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Archive for September, 2009

On Saturday, we began the drive to Yellowstone. Lots of prairie – rolling hills covered in grass. We ended up in Helena for the night. There was smoke from a nearby fire; Montana has as many fires as California, many of them started by lightning. We continued south the next day and ended up at the Missouri Headwaters State Park. This is the point at which the Gallatin, Jefferson and Madison Rivers converge into the Missouri River. Lewis and Clark were looking for the beginning of the Missouri for quite a while and camped at this spot. We decided to camp there because I had a recommendation that it’s beautiful in low light. After setting up camp (during which I almost stepped on a pretty green and yellow garter snake), we drove around. It’s a narrow strip of a park, with a highway running through it and lots of electric wires strung around. Photographically, it is not magical. Then we found out that there was no water available at all. But we went out at sunset, and found a nice spot to photograph. We got up early the next morning to photograph, and found a chilly, heavy ground fog, creating a spooky, mystical effect.

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In very warm weather, we made it down to Gardiner, the town adjacent to the northwest entrance to Yellowstone. We decided to stay in an RV park, which was lucky because the Mammoth Campground in Yellowstone was full. We visited the Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces, and were again surprised at how much things change in three years. Some of the terraces that were wet and beautifully colored are now completely dry and white. Some geysers that were throwing out hot water are now just dry blowholes, rumbling, but not spitting. It was Dave’s birthday dinner and we were enjoying a nice bottle of our favorite Karmere Zinfandel. There was a knock on our door. A campground neighbor said he had seen us “hoisting glasses of wine” and offered us a 5-liter box of Franzia Wine that he said they didn’t care for. Never one to turn down something free, I gladly accepted. After tasting it, I realized I had made a mistake. Since 5 liters is too much even for cooking wine, I will have to find a way to pawn it off on someone else.

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Yesterday, on a warm, breezy day with lots of little clouds in the sky, we drove the upper loop of Yellowstone. It’s only 70 miles, but with the many stops we made, it took eight hours. We won’t see Old Faithful or anything in the lower loop. One west side road is closed for construction and one east side road is closed because of a fire that was caused by lightning. The fire isn’t threatening buildings but is large and casting a pall of smoke that drifts here and there depending on which way the wind blows. Driving south, we came up behind a bison, walking gingerly down the middle of the road, ignoring the cars stopping all around him. He looked like his hooves hurt. We stopped by a little stream, attracted by the emerald green grasses growing in the water. And after edging down the steep incline, careful not to get my feet wet, I decided to step on the grass so I could get a better image, and sank a foot into water. I fortunately didn’t lose my balance and get my camera wet. My jeans, shoe and sock all dried pretty quickly, but next time I’ll make sure a spare pair of socks is in the car. We walked around the Norris Geyser Basin, marveling at a small stream that was jello green. We went up to one of favorite spots at the top of Mt. Washburn, but the light wasn’t optimal, with smoke hanging over the valleys. Dave was looking for a grizzly bear, but no go. We did see another huge bison, limping down the middle of the road. He was almost as big as our Rav4.

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Last night was balmy, but a big storm was coming in. After some showers last night, we woke up to rain this morning. It’s gotten progressively colder and there now is snow sprinkled on top of the mountains. We’re staying in today and hoping tomorrow is nicer.

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On Monday, we drove to the east side of Glacier, about 100 miles away. St. Mary is a very small town next to very large St. Mary Lake. We stayed at the park campground; Mary and Rick stayed at a homey little cabin, “Flat Top”, where the furniture was built by the owners. To celebrate Dave’s upcoming birthday, Mary and Rick took us out to dinner at St. Mary Lodge, a very nice restaurant. We watched the sun go down on the surrounding mountains.

Tuesday was a long 11-mile hike. Mary wanted to see a glacier close up and that meant 5.5 miles out and 1,600 feet up to see Grinnell Glacier. We headed out and about 5 minutes down the trail, we ran into a moose and her calf. They were about 2 feet off the trail, stripping leaves off branches. It was utterly astounding; we are always looking for moose and hardly ever see any, much less two so nearby. After photographing them, we continued down the trail and saw a ptarmigan, a grouse-like bird. Then, 20 minutes later, another moose with a calf. Amazing. We followed the trail past two lakes, then it began to rise and we were in sub alpine country, with meadows of mostly dried flowers and grasses. A lot of the rock in the park is red and purple argillite, which adds color to the landscape. Mary and I mostly trailed behind the guys, and stopped to talk to a ranger, who pointed out some bighorn sheep grazing above the trail. Then, looking down at a series of ledges, we all saw 2 mountain goats, pure white with long serious looking faces. It was a hot day, but when we got to the crest of the ridge and headed down to the glacial lake beneath Grinnell Glacier, it got about 25 degrees cooler with a 35-mile-per-hour stiff wind. After taking the requisite pictures, we got out of there pretty quickly.

