May 9th, 2016. 7:20 a.m., 45 degrees – Mammoth Hot Springs Campground, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
It can be challenging to sleep in at a campground situated on a spit of land surrounded by a loop of road. Especially when that road is the only way to travel between Yellowstone’s Historic North Entrance and the Lamar Valley. With Beartooth Pass closed, every boat, car, camper, and r.v. making that particular trek must inch their way onward, uphill, and around a switchback, making a sweeping turn, circling the campground. The faint smell of exhaust and low chatter of other campers permeated our thin tent walls. Delivery truck compression breaks rumbled. The suspension of extra-long rvs creaked and squeaked. Idling engines murmured while they waited for big rigs to negotiate the switchback.
“Ready to go?” Derrick mumbled from beneath his sleeping bag.
“Yep,” I answered, as I reached behind my head and unscrewed the nozzle on my air mattress. The air escaped with a soft hiss as I felt myself sink to the ground. Feeling the cold against my back and rear made me move faster. This was not the first time we had attempted to procure a new campsite first thing in the morning; every minute can count. Awake, packed, and french press coffee in hand, we left Mammoth Hot Springs and headed south.
We were glad to be moving on to our next Yellowstone adventure, even though it meant we were going to be further from the Lamar Valley. The wonders of central Yellowstone are entirely different, and just as awesome. The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, Norris Geyser Basin, Madison River, Fishing Bridge, and Yellowstone Lake Village are some of the stops we had on our agenda for the next two days. For now, we would bypass Norris hope for site at Madison Campground, about 35 miles south from where we slept.
We cruised toward Madison, enjoying the sights, sounds, and scents of a beautiful morning in Yellowstone. The signature smell of sulfur wafted in and out of our car windows as we slowed to admire the thermal features through the Norris geyser basin.
With the Yellowstone speed limit, we made pretty decent time getting to our destination. It was about 8:30 a.m. when Derrick pulled into a parking spot at the entrance of Madison Campground. I jumped out of the car and walked up to the Xanterra reservation window. Xanterra is an independent concessioner that has hospitality contracts with several National Parks. In Yellowstone, they run all of the park lodging and most of the campgrounds. At Madison, policy dictates that a reservation must be made in order to occupy a campsite: you cannot just go in a pick a spot that does not have a tag on it. I walked up to the booth, unsure how full the campground was. Being early in the season, I knew that not all of the camp loops were open. I approached the window and inquired about the availability. The woman behind the counter squinted at her computer screen.
“Tent only?” She asked.
“Yes,” I said.
Her eyes scanned her screen. “Right noooow…I only have one.”
“We’ll take it,” I said, and dug out my wallet.
I took care of the required paperwork and engaged in a bear safety PSA, complete with visual aid, memorized speech, and interactive highlighting. I don’t mean to make fun; education concerning bear safety is an essential and serious matter in Yellowstone. But no matter how many times we have stayed at Madison I forget this aspect of the reservation process. It is a thorough orientation to keep self, other campers, and the animals safe. (Again, I do not mean to make light of the intention behind this process; to quote the hand out “The bears future and the safety of others depends on you!”)
The kind Xanterra employee highlighted the most crucial areas of the campground handout, putting special emphasis on the list of items that are not be left outside anytime “unless they are in immediate use” and circling the illustration of a black bear.
I affirmed each directive and nodded earnestly. She flipped the paper over and highlighted the road to our campsite, and circled the recycling area and closest bathrooms. She folded the handout and stretched a piece of scotch tape from its roll.
“Place this tag on your windshield please,” she said, and handed me the papers. “Check out is 11:00 am. Enjoy your visit!”
“We will,” I replied. I collected my campground map, rules, and reservation tag stuck to a piece of scotch tape and headed back to the car.
Derrick looked at me, puzzled as I opened the car door.
“What took so long? No sites?” he asked, raising is eyebrows.
I fluttered the heavily highlighted handout at him.
“Ahhh, yes! Right!” he said. “Bears.”
“Yep,” I nodded. “We got the last tent site available.”
I examined the highlighted route.
“We’re back by the group sites,” I said, tracing the orange glow with my fingertip. “Tent only, site 209.”
We drove to our site, pitched our tent, and headed back out into the park.
It was windy and chillier than yesterday, and we could feel the snow in the air before it was scheduled to arrive later in the afternoon. There were noticeably less people this early in the season, allowing us yet again another new and different Yellowstone experience. I enjoyed pointing out small snow piles here and there to Derrick as he drove, wondering how much more snow we might get. I have always wanted to see Yellowstone covered in snow. There are so many beautiful, dramatic vistas that would look stunning in a blanket of white. Plus, the juxtaposition of the thermal features bellowing hot steam surrounded by tiny ice crystals would be a so awesome!
We decided to head over to Fishing Bridge to see Yellowstone Lake first, and then double back to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. The Fishing Bridge area is on the far east side of the park, on the north end of Yellowstone Lake. The Fishing Bridge is a log bridge that spans the banks of the Yellowstone River.
The original Fishing Bridge, constructed in 1902, was historically, an incredibly popular place to fish. Which is not very surprising since it is a spawning area for Yellowstone native cutthroat trout. Since the decline of cutthroat trout, the bridge had to be closed to fishing in 1973. The cause of the cutthroat decline is a combination of over exhaustion of resources, historic fish stocking, and the introduction of invasive species to the ecosystem. Parasites, snails, and other invasives and nonnatives like lake trout continue to threaten the native aquatics in Yellowstone.
