On May 15th, our 10-year anniversary, we decided to head north and east, with our goal being the Lamar Valley, where wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone, and Tower Falls. The northern part of the park seemed less touristy with more scenic valleys and overlooks. We stopped first at the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. After a little hike down, we saw the most impressive waterfall we’d seen in the whole park. The colours of the rock striations were gorgeous, and with the cascading water lulling us into a peaceful stupor, it was a beautiful start to the day.
We drove to Mammoth Hot Springs and had a picnic lunch watching a prairie dog shove his face with dandelions – a good lunch for all. Mammoth is by far the nicest place, human habitation-wise, that we found in the park. Lots of old buildings and cabins from the early 1900’s and a great visitors center. There was also a lodge and little restaurant, all very quaint and picturesque; we decided that when we come back, we will definitely be staying in Mammoth if we stay in the park.
On our way to Tower Falls, we came across a huge gaggle of people lining the roads and knew a bear was around. We parked a little ways away and walked back up, and sure enough a momma black bear with two cubs were sleeping in the trees about 30 yards from the road. They were lolling together having an afternoon snooze, but the really cool thing about them was that one of the cubs was a cinnamon bear. Cinnamon bears are just a different colour phase from black bears, but it was really neat to see a black momma with one black cub and on cinnamon cub.
Tower Falls were by no means an impressive as the lower falls in the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, but it was still a nice little walk. We passed the cinnamon cub again and almost pulled over but the lot was so full and so many people hanging around, we decided to carry on. About two minutes later, all the cars started stopping in the middle of the road, so we knew something was around there. Right off to our right were a momma black bear and three cubs! Within ten feet from our car, these little guys were munching on grass coming down the hillside. They crossed the road in front of the car ahead of us and went off into the woods on the other side, the dutiful momma making sure all her bubs were accounted for. It was a really cool experience! We also saw bison herds with tons of babies – honestly the cutest thing. Especially the little guys who would start losing it and running all over the place – typical kids playing while mom and dad have lunch. So many babies in the park was amazing!
We then headed to the Lamar Valley, the site where wolves were first reintroduced to Yellowstone. One of the most iconic and well-studied reintroduction experiments, the wolves of Yellowstone show just how important apex predators are to an ecosystem. Wolves had been extirpated from the park due to hunting and bounty programs, with the last wolf pack disappearing in 1926. With the wolves gone, the elk population exploded, who in turn ate all the trees to the point of almost deforesting the landscape. With no trees, birds and other species began to disappear, and without the stabilizing roots of the trees, streams and rivers began to erode. With no wolves to keep their numbers and territory in check, the coyote population exploded (called metapredator release), who preyed on the pronghorn antelope babies, decimating their numbers. But in 1995 the first wolves were reintroduced to the Lamar Valley. Within years, life began to flourish back in the park. The elk and coyote numbers began to balance, the birds, beavers, and bugs returned and flourished, and the trees and rivers rebounded back to their previous glory. Now there are around 10 packs in the park. However, wolves are being delisted from the Endangered Species Act in the states surrounding the park, putting their future in jeopardy once again.
The whole experiment with reintroducing an apex predator has proven, beyond a doubt, how integral these predators are to the health of an ecosystem. Without out predators, the whole ecosystem collapses, and with the continued persecution of wolves, cougars, and other predators, I fear for the future of these ecosystems and these iconic species. Alas, we never did see any wolves, but their story is so important for the health of the environment.
After hiking through Lamar, we decided to go back to Mammoth for an early dinner at a nice restaurant to celebrate our anniversary. We figured it would be safer for us to drive out the North East Entrance and down to Cody, rather than go through the park and its construction zones (that took us five hours to reach), especially since a storm was approaching. Our dinner was lovely – we had bison for the first time and it was delicious, though a little sad as I’d been gushing about all the cute bison over the last few days. We double-checked with the staff to make sure the roads were still clear and that the NE Entrance would get us safely back to Cody. The GPS said we’d be back in 2.5 hours so we figured we’d have a few relaxing drinks on the porch of our cabin and bask in the joy of being together for 10 years and experiencing so many amazing things as a couple.
I have never driven through anything like what we did that night. To say we could have died is an understatement. We started out going through rain as the sun set over the mountains, but once we exited the park, we started driving through clouds, dropping the visibility to around ten feet. In absolute pitch black darkness, we hit switchback after switchback. With falling rocks to dodge, sleet, wind, icy roads, road grades of 9%, and potholes that could rip a tire off, our speed dropped to 10 mph repeatedly. The only way to describe the drive was claustrophobic and with white-knuckled fear permeating the car. We were on the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway, which I’m sure is gorgeous in perfect driving conditions, but an utter nightmare in what we were facing. At one point we passed a sign saying,” Now entering Montana,” followed by sheer confusion as to how we’d ended up in Montana – the roads were so bad we had no idea where we were. It took us five hours to get back to the cabin. I have never been so relieved to be out of a car in one piece. We wanted an adventure, and the universe responded by giving us a day and night we’ll never forget, mostly because we made it through alive.