Thursday, February 21, 2013

There is no free lunch in Jackson, Wyoming.


Jackson Hole is a mountain ski resort located at the southern tip of Grand Teton National Park in the state of Wyoming. If the top one percent of Americans in terms of wealth ski in Aspen Colorado, the 1% of the 1% head to Jackson Hole. At the end of my winter tour of Yellowstone National Park, I visited the town of Jackson which lies below in the valley; it qualifies as “posh rustic”.


                                 Grand Teton Mountain Range.

After indulging on wildlife and raw nature in Yellowstone National Park, I was ready for culture and history in Jackson. I paid a visit to the small museum of the Historical Society. Although native hunter-gatherers and French Canadian fur trappers occasionally set up camps in the inhospitable valley, Jackson was only settled for good in the 1870s. In addition to the expected paraphernalia used by the early settlers, the walls of the museum displayed pictures from the many films which were shot around the city. I was particularly interested in the pictures from the classic Western movie Shane shot in 1953, with George Stevens the director and Alan Ladd the lead actor.

I had seen Shane in the 1960s but barely recalled the plot except for a bloody saloon scene, a staple of Western films. The pictures and their captions brought back memories and interesting tid-bits. One of the settlers’ log cabins still stands in the Gros Ventre Wilderness of the Grand Teton National Park. Although Ladd played a gunslinger, he couldn’t shoot straight, and the actor Jack Palance could not ride a horse. In spite of these shortcomings, the film was a great box office success.


The friendly on-duty guide stated that the museum needed more display space. She proudly informed me that in February 2012, Quentin Tarantino brought his film crew to Jackson to shoot footage for his latest film Django Unchained. The filmmaker uses the snow-capped Grand Teton mountain range as a backdrop for the action. I had not yet seen the film and became very curious. Subsequently, I asked my wildlife tour guide to show me some of the locations as well as the Shane legendary log cabin.

Jackson is a fitting environment for Django, the promising bounty hunter. He had recently been freed from shackles by Dr. King Schultz, a German itinerant dentist cum bounty hunter with an aversion for slavery. It is in this snowy valley that Django, the former slave gets his first on-the-job training by his smooth-operator mentor.


Django, Dr. Schultz, & human booty. Courtesy of Q. Tarantino. Grand Teton Mountain Range in the background.

On our way to check a fox den in the Gros Ventre hills, we stopped by Kelly Warm Spring where Django takes an invigorating bath. The den was empty, so we returned to the plain where a couple of lazy moose where lounging half hidden in the thick snow. We drove past the National Elk Refuge and headed back to town.

With their dead human booty, Dr. Schultz and Django are also seen riding by herds of elk and bison on their way to cash their rewards. When I finally saw the film this particular footage brought back memories of my sleigh ride in the Elk Refuge. The day was polar cold and the thick blankets thrown on our knees didn’t do much to warm fingers and feet. In winter some 7000 Rocky Mountain elk take refuge north of Jackson. It is a migration dead end as the city was built on the elk migration route towards the south. The refuge was established 101 years ago to prevent the elk from starving to death during the harsh winter months. When the native grass is gone, alfalfa pellets are distributed to supplement the elk feeding.


Such a large concentration of elk, big horn sheep, mule deer and bison attracts other opportunistic animals mainly bald eagle, coyotes and even wolves. “Welfare” is a word excluded from the American lexicon and the elk are not enjoying a free lunch. They actually contribute to their upkeep. Mid-March the elk start dropping their antlers; Refuge staff, helped by the Jackson District Boy Scouts, collect the antlers and organize the once a year May auction. In average, US$ 77,000 is collected. Eighty percent of the proceeds are donated to the US Fish and Wildlife Service towards the feeding program and the Refuge management.


Apparently, Tarantino was so taken by the magnificent herd of elk and bison that he decided to add an additional scene to his film. Django Unchained brings the elks a bonus in food and publicity. Their fees were not disclosed.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Fire and Ice: Yellowstone National Park in Winter


Yellowstone is one of the coldest spots in the United State of America. In winter it is appropriately referred to as the deep freeze with temperatures frequently falling to minus 66 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 54 Centigrade). Yellowstone is both frigid and white, as snow abundantly falls, even sometimes during the summer months. Some three million tourists flock to Yellowstone National Park during the April-October season. Since winter access is very restricted and the visit is not cheap, only 100,000 tourists visit between December and March. I was one of these happy few. As expected, it was polar cold and white.

But there are splendid rewards for hardy visitors. They are welcomed by spectacular crowd-free scenery, unflappable wildlife and an awe-inspiring thermal system.Yellowstone is the oldest nationally protected area in the world.


The park was founded in 1872 when President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Act. At the time, ecosystem protection was both an untested and forward-thinking idea. Subsequently, the creation of the park generated a multitude of controversies, arguments and quarrels which still enliven the visits of today’s inquisitive tourists. The national park idea encapsulates the concept of sustainable development-which was coined more than a century later-namely to protect nature for today’s enjoyment without compromising the enjoyment for future generations. This concept is still polemic in the 21st century, imagine then! Yellowstone National Park is an American icon to visitors and an abhorrence to many citizens of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, the three states that it straddles.

