Fall Trip, Part 5: Home from the Hills

by Dahna Branyan

Home is the sailor, home from the sea
And the hunter, home from the hill
– Robert Louis Stevenson

It was hard to leave the Black Hills and our new friends Sheila and Hoad, but home was calling. Wait, that was Patty, our dear friend and house sitter making sure we would be home by our agreed upon date. There was a little edge to her voice that meant the tedium of country life was wearing thin.

Leaving took us back down through Wind Cave National Park so we had time to say goodbye to the bison and pronghorn along the way. Beyond Wind Cave, lay the town of Hot Springs (Does every state have a Hot Springs?) It is a lovely old town with wonderful historic red sandstone buildings. People still come to bathe in the warm waters, but from the looks of the architecture, it must have had its heyday in the late 1800’s.  There is a nearby Mammoth site to explore and a wild horse sanctuary. What a shame we were hauling the trailer and had reservations down the road. Clearly, Hot Springs is more than enough reason to return soon to the Black Hills. 

Having left the hills, we spent the day driving through the rolling short grass prairie of Nebraska. It was an easy drive, but the lack of diversity in the scenery made it seem a rather long one. We reached out campground at Lake McConnaughy State Recreation Area late in the day. Being midweek, we practically had the place to ourselves.

Fishing at Lake McConnaughy
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Western Grebe
Western Grebe

Northern Flicker – Yellow Shafted
Northern Flicker-YS

It’s a large campground that eventually filled up as the weekend approached. The problem with filling up is that the water pressure is very low- too low to shower. We opted to fill our fresh water tank and use the 12 v. pump. Lake McConnaughy is huge and a great spot for boating and fishing. So, bring a boat. There’s not much else to do. The beach is sparse and buggy and there is no fishing pier. That was okay since we were content to lay about reading and taking Sacha for long walks. But, as another birder commiserated,  the water birds had not yet arrived and most of the passerines had already passed through. I know that overall bird populations are down (30% since 1970), but this seemed unnatural during migration season. I hope it was just a timing issue. I did see some familiar flutter-bys.

Butterflies

Painted Lady
Painted Lady
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Monarch Butterfly
Best Cloudy Sulphur
Clouded Sulphur

 

Belted Kingfisher With A Snack
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Below the dam there is another smaller lake, Lake Ogalalla, with its own campground. I cannot recommend it. Going into town, we drove over the dam while they were releasing water from Lake McConnaughy to the lake below. They were releasing from the bottom of the lake where the water is anoxic and loaded with hydrogen sulfide. So, they release in a fan spray to aerate the water, but the hydrogen sulfide smell is gag-inducing over a broad area.  It is so pungent that we could smell it wafting over to our campground later that day. No wonder there were few birds.

Wilson Warbler Pair
Wilson Warbler
Wilson Warbler F

We did have a bit of  excitement during our stay. The long rolling prairie provides a lot of fetch for thunderstorms to barrel across, building as they go. One came up during the night with gale force winds rocking and rolling the travel trailers and tearing limbs from trees. Sacha did not like the light show and thunder that accompanied the rain one bit. I can’t say that I enjoyed it either. It did, however, make for a lot of camaraderie among the survivors the next day as folks were retrieving their camping gear that blew away. Our neighbor told us about a storm that stripped all the siding off his uncle’s home the week before.  Yikes! With another storm threatening in two days, we opted to head for Kansas a day early and miss a repeat performance.

Immature Red-headed Woodpecker
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Wilson State Park was more to our liking. The lake was smaller and the terrain was more  pleasing. The camp hosts drove up while we were setting up and invited us over for a beer later. Now that’s hospitality.  Steve and MaryLou gave us the skinny on area services and attractions. The next evening we wondered if we were having a redux of the Appointment In Samarra as we watched the ominous vertical development of a storm heading toward us.

Vertical Development

Kildeer at Wilson Lake’s Edge
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Fortunately the storm skirted the lake just missing us, and Sacha had a peaceful evening. Whew! The next morning we headed over to the nearby town of Wilson for laundry and gas. It’s a nice Czech farming community and they are proud of their heritage. The town features the World’s Largest Handpainted Czech Egg. We have enjoyed the trend of small communities that decorate their towns with local icons – pelicans in Seabrook, TX, bears in Grants Pass, OR and Buffalo in Custer, SD. Wilson decorated their town with large eggs, hand-painted using traditional kraslice designs and methods. The charming eggs grace Wilson’s street corners with cheery reminders of their Czech heritage.

World’s Largest Hand-Painted Czech Egg
World's Largest Czech Egg

Across from our campsite there was a lovely non-denominational open air chapel overlooking the lake. Steve and Mary Lou had recently renewed their vows there. I think it is the site of many weddings. And what a lovely spot for it.

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The next day we headed in the opposite direction for the town of Lucas. A prominent feature of the local landscape are the stone fenceposts along the road. Here, where trees are in short supply and limestone is plentiful, post rock limestone was commonly used and still stand today. A half dozen have been carved by an artist-in-residence, and though we were on the lookout, we did not spot one of them among the hundreds we passed.

Limestone Fence Post
Post Rock2

There must be something in the water in Lucas that produces such an eclectic blend of artists and fun-loving folks. Since the early 1900’s people have been drawn to Lucas to see S. P. Dinsmoor’s Garden of Eden. Mr. Dinsmoor, a self-proclaimed artist, free-thinker  and Civil War veteran, built a wonderful home combining fencepost limestone and dovetailed log home construction. He then spent several years decorating it with imaginative folk art in the form of cement sculptures. He invited the public to tour his art and home, creating a nice little income stream.  It is now a museum.

He admitted he was ‘bughouse’ crazy and Pat, who refused to get out of the truck, concurred completely.

Garden of Eden – Lucas, Kansas
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Lucas is also home to the Grassroots Art Center, which houses an amazing variety of local art. If that’s not reason enough to visit Lucas, another roadside attraction resides here.

World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things (Step Right Up)
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We’re saving that for our next visit. You can’t leave town without a visit to Brant’s Meat Market (according to the vegan gallery staff person at the art center). Aside from having an excellent fresh meat selection, Brants has been turning out delicious smoked meats and sausage using the family’s old Czech recipes for five generations. The ring bologna is amazing and…Oscar Meyer it ain’t. So is the pepper sausage. We’re going to have some more shipped to us this winter.

