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Seeing Beneath the Surface

I came to Isa Lake to look for tiger salamanders.  But, as I sit on the shore, my eye is instead drawn to the dragonflies and damselflies that flit about, inches above the surface of the pond.  These elongated jewels move with a precision and efficiency that far surpasses any aircraft built by human hands: one cruises steadily with ruthless prowess in pursuit of prey, then pauses to hover, motionless, in defiance of wind and gravity.  The plump, rounded body of a flame skimmer passes by, succeeded by the slender blue needle of a dainty damselfly.  A single dragonfly may eat three hundred mosquitoes in a single day. Read more

Yellow Clouds Are in the Air

I left Vermont on May 29, my car filthy from having sat through the winter, driven only once every couple of weeks.  I was almost grateful for the pounding rainstorms I drove through the first two days of my trip to Yellowstone, as they washed the worst of the grime from the vehicle.  But now, in late June, my car is once again as dirty as ever.  My bike, my front porch railing, the neighbors’ folding camp chairs—all are coated in a fine, yellowish powder that adheres stubbornly to every exposed surface.  Puddles in the housing area are rimmed with miniature beaches of pollen; the yellow dust makes psychedelic patterns on the surface of the water.  And this morning, the inevitable: I started sneezing.  Read more

That Ranger Magic

Old Faithful erupted behind me as I pedaled away from the visitor center and headed down basin, getting ready to lead the last ranger walk of the day.  Though it’s officially known as the Geyser Discovery Stroll, we all refer to the 5:30 program as the Castle walk, named after the geyser where we assemble.  I rode slowly, meandering among clusters of visitors on foot, and headed up the little hill towards Castle.  I was a little surprised that no one was waiting on the path alongside its massive, twelve-foot-high cone—not only was it almost time for a popular ranger-led program, but in about twenty minutes we would enter the eruption window, that two-hour period during which Castle was predicted to erupt.  Since Castle erupts only about once every fourteen hours, it always attracts a crowd when it’s due. Read more

My Favorite Puddle

If you wanted to know what kind of person I am—what I like to do, what sorts of things I value—I would tell you this: I am the sort of person who has a favorite puddle.  My puddle isn’t truly a puddle, I suppose, in that it is not self-contained, with no inflow or outflow.  Despite this, I still think of it as a puddle.  It is shallow, and lies along a Yellowstone roadside, and is fed by runoff from springs, hot and cold, in a nearby meadow.

I don’t want to say precisely where my puddle is, as my puddle is special: it is home, each spring, to hundreds of tadpoles.  Most of them are young boreal toads.  A few are spotted frogs.  I can tell the difference by color: the boreal toad tadpoles (I think of them as toadpoles) are nearly black, while the spotted frogs-to-be are a lighter brown, flecked with gold. Read more

Flowers in the Snow

Snow this morning!  It was warm enough that the roads were merely wet, but the dusting of snow I woke up to at 6 AM was, two hours later, a half-inch covering on the cars and the colder spots on the ground.  By late morning, the last traces of snow had melted.  The day remained chilly and gray, though, well into the late afternoon.  It was quite a contrast with the previous few days of sunshine and temperatures in the 70s. Read more

Harlequin Ducks and Cutthroat Trout at LeHardy Rapids

The harlequin ducks, I was pleased to see, were still at LeHardy Rapids.

A male and female rested on a boulder forty feet from shore, surrounded by raging whitewater. It was the exact same tiny island on which I had seen the harlequins in 2006, 2007, and 2009. There were other, smaller rocky outcrops nearby, but I’d never seen the ducks take advantage of them. The male was awake and preening, running his dainty bill over the slate-blue feathers of his right wing, giving himself a good shake, then starting work on his other side. The female’s head was tucked tidily along her muddy brown back, her weight sunk low onto the rock. The birds were relaxed and wholly in their element.

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Coming Home to Yellowstone

Yesterday, I woke up in a motel overlooking the tumbling, turbid waters of the Yellowstone River. To the south and west, national parklands reared up over the little town of Gardiner, Montana. Sagebrush scrub and open grasslands yielded to the steep, still-snowy slopes of Sepulcher Mountain and Electric Peak. I smiled, feeling at peace and at home.

I collected my uniform from storage and drove into Yellowstone, crossing into Wyoming within a couple of miles. The route up the hill from the North Entrance toward Mammoth Hot Springs was familiar, but at the same time it felt foreign: it had been nearly two years since last I passed this way. I noticed lots of little things that had changed—a sign had been replaced, a parking area had been realigned—but the landscape and the clusters of people remained the same. Read more

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