Friday, March 6, 2015

A Vocabulary of Seeing

“Let’s start with the evergreens,” I told the small group who’d showed up for my Ski-By Tree ID program. Picking up a white pine bough, I plucked off a bundle of needles. “Pines cluster their needles in a group called a fascicle,” I lectured, “and they are held together at the base by a sheath.” Fascicle is one of my favorite botanical words, and I loved watching these newbies roll it around on their tongues. After years of formal training in plant identification, I’ve acquired a lot of vocabulary words that I don’t get to use very often.

I’ve also acquired some silly mnemonics for remembering plant ID. “Notice that these needles come in fascicles of five. That means it’s a white pine. W-H-I-T-E: white has five letters. Five needles, five letters. Also, the growth form of their needles makes white pines look like they have clouds on their branches, and clouds are white.”

Folks humored me, nodding their heads in understanding. After examining a couple more evergreens, we turned to the jumble of bare sticks I had spread on the table. To most people it would look like a pile of junk. To me, it looked like a gathering of old friends with easy-to-see differences. The vocabulary started flowing.

Maples, ashes, dogwoods and viburnums have opposite arrangement. Their twigs and buds sprout directly across from each other in pairs, while other trees place their buds and twigs singly, in an alternate arrangement. This is a good place to start your ID.

Then check out the buds more closely. Buds are miniature packages of new growth, pre-formed last summer, and just biding time until they can burst open in a furry of new growth and elongation. Baby leaves, twigs, and flowers may all be crammed into the same bud, or special buds may hold the flowers. Tiny, tough, modified leaves cradle all that tender new growth, protecting it from desiccation. These bud scales give great clues to a plant’s identity. In sugar maples, the bud scales are a rich caramel color, and they are imbricate. Another one of my favorite botany vocab words, imbricate means overlapping like shingles.

On red maples, the scales are imbricate, but there are fewer of them, and they are arranged symmetrically in pairs. If the scarlet buds and new growth on red maples aren’t enough it give away their ID, the buds also have distinctive “ciliate margins” of tiny white hairs edging each red bud scale.

I could see the gears turning as people squirreled away this information in preparation for the quiz. Shrubs always seem the most difficult to identify in winter, since they’re smaller, and lack the distinctive bark of a paper birch or red pine. But if you look closely, the ID is in the details.

Beaked hazel is one of the most common understory plants in these woods. Also known as “bear nut”, they are an excellent wildlife plant. From afar, they look like any other spindly shrub. Up close, their fuzzy, two-toned buds are quite handsome. Just two or three dark brown, imbricate scales clasp the bottom of the bud.

The light brown, inner scales toward the tip are almost valvate (a term that means two symmetrical scales that come together like a clamshell.) They are also pubescent. The fine hairs that cover the scales serve to protect the bud from cold and dryness. In the spring—before the leaves unfurl—a tiny, red, octopus flower will sprout from the tip of the bud. In the leafless woods, wind can easily bring it a dusting of pollen. That pollen comes from tiny catkins on the hazel. In spring, they’ll elongate into pendulous yellow strings of flowers. Right now, the catkins are tan, fuzzy and compact. I think they’re cute, like a teddy bear’s arm.

These buds and catkins all formed last summer, while leaves still clung to the trees. It’s in the tree’s best interest to make buds while the sun shines, and energy is plentiful. So there is only a brief time—just after spring bud break—when there are no buds to look at.

Fascicles. Arrangement. Imbricate. Ciliate  Valvate. Pubescent. Catkins. This language may seem complicated and excessive, but for humans, to name things is to see things, and vice versa.

In Braiding Sweetgrass, botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer philosophizes about the language of science. “Listening in wild places, we are audience to conversations in a language not our own. I think now that it was a longing to comprehend this language I heard in the woods that led me to science, to learn over the years to speak fluent botany. A tongue that should not, by the way, be mistaken for the language of plants. I did learn another language in science, though, one of careful observation, and in intimated vocabulary that names each little part. To name and describe you must first see, and science polishes the gift of seeing.”

