“Inspired, Rejuvenated, and Amazed”

June 24, 2019

Today is the day that we fly back to North Carolina, and it was an 8 o’clock wake up call. After our full stomachs and sleepy eyes last night, waking up a little later felt good. We ate breakfast and headed to the airport. It was quieter this morning in the vans, many of us in disbelief of how fast this trip went by. Early mornings were difficult when we started, but as we continued on our journey, they allowed us to make so many more memories.

Walking the Upper Geyser Basin boardwalk in the early morning

These memories include the natural wonders of Yellowstone, but also the fast friendships formed over the miles and adventures. There were so many passionate teachers who brought unique gifts on the trip. There was always someone ready to lend a hand. Even as we loaded our bags to head home, many opened their bags for others whose bags were now overweight with souvenirs.

Mandie, Kristen, and Michele take a selfie

As we enter back into our own worlds, we are so thankful that these quotes ring true:

“Friends are the people who make you smile brighter, laugh louder, and live better.” – unknown

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into the trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.”

⁃ John Muir

Flowers bloom in front of the Grand Tetons

Inspired, rejuvenated and amazed. These are three of the countless words that accurately describe our adventure into the mesmerizing Yellowstone National Park. As we sit in the airport and wait to board our flight, we all sit in awe of the “firsts” we have each experienced this week. With three amazing leaders, lots of coffee, and the desire to take in every second of every day, we all come back better, more enriched individuals and educators. It’s going to be great to see our families and hold them tight, but being able to relive and share the experiences of Yellowstone with them and others is going to be a bright spot within us for the rest of our lives. For that, we are forever thankful.

With lots of love we sign off for the last time,

Emily, Mandie, and Kristen

The 2019 Educators of Excellence Yellowstone Institute participants


“Grand Geysers, Phenomenal Paint Pots, and Thumping Thermal Features”

June 23, 2019

Today was a mixture of excitement and sadness as we headed into our last real day in Yellowstone. We started off the morning with a walk through Upper Geyser Basin, just outside the Old Faithful Inn. We were dazzled by the array of different hot spring formations—pools of bubbling blue water, billows of fluffy white steam, rings of red thermophiles, and fountains of water spewing from deep within the earth. A few of our favorite features included the Beehive Geyser (with a cone shaped like—you guessed it—a beehive), Spasmodic Geyser (with water spewing every which way), and the Grand Geyser. The Grand Geyser was particularly spectacular—it erupted high into the sky, up to 180 ft. Water gushed into the sky for about 8 minutes, and just when we thought it was over, it erupted a second time with an even higher column of super-heated water. Afterwards, Ranger Rebecca led us on a tour through Upper Geyser Basin. She explained the various mechanisms of how geysers work, pointed out the bobby sock trees (long dead after absorbing silica), and shared her urgency / passion for environmental conservation.

Ranger Rebecca shares her deep knowledge of the thermal features of the Upper Geyser Basin

From there, we started our long trek back to Bozeman, which included several stops along the way. First, we stopped at Black Sand Pool, locally known as “Thumper.” Megan told us to lay down in the dirt around the pool. Although it sounded like a strange request, we complied and laid in a ring around the bubbling pool. We waited…and waited. At first, nothing. And then, without warning, a thump came from deep within the earth. It felt like a giant was trapped beneath the surface and was knocking to escape. We could feel the thud against our backs and hear the hollow sound reverberate against the rock. Megan explained that these thumps were caused by explosions of super-heated water underground. So cool!!

Lying on the ground, experiencing the thumping of Black Sand Pool

We also stopped at the Fountain Paint Pots. There were several geothermal formations there as well, including geysers, steam vents, and mud pots. The mud pots were an unusual sight—a cesspool of bubbling mud swirled with pinks and yellows. Bacteria and acid play a key role in these formations. Bacteria in the ground produces sulfuric acid, which in turn breaks down the surrounding rocks, producing a mud pool. It was interesting to compare the mud pots to the geysers we saw earlier in the day.

