30 June 2014

Canadian wilderness

Waterton Lakes NP, Alberta Canada

All that fuss over nothing about taking food over the border. You don’t need to declare any food going into Alberta, only British Columbia and some other place. They didn’t even ask us about our alcohol. Did we have firearms, bear spray or any other personal security device. Did we own our truck and trailer and where were they registered and why?, Did we have flights booked to leave the US? Now that we don’t have the i94 visa stapled into our passport, I’m not sure what the procedure will be if we want to officially leave the USA at the end of a six month period driving across a international border.

When we arrived at our campground just outside of Waterton, there was a sign on the office window to say the campground was closed due to flooding, but the Fraser’s are to go to site 47 and just follow the map! Good thing we booked last week. They had 11”/28cm of rain in two days! Older Canadians still talk in inches. Dave told us that the campground in town can get quite noisy and winds of up to 120kph are not unusual. So I was quite pleased we couldn’t get in.

The first day here we saw a fox den with three foxes. The following day we saw a black (cinnamon) bear with three cubs, but I only managed to photograph one cub. The forest here is quite thick and you can only photograph them when they are walking by the road.

The June equinox – winter at home, summer here, is my birthday and Lindsay had booked a table at the Prince of Wales Hotel which sits on the hill just outside of town. We heard it got blown off it’s foundations twice while they were building it! We had a drink in the bar beforehand which has a stunning view of Waterton Lake and the surrounding mountains. While we were there one of the parent foxes ran passed the window, only to return again about half an hour later with a chipmunk in it’s mouth. The people photographing the lake were totally oblivious to the fox behind them. As we left later that night, there were four out, two of them playing with each other – it was pretty special.

Waterton Lake
what you looking at?
We had booked dinner a week beforehand and were given a lovely window table, which has a similar view of the lake. Dinner itself was a bit of a disaster as they cooked the wrong meal for me. I didn’t want to have to wait for another one, so I accepted it, only to find that some of the vegetables were inedible, they were so undercooked. They were obviously having a bad night as they did it to the lady next to us too, but she sent hers back. I probably should have.

Our favourite viewing road is the Akamina Parkway and we start each day by going up here. While waiting for the black sow to come out of the bushes with her three cubs one morning, we started photographing a cinnamon boar who had climbed a tree to eat the seeds. It was quite a sight as he slid down the tree breaking branches while trying to tear off smaller limbs. Shortly after he was on the ground and Lindsay was telling me to back away. I couldn’t see where the bear was as Cathy and Jim’s car was between us. Lindsay’s camera and tripod were next to me, but I could only carry my own, I couldn’t take his as well. I moved back a few car lengths to the rear and the bear came around the front of the car, looking at the camera with curiosity. Lindsay knew instantly what the bear was going to do and started running towards him to shoo him off (huh, not supposed to do that!). Next thing the bear is up on his hind legs with his front paws going directly for the camera! Of course the weight ratio was a bit much and the whole thing fell over into soft ground. Luckily the smaller lens was on the camera and except for a scratch on the lens hood, no damage was done. Unfortunately even though Lindsay had the camcorder in his hand, he didn’t get any video as he was too worried about his camera.

I'm the blonde cub

Cameron Lake
About half an hour later the sow crossed the road with her three cubs. They only stayed about 10 minutes before they headed back into the forest.

I'm the chocolate cub
There may be quite a few trips or even days when we don’t see the sow and cubs and on one particular day as we were driving up, I said to Lindsay: “why are we coming up here, she’s never out this early”. It turned out to be our best day ever. We rolled back the tarp over the tray of our truck and I got in which gave me a really good viewing point. It was a lot of fun and even if none of my photos come out, I wouldn’t care as the experience was amazing. Once we heard these horrible screams that were blood curdling, we thought something was attacking the cubs. After seeing some battle scars, we think it was them fighting with each other!

Black bear Sow and three cubs

There is another den of foxes up on Chief Mountain highway. For a number of days we went out there between four and six and didn’t see a thing or just one for a fleeting moment. With perseverance comes reward. One night all four kits were out and one of the parents brought back three mice and let them go just outside the den. The kits all scrambled for their dinner, it was wonderful to watch. The mice were then taken into the den. Sometime later, one of the kits must have stolen a mouse from it’s siblings and buried it outside, for ‘later’! We try and stay on the opposite side of the road to give them space, but last night Lindsay and Kyle were on the same side as the den. One of the kits came up to the road and walked towards them to about 1.5 metres; they didn’t dare touch their cameras in case the click of the shutter scared him away.

I'm not allowed to cross the road yet

A ranger told us about a disused trail just down from the fox den that was in ‘grizzly’ country. We walked about a kilometre up the track while Kyle (who is Canadian) explained how to look for animal trails where there was a slight change in the way the grass looked overall, how the tips of the grass were broken off as this is the sweetest most nutritional part of the grass. We found some cougar tracks along side a small stream and bear scat. Always look around you! The track was quite muddy and was starting to go higher. We had left the meadow with the long grass and wildflowers behind. Kyle’s wife and children were back in the car, so we couldn’t keep going too long.

Waterton is having it's wildflower festival

16 June 2014

A battle over land, which they won but lost again

Little Bighorn Battlefield, Montana

Driving along the i90, I found a note I wrote last year to remind myself about the Battle of Little Bighorn if we were travelling through Montana. It was on our way and we got there just in time for the morning Ranger talk with his rendition of what happened. He was an ex-history teacher and was very enthusiastic about delivering a history lesson that would keep us all engaged for an hour. In a nutshell, gold was found in the Black Hills which was part of the Indian reservation set up with the Fort Laramie treaty. Gold seekers rushed to the area, contravening the treaty, so the army tried to buy it from the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho for $6m. The Indians understandably weren’t interested. They wanted to preserve their way of life, which wasn’t living on reservations. The money was taken off the table and they were told to leave anyway or be treated as hostiles. They resisted and a war ensued that ended with Col. Custer’s regiment being totally wiped out. Unfortunately for the Indians they lost their land some time later; it just postponed the inevitable. But at least the Indians won! The battle ground is as it was back then, just green rolling hills with a few tombstones where soldiers died, their bodies being moved to a central location or even another states. It was an enjoyable couple of hours and I’m really glad we stopped.

We have booked two weeks in a campground just outside Waterton National Park in Canada and need to be up there on the 20th June. The bears are out and a family of red fox have been seen in the area. So we are slowly making our way up through Gillette, Billings, Great Falls, Choteau and Browning. We have made a list of food for the Canadian customs and nearly drunk all our wine. The rules must have bee! made for air flight travellers in that all bottles need to be unopened. This clearly is not practical for RV travellers but I’m sure they aren’t going to make allowances for us. We still have 3 bottles of rum left over from last year, which uses up our tax-free allowance. I’m not sure why we bought so much, it must have been a good price!

12 June 2014

Custer State Park, South Dakota

We had to be careful what route we entered Custer State Park as two of them had low tunnels that we would not have fitted under. We were told that this was a mini Yellowstone. In that there are bison, pronghorn and prairie dogs, that is true, but it’s nothing like Yellowstone. Our first campsite was in Blue Bell which reminded us of Jasper as our site was nestled in around the Ponderosa Pines and green grass in between. A sign at the entrance to the campground, says that if you haven’t booked, then you need to before going any further! The sites are electric but a storm that morning had knocked out the power, so we didn’t have any for the first few hours. We went out on the wildlife road for a few miles and saw a few bison and two pronghorn. There were traffic jams for prairie dogs which Lindsay thought was hysterical and he would get frustrated at being caught behind them. He forgets that we thought they were cute when we first encountered them.

The next day we moved to the Game Lodge campground. This is a really nice campground with large powered sites with lots of space around each one, green grass, a dump station and a laundry only a few metres away from our first site. Perfect. Before moving to our third site the next morning, we left early in the hope of seeing some mountain goats around the needles area. No such luck. We encountered the tunnels we had seen on our map and got through with just a 5cm (2”) gap either side of our mirrors.

Last year when we drove to South Dakota, it rained the entire time. This year has been similar, in that it has rained at least once each day.
with 5cm (2") either side of our mirrors
the Needles section of Custer State Park
the southern 'green' section of Custer State Park

11 June 2014

The President's Heads

Mt Rushmore, South Dakota

It was a novelty to be in an RV park with full hook up and wifi. Even though we were planning to go and see the night show at Mt Rushmore, we decided to go in the late afternoon to get a few pictures just in case. When we got up there it was in shade as the clouds had started rolling in and just before dinner we were shown a radar screen of the weather that was on it’s way – thunder and lightening, so we didn’t get to the nightshow. For some reason Lindsay suggested that we book our next stop in Custer State Park which was just as well as we found out it is extremely popular. We couldn’t get three nights in a row, so I decided to do one at a time, securing three different sites in two different campgrounds. Lindsay had been hoping that our front tyres would have lasted a couple more months, but one of our fellow campers pointed out that there was a spot where the metal was showing through. So instead of doing an early morning shoot at Mt Rushmore, Lindsay had to drive back to Rapid City and get four new tyres which took longer than normal as they had to get them from their warehouse. So by the time he got back we had to leave our campsite. I was still hoping we could go back to Mt Rushmore, so we found a spot down a side street in the town of Keystone and dropped off our trailer as the night before the RV entrance to the carpark had been blocked off. Of course that morning, the RV entrance was open, so we could have brought it. I got a few more pictures with the 70-200mm lens this time, it was still overcast and even thought the sun came out a few times, it didn’t light up the President’s faces. The weather that was coming towards us was not promising, so there was no point in waiting. Seeing as we were there, I decided we should go and look at the museum which showed how they it was all done – a major feat in engineering.

