Earlier this fall, I was fortunate to have joined a group of 12 clients on a wildlife watching safari in Yellowstone National Park. We lucked out with weather and with wildlife sightings, and it was wonderful to focus on one national park and ecosystem over six days as well!
What I love most about guiding is helping people connect the dots, and come away with a deeper understanding of the importance of protecting all the parts of a particular ecosystem. For all the places I guide people, I know the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem the best, though there is always far more to learn, know and understand as this and other dynamic wild regions change over time.
Our converations centered around how wildlife is perceived and treated within and outside of national park boundaries, and how things that happen in one location within an ecosytem have a profound impact everywhere within it.
A quick example here: Whitebark pine trees in Greater Yellowstone inhabit a narrow zone of life at higher altitudes. With climate change, whitebark pine trees are way more vulnerable to blister rust, pine beetle infestations and other problems.These trees cannot easily and quickly adapt by moving to higher elevations as the climate continues to rapidly warm.
Whitebark pines produce high fat content seeds and nuts about every four to five years. When there’s a robust year, grizzlies gorge on them from late summer into fall often raiding stash piles cached by pine squirrels and Clark’s nutcrackers. Grizzlies tend to roam less within Greater Yellowstone when the nuts and seeds are unusually abundant; in lean years they wander into more human occupied and developed areas in search of alternative food sources.
And this is when grizzlies get into trouble. Unsecured pet and livestock food entice them to visit people’s property throughout the ecosystem, as do apple orchards, gardens, compost piles and garbage. Hunters who do not immediately gut and remove their kills outside park boundaries often contribute to grizzly vs. human encounters, triggering tragic outcomes for both parties.
In short, a fed bear is a dead bear when it comes into contact with people. The challenge is two-fold: making it hard for bruins to get human food rewards, and preserving wild areas outside of national parks for bears and other wide-ranging animals to make a living over the course of their lifetimes.
On the last full day together, our wildlife watching group traveled a rugged rural road outside the park, hoping to glimpse an elusive moose, and perhaps one more grizzly. We first saw a massive bull moose several hundred yards away before he ventured into a dense thicket of willows. Afterwards we drove to where we could more easily and safely turn around, and to our surprise saw a grizzly bear ripping open a rotting log not far from where the moose had been standing!
The bruin definitely sensed that we were there watching, but continued to feed upon whatever inhabited the rotting log. Unlike earlier wildlife sightings together, this wasn’t an “animal jam” where hundreds of people crowded in to see a grizzly or black bear-it was just our small group seeing how powerful, vigilant and intent the bear was to put on more weight before winter fully set in.
Witnessing this grizzly roaming freely, living its life outside Yellowstone, drove home the importance of preserving places outside the park for the sake of grizzly bears and all wildlife species, and for future human generations to experience and enjoy, too. We better understood that wildlife cannot exist on isloated islands surrounded by humanity and all of our activities.
That grizzly’s presence was an enduring gift; it helped us forge a profound and more meaningful connection with the natural world from where we all came. The following morning, everyone departed for flights home from Bozeman, inspired and energized to do what they can to strengthen that bond and connection.
Much of the Northern Rockies were whalloped by a series of snowstorms, along with record-setting low temperatures, from late September into early October. Missoual and far western Montana escaped these storms for the most part. The snow that fell vanished nearly as fast as it landed, but we did have several frosty mornings hovering in the low teens.
The abrupt shift to winter reminded me of the numen of this region. Numen is the spirit or the divine power presiding over a thing or place. I first heard the term from Pulitzer Prize winning author Richard Powers in his book The Overstory, which I highly recommend.
The novel delves deeply into how individuals and societies have related to nature and the natural world, and illuminates how it has also related to us since time immemorial. I love how Powers wove a considerable amount of natural history into his work; I never realized until reading The Overstory that trees and humans share approximately 25% of the same D.N.A.!
Reflecting on the term numen, I am awed and inspired by the divine power presiding over our environment. Indeed. when you slow down and set the intention to be present for even a few minutes, wherever your feet are, techno-distractions and conjurings of the monkey mind tend to diminish in intensity and urgency.
