Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for March, 2009

It has been a rather wet and sloppy March after a fairly dry second half of January and much of February, and I keep hearing reports of epic skiing, perhaps the best of the season, at Snowbowl north of Missoula today. I haven’t joined the crowd this season, and in fact haven’t even cross-country skied since late January. It has been more of an inward-focused first three months of  this year, an uncharacteristically introverted, hermitizing and less nomadic season for those who know me well.

What gives? Hard to articulate (again something that is uncharacteristic for me), but I sense huge change and huge opportunity ahead. I want to be ready. I want to be rested. I want to be super healthy and fit when the guiding season kicks into high gear in late May.

I want to travel and write and shoot more pictures. I want to learn all I can about this dynamic planet and guide folks to incredible places close to and farther away from home. I want to participate and do what I can to help others in this world in the remaining life that I have, rather than sit and watch and bitch about and judge what others are doing or not doing in Helena, Washington, D.C., or anywhere else for that matter. Not having a TV helps me do that, perhaps, but there are moments when I fall under the spell. And then I wake up, usually…

That’s probably why I have been walking on average at least 15 miles a week since the first of the year, and last week I covered over 20 miles in my adopted city of Missoula. Tonight, while I was walking home from downtown, the Clark Fork River surged and churned brown while snow swirled and whirled and soaked into the ground, which grows greener in its intensity every day now.

Walking feels good; it allows me to feel and notice all sorts of changes that I wouldn’t notice nearly as well behind the wheel here in the River City. Walking also contributes less to my daily carbon footprint, though my silicon footprint likely has superseded that as of late with all the time spent at the computer.  A teenager at the library this evening made me laugh out loud when he lamented the world of 24-7  news and communications,  sighing that it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if  iPods took over the world, like they did on a “South Park” episode.

I digress. Back to where we are now at the juncture of winter’s demise and early spring, though those two events are hard to demarcate in Montana most years. Even extroverts and adrenaline junkies like me need time to chill, to hibernate, to retreat, to digest where I’ve been, to examine where I am, and focus on where I want to go, with greater wisdom and insight the goal. Bear medicine in many Native American cultures says pretty much the same thing about the power and gifts freely offered to Indian peoples by this magnificent, often maligned and misunderstood mammal.

All I can say for sure is that I am coming out of hibernation, hungry, and hopefully a little wiser, better understanding who I am and what I have to offer more clearly. First, though, what’s in the fridge?

Read Full Post »

The only bad thing about living in Missoula is its distance from Yellowstone. It is so exciting this time of year to hear from friends who work in and live near “the park” report on grizzly bears awakening from hibernation, their first bluebird sightings, and other sure signs that winter is beginning to weaken, though in most years it is far from over. We can usually count on a June snowstorm that will send unprepared visitors scrambling for trashbags to wear over more summery clothes to stay dry, and abandoning chilly campsites in favor of warm hotel rooms at lower elevations.

Even here in Zootown the signs of early spring are palpable: the waxwings have splintered into smaller flocks, the gulls are back, the grass is starting to green up on south facing lawns, and overnight snowfalls tend to vanish by late morning now. Spring fever has struck even here in Montana’s “Garden City”,  but there’s really no better place on the planet to watch nature’s ritual of  spring rebirth than in Yellowstone.

So what if it’s only March 18-April is almost here. This story is dedicated to all whom I have learned so much from, and have had the pleasure to have worked with, in my years living and working in Yellowstone. Thankfully I still have the opportunity to guide people to one of the most amazing places on earth, and also have so many close and wonderful friends who  still live there, or make it back as often as they can.

Red Dogs, Wolves and Ravens: A Yellowstone Spring

Early April. Winter begins to slowly loosen its grip on Yellowstone’s Northern Range. This drier, lower-lying area extends from grasslands and benches along the Lamar and Yellowstone rivers within the park, to the southern end of Montana’s Paradise Valley, just downstream from where the Yellowstone River passes through Yankee Jim Canyon. It provides critical winter range for many of the area’s ungulates, or hoofed mammals.

Death is common throughout Yellowstone’s long winter, yet it is most pronounced in early spring, which usually arrives in April. At this time of year it may not be a sub-zero night, or a heavy, wet snow, that alone kills area wildlife. Rather, their stamina and endurance have faltered after six months of hard living, making them even more prone to predation or winterkill, just as the faint, first signs of spring appear in the world’s first national park.