To accommodate the tourists, Lucas needed a handicapped public restroom. So why not make it the World’s Largest Toilet!  They invited local artists to contribute to the mosaic walls. It’s a must see bathroom – inside and out.

Bowl Plaza – Home of the World’s Largest Toilet (note the World’s Largest Toilet Paper Roll to the Right)

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Dog Drinking From the Bowl
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Men’s Room

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Ladies Vanity (my camera in the mirror)
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Ladies Room

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It got to be a kick to live in a town of 400 people who can create all this. It is a hidden gem.

Pat Admiring Street Art in front of the American Fork Art ExhibitDSCN4522
American Fork Art
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After spending our last night enjoying a campfire and drinking a beer with Steve and Mary Lou and their neighbors, we packed up and headed for Lake McMurtry in Oklahoma the next morning. It’s an older park and the sites were designed for much smaller rigs than ours but we shoe-horned the Arctic Fox into place. It sat on an narrow elevated pad with a steep drop one step beyond our steps. Yikes! We had to use the bedroom entrance to make sure we didn’t fall.  When we arrived, the park was empty, but Friday night it filled up completely. It seemed odd that no one appeared to be doing any sort of recreation except the Boy Scout troop in the tent campground. Saturday night the campground was dark and silent. Then it dawned on us that folks had just come in to go to the football game at OSU in nearby Stillwater. Gosh, we didn’t even get invited to a tailgate party.

Osprey Digesting His CatchOsprey OK

 

And with that we headed for Comanche and home. Sacha raced excitedly around the house, yipping on the go. Riley, happy with her house sitter, just ignored me. Patty was waiting for us with a fabulous steak dinner. Ahh, it was good to be home.

Common Checkered  Skipper
Common Checkered Skipper

 

Fall Trip Part 3: O Canada

By Dahna Branyan

Yellowstone, then Glacier and still haven’t spotted a Mountain Goat, Bighorn Sheep or Moose. Hope loomed large for such sightings in Canada, so we headed that-a-way.

We said goodbye to Glacier as we headed north past Whitefish, shaking a fist at Ryan Zinke on the way. The Canadian border folks were very welcoming once they again established that we had brought no guns from Texas.

When you get to Radium Hot Springs in British Columbia, BC-93 takes a hard right to start climbing over the Rockies through Kootenay National Park. Radium Hot Springs is populated with a number of chalet-like inns that decorate the town by hanging large pots of flowers from their railings. Gorgeous!

Radium Hot Springs, BC
Radium, BC

Entering Kootenay National Park
Kootenay Entrance

Kootenay is just one of several national and provincial parks that surrounds Banff National Park. Canada set aside a huge chunk of land as part of the common wealth for the enjoyment of their people and the protection of wildlife. And in this part of the world there is a lot of jaw-dropping beauty to enjoy. Unfortunately, we had only planned to stay in Banff National Park so Kootenay was only a drive-thru.

Leaving Kootenay, Looking Toward Banff
Coming Into Banff

After winding our way through Kootenay, we arrived at our Lake Louise campground in Banff. It’s a nice park, with the turquoise Bow River running through it. It does have a peculiar (to us) set up for campers however.

Bow River from our Campground
Campground Bow River

The sites are pull-throughs, wide enough for two RV’s pulling in at opposite directions. For some reason they put the utilities directly opposite of each other, forcing both RV’s to sit directly opposite as well. It’s a little tight and privacy’s a bit scarce.

Pat’s Mountain View – Oh Wait that’s the Rental RV Next Door!
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The Actual View is Better – Whitehorn Mountain
Whitehorn Mountain, from Campground

I suppose they rightly figured that folks would spend most of their time seeing the sights instead of sitting around the campground. So we did just that. Our first full day included provisioning for the week. We took the scenic route, Alberta Hwy 1-A, through the deep emerald forest into the town of Banff. Strains of an old Gordon Lightfoot song started running through my head.

Oh there was a time in this fair land when the railroads did not run
When the wild majestic mountains stood alone against the sun
Long before the white man and long before the wheel
When the green dark forest was too silent to be real


More Majestic

 

Before Banff we stopped to check out a waterfall at Johnston Canyon. The limestone walls of the canyon barely allow enough room for a walkway beside the creek, and often divert hikers over the creek onto the catwalks. Sacha overcame her fear of bridges and hiked like a trooper all the way to the lower falls. It might have been these little guys egging her on.

 

Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel
Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrel

 

Lower Waterfall, Johnston Canyon
Johnston Canyon Waterfall

After 1-1/2 miles of hiking over catwalks with a bazillion other hikers and their dogs, she was happy to see the back seat of the truck when we returned. After a few more pullouts to enjoy the views, we reached the town of Banff and the local IGA. As expected, Banff is a beautiful resort town crammed full of upscale resorts and inns that were bustling with folks milling about, having coffee, etc. at the many outdoor cafes. The town’s layout defies description – picture a town designed by the drop of pick-up sticks. Streets are narrow, traffic tight, parking nearly non-existent for a big pickup. We got our groceries and got out fast. The IGA did hold it’s own treasure of delicious local fare, especially Suprême créme á l’Erable biscuits. For you non-Frenchie types, that translates to Maple leaf-shaped maple Cream Cookies to which I’m now addicted…and our supply is running thin. Damn! Another monkey on my back.

Township of Banff
Banff

 

As you travel along Highway 1, you’ll notice the smart wildlife overpasses along the way. Tall fences on both sides funnel the critters into these crossings. Hmmmm – you do have to wonder if the apex predators have figured this system out and camp out near the crossings. They are attractively designed and are so much more appealing than the sight of dead deer we see lying on the roadsides of Texas. (To their credit, Montana has built at least one of these north of Missoula.)

Wildlife Crossing
Critter Bridge

After settling in, the next day we traversed the Icefields Parkway up to Jasper, Alberta through Banff N.P. and part of Jasper National Park. It is a breathtaking, jaw-dropping  144 mile drive from Lake Louise to Jasper. O Canada! The parkway takes you past turquoise glacial lakes, enormous rocky cliffs, and large, deep glaciers as the name suggests. Around each bend, another stunning panorama—hundreds of them!

