On the right track

You probably have a route to the grocery store that avoids traffic bottlenecks and gets you to the best area of the parking lot. You might be on to something there.

We are just recently returned from a long road trip that took us from home through Nevada, to Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and Glacier National Parks and back home again. This was the most ambitious drive we’ve been on in some years, and we spent a good amount of time on route planning. Here’s a snapshot of our Google map.

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Lots of rest areas and gas stations, but also eBird hotspots, local diners, historic sites, and so on. This is how we find our way these days: Tripadvisor and Google. ‘Twas not ever thus.

We attended the Roosevelt Rendezvous in Yellowstone, as we did a couple of years ago. Now that we have attended twice, I can weigh in with a balanced and nuanced appraisal. Some things were better on the first one, and some things were better on the second one. There you have it. The better part of the most recent one was the field trips. In particular, the guidance provided regarding watching for tracks and sign was most enlightening. The Resident Expert got the lowdown on this in her first day’s trip, on a trip focused particularly on reading tracks and sign and attempting to figure out what had passed this way. Not easy! But if you can see it, it’s like having X-Ray Specs or something. I would like to have this skill, since we’re always on the lookout for wild animals. If we can see that they were just here a couple of minutes ago, even though they’re not here now, wouldn’t that be great? I think so.

I wished that I had been on that outing, but that was the problem this year – too many good choices on the day’s itinerary. I went on a full day hike on the Beartooth Plateau instead, a place I’d never been and who knows if I would ever see again.

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Great hike, and I encourage you to explore the area. But if I’d already gotten the tracking knowledge transfer from Resident Expert I would have been all over that shoreline looking for sign. Can’t you just see the local megafauna down there at daybreak or sunset?

It wasn’t until my last day’s hike that I got a bit of the tracking experience. We started out on the Blacktail Plateau, and our trip plan was to hike on down the canyon of the Yellowstone River, all the way to Gardiner, MT outside the park. It was a cold start, with some threat of snow, although we mostly avoided that as we descended. Not more than two miles in we encountered bear tracks on the trail. Our guide identified these as Grizzly Bear, probably a young bear, traveling alone at an “ambling” pace. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to confidently read that from tracks on the ground? I’m not sure that I would have even noticed the tracks on my own, but in some areas they were quite pronounced. Almost like someone was going through the area with a bear footprint stamp. It helped that it had rained lightly overnight, and that no one else had been on the trail before us. It was also kind of good to see that the bear was going the other direction. In this case, backtracking was probably better than tracking.

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There was a little more to this than the tracks though. The trail we were on, the Blacktail Deer Creek Trail, is an old trail. It has a name, and mileage markers, and it’s on the Yellowstone Park map, but it’s older than the park. The Shoshone used it, and it was such a good trail that trappers, then explorers, and finally visitors like me used it. But before the Shoshone it was likely a game trail, and was created and used by the local elk and deer. And bear. Just like today.

There are moments where you find yourself suddenly and unexpectedly wired into something huge and timeless. Doesn’t happen often, but it did just then.

Now I’m on the lookout for these paths. We make our own convenient paths all the time, and we follow other time-worn routes that others have figured out. I think you can tell when you’re on one that was carved or blasted through obstacles, or is too far away from areas with welcoming shade or sustaining water. The interstate highway system is this kind of path. But when you’re on a road that feels right, where you see birds and other animals from your car window, and winds through the country seamlessly with generous views of the surroundings, that might be one that’s been traveled by others for a long, long time.

The Resident Expert was getting tuned in even before this trip. We’d been told, and she remembered, that the Moose likes to hang out in the willows and reeds near lakes and rivers. On a hike in Grand Teton NP we came along a quiet, marshy area at Tamarack Lake. She announced, “we will see a Moose here”. Few who walked by this area would have noticed, because they weren’t tuned in to the Moose frequency, but way off in the distance she saw a pair of gigantic Moose antlers hovering over the reeds. Here’s a zoomed-in look. – this is at least 200 yards away.

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Out on an afternoon trail run today, I noted a deer trail going off into the chaparral. It was a hot one today, probably close to 100, and all the birds and animals were sensibly seeking shade. I stopped to look down this animal’s trail, and sure enough, deep in the shade of a grand old manzanita a little ways off was a deer. He probably wondered why I hadn’t seen him the hundred or more times I’d passed by before.

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