Monday, June 8, 2015

Day 15 - Balloon ride and Jenny Lake

Weather:  Sunny, beautiful, and mid-70's!
Steps:  Shaun - 15,094; Shan - 14,950
Varmints:  Heron, beaver, common merganser, green winged teal, moose, elk, pronghorn, bison, bald eagle, golden eagle (maybe), red-tailed hawk, mountain bluebird, yellow warbler, gold-bellied know...just a typical day in the Grand Tetons
Points total:  Shaun - 22; Shan - 23 or 24 (depending on how you count the various scats we found).
Yes, Shannon pulled it out at the end, dang it!  It was a very fun game, though, so thank you Uncle Rod and Aunt Phyl! This was a keeper, and we'll do it again on our next trip for sure.

It is our final day in Jackson, and what better way to end our trip than to ride in a hot air balloon? We planned this trip, in part, to celebrate Shannon's 30th birthday, and before we left, Shannon wanted to mark one thing off her bucket list. Riding in a hot air balloon was that thing.

It was an early start to the day because we had to be at Teton Village by 6:30am. From there, we were driven to a nearby ranch from which three balloons would be taking off. When we arrived at the site, workers were busily setting up the balloons. We were able to watch them set up each of the components, put them all together, inflate the balloons, and then see them rise. That was pretty nifty.


There were 22 people waiting to go up, and we were curious how we were going to be distributed. Well, it turned out that two people went in one balloon, four in another, and 16 were in the biggest balloon! Guess which one we were in? Yup, we got up close and personal with 14 other passengers (and one pilot). The basket was divided into five parts, with the pilot in the center. A group of four went in each basket, and once we were in, we were IN. We couldn't move around much, and we were pretty sandwiched so as not to infringe on the space of the couple sharing with us. Shaun was at the corner to take pictures (and because she's short). 

The scenery could not be beat, and it was pretty cool to see the other balloons while we were up. However, we didn't go up in sustained flight for very long. Our pilot kept bringing us down close to the ground (I mean CLOSE -- we brushed the grass a lot), and we pretty much stayed pointed one direction for the duration of the flight. So we didn't get much of the wind in our faces or the view on all sides for miles around that I was expecting. I have to admit I was a little disappointed as a result. 

Still, it was a great experience, and one we're glad we had in Wyoming.

Fun side note, the balloon operators had to change the location we left from because the usual field was full of cows. Apparently with the drought in California, ranchers are moving up to Idaho and Wyoming where water is more plentiful for the cattle. The ranch that owns the fields from which the balloons take off was receiving 3,000 head of cattle that day, and the cows were being unloaded from trucks into the field the balloons usually use. We actually watched the cows flow over the fields from the trucks as we were rising into the air. You can see our encounter with cows that had arrived the previous day in the picture above.

Once the balloons had landed and been unloaded, we were returned to Teton Village, where we ate a delicious breakfast of fruit-topped waffles. Then we headed north toward Jenny Lake. Along the way, we were keeping an eye out for the elusive grey owl, and as a result, found these beauties, a blue heron and what we think is a red-tailed hawk (correct us if we're wrong!)

We also stopped at the Lupine Meadows (named for obvious reasons) where the lupine was just starting to bloom. Shaun took some artsy fartsy shots of it, and then we continued on our way.

We arrived at Jenny Lake and took the shuttle boat over the lake to the trail that would take us to Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point. Our plan was to do the easy hike to Hidden Falls and then see if we felt like going up to Inspiration Point, which is rated moderate-hard. Well, we missed the turn for Hidden Falls and ended up going towards Inspiration Point first. We said we would go up the trail a bit, see if we could do it, and we could always go back. Yeah right. Once we started, no way could we turn back. Our pride was involved. It was pretty much uphill the whole way, and we had to stop to catch our breath a lot, but we made it!

We figured this was as close to climbing up a mountain as we were likely to get, so we were pretty proud of ourselves. We ate a snack at the top and enjoyed the view for awhile, then headed back down.
Do you see the varmint hidden in this picture?