Small bands of mule deer forage in draws overlooking pronghorn antelope resting and grazing on the flats below. Both are feeding primarily on sagebrush at this time, while waiting for higher elevation snows to melt. Scraggly-looking elk and bighorn sheep move to south-facing slopes until recently covered by snow, now tentatively sprouting ground-hugging bunches of succulent emerald-green grasses. In a nearby drainage, ravens pillage the chest cavity of a bison carcass. One stands guard for scavenging bald eagles and coyotes while the others rip diminishing amounts of flesh still attached to the dead bison’s ribcage, and rapidly gulp them down.

Twenty miles to the east, in the Lamar Valley, lengthening daylight casts shortening shadows of still bare aspen and cottonwood trees. Bird song fills the air, occasionally punctuated by coyotes howling from where they skulk in the sagebrush. A yearling black wolf with haunting yellow eyes emerges from a sagebrush-dotted draw. It pauses intently to investigate my presence, and then confidently trots in the direction of the Druid Peak wolf pack’s den site, where it was most likely born nearly a year ago.

Yellowstone’s Northern Range is an especially powerful place to be in April, to witness the reluctant retreat of Yellowstone’s longest season, and the arrival of its most promising one, spring, when the “red dogs’ first appear.

Mid-April. Spring appears to have the upper hand in Yellowstone for a short period of time, but the weather, like the landscape itself, is wild and unpredictable. The call of a great-horned owl slices the twilight stillness after a sudden snow squall passes through. Unseen mice, voles, ground squirrels and rabbits tense and twitch in reply. Ospreys have returned to breed, to fish, and to raise their young from atop perches and nests, often occupying those used in previous years. By September, with their young fledged and temperatures cooling, they will begin one of the longest migrations of Yellowstone’s seasonal residents, traveling as far south as coastal Mexico and Central America.

At the confluence of Soda Butte Creek and the Lamar River, a mated pair of colorful common merganser ducks floats downstream below a small series of rapids. They briefly rest on land, shake excess water from their iridescent breeding plumage, and then re-enter the river. Three coyotes come into view. One drops back to watch from a small rise. The others warily negotiate the open sagebrush of the eastern end of the Lamar, ever vigilant for the presence of the Druid Peak wolf pack that rules and roams this swath of Yellowstone. A few hundred feet higher, I see elk and bighorn sheep grazing on slopes which are just beginning to green up. They keep careful watch for recently awakened black and grizzly bears.

Late April. The first red dogs of the season appear-newborn bison calves. Their auburn-brown fur glistens in the sun. Vulnerable, moving slowly, they wobble as they attempt to stand for the first time in order to nurse. Yet within hours of birth, they demonstrate surprising agility and are able to keep up with the movement of their natal herd. The term “red dogs” is believed to have been first heard and used by Yellowstone tour guides on park concessionaire operated buses in the 1970s, because visitors often asked, “Why are those little red dogs running after the bison?”

A little over one month later, a similar ritual will repeat, with the birth of elk calves in the park. These 30- to 35-pound calves are also able to stand soon after being born, but do not immediately run after their mothers as the red dogs do. During their first few weeks of life. their tawny, white-spotted coat and lack of strong scent help them to bed down and remain concealed from predators while their mothers forage at a watchful distance.

By the end of April, spring’s return to Yellowstone is no longer tentative. It is palpable. The arrival of returning seasonal residents, be they humans or their wilder brethren, signals a bountiful time of rebirth and rejuvenation. Yellowstone’s year-round inhabitants that have survived the past six to seven months of winter have finally entered an easier time, one filled with warmth and sustenance that will fuel and fatten them for survival until the following spring.

Read Full Post »

Author’s Note: The events in this story happened nearly 25 years ago, yet it felt most appropriate to post “Trouble in Tibet” on this 50th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising in March 1959 against Chinese rule. Thanks for following current news stories on developments concerning Tibetan demands for autonomy within the People’s Republic of China, and for following your conscience and what it calls for you to do.

Our fate fluttered in the wind. The five yellow-starred, crimson flag of the People’s Republic of China snapped and flapped defiantly from the mast towering above us. I closed my eyes, wishing I were elsewhere.

We had stopped to watch as a company of Chinese soldiers assembled. They looked resentful, unhappy and out of place, defending the homeland from their duty station 15,000 feet high on a windy, treeless plain in western Tibet. Their drab green uniforms mirroring their mood, the soldiers, rifles slung over one shoulder, metal rice bowls and wooden chopsticks in hand, marched single file for breakfast-steamed rice and boiled cabbage.

