Friday, December 4, 2015

Ed-Venturing: Twenty national park field institutes offer learned fun

I’ve arrived in America's first national park, Yellowstone, in the heart of the wolves’ mating season and courtship hangs in the frosty air as does jaunty talk of alpha males and alpha “bitches.” My first ed-venture in snow country is a four-day Lodging and Learning program, Winter Wolf Discovery, one of 25 individual multi-day programs on wolves offered year round. Our guide in all things is naturalist and biologist Shauna Baron who also drives the 14-seat bus that ferries us.

From behind the wheel Shauna, who allows us the informality of first names, expounds into a microphone headset that is easily heard except when the snow plow goes by. “If it’s hairy and has teeth, I know about it,” she says, and soon it become clear she is the alpha female of our class pack. Yellowstone is not only the grandma of national parks, it also offers the largest number of in-depth vacation seminars through their association institute.

There are 19 other national parks that host field institutes, all in the west except The Great Smoky Mountains Institute and Alaska Natural History Institutes. Besides a huge array on of natural sciences, I found unexpected class foci like arts (poetry, botanical drawing, photography, and journaling) and even yoga. Seven institutes have their own in park housing/campuses, and a few offer plusher accommodations at the park lodge like Yellowstone.

On one of my first vacations without my husband, I bed down for my Sunday through Wednesday class at Mammoth Lodge, just inside the northwest corner of Yellowstone most easily accessed by flying into Bozeman, Montana. My big picture window faces a huge cottonwood tree, and I soak in Epsom salts in my super-deep tub to revive myself before the first night’s dinner.

We are out by dawn and into dusk as these are the best times to see wolves—though not as it turns out when we have our encounters. On our first morning, the Hellroaring Overlook provides a view only of the majestic dawn landscape that appears to be painted in the subtle palate of a black and white movie.

We head to the Lamar Valley and stop to watch a cautious coyote who exits stage right. No sooner is he gone than in trots four wolves, one by one, who wander down to a carcass in an open ravine of low willows. Our vantage above on the only plowed road in the park is stupendously close. Shauna calls in the sighting on radio to a wolf researcher, and then reminds us to be quiet so we don’t contribute to habituating the wolves to human presence. We are craning out one side of the bus, drawing a bead with cameras, recorders and wide eyes on two gray and two black-furred yearlings. Ultimately, howls of wiser elders emanate from beyond the tree line calling them back.

This is what we eight classmates--five women and three great guys--have come for. Our wolf encounters are punctuated with assimilating the story of their lives from reintroduction in 1995 to today, their affect upon prey and their pivotal role in the ecosystem, a phenomenon called the “trophic cascade.”

Wolves sit atop the food chain as “apex carnivores” and scientists are still studying their affect, direct and indirect, to all life around them, including plants. We also encounter herds of bison that once numbered 26 but now roam to the tune of 3000. We watch small packs of coyote traveling the road, avoiding wolves and waiting their turn to scavenge. Joining in the scavenging on wolf kill are ten other species, from Ravens (the first to arrive at any wolf kill) to Bald Eagles.

I’ve never thought of the U.S. national bird as a scavenger, but there up the hill they are fighting other foragers for a bite. Without the structure of a guided field institute class, I would never have turned into an avid wolf watcher, grasping basic wildlife biology, nor would I have trekked to the top of a cinder cone in the Mojave with the Desert Studies Center to see lava flows from three different eons, or gone telescoping at Joshua Tree with an astronomer.

To find answers to the myriad questions poised at the boundaries of my knowledge of the natural world, I’ve always preferred oral and experiential learning. For those looking to stretch their science comprehension, like me, there isn’t a better forum for digesting bite-size pieces of knowledge, from geology to ecology, anthropology to botany.

As a lifelong econo-eco-traveler, I’ve found these seminars at field institutes to be the best values going, particularly when compared to upscale fees charged by Smithsonian Journeys, National Geographic Expeditions and the like. On our second day, we stand road-side listening to howls across the valley from far off packs across either side of Little America.

“This is the most contested piece of wolf real estate in the whole park,” says Shauna. “More wolves kill other wolves here than in any other spot.” After the howling subsides, our snowshoes and poles come out and I am psyched. I have never snowshoed before, but have always wanted to. I need help with the rubber straps that hold my boots to the red plastic rectangles which in no way resembles the sinuous wood and leather snowshoes of yore.