On the way back down the mountain, we were able to take a little detour off the trail to see Hidden Falls. Normally you have to take a completely separate trail to see them, but we knew they were close by because we could hear them, so we took the chance. The picture above is very blown out, but you get the idea. We also saw a male moose pigging out close to the trail, and a yellow-bellied marmot. We made it safely back down the mountain with no mishaps and took the shuttle boat back to the non-mountainous side of the lake. The picture above is our last view of Cascade Canyon from the boat, at the opening of which are located Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point.

After the strenuous hike, we didn't want to do anything that required the use of our legs, so we decided to drive to some of the spots Jean had taken us on our wildlife safari to see if we could spot any last varmints. We struck out on the grey owl and the fox babies, but we hit pay dirt with the coyote babies. Just after we arrived, the mother arrived, checked things out, and then came back with her pups. There were about five, all frolicking behind her in a row. So cute! The last one in the line decided it wanted to stay outside and roll around in the grass, so we got to watch that bit of adorableness for awhile. Then another joined it, and they wrestled for awhile. We just about died from the cuteness of it all. 

Eventually we dragged ourselves away from the coyote pups, made one last fruitless search for sagebrush grouse (look here to see why we wanted to see one so badly), and then headed back to Jackson. We were just tootling down the street when what should we see but another moose! This one was also a male, and he was also just hanging out by the side of the road eating to his heart's content, completely ignoring the minor traffic jam he was causing. We eventually dragged ourselves away from him, and he was our last animal sighting on this trip. A great send-off and a fitting end to this most excellent trip.

Shaun here with a little wrap up commentary.....I'd just like to say how grateful I am for having a daughter who loves to travel with her mom and loves to share the world in all its grandeur with me.  I know I'm lucky and blessed in this gift, and I thank you, Shannon, for giving me the kind of opportunities that are so much richer because we do them together.  I will cherish this one forever, and I can't wait for our next Awesome Adventure!

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Day 14 - Snake River float trip and Teton Science School wildlife safari

Weather:  it started out very rainy and cold, but around 10:30am, the skies cleared and remained that way for the rest of the trip!  It also got up over 70, so we were grossly overdressed for most things
Steps:  Shaun - 7,775; Shan - 8,042
Varmints:  Red-tailed hawk, Cooper's hawk, pronghorn, bald eagles and then...wait for it...babies!(Shannon's point), common merganser, elk, osprey, trumpeter swans, kite (maybe), female blue dusky grouse, mule deer, bison, Clark's nutcracker, meadowlark, northern flicker, two kinds of warblers and three kinds of teals.  Seriously?  I was quite a day.
Points total:  Shaun - 22; Shan - 22.   Oooooo, we're neck and neck folks!  Who will pull it out in the end since we only have one more day? Stay tuned for the big reveal!

Our guide Hank from Moose

We had an action-packed day ahead of us, and the bummer was that we didn't know if we were going up in the balloon this morning, so neither one of us slept very well since we were waiting for the 5:15 am text to let us know if it would be an even more action packed day. Luckily (in my opinion), it was too overcast to fly, so we headed to the lovely Bunnery Restaurant and had a hearty breakfast to carry us through our next event...a float trip down the Snake River. We met our guide and seven fellow passengers, drove ten miles north to Deadman's Bar, and prepared to board our large inflatable raft. Just as we were waiting, the skies cleared and we saw two bald eagles, which were the symbols of nothing but goodness to come!

Our guide was a geologist who was the son of a park ranger from Moose and a very cool, no-nonsense kind of guy, so naturally I really liked him. The trip was great, and the view of the mountains couldn't be beat. I asked Hank if he ever got tired of it, and he laughed at me and said no, in all his travels, the Grand Tetons would always be his favorite place on earth.

We didn't see a ton of varmints here, but we did get to see three eagle's nests, and one even had babies in it!  I got a pretty good shot of it since she was in silhouette, but you can't see the babies without binoculars.  Oh well, Shannon still got the point for that one.

Given the weather in the morning, we had five layers of clothing on, no sunscreen, and we almost stewed in our own juices once the sun came out!  Once we got off the river, we stripped down and toured the Craig Morgan Visitor's Center, which was very cool.  Check out the view they have!

We were starving to death, so we headed back into Jackson for lunch. We ended up at the famous Million Dