The Road To Yellowstone, Part Two

The Road To Yellowstone, Part Two
Travel Date: September 14, 2017

Hwy 26 along the east side of the Wind River Range.

After waking up in Sinks Canyon on our third day of the trip, we were anticipating our arrival in Yellowstone later that day. But first, we wanted to explore the Wind River Range.

We had started exploring Sinks Canyon the night before but started running out of daylight, so we had more to see. After scouting out Frye Lake the night before, we knew we wanted to catch some pictures of the lake with the mountains in the background at sunrise. So we headed back up the canyon to the series of switchbacks, arriving at Frye Lake at mid-dawn. While waiting for the sun to come up enough to provide good lighting, I had an exciting moment.

Going into the trip, there were four animals I had never seen before in the wild and really wanted to. I wanted to see a bear, a wolf, a bighorn sheep and a moose. At Frye Lake, in the calm quiet of dawn, I heard a noise that I was sure was a moose grunting. Like a prairie dog or a meerkat, I stretched my head up in the direction from which the noise was coming. I didn’t see anything immediately so I cautiously started walking towards the sound. Frye Lake is actually a small reservoir, and it seemed like the noise was coming from the downstream side of the dam, so I ended up walking along the top of the dam towards the noise. I was making my way at a slow pace, because I didn’t want to startle or get too close to an animal that could do me harm, and soon the noise started fading. I thought I’d lost my chance. I could now clearly see the small meadow below the dam, but did not see any animals, so I started walking faster to get a glympse behind some trees where I thought an animal might want to go. It was just about at this time that I came upon the control valve structure for the dam, which lets water out of the reservoir. All of a sudden, I heard the noise again, but this time it was on the lake side of the dam, and seemed to be very close to me! As I whipped around to see what was there, I saw the… whirlpool. Yep! The lake level was kind of low and the water draining to the outlet stream was making a whirlpool, which happened to make a sucking sound that I mistook for an animal’s grunts. No moose.

Rebecca took this picture of me when the “moose” noise caught my attention.  The control valve structure, which determines how much water flows through the dam and ended up being the source of the noise, is the building right in front of me.

But now, after turning to look westward over the lake, the sun is giving the mountains a reddish glow. This is what I had hoped for! I quickly forgot about the “moose” excitement and soaked in the beauty of a Wind River morning. It didn’t take long before the sun was directly beaming on the mountains, changing them from reddish to white and green. I could have just sat on that dam looking at that gorgeous scene for hours but we had a lot more to do that day, including a visit to the namesake of Sinks Canyon.

Filtered through some thin clouds early, the mountains took on a reddish hue.
Eventually, the sun came up higher, providing a more normal but soft light.

Sinks Canyon gets its name from a phenomenon that happens to the Popo Agie River a little further down from our campsite. After riffling over rocks down a relatively shallow grade, the terrain over which the river flows gets steeper and it cascades around a curve. Shortly after the curve, the river sinks into a cave and seemingly disappears! This location was named “The Sinks”, which is where the canyon got its name.

The Popo Agie River rounds a bend and “sinks” into the cave at left.
The view into the Sinks.

What happens to this water flowing into a cave? It turns out that there are many tiny cracks in the limestone at the back of the cave, which are enough to absorb all that water flowing in. It’s kind of like a reverse spring. Spelunkers have tried exploring the cave but they don’t get very far into it before the spaces become too small for a human to enter. The water then travels underground through an unknown pathway through the rock and surfaces about a quarter-mile downstream at a place called “The Rise”, where it continues as a regular river. Though the exact pathway is not known, the connection between the Sinks and the Rise has been confirmed. When pink dye was dumped into the river just before it plunged into the Sinks, it surfaced two hours later in the Rise. It took two hours for the dye to travel just a quarter-mile downstream! If the dye was dumped in at our campsite, it might only take five to ten minutes to be seen a quarter-mile downriver. There has yet to be any definitive explanation for what happens to the water once it enters the Sinks, which makes it one of those mysterious experiences that arouses your curiosity.

There are observation points at both the Sinks and the Rise. The main observation deck at the Rise puts you thirty feet or so above the pool created by the water resurfacing. From this point, you can see many large trout, swimming in place as they balance their speed against the flow of the water. The trout are mostly Rainbow Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) but a sign at the observation point says there may also be Brown Trout (Salmo trutta). Though members of different genera, they are both in the subfamily Salmoninae within the family Salmonidae. As the name suggests, this family includes the salmon in addition to trouts. As the trout swim upstream they come to the Rise, which is similar to the Sinks in that the cracks out of which the water resurfaces are too small for even the trout to swim through. This natural barrier keeps them from going any further upstream, but the trout don’t mind. Because the water flows fast enough out of the Rise, the water never freezes, providing year-round habitat. There is also an abundance of both natural and artificial food. A feeder is located at the observation point where visitors can enhance the trouts’ diet. Also, fishing is not allowed at the Rise so the trout are protected from their main predator and there is a very good chance you will be able to observe them.

This is where the water resurfaces and continues downstream (towards the right). Trout can be seen all over the Rise.
Rainbow Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) at the Rise.

Another common inhabitant of the Rise is the Black-Billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia). This black-white-and-blue bird can be seen pecking on the sandbars around the rise, just feet from the trout, or in the trees lining the shores. These birds are in the family Corvidae, which is in the order of birds know as Passeriformes. This order is one of the largest, if not the largest, orders of birds. We’ll experience plenty of birds related to the Magpie but this is a pretty one and there’s a good chance you’ll see one between here and Yellowstone.

A Magpie pecks around a sandbar at the Rise.
Close-up of a Black-Billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia).
Public domain photo

We left the Rise and made our way out of Sinks Canyon, heading towards Lander. From Lander, we headed northwest on highway 287. Thirteen miles or so out of town the highway passes Ray Lake, on the Wind River Indian Reservation. As with all the best experiences, pictures just can’t capture the awe that being in a scene like that can inspire. You really can’t see more than foothills from Lander but here the Wind River Range was out in all its glory! And it stayed in it’s glory for the next thirty to forty miles.

The Wind River Range behind Ray Lake.

This whole stretch is within the indian reservation, which is absolutely not the same as a park, in concept, but is more park-like than many places. Much of rural Wyoming is ranch land that seems just a little more developed than the rural land on the reservation. There is definitely some ranching on the reservation, and the towns look like most rural western towns, but overall the land seems more natural. And the views of the mountain range to the west were magnificent!

The mountains from the Wind River Reservation.

The areas along highways 287 and then 26 through the reservation are also prime habitat for Pronghorns (Antilocapra americana). From a distance, pronghorns look a lot like deer but there are significant differences. One of the most visible differences is the shape of the horns on the males. Male deer grow antlers every year which can be multiple feet in length and vary in shape from deer to deer and year to year. Male pronghorns do not even have antlers at all but a unique type of horn that grows only to about one foot in length and it is always essentially the same shape, with two points or prongs on each horn. Pronghorns shed the outer coating of these horns but do not lose the whole thing, like deer do. These and other differences put them in a family separate from deer, called Antilocapridae, and they are the only species in that family. From a low population in the 1920’s of a little more than 10,000 pronghorns, there are now about a million of them in the country, and half of them are in the state of Wyoming. This is definitely the state in which to experience this amazing animal, and the road through the reservation gives them a beautiful setting.

Male Pronghorn

One quick story about our experience with pronghorns on the trip involves one running alongside our car in an open-range situation. Pronghorns are the fastest land animals in North America, and one of the fastest in the world. Later in the trip, once we got into Yellowstone, we were driving on one of the park roads at about 45 miles per hour. A pronghorn came out of nowhere, running across the road at an angle in front of us and proceeded to run along the side of the road in the same direction we were traveling once she crossed. It happened so fast that I barely took my foot off the accelerator before she was out of our way. So I continued at the same speed and this animal was right beside us for a good five seconds before she took off away from the road. I don’t think she was even going all-out and it was still an amazing display of speed!

Female Pronghorns

Back in the Wind Rivers, we were approaching the western border of the reservation when we came to the turnoff for the Dinwoody Lakes. I wanted to check out this valley because the lakes looked like they had turquoise water when I looked at the satellite view of Google Maps. As we drove up the road towards the lakes we saw more pronghorns, a Least Chipmunk (Tamias minimus) and a Sage Thrasher (Oreoscoptes montanus). We’ll discuss chipmunks in Yellowstone. The Sage Thrasher, also known as the Mountain Mockingbird, is a bird related to starlings, in the family Sturnidae. Though not very similar to the magpies, they are also in the order Passeriformes. It’s a very large order or birds.

Sage Thrasher (Oreoscoptes montanus)

A more exciting bird for me came just up the road from the Thrasher. About a mile down the road off highway 26, we saw what looked like a very small old-western town so we turned off the main dirt road to take a look. We were still on the Wind River Reservation, and there was no sign announcing it as a tourist destination, so it could have been authentic but it looked a little artificial. There was some kind of house-like building behind a gate nearby, so maybe there were people living there who took care of this short stretch of storefronts and church that looked like they could have come out of a western movie set. We couldn’t see anyone around and there seemed to be a parking lot for a few cars just asking for us to check it out, so we did. I wish I knew more of the story behind it but it was a neat, unplanned little stop.

Old west storefronts. I don’t know if they ever functioned as anything but an interesting tourist stop.

It is while we were at this stop that I saw the bird that excited me a little more. Swans are not all that rare but they always seem to be in garden ponds and less wild places. But here, in a calm spot of the creek that flows out of the Dinwoody Lakes, was a wild Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator). A very regal-looking bird, this male was all by itself. In the family Anatidae, which also includes ducks and geese, it is quite different from the magpie and the thrasher. Swans spend a lot of time in the water, which is where their order, Anseriformes, gets the common name of waterfowl. The one disclaimer I should make is that I am not sure that this was a Trumpeter. Adult Trumpeter Swans look very similar to adult Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus). They’re both all white except for their black bills. If the two species were side-by-side, it might have been much easier to tell, because Trumpeter Swans are noticeably bigger than Tundra Swans. But this was a single male at a distance of almost 100 yards, in the middle of a body of water, far from plants or any other reference points. I am very confident that it was a swan of the genus Cygnus, so that’s good enough for me. It was a good stop.

Swan (Cygnus sp.)