Play with the concept of being completely present, and connecting with the numen of your place over the coming days. First, find a place where you feel comfortable and relaxed, then close your eyes and breathe deeply for a few minutes. Take a few seconds longer than usual for a full inhalation, hold it for a few seconds, then allow a bit more time to slowly exhale. If something from the “real world” prods and tugs for your attention, just note that it’s a thought, and if it’s truly important it’ll come back to you later.
Keep breathing deeply, allowing the essence or spirit of where you are to reveal itself. It may arrive as a sudden warm feeling of calm, trust, or reassurance that everything is and will turn out o.k. You may experience your breath feeling less labored, your heartbeat steady and less rapid, your pulse immanating at a more relaxed rate. Your shoulders and entire body may feel lighter and less burdened, as things previously preoccupying your thoughts loosen then shed their grip.
Be open to impressions, intuitive nudges, and inspired ideas that arise, too. You may very well come away with insight for how to approach or view something that’s been challenging lately, or the urge to drop something quickly and start something else from scratch!
We can consciously create the numen of our home and work environment to support us in being open to those insights.
My indoor workspace neighbors are a geranium, along with an eight-foot-tall ficus tree. Beyond, a large window overlooks the front yard, where I can observe a microcosm of the world go about daily life. Outside, two arbor vitae trees anchor the walkway to our home. These burled and burly sentinels protect us from blazing summer heat and howling winter winds while welcoming and visiting family and friends year round. They also provide shade and shelter for squirrels and birds, and occasional raccoons and deer.
When we connect with the numen of a place or thing, we come away feeling more inspired, energized, and hopeful, remembering that the fate of all depends upon the actions of many. We do our one small part today in each moment, knowing that that is enough. We keep striving, growing, loving and sharing as our collective roots deepen and intertwine, our gifts branch out toward light, sun, sky and all who may welcome them, weaving an enduring thread of life between earth’s generations.
Erik and I celebrated our tenth anniversary this spring by visiting Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks, plus Lake Powell, Glen Canyon, and a free-flowing stretch of the Colorado River near Lees Ferry, Arizona. We missed a late April snowstorm back home by being farther south at the time, and experienced warm, sunny days for the most part, great hikes and explorations, and friendly, hospitable people wherever we went.
It was a fun, much-needed vacation, and this time around we stayed in front country lodging rather than having car camping in the mix. One of our most memorable experiences happened at the Navajo Bridge across the Colorado River just west of Lees Ferry.
The original Navajo Bridge is now a pedestrian only bridge, and provides a unique and dramatic perspective both up and downstream along this stretch of the Colorado River. It’s also an Historic Civil Engineering Landmark and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1981, while the newer neighboring Navajo Bridge opened in 1995 to accommodate the needs of more modern motor vehicles traversing this still rugged, isolated region.
To our surprise, we saw a massive large black bird perched below the newer Navajo Bridge. At first, we thought it was a raven or a turkey vulture, but its massive size indicated it was a California condor! The condor was likely a sub-adult, as its head was still covered with feathers, and its wings completely black.
As condors become older and sexually mature, they lose their head and neck feathers, revealing a fleshy orange to pink-ish look from the shoulders up. This adult, more naked look is not all fashion and radar for mating attractiveness and readiness, though. Not having feathers on their head and neck makes it way easier to plunge and rip into carcasses without parasites plaguing them, and also makes for less time spent grooming and preening.
As condors mature they develop rather large, isosceles triangle-shaped white linings on each wing, making it easier to identify them in flight from far more common turkey vultures. California condors have nine to ten feet wingspans, making them the largest terrestrial birds in North America. By age seven or eight they reach sexual maturity; they often bond for life, with many condors living 50 to 60 years in the wild.
Back under the new Navajo Bridge, the condor continued preening and grooming itself, avoiding direct contact with persistent rain showers that swept across the area that afternoon. Moments before we left for Lake Powell, though, it glided to a new perch underneath the older bridge, extending its massive wings to dry out from the storm.
California condors were nearly extirpated from the wild before a last-ditch captive breeding program started in the 1980s. Since the 1990s California condors have rebounded to healthier numbers in the wild, soaring freely once again in their namesake state, and in rugged, remote places in northern Arizona and southern Utah. Just like the mesmerizing, remaining free-flowing segment of the Colorado River between Lake Powell and Lake Mead, it was encouraging to witness something profoundly primordial, wild, untamed and free rather than temporarily engineered, domesticated or manipulated by man.