As the students skied away to test their new knowledge, I hung back for a second, savoring the beauty of fresh snow in the winter woods, and the words I have to see it with.

Scarlet petals erupt from the tip of a beaked hazel bud early in the spring. The male catkin remains closed just a little bit longer to encourage cross pollination with a different hazel bush. These tiny features make plant identification easy, if you know what to look for. Photo by Emily Stone.Beaked hazel flowers are a tiny sign of spring, Unfortunately, I didn't take this photo recently!

Friday, February 27, 2015

Wolves at Rock Lake

The thermometer on my car read negative five when I pulled out of the driveway, but by the time I’d reached the sunny parking lot at the Rock Lake Ski Trails, it was up to zero. A brisk wind hurried through the trees and imparted a sense of urgency to the day – partly because I was rushing to get skiing before the cold seeped in.

Sunshine. Great snow. Rollercoaster hills. Weasel tracks quilting the drifts. I veered right at the first three intersections before finally turning left onto the 11.5 kilometer loop. Lost in thought, I alternated between thinking about my to-do list and thinking about technique. Then shapes in the messy snow along the ski tracks crackled through my subconscious and brought me zooming back to the present. Big feet…four naily, untrimmed toes…and lots of them. Suddenly I was skiing alongside the tracks of a wolf pack.

They were polite wolves, for the most part, and rarely stepped in the ski tracks. Confined to the narrow strips of smoothly groomed snow on either side of the trail, the mess of tracks on both sides of me indicated that there were at least five or six wolves traveling together. While on the hard-packed trail, they walked freestyle in their own paths.

In a couple locations the tracks all left the ski trail in a single file line. Suddenly several wolves looked like one. To save energy, many animals will walk with direct registry. That means back feet land in the tracks of front feet, and members of a line will all step in the same places. Humans do this, too, especially in deep snow. It’s much easier to walk in someone else’s footprints instead of breaking through the crust with each step on your own unique path.

In a few places one wolf did step into the smooth valley of the ski track. His paws were perfectly imprinted there, undisturbed by any other skier. I was the first human to glide over them. These tracks were made just last night. I was going their direction. There were wolves at the end of these tracks.

Of course, I know that there is nothing to worry about. Wolf packs surround Cable and inhabit all of the wilds I play in. Tens of thousands of humans recreate in these woods each year, and most don’t even see a wolf, much less feel threatened by one. Still, I can’t help thinking of Mary Oliver’s poem, Bear. “It’s not my track, I say, seeing…the naily untrimmed toes…” and she goes on to describe how “the distances light up, how the clouds are the most lovely shapes you have ever seen, how…every leaf on the whole mountain is aflutter.”

And it’s true. The tracks grounded me back in the present: in the crisp, sunny woods; in my rosy cheeks; and the liquid cold that filled my lungs. When I stopped shushing along to look closer, the sound of the wind in the trees filled my ears. Creaking and moaning, snapping and popping, the trees seemed to be composing their own melodramatic poetry against the bluebird sky. The woods felt alive.

When I lived out east, and out west, I missed that sense of thrill that comes from sharing space with the untamed grace of wolves. History says they won’t bother me. But biology says they could. I know that not everyone agrees, but feel incredibly fortunate to live in a place that is wild enough for them.

It wasn’t always that way. We killed them off once. A small number hid out in the remote areas of northern Minnesota -- the only continuous population of wolves in the lower forty-eight states. They came back to Wisconsin on their own in the mid-1970s. The Endangered Species Act allowed their population to grow and thrive enough that they didn’t need that protection any more. They were delisted in January 2012, and we currently have 600+ wolves in the state. Now in another plot twist, a federal court has vacated the 2012 decision, which returns wolves in the Great Lakes Region to the Federal Endangered Species List.