Yellowstone is literally loved to death, in the grip of mass tourism in the summer months. Democratic access to the park conflicts with conservation goals and sustainability objectives. A winter visit offers a very undemocratic way of escaping this dilemma. The thick snow fittingly blankets the footsteps of mass tourism.

Yellowstone is an extinct super volcano produced by a 16.5 million years old hot spot inferno. The last eruption took place 600,000 years ago. Fire (molten rocks) rages at only 3 to 5 miles below the surface. The park is a steaming and bubbling cauldron of hot springs, fumaroles, geysers and mud pools. This cauldron is actually a restless sunk volcano, a caldera which shakes, rises and sinks as per the mood of the hot spot underneath the earth crust. Up to 5000 mild earthquakes are annually recorded.

If winter gives Yellowstone a break from human assault, the season is not free of controversies. Winter is the playground for the park’s predators, the wolves and the snowmobiles! Their respective fans are on opposite sides of the fence. The former wants more wolves and no snowmobiles. The later want unobstructed access to the park and believe that a good wolf is a dead one. My goal was to sight the wolves (reportedly a US$ 35 million a year business) in the Lamar Valley in Eastern Yellowstone and get close to the bison (another much maligned species) without being pestered by noisy and polluting snowmobiles.



Life is tough in the snow covered cauldron. If the wolves make the best of the season, their prey and the other species are struggling to stay alive. To keep warm, bison, coyote, and elk mill around geysers and hot springs, and tourists flock to the rustic warming huts. Although few, they are strategically located within the park. Their on-duty ranger is a welcome presence. Even lowly places such as the heated lavatories, become much sought after places. Yellowstone rangers are the park’s guardian angels, even more so in winter when their skills and park knowledge contribute to keeping casualties low.

Snow coach transportation is an experience not to be missed. The Bombardier snow coach, a model which has not evolved much since the 1930s, is the most fun to ride. Equipped with front skies and rear tracks, this retro snow coach can speed at 40 km per hour. During our week in Wonderland we had plenty of traffic excitement. One of our four Bombardier snow coaches drove into a ditch and had to be abandoned. Fortunately, no one was injured in this freak accident. The same day, the rear of the snow coach I was riding was hit and damaged by a speeding snowmobile. The snowmobile driver crashed on the road. Medic and doctors, all of them rangers were quick to come to the scene and the injured fellow was taken to the hospital. Reckless driving, accidents, noise and smoke pollution have compelled the park management to drastically reduce the number of snow mobiles. Mother Nature is certainly thankful.



Winter in Yellowstone is a world of superlatives. The pristine snow covered wilderness is overwhelming, intimidating and even awe inspiring. Stillness is only broken by the rumbling of the geysers, the bubbling of the mud pods, the roaring of the waterfalls and the howling of the wolves.

Winter is the best season to spot wildlife, except bears which hibernate. We spotted six healthy wolves at a distance, small brown and grey dots on the snow. With powerful spotting scopes we were able to observe the pack frolicking for half hour, until we got too cold and stiff. In January 2013, eighty one adult wolves and eight pups were recorded, down from over 120 in previous years. Disease, fight and shooting have taken their toll. A wolf venturing outside the park is a dead wolf as both the states of Montana and Wyoming authorize killing. Last year, several collared wolves were shot.



No need for spotting scopes to watch the bison; they roam everywhere. Their population is estimated at around 4000. Winter is tough on the herd. Foraging for grass under the deep snow is an exhausting activity. Bison look easygoing enough but they have a short fuse, and are fast and agile. They can charge without warning. I took a solitary morning stroll around the famed Old Faithful geyser to enjoy the geothermal activity. The ranger had warned me that there was some bison activity in the vicinity. Right he was. Suddenly, I faced a herd of females with their calves standing on my track. They were taking advantage of the warmth provided by the hot springs. It was far too cold to wait for them to move off and it was too long to go back on my track. I made my escape in a foot-deep fresh snow.


             west thumb

During this detour I met another local denizen. At first, I was apprehensive, a wolf or a coyote? To strengthen my resolve, I decided that it had to be an inquisitive coyote. By the time my cold-stiff fingers reached for my camera in my warm pocket (batteries lose their energy in subfreezing temperatures) the beast had disappeared into the bushes. I walked fast towards Old Faithful looking over my shoulder. Later, I was told that coyotes customarily lurk in this area.



The winter wilderness of Yellowstone is a world of contrasts, serene and eerie, gentle and wild, still and thundering, ethereal and earthy. I found the mist-shrouded West Thumb Geyser Basin particularly intriguing and inspiring. Words cannot describe the beauty of this surreal landscape. The color, light and thermal activity keep changing during the day. It is a magical show of ice, snow, colorful fumarole and haze.


                    Old faithful

In winter, days are short and temperature is extremely cold. Many landmarks are off limit, as only bits of the park are accessible by snow coach. Walking, snowshoeing and cross country skiing are challenging in deep snow, and do not get you very far. The bitter cold forced me to restrict my exploration. Between my hourly visits to the dependable Old Faithful Geyser, I reluctantly stayed indoors and warmed up by the fire place of the Old Faithful Snow Lodge. Because so few people are fortunate enough to visit the park in winter you feel privileged to be part of an unspoiled but glacial Wonderland.