My spirits soared that afternoon as we departed for Lake Powell, remembering that human beings best succeed as a species when we care for and preserve what other beings need to thrive on the one planet we all share.
Mother’s Day was celebrated by many folks nearly two weeks ago, and for me it was a bit easier than the last few ones following my Mom’s passing in October 2015. This time around, I didn’t take the radio, television and social media ads plying us with what we should give our moms for Mother’s Day as personally. I still found them annoying and unnecessarily frequent as Sunday May 12 approached, yet relieved when the day ended not feeling emotionally worn out as in previous years.
Maybe that’s what the gift of time and perspective illuminates for us: that it’s worthwhile to honor and celebrate the ones we love, but something we can do on our own terms, period. We can do that without feeling guilty, conflicted, or induced by ad campaigns that kick into high gear for occasions such as this one.. We can define for ourselves what we choose to do or not do and owe no one an explanation, excuse or reason for our actions.
One huge gift that has emerged since my Mom passed is my appreciation for everyone’s mother, no matter who they are and where they live. We’ve all come into this world through our moms, of course. From having been a lifelong advocate for Mother Earth over the years, I’ve come to see that I also have some, fierce, nurturing and protective instincts within me.
That’s massive to acknowledge and let it all sink in. It helps me empathize with what parents and families worldwide go through and feel from day to day. We all get up in the morning wanting the best for those we love and care about. Some days go swimmingly, while with others we hope that it’ll all somehow turn out for the best anyway.
Erik, his family members and I recently received the gift of his mom moving to Missoula from Helena in mid-April. She’s healthy, mobile and independently living in her own apartment with two cats as companions, and it’ll be easier for all of us to stay connected given that she’s 15 minutes rather than two hours away.
I’ve also been in closer contact with the parents of two long-time “brothers from another mother” in Virginia, Chris and his late brother Craig. For over 40 years, they’ve blended, overlapped, grown and changed alongside members of my biological family. Through that, we have all grown and established stronger, wider-ranging roots, with sturdier foundations and unshakable ties. At this point in life we all have loved and lost family members and friends, yet the spirit of those we’ve loved and lost live on, and that’s indeed a good thing, whether it’s Mother’s Day or any other day.
Two more things come to mind to share here before wrapping things up.
First, If you haven’t watched Stephen Colbert’s The Late Show interview with Keanu Reeves from earlier in May, be sure to catch their 10-minute conversation. Toward the end, Colbert unexpectedly asks Reeves what happens when people die, and his answer is surprisingly sweet and profound. I won’t spoil things here but check it out for a wonderfully fun, rambling and poignant conversation!
Second, following is a link to a wonderful new song from Brandi Carlile called “The Mother” to share with you in honor of mothers everywhere. Enjoy!
America’s public lands are a tremendous gift and legacy for today’s and future generations. Over 640 million acres, or about 28% of the country’s 2.27 billion acres, are managed for different purposes and to different degrees, providing recreational opportunities, protecting watersheds, air quality, and many other intangible services and benefits to 326 million Americans and countless international visitors.
One of the last best bargains for enjoying and accessing these lands is the annual National Parks and Federal Recreation Lands Pass, also known as the America The Beautiful Pass.
For just $80 this gets you and everyone traveling in a private, non-commercial vehicle into U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, and National Park Service sites. I hope the low cost stays that way. Accessing public lands are one of the last affordable options remaining for many people who wish to recreate, escape, chill, take a vacation, you name it with their friends and families.
There are different passes available for veterans, persons with disabilities, seniors and other folks, and these range from free to a lower cost compared to the annual America The Beautiful Pass.
Plus every U.S. fourth grader can get a free Every Kid In A Park pass which allows them to enter over 400 National Park Service sites with their family!
You can learn more about this program at http://www.everykidinapark.gov
My two Montana nephews still rave about when they were in fourth grade and got to present their entrance pass at different places. Their parents feel that having these passes gave them a stronger sense of ownership and stewardship of public lands, and do their part to leave them in better shape for future generations. And that, at the end of the day, is mighty cool!