But all of those political controversies don’t really matter on a sunny day in the woods. Eventually the tracks collected in a narrow trail, loped off through the underbrush, and didn’t return. They left a mark on my thoughts, though, and when I ran into Sarah Boles, a carnivore tracker for the Wisconsin DNR, the wolf tracks were the first thing I mentioned. After a little follow up work with the help of Adrian Wydeven, retired DNR wolf ecologist, they determined that I probably saw tracks of the Seeley Hills Pack.

The Seeley Hills Pack originated in 2003, with wolves that broke away from the Ghost Lake Pack. With 5-6 wolves, including a radio-collared yearling male, 845M, the pack now lives in my backyard. According to Adrian, “The Seeley Hills Pack roams an area from southern Bayfield County near the Sawyer County line, to north across highway M, portions of the Namakagon River, Pioneer Road, and to the southern edge of the Porcupine Lake Wilderness Area. The pack roams from western portions of Lake Namakagon to just a few miles east of Cable. The Seeley Hills Pack has the northern Birkie trail run right through its territory.”

Adrian went on to hypothesize that “Moves to the east side of the territory by the pack, including the Rock Lake area, may have been partly due to all the skiers and lots of people in the western parts of its territory last weekend.” That makes sense to me. That’s exactly why I was skiing at Rock Lake, too! With a love of wild places, a tolerance of cold, a taste for venison, and aversion of crowds, I, and the wolves who shared the trail, have quite a bit in common. 
Wolf 241F and her mate headed up the Ghost Lake Pack. Members of that pack later split and founded the Seeley Hills Pack that now roams east of Cable, WI. Adrian Wydeven, Wisconsin DNR.

It is always a thrill to find evidence that you are not alone on the trail.
Photo by Emily Stone.

Friday, February 20, 2015

American Dippers

I hardly dared to glance at the thermometer in my car as I headed to the North End Trailhead. The peak of afternoon temperatures had passed, and I knew it was only downhill from here. But the late-winter sun shone brightly, and the lure of the forest and ski trails pulled me along. Crossing a bridge across the Namekagon River, I took a moment to enjoy the rare beauty of flowing, swirling, glittering, liquid water.

The watery, wintery scene must have fired some memory synapses in my brain, because into my mind’s eye flashed the image of another river flowing through snow-covered banks in Yellowstone National Park. A coyote paused on the opposite bank, and an expansive valley stretched into the distance, illuminated by gaps in a snow squall. In the foreground, my memory followed the flight of a bird as it whirred upstream, just skimming the Lamar River’s quicksilver surface.

The small, dark gray darter with a wren’s jaunty tail landed on an ice-crusted rock just long enough for us to catch a glimpse. Then it dove under the current with a motion as fluid as the river itself. Seconds later it popped back up on the rock, with an insect larva in its beak. Gulp! The snack was followed by a series of high, clear, bubbling whistles and a few bobs—not just with its tail, but with its whole rear end. We were charmed.

John Muir fell in love with these little birds, too, during his many adventures in the Sierras. He wrote: “However dark and boisterous the weather, snowing, blowing, or cloudy, all the same he sings, and with never a note of sadness. No need of spring sunshine to thaw his song, for it never freezes…”

The American Dipper is North America's only truly aquatic songbird. It lives along clear streams and rivers out west, never venturing far from tumbling liquid. Even in winter, dippers continue to defend a feeding territory along the river.

The food dippers seek is the same stuff that bobbing Junior Naturalists catch every summer during our Museum programs on the Namekagon River: aquatic larvae of mosquitoes, dragonflies, caddisflies, mayflies; snails, worms, small fish, fish eggs; and a few flying insects, too.

Since aquatic invertebrates are found across the country, I’m not sure why dippers don’t live in the Midwest, too. Perhaps our rivers freeze over too frequently? Even out west, dippers may migrate a short distance to a river that stays open.

I love polar plunges as much as the next person, but I can’t imagine swimming for a living in the winter. According to one report, dippers even survive Arctic temperatures down to negative forty degrees Fahrenheit by swimming in spring-fed streams.