Daniel just had to get a snapshot of this scene. The army base commander, his neck veins pulsing, stormed toward Daniel, grabbing at his camera. George, a fellow backpacker from Hong Kong who spoke Mandarin Chinese, tried to defuse things. The commander only yelled louder, gesticulating wildly. The first to grasp the gravity of the situation, our Chinese driver, “Shuo”, locked the van and surrendered the keys. Several soldiers broke rank and barricaded the gate. An earlier, indelible memory of colorful Tibetan prayer flags offering protection and safe travel over a mountain pass filled my mind. I no longer felt protected or safe.

The commander accused Daniel of photographing a military installation, an alleged violation of Chinese national security. The rest of us were guilty by association, since we were all traveling together. We surrendered our passports and waited outside, while the commander ushered George and Shuo into a bleak, windowless building.

We shuddered in the steady November wind, with our warmer gear imprisoned in the van, thinking it would mainly be a driving day to Sagya, home to a Tibetan Buddhist temple and monastery that had somehow survived the carnage of the Cultural Revolution. Instead, we were detained at a military outpost a few miles from Tingiri, tantalizingly close to the Himalayas.

I desperately wanted to be somewhere else. To that end, I conjured up images from the day before, when we roamed freely in this stunning, soulful country. Our goal was Mount Everest, or Qomolungma, as it is known to Tibetans—not to climb it, but merely to glimpse one of their most sacred mountains, from a wind-pummeled ridge a long day’s walk from the army base.

Seeing Everest was to be the pinnacle of our Tibetan adventure. We had paid Shuo to drive us to Tingiri, the monastery towns of Sagya and Gyantse, and then back to Lhasa, the only place in Tibet we had official Chinese permission to visit. But a thriving entrepreneurial network arranged “tours” for backpackers. Chinese drivers then bribed government and military officials so that travelers could venture into parts of Tibet that had not seen foreigners in decades.

“How will the commander explain our presence in the compound?” we now asked each other. “Will he admit taking bribes for us to stay here for two nights?”

“Will he claim we broke into the compound to photograph state and military secrets, or that Shuo was a spy?” Daniel’s suggestion unsettled us all.

An image of a firing squad briefly came to mind. Another one appeared-an international stand-off, replete with sobbing parents, and orchestrated throngs of protesters mobbing our respective embassies in Beijing. Then it shifted to the American hostages five years earlier in Iran, and their 444-day detainment.

I ducked around the opposite side of the van, two soldiers rushing after me. Seeing that I was only pissing, they shrugged, then shuffled back to check on the other detainees. Martin and Jess, seasoned travelers from Australia, alternated between being dejected and hatching improbable escape plans. They both proffered humorous and hopeful reasons for our release, while Martin sketched comical detention scenes in his journal.

A Canadian couple, Lisa and Dan from Winnipeg, were the most dejected and distraught. Earlier that morning, Dan had entertained us all by chasing the free-ranging pigs around base. Lisa kept to herself now, crouching on the leeward side of the van and saying very little, especially to Daniel, a fellow Canadian from Toronto, and the alleged violator of Chinese national security.

Ian, from New Zealand, was already on his third international adventure. We were the only two detainees who had glimpsed Everest the previous day, flashbacks of which continued to help distract me from our present predicament.

Ian and I had departed camp for Qomolungma after a steamed rice and cabbage breakfast. The ground shimmered with early morning frost. The sun climbed higher, revealing thousands of holes dug into the earth, with countless gophers foraging, running, and peeking out of their homes. Tired of negotiating the uneven hummocky terrain, we headed for a higher, rocky ridgeline to make better time.

Crossing a frozen river came next. We threw increasingly larger rocks onto the ice to test its strength, and decided to negotiate a narrower section upstream. It was mid-November. Having grown up in Virginia, I shivered, imagining winter’s already unforgiving grip on this harsh yet mesmerizing landscape. Shortly after lunch we arrived in Lunjgang, a walled village with grazing yaks, and naked children playing outside with homemade toys.

An elderly Tibetan man approached and asked in Chinese if we were looking for Qomolungma. Ian, who had learned some Mandarin Chinese on previous Asian travels, could follow his description of two trekking options to see Everest. Option one was a two-hour climb from Lungjang, with two ridges lying between our vantage point and the mountain. The second route would take three hours, with just apparently only one ridge in between. We sipped yak milk-flavored bark tea with our Tibetan host, then set off, having decided on the first option.