There where the mighty mountains bare their fangs unto the moon,
There where the sullen sun-dogs glare
in the snow-bright, bitter noon,
And the glacier-glutted streams sweep down
at the clarion call of June.
– Robert Service, Heart of the Sourdough

Icefields Panorama

Bow Lake
Bow Lake

Lone Kayaker on Bow Lake
Kayak on Bow Lake

Peyto Lake Below Crowfoot Glacier
Peyte Lake

The truck is going to need a new suspension after negotiating the parking lot before hiking up to see Peyto Lake. Several cars nearly high-centered after dropping into one of the many potholes. The plans to repair it in the spring did not happen.  Don’t trust the guide that says it is an easy hike up to the lake. Whoever wrote that was 18. I will definitely need a new knee after hiking back down the steep incline.

Icefields2Glacier 1Empty BowlColumbia Icefield 2Columbia Icefield 1

We surely weren’t disappointed by the lack of wildlife. Finally – Bighorn Sheep and Mountain Goats! Even a bear for good measure.

Bighorn 2Bighorn Ewe & LambBighorn Sheep

Black Bear Icefields Pkwy
Mountain Goat 3Mountain Goat 2

Goats -Momma & kid

Bear Video

 

If you have the sound on, you can hear the bear rustling in the browse – we were that close. I was standing on the running board of the truck filming and that would normally be too close for comfort. But I didn’t film the two morons in front of the truck crouched down next to him on the shoulder, filming with their phones. I figured the bear would go for them first. They were still crouched next to him as we drove away. He must have been in a charitable mood because we didn’t hear about any bear attacks the next day. 

We got to Jasper about lunch time and stopped for a picnic/Sacha walk before driving around the town. Although a tourist spot, Jasper  is not nearly as congested as Banff at the other end of the parkway and is dotted with lovely old churches and houses instead of shoulder to shoulder resorts. Wish we could have spent more time there, but there was only time to tag Jasper and head back.

Jasper – Pyramid Peak
Pyramid Peak - Jasper

Church in Jasper, Alberta
Jasper Church

The reverse trip back to Lake Louise was just as stunning and we did make it back to camp before the rain.

Icefields 4

Icefields Pkwy1Fangs
The Massive Mountain Range N of Banff

What a glorious day! We’ve been through many national parks this past year, each one them magnificent, but the Icefields Parkway has to be the big crescendo of this trip. Top of the world, Ma!

Alberta is famous for its wild roses, but the blossoms were long gone before we got there.   There were still many wildflowers to enjoy.

Wildflowers of Alberta

Fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolium)
Fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolium)
White Buds
White Buds (U. watchamacallit) Allan?
Shrubby Cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruiticosa)
Shrubby Cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruiticosa)
American Harebell (Campanula rotunifolia)
American Harebell (Campanula rotunifolia)
Yarrow, (Achillea millefolium)
Yarrow, (Achillea millefolium)
Butter and Eggs (Linaria Vulgaris)
Butter and Eggs/Common Toadflax (Linaria Vulgaris)
Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum)
Out of Place Old Man’s Whiskers/Prairie Smoke? (Geum triflorum)

The following day we ventured next door into Yoho National Park (named for the Cree expression of awe and wonder) to Emerald Lake. On the way we stopped at Kicking Horse Pass to check out the Spiral Railroad Tunnels. Gordon Lightfoot’s Canadian Railroad Trilogy was running through my brain again.

Train Emerging from Tunnel on Kicking Horse Pass
Kicking Horse Spiral Tunnels1

For they looked in the future and what did they see
They saw an iron road runnin’ from sea to the sea
Bringin’ the goods to a young growin’ land
All up through the seaports and into their hands
Gordon Lightfoot

These tunnels represent a marvelous engineering feat that allowed the Canadian Railroad to join western Canada to the eastern rails. The first attempt at crossing this pass was a dangerous 4.4% grade, resulting in a runaway train crash that killed a few railroad men. The spiral tunnels, finished in 1909 allow trains to rise and descend at a much safer 2.2% grade. It’s pretty amazing to watch a train cross over itself as it spirals downward. Even though it’s safer, it’s still a dangerous proposition to navigate the tunnels and there have been a number of derailments even in modern times. The video below will give you some idea of what happens about 25-30 times per day.

Single Train Traversing Kicking Horse Pass

 

Stopping at the Yoho Visitor Center, I asked where we might spot a moose and was told there were only 5 moose left in Yoho. It seems that when the elk were reintroduced to the park, they scarfed up all the moose browse along with their own. Moose, being more discriminating, ran short on food and have dwindled in numbers. I would imagine there are other factors that contribute as well – disease, predators, forest fires, etc. Guess we’ll have to put Alaska on the bucket list for a moose sighting.

Further on, Emerald Lake was as stunningly emerald as its name implied. There were a few canoes on the placid lake. We watched one launch with a Husky aboard. The Husky bit at the water until he could stand it no longer and jumped for shore. The owner had to reel it in by it’s leash and get it back aboard. No mean feat to retrieve a drenched Husky in a canoe. All the while, a lone loon looked on in disbelief.

Emerald Lake
Emerald Lake - Yoho

Husky Headed For Dry Land
Husky

Common LoonLoon on Emerald Lake -Yoho

Not far from there was Natural Bridge. It’s a huge boulder that blocked the Yolo River. Flowing water and time had eroded the center away to form a bridge.


Coincidentally, this was also the site of one of 24 WWI internment camps where Ukranian and Europeans, deemed enemy aliens, were held under forced labor conditions. Sadly, it appears the USA wasn’t in it alone. Canada, however, has erected interpretive centers at these sites as part of reconciliation efforts to acknowledge these internments under its War Measures Act.

We spent Sunday visiting the lakes west of Banff. Lake Minnewanka was high on the list of attractions, so it was our first stop. Even though it was a gray Sunday morning, hundreds of other folks had the same idea and there was no place to park. We decided just to see it as we drove over the dam. It’s a large lake wedged into the surrounding mountains, but it’s a reservoir and does not have that turquoise color or charm of the glacial lakes so we got a photo and headed south.

Lake Minnewanka
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Two Jack lake was the next stop, a pristine little mountain lake. We met some nice folks with a Shiba Inu, who looked like a tiny Sacha. She was about to take her first canoe trip and was decked out in a life jacket.