Of course, dippers have adaptations that help them achieve such feats, just like I have a bag full of cold-weather gear that will allow me to ski safely in sub-zero temps. Their feathers, like my wool sweater and windbreaker, are perhaps their most visible adaptations. Dippers have twice the number of contour feathers as a normal songbird. They also have thick down feathers interspersed between the rest, in places that would be bare skin on a different bird.

The density of their insulation is only part of the solution, though. The dipper’s preen gland that secretes water-proofing oil is ten times larger than the same gland on any other songbird. According to David Attenborough, dippers are so well-waterproofed and buoyant that they have trouble staying submerged!

Luckily, dippers’ short, powerful wings, and rudder-like tails give them the power to make short dives and overcome river currents that would knock a human down. Long legs and sharp claws allow them to wade for food as well. While most songbirds aren’t adapted to hold their breath, dippers use nasal flaps to plug their nose, and store extra oxygen in their blood.

I might put on goggles to protect my eyes from the cold, but dippers use clear eyelids called nictitating membranes. They have built-in contact lenses, too, in the form of muscles that change the shape of their lens to adjust between vision in air and water.

Air and frozen water were most of what I saw on my frigid ski, but I felt exhilaration from the sunshine and a crisp sort of cleanliness. I’m hardly ever sorry after an experience with nature’s extremes. Life on the edge keeps you sharp. Which, perhaps, is why the dipper so charmed us on that day in Yellowstone, with the snow squalls and coyotes, and furtive sunshine. Indeed, Muir has some excellent advice regarding the dipper: “Go see him and love him, and through him as though a window look into nature's warm heart."

Dippers are the only aquatic songbirds. With thick, oily feathers and lots of down, they can dive into flowing rivers all winter long.
Photo by Dave Menke, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Friday, February 6, 2015

A Forest in an Acorn

Dusk was settling in as I coasted down one of the many hills on the Rock Lake Trails near Cable. With no recent snow, and strong, bitter winds, tree debris was strewn all over the ski trail, and had gathered in the tracks. Feeling like Super Mario jumping over obstacles, I lifted my skis—Right! Left! Left! Right!—over a cluster of oak leaves, a knobby stick, a white pine cone, and a single oak leaf. As my speed gathered on the hill, I could barely keep up. And then: scrrraaape…the sickening noise of an acorn cap vibrating on my skis’ fish scales was the sound effect for losing one of the lives on my fresh coat of glide wax.

Acorn caps; pointy-tipped red oak leaves; and knobby oak twigs were by far the most common debris on the trail. The dry, sandy, well-drained soil on this glacial pitted outwash plain makes great habitat for oaks. As far as I can tell, this year was a mast year in the Cable area. As mast trees, oaks save up their energy for three to five years before producing thousands of acorns all at once. All the trees in an area will mast in the same year, and with thousands of acorns available at once, the hordes of acorn-eating seed predators cannot possibly eat them all. Some, at least, will survive to grow a new tree.

Judging by all the tracks along the trail, there are plenty of critters already on-hand to eat the acorns. Four-footed red squirrel tracks crisscrossed the trail and connected every tree. I suspect that the bounty of acorns stored in their bellies and their food caches will give them a very successful breeding season starting in March. 

In the midst of the mess of squirrel tracks, there were the loping, five-toed tracks of a fisher taking advantage of the easy travel in the groomed trail. Along with hares and porcupines, red squirrels are one of the fisher’s favorite prey. As the acorns feed the squirrels, the squirrels will soon feed the fishers. The predator’s tracks are already common here. Will this mast year allow them to increase even more?

The old snow pack held a perfect record of days of activity in the woods. Mouse tracks caught my eye next. Their tiny, four-footed patterns scurried among the shrubs, connected by a thin tail-drag. Mice are food for almost everything in the forest, including fishers. And deer ticks. As the cases of Lyme disease in Wisconsin have increased – 300% since 2000 – both mice and ticks are getting the blame. Mice are the preferred hosts for deer ticks (also known as black-legged ticks), and are very effective at transmitting the bacterium that causes Lyme disease.