After leaving the old western town, we continued up the main dirt road towards the lakes. We didn’t get far before we got to a sign saying we were about to enter a ranch and needed permission to enter. There was no way I could have known this from the satellite view of Google Maps and I was a little disappointed. However, we could see the first of the lakes at a distance from this point and the water didn’t look turquoise from where we were, so maybe I would have been disappointed even if we could have gone further. Turquoise waters are usually created by runoff from glacial till that is composed of the right kind of rock being suspended in the water and reflecting that unique color of blue. It could be that there hadn’t been much runoff for a while and the sediment had settled or something or it could have been that the angle at which we were looking at it was too shallow to see any turquoise. I have no idea. But, overall, the little detour off the highway was well worth it.

The view from Google Maps that lead me up the Dinwoody Valley. Compare the color of Dinwoody Lake, in the bottom-right, with Torrey Lake in the upper-left.

We headed back to highway 26 and took it northwest out of the reservation. The next side trip was just up the road and into the Torrey Valley. The Torrey Valley, home to a chain of lakes that includes Torrey Lake, is where you can follow a self-guided wildlife tour with a focus on Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis). The tour is provided by the National Bighorn Sheep Center, located just to the north in the town of Dubois.

The area featured in the tour is home to one of the largest wintering herds of bighorn sheep in the world. I didn’t get to see a moose at Frye Lake so I was really hoping to be able to get a glimpse of a bighorn sheep on this tour. Once you turn off the highway and head south on Trail Lake Road, you drive about two miles to a kiosk which marks the start of the tour. I won’t rehash the information contained in the brochure but suffice it to say that we did not see any sheep along the six-mile tour. Strike two.

The kiosk marking the start of the self-guided wildlife tour up the Torrey Valley.  The bare slope in the background is said to be a relatively common place for Bighorn Sheep.

We did see plenty of other stuff in this beautiful valley. A couple miles into the tour we came to the head of Torrey Lake where we saw a very obvious osprey nest in a dead tree. Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) are eagle-like birds that dive towards lakes and snatch fish right out of them. It’s quite exciting to actually see it happen.

Osprey nest at the head of Torrey Lake.
Osprey (Pandion haliaetus). Notice the fish it’s holding.

Another bird we saw just upstream, at Ring Lake, was a Common Merganser (Mergus merganser). If you look at this duck-like bird up close, you can see a feature that separates mergansers from ducks. Instead of a broad, flat bill used for eating vegetation, as ducks have, the bills of mergansers are narrower and have serrated, teeth-like edges. This allows the mergansers to have a diet of fish and other small animals. Like many birds in the duck family, Anatidae, there is a significant difference in the appearance of the males and females of the same species. The one we saw was a female, with a rusty-colored head and a light gray body. The males of this species have dark green heads and a lighter-white body. I had seen osprey before but this was my first merganser. Good experience!

Common Merganser (Mergus merganser) female on Ring Lake.
Common Merganser (Mergus merganser). The lighting wasn’t very good for us so this is a public domain photo by Alan Wilson for better detail.

While keeping our eyes open for bighorn sheep and not seeing any, we reached the end of the self-guided tour, which put us at the trailhead for Glacier Trail and the Fitzpatrick Wilderness. After sitting in the car for the past few hours, we were ready to stretch our legs so we decided to check out a little bit of the trail. Shortly after climbing a hundred feet or so on the trail we ran into a Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrel (Callospermophilus lateralis). Many people mistake these small rodents for chipmunks since they are striped. One difference between this squirrel and a chipmunk is the fact that they are larger than chipmunks. But the easiest way to distinguish a ground squirrel from a chipmunk is related to those stripes. On chipmunks, the stripes are not just on the body but on the face as well. The stripes on ground squirrels may run up the body and onto the back of the neck but not on the face. This one didn’t seem to mind us much as long as we kept a little distance and we watched it scurry around on some rocks for a few minutes.

The Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrel (Callospermophilus lateralis) we saw on Glacier Trail is on the left. Compare it to a chipmunk we saw later in Yellowstone. Notice the stripes on the face of the chipmunk but not on the ground squirrel.

If we would have had more time, we could have continued up the trail to some waterfalls, but we felt like we had stretched our legs enough and wanted to get to Yellowstone. We looked for sheep as we drove back to the highway but, again, did not see any. Highway 26 took us west through the town of Dubois (we did not stop at the Bighorn Sheep Center) and then towards Jackson Hole. There are five main ways to get into Yellowstone and we were to enter through the south entrance. To do this, you have to pass through Grand Tetons National Park. Even if you have no intention of doing anything but driving through that park on the way to Yellowstone, you have to pay an entrance fee. They do offer a joint seven-day pass for a slight discount over what it would cost to buy each individually but we were planning to be in the area for eight days so it was actually cheaper to buy the annual pass that gets you into any federal fee area for a year. This includes all the national parks and it happens to work as a boat ramp pass at the federal reservoir in Kansas, where we live. So it was worth it.

Once we were in Grand Teton National Park, we were anticipating some great views of these majestic mountains but it was so cloudy when we were there that all we could see were the bases of the mountains. No big deal, our plan was to come back this way after Yellowstone so maybe the weather would be better. Our route took us north along Jackson Lake and into the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway. This is a small piece of land, operated by the National Park Service, that bridges the gap between the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. Finally, we came to the entrance to Yellowstone. This is where I’ll pick up the next time.

Organisms in this post:

The Road To Yellowstone, Part One

Travel Dates: September 12-13, 2017

The view from Beaver Rim, east of Lander, with the Wind River Range in the distance.

Yellowstone is in the books! I guess the first thing to discuss is the travel aspect of the trip. What did we do and where did we go? In addition to the focus on experiencing living things and environments, the Experiencing Life concept is about the human experiences that make life interesting and fulfilling. To that end, journal-type entries will be a part of this blog.

We made the outbound trip into a three-day affair, stopping at Denver the first night and Sinks Canyon the second night before arriving at our campsite in Yellowstone for the third night. The reason for Denver is that it was a good distance for our first day, since we left around noon, plus we wanted to stop at a restaurant called Casa Bonita. Rebecca and I both remembered it from our childhoods but hadn’t been there for thirty years or more. We thought we should let her daughter, “Z”, experience it. Casa Bonita is like a cross between a theme park and a restaurant. One of the highlights for many people is the waterfall inside and the cliff divers who perform right next to it, diving into the pool below. It is honestly not the best food, but that’s not why you go there. You go for the experience, and it was a good one for us.

The next day was the one that really started the biology part of the trip. After a brief stop at Independence Rock, an important landmark on the Oregon Trail, we headed to Sinks Canyon. Sinks Canyon is on the southern part of the Wind River mountain range, which is part of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. We had been to Sinks before and we picked the campsite right next to the one we stayed at previously, since part of the beauty of the site is being right next to the rushing water of the Popo Agie River (pronounced popojah). The weather was beautiful and we had a little time to explore the canyon after setting up our tent. We started up the Middle Fork Trail towards Popo Agie Falls, even though we had no intention of going all the way to the falls.

Along the trail, we got a good view of both sides of the canyon. The difference was striking between the heavily-forested north-facing slope and the relatively treeless south-facing slope. This phenomenon is due to the fact that the sun hits the south-facing slope more directly, drying it out faster than than the north-facing slope. The evergreens that dominate the north-facing slope need more water than what is available on the south-facing slope so they are unable to grow there. This is a good way to experience the fact that plants need just the right amount of sunlight and the right amount of water. It’s not always about how much rain actually falls but how much stays in the ground, and the canyon shows this well. It is not like the south-facing slope is devoid of all plant life. Certain grasses and sagebrush do just fine with the amount of water available there. And without the evergreens being able to grow, eventually creating shade, they also get the sunlight they need.

Ignoring the trees in the foreground, look at the canyon slopes behind them and compare the left and right sides. The nearly treeless slope on the left faces south and the forested side on the right faces north.

I also got to see a plant I hadn’t seen before along the trail. Barberries (Berberis spp.) kind of look like blueberries from a distance, but upon closer inspection, they are obviously not blueberries. The leaves look like holly leaves, with their spiny, prickly edges. Blueberry leaves have smooth edges. The berries of barberries may be the color of blueberries but they do not have the distinctive craters or collars that blueberries have on the opposite side of where they attach to the stem. Good find. It is the first representative of the genus Berberis and only the second genus from the family Berberidaceae I have observed.

Barberries (Berberis sp.)

Discovering a new find like this is the main inspiration for this whole Experiencing Life idea. I’ve never been a hard-core birdwatcher but I know the dedicated ones have lists of the birds they observe called “life lists”. This series also has a life list concept except that far more than birds are on it. The goal of Experiencing Life is to see living representatives from all of the phyla of living things and more. Instead of hunting as many species as possible, the goal is to get no more specific than the family-level in most cases. For some microscopic organisms, the goal is just to see at least something from the phylum, not every family within the phylum. For a few families, such as the family to which humans belong, the goal is indeed to see every species from the family but, in the case of Hominidae, there are only seven living species. So instead of depth, the goal is breadth. I am in the process of publishing the life list for the series that we can call the “Experiencing Life List”. Look for it soon. I’ll make a post dedicated entirely to the list when it’s done.

But it’s not too early to think about how the barberry would be treated. The only other plant I’ve observed from the family Berberidaceae is the Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) in my home state of Kansas. So I could already have checked off a representative from that family. That’s okay. Now I’ve got two representatives from that family. And one is something I’ve never experienced before. It’s still exciting to see new things and to know it’s new, which is the real purpose of Experiencing Life! You will eventually realize some groups on the list are common all over and some are not. Then, when you see something from from one of the groups that are rare, it will make it that much more rewarding.

So what else did we see? While still in Sinks Canyon, after finishing our short hike, we drove up a series of switchbacks towards Frye Lake. As we climbed higher, we could see pockets of yellow interspersed among the dark green pines and firs.

Yellow is the more common color for aspens in autumn.

It was nearing the peak season for the Aspen trees (Populus tremuloides) to turn color. The interesting thing to me in the area around Frye Lake is that some of the Aspens were reddish-orange! Aspens are the tree that turns color during autumn in the mountains of the west and I’d seen plenty before. Always yellow. And there were plenty of gloriously yellow ones here. But some were very orange, almost red. Beautiful!

I have never seen aspens with leaves this color.

If this is a common phenomenon and I just haven’t heard of it, someone please leave a comment. Is orange a transitionary color as the trees turn from green to yellow or is orange the final color for some trees? Either way, it was exciting to see.