If you are interested in fishing at Yellowstone, you can actually help the park to conserve the fish native species. Yellowstone fishing regulations are designed for fishermen to help remove nonnative species and protect species that are struggling. In some areas, there is no bag limit for certain species, and even the direction to kill instead of releasing for some fish, like lake trout in Yellowstone Lake. But even though you can’t fish off the bridge, a visit to Fishing Bridge is worth the drive. The bridge crosses over the Yellowstone River where it exits Yellowstone Lake, allowing great views. Like the North Entrance, Fishing Bridge it is an iconic image of the park. I don’t know for certain that Fishing Bridge is what Disney had in mind when they made the cartoon “Hooked Bear” in 1956 (bottom image), but it is pretty darn close!
(Clockwise from top left – “Historic Fishing Bridge” image from Wikipedia.org, “Fishing Bridge, Lake Outlet” image from Yellowstone-Notebook.com “Hooked Bear” Disney Cartoon images from Internet Animation Database.)
I have realized that classic Disney was probably the first exposure I had to the National Parks. Or at least, it is the most vivid and oldest memory I have of an awareness. Specifically, the Yellowstone Cubs episode of “The Wonderful World of Disney” (1963) and Humphrey the Bear cartoons, including “Hooked Bear.”
“Hooked Bear” features a bumbling bear named Humphrey and a rotund park ranger, Ranger J. Audubon Woodlore. It is not mentioned specifically in this cartoon, but in other cartoons, the park where Humphrey resides is referred to as Brownstone. (I mean, come on. An obvious nod.) In all of the Humphrey cartoons, the stories, characters, and setting are homage to the enjoyment and uses of public lands across America. Many of these animated time pieces, including “Hooked Bear,” give a glimpse into the history of national parks and forests trying to establish a balance between conservation and recreation, regulation and restriction.
In the cartoon, Ranger J. Audubon Woodlore (such a great name) is seen stocking the lakes and rivers to keep the visitors happily fishing. Humphrey the Bear thrives alongside visitors, but only when he keeps the distance he (and the visitors) should keep. Of course, the control Ranger Woodlore has over Humphrey’s behavior is a bit of a stretch, like the ranger’s attempt to get the bear to follow park rules (no fishing outside fishing season) and scolding Humphrey to “leave the kiddies alone” after a bratty kid kicks him in the knee. (To be fair though, that kid is WAY too close to Humphrey. The Yellowstone park newspaper clearly explains all expectations of visitors to stay safe in bear country, including the fact that you should stay at least 100 yards from a bear.)
(“Hooked Bear” Disney Cartoon image from Internet Animation Database)
Most of time, Humphrey’s decisions revert back to his basic instinct: how can I get food? Not a bad perspective to consider while doing your best to keep a clean camp and be bear aware in Yellowstone. But the delicate balance between the sportsman and the land is one with many perspectives. Over the years, public land (and wildlife in it) has been at the mercy of countless approaches to land management. From fish stocking and game hunting to stringent conservation rules and regulations to resource expedition and mining, it seems we often adjust the rules to suite our immediate needs. The question we need to ask is will what we do today insure the health and existence of these public lands we love tomorrow?
(“Hooked Bear” is about 5 minutes long if you would care to watch it: “Hooked Bear”, 1956, Disney, Directed by Jack Hannah. I know I’m not the only one out there who grew up laughing with Humphrey, and who doesn’t like a good cartoon?)
We drove over the “new” Fishing Bridge, parked, and got out to walk across the original bridge and take pictures. The bridge was being swooped by a mass of swallows. Their tiny bodies fought the wind, gliding and darting over the bridge, then under, circle- swarming above the water’s surface. We stood in the brisk wind and watched the birds show off their aerial expertise.
Eventually, we tore ourselves away from the birds and turned back toward Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. Unfortunately, one of Derrick’s favorite Yellowstone trails, Uncle Tom’s Trail, was closed due to frequent bear activity.
We continued to leisurely work our way along the rim of the canyon, enjoying each unique view from the developed overlooks.
Knowing that we would be able to spend more time at the canyon tomorrow, we explored Canyon Village, then headed back to camp.
It was still a beautiful, sunny day, so we decided to take a walk before making dinner and a fire. We cut through the closed campground loops and headed toward to the river. Madison campground is located along a soft bend in the Madison River. It is a beautiful spot that, in warmer weather, is great for wading and swimming.
We were excited to see a few elk just on the opposite riverbank.
Back at camp, we started a fire to make dinner. Riding out the last of our Cinco de Mayo leftovers, we each had a delicious crunchy curry egg taco appetizer. I get a kick out of the interesting and delicious meals we cook up when we get creative with our campfire cooking and do our best to use up whatever we have. The main course for me was stir-fry, using up the rest of the onion, garlic, carrot, and chicken we had, while Derrick enjoyed a chicken avocado cheese quesadilla. Yum all around.
After we finished cooking our supper, it began to snow. Big, bold white flakes tumbled through the grey smoke of our campfire. It was beautiful. To quote our neighbors with Arizona license plates in the campsite beside us, “It’s legit snowing!!” I was thrilled. They seemed less excited about it, and possibly more concerned about if they would be warm enough in their tent. We went to bed wondering what we might wake up to. I hoped it would be a snowy Yellowstone…