Mice can also raise several litters of up to 9 young per year. They mostly breed in spring and late summer, but increased food availability or mild weather can extend the season from March through October. These local mice may have already had an extra litter or two in response to the acorn mast.

The repercussions of mast years on mice are wide-ranging. Scientists have noticed that an increase in mouse hosts for deer ticks results in an increase in Lyme disease cases two years after the mast. First the mice increase, then the ticks increase. Then the plentiful mice eat themselves out of house and home. Their population crashes without the mast, and the ticks go looking for a new host – you, or me. By this pattern, this summer should be fine, but prepare to tuck you pants into your socks during summer 2016!

A few minutes after the fisher tracks veered off into the woods, I noticed that I was following the dainty tracks of a fox up a hill. Oak leaves in the tracks caught my skis at awkward moments, and I suspected that the fox was here in the oak grove because that’s where the mice are.

Red foxes are often held up as the champions in our fight against Lyme. They are quite good at hunting mice, and will cache mouse-snacks for later consumption when numbers are high. As a result, they are much better at controlling mouse populations than their coyote cousins. But coyotes don’t tolerate foxes, and coyotes have greatly expanded their range in the absence of wolves. Our historical predator management policies may have doomed us to disease. I’m happy to note that my favorite haunts in the area all boast more fox and wolf tracks than coyote sign.

Near the end of the loop trail, on the way back to the car, I came across a wide area of messy snow. Deer had been pawing through the shallow drifts to get at acorns in the leaf litter. Their pointy hooves marred the ski tracks, too. Deer also benefit from mast, and they have often been implicated in the spread of Lyme disease. But they are host to adult ticks, not the nymphs that are so efficient at making us sick. Studies show that deer numbers don’t correlate with tick abundance. They may wreck the ski trails more than a mouse, but the mouse is more of a threat to my health.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was very poetic when he philosophized that “The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn,”  but he didn’t yet know wide-ranging effects that the thousands acorns in just one of those forests could bring. 

Oaks and their acorns are part of a cascade of effects that impact mice, foxes, ticks, humans, and more. Photo by Emily Stone. 

Mice leave an out-sized footprint on the forest as their populations rise and fall. Photo by Emily Stone.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Lamar Buffalo Ranch: “We got the tablets here.”

The sparkle in his eyes and energy in his voice revealed Marc Hanna’s love of telling the story. “Lamar Buffalo Ranch is like the Mount Sinai of the environmental movement,” he concluded, “we got the tablets here.” The group of writers and guides gathered around the table erupted in spontaneous applause.

After a morning in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley—“America’s Serengeti”—we were already enamored with everything. Our knowledgeable guides, peeks of sunshine, countless elk, eagles, coyotes, and herds of bison—visible as dark mounds through the swirl of a passing snow squall—all combined in a kaleidoscope of wonder.

To top it off, we paused for lunch at Lamar Buffalo Ranch. These quaint, historic buildings gathered next to a large corral date back to a very different time in Yellowstone National Park—a time when the seeds of our current environmental ethics were just beginning to sprout.

While bison survived the mass extinctions of other megafauna at the end of the Pleistocene, they fared much worse during the 1800s. Settlers, market hunting, sport hunting, and a U.S. Army campaign nearly eliminated these majestic creatures—once numbering more than 30 million—from our prairies.

Even the creation of our first National Park, with security provided by the U.S. Army, couldn’t fully protect the remaining bison from poachers. The Army’s “snowshoe cavalry” built patrol cabins in the woods for their campaign against poachers. They skied between huts on large wooden planks, called “Norwegian snowshoes.” Four surviving remote cabins still provide housing for National Park Service (NPS) patrols and researchers. But in the end, an even more dramatic approach was needed to save the last of the bison.

With just 23 free-ranging bison left in the park, the U.S. Army created a new herd in 1902, using pure-bred captive bison from ranches in Montana and Texas. The cabins and corral at Lamar Buffalo Ranch were built to protect the new herd, oversee their breeding, provide them with supplemental feeding in the winter, and eventually propagate more than 1,300 bison by 1954.