Then it was back down the switchbacks to our campsite. But just before we reached the valley floor we saw a lone Mule Deer (Odocoileus hemionus). For better or worse, deer have become less exciting to see for me. When you’re worried about hitting something on the road, it tends to become less exciting. In eastern Kansas, where the potential road kill is a regular possibility for me, the deer are White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus). Mule Deer, like this one in Sinks Canyon, do not get much farther east than western Kansas, so at least this was somewhat uncommon for us. There are a number of features that distinguish Mule Deer from White-Tailed Deer, but the main one that served our purpose for identification was the one about their rumps. White-Tailed Deer have a larger tail that is reddish-brown, like the rest of their body, on top and white underneath. When their tail is down, it covers a small patch of white on their rump itself and all you see is the reddish-brown. When alarmed, their tail raises up, revealing what amounts to a long, white warning strip. It is only when their tail is up that you see the white. On Mule Deer, their tail is much shorter and narrower, which allows the larger patch of white on their rump to be visible whether their tail is up or down. This one had plenty of white visible with her tail down. Mule Deer get thier name because their ears are larger than White-Tailed Deer ears, but that is not always easy to gauge without one of each species present at the same time. This one turned and looked at us as we slowed our car down, then slowly wandered up the bank into the woods.

Notice the small tail is down and you can see plenty of white on the rump. This is a feature that distinguishes a Mule Deer from a White-Tailed Deer.

When we got back to our campsite, we found out what “open range” means. There were cattle (Bos taurus) next to and right on the road. If deer have become less exciting for me then I don’t know what to say about cattle. They are everywhere! It would be interesting to play a game where we timed how long we could drive without seeing a cow. From start to finish on this trip, I’ll bet that we didn’t go longer than twenty minutes without seeing a cow. (Except when we got into Yellowstone. No cattle there.) But it was kind of novel to see them out blocking traffic in Sinks Canyon. Rebecca and Z loved it! Some of the highlights of the trip for them involved cattle, horses and domestic dogs, none of which are high on the scale of uniqueness.

No fences here. Notice the cattle in the distance that are on the road.

In fact, cattle and deer are not that different from each other. They are in separate families, but those families are both within the group called Ruminantia, the ruminants, which is at a level somewhere near an order. Cattle are in the family Bovidae and deer are in the family Cervidae, but they both are in this group that includes the two-toed grazers. Others in this group we would end up seeing on this trip include Bison, which are also in the family Bovidae, and Elk, which are in the family Cervidae. We had also been seeing ruminants from a third family since we entered Wyoming. Pronghorns are in the family Antilocapridae. In fact, they are the only things in that family. We’ll discuss these three animals in a later post. As it is, back in Sinks Canyon, we’ve seen two ruminants back-to-back.

The sun was dropping behind the canyon walls, even though sunset was still a ways away so we were done exploring for the day. We made some dinner on our little backpacking stove, sat by the Popo Agie for a bit then settled into the tent and our day was done.

I mentioned that earlier in the day we made a stop at Independence Rock, one of the landmarks of the Oregon and California Trails. It was just meant to be a historically-oriented stop that we wanted to visit this year since we drove right by it when we followed the Oregon Trail all the way to Portland the previous year, but it turned out to have some interesting biology experiences as well. For orientation, Independence Rock is a dome-shaped rock jutting from the Wyoming plain about 130 feet high. There are mountains towering much higher around it, so it doesn’t even stand out from any distance at all. But the Sweetwater River, the main throughway for the pioneers after leaving the North Platte River, runs right by Independence Rock, so it was well-documented in journals from the trail.

Independence Rock

For us, an exciting moment came before we even reached the rock from the rest area that doubles as a parking lot for the landmark. There were some thistles near the base and we saw something hovering around the flowers. It looked too big to be a bee and too small to be most birds. As we got closer, we could see that it was hovering in place like a hummingbird would, but even then it looked like it was too small to be a hummingbird. We kept walking closer and it didn’t fly away so we were finally able to see that it was an insect – an almost thumb-sized insect hovering like a hummingbird! After doing some checking, it turns out that there are insects called Hummingbird Moths. But, after more research, I discovered that this was not one of those. It was a White-Lined Sphinx Moth (Hyles lineata), just suspended over the thistle flower with its proboscis sucking out the nectar within.

White-Lined Sphinx Moth (Hyles lineata)

The class of insects (Insecta) contains more known species than any other class of organisms, and the order containing moths and butterflies (Lepidoptera) is one of the larger orders of insects. It is not really enough to just see one thing from each family of insects when there is so much variety. For now though, we can check off a representative of the family of moths called Sphingidae.

One last tandem of organisms I’ll mention from Independence Rock has to do with rabbits. Around the base of the rock, on the side opposite from the Sphinx Moth, we went to investigate a small cave formed by fallen boulders. Inside we saw some species of Cottontail Rabbit (Sylvilagus sp.) just hanging out in the shade of the cave. Even after startling it when we first saw it, it stayed still for us long enough to take some pictures. Wyoming has seven species of rabbits and hares, but this was definitely not a hare or a jackrabbit, nor was it a pygmy rabbit, so it had to be one of three of the cottontail rabbits.

Cottontail Rabbit (Sylvilagus sp.)

All of the cottontails are in the same genus (Sylvilagus) but I am not sure which one it was. Many people think of rabbits as rodents but they are in a separate order of mammals called Lagomorpha (rodents are in the order Rodentia). The two orders are similar enough to be the only members of a higher classification called Glires, but they are in separate orders for a reason. The reason has to do with their teeth. Lagomorphs have enamel all the way around their incisor teeth and rodents only have enamel on the front of these teeth. There’s more to it than that but the differences are enough to consider rabbits, jackrabbits, hares and pikas to not be rodents. You can read more more about the differences here.

The second part of the rabbit tandem, besides the cottontail, was Rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus or Ericameria sp.). This is a sagebrush-like plant with many, small, yellow flowers that we had been seeing along the roads through most of Wyoming. When we got to Independence Rock, there was quite a bit of it there as well. We might not have noticed the plant, or we might have mistaken it for sagebrush, if it wasn’t September, with the flowers in bloom. But they were in bloom and it became one of those plants we just had to know about.

Scattered among the sagebrush at the base of Independence Rock is some species of Rabbitbrush.
A closer view of Rabbitbrush

It seems to be unclear how rabbits got involved in the name; apparently they don’t eat the plant. Maybe rabbits were seen hiding behind it which prompted someone to come up with the name. Who knows? Sometimes common names are hard to trace. That is why globally-accepted scientific names are created. Let’s say the rabbitbrush we saw was “Yellow Rabbitbrush”. Some people call the exact same plant “Douglas Rabbitbrush”. But the scientific name for that species of Rabbitbrush is Chrysothamus viscidiflorus. That is the name accepted by the scientific community to refer to plants of that species (though I am not at all sure if that is the species we saw). To drive the point home, there is a member of the cat family that goes by “Cougar”, “Puma”, “Mountain Lion”, “Catamount” and “Panther”. They are all one-and-the-same, scientifically known as Puma concolor. For our purposes, no matter which species of Rabbitbrush we saw, it would be a representative of the family Asteraceae. I already know we will experience many plants from that family, but this one was new to us and it was exciting to see it in bloom.

That will end the flashback to Independence Rock. I’ll finish this post with us back in Sinks Canyon falling to sleep to the sound of the Popo Agie’s rushing waters. See you soon where we’ll pick up with the trip from Sinks to Yellowstone along the Wind River Range.

Organisms from this posting:

After a few weeks of trying to make sense of and organize our experiences, I have decided to slightly modify the scope of Experiencing Life. Instead of trying to be an entire biology textbook, the scope will be focused on where things can be experienced. Those things may be living organisms or environments or even rock types or planets. To appreciate what is being experienced, some background will often be helpful, so there will still be plenty of background science, but the focus is now on the where and what more than the how. There is a lot of information out there on the how, so I have decided not to try to rehash everything on my own.

On The Learning Of Evolution

The following essay is posted on the main web site but I thought I’d post it here to let people know the stance of the person writing this blog.


Deservingly or not, the theory of evolution is a controversial subject, and I would like to share my position on the subject with you. Like all other scientific theories, the theory of evolution is a well-substantiated explanation of a set of observations. Throughout the series of trips, you will learn what those observations are and why they are evidence to support the theory. As well-substantiated as the theory of evolution is, there is a possibility that it may be replaced by another theory as new evidence comes to light, and/or when the existing evidence is explained by a more convincing theory. That is how science works.

To call the entire theory of evolution a “fact” is misleading in the popular conception of the word. The popular definition of fact is something that is indisputable and unchanging. This is an “ultimate truth.” Nothing in science fits this definition! (Gravity has held up pretty well, but even gravity cannot be proven as an ultimate truth). The difference between science and other ways of knowing things is that “truths” in science are provisional – they can be modified or discarded. That does not mean the benefits of science should be thrown out the window. Truths (theories) in science are not changed or discarded simply because there are gaps or flaws in the theory. The way theories change is by a better explanation of existing evidence. By better, I mean a logical explanation with fewer gaps and flaws, not one that simply points out the flaws in the existing theory.

There are parts of the theory of evolution that can be considered fact. We see organisms change over time – that is a fact, because we have observed it happen. Populations of bacteria become resistant to antibiotics, moth populations change from mottled to dark when pollution changes tree color from mottled to dark, insect populations can become resistant to pesticides, etc. These examples are changes over time, which is the definition of evolution.

It is not my place to tell you what to believe. Science is not a belief system in that sense. If there is any belief attached to the process of science, it is the belief that we can learn about the universe by making observations of it with our senses. There may be other ways to make observations, but only those made with our five senses can be objectively agreed upon by others. Statements that a higher being has revealed something to a person may be true, but others cannot testify to that like they can with their senses.

The purpose here is to get you to understand the Theory of Evolution.

Just because something is difficult to understand does not make it false. The Theory of Evolution is somewhat difficult to understand because it is supported by evidence from many different fields.

  • To understand fossil evidence, you must know how rocks, thus fossils, are formed.
  • To understand structural similarity evidence, you must know the anatomy of many different currently living organisms.
  • To understand isotopic dating evidence, you must know basic chemistry first, then you must know the chemistry of radioactive decay.
  • To understand other evidence for the age of the universe, you must know a significant amount of math, physics, and astronomy.
  • To understand genetic evidence, you must understand statistics in addition to the basic biology of nucleic acids and the chemistry of cells.
  • To understand developmental evidence, you must know developmental biology.

In this series of trips, we will not have time to get into all the details of geology, chemistry, astronomy, or math, and we will not even be able to address some aspects of biology. Those that expect a “soundbite” answer to the question “How does evolution work?” will be disappointed. But disappointment and/or incomplete understanding is not a reason to discard the theory. I’ll end with an analogy (not a comparison) that may make the goal of the topic easier for some:

People take classes such as Spanish and French, they learn about many different cultures in Social Studies classes, and are, in general, subjected to ways of life that are different from their own. A student can learn, for example, about the Chinese culture without becoming a communist or a Buddhist, and they don’t have to give up speaking English for Mandarin. All I am asking is that you do the equivalent of learning about the Chinese, I am not asking that you do the equivalent of becoming Chinese.


If you are Chinese, I apologize.  I am an American and Americans are my target audience.  If your world-view is based on Confucianism and you support communism, you could picture yourself learning about capitalism and Christianity without adhering to those philosophies.  The point is to make a distinction between learning about something and “believing” in it.

The Value Of Parks

Yellowstone National Park was the first national park… in the world! Before the concept of preserving land for the public in this way had ever been considered, people realized the area in what is now mostly northwestern Wyoming was something that all people should be able to enjoy, and it became a park in 1872.

Sure there were public parks before this. Boston Common had been around since 1634 and New York’s Central Park had been created fifteen years earlier in 1857. But nothing on this scale had been implemented before. We’re talking a difference of 778 acres for Central Park compared to 2,219,789 acres for Yellowstone. And Central Park is a large urban park! So to put aside this much land to be closed to development by business interests or anyone else was probably thought to be a strange concept at the time. The west was starting to be settled but it still seemed at the time like the land was limitless. To put things in perspective, Yellowstone became a park shortly after the Civil War and nearly two decades before Wyoming, Idaho or Montana became states (all became states right around 1890).

So what was so special about Yellowstone that promoters felt it should be set aside as a public park? Why was it valuable enough to do this? The most obvious thing was the hydrothermal features. People had seen, or at least heard of, geysers and hot springs at other locations around the world (Iceland, New Zealand and Kamchatka are other places known for their geysers). But Yellowstone has more geysers than all those places combined! People knew this place was rare. If for no other reason, the geysers warranted the protection of park status.

But why? What does the park need protection from? One thing would be energy companies aiming to use the geothermal energy that could be harnessed from the park. Places around the world have been using energy from the heat of the earth for direct heating systems since the 14th century and for producing electricity since shortly after electricity was invented. In some cases where a geyser was connected to the source of geothermal energy, the process of tapping into the energy made the geyser stop erupting. I’m not against clean, renewable forms of energy by any means. But do we want to lose the rare spectacle of erupting geysers just to get it? I don’t think so. The park promoters would probably not have even considered this aspect much at the time because electricity hadn’t been invented yet. All they knew is that the geysers were rare and worth keeping as they were.

Often times, that’s the problem. People trying to promote conservation are asked to say why something should be conserved. And they don’t always know exactly! Or at least, if they have an idea of what could happen, they don’t have any proof that their fears will come true. So sometimes things are not conserved. And then, by the time the problems are obvious to everyone, it’s too late!

But before I go off too far down that tangent, let’s talk about some other things about Yellowstone that make it have value worth protecting. Partly because of the hydrothermal features, there is an abundance of wildlife in the area. The year-round warmth provided by the springs and geysers makes it easier for wildlife to make it through the harsh winters of Yellowstone. So the next thing worth protecting is wildlife. The protection of wildlife actually did not come about with the formation of the park. For the first fifteen years or so, people were allowed to hunt in the park. In 1886, public hunting was banned and most wildlife became protected. Again, someone might say, “Why does the wildlife need protecting?”

The answer can depend on a person’s perspective. People who understand how nature works may not always know the specific ramifications of the loss of wildlife ahead of time, but they know the basic concept that everything is connected within an ecosystem. If you get rid of the predators, from hunting or some other method, that means their prey can reproduce without much in the way of restrictions. When the prey populations get too big, their food source (often plants) can be over-eaten and disappear. If the prey species have no food of their own, they will die off as well. These are just some of the possible ramifications of having unprotected wildlife but there are many more options. And it can be complicated. But the point is that everything is connected which means wildlife protection is valuable. It is also important to note that humans are part of that everything.

However, there are ranchers in the area around Yellowstone that feel exactly the opposite. Using wolves as an example, the ranchers would rather not have them be protected. They think their ancestors did a pretty good job of getting rid of the wolves in the Yellowstone area, and they were enjoying the fact that their cattle had one less predator from around 1927 until the wolves were reintroduced in 1995. Even after public hunting was banned, wolf populations were “controlled” by the park administrators. By 1927, wolves were essentially non-existent in the park. They were reintroduced in 1995 to help restore the balance of nature. To be fair, it is true that having the wolves be protected in the park does not mean that the wolves will stay in the park. Wolves do not care if their prey is inside or outside of the park. The ranchers will lose calves and other weak cattle with the wolves around. But the wolves were originally there first and they play an important role in nature.