Father and Son Canoeing on Two Jack Lake
Father &Son on Two Jack Lake Banff

Mini Sacha (Shiba Inu) Getting Ready for Her First Canoe Trip
Mini-Sacha (Shiba Inu) going Boating

There’s a lovely campground at Two Jack lake. If we ever come back this way, I’d like to be set up for boondocking so we can stay here. Our last stop was Johnson lake. The clouds were starting to burn off and lots of folks were out enjoying the day.

Johnson Lake
Johnson Lake

What about Lake Louise, you might ask? We saved it for our last day, waiting for a sunny week day where it might not be so congested. Park officials recommend shuttling in to the lake because parking is scarce – such is the case for any national park attraction. We decided to take a chance and as we pulled up to the parking lot, an attendant told us we’d have to go back down near our campground and shuttle back up. Groan. But as we were rolling past the parking lot, a second attendant waved us into a waiting space. WooHoo! 

Sierra Larkspur (Delphinium glaucum) at Lake Louise
Sierra Larkspur (Delphinium glaucum)

The famous Lake Louise is famous for a reason. The lake sits in a bowl nestled in the mountains. Glacier-fed, the bowl is filled with exquisite milky jade green water. It is one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever beheld.

Lake Louise, Banff National Park
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For those looking for more adventure, beyond the lake sits the Plain of Six Glaciers, which is one of the premier hikes in the park. At the top of the trail there is a tea house where one can sit and enjoy the view before descending back down. If we were younger with better knees…  For those interested, I came across this wonderful description of the hike: http://banffandbeyond.com/plain-of-six-glaciers-the-other-tea-house-at-lake-louise/


Pilot Mountain

Castle Mountain

While we could have spent much more time exploring Banff and the surrounding parks, after five days, we felt we understood the rugged splendor of the area. It was time to move on, so we wound our way down the foggy mountains and across the plain to Medicine Hat, aka “Gas City” on the Saskatchewan River. We passed a number of small pronghorn herds on the drive – we must have seen over 100. Medicine Hat was first established as a rail hub. As you might expect, the gas industry figures prominently in the town’s industry. But brick and pottery industries also grew up around the local deposits of coal and clay.  Now the city is turning its eyes toward solar. While a solar generated steam plant near our campground shut down, (lower gas costs made it economically unfeasible)  large solar farms are in the works. We also saw a few large commercial greenhouses around town which grow produce as well as evergreen seedlings for reforestation projects.

The Gas City Campground turned out to be little oasis in the prairie just off the river. Lots of trees and friendly people, we enjoyed our stay. 

Gas City Campground
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We found a wonderful little restaurant called the Rustic Kitchen nearby and had a great time visiting with our Estonian waiter, Xander. We really liked this town. It had a nice wide-open feel and from the looks of it, a vibrant cultural center and a great wildlife refuge, Police Point Park. Unfortunately, we were there at the wrong time – the passerines had already migrated and the waterfowl had yet to start their migration south. Even though it is a lovely park, the only bird we saw or heard was a Phoebe in the parking lot as we left. It wasn’t a total loss though. Sacha had a wonderful time. I’d still like to come back when the birds are here.

Flicker Gas City
Northern Flicker, Gas City Campground
Chickadee GSC
Black-capped Chickadee, Gas City Campground

Our time was up in Canada for now so we packed it up to head back to Montana, and Pat’s chosen destination, the Little Big Horn.

 

Fall Trip Part 2: Glaciers Slip-sliding Away

by Dahna Branyan

We hated to end our visit with Rocky and Elaine, but were anxious to get moving and visit Glacier National Park. Flathead Lake and a couple of wildlife refuges, Ninepipes and Pablo, were on the way but there was no good way to stop and see them with the trailer in tow.

Trumpeter Swans In Flight
trumpeters in flight

First Glimpse of Flathead Lake
Flathead Lake from Polson Overlook

We chose to go up the west side of Flathead Lake. which offers long gorgeous views of the lake and coves dotted with marinas and moored boats.  At the top of the lake sits Kalispell and our campground, Rocky Mountain Hi RV Park. It was a short drive so we had time to look around and meet our neighbors, Cal and Cam from North Dakota plus their handsome Belgian Shepherd Zeus. They come to the this park every year and plan to retire in Kalispell in a couple of years. I can see why – Kalispell has everything you need with fabulous views in all directions and recreational opportunities abound. Still a bit cold for our retirement dreams, but Cal and Cam are used to the cold.  Brrrr.

White Cliffs on Flathead Lake

White Cliffs along Flathead lake

Bald Eagle Seen From Our Campground
Bald Eagle

After getting the trailer unhooked from the truck and.hooked up to utilities we took Sacha for her introductory stroll through the campground and territory-marking ritual. In spite of a “six foot leash at all times” rule, Sacha was attacked by loose dogs twice on our little stroll. The first time by a pit/lab mix that jumped on her back while trailing a rope. In no time she spun out of her collar and onto his back, sending him running for his owner’s RV door. Sacha almost went in after him before we could get her back under control.  Adding to the melee, Pat is growling at the apologetic owner about keeping his dog tied up. Sacha was feeling pretty feisty when we rounded the corner and a pint-sized dog trailing his leash rushed out to bite her belly, but Sacha rolled him on the pavement and sent him screaming to his owner. After apologies were made, but not by us, we got Sacha back in the trailer before any more incidents. Now when asked what kind of dog Sacha is, we say part Siberian Husky, part Cujo.

Female Western Tanager – Rocky Mountain Hi Campground
Female Western Tanager

Aside from the dog spats, the folks we met were extremely nice – and mostly from Canada. Kalispell appears to be a good cheap trading post for Canadians. One lady I met said she had celiac disease and Kalispell offered more options for gluten-free foods. #We’re Number One!

Juvenile American Robin Immature Robin

The next couple of days were dreary, rainy days we are becoming accustomed to on our travels. (I think we’re towing our personal rain cloud behind us some days.)  We decided to hold on seeing Glacier until the weather improved and opted to meander back down the east side of the Flathead Lake. Aside from being a lovely drive, it seems to be the side famous for Flathead cherries. Orchards pretty much lined the east side of the lake. But when we stopped to load up on cherries, we were told that no one in the area actually grows Flathead cherries anymore because they don’t ship well. We got their Sweetheart cherries and were not disappointed. They were the best cherries we’ve ever eaten. The blueberries they grew weren’t bad either.

Red-Necked Grebes at Flathead Lake
Juvenile Red-necked Grebes Cruising Flathead L.