P.S. There are also four scheduled free National Park Service entrance days in 2019:
Saturday April 20
Saturday August 25 which is the National Park Service’s birthday
Saturday September 29 which is National Public Lands Day
Monday November 11 Veterans Day
Over the past month, I’ve been able to walk downtown to run errands and conduct business often, sometimes twice in one day. On nearly every journey, I’ve also seen a lone great blue heron plying the shores and ice-ringed islands of the Clark Fork River in search of sustenance. The heron has appeared in slightly different places each time as ice and other wintry conditions continue to change in its environment. One afternoon, I watched it silently stalk the river’s edge and powerfully strike at something I could not see. The heron was unsuccessful in that moment, but I like to think that its persistence paid off at some point later that evening.
One morning, I watched the heron groom itself, then shake its entire body vigorously, before retreating into a standing position, hugging itself to stay warm it seems, with one leg planted firmly on the ground.
Great blue herons are improbable creatures: they appear somewhat prehistoric the way they navigate their environment. It’s amazing how well and easily they can fly, given their body shape and size. In spring and summer when they nest and raise their young in rookeries, their clamoring and calling evoke sounds I imagine their distant relatives, dinosaurs, also made when our planet was wetter and warmer for a while.
Yet human beings are also improbable creatures. Adaptability and flexibility are skills we have used over eons not only to survive but also to thrive in just about every type of ecosystem on earth.
We have succeeded when we’ve made long-term, far-sighted investments in getting to know, connect with, and ultimately protect and care for a place. When we’ve collaborated and shared our collective knowledge and wisdom with others. When we’ve gained a greater understanding that we truly are all in this together. All of us.
A close friend recently commented that there are lots of spaces where people can meet and hang out today, but places are where connection and community are built. Places foster stewardship and interdependence.
Places are where you can plant your feet, dig deep, and grow roots that feed your soul, your psyche, your health and your spirit. Montana’s unofficial nickname, “The Last Best Place,” resonates with me even more powerfully and hopefully today than when I first became a resident nearly 25 years ago.
Here’s hoping that in this still relatively new year, no matter where our feet are, we’ll choose to connect and invest more powerfully with place, and all with whom we share it.
To follow up after last month’s blog posting on the same topic, here are three more bucket list worthy travel destinations within the United States.
Although they’re all in the Western U.S., they’re very different from each other in many respects; what they share in common is that previous generations made it a priority to preserve these treasured places.
I’d love to hear what some of your bucket list destinations are, too, so thanks for letting me know!
Here are three more of my favorite places, all of which happen to be national park units.
California’s Death Valley National Park is amazing in scale, contrast, and biodiversity, despite its forbidding name.
The place really grows on you, slowly revealing its secrets over repeated visits, especially when you move across the landscape at a deliberate pace. Side canyons, draws, sand dunes, and alkali flats predominate at lower elevations, as do shallow warm springs and streams supporting desert pupfish.
Human history is abundant here, too. Some gold miners perished, and some barely survived, vying for a shortcut across this vast desert to northern California’s goldfields in the late 1840s. For eons, Native Americans have lived here, and still do so today, making their living in a landscape with little water.
Death Valley is the largest national park in the Lower 48 states, and the actual valley is about 140 miles long. Elevation ranges from 282 feet below sea level at Badwater Basin to over 11,000 feet at Telescope Peak, which Erik and I would like to climb some day
The best time to visit Death Valley is from October to to early May, and after rare, heavy winter rains, wildflower blooms can be astonishingly beautiful from February into March..
Montana’s Glacier National Park is another bucket list destination.
Often referred to as the “Crown of the Continent,” it’s a unique place where rain forests, alpine and sub-alpine habitats, and prairie grasslands converge. It’s also a place where winter can show up any month of the year, and wildfires may erupt from summer into fall.
Instead of driving in traffic and vying for limited parking spaces I recommend taking free National Park Service shuttle buses on the Going-to-the-Sun Highway to Logan Pass and beyond. Then you can enjoy the scenery, watch for wildlife, and meet international visitors here to experience what’s truly in our own backyard.
You can also do some cool through hikes by using the park shuttle buses; consider getting off at one trail head and catching a bus ride back at another one. Be prepared and carry bear spray when hiking, though,as you are very much on your own in this wild corner of Montana!