Besides sight-seeing, we also had some final group-bonding moments. A few days ago, we decorated our vans. Amidst all of our excursions across Yellowstone, both of our white vans have accumulated a thick layer of mud and dust. Of course we could have figured out a way to wash it off, but instead we decided to write a tally of all the wildlife we’d seen. Our vans were a hit with the tourists! We caught several groups today pointing at our vans and taking pictures, gawking at the collection of wildlife we’d seen.

Our wildlife talley on one of the vans

At lunch, we played a competitive (and hilarious) Yellowstone-themed game of charades. We rolled with laughter as various teammates acted out “badger hunting uinta,” “pika,” “Grand Prismatic,” “Megan,” and “rock snot.” We ended the day with our final team meeting, where we shared out highlights and appreciations from the trip. Needless to say, we ended the day with heavy hearts that our adventure is coming to a close. However, at the same time, we could not say enough to express the joy, appreciation, and inspiration we’ve experienced on this trip. It has been truly remarkable and awe-inspiring—a trip we will never forget!!

Johnny performing during charades


“A grand day in Grand Teton National Park”

June 22, 2019

Another early morning in Yellowstone- we departed Old Faithful Inn at 5:00 am and headed into adjacent Grand Teton National Park. The two hour van ride was quiet as most of us slept in the early hours of the morning. Once we reached the majestic peaks of the Tetons, we were all rejuvenated with sights of jagged snow-topped mountain peaks cutting into the bluebird skies. After a quick breakfast surrounded by jaw-dropping views, we visited the Laurance Rockefeller Preserve near Phelps Lake. We used our time at the preserve to take in the sights and sounds and reflect on our surroundings.

Early morning yoga at the entrance to the Laurance S. Rockefellar Preserve

After some impromptu yoga at the trailhead we visited the Laurance S. Rockefeller Visitor Center to get our bearings and plan our hikes for the day. The center has a soundscape room which many of us used to sit quietly and contemplate our connection to the natural world.

Once we were limbered up, we set off on a 3 mile hike to and from Phelps Lake. Along the way we observed and identified numerous birds and wildflowers including silver lupine, arnica, sticky geranium, and fairy slipper.

The group at Phelps Lake

Later, we stopped at a pond near Murie Ranch to enjoy a picnic lunch, where we were entertained by a raw example of predation: an osprey stalking a duckling. While we never saw him catch his lunch, we did get to see a great blue heron and it joined our growing list of birds seen thus far.

After lunch, we went on a four mile loop hike to Taggart Lake. We were treated to magnificent views of all three Tetons and Disappointment Peak, named because explorers thought they were on Teton but were disappointed to find they were not. We were all happy that the sun was shining and the temperature was much warmer. We have experienced two seasons in one week!

We stopped at Leek Marina for pizza dinner and then, exhausted, headed back to Old Faithful Inn, forever on the lookout for the last wildlife spotting of the day. After a quick rainstorm, a remarkably vivid rainbow was cast across the sky as we departed from the Tetons. The perfect end to the perfect day.


“Snow on the Summer Solstice”

June 21, 2019

Greetings from Wyoming, where it’s the first day of summer and there’s snow on the ground. That means the first job of the day is scraping off windshields.

A snowy morning in the Lake cabins

After a nice warm breakfast we set off in search of white pelicans along the trail of Pelican Creek. Unfortunately the trail was closed due to road construction, but we did spot a pair sitting on the edge of the water as we drove past the creek. Good eyes to those who spotted white birds along a snowy bank!! But we were able to make a quick stop at the Fishing Bridge Visitor Center where we observed replicas of the pelicans along with other birds and waterfowl living in the park. We were given a wonderful quick lesson on white pelicans, including how their wing span is 9 feet and how their populations and nesting success have decreased over the past twenty years, coinciding with the decline in cutthroat trout (pictured in an earlier post) numbers that have been caused by the invasive lake trout. We also took the time to hear about river otters, black bears, and the top dog…… THE grizzly. Thank you to Michele, Kristen, and Angie for doing a great job with their expert topics.

