading again through Rock Springs, then south into Colorado to Montrose, to visit for the second time the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. On the way through northwest Colorado on small county highways I drove through areas where the roadways were covered with millions of 2 inch long Mormon crickets (really a type of katydid) passing from side to side, a plague on the vegetation in the area. The Black Canyon is one of the least visited Parks in the system because it lies so far off any tourist route or major throughway. The canyon is only a little over 10 miles long, but approaches ½ mile deep with less than ¼ mile across at top, forming the narrowest, deepest chasm that I believe I have seen anywhere on earth.  The vertical cliffs are almost black, inserted with lighter colored long wavy lines of ancient magma.  Standing at railings at the cliff edge looking straight down a half mile to the river induced in me more vertigo than has any overlook at the Grand Canyon.  On hiking the half dozen or so short trails from the car pullouts to the precipice’s edge, the surrounding shrubbery sounded alive with clicking noises; upon close inspections, the small branches were seen to be covered with small beautifully marked cicadas – I have included a photo – I do not know whether these are the same species as those back east.

From Colorado I dropped into New Mexico and for the third time visited the Chaco Canyon National Historic Site.  This is a little visited Puebloan Indian site, but is by many accounts the single most important ancient Puebloan site.  The dry canyon contains within a 4 mile stretch at least 5 huge pueblos constructed entirely of native rock and ponderosa pine log roof or floor supports, with hundreds of multi-story ‘condo’ rooms.  The outer perimeter walls form giant ‘D’ shaped enclosures with central courts and dozens of Kivas. The largest and most excavated is Pueblo Bonito, which covers 3 acres and where the straight wall of the ‘D’ shape runs 175 meters. It contains approximately 650 condo units, some built up to 5 stories, with 3 Great Kivas and 32 regular Kivas (Kivas are circular, mostly underground, masonry lined rooms with huge pine trunks forming a cross pattern to support a roof structure – thought designed to mimic the earlier underground pit houses, they morphed into ceremonial structures. De-forestation to construct the pueblos and severe drought affecting crops coincided to probably explain the demise of the Chaco Canyon complex as well as almost all other Puebloan complexes in the 4-Corners region.

From Montrose I have traveled to Silver City for a couple of nights, and tomorrow return to Tucson.

You might wish to skip the remaining sections of this report and go directly down to photos, as the remainder contains a summary of my thoughts, developed over a number of years, on the origins of three major river systems in the US.

River Headwaters

I traveled to Dubois in part to visit the area of river headwaters for three major continental US drainage systems which I have grown to believe are misnamed, resulting in their sources being unappreciated. I will briefly summarize my reasoning for each river system, identifying each with the current accepted names (which I try to show are in error). Historically, river naming conventions generally attempt to use the name of a) the longest tributary above the confluences, b) the tributary with the largest flow, or c) the tributary which drains the largest area.

Mississippi River Drainage:  Once the extent of the Missouri River became known (after expedition of Lewis & Clarke), it became obvious that the Mississippi River should have been named the Missouri below the confluence. The Missouri above the confluence is twice as long, drains 3 times the area and generally equals or exceeds the flow of the Mississippi. The Mississippi, however, was named so long ago there was no change.  Unappreciated still, at the confluence with the Missouri, just inside the western border of N. Dakota, the Yellowstone River has the larger flow, and appears to have a slightly longer run as the Missouri has an indefinite start just west of Bozeman, a wetland into which numerous small streams run. Thus, I posit that if properly named, the lower Mississippi and Missouri all should be known as the Yellowstone River, the mightiest river in the US, which runs down to the Gulf Coast.

Columbia River Drainage: At the confluence with the Columbia River, which comes south out of Canada, the Snake River drains slightly more area and is slightly longer above the confluence. The flows are roughly comparable. Therefore I argue the Columbia River, which flows west between Oregon and Washington to the Pacific, should properly be named the Snake River.

Colorado River Drainage: At the confluence with the Colorado River, in Canyonlands NP in Utah, the Green River drains a larger area and is longer above the confluence; the flows vary depending on relative snow packs from year to year. The Colorado River below the confluence should properly be named the Green. (This actually is a known issue, which resulted from a US congressional play by the Colorado delegates early in the 20th century.  At that time the Colorado River above the confluence was named the Grand River, and the river running below the Canyonlands was named the Colorado, not for the state, but for the Colorado Plateau in southern Utah and northern Arizona through which the river carved the Grand Canyon. The Colorado state Congressional delegation somehow got the Congress, over the objections of the Utah and Arizona delegations, to rename the Grand River running out of the State of Colorado as the Colorado River, implying that this was the major tributary rather than the Green).  Anyway, either the Green River should be renamed the Colorado, and the river running out of Colorado should go back to the name Grand River, or, the river below the confluence should be renamed the Green.

My Conclusions: The three great river systems, which together drain over 55% of the continental US, should be known as the

Yellowstone River which drains, into the Atlantic at the Gulf of Mexico, the central 40% of the entire US which lies east of the continental divide,

Snake River which drains, into the Pacific, almost the entire northwest US which lies west of the continental divide, and

Green River which drains, into the Gulf of California, the entire southwest and part of the northwest US lying west of the continental divide.

Most interesting for me and the reason for the visit to Dubois, these three river systems have their headwaters within less than 70 miles of each other, centered approximately on Dubois, WY. The Yellowstone starts at Younts Peak about 33 miles NNW of Dubois, just inside southeastern Yellowstone Park.  The Snake starts at Ocean Plateau South Mountain, about 16 miles WNW of Younts Peak in southeast Yellowstone Park. And the Green starts at Winifred Peak, just south of Gannett Peak about 27 miles south of Dubois in the Wind River Range. Thus the headwaters of the 3 drainage systems for 55% of the continental US all start next to each other, just across the continental divide, running respectively east, west and south.

My apologies for the aside discourse on river headwaters.

Later. Dave