Going early, or late, in the season to Glacier has its advantages and its drawbacks, depending on what Mother Nature is up to at the moment. Figure out and reserve where you’re staying well in advance, or go very early or late in the season and try your luck.
Whether you’re considering back country camping, front country campsites, or historic inns and lodges in or outside the park, there are many places to choose from. Although there’s not nearly as much lodging open in the winter, Glacier is a phenomenal place to experience Montana’s longest season. The nearby Blackfeet and Flathead Indian reservations, along with the National Bison Range closer to Missoula are also worth visiting and exploring when your travels take you to Glacier Country.
Olympic National Park in Washington State is another place you should see and experience in your lifetime.
It’s like a chunk of Alaska peeled off, traveled south and rammed into the Lower 48 in western Washington. The area is strikingly wild and different from nearly everything else close by-at times it’s easy to forget that over 3.6 million people live a few hours east in Seattle, Tacoma and Bellevue!
The Olympic Peninsula’s remoteness and rugged terrain kept it from large scale European American settlement until the late 19th century, Today, from Grays Harbor north to Neah Bay, Sekiu and Clallam Bay, numerous Native American tribes live on or close by reservations where they maintain cultural traditions to different degrees. The Makah Cultural Center near Neah Bay is an especially impressive place to visit.
Olympic has glaciers, alpine environments, coastal and lowland rain forests, and rugged, wild beaches where black bears and even mountain lions still roam out to the ocean’s edge. Tide pooling, storm and bird watching opportunities abound, and botanists and wildflower lovers will be in heaven with the tremendous biodiversity that thrives here.
What’s also notable about Olympic National Park is how quiet it can be when you’re deep in the forest. During the “dry season” from April through September you should bring all rain gear anyway, but night skies can be amazingly clear and starry when the weather cooperates.
The Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary preserves over 3,000 square miles offshore, protecting marine wildlife and their habitats, traditional cultures, and the region’s maritime history. No matter where you go or stay on the Olympic Peninsula, be ready for a positively life-changing adventure.
Stay tuned for more suggestions in the future, and in the meantime, I invite you to share some of your bucket list recommendations. It would be great to hear from you!
Nearly everyone seems to have a bucket list of things to do, see and experience before they move on to the next universe.
It’s hard to suggest experiences to add to someone else’s personal bucket list, but the following few stand out for me as life-changing places. Plus you don’t need a passport to experience them, as they’re all in the U.S.
Here’s my top three for now, and later this fall I’ll round out the next few places on my ever- changing and growing bucket list. In the meantime, I’d love to hear what some of your choices and destinations are, so thanks for letting me know!
Arizona’s Grand Canyon is unsurpassed in geological scale, and it’s one of the most humbling places where you could ever spend time.
I never get tired of visiting this rugged, remarkably beautiful and protected place, no matter the season. From summer lightning and thunderstorms, to autumn fog and mist, to winter snows, the light play and constantly changing colors as the weather interacts with the canyon is spell binding. The scale, and distances, are vast, the weather can change in a heartbeat, and in contrast to the South Rim, the North Rim is a higher, cooler, much less traveled part of Grand Canyon National Park.
President Theodore Roosevelt’s foresight helped to preserve this area for future generations. As he said over a century ago, “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.” Thankfully this has largely been the case since the early 20th century, and here’s hoping that in your lifetime you’ll be able to visit the Grand Canyon’s north and south rims.
Yellowstone in winter is my favorite season in the world’s first national park.
You can palpably feel how stripped down and elemental the world is at this time of year here, as every living thing must make incredible adaptations to survive through Yellowstone’s longest season. Snow and cold generally keep both prey and predator species down lower in elevation, making it an easier time of year to potentially spot wolves, and the elk, bison and other ungulates they like to hunt.
It’s also a magical time to see the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone shrouded in snow, ice and mist, and visit the incredible diversity of thermal features within a short x-c ski, snowshoe or walk from the Old Faithful Snow Lodge. The nighttime skies can be amazing when they appear, and Yellowstone welcomes about 200,000 winter visitors compared to the million-plus crowds that descend on the park both in July and August.
Yellowstone has a way of stealing your heart, so if you’re like me, you’ll likely be pulled back to visit in its other seasons, too.