We crisscrossed innumerable streams, occasionally stopping to photograph yaks grazing in the foreground, with the planet’s tallest mountains buttressing the horizon. Only halfway up the first ridge after an hour of effort, and frustrated by poor progress at high altitude, we bailed for option two.

The new route was no easier. Rocks, rocks and more loose rocks, then hard, sloping ground. Distances were deceiving. Our vantage point appeared to be atop the next ridge, mirage-like, but still remained several ridgelines away. We spooked a number of hares as we climbed higher. I found myself wishing we could navigate the terrain as nimbly as they. The final ridge was taxing. We would aim for a certain rock or boulder 100 yards upslope, then stop, sit, wait for zooming heartbeats to return to normal, and climb onward. It took nearly another hour to ascend, but the views that waited made it hard to catch our breath.

Miles away, Qomolungma soared over other jagged and battered peaks of the Himalayas. Its glaciers sparkled in the late afternoon sun. Eagles, ravens and vultures floated above. To the south of Everest lay Nepal. Behind us, another maze of snow-covered ranges rambled west and north beyond Tingiri.      We could have easily lingered, but had a long return walk to the base. The sudden onset of icy winds propelled us homeward.

Ian and I neared Lungjang as the last rays of light illuminated ridgelines to the south, and stars eclipsed mountains on the northern horizon. We were way off course. The sun had now set. Neither of us had headlamps or flashlights. We reached the river at a different location from where we had crossed earlier. Here, it split into several smaller branches. We were unsure which one lead upstream to the bridge leading home to Tingiri.

Light-headed and parched from our high altitude wanderings, we stumbled and zigzagged across an interminable expanse of tundra. We climbed a hill to find the lights of town. The steady wind died upon the hilltop, and the moon finally rose, revealing the bridge, and Tingiri glowing in the distance. Elated, we descended an unforgiving talus slope, sending rockslides into the river below. Once across the bridge, the remaining few flat miles home felt the most grueling. Walking was now painful and also strangely numb.

Back at the base, Ian and I opened a bolted gate, and entered the wrong compound. We finally found the right gate, which had been left unlocked. Daniel, Martin, Jess, Lisa, Dan, and George offered us soothing tea and a warm place by the fire once we found our sleeping quarters. We talked excitedly for over an hour, raving about the views and recounting our adventures. Sleep came easily, unlike anything that was to come the following day. I awoke the morning of our eventual detainment feeling every rocky mile traveled to glimpse Qomolungma.

The first signs of frostbite-a tingling, numbing sensation-reminded me to keep moving. I briskly walked the compound perimeter. Nearly three hours had passed since Shuo, George, and the commander had disappeared. Martin offered one of the guards a cigarette as he lit one for himself, and soon a dozen soldiers joined him for a smoke break.

The commander suddenly stormed outside, ordering a nervous, junior-ranking officer inside. Several minutes later, George re-emerged from the building, lit a cigarette, and bowed deeply to the commander. Shuo remained inside. The two officers slammed the door behind them. Sounds of strained shouting and the banging around of furniture escalated.

Strangely, our captors mellowed in their treatment toward us. “Your driver is in trouble for bringing you here,” one told George. “If he had not done so the foreigner would have never taken the pictures. He is responsible for this situation.”

George nodded and bowed slightly in reply. Since Shuo was the only one in the group over whom the commander had any legal power, his public apology and shaming would likely secure our release. George turned away from the soldiers, sighing deeply after starting his third cigarette. We walked around to stay warm, and talked, waited and smoked, while the banging and shouting continued.

Shuo trudged out of the interrogation room. Looking downcast and annoyed, he bowed, glaring at George and us. Great, I thought, a sullen, vengeful driver to transport us over mountain passes, river barge crossings and battered roads all the way back to Lhasa.

Daniel and George were summoned inside. The commander offered them cigarettes upon entering, a hopeful omen. Daniel exited shortly afterwards, camera in hand, face down toward the dusty ground of the compound, with George walking and whispering closely behind him.

Shuo’s keys were returned. He quickly unlocked the vehicle. We grabbed gloves, hats, other warmer clothing, plus food and water held hostage throughout the entire interrogation. After calling his troops to attention, the commander announced his verdict, and publicly berated Shuo a final time. We could return to Lhasa via the monastery towns of Sagya and Gyantse, our original intended route, despite the lack of truly official permission to travel anywhere outside of Lhasa in Tibet.