It was time to move on, so we loaded up the vans and headed towards the West Thumb Geyser Basin. It is easy to locate where West Thumb is on Yellowstone Lake: just look for what you may think is a fire! The steam was intense coming off the lake. West thumb gave us many stories and data to take back to NC. Ranger Nick Robertson talked briefly about the life of a seasonal ranger at Yellowstone. Mandie kept fascinating us by using the infrared thermometer gun to take temperatures of the hot springs. They ranged from 53 to 168 degrees! The biggest surprise was that only a few feet away the lake temperature dropped to a chilly 35 degrees. West Thumb was a beautiful example of the diverse geological landscape this wild country offers.

Mandie uses the thermometer to measure the temperature of a hot spring in the West Thumb area

We continued moving higher in elevation as we headed to Isa Lake to look for tiger salamanders. We were able to spot 6 of them and some leeches, but the wildest of animals seen at the lake was Megan running around the lake, eventually dashing into knee deep water to try to capture one. The wind, cold temperatures, and falling snow couldn’t stop Megan from taking off her shoes and socks, rolling up her thermals, and slipping on her Crocs. We were greatly appreciative of the entertainment.

Megan searches for tiger salamanders in Isa Lake on the continental divide

As Megan was drying out, Kali took the opportunity to present her expert topic on the reptiles and amphibians of Yellowstone. We learned that North Carolina and Yellowstone have vast differences in this area. Kali shared that there are only 6 varieties of reptiles and the prairie rattlesnake is the only venomous snake in the park. In Yellowstone, it’s the mammals that rule!

The last bit of our day saw us arriving at the STUNNING Old Faithful Inn. We quickly unloaded our gear and headed out to see the Grand Prismatic hot spring. We were not disappointed with the beautiful colors seen from the overlook. It made for an even grander experience when the thunder snow rolled in. But the final touch of the evening was watching and listening to Old Faithful erupt after dinner. If you didn’t know any better you’d think “it was as big as a geyser” (a quote made by a small child standing near us).

View from the overlook trail at Grand Prismatic hot spring

Moving to a new section of the park has been nothing short of “majestic”!

Till next time… Sapsucker team signing off

Happy Summer!

Casey, Kali, Michele

Old Faithful erupts in the late afternoon light


“Traveling south”

June 20, 2019

We’ve become accustomed to early mornings but today was special: we were allowed to decide between sleeping in or wildlife watching at 5 o’clock. While many of us gained some well deserved sleep, a few elected to end our northern Yellowstone adventure with a wildlife watch. Kali, Emily, Angie, Casey, Caroline and our fearless leaders, Christy, Chris and Megan, set off on the final watching excursion.

It was cold, far colder than it had been in the days before. The wind whipped and our fingers felt like ice. We were off before the sunrise and we stopped to see the grizzly mom and cubs. They were in the meadow where we left them the night before, snuggled in the sagebrush. One of the cubs tried many times to get up but, much like us, mom patted her baby and snuggled until he went back to sleep. We noted a few wandering black bears as we drove along, but what we were really after was a glimpse of the apex predators within the park. We traveled further into the valley and pulled off on the road to see the sunrise. We had our field breakfast and watched. Pronghorn. Bison. No grizzly, no wolves, no luck. We decided to move to the next pull-off in hopes of making our last day in Lamar Valley extra special. As we rounded the corner, cars were lined up on the side of the road. This was a good sign.

We ended our morning watching two grizzlies and four wolves in all their glory. We witnessed the full power of a grizzly sprinting downhill. Toward what, we’re not sure but we definitely wouldn’t want to be on the end of that charge. We saw the Junction Butte wolf pack devouring an early morning meal and interacting with each other. Despite the amazing views, we reluctantly left the valley and returned to load our bags and crew. The full group headed south.

