Tuesday, June 29, 2010

So, what have you seen?

When you're traveling in Yellowstone, the first question you get asked by fellow travelers is "So, what have you seen?" Don't be fooled; they're not asking about the scenery. In Yellowstone, "What have you seen?" really means "What animals have you seen?" The bigger, the better. The proper response is, of course, to rattle off a list of all the big game you've encountered in the park. Extra points for wolves, grizzlies, or a close encounter while hiking. It reminds me a bit of kids collecting baseball cards -- I have a Mark Maguire, a Johnny Damon, and so on -- with a whiff of both childlike excitement and competition to it.

Anyway, in the spirit of competition, which I never have been able to resist, here's my list. All photos were taken with my Canon Rebel XSi (pretty much the best Christmas / birthday present ever, from my awesome family), mostly with a 300mm zoom lens.

Black Bears. This was the first bear we saw. I spotted it right after Mike bragged that he was going to kick my ass at our who-can-spot-the-big-animals-first contest. (For the record, I totally won.)

ETA: I am told by my father that this bear is, in fact, a grizzly, and not a black bear. Apparently, you can tell by the hump in the shoulder area. So, I guess I saw both black bears AND grizzlies, after all :-)

Bald Eagles nesting! Almost as soon as we drove into the park, but I didn't get any good pictures.

Moose. One male, with a full set of antlers, plus several females, including one feeding with her baby right next to the trail while we were out hiking.

Who knew that baby moose were so darn cute?


Also, osprey nests aplenty. Their nests completely crack me up. Look at this:

How is it a good idea to build your nest like this, all exposed to the elements and other birds? Does the Osprey have any natural enemies? Also, this nest is built on top of a platform clearly man-made for this purpose. We think it's to keep them from nesting on top of telephone and electrical poles. Not so good if repair work needs to be done -- ospreys aren't the kindest birds ever.

Ravens, nesting on the side of a cliff



Mule Deer

Bison Too freakin' many to count.

(FYI -- this picture was not taken with the zoom lens. They tell you to stay away from the Bison, but the damn bison aren't so great at staying away from you!) Honestly, we were really excited about the bison at first. But after about your 100th bison, they stop being so exciting. Well, except for the ones that walk right through your campsite:

And the ones that hold up traffic for several minutes. Look at that adorable baby! You can't see it in this photo, but he's looking very nervously at a line of about a dozen cars waiting for him to cross the road. Right after I took this picture, daddy came up behind junior and nudged him the rest of the way across the road.


Yellow Bellied Marmots, which make me laugh every single time I see one. There's something so . . . earnest about them.

Zillions of ground squirrels and chipmunks. I have no pictures of these, although one climbed right up on Mike's lap in an attempt to steal his granola bar one afternoon. Couldn't get my camera out fast enough to capture that Kodak moment.

A couple of garter snakes and a racer or two. Also no pictures. They move too fast. We didn't see any poisonous snakes, though, which is a good thing in my book. Mike has that quintessential boy quality of always wanting to touch things that are squirmy, slimy, and generally icky. And, I gotta say, there's a lot I'd do for my friends, but sucking the venom out of a snake bite is totally not on that list.

Great horned owls


Including a totally coo-worthy baby. Mama was nowhere to be seen with this little guy. Also, he was hanging around right underneath the owls we saw. Perhaps hoping for a baby to fall while it was learning to fly?

Beaver dams (the first I've ever seen). No beaver, sadly, although we stood and watched for a while, hoping to see one poke its head out.

We could also see where the beavers had been hard at work chewing down new trees. Ambitious little guys, huh?

Not pictured is the jumping mouse we found in our tent one night. I was too busy shrieking like the girl that I am to get my camera. I totally made Mike get in the tent and chase the little guy out.