Lastly, Shuo would lose his “taxi” driving privileges if he had future problems with foreigners or Chinese officials. Daniel, surprisingly, was never publicly lectured after the initial accusation and confrontation. He remained uncharacteristically brief, saying he would explain everything once we were safely off base.

Relieved and re-energized, we departed for Sagya before the commander had time to relent. Shuo hit driving speeds previously not experienced in Tibet, barreling down a narrow gravel road hemmed in by rust-tinted tundra extending to the horizon. Nervous laughter and excitement filled the van. Shuo grew ever more sullen.

In the end, Daniel was allowed to keep his camera and film. The commander, after blaming and shaming Shuo, turned quite cordial toward Daniel and George. Daniel was to surrender his film to the Public Security Bureau upon returning to Lhasa. If there were no military pictures or negatives, there would be no problems. If there were, Daniel would be in trouble, the commander warned him. A totally unenforceable yet face-saving agreement had been brokered, with Shuo paying the price for eight foreigners bribing and bumbling their way around Tibet.

At twilight, multi-colored Tibetan prayer flags shimmered and waved as we crossed back over Lakpala Pass, welcoming us, as they have for travelers and pilgrims for thousands of years, protecting them from the unforeseen and the unexpected. Bowing, I silently offered prayers of deliverance and gratitude, slowly sketching this memory into my mind.

EPILOGUE:

Since 1984, when I visited Tibet, this “autonomous province of China” has become a more restrictive place under Chinese control. Carefully vetted group tours, often led by Chinese rather than Tibetan guides, lead visitors on a strictly monitored itinerary, with very little money trickling down to Tibetans, who are now outnumbered by Han Chinese in the province. The Tibetan spiritual leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, continues to live with his government-in-exile in Dharamsala, India. Paved roads and a rail link to Lhasa have helped to cement Chinese control over Tibet, but modern communications, when they are not being “upgraded” or “serviced”, also give native Tibetans an equal voice in getting the word out on continuing human rights abuses that started long before March 1959, when the Dalai Lama and followers fled to India and the Chinese government forcefully invaded and occupied Tibet.

Read Full Post »

Earlier today I stopped by a place that carries my cards and larger images in Missoula, the Bitterroot Flower Shop on South Higgins Avenue. I didn’t expect to be seduced then and there, but it didn’t matter. I was entranced and immersed in one sweet intoxicating moment that lasted an eternity.Who the hell cared anymore that it was hovering in the upper 20s outside, with skiffs of fresh snow accumulating on north and east facing aspects of buildings? I sure didn’t.

What hooked me? Orchids. Their fragrance, their vibrant and vivid colors,  they got me good. Eight hours later I still have that primordial scent and image on the brain, reminding me that spring is surely coming, that it’s a good time of year to leave behind some things that no longer serve or fuel me, and to let those things become fodder and sustenance for all that is beautiful and wonderful that is to come.

The following entry is a bittersweet and timely one, given the slow but sure transition now underway from winter to spring in the northern hemisphere. This is one of the hardest things I have ever written and also shared, yet I find great comfort from doing so in the closing words of Christian Huygen from his poem “Five Easy Peaces”.  Simply put, “Everything is food”.

Focus

It was early April. I rambled through a remnant pine and oak forest in a place called Deep Run Park, with my good friend Beau, who was a little over nine years old at the time.

Damp, rotting earth and the smell of new, green growth reawakened childhood memories of growing up in central Virginia, when trees and forests and creeks and fields appeared so vast and untamable that they went on forever. But in these remaining woods, it was hard to tune out traffic snarling along suburban parkways marking its perimeter.

This is what struck me most about visiting this place, after not having lived here for nearly a decade. Peace. Quiet. Being fully present and focused in one’s natural surroundings. Things easily accessed and experienced growing up here, yet now hard to find. The woods still had a palpable and primal pull on Beau. His entire 120-pound frame suddenly energized and captivated by a scent, he pulled harder and faster on his leash, lurching toward the source of the smell. Before I could intervene, he discovered and proceeded to roll over a no longer identifiable dead animal. After his bonding ritual with the carcass, he sniffed, then sneezed, and waded chest deep into a briny creek. Beau crawled out and dropped to the ground, rolling in mud that clung in large clumps to his dripping, auburn coat. I laughed and smiled and shook my head, knowing he would equally relish a garden hose bath back at my Dad’s house.

I saw Beau one more time, when visiting family in December the following year. Beau was nearly 11 years old. He had lost 30 pounds and grayed considerably, his arthritis preventing him from getting up or walking much anymore. It was crushing to acknowledge we would no longer journey to our suburban sanctuary together, to walk, to fetch small logs, and to soak up the senses of what had first brought us here, when Beau was a big-footed, unruly and exuberant four-month-old puppy.