We traveled through the park up and down winding mountain roads, and pulled off to see the valley we left behind. While viewing a great horned owl’s nest, a curious and determined coyote came into view. He hadn’t shed all of this winter’s coat and he was colored a very fluffy, dirty blonde. He quickly drew the attention of many park patrons and we all watched him slink near the road. He quickly crossed, ears up, then down, bouncing up to a rotting log. That’s when we saw it: he had been hunting his next meal, a Uinta ground squirrel. The hunt was short and effective, and witnessing this was nothing short of amazing. We continued on.

A young coyote eats a morning snack of a Uinta ground squirrel

Next, we ventured to the edge of the caldera of Yellowstone and observed the aftermath of a volcanic eruption that occurred approximately 640,000 years ago. We started off on a trail covered in snow with the wind whistling past our frigid cheeks. Looking out at the caldera, we took part in a group activity creating a timeline of sedimentary, igneous and metamorphic rocks and the 3 caldera-forming volcanic eruptions, and learned several facts about Yellowstone’s geology. It’s indescribable to be looking out into millions of years of history. It’s even more amazing to experience it with like-minded educators who desire to take in this adventure and go back and relive this experience with their students. Adventure, stepping out of comfort zones, and newly formed friendships – what better real-world lessons could we bring into our classrooms to begin inspiring our future leaders?

We caught glimpses of the beauty of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, but nothing prepared us for Artist’s Point. Casey did a great presentation on Thomas Moran, a painter who traveled with a geological survey in 1871. His work was very influential in convincing the federal government for the need for a national park and advocating for resources to protect this beautiful land. Spellbound, we took some time to channel Moran’s spirit and sketched the spectacular turquoise waterfall that helped to carve out the canyon. Inspired by the scenery, Angie wrote, “The sun casts iridescent sparkles upon the falls of Yellowstone. The power and majesty of the sheer image and beauty of the falls brings tears to the soul.”

Katie and Caroline channel their inner Thomas Moran at Artist point

Reflections from Artist Point

As we drove on from the falls, we entered our first area of active thermal activity. The Mud Volcano was just what we imagined… and more. The smell greeted us first: imagine sulfur steam wafting out of the bubbling ground. It looked to be boiling, but the team tasked with testing measurements recorded temperatures at only 73 degrees. The bubbles were hydrogen sulfide gas making its way through the muddy water. Dragon’s Mouth, a cave with steam billowing from the opening, and the sound of crashing waves in its pool, measured 128 degrees. We thought about what we might have thought of this area had we been the early explorers. As we were admiring the mud volcano, graupel (a type of snow that forms when water freezes very quickly) started to fall! What a strange way to end our day, at features so hot with weather so cool!

We continued to Lake Hotel and cabins and to our surprise we entered a lodge in a winter wonderland. The wind blowing off the lake was white with snow and we huddled around the fire after dinner for a meeting recapping our adventures. We are eager to continue our journey and see the iconic Old Faithful tomorrow.


Mandie, Kristen, and Emily


“Our Last Full Day in Lamar Valley Does Not Disappoint”

June 19, 2019

“All stories are about wolves. All worth repeating, that is.”~ Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin

There is nothing like early morning in Lamar Valley… bison grazing quietly in the valley or sauntering across the road causing a traffic jam, pronghorn quietly munching on green grass, birds frolicking in the river and, if you are lucky, wolves. Today, we were lucky. Not only did we see three black wolves playing and traveling across the emerald grassy slopes along the base of Speciman’s Ridge, but just a short while later while stopped to use the toilets at Hitching Post, we saw three more gray wolves scouting a herd of bison for breakfast. The bison had several calves, “red dawgs”, and the adults circled around the calves to protect them from the wolves. The wolves eventually headed across the ridge empty-handed and disappeared from view once more. All before 9am!

Casey spots a wolf in Lamar Valley!

On the day our group first met in April, we were given a copy of American Wolf by Nate Blakeslee, which follows the life of Yellowstone’s most famous wolf, O-Six. Blakeslee used notes by the grandfather of wolf watchers, Rick McIntyre, to flesh out details of O-Six’s life. After a lovely brunch at Log Cabin Cafe (and checking out their “stress free zone” meditation room) our group visited the general store across the road. When finished, most of the group was lounging around on the picnic tables like marmots in the sun, before heading out to our next adventure when our leader, Megan, ran into none other than Rick McIntyre! Meeting Rick, talking to him, and getting him to sign our American Wolf books was definitely an unexpected highlight of our day!