I’ll just mention one more reason why Yellowstone and other national parks are valuable, but the list could go on for a while. This third reason is the hardest for some people to grasp. There is a profound, positive impact that wilderness can have on the human psyche. When a person is stressed-out, how often is their reaction to just “get away from it all”? Quite often! Most people need to be able to connect with a more primitive, relaxing way of life, even if it’s just for a little while.

The problem is that some people don’t agree with that statement. They’ve either never had the opportunity to have this connection or have had a bad experience when they attempted to have the connection. Sometimes they’re the driven types who feel uncomfortable outside of cities and/or for whom money is a strong motivating factor. I’m all for success and money, but not at the expense of a high quality of life! When the money-hungry people are the ones making the decisions, sometimes we lose things that benefit the majority of us. Thankfully, the governing bodies of this country, for most of our history, have been wise enough to see that parks are valuable. As Wallace Stegner said, “National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”


As a side note, in addition to having a Master’s degree in Biology Education, my Bachelor’s degree is in Parks and Recreation, so that is why this project is such a good fit for me.

Welcome to Experiencing Life!

The Experiencing Life series is about just that: experiencing life. A double entendre explains the purpose of the Experiencing Life trips. First, a series of a dozen field trips are meant to allow you, the traveler, to experience living things (as in concepts of biology) in a more meaningful way than you can in a classroom. Second, the trips provide the kinds of human experiences that make life exciting, interesting and fulfilling.

As far as the biology part, it is one thing to learn about life (biology) in a classroom. It is another, much more fulfilling, thing to learn about life by experiencing it in natural and/or meaningful settings. These field trips are meant to guide you through the world of biology by doing just that. Not all of the sites are completely natural (zoos, museums, etc.) but they all present an experience that cannot be had in a classroom.

The trips are numbered 1-12. The first four trips will cover most of the basic biology and start exploring the range of diversity in life. The remaining eight trips will explore more specific environments and organisms and expand on some of the basic biology. To begin this blog, I’ll describe Trip 1.

Trip 1 is called “Greater Yellowstone”, which is centered around Yellowstone National Park. The focus of Trip 1 is to introduce some of the foundations of biology including chemistry, cells, prokaryotes vs. eukaryotes and taxonomy. Yellowstone National Park itself is rich in mammal species, big and small, so we will also explore the wide variety of these popular organisms there.

Much of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem lies outside of the park’s boundaries, yet has many of the same fundamental properties of the park. The first stop is located southeast of the park in the Wind River Mountain Range. Much less-crowded than the park, it will be a different experience that may take a little more effort but can be even more satisfying. The first sub-stop will let us start easing into the biology and will provide one of those cool life experiences. At Sinks Canyon State Park, at the southern end of the range, you can see a river disappear into a cave, only to resurface from underground a quarter-mile downstream. You don’t see that on the path of every river! Traveling up the east side of the range brings you to the town of Dubois. Here is where the National Bighorn Sheep Interpretive Center is located. This is a good place to examine what it means to be a species, as they have four subspecies of bighorn sheep on display. They have also provided a map for a self-guided tour to observe bighorn sheep in the Torrey Valley just south of town.

The next stop is Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone was the first national park in the world, created in 1872. It existed as a national park for 44 years before there was even a National Park Service. There are more geysers within the park’s boundaries than anywhere else in the world. These, along with hot springs, provide unique environments to which organisms need to adapt. Microscopic organisms of various kinds have needed adaptations to high heat and/or pH levels and other properties to be able to survive and thrive. A by-product of these adaptations is that many of the springs are beautifully-colored by the organisms themselves. This situation provides wonderful experiences for learning about how a wide variety of cells are built and function.

Since Yellowstone is a large park, and has been protected for so long, many animals that have struggled in other parts of the country continue to thrive here. Not just the large mammals, like bison, elk, mountain lions, bears and more, but smaller mammals like otters, foxes, porcupines and a wide array of small rodents. All of these animals are made of cells and have other unicellular organisms living in and on them, so the goal will be to tie together how everything interacts.

The next stop is not really a stop so much as a drive. Taking Highway 39 through northern Utah will expose you to the western hardwood forest type. This is a very different forest than the lodgepole pine forest that dominates Yellowstone.

The final stop is also in northern Utah at the Great Salt Lake. This site features another unique environment to which organisms have adapted: high salinity. Much saltier than the oceans, organisms have adaptations that allow them to live in the environment without becoming dehydrated. It is a good location in which to wrap up the first trip on a scientific note. It is also a good spot to have another unique life experience. The high salinity means the water is also very dense. By floating in the lake, a person will float much higher in the water than they would in a freshwater lake or even the ocean. We may even discuss the science of this phenomenon.

Trip 1 is actually the smallest trip in terms of geographical area and number of sites. But Yellowstone is such a big site all by itself that you’ll have plenty to experience.

Thanks for checking out the blog. I’ve been working on the structure of the trips and the topics that should be covered in them for quite a while, but I’m just now starting to flesh things out. I got motivated to start now because my fiancé and I have planned to finally visit Yellowstone in September. That should provide plenty of fodder for this blog. In the meantime, some topics I have in mind are related to Sinks Canyon, bighorn sheep, the Great Salt Lake and the value of parks, to name a few. So check back soon.