Still gloomy and foggy the next day, the weather was more suited for ducks rather than taking in  the sights of Glacier. Ducks – there’s a thought. We headed back down along Flathead Lake again to visit the Ninepipes Wildlife Refuge that we’d passed coming up this way. There were lots of ducks, but not having waders to get in close, good photos were hard to get with my lens. The ducks were also a bit harder to distinguish since nesting season is over and the males have assumed their basic or “eclipsed” drab plumage.  I’m not too good at identifying them in this phase, but I did manage to ID  a few.  And saw a few “lifers” for me. The Trumpeter Swans were in abundance though and I even managed to snag a photo of a tagged swan. He was an immature bird, locally tagged,  but I reported the sighting just the same.

Tagged Trumpeter

Bufflehead Ducks – Immature MalesBuffleheads

Great Blue Heron Hiding in the Shadows
GBH Hiding in the Shadows

American Coot
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Mission Mountains Overlooking Ninepipes NWR near Ronan, MT
Mission Mountains

Red-breasted Mergansers
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Finally the clouds lifted enough the following day to head up to Glacier and the famed Going-to-the-Sun Road. By clouds lifting, I mean halfway up the mountains. From the west, the road first takes you through the evergreen forests past the glacial Lake McDonald. There are a number of pull-outs to enjoy the view, but like other park roads we’ve travelled of late, most of the pullouts are full when you pass them so you just enjoy the views as you drive.

Red Rocks – Glacier National Park
Red Rocks

Mountain View from Red Rocks
From View Red Rocks

A Distant Glacier
Shrinking Glacier

The road itself is an engineering marvel.  Fifty miles long and completed in 1933, it spans the park from east to west.  From the west it begins in the dark cedar/hemlock forest.  As the road rises, the forests give way to the rocky cliffs, roadside waterfalls and finally to alpine meadows. The views are ethereal, made much more so by the layer of clouds girdling the mountains. Simply gorgeous. As you climb, the road narrows and gets more challenging with hairpin curves, especially when you are driving a large pickup. If that wasn’t challenging enough, the narrow road offers steep cliff walls on one side and steep dropoffs on the other, often unprotected by. guardrails.  Not for the faint of heart. The elevation  makes it difficult to keep the road clear of snow and it’s often late spring /early summer before the road opens for traffic for a few short months. One vehicle plummeted over the edge earlier this summer, forcing rescuers to rapel down the mountain to retrieve the injured.  It might be worth it to rent a smaller car for this day trip.

I’ve stood in some mighty-mouthed hollow
That’s plumb-full of hush to the brim;
I’ve watched the big, husky sun wallow
In crimson and gold, and grow dim,
Till the moon set the pearly peaks gleaming,
And the stars tumbled out, neck and crop;
And I’ve thought that I surely was dreaming,
With the peace o’ the world piled on top
-Robert Service, Spell Of The Yukon

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Going to the Sun

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Even though park officials previously announced that the glaciers would be gone in 2020, they persist. Pictures show that, thanks to several years of heavy snowfall,  at least two of the glaciers have grown slightly in size, prompting officials to remove the signs concerning their imminent demise. Overall though, all of the glaciers are severely reduced in size over the past 50 years, some as much as 80%, according to a New York Times article. If you want to see them, I recommend moving it up on your list.

After reaching Logan Pass, we descended down the east side of the park to St. Mary Lake. This side of the pass is less forested and the valley is wider with more meadows.  While we considered turning around and viewing Going to The Sun Road from the opposite direction, our decision was made by a road construction project that cost us an hour on the way down. Not wanting another hour’s wait, we decided to return via Hwy 2 which skirts the bottom of the park. On the way there, however, we more than made up for the wait by another detour construction project that will probably cost the truck a realignment job when we get home.

The Sole Wildlife Specimen, A Cedar-Waxwing spotted while waiting for the road construction
Cedar Waxwing

Hanging Valley with a Glacier Remnant & Bird Woman Falls Below
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St. Mary Lake
St. Mary Lake

Although we didn’t see any wildlife as we drove through the park, they are surely present. I am sure that the almost bumper to bumper traffic sends them deeper into the park. For hikers, the thrill of seeing bighorn sheep and mountain goats is more certain.   The sublime scenery throughout the park was enough to take in for one day.

The view from the East Entrance (and our exit)Glacier East Entrance

Trumpeter Takeoff – Ninepipes NWRTrumpeter Takeoff

Spring Trip, Part 7: Yellowstone, Where It All Began

By Dahna Branyan

Maybe you weren’t born with a silver spoon in your mouth, but like every American, you carry a deed to 635 million acres of public lands. That’s right. Even if you don’t own a house or the latest computer on the market, you own Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and many other natural treasures. – John Garamendi

What better way to end our national parks tour than with the very first national park, Yellowstone. Ferdinand Hayden, for whom Hayden Valley is named, was a geologist and naturalist who first surveyed the land and helped convince Congress to protect this treasure as a national park. President Grant signed an act naming it the first national park in 1872.

We tried hard to beat the crowds on this tour. We learned that while that’s not possible, we certainly were gaining on winter. We finally caught up to it in Yellowstone. We drove in on a cold dreary rain that turned to snow overnight.  As soon as we got set up, I looked out the window to see elk right next door.

The next morning looked more favorable for sightseeing so we headed into Yellowstone. The park is beautiful in itself, but it’s so exciting to see the wildlife. 

Ring-Necked Ducks

Trumpeter Swan – Yellowstone claims to have 12 nesting pairs within the park so I feel lucky to have seen this one taking a nap. These birds are our biggest waterfowl and can weigh up to 25 pounds.

Oh, Now He’s Awake

 

We first headed up to Mammoth Springs at the north entrance, driving through the steaming geyser basins. Steam rising from myriad pools and vents makes you worry a just little about just how dormant IS this ancient caldera. The whole area seemed to be boiling under the surface.

Lower Geyser Basin

We stopped to take a look at Gibbon Falls, one of many throughout the park. The rock formations in this area were magnificent and made me wish I had taken a geology course when I had the chance. The raven below thought it was a good place to raise a family.

Gibbon Falls

Raven’s Nest

Mammoth Springs is fascinating.  Water that seeps underground along fault lines  is heated by old magma chambers, remnants of the ancient volcano. The heated water mixes with gases, including carbon dioxide, acidifying the water  and allowing it to dissolve deep limestone (calcium carbonate) layers.  The water bubbles to the surface at the springs, where it deposits the calcium carbonate  as travertine. There are chemical equations lurking about, but I won’t take you there. (Thank me later and I won’t ruin your next 4th of July explaining why fireworks are different colors). Anyway the wonderful coloration arises from various algal colonies that grow in the pools and chalky deposits. Sometimes the fault lines shift a bit and the springs move, leaving some travertine terraces dry while others come to life anew.

Mammoth Springs

Adjacent to Mammoth Springs is the North Visitors Center and the remains of Ft. Yellowstone, commissioned to manage the park. Eventually, the National Park Service took over the management and the fort now serves at the park’s headquarters. But tell that to the bison that navigate between the cars and tourists.

North of the visitor’s center is a turnout where we turned around to head back. Pat noticed a big bull moose atop the hill behind the center. I jumped out, camera in hand to take a picture of my first moose, but by the time I got the lens cap off, he had descended down the other side and out of my sight. Well, there is still a chance to see moose in Banff this fall. 

It had been a pretty full day of seeing the sights and we were ready to get back to our campground and relax a bit when things came to a standstill. Three hours later and a mere seven miles closer to camp, inching down a narrow canyon with about 1500 other vehicles, we discovered why traffic was at a virtual standstill. A small herd of bison and their babies were ambling along, taking up both lanes oblivious to the havoc they were causing. About the time we reached them, the canyon widened and they shuffled off to the side and let a few cars by. By the time we got back to camp, drinks were definitely in order.

Traffic Tie-Up

The next day we drove over the pass to check out Yellowstone Lake. The lake, still frozen over, looked lovely from the overlook, but we stopped there.  By then the snow was looking serious so we got back in the truck and headed back over the pass.

Back on the western slope, it was a bit warmer and we had our first bear sighting – a small black bear, pretty far off, but hey, it was our first bear.

Before heading back, we went to see the main attraction, Old Faithful, go off on schedule. It’s pretty astounding to think of the heat and pressure at work below ground to make that geyser erupt every 50- 90 minutes  for so many years. They say that the time between eruptions has increased due to both lighter precipitation and earthquakes which affect water levels in the area.

Thar She Blows!

Just as we were leaving the park to head back to camp, we saw him – a beautiful Golden Eagle no doubt contemplating his next meal.

Before hitting the road, Pat has a few chores to do to make sure the next travel day is smooth – checking tire pressure on the trailer and truck, along with torquing lug nuts on the trailer, gassing up, etc. This is usually my time to do a bit of birding. Fortunately, Henry Lake State Park, directly across from our campground, provided a great birding opportunity, even though the cloudy skies and intermittent rain did not help the photo quality.

Barrow’s goldeneye

Trumpeter Swan On Nest

Audubon Warbler (a yellow-rumped warbler, affectionately known as a Butterbutt by birders)

 

White-Crowned Sparrow ( She had built her nest on the rocky ground!)

Swainson Hawk

Northern Flicker, Red-shafted

We did get enough decent weather to see a lot of Yellowstone, but some of the roads were still closed from winter snows. A return trip might be in order, but for now it was time to hit the road to Montana to see old friends and stash the trailer for a couple of months

Bison at Play

 

Spring Trip, Part 6: Yosemite, Our Own Notre Dame

by Dahna Branyan

“It was like lying in a great solemn cathedral, far vaster and more beautiful than any built by the hand of man.” – Theodore Roosevelt 

The next leg took us uneventfully back down to the valley through the orchard country of Fresno and Merced, and then as we headed back up into the Sierras, destiny, in the form of Apple Car Play, took a hand.  Siri sweetly guided us to an old logging road sporting a “road closed sign” where a woman rancher happened to be repairing a fence. We explained our Siri problem and asked if the road was really closed. She said it was open, but there were low spots that might still have water. She hesitated before saying that yes, that from there it was the road to Groveland, near our campground. We cursed Siri for the next ten miles as we rattled and rolled down the forest service road to the connecting highway. Again Siri told us to take Old Priest Road up to Groveland, CA and our campground. This time we ignored Siri and took New Priest Road instead, giving her a piece of our mind about her routing judgement. It was a steep grade zig-zagging  to the top. Pat got a bit worried when the transmission started heating up so we used a few pullouts to let it cool down a few minutes before going on. Once at the top and settled into our new digs, we found we were right to ignore Siri since RVs and travel trailers were not allowed on Old Priest Road because it was a straight 17 % grade.  We also met a neighbor who burned up his transmission on the new road, proving again that Pat is a pretty smart fellow for letting the transmission cool on the way up.

Mountain Dogwood
Mountain Dogwood


We still had to climb further up the Sierras before descending down into Yosemite Valley the next day. It was not as arduous as the roads into Groveland or Sequoia, but what a lovely drive through the evergreen forest, dotted with mountain dogwoods and manzanita. The curves were alternately punctuated with luscious waterfalls and breathtaking views of the valley below, including previews of El Capitan and Half Dome in the distance.

First Look at Yosemite Valley and Merced RiverDSCN0804

Greenleaf Manzanita (Arctostapylos patula)
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The Valley AwaitsDSCN0710

 

It is easier to feel than to realize, or in any way explain, Yosemite grandeur. The magnitudes of the rocks and trees and streams are so delicately harmonized, they are mostly hidden. John Muir


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But only from the valley floor can you glimpse what Muir was talking about.  The interplay of the valley’s granite walls with the fast moving Merced River and the beauty of the diverse foliage is sublime. If one can filter out the cars and people, it takes little imagination to see this  beautiful rugged valley the way the native Awahneechee saw their home, Awahnee (translated as “gaping mouth”).  It’s hard to say if they named it after the geology of the valley or their initial reaction to the magnificent valley. Well, that was our reaction anyway. 

El Capitan, Its Heart Exposed
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Merced River
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Yosemite Falls
Yosemite Falls

The Majestic Half Dome
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We were very happy campers coming back home to Yosemite Pines RV Resort. Our neighbors, Gary and Shelley from Whittier, CA had just returned from Hetch Hetchy  so we sat out with drinks and talked about all we had seen. When they mentioned Whittier, Pat remembered it was Nixon’s home turf. Turns out, Gary is related to Nixon on the Milhous side of the family. We had a great time visiting with them. They had recently retired from running a family seafood business. I wish we could have visited longer – I might have been able to talk them out of a recipe or two. But they were leaving the next morning and we were headed back to Yosemite, this time to see Hetch Hetchy ourselves.