According to Marc Hanna, this marked the first time in history that humans had hunted an animal to the brink of extinction, then taken a step back, desired the recovery of the species, and fully facilitated their captive breeding and release. That is why Marc called Buffalo Ranch the “Mount Sinai of the environmental movement.” The ethics and values embodied in these old buildings still propel our conservation efforts today.

Just up the hill behind the corral, in a thick stand of trees, lie the remains of one of the wolf release pens from their reintroduction just twenty years ago. The Army’s campaign to save the bison was surely a precursor to the wolf recovery effort. Today, wolves and bison rival each other for the title of most iconic species in Yellowstone. What if neither had survived?

The ripples don’t stop there. A thousand miles from Yellowstone, but just down the road from my house in northern Wisconsin, there are reintroduced populations of American martens and elk. Perhaps, according to Marc at least, any modern effort to protect, increase, or release a floundering species can be tied back to the small herd of bison once cared for by the Army.

With such an illustrious history in the active stewardship of Yellowstone, it is fitting that these buildings still have a role in inspiring conservation. After the addition of old tourist cabins in the 1980s, and a remodeling project in 1993, Lamar Buffalo Ranch became a residential learning center. Middle school students stay in the cozy cabins during their “Expedition: Yellowstone!” educational program put on by the NPS.

The Yellowstone Association Institute also uses the campus for their Field Seminars that combine “field excursions and classroom presentations to give you a complete overview of the Yellowstone ecosystem.”

One such class was working quietly in the back room as we opened box lunches and listened to Marc’s story. Eleanor Williams Clark, a recently retired NPS administrator, was sharing her expertise in keeping “The Artistic Journal in Deep Winter.”

A dozen or so students worked in a variety of media as Eleanor opened her personal field journals for us. Vibrant colors of dried grasses, willows, and wildlife shone from the pages, and herds of bison rumbled through the rainbows, too. The beauty she captured was soul-grabbing, and would inspire anyone toward conservation. The legacy of Buffalo Ranch continues.

Marc is the campus manager for these Field Seminars, and plainly loves connecting visitors to this amazing landscape and the stories it has to share. He does a great job too; better than I can do from the outside. Maybe you should go visit, and let him tell you the story.

The impacts of bison and their recovery make tracks all over the west, our collective psyche, and the ski trails in Yellowstone. Photo by Emily Stone.
Bison are an iconic part of Yellowstone National Park, and they played an integral role in the development of the modern environmental movement, too. Photo by Emily stone

Friday, January 23, 2015

Three Dog Day

The first coyote we saw was dead. A stain of fur and blood, smeared onto the roadside, it was attended by a vivid flock of magpies. “Days-old road kill,” murmured Carolyn Harwood, the Yellowstone Association naturalist. We had stopped to look at three moose, who promptly disappeared into a willow thicket. Then a dipper caught our eye. The slate gray, aquatic songbird dove through the inky waters of the Lamar River, then bobbed onto an ice shelf with an insect in its beak. Two eagles presided regally over the scene from their high perches in gnarled trees.

The second coyote we saw was alive – standing on the far bank of the river, its bushy tail and slight build silhouetted against the snow. These song dogs (a nickname earned through their frequent, yipping howls) have had an interesting history in Yellowstone National Park, and across the country. Although they were persecuted – trapped, poisoned, shot – just like most western predators, they were able to survive and multiply, expanding their range into Alaska, Central America, east to Nova Scotia, and into farmland, cities, and suburbs.

Coyotes’ success is partly due to their adaptability. Their wide-ranging diet includes mice, voles, rabbits, elk, pronghorns, and even carrion, insects, and trash. Having escaped the predator elimination efforts, coyotes were handed a habitat free of their main predators – wolves. By the 1920’s, wolves were extirpated from most of the United States, including Yellowstone. Only Alaska and northern Minnesota retained a continuous population of Canis lupus.