Beyond that, we heard wolves from a distance while we were backpacking near the Lamar Valley, but we didn't see anything other than the entrance to a den. We also didn't see a grizzly. We DID see this, though:

I wanted to bring it home SO bad! I think next to Hawaii, where they threaten you with Pele's curse if you so much as think about taking any lava rock home with you, Yellowstone does the best job of anywhere of keeping people from taking stuff like this home. How is it even possible that this amazing skull is still out there and that no one has snuck it into their car by now?

Also, I'll tell you what. The wildlife certainly has right-of-way in Yellowstone, and they're not afraid to use it. In addition to the "bear jams" when someone spotted a distant animal and pulled over to see it, I saw wildlife crossing the road and stopping traffic many, many times while we were there.

It's sort of funny, though, that I write about the animals first, as they were not at all my favorite part of this trip. I mean, the first few times we saw a big animal, it was kind of exciting. And it would be impossible to go to Yellowstone and not have a lot of animal sightings, unlike other parks I've been in. But the thrill wore off fast for me. Later this week, on to our other adventures!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Yellowstone, last minute

So I spent the last week in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Totally spur of the moment. My good friend and frequent camping partner, Mike, called me up a couple weekends ago, told me he was taking this trip, and invited me. I said no, initially, thinking there was no way I could get time off work last minute, but it turned out that this was actually a perfect week to take vacation. So off we went.

We left the Bay Area on Friday afternoon and drove straight through. Took us about 17.5 hours. Drovee across the Nevada desert in the dark, taking turns at the wheel while the other drove. Stopped sometime in the middle of the night for coffee at a McDonalds in Lovelock, Nevada (creepy, creepy, creepy), where we went through the drive through behind a couple of meth-head girls getting a huge bag of food, on foot. Had breakfast at 5 AM at a tiny diner with a super-friendly waitress in Twin Falls Idaho. And washed up in West Yellowstone somewhere around 11 AM Saturday. I can't say I recommend the driving straight through thing -- I was pretty beat all day on Saturday. The good thing about is that we didn't actually have to see Nevada because it was so dark. Mike says I'm exaggerating, but I think pretty much the entire state of Nevada is creepy as all hell. It's utterly beyond me why anyone would want to live there (sorry Amy, if you're reading this).

Since the whole thing was very last minute, we didn't do much planning. I was a bit nervous about getting campsites last-minute in the park, and we were prepared to camp on National Forest land outside the park (like Yosemite, Yellowstone is surrounded on all sides by National Forests). But it turns out that we were there just before the busy season, so it wasn't an issue. We camped in either Yellowstone or Grand Teton every night except our last, including one night backpacking in the Yellowstone backcountry. Spent 4 days in Yellowstone, 2.5 in Grand Teton / Jackson Hole. Did lots and lots of hiking, animal-viewing, photo-taking, and, yes, driving. Had a lovely time.

Anyway, over the next couple of weeks, I plan to post pictures of the trip a bit at a time. I took over 2000 photos (!), most with the amazing DSLR camera my very generous family gave me for Christmas last year. But it's gonna take me a while to sort through them. Stay tuned.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Memorial Day: Canyon Creek

So for Memorial Day, I headed out on my first non-snow camping trip of the year. Usually, I'd have been on several trips at this point, but triathlon training has definitely occupied a lot of my time this spring. Now that summer's here, though, and the snow is finally melting in the Sierras, backpacking and camping are back on my priority agenda.

Anyway, Memorial Day weekend morning, K. and I headed north. We took the back roads to avoid the I-5 misery (a good plan, as I can only amuse myself by identifying the fruit and nut trees in the orchards that line I-5 for so long). We didn't have much of a plan - basically knew we wanted to go somewhere in the Whiskeytown area, since neither of us had been there before, and we figured we'd sort out the camping thing one way or another. The nice thing about California is that there's tons of national forest land here, and it's almost all open for "dispersed camping." Basically, you can pull off the road and pitch a tent almost anywhere. It's my secret for always finding a campsite when I go to Yosemite (Stanislaus National Forest, yay), and it has the added bonus of camp without a single RV, boombox blasting Lady GaGa, or drunken frat boy in sight. Woo!