The bull moose

Our blog would be incomplete without mentioning our morning hike to Trout Lake. We were greeted by a magnificent bull moose crossing the crest of the hill. While enjoying the breathtaking sight of the lake nestled into the mountainside, we observed spawning Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout and spent some time on a wildflower observation and identification activity with our groups. The proud moose bade farewell to us right before our departure.

Beautiful Trout Lake in the morning light

Look at all those cutthroat Trout in the stream!

As the day went on, other sightings made this a day we will never forget. We had our second “Octo-Ungulate” day, which included a pronghorn mom with her baby (it was nursing!). We also saw our first Yellowstone red fox, an osprey nesting 2 chicks, and multiple black bears—2 of them with cubs! One cub was climbing a fallen tree. We laughed with joy when he looked right up at us (from a safe distance). Hoping for a grizzly to complete “Ursula Day” or a coyote to finish up “Three Dog Day,” we “glassed” Lamar Valley near Fisherman’s Beach. All was quiet until we heard Casey say he saw a black wolf! We tracked the lone wolf—which we identified as #1109, a female of the Junction Butte pack—as she swam across the river, paused briefly to shake the water from her fur, and then literally sprinted across the valley. To our delight, she ran parallel to the road (keeping pace with us driving 35mph!), ultimately crossing the pavement right in front of our van! She was so beautiful and powerful!! What an awesome way to end our time in Lamar Valley!

The wolf, running across the street in front of our car!

The #1109 female sprints across the road in front of us!


We wrapped up our day with a group meeting. Everyone circled up in an empty field and shared the day’s highlights. Although we had many “highs” to share, you couldn’t help but notice what was left unsaid—everyone had really hoped for an Ursula day or a three-dog day.** We especially wanted to see a grizzly. All day, everyone (especially Kali & Casey) furiously scanned the hilltops for a grizzly, but with no luck. Kali had even bought a grizzly charm for good luck. After our group meeting, as we loaded into the vans to head back to the cabins, Kali passed around the bear charm and we all took turns rubbing it to summon some we’re-desperate-to-see-a-grizzly-PLEASE-let-us-see-a-grizzly juju. All fell quiet in the van. Suddenly, Casey said, “My ‘spide-y’ senses are tingling. Something’s about to happen.” We turn the next corner to see lines of cars along the road. THERE WAS A GRIZZLY !! And not only a grizzly, but a MOTHER WITH TWO CUBS !!! We couldn’t believe it! We marveled at the size of mom’s massive neck (who we named Juju) and laughed as her cubs jumped on the rocks. And just when we thought we couldn’t get any luckier, we suddenly heard coyotes yapping in the distance! We hit the trifecta—an octo ungulate / Ursula / 3 dog day—something that even our trip leaders had never experienced before!! From this point forward, you best believe that we’ll start every wildlife trek by rubbing the juju bear charm.

Grizzly mama, sleeping with her two cubs

**A “three-dog day” means we saw all 3 Yellowstone dog species—a wolf, a coyote, and a fox. An “Ursula day” means we saw both bear species—a black bear and a grizzly. The genus name for bears is “Ursus,” and we thought “Ursula day” was more fun than “Ursus day.”


“Hoot there it is”

June 18, 2019

At first light we left the warm comfort of our cozy cabins. Our anticipated 5:00 start was delayed about 15 minutes as we were all tired from the previous days’ adventures. However, everything happens for a reason as we were greeted by a black bear walking across the driveway of the Roosevelt Lodge, a sight we surely would have missed had we left any earlier. Not five minutes later we spotted another black bear who casually walked out of the woods, onto the road behind our vans, and lumbered across the bridge to the other side of the Yellowstone River. For those of us who wanted to see bears on this trip we have not been disappointed. We have seen all the different flavors of bear: black bear, cinnamon black bear, and a grizzly.