We follow in the literally hoof and paw prints of bison, elk and coyote across a rolling open field to a tree line of aspen and Douglas fir to the former den of wolf #9, nicknamed Cinderella. We stop three times so that the least fit among us remains comfortable and Shauna doles out installments in Cinderella’s history. “Today, her descendants comprise more than 70% of the wolves in Yellowstone. While wolves typically live three to four years, Cinderella mated with wolf #21, ‘Don Juan,’ and they lived together for six years.”

I manage not to back up in my snowshoes and so do not fall over. We kneel before Cinderella’s abandoned den as if in homage. Looking in, I toy with the idea of crawling in. “If you don’t know scat, you don’t know scat,” says Shauna as she holds out hand to finger size identifications to animal droppings.

We learn that there are seven distinct wolf howls with different meanings (the fear howl is said to sound like a wailing woman; there’s even two-note howls, and they can harmonize). Wolves sense of smell is a 1000 stronger than humans—they can literally smell illness in other animals, even in humans some say. The factoids collectively collide in my brain, but I have high hopes of retaining a fair amount of what I am learning.

Through multiple x65 scopes set up on tripods, we’re once again watching wolves from a pullout, but this time it’s the world’s most famous pack, the Druids. They take turns breaking snow high on Specimen Ridge until suddenly they change course racing after elk that run five miles faster. Thus, it is, usually, the ill, weak and old elk that wolves take down. Interestingly, wolves tend to respect elk that stand their ground, yet a pack still manages to kill at least two elk a week in winter. While reduced in number, these are still the largest elk herds in North America. Now they stay longer at higher elevations for safety the theory goes, and this seems to have resulted in a rejuvenation of willows and grasses, through more even foraging and less foraging in areas where they are more vulnerable to wolf attacks—this is a possible trophic cascade affect.

As we watch through the scopes and binoculars, the Druids do not get their elk. But they are nonetheless blessed with great fortune for this year five of their pups survive when most in other packs died. Within days of returning home, the official mortality numbers are released. The wolf population is down 27% for the park as whole, but in the north, where I am, it’s down 40%. The 17 wolves I saw were nearly a quarter of the wolves left on the northern range. It is hard not to believe that these numbers won’t factor into the possible delisting of the endangered status of the wolves that is before the federal court, and the Interior Department Secretary to take wolves off the list--though 15 years of monitoring will follow.

When it comes to the survival of field institutes, class fees are apparently not enough. It takes a creative combination of support by park associations and public membership, book store sales, grants, and groups like Elderhostel to maximize usage. aquatic songbird—submerge and walk underwater to feed on insects and fish.

Though the snow is coming down heavy, the bison do not shake it off because the air trapped between flakes acts as an insulator giving them the appearance of a “snow beard.” We squeal at the classic sight of a magpie riding a bison’s backside where it feasts on insects that live in its fur. We are snowshoeing up the west side of the creek across from three of the largest land mammals in North America--bison. We pass a tree with an oval of missing cambium rubbed off by bison scratching their coats against the bark. And there, caught against an edge, is bison fur. In the snow sit six-tined mature elk antlers shed in spring before they can grow a new set. 

Taking turns, one on either side to hold the awkward weight, we pose for photos with the antler rack before heading back to lunch at the historic Lamar Buffalo Ranch. Log cabin bunkhouses accommodate up to 26 students for each of 130 seminars here at the institute’s campus. While Lamar Ranch relies on solar power for much of its energy needs, the Mojave’s Desert Studies Center is completely off the grid. I’m enchanted to vacation where cutting-edge energy solutions are at play. In the ranch classroom we bag lunch it, and then feel pelts and look at skulls.

It’s our final day, and we disparate ed-venturers, hailing from Santa Fe to Washington, DC, from Georgia to Iowa City, have bonded on the northern range, in Little America. We’ve become comrades, braving the cold, sharing common values about parks, an appreciation for wildlife and the delicious respite of warm indoors after long days of learned fun.

My way home is north through Paradise Valley, north like the Yellowstone River flows, past osprey, wandering elk and train cars piled high with coal, between the Gallatin and Absakora Mountains that I first saw from the air, and now envelope me as the gray skies that have kept the winter temperatures relatively mild begin to show some blue.

My world feels so rich on this return journey, my spirit touched by the wild, the wooly, Yellowstone. # # #

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