First stop was Whiskeytown National Recreation Area. Whiskeytown Lake is astonishingly beautiful -- I really had no idea. It's go the same clarity and blue-ness of Tahoe, although it's smaller, nestled in the hills with snow-capped mountains framing it. It looks like something out of a storybook.

The day we were there, we saw dozens of sailboats gliding across the surface of the lake, which is a little surreal when they're framed by snow-capped mountains in the background. We tried to do a hike to one of Whiskeytown's supposedly spectacular waterfalls, but were stymied by overflowing streams (200% of normal, as we later saw on a sign in Trinity National Forest). We hadn't brought hiking poles or water shoes with us, so we ended up having to turn back because we felt that the stream crossing simply wouldn't be safe. And K. has been airlifted out of a hiking once in his life, so no need to risk a repeat. K. did spend a while teaching me how to take great water pics with my Christmas-present DSLR that has been sorely neglected this spring. I now know how to blur water artistically, which is fun.

All the campgrounds at Whiskeytown were full. Unsurprising, since it's one of the biggest camping weekends of the year. But what was surprising was how uncrowded it felt, despite that. I think this area is a bit of a secret. Folks from the Bay area and Sacramento tend to head East or South, to Tahoe and Yosemite and Big Sur, and they forget all about this area. I'd rather be here than Tahoe, though, anytime. No cheezy motels and casinos, no crowds, much more unspoiled beauty.

Anyway, we pressed onward into Trinity National Forest, where they allow dispersed camping (unlike the National Rec Area, which has protections in place closer to what you'd see in a National Park). K. is a bit of a map geek, and had figured out by looking at topo maps that this area was likely to have great river-side places to camp. And boy was he right. After poking around a bit down some dirt 4WD roads, we discovered pretty much the perfect campsite, right next to Canyon Creek. You just won't get a campsite this ideal in a campground.

Before we found this perfect site, we first pitched our tent in a wooded area nearby. It was lovely, but the mosquitos were BAD, and there wasn't a great swimming hole. So when we went out for a walk after setting up camp, we decided to move. . . . but we really didn't want to take down the tent and put it up again . . . leading to this:

Is this the oddest thing you've ever carried on the top of the 4-Runner, K?

Anyway, the tent made it safely to our new campsite, where we spent the next 2 nights relaxing and taking icy cold dips in the creek. I've swum in some cold water in my life (Lake Superior -- brrr. Or San Francisco Bay, anyone?), but nothing could compare to this. I'm pretty sure the water we were swimming in had been snow about 5 minutes earlier. Anyway, swimming might be a bit of an exaggeration. It was more of an ohmygodthisissofreakincold jump in, squealing, go under, and get the hell out kind of thing. No photographic evidence, I'm afraid. I was too busy shrieking like a girl to even think of the camera.

Canyon Creek is a tributary, I believe, of the Trinity River, and it's pretty much gorgeous the whole way along. All weekend, we were surrounded by scenery like this:

Or this:

We hiked in the Trinity Alps, and K. took what might be my favorite picture of myself ever.

Plus the dogwoods were in full bloom up there. Just lovely.

Monday, on our way home, we took a detour in order to drive along the Trinity River. I rafted on the Trinity last year, when the flow was quite low. This year, it was ridiculously high. So high, in fact, that we didn't even see any rafters out there at all, I suspect because the conditions were so fierce. But the river did hold one final surprise for us. As we were driving along 299, we saw 2 bald eagles sunning themselves and fishing from a cliff above the river. With the help of my awesome zoom lens, Ken caught this amazing picture:

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Triathlon, Take 2

Yesterday, I ran my second triathlon, the Tri for Fun at Rancho Seco Park in Herald, CA. This was originally meant to be my first race, before I decided to do Napa last month. And a lovely race it turned out to be. Although first I had to get over this:

Why, yes, those ARE the cooling towers for a nuclear power plant. Rancho Seco Nuclear Generating Station, to be exact. It's actually decommissioned, and has been since 1989, but there's still something more than a little surreal about swimming in the shadow of those towers. In fact, the lake we swam in was actually built (or expanded from a small pond) to act as an emergency water source for the plant, should there ever be a fire. On my way out to the first turn buoy in the swim, I was actually sighting off the towers. So if I have 3-eyed babies someday, y'all know why!

(This and all the other photos included in this post were taken by Ken Emanuel, who played personal photographer to me for this race. He rocks, huh?)

This race was another "sprint" distance triathlon, which is basically anything under "Olympic" distance (1 mile swim, 25 mile bike ride, 10K run). In this case, that meant a half mile swim, 16 mile bike, 3.1 mile run.

I was very, very nervous about the swim. I am still a relative beginner as a swimmer, having only learned freestyle in October, and the swim was mentally brutal during the last race I did -- so cold and crowded and adrenaline-soaked that I completely panicked and nearly got bailed out by the rescue kayakers. This one, by comparison, was a breeze. For starters, the water was so much warmer. Warm enough, even, that my friend Emily and I posed for pictures in the water before the race:

There were plenty of people without wetsuits, but I wore mine, since that's how I'd been training (and it's a nice security blanket to know that your wetsuit will keep you floating even if you completely freak during the swim). Anyway, I felt strong right from the start (I think I'm somewhere in this picture!):

I felt strong in the middle:

And I finished strong, too:

took 5 minutes off my swim time from the last time around, coming in at 23 minutes. I'm certainly not going to be winning any swim races anytime soon with that time, but it's not far off what I would do in the pool, so I'll take it!

Next was the bike. 16 miles, gently rolling hills through farm country. Please notice that I am riding a beastie of a hybrid bike. It weighs an absolute TON. Clearly it wore me out, since in both of the pictures Ken took of me coming in from the bike ride, my mouth is wide open as I gasp for air :-)

And finally, the run. Heading out, and feeling great! (Especially when I saw Ken, cheering and taking pictures!)

Look at the spring in my step here:

This is actually kind of bad running form, so don't tell my coach, okay? I'm supposed to be working on NOT being so springy when I run! Anyway, this was about 20 seconds in, when I was still really psyched to be on the run. In reality, though the run ended up being the hardest part of this race (unusual for me, as a life-long soccer player). It was HOT by the time I got out on the run, which followed a red dirt road out into the hills for 3.1 miles. I was pretty much dying the whole time. Even had to walk up a couple of the bigger hills, which frustrated me.

I was SO happy when I saw that finish line, I totally sprinted to the end.

And I finished! Again! I guess this means the first time wasn't just a fluke, huh? I'm a real, live triathlete. Go me! (BTW, my actually time was closer to 2 hours, since I started the swim in the 5th wave, so the clock had already been running for 20-25 minutes).

Anyway, in closing, this little girl's sign is awesome. And true, true, true. This triathlon thing has definitely not been easy, but I'm so, so, so glad I jumped in and decided to do it.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Daily Dose of Gratitude #71: Trinity National Forest Edition

1. Whiskeytown Lake. Just as gorgeous as Lake Tahoe, and with the added bonus of no casinos, cheesy motels, or massive vacation homes on its shores. How have I never been there before?

2. The perfect campsite: secluded, right on a gorgeous river so you can fall asleep to the sound of water rushing by, the scent of pine trees and clover.

3. And while I'm at it, the most comfortable camp bed I've ever slept in. (Don't tell anyone, but I maybe dragged my down comforter and my feather pillow out to the woods with me. And I didn't regret it for a minute, either!)

4. Washing off the sweat and grime with icy dips in a river flowing with water that was literally snow less than 24 hours ago.

5. Seeing neither hide nor hair of whatever left this beastie of a footprint a little up the river from our campsite. (It's hard to see scale in this picture, but the print was bigger than the palm of my hand. Don't worry, though, Mom, I'm pretty sure it's coyote, not mountain lion -- you can't see the claws in a mountain lion footprint. Well, unless they're really, really angry ;-)