Our second black bear sighting of the morning was crossing the Yellowstone River bridge

After a field breakfast at Slough Creek we drove west to meet professional wildlife photographer and naturalist Dan Hartman to search for great grey owl nests off the beaten path. We didn’t have any luck with the nest but we did spot our largest owl in North America, the great grey, and we watched it hunting for pocket gophers in the meadow. The Hartmans then welcomed us into their home, which also houses a gallery, for a screening of a short documentary filmed and produced by Dan about life in the aspen trees. Along with being extremely knowledgeable about the wildlife in and around the park Dan was also a terrific story teller. He regaled us with several spine-tingling stories of close calls with grizzlies. (We were glad that Dan saved his grizzly bear stories until after we were out of deep woods.)

Dan Hartman meets the group and explains a little bit about his philosophy on wildlife observations

After warming up hiking through sunny meadows we headed to up the Beartooth Mountains to cool down. A short drive and a few thousand vertical feet later we were transported into a “winter wonderland” complete with snow, ice, and even skiers! We spent half an hour taking in the incredible views that being above the tree line has to offer. Being from North Carolina the novelty of snow in June begged us to throw snowballs and make snow angels.

Casey and Kali take weather measurements in the Beartooth mountains

The group (minus Denise and Kali, who were traveling with Dan to check on the status of a secret nest location) excited to see some snow!

We ended our time with Dan by watching a great horned owl on her nest with chicks. These owls (which we also have in NC) are named for the tufts of feathers on their heads that look like “horns”. After retreating to lower elevations we capped off the day in the best way possible…with pizza in Lamar Valley! Tomorrow will be our last day in Lamar Valley before we move on to the southern part of the park. In our reflections we agreed that the best way to spend our final day in this beautiful part of the park was to soak in every moment and be completely focused on the present.


“Badgers, Bison, and Beers”

June 17, 2019

“Between every 2 pines there is a doorway to a new world” ~John Muir

Our ”new world” started with a hearty breakfast at the Log Cabin Cafe. The coffee was flowing and the eggs were frying to finish our stay at the Grizzly Lodge. We left for Lamar Valley to try our luck at sighting more wolves, but to no avail.

Today’s creature of the day is the Pika (not a Pikachu)- a small animal kin to rabbits. Ranger Matt and Ranger Michael talked to us about a citizen science project that helps collect data to study the impact of climate change on pika presence and absence in various parts of the park. Pika are a great indicator species for monitoring climate change— the pika’s normal body temperature is about 104° F but if they are exposed to temps above 80° for more than 2 hours it will raise their body temperature into a deadly range. Pika live on talus slopes, which are rocky slopes often formed by eroding old lava flows. When it gets too hot, they hide under the rocks to find cooler temperatures. Our job involved helping the rangers collect data by searching for pika sightings, looking for scat (poop) and “haystacks” (their caches of food) under the rocks, and taking temperature readings around the rocks to monitor the environmental conditions under which they can be found. During our survey we successfully saw pika, scat, and haystacks! Our hike to the pika survey site ended with two unique firsts: the Y-e-l-l-o-w-s-t-o-n-e picture and Kali’s discovery of a set of elk antler sheds.

Group surveying for pika

The group surveying for pika

Group spelling out YellowstoneOur group, spelling out Yellowstone

Early in the afternoon we took the Howard Eaton Trail to view the upper Mammoth Terrace Hot Springs. Although it was mostly uphill (and we were breathing heavily) it was well worth the journey to view the Upper Terrace. The rain held off long enough for us to make it through the boardwalk and view the different colors of the hot springs. Emily gave a great presentation of her expert topic on bioprospecting. We learned that the presence of archaea – “thermophiles”- is what causes the different colors in thermal areas. After the Terrace hike, we had some down time to eat and walk around the Mammoth Hot Springs area.