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The hike back was beautiful, and the light got better as the afternoon progressed, but it was a long slog back. We eventually made it, gratefully got in the car, and headed out of Many Glacier s Valley. We got about 2 miles down the road and saw cars stopped in the road, almost always a sign of nearby critters. A man told us he had just seen a large, brown bear cross the road in front of him. We could see the big bear heading through the bushes near the road, and Dave was pretty sure it was a grizzly. After marveling at that for a while, we saw more cars stopped in the road. We peered around for what they were looking at and discovered a black bear in the middle of a berry covered bush, about 10 feet from the road. It was just thrashing around, eating berries, and looking up once in a while to see what else was going on. It didn’t pay any attention to the 5 or 6 cars all around it. Wow! It was unbelievable to see that much wildlife in one day. And all so close up. We got back to Mary and Rick’s rustic cabin and found it full of flies. A lot of flies. So they killed flies for a while and later joined Dave and me at the Lounge at St. Mary Lodge. I dislike beer, but it sounded good after our long hike, and went well with fish and chips.

Knowing we’d be tired from the hike, Wednesday was designated as the day to drive up Waterton National Park, the Canadian side of Glacier. We went through Canadian Customs and were interviewed by a no-nonsense man. None of us tried to joke with him. Waterton Township is a small town that sits in the park. Its highlight is the Prince of Wales Hotel, a prepossessing structure that sits on a tall hill overlooking Waterton Lake. The Hotel had closed a week or two before, so no high tea for us, just a few pictures of the outside. There are two 10-mile roads going through the park and we took both of them, but were too tired to do much walking. One road ends up at Cameron Lake, another pretty blue lake. Two docks ran out from the shore, establishing a small area of water where people could swim. As we approached, the docks were covered with people with cameras. We looked around to see what was so photogenic, and there, in the middle of the shallow water, was a moose, dipping her head repeatedly into the water to pull up delicious weeds from the lake bottom. Another moose! We also visited the Bison Paddock, a large, fenced area where the bison roam. Fortunately for us, they weren’t roaming. They were all camped right by the road.

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We headed back to Waterton Township for ice cream, cold drinks, milk and tomatoes. The grocery stores in these tiny towns are shutting down for the season and have almost no fresh produce and little in the way of dairy products. I don’t know how far the inhabitants have to go for fresh vegetables in winter. Mary was looking for a bookstore and saw the Book Nook in town, but that proved to have little besides tourist guidebooks about Waterton.

We were cooking dinner at the RV, so Mary and Rick dropped us off and went back to their cabin to clean up a little. They were late in returning and when they showed up, told us they had been delayed because they had changed lodging. When they opened the door to their cabin, a couple hundred flies were buzzing around the room. (We had quite a few flies in the RV, but nothing like that.) Yuk! Rather than go on a killing spree, they went to the manager, who said they were having an unusual problem with flies for the season, and offered to move them to another cabin or a room above the café. After looking at the room, Rick said it was creepy, with a doll on the bed “…that looked like Chucky, and might strangle us during the night.” So they changed from their rustic cabin to the St. Mary Lodge, with a television, internet access and coffee in the room. After dinner, we said farewell and saw them off. They will be spending Thursday in East Glacier and will fly home on Friday.

Thursday was a very quiet day. We sat around most of the day, enjoying the heat and reading. We drove up the east side of the Going-to-the-Sun Road. We stopped at Sun Point and walked out to Baring Falls, a pretty waterfall in a shady glade. We didn’t see any critters (other than a squirrel) on our walk, but we did see two far-off bears at two different spots from the road. They are in serious eat mode, not paying much attention to anything else. It is a little nerve-wracking to realize how many bears are out there.

This morning, we rose well before dawn and went to Sun Point, which is on a promontory over St. Mary Lake. The sunrise was beautiful, but quite chilly. Later in the afternoon, we went looking for bears or moose, but came up empty. It appears as if Mary and Rick are the key to seeing large mammals close up. It’s too bad they are not here with us.

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Glacier National Park is spectacular. It’s like a bigger version of Yosemite, with 3,000-foot mountains all around. We went halfway through the park on Friday on Going-to-the-Sun Road. As you drive along the river, you look up and see this little line cutting across a mountain, 2,000 feet up from where you are. That’s the road. It gets exceedingly windy and narrow and people are trying to pull over so they can take pictures. They have apparently been repaving the road for a couple of years. There were 3 or 4 spots where it became a one-lane road and each side waits for cars that are going the other way, to pass. The good part of this is that you get to wait at a place where you ordinarily couldn’t pull over and are treated to long looks at the amazing scenery.

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We chose the Highline Trail to walk. It takes off from Logan Pass, which is about halfway along the Going-to-the-Sun Road. The trail is cut right out of the cliff. It’s about 2 feet wide in most places and the drop-off is straight down about 1,000 feet. But it’s beautiful and covered with plants. We progressed easily along the flat walk. About 2 miles out, you see the one, humongous switchback that will take you up about 100 feet to the saddle between a mountain and another 1,000-foot cliff. We reached the saddle, sat down on a big rock and gazed into another spectacular valley. A family was there with a small girl and a baby. On the way back down, the little girl offered us each the tiniest wild strawberries we’ve ever seen. Wonderful. When we began the walk, there were places in deep shadow, but the sunny parts were pleasant. On the return, the shadows were all gone and the sun was in our face. It was hot! One anomaly about the sun here is that it seems to be incredibly bright. Maybe it’s the clear air or the time of year or just my perception, but the light is intense. We brought enough water for the hike, but had drunk almost all of it and planned to get more at Logan Pass Visitor Center when we returned. Nope. The Center closed 15 minutes before we got back, and they had turned off the water for the season, so nothing, not even a vending machine. Kind of silly, we thought, to plan for frozen pipes when the weather was so hot. Little did we know…

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Saturday was another beautiful day. We took a shorter hike to Avalanche Lake. There was a vivacious little stream and we walked on a shady, forested trail. Avalanche Lake was spectacular, with three long, long waterfalls cascading into it.  The lake was placid; barely a ripple on the water’s surface. We ate lunch and then, as if somebody turned on a fan, the wind began and waves began to hit the shore. A quick change.

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We headed back to camp to meet up with our friends, Mary and Rick. They flew in for a week and we’re going to see Glacier together. Their rental was a really nice Kia Sorento, a big car that accommodated the four of us nicely. We drove to Kalispell for pizza at a place with sawdust and peanut shells on the floor. (I’ve forgotten the name.) Beer is an important facet of Montana culture; there’s Moose Drool, Wheatfish and Trout Slayer, among others.

It began clouding up on Saturday and Sunday was very cloudy. At the Glacier entrance station, they told us that Logan Pass was closed because snow had fallen the night before. This was disappointing to Rick and Mary because Logan Pass was closing for the year on Sunday night and they wouldn’t be able to drive over the entire road to the east side of the park. We headed up towards Logan Pass anyway. It began to sprinkle intermittently, but the variable combinations of clouds, sky and sun were spectacular. We took a short walk at The Loop, a hairpin turn in the road, and the colors of everything were rich and saturated. Photography-wise, bad weather can be better than good. Since it was chilly and rainy, we stopped at the Lake McDonald Lodge, a great old building, and had some drinks. Rick and Mary rented a nice cabin in Hungry Horse, with a big refrigerator and stove, so we ate dinner at their place. The kitchen was missing bowls, glasses or a frying pan; when they asked the owner why, she said they were new at this; i.e. renting their cabin. I guess it never occurred to them that people might want to eat cereal or fry an egg.

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The focus of today was a 35-mile trip along Rock Creek, a pretty winding “crick” as it’s pronounced in Montana. We ended up in Philipsburg, a small town with many brick, Victorian buildings. One of them provided us with great ice cream; Moose Tracks for Dave and the best chocolate soda I’ve had in years.

Yesterday was housekeeping. We did laundry and thought we were getting the tires rotated on the Lazy Daze. Dave noticed one of the tires was wearing thin on one side and we don’t want a blowout while we’re driving. But surprise: we need a lot of work done on the wheels. Why? Because our motor home is heavy. Hopefully, the work will be done tomorrow morning and we can head north to Glacier National Park.

We’re staying at Jim and Mary’s RV Park in Missoula, MT and a pretty park it is, with lots of flower beds. We’ve met several neighbors. One lady was telling us that she lived in her motor home “for now” with two cats and Murphy, a big, gentle Golden Lab that she found in a humane society. Another couple asked for a tour of our Lazy Daze and pronounced it perfect for them. They want a little more room than their fifth-wheel provides them. Most people in the RV parks seem often to be on the lookout for their next RV. Size-wise, they are looking to move up or down. We are very contented with ours (even if it is heavy!).

Monday, we visited the National Bison Refuge, a large piece of property where 400-500 bison wander peacefully about. They are not intimidated by cars and so you can get very close to them. They are amazing creatures: huge bulky heads and bodies with skinny, delicate legs. One was rolling exuberantly in the dust. We also saw pronghorn (similar to antelope) and a beautiful elk, munching grasses he was pulling out of Mission Creek. The hills are so strange-looking here. From a distance they look like they’re covered with tan suede. Lines of trees follow indentations down the hills and there are groups of trees on the top, but otherwise the hills are bare, with just a tree here and a tree there.

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KOA had a nice campground in Dillon, MT. We heard the sound of Canadian Geese in the distance (which seems to be increasingly common everywhere). We went to Bannack State Park on Friday. Bannack is a legitimate 1862 gold rush town. It hasn’t been commercialized like Calico in California and houses haven’t been moved here from other places. It’s a lovely site, set in the hills of the Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest. Our approach into the hills surprised me: most of the hills are treeless. We ambled up and down the main drag, with short detours to Bachelor’s Row (small one-person dwellings) and the town jail. The town had inhabitants until 1974, then it became a state park. Because there were many women in town, many of the homes have remnants of wallpaper layers still up on the walls. It was a pleasant afternoon.

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Yesterday, we had a pleasant drive to Stevensville, MT, although several fires in the mountains created a pall of smoke.  We stopped for lunch at Big Hole National Battlefield, a commemorative spot where Nez Pierce Indians suffered a significant loss in one of many battles they fought with the military. It’s the same old story: they accepted being confined to a sizable reservation, but when gold was discovered on it eight years later, the reservation was decreased to ten percent of its original size. Some Indians accepted that; others did not. Some vengeful young warriors killed some white settlers, the military was sent in, and the Indians went on the run. After half of the tribe’s 800 members were killed or dispersed, they surrendered. A depressing story. On a cheerier note, there was a group of old V-8 Fords at the Visitor Center. The club members own Fords made between 1942 and 1962. Most of them were in beautiful shape, gleaming in the sunshine.

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Today we’re enjoying the Charles Water Campground, a peaceful place, with Bass Creek running nearby. It’s wonderful to once again enjoy the odor of dusty, dry pine needles warmed by the sun. We went to Lee Metcalf Wildlife Refuge this morning. Our short walk didn’t reveal much wildlife besides a few white-tailed deer and some ducks. But after we got back in the car and went down a dirt road behind town, we saw an Osprey hanging out near its nest and two cranes, flapping along slowly in perfect unison. Later in the day, we went for another walk near the campground and started fooling around with the cameras. Photography is endlessly entertaining.

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Wednesday, 090909

We’re finally on the road again. Departure was delayed a week because our black tank (sewage tank) developed a small leak. Dave tried various means to fix it, but finally sought professional help. Camping World was less than helpful; one said they didn’t do that kind of work, the other said they would just replace the entire black tank.. They didn’t want to take a look at it to see if it could be repaired rather than replaced, and told us the earliest date they would look at it was September 10. Finally, Dave found Advantage RV in Napa, a family-run place, that agreed to take a look at it, said a patch would fix it and had it done in 2 days for a very reasonable amount of money. We were very happy.

So we left a week later than we expected, and we won’t get to Lassen National Park or Dave’s cousins in Boise, but it’s much better to have a working black tank than not. The Bay Bridge was still closed yesterday on Labor Day, so we went up 101, east on 37 to Napa and picked up I-80 East. It was smooth sailing for us; not so much for west-bound holiday revelers heading back to the Bay Area. We saw about a 5-mile backup in Reno, due to an accident. We also saw various revelers returning home from the Burning Man Festival. Artifacts being towed or stowed included a propane-driven snail (about 15 feet high), a headless horse, and a very large Groucho nose with eyeglasses. It looked like people had a good time there this year.

After a lot more driving yesterday, we stayed in Jackpot, Nevada, a tiny burg with 5 casinos and a lot of RVers. Today we wended our way across Idaho, through farmland, then into lava country. We didn’t stop at Craters of the Moon National Park, an eerie, strange place. We camped in Arco and checked out “Number Mountain”, a large outcropping above the small town, where graduating classes since 1920 have painted their class graduation year in very large numbers. There’s also the requisite “A” painted on the hillside. (We also passed a town who probably shouldn’t have put their initials on their hillside: Battle Mountain, Nevada.) Arco also had the first nuclear power plant in the country (1955), and celebrates that fact by showing off the sail of a nuclear submarine, the USS Hawkbill.

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