9 June 2014

Badlands, South Dakota

The Badlands are another name for mounds of mud that has hardened I’ve decided. Some of them had colourful sediment lines while others were just one boring colour. These though had areas of green grass around them instead of the usual dirt. 

We left a day earlier than planned as they were resurfacing our campground loop and we managed to get a refund after Lindsay complained, so we moved onto Mt Rushmore. Luckily we had been out and about at 4.30am anyway, so had seen all that we really needed to.

7 June 2014

Devil’s Tower, Wyoming

The Devil’s Tower is a large rock in the middle of nowhere; there are numerous theory's about how it was formed, but I don't think they've settled on one. Many people climb it and even though they are asked to refrain for the month of June because of Indian traditions, some people like the ones we saw, still do. 

The day we arrived, the weather closed in, which we don’t mind as it’s a good excuse to catch up on a few things and veg out. We are in the National Monument’s campground which is really nice – lots of green trees and grass. There is a walk and talk at 10am led by a university student who is paid by the park which was interesting.

Black tailed prairie dogs are everywhere all around here, they even close one of the campground loops at a certain time of the year as they move in there!


3 June 2014

A Rodeo and the Mustangs

Cody, Wyoming

Cody is named after Buffalo Bill – William Cody. The Buffalo Bill Museum is about five museums which cover Buffalo Bill, the Indians, Wildlife in the area and firearms. Your ticket covers you for two days but we didn’t need that long. During the morning we were at the right place to be ushered outside for a showing of the local raptors, so we got to see some of them very close. The red tailed hawk, Osprey, Great horned owl and the US version of our wedge tailed eagle. All of them had been injured in some way, rescued and now lived at the museum. The photographic section of the museum was disappointing, whereas the photos depicting the pronghorn migration were fantastic. A group followed their migratory habits by foot to see what obstacles they encountered and have rallied to have land (only a mile in width) put aside for them. The bottom barbed wire on the bottom of fences has been replaced in many areas to be bar-less so that they can crawl under without harm. And where they cross the highway, an overpass has been built.

That night we went to the “nite rodeo”. The winds picked up and we were nearly bowled over in the carpark. Normal weather for Wyoming apparently; we debated whether we should leave it for another night but decided to stay. Lindsay took his camera as he wanted to get some shots of the bull riding.  Unfortunately with the combination of overcast skies and the time that they came on, at the end – the light was too dark and his pictures didn’t come out sharply enough. He did get some other great shots of the horses.

Having got the touristy things out of the way, the following morning we went in search of the wild mustang horses. We went down two different dirt roads and a few other tracks off them, but found nothing. Later that day we caught up with Klaus whom we thought was still in Yellowstone and he asked how many horses we had seen that morning as he had seen about 120. Even though it had been raining for a few hours and the skies were very grey, we agreed to meet up with him to see if we could find them together. It took a while as they weren’t where he found them that morning, we had to abandon his car in case it got bogged as it wasn’t a 4WD. Klaus was worried that the storm was coming towards us, but Lindsay could tell it wasn’t. He put his camera gear in our truck and sat in the tray to look out for the herd, it’s a wonder he managed to hold on! Finally we could see them in the distance, but we had to work out another way to get to them as we didn’t know if the track we were on would lead us there. The rain clouds disappeared and the sun even came out. There were over 100 wild horses and we photographed them until the sun went down and the bugs came out. There were many groups and some stallions had three to four mares each that they kept careful watch over. Other stallions would try and muscle in, which meant the other stallion would have to fight back. So there was lots of grazing, sex and fights over females – pretty much what happens with all species. We were hoping they would head down to the waterholes which would create more activity, but they were content to stay around the same place that we found them. We constantly had to be on alert to make sure we weren’t in their way as the stallions chased other stallions away from their mares, or they might round their mares up with their noses to the ground – it was fascinating to watch. There used to be more than 500 until they rounded them up by helicopter and sold them off Then they darted the females so that they won’t fall pregnant for a few years.