John Muir and the Sierra Club fought from 1901 to 1913 to save the Hetch Hetchy Valley, lying within Yosemite National Park, from a dam that the City of San Francisco wished to build within Yosemite, arguing that there were better alternatives. As he wrote in Yosemite

“Hetch Hetchy Valley, far from being a plain, common, rock-bound meadow, as many who have not seen it seem to suppose, is a grand landscape garden, one of Nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples. As in Yosemite, the sublime rocks of its walls seem to glow with life, whether leaning back in repose or standing erect in thoughtful attitudes, giving welcome to storms and calms alike, their brows in the sky, their feet set in the groves and gay flowery meadows, while birds, bees, and butterflies help the river and waterfalls to stir all the air into music—things frail and fleeting and types of permanence meeting here and blending, just as they do in Yosemite, to draw her lovers into close and confiding communion with her.”

They lost that battle  and the city built a dam impounding the Tuolumne River to supply the city with water and electricity. The beautiful valley was lost.

O’Shaughnessy Dam and Hetch Hetchy Reservoir
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But after visiting Hetch Hetchy, I feel somewhat conflicted. Yes, the beautiful valley was lost, but there is still a certain rugged beauty in the reservoir against the stone walls. There are still quiet trails to explore and a few primitive campgrounds. It is not congested with cars and tourists tramping over everything like Yosemite Valley experiences daily. Relatively few people visit. Who is to say what is the greater harm?  By all accounts, the amount of sediment that has covered the valley floor is negligible. Perhaps one day, the proponents of restoring Hetch Hetchy will win or the dam will fail (it has been there for a hundred years now.) and a restored Hetch Hetchy may end up less damaged than what has been done to Yosemite Valley.

Hetch Hetchy Reservoir
HH1

California Indian Pink (Silene Californica)
California Indian

We ended our Yosemite visit with a trip to the Mariposa Sequoia Grove, one of three groves of giants within the park. Stopping  off at the Wawona area to visit the interpretive center and the Big Trees Lodge (formerly the Wawona Hotel) , built in the 1850’s,

Big Trees Lodge
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A thunderstorm erupted during our visit and prevented us from seeing the full grove and some of the named trees, like the Grizzly, but it was still awesome to stand among the giants.

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A Fallen Monarch On A Rainy Day
Fallen Giant

Dark-eyed Juncos
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Spring Trip, Part 5: In The Land Of Giants

By Dahna Branyan

Journeying north from Yucaipa, we drove through the corporate fruit basket of the west. Mile after mile of orchards – mostly oranges, lemons and olives. Just add water to California’s famed golden hills and it turns into big ag’s version of the Garden of Eden. We stopped in a small village outside of Sequoia National Park, Three Rivers, California, named for the convergence of the three forks of the Kaweah River. We camped beside the North Fork of the Kaweah at Sequoia Ranch RV Resort. 

Fisherman On The North Fork Of The Kaweah River
 

This charming park was shaded with Valley Oaks, sycamores and western cedar. The campground was lousy with  Acorn Woodpeckers taking advantage of the bounty of Valley Oak acorns. You don’t think of woodpeckers as being noisy birds until you are awakened to the sound  of over a hundred of them Ker-racking to one another at first light. I’m pretty sure Ker-rack translates as “stay away from my acorns, Redhead.” But hey, we were here to see trees.

Acorn Woodpeckers

Every tree in the park had become a repository for the season’s acorn stash.




“Do behold the king in his glory, King Sequoia. Behold! Behold! seems all I can say…. Well may I fast, not from bread but from business, bookmaking, duty doing & other trifles…. I’m in the woods woods woods, & they are in mee-ee-ee…. I wish I were wilder & so bless Sequoia I will be.” ~John Muir

Sequoia Park literature recommended vehicles longer than 22 feet not attempt traveling the road closest to our campground into the visitor center due to the steep and winding entrance. Okay. Since we were just under 22 feet, we drove the very long winding road up to King’s Canyon National Park the first day to visit with General Grant before we attempted the more direct route up to Sequoia National Park.  General Grant, even after suffering damage to his canopy, did not disappoint at a height of 278 feet and a circumference of 107 feet, it’s easy to see why these trees were named Sequoiadendron giganteum. General Grant’s lesser foot soldiers were nearly as impressive. 

General Grant

A Few of General Grant’s Foot Soldiers


A Fallen Monarch


We didn’t expect large crowds at this time of year. Many of the park roads were still closed for snow and the kids were in school. We failed to account for the horde of selfie-stick wielding foreign travelers. From the sound of the chatter around us, the Russians and Chinese have plenty of our dollars to spend seeing the wonders of this beautiful country.  If only we had the concession on CruiseAmerica ’s RV rental business.




As it turned out, the road to King’s Canyon was pretty danged curvy. With that under our belt and after talking to our neighbor who’d already driven into Sequoia in a similar truck, we ventured up the hairpin-curved highway to Sequoia to visit General Sherman. Arriving at the parking lot to see the general, you see the giant standing right in front of the museum. Oh wait, that’s not General Sherman, that giant is The Sentinel, which the sign explains that although the tree is 2,200 years old, it is just an average sized specimen in this grove. It definitely looked above average to us. The general’s grove was a few miles up the road.

The Sentinel

 The hike to see the general was a mere half mile straight down – the easy part. Knowing that all the folks with better knees passing me on the way down would still be there mouths agape taking in the tree, I stopped short and viewed it from the “back” trying to imagine what it would have been like to wander through these woods  a few hundred years ago and happen upon an unmolested grove of giants. Apart from their size, the luster of the reddish-gold bark and the emerald green foliage atop sets them apart from the rest of the forest trees. With the sun’s rays filtering through the undersized canopy, the giants seem a bit unworldly.  Trudging back up that steep hill to the visitor center, the crowd seemed subdued and reflective to have stood in the presence of a living fossil, perhaps wondering at all these trees had witnessed. 

General Sherman on Approach

General Sherman Clip

Necks stiff from looking up at trees and Pat’s shoulder sore from maneuvering the tight curves for two days, we spent the next day catching up on laundry and resting. Of course resting involves bird-watching for me. Once you quit jerking your head around at the Acorn Woodpeckers, there were actually quite a few other interesting birds hanging around the river.