In the absence of wolves, coyotes changed their behavior to fill the niche of an apex predator. By living in larger packs than usual – up to seven coyotes in a family group – with the same alpha-led structure as wolves, coyotes could take down larger prey. Their population increased more.

The coyote on the riverbank turned and trotted into the willows. Barely noticing its departure, we scanned the floodplain and surrounding hills with binoculars, spotting scopes, and squinted eyes. The mid-sized canid was a nice find, but not our target for the day. That was the wolf. With wild grace, fierce skills, an unrepenting appetite, and the charm of a comeback kid, wolves were the quarry that ignited our imaginations and fueled our quest.

Almost exactly twenty years after the wolves’ return to Yellowstone, Carolyn pointed out a patch of dense mixed forest on a side slope in the Lamar Valley, where the remains of their 1995 release pen still stands. The reintroduction of wolves into the Yellowstone ecosystem was not a lightly-made decision or an easy task. It was not without controversy, and certainly, no one asked the coyotes.

In the first year of the wolves’ return, they killed at least 12 coyotes in the Lamar Valley. Harassment continued, and the coyote population on the northern range (where wolves were reintroduced) decreased by 50 percent. Not only were the wolves and coyotes competing for some of the same food sources and territories, but wolves actively attacked coyotes that crossed their paths, and destroyed dozens of coyote pups near the dens.

Unfailing in their adaptability, coyotes quickly relearned how to live in a wolf-dominated landscape. With a decrease in pack size, increase in wariness, and return to smaller prey, their numbers may once again be on the increase.

Wolves impact much more than just coyotes, though. According to the Park Service, wolves’ predation on elk calves and adults has contributed to the herd size being cut by over 50 percent – to a much more manageable size for the habitat. The elk’s behavior changed, too, since they were easy targets in the brushy willow valleys where they liked to browse. This allowed willow and aspen saplings to survive, beavers to increase, and overall habitat to improve. In addition, wolf-killed elk carcasses feed an incredible array of scavengers. Ravens, magpies, bald eagles, and golden eagles have all benefitted since the wolves’ return. Grizzly bears often usurp wolf kills, too.

Despite our best efforts, we spotted no wolves on the northern range. Still holding onto a glimmer of hope, we waved goodbye to our little Yellowstone Association tour bus and climbed into a tracked snowcoach for a ride into the center of the park, and the elegant Old Faithful Snow Lodge. Not far beyond the Mammoth Hot Springs, our driver, Kristi, spotted a red fox hunting in a snowy meadow. Oblivious to its audience, the fox stalked – ears craning forward – then froze, and finally leapt up and pounced down through the snow.

While that fox came up empty-pawed in the meadow, it has profited substantially from the return of wolves. Just as wolves compete with and kill coyotes, coyotes compete with and kill foxes. Wolves’ and foxes’ diets barely overlap, though, and they are much more tolerant of each other. So as the wolves increase and coyotes decrease, foxes increase, too.

While the fox pounced again (and again), the snowcoach rumbled on. Past wooly bison, rare plants, steaming valleys, obsidian-flecked hillsides, river gorges, waterfalls, and countless breathtaking views, we drove deeper into the park. As dusk crept in, I began to go glassy-eyed with fatigue and the overwhelming splendor of the day. Then, with an almost audible click, my eyes locked with his. The wolf stood ankle deep in the Fire Hole River. He shook water from his coat in a flash of movement that woke me up. “Stop! Wolf!” I cried out, startling the whole crew out of our reveries.

From the cover of our snowcoach, we watched him feed on the bony carcass of an elk, pull chucks of meat out of the river, and pee on the snow. Rapt in his wildness, astounded by our luck, we watched the light fade on our “three dog day.” Just another taste of the magic of Yellowstone.

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! The current exhibit, “Nature’s Superheroes—Adventures with Adaptations,” opens in May 2014 and will remain open until March 2015.

