Jonathan arrived at exactly 4.55am. I had just poured myself a cup of coffee to clear away the last vestiges of sleep when he walked into the lobby of Amangani in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. One of the lodge’s wildlife guides, he was to take me out on a wildlife-spotting drive that morning through a part of Grand Teton National Park.
Wyoming had always been on my list of places to visit in the United States. During my first US visa interview, the lady behind the counter asked me why I wanted to go to the country. And I had answered that I wished to visit Wyoming and its national parks so that I could write about them. Ten years and many trips to the United States later, I was finally doing that.
Wyoming had somehow remained elusive, but this year when I was invited to a convention in Denver, Colorado, I decided to finally make the effort. Jeep had lent me a very capable Grand Cherokee Trailhawk. The previous day, I had driven it eight hours to Jackson Hole and checked into Amangani. Surrounded by lush views, it is probably the most luxurious lodge in the Grand Teton area.
We started around 5.05am and came across a gang of elk within a few minutes. The young ’uns—the guide pointed out that the lack of antlers meant that they weren’t fully grown—immediately jumped over the hedges and sprinted away when I stepped out of the car with my DSLR. However, one chap with magnificent horns stood his ground and stared at me defiantly. It worked perfectly because I got some splendid photographs.
As dawn broke, we carried on into the park. The second Jonathan informed me that the place is named after the Teton Range, some of its 12 permanently snow-capped mountains poked out from the mist, as if on cue. They surround the Grand Teton peak, which towers at about 13,700 feet. The Tetons, as the park is affectionately called, is less crowded than Yellowstone, which is the most popular park in Wyoming if not the entire United States.
That morning, even though we did not come across the grizzlies that the Tetons are known for, was a fantastic one. My guide knew a lot about the park, such as how the land was discovered by the first white explorers—including the famous Lewis and Clark—as they forayed westwards. Human habitation here, however, goes back thousands of years.
We also stopped at the Snake River Overlook. Here, the celebrated photographer Ansel Adams took his iconic ‘The Tetons and the Snake River’ photograph. Thanks to conservation efforts, the park has barely changed since then, but there was such a heavy cloud cover when I visited it, I could not get a picture of that famous view. Snake River is a major river in the Pacific Northwest. It is 1,735 kilometres long, starting in Wyoming and emptying into Columbia River in Washington after making its way through Idaho and Oregon. Excavations have shown that Native Americans lived by the riverside as far back as 11,000 years ago. Salmon from the Pacific spawns in the river and was a valuable source of food for them.
The weather kept flitting from rainy to sunny, and the clouds kept sweeping in and out giving me some spectacular photographs, especially of their reflections in Jackson Lake, the largest waterbody in the park. While we enjoyed a quick latte at the Jackson Lake Lodge, Jonathan thought he saw a rustle in the grasslands beyond the wall-sized French windows. He rushed out to the car and returned with his spotting scope. Sure enough, there were two moose at a slight distance. Even though we saw no other wildlife except for the bold elk and the distant moose, I wasn’t disappointed. My time spent on safari in Indian jungles in search for the tiger had taught me to enjoy the environs rather than just be focussed on spotting the denizen. I think my attitude put Jonathan at ease too, so much so that we almost missed the black bear standing on the embankment above us. The guide actually spotted it in the car’s rear-view mirror and he stopped and backed up. It was a magnificent male, not very far away and grazing happily. For a while, ours was the only car there so his attention was focussed on us, which helped me capture some stunning frames.
Early next morning I pointed the nose of my Jeep north and headed through Grand Teton towards Yellowstone National Park. But I just had to stop 40 minutes later at the Oxbow Bend. This is where the fast-flowing Snake River slows down and, hence, lots of animals gather to forage and drink. It was a beautiful day with deep-blue skies and snow-capped peaks reflecting in the still river. Two men paddling across in a canoe were the only indication that this was real and not a huge painting.
An elderly couple arrived and excitedly told me that a couple of grizzlies had been spotted about 10 kilometres north, just after the turn to Pilgrim Creek Road. Clearly, word had spread, as the site had no less than 100 cars parked along both sides of the road. I couldn’t blame the visitors because there were two big mama grizzly bears in the grasslands sandwiching the highway. One of them had two cubs and the other was alone. I spent an hour watching them.
The park rangers—essentially volunteers—had their hands full ensuring the 100-yard rule was strictly followed. That is the minimum distance people are expected to maintain while watching wildlife. The visitors largely understood that, but the grizzlies hadn’t got the memo. The bear with the two cubs kept moving closer to the road, as she wanted to cross over. The rangers moved the crowd in such a way that the bears had a clear corridor to walk across. One cub got curious about a traffic cone and started playing with it. The mother came back and lifted him by the scruff of his neck and led him away. It was delightful to watch.
I headed north along US Route 191 that led me to the South Entrance of Yellowstone. Fortunately, it was the fag end of spring and there weren’t too many visitors. Unfortunately, the spectacular high-altitude Beartooth Highway that I wanted to drive along was closed because the snow hadn’t been cleared yet.
My drive through Yellowstone was fabulous to say the least. I kept stopping by little viewpoints and trailheads, where I would go off on short, impromptu hikes. These yielded sightings of bison, bighorn sheep and a magnificent American bald eagle.
Yellowstone’s most famous attraction is the Old Faithful geyser. When John Colter, after whom Colter Bay is named, became the first white man to arrive here in 1802, he went back with stories about boiling mud holes and geysers that discharge 14,000 litres of mineral-charged water more than 100 feet into the air. These were at first dismissed as tall tales. But later expeditions were so incredulous about this unique geothermal region that Yellowstone was established as the world’s first national park in 1872. Even today, seeing the Old Faithful blow is an experience in itself. It goes off every 45 to 60 minutes and is quite predictable. But the Yellowstone village around the geyser is like a bustling town and I hightailed out of there soon after the eruption. Three kilometres away, the Black Sand Basin was not as crowded and though it doesn’t have spectacular geysers, it has mud holes and lakes that are colourful thanks to the minerals and gases bubbling out of the earth’s crust. Also, a heady stench of hydrogen sulphide (the main gas that bubbles out) hangs in the air.
The malodorous nature of the air notwithstanding, I was happy to be there. It had been a great road trip, I had had fabulous wildlife sightings and invigorating walks, and had finally fulfilled my desire to visit Wyoming. I really couldn’t complain about the smell of rotten eggs.