ANDY THOMAS: National Parks Can Still Inspire Awe
I consider Yellowstone the granddaddy of all parks, and this was my fourth visit there.
My first trip was in 1952, when my younger brother and I went camping there. I was 17, and my parents actually trusted me with a family car to carry out such an adventure.
Yellowstone was the very first National Park and was created as such in the early 1900s by an act of Congress and a bill signed by Ulysses S. Grant. It is a patch of land measuring nearly 60 miles square in the northwest corner of Wyoming. Yellowstone Lake is the largest lake in the country above 7,000 feet elevation.
What makes Yellowstone so attractive to folks is the scenery, the wildlife, the breathless view of volcanic evidence and geyser activity. Within the first hour of entering the park, we saw elk, deer and a bear meandering across the road from one meadow to another.
After spending four days there I tallied 15 species of wildlife we'd seen altogether, including grizzlies, moose, deer, bison, coyote, wolf and three bald eagles. On the day before we left, we were passing through the Hayden Valley when we spied a crowd pointing and very excited at the view of a grizzly feeding on a buffalo calf that it had found in the Yellowstone River.
He spent about a half-hour gnawing on the unfortunate young bison and sluggishly swam back across the river and up the mountain to, I'm certain, have a nap.
We were told that the resident bear biologist actually weighs newborn cubs when moms are sleeping -- a dangerous job, to say the least. Back in 1960, during another visit to the park, it was common to feed the bears from your car, carefully tossing leftovers to the beasts from a safe car window. No longer is this allowed or practiced. There have been several serious injuries and fatalities when bears get aggravated at humans.
It is said that the most dangerous animal in the park is a human being. Despite all the warnings, people still get too close to the wildlife.
Buffalo, despite bulky appearances, can run three times faster than most people and have been known to seriously gore humans.
While y'all were sweltering in the early August heat wave, we wore jackets and enjoyed the lodge fireplace early in the mornings. It later reached the lower 70s as the bright sun broke through the rarefied atmosphere. Being at altitudes about 8,000 feet on average, it was tough even climbing stairs, as the oxygen at that height was limited.
Fire is always a danger to the two million acres of timberland within the park. There is evidence everywhere of previous burns. Eighty percent of the forestation is lodgepole pine, and researchers have discovered that the cone of a lodge pole will open at 110 degrees Fahrenheit and release seeds. This natural process is evident as new growth is readily seen in burnt areas. Officials now allow some fires to burn themselves out because of the natural development that takes place.
We had never been to Banff and Lake Louise in Alberta and decided to go there, as the distance between Yellowstone looked doable. Indeed it was, because the highway above Great Falls, Mont., and Calgary is virtually straight, with a few single-lane, curvier roads in between.
A Montana speed limit of 75 mph and a Canadian limit of 110 kilometers (67 mph) allow a driver to sit back for hours at a time in cruise control. The traffic was quite light. The only problem is, there's absolutely nothing to see as your head swivels from side to side just waiting in vain for something interesting to appear.
Having grown up in the Rockies, at the foot of Pikes Peak, I'm familiar with their beauty and presence. But I must concede that the Canadian Rockies are the most dramatic mountains I have ever seen, including the Alps. Mount Rundle in Banff, while only 9,675 feet high, takes your breath away when you look at it. From the side it looks like a massive layered wave of rock, caught in still motion, at a 40-degree angle, whose crest was broken by a catastrophic ripping upheaval by Mother Nature millions of years ago.
The total perspective makes your own significance seem very unimportant.
Pikes Peak, 14,110 feet high, however, looks majestic and peacefully over the Colorado plains with less evidence of any big geologic bangs.
The purpose of this trip was to gather with a few Dartmouth classmates to celebrate our 70th birthdays. Most classmates were born in 1936, making 2006 their 70th year. Alumni came from across the country, including California, New York, New Mexico, Vermont and Kentucky. Many had not met before, as undergraduates, but quickly assimilated.
We enjoyed activities over the week, including guided tours, horseback riding, fishing and a chuckwagon cookout.
A pleasant surprise was the fact that, at age 70, anyone can get a lifetime "Golden Age" pass to all U.S. national park for only 10 bucks.
Andy Thomas lives in Pinehurst. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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