Find us on the web at to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot,

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Magic of Yellowstone

Columns of steam rose from the valley behind a curtain of dark green trees as we pulled up to the trailhead. Five chatting friends tumbled out of the bright yellow Bombardier snowcoach into still morning air. With the satisfying “click” of boots locking into skis, and a few words about technique, we took off down the old road-turned-ski trail.

From the start I was distracted by tracks. The huge hind feet of snowshoe hares were like exclamation points dotted by their tiny front feet. “SNOW!!!” They seem to shout, and we joined in their enthusiasm. Pine martens had sewn dotted lines over the drifts in their typical stitch of paired tracks at an angle to their direction of travel. Red squirrel tracks visited each tree like a connect-the-dots coloring page. Across the sparkling Fire Hole River, an otter slide nicked the bank. All of these familiar friends made me feel at home.

Then, a large, messy trough of tracks entered from the woods, and started post-holing down the center of the groomed skate lane. Too round to be boots, too big to be deer, these tracks were from bison. I don’t see that back home! Here in Yellowstone National Park, though, bison are more common than deer in the winter, and the tracks of elk and wolves commonly pock the ski trails as well.

While the animal signs were fun to see, they weren’t our goal for the day. At the end of this trail sits the Lone Star Geyser. Named for its remote location – three miles from its nearest neighbor (Old Faithful itself) – this is one of the biggest geysers in the park. Its large cone, formed slowly by silica that precipitates out of the water, chronicles a very long life.

Since at least 1872, Lone Star Geyser has been erupting approximately every three hours. It begins with a heat source – shallow magma chambers left over from one of the largest volcanic eruptions known to have occurred in the world. Then water – rain and snow – seeps into cracks, fissures and cavities in the rock above the magma chamber. As the heated water begins to rise again, it may pool in an underground reservoir capped by a constriction. Minerals from the water precipitate onto the walls, making them pressure-tight. This narrow tube of resistant rock keeps the water from rising freely, as it does in the many hot springs in Yellowstone.

Water nearest the surface does cool down, but it can’t circulate in the tight quarters. Instead, it pressurizes the water below it like the lid on a pressure cooker. Higher pressure means that the water in the chamber can heat to above the normal boiling point. But it can’t heat indefinitely. The water nearest the magma eventually starts to steam, and the resulting bubbles burst through the geyser’s vent, carrying splashes of water with it. This reduces the pressure in the whole system. The superheated water flash boils into a column of steam, and erupts in a spectacular display of hydrogeology.
This is exactly what was happening as we skied the last of our 2.5-mile route up to the Lone Star Geyser. Steam billowed from the impressive cone, and water splashed onto the barren moonscape of bare mineral deposits and snow. A dull, frothy roar accompanied the spectacle. [View a video on the Cable Natural History Museum’s Facebook page!]

As we milled around the viewing area, taking photos, shooting video, and just being amazed, some tentative sunshine broke through the clouds. In the steam cloud, a rainbow appeared, and we couldn’t believe our luck. We skied back with soaring hearts and full memory cards.

The thick forests we skied through, with their plentiful wildlife and beauty, are all protected because of what we just witnessed. Yellowstone has the world’s largest and most diverse array of geysers, hot springs, mud pots and steam vents. It was these features that prompted the creation of the world’s first national park on March 1, 1872, and eventually led to the creation of the National Park Service in 1916. While the animals we saw on the trip weren’t the goal of the park, they have benefitted dramatically from its protection. Bison, wolves, cougars, and more would not be here in this healthy ecosystem if it weren’t for our fascination with the geysers.

In my mind, that makes the eerie views of steaming valleys even more magical. 

Great day to ski: The wide, flat road along the Fire Hole River makes a great place to ski and chat with friends! 
Photo by Emily Stone

The Lone Star Geyser only erupts every three hours, and the sun only came out one that day. We were very lucky to see a rainbow in the steam! Photo by Emily Stone. 
Snowshoe hares have increased in the park since the 1988 fires increased the regeneration of lodgepole pine. Photo by Emily Stone