Bullock’s Oriole –  With an orange orchard just across the road I expected to see a lot of orioles, but this fellow was the only oriole I saw on the campground side of the street.

I love the way this Black Phoebe looks like our Eastern Phoebes putting on the Ritz in a tuxedo.

Ash-throated flycatchers migrate from the Pacific slope of Mexico and Honduras up to their spring breeding grounds, often in California.

 Red-shouldered hawks feed mostly on small mammals, amphibians and reptiles. This one was in a good feeding area where gophers and blue belly lizards are plentiful.


Blue Belly Lizard


The next day we checked out Lake Kaweah, a large catchment for melting snowfall and rain from the Sierras and transported by the Kaweah River. It was built by the Army Corps of Engineers both as a flood control and irrigation for the orchards.


After listening to wild turkeys call all during our stay, I took Sacha on a walk before we loaded up to move on. I could hear the turkeys on the river so Sacha and I headed that way. The hen flew across the river, but when the tom saw Sacha, he stood his ground and put on a full display as a warning. I took this shot as we turned away and hit the road.



Spring Trip, Part 4: A Desert Forest In Bloom

by Dahna Branyan

When planning this trip, we were warned on a travel forum that the RV resort nearest to Joshua Tree National Park might be noisy due to wind generators. Boy howdy. Once past Palm Springs, the wind funneling through the San Gorgonio Pass between Coachella and San Bernadino valleys makes it a prime location for wind generation.  I think the number of wind generators might possibly rival the number of Joshua trees in the park.  Though not near as pretty, the generators appear to be keeping the lights on in Southern California. We opted to keep going, fighting the mighty headwinds to park the camper in Yucaipa.

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This was the smart choice. Yucaipa Regional Park is a gem – spacious sites with lots of trees and grass and three small lakes. As we met other new arrivals to the park, we were met with comments like, “Can you believe this beautiful place?” Although sycamores and eucalyptus trees dominate the park, there were a number of plantings of other trees, like Japanese Larch, Redwood and Incense Cedar.

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And did I mention birds? As soon as we got out of the truck, I spotted a new (for me) species, A Nuttall’s Woodpecker. Notice how the barring stops lower on the back than a Ladder-backed Woodpecker.

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We saw several other new birds for us, including this Plain Titmouse perched in a white alder. I never knew that alders had cones!

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Lawrence’s Goldfinch – this pretty little finch’s breeding territory is limited to Southern California and sometimes Arizona. Interestingly, the males gain a more intense yellow coloring from wear rather than through molting, as brown feather barbules wear off to expose the underlying yellow.
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Hooded Oriole – these orioles are limited to the southwest, breeding along the US/Mexican border area from Texas to California.
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The next day we were off to Joshua Tree National Park, back over the San Gorgonio Pass (and wind generator tunnel). The Oasis of Mara was our first stop after entering the park. It is one of five oases within Joshua Tree National Park, where uplifts of hard rock layers allow water to move to the surface. These oases are prime habitats where California fan palms flourish. They were once relied upon by Native Americans as watering holes and places to gather palm nuts to grind into meal.

Oasis of Mara
Oasis of Mara

Expecting to visit a flat desert terrain dotted with cactus and yuccas, we were astounded by the wonderful rock formations, eons in the making, standing like colossal monuments in the desert. 

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The Joshua Tree, or Yucca brevifolia, can be found throughout the park loop. These trees grow quickly, 7-8″ per year at first, then more slowly, 1-2″ per year after about ten years. They top out at about 15 feet. Their roots go deep, and many can live hundreds, even thousands of years. While it can grow from seed, it also spreads from underground rhizomes.
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Joshua trees don’t bloom every year, but due to a wet spring, they were still blooming during our visit. The flowers rely on Yucca Moths for pollination. Afterward, they form fleshy green fruits, seen in abundance. The moth caterpillars stick around to feed on the seeds. Besides the moths, only small mammals seem to feed on the seed. Since they have a relatively small range to scatter seeds through dung deposits than birds might, the Joshua tree can’t easily expand its range.  This might be problematic as climate change accelerates.

Joshua Tree Blossom
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 The wet desert spring had many other plants  showing off their blossoms in an impressive show of appreciation.  Nature dressed up in its Sunday best.

Apricot Mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua)
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Mohave yucca (Yucca Shigedera)
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Desert Canterbury Bells (Phacelia campanularia)
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Mojave Pin Cushion (Chaenactis xantiana)
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Mojave kingcup cactus (echinocereus mojavensis)
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After an eye-popping day of the best the desert has to offer, we retreated back to the San Bernadino Valley and Yucaipa to rest up for the next leg of the trip and of course, look for more new birds. Sacha was having none of the birds. She had discovered gophers.

Before leaving on this trip, we took Sacha to the vet for a rattlesnake vaccine booster. The vet, when learning that we were going to Joshua Tree, warned us about the Mojave Rattler. The vaccine would be worthless against this particular snake’s venom because it contained a strong neurotoxin. While we fretted about that, unaware that Sacha would not be allowed on the trails, she developed a fixation on the many gophers aerating the soil in our campground. Sticking her nose in every hole, she finally snatched one out of it’s home. Pat may or may not have saved it from her death grip. She dropped it and he hustled her back to the camper. Going back to see how the gopher fared, it was gone. A raven might have picked it up, but we like to think the little rodent was only playing possum and returned to its underworld labyrinth to lick its wounds.

Sacha Waiting To Pounce On the Next Unlucky Gopher
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Canyon Wren Belting Out His Sweet Song
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Western Bluebird with Anna’s Hummingbird
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Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (notice the nest to the left) Both the male and female were tending to the nest, but they were so fast, I could only catch one on film.
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Olive-sided Flycatcher – Similar to the Eastern Phoebes we have at home, I watched this one return again and again to the same perch after snaring an insect meal.
Olive-sided Flycatcher

If the darn gasoline and real estate weren’t so expensive, I might have convinced Patrick to retire to this little bit of heaven. But gasoline was well over $4/gallon and real estate well out of our price range. Most of the Californians we met loved living here except for the high cost of living. There’s still “gold in them thar hills,” but it’s in the real estate, I suspect.

We could have stayed much longer in Southern California, but bigger trees were calling. Next stop, Sequoia National Park with the generals, Sherman and Grant.