Mammoth Terraces

On our drive to the “Hitching Post” (hoping for more wolf sightings), we stopped at a pond to observe ducks enjoying the sunshine. There were ringnecks, ruddy ducks and the good ole American coot enjoying an afternoon swim. We were thrilled when Casey spotted a badger scurrying along the pond. Badgers are known for being quite vicious and will fight predators such as bears and wolves. While we did not observe an encounter with a predator, we did see the badger enjoying his supper, a tasty Uinta ground squirrel. Luckily, everyone was able to see it!

Badger with a uninta ground squirrel it caught

Badger with the Uinta ground squirrel it ate.

A double bear sighting was a good way to finish up our day of wildlife observations. We saw what folks out here call a “cinnamon bear” (a brown colored black bear) VERY close to the road and a black bear hiking up the side of the Yellowstone River were seen within 5 minutes of each other!

With luck on our side, we get to finish up the night early at the Roosevelt Rough Rider cabins. This day has been nothing short of badgers, bears, and beers.

Till next time,

Kali, Casey, Michele


Poo-pourri makes a great air freshener for the car!


“A Lesson in Safe Selfies”

June 16, 2019

“For the strength of the wolf is the pack, and the strength of the pack is the wolf.”

Today was incredible. Our first full day of adventure began at 5am this morning. Our first sighting was a young, but large bull moose who hadn’t yet started regrowing his freshly shed antlers. While mesmerized in our “moose moment” we heard someone say, ‘Bear!’ and after quickly turning around we saw a black bear rounding up its morning breakfast. As some of us watched the bear, and the moose, we also simultaneously saw mountain goats grazing on the side of steep cliffs above us! Needless to say, the first 30 minutes of the day was full of exciting, extraordinary nature. Many of us believed that our trip couldn’t possibly get better than this.

Boy, were we wrong.

As we’ve continued on our travels, we have become increasingly good at identifying contrasting colors on the landscape through our wildlife watching. This is a skill perfected by the professionals and one admired by many. Because, let’s be honest, when you’re as excited as we are, traveling in the park looking for critters- everything (rocks, bushes, shadows) looks like something. But, good news! As the sun rose over the mountainside, we peered into the breathtaking Lamar Valley. We observed playful “red dogs”, as the baby bison are called out here, their stocky parents, sandhill cranes and pronghorn. The beauty here is breathtaking, and each landscape is different, making you forget that you began your day this morning at 4am.

Late morning, we sighted a wolf den and also saw a grizzly feverishly digging for grubs after his long hibernation. Around 8 o’clock we met with Kira Cassidy, a wolf biologist at the park. She holds an important and somewhat envious position in Yellowstone, researching the behavioral aspects and overall influences of the various wolf packs on the park. With Kira, we hiked down to a cluster of wolf collar points to see if we could determine why these canines spent time in the area. Unfortunately with the recent rainfall, the water level in the creek nearby was too high, and we weren’t able to reach what was likely the remains of an elk carcass. But Kira entertained us with wolf stories – including the tale of wolves that were helping to care for pups but if they couldn’t find any food to bring back to the den, would instead find and bring back humorous souvenirs such as sticks to chew on, lost tourists hats and even a traffic cone for the new pups to play with! How funny!

Kira told us an interesting story about two female wolves who keep trading roles as alpha female in the Junction Butte pack. Both wolves denned at the same time and the beta wolf, the alpha’s sister, and other subordinates attacked the alpha and her pups. Kira states that this is only the 10th or 11th time this has occurred over the last 24 years. However, the alpha then went on to raise the beta’s pups, as if nothing had ever happened! The politics of the wolf hierarchy far surpass anything originally thought.

Wetland walk

Walking through the beautiful Slough Creek drainage with wolf biologist, Kira Cassidy

After our big wolf excursion, we continued observing wildlife and went round-trip to Mammoth where we saw some amazing and disturbing things. And here we’d like to take a moment to discuss taking ‘safe-selfies’ as a much needed (based on today’s observations) public service announcement….When you next vacation to Yellowstone, or anywhere you might see wildlife, especially the wildlife that is faster and larger than you (i.e. wolves, elk, bison, bears, large birds of prey, etc.) do not get within 75 to 100 feet. Be aware of how fast things can change when these animals become stressed. They do not not want you there, the selfie isn’t worth it. Please get out and experience nature, conserve and educate others about it. But, be safe doing it.

Person standing too close to an elk.

What NOT to do.

To end our day, we drove to the Lamar Valley hitching post pull-off for our evening group meeting. As we unloaded for our short walk to a better view, a car of five unloaded and began jogging very quickly towards us. We stopped to look around, ‘They’re here, right there, right there!’ in hushed but forceful tones. We looked at each other. What is there? Where?


Binoculars snapped upwards, some ran to the van to pull out the spotting scopes. We quickly scanned the ridges ahead of us and helplessly tried to see what we had been waiting for. ‘Look between the conifers, on a game trail, they’re walking,’ they said. And they were. Two very large black wolves and off to the right, a grey wolf. Suddenly barking, loud yelps, brown masses began to emerge on the ridge much smaller than those already in our eyesight. Their cries echoed between the hills. These coyotes, another, smaller species of the dog family, were not happy with the proximity of the wolves to what was likely their den. Pronghorn turned up to face the action, flight animals, ready to run. For what seemed like forever, the coyotes barked and we traced the ridges following the pack, watching them weave between tree clusters. Satisfied with their work, the wolves strolled over the ridge, unaffected by the uproar they caused. Frantically, we asked others if they could see them, we moved locations to find the pack but they were gone. Silence.

Without a doubt, today is a day we will never forget. We had an octo-ungulate morning, seeing all eight hoofed animals in Yellowstone National Park, all before 10:30 am. That alone has to be a record. Finally, after hearing all that Kira had to say about the infamous park wolves, our encounter was that much more meaningful. We wake up each morning to a beautiful sunrise, each day a new journey. Everywhere you look you see God’s creation thriving in an incredible piece of history. We sleep tonight knowing that more adventure awaits tomorrow.

Group in front of a waterfall

A very wet spring meant that Wraith Falls was very powerful!

Fun facts:

⁃ Black bears are generally smaller here than ours in eastern North Carolina.

⁃ Bison will sometimes run towards their predator which acts as an intimidating trait.

⁃ The ungulates in Yellowstone are: bison, pronghorn, moose, mountain goat, big horn sheep, mule deer, white-tailed deer, and elk.


Mandie, Kristen and Emily


“Entering Wonderland”

June 15, 2019

Our day has consisted of a 5am start, a 2 hr time zone change, and an excursion through Walmart followed by the Yellowstone wilderness. Here are some highlight of today’s events:

– We survived the hour-long TSA security line that almost spanned all the way out the door of the airport

– Bayleigh and Kristen got their “wings!” It was their first time on a plane!

– We completed an ultra-efficient, lightning-speed “Supermarket Sweep” at Walmart. We left with 3 carts filled to the brim.

Full grocery carts

The results of the great “supermarket sweep”- enough food for field breakfast and lunches for 10 days!

– As soon as we entered the park, we were accosted by wildlife. Just beyond the Roosevelt arch, we saw elk and pronghorn. By the end of the day, we added bighorn sheep, bison, moose, magpie, osprey and eagles to the list (no bears YET).

– We literally touched history as we walked through the majestic stone entryway arch dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903.

The grand north entrance to Yellowstone National Park- the Roosevelt Arch

– We heard ground squirrels squealing their high-pitched warning calls to the rest of their family group.

– We heard the word “ungulate” uttered more times today than ever before in our lives.

– Everyone sang “happy birthday” to Bayleigh at the Mammoth Terrace Grill.

In all, Megan summed up our experience on Day 1 well when she described Yellowstone as “a journey through Wonderland.” We are already in awe of this place. Our souls were touched by the vastness of the magnificence of God’s creation surrounding us, Yellowstone National Park. We are excited for more adventures in the days ahead! Signing off for tonight, the Hot Springs group.