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Thursday, June 18, 2009

A few days with nature

My family just got back from a short vacation to the Yellowstone National Park. We all agreed that four days were not enough to explore this land of natural magic, which also happens to be the first national park of the United States.
We had flown into Bozeman, Montana and drove about two hours down south, following the Gallatin river, to stay at West Yellowstone. We spent the rest of the day doing some touristy stuff. We watched the IMAX movie on the history of Yellowstone. Later on, we went to a wolf and bear conservation center. The center had couple of grizzly bears in captivity. We saw them having their evening snack. Their meal looked like very much like a salad, without the vegetables being cut, of course. The center staff were hiding portions of the meal all over the enclosed area, under logs and stones. The bears were seeking out the food by smelling them out. At this place, I heard for the first time about the existence of something called a "bear spray" and how and when to use it. Previously, I had no idea what to do if one had a chance encounter with a bear in the wilderness.
The wolves were enjoying a sound late afternoon nap when we arrived. They woke up, fresh, later in the evening and were frolicking around in a good mood. I overheard a staff member reminiscing an incident about these wolves in captivity that happened a few years ago. It had started with an innocent question from a visitor about the reaction of the wolves if a member of the pack was transported elsewhere. At one point of time the conservation center had seven females and three male wolves. One day, the alpha female was attacked by the other female wolves and a fierce fight ensued. The staff memebers at the center were puzzled and did not know how to react. They decided to observe the situation without intervening. However, they were shocked at the fatal outcome of the encounter, resulting in the death of the alpha female wolf. After pondering over this matter, they came to a decision to transfer two female wolves to another conservation center. The conservation center staff explained that in their natural habitat, the wolves would have broken away from the pack. This measure had to be taken as the wolves cannot do so in the captivity of a conservation center. This story said a lot about female behavior, in general, I thought.
We visited the lower geyser basin, which had the boiling mud pots and spring lakes. The "Artist's paint pots", had a combination of both in a way that looked like a giant paint palette. The highlight of the upper geyser basin was surely the "Old faithful" geyser. There were several others , bigger or smaller but none as predictable as this one. The "Old faithful" belches every 90 mins for about 2 mins. Boiling hot water and steam shoot upto a height of about 100 ft. People crowd around it and wait for it to erupt. It looks grand everytime!
The midway basin had the steaming hot water flowing into the Firehole river. It had huge hot springs like the famous Grand Prismatic spring with its deep blue center, the Excelsior geyser and the Turquoise Pool. Excelsior was a huge geyser till an explosion, about 100 years ago, turned it into a thermal spring that churn water in a crater approximately 300ft in diameter. Every part of the earth here is alive and dynamic. The West Thumb lake, which was formed due to a volcanic eruption under the Yellowstone lake was another miracle of nature. In winter, hot springs located below the frozen lake continue to spew steam, presenting an amazing spectacle. At other places like the mammoth hot springs, the volcanic activity have reduced significantly over the past few years. They seemed have dried up considerably and did not present such a pretty spectacle compared to what we had seen on our last visit, nine years ago. My husband joked that the "Mammoth Springs" was a mammoth dissapointment for him.
All these unique geological features at Yellowstone, offered just a glimpse of what really went on at the center of the earth. A large part of the national park is a giant caldera (cooking pot) or a huge volcanic depression. The earth's crust is very thin, 2 miles, over here compared to an average thickness of 20 to 30 miles in most parts of the world.
The vibrant and everchanging Yellowstone has it all. Several rivers here, like the Yellowstone, Gallatin and Firehole have formed beautiful rapids, cascades and waterfalls. The canyon formed by the Yellowstone river is breathtaking, in and of itself. There are several snow-capped mountain ranges , some of them even border huge lakes, reminiscent of the Swiss Alps and lake Lucerne.
Last but not the least was the incredible wildlife experience that this park offered. We were able to see the bisons , singly as well as part of a big herd, up close and personal. We were lucky enough to see a baby bison, suckling from its mother. We spotted mule deers, prong horn deers , bald eagles, white pelicans, brown herons, chip munks, marmots and a tiny winy grey mouse that actually climed over my right foot. These precious moments with nature will always be treasured in my memory like the comforting experience of a loving hug.

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