Spending several days at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. is another bucket list destination.
It’s border line overwhelming with so places to explore and discover near the two-mile long National Mall, which runs from the Lincoln Memorial to the U.S. Capitol Building.
Spend several days in the area if you can depending on your lodging and dining budget. D.C. area prices are high, but thankfully most National Mall area museums and destinations have free admission. Give yourself plenty of time, perhaps make a mini-bucket list of your priorities for while you’re there. Consider lodging in less-expensive Virginia or Maryland and taking public transportation into the city each day.
Some of my favorite places include the National Gallery of Art, The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, The Natural History Museum, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, The Holocaust Museum, and the U.S. Botanic Garden. If you have time, climb up the long winding stairs of the Washington Monument to get a different perspective on Washington, D.C.
In times like this, it’s sobering to know that these places in the nation’s capital are open to everyone, free of charge. They overflow and abound with lessons and stories encouraging us to climb and strive higher for the greater good of all humanity, for the greater good of future generations.
Nature has always been humanity’s teacher, illuminating myriad ways for us to live wisely, harmoniously and in greater balance with other species, and ourselves.
At times, we all learn and re-learn lessons we thought we had previously mastered. At this moment, it seems like the human world has gone batshit crazy just when believed we had made considerable collective progress in being more peaceful, more compassionate, and more tolerant of diversity and differences.
Many people have lost hope, wallowing in cynicism, anger and despair, and resorting to lashing out at, blaming and villainizing others. This collective tidal wave of human fear, distrust and negativity leads to deeper paralysis, stagnation and entrenched conflicts producing even more disruption, destruction and pain.
Unlike in our human constructed world,though, in nature, disruption is not personal, nor is destruction. Something is always being born or coming out of what may look like total annihilation or devastation on the surface.
Even when human generated tidal waves of crazy appear to be crashing on our home shores, nature is always showing us how to move forward, no matter what is happening outside of ourselves. The universe of which earth is part of is infinite, vast, beautiful and full of mystery. Yes, there’s a lot of chaos and there always will be, but there’s opportunity for inspiration, miracles and growth all around us if we dare to change our perspective and perception.
For me personally, I may do this by stepping back, moving away from distractions, and finding a quiet place where I can just be for several minutes. I close my eyes and tune in to how the breeze or wind feels as it flows across my body and the landscape, continuing to take deep breaths until I can feel my heart rate and breath relax. I repeat, this time smiling, as that also helps me come back to the moment.
And the moment is where the non-human beings with whom we share this planet live and dwell. They don’t worry, they don’t fret, they don’t question. They deal with obstacles, disasters and catastrophes as they happen, and yes, some survive while others do not.
Daily challenges and opportunities are the norm and not to be feared, nor is the future, or allowing what happened in the past to paralyze the present.
Being present, breathing deeply with my eyes closed in a quiet space and place, I tune in with other senses, listening to bird song, our cat Ren slinking in the bushes in search of grasshoppers or larger prey, leaves falling and tumbling to the ground. I tune in to trusting that I will always be o.k. if I listen to my heart rather than what the latest newsfeed, tweet or announcement tells me how to feel or react.
I trust that the world will be alright, that what I wish for others I also wish for friends and family members. When you stand on the edge of a vast canyon or ocean or look up at a brilliant night sky, it’s easier to connect with what untold generations of humans have always known, that we are a part of yet never apart from a benevolent universe and planet that wants us all to thrive, to be kind, to live and learn, to love, to fall, fail and then get up again, doing the best we can and know how to.
The earth, and the universe is bigger than any and all of us. That’s humbling and inspiring, yet the earth is our one and only home where we will choose to either live or perish together.
Let’s break new ground for others to follow and create a ripple effect of powerful, positive planetary change. Let’s gather in peace, trust and remembering that we all belong, that we are all needed and valued, that we are all scared at times, and that we all want to be safe, loved, respected, heard and understood.
Again, nature shows us ways to move forward. When you’re feeling discouraged, feel what you’re feeling, but remember that nature’s waiting for you, no matter where your feet are, to help you come back to yourself. You are unique in this world and you matter-we all matter.
And matter, ultimately, is what we are also all made of!