My solo walks that December were lonely and inward, mirroring the early winter landscape of soggy leaves and barren trees. It felt empty and strange not being tugged to investigate something along the wooded trails.

I walked more slowly than was ever possible with Beau, and paused more often, as if collecting fresh experiences, memories and scents to take home to him to remember.

The last walk before returning home to Montana was the hardest, knowing that the next time I visited, Beau would likely be gone. As with Beau’s impending death, I did not want to face what had happened to the spirit of these Virginia woods, which had ignited and fueled my passion for untamed places. I cried, not only for Beau, but for the loss of a once beautiful place, where kids and dogs could run and play in a landscape wild enough to inspire and enlarge their imaginations. I did not want to face the future, a future without Beau, without these woods.

I stopped to sit on a decaying oak log where we had often stopped to rest, wiping the tears from my eyes. A sudden flash and whoosh of red and brown and white caught my focus, as a red-tailed hawk landed on the top branch of a dying old oak tree. She perched there silently for several minutes, scanning for field mice, voles and rabbits, intently ignoring suburban distractions on the edge of her home territory a few hundred yards away.

In that instant, in watching that age old ritual, I felt a grain of hope. Beau would never return to these woods, but other rambunctious dogs and kids undoubtedly would, if we protected and connected what was left of them. I drove back to my Dad’s house and sat beside Beau, and told him about my walk and the hawk I had seen that day. I think he was listening. I think he understood. I think it made him happy.

Read Full Post »

It got above fifty degrees in Missoula yesterday, and even though we are far from being out of the woods in terms of winter retreating for a few brief months, the reprieve got me thinking about sunny and longer days, summertime in wild places, and the crazy and unexpected things that happen there when I choose to linger in a place without any expectations in particular. Here’s a summer snapshot from Yellowstone, and enjoy the summer imagery! I

A Grizzly Encounter

His thick brown silver-tipped coat helped him hide among the wildflowers and chaotic deadfall on a slope cascading off of Mount Washburn, not far from Antelope Creek in Yellowstone. The sub-adult grizzly feasted upon a mid-summer banquet of biscuit root, cow parsnip and other abundant treats sprouting park-wide after nearly two months of steady rain and cool temperatures. He weighed about 250 pounds, and we suspected that he was now carving out his own home territory, after being booted out by his mother earlier in his third Yellowstone summer.

The grizzly’s tell-tale high shoulder hump arced as he gracefully plowed up the ground for a summer meal with his long, curved claws. Children and their parents, mesmerized by their first ever sighting of this wild bruin, observed him through spotting scopes, taking in what clearly distinguished him from a black bear: his dished-in, or concave face, heavily rippled shoulder hump muscles that allowed for powerful digging, and his presence out in the open deadfall, far from standing live trees black bears wisely stay close to when living in grizzly country.

The bear paused, then stood up and sniffed the air, moving his massive head from side to side several times before returning to gorge. It suddenly stopped and reared up again, swaying slightly, balancing its unsteady imposing frame on two back feet, alert for potential danger, or perhaps opportunity. At first we noticed nothing unusual that may have excited or worried the bear. Scanning a nearby meadow for such signs, we saw a pair of mated sandhill cranes feeding below a prominent mound, perhaps oblivious to the omnivorous, ever-hungry adolescent predator.

Being mid-July, we suspected that their colts, or young, were not far away, and still vulnerable to predation. The grizzly rushed around the mound, now slicing his distance between the cranes in half. The bear skidded to a halt; perhaps he had never encountered such strange creatures before. The cranes froze, waiting silently for him to make the first move. As he lumbered closer, one crane distracted him by flying to the top of the mound, about 30 feet above the drama. The grizzly loped, and then charged toward the remaining crane.

Rather than fleeing to distract the grizzly from devouring its young, the crane stood its ground, then flexed and forcibly flung its wings towards the bear, chortling and squawking at the predator. The bear backed down. With flattened ears and a submissive posture, he fled at high speed, covering several hundred yards before daring to glance at the fierce animal that had defeated him. He slowly crept back to get a closer look.

The two crane elders reunited atop the mound, thrusting their necks forward, scratching and kicking at the dirt with their spindly legs, rejoicing in an end-zone dance of sorts, celebrating their unlikely victory over one of Yellowstone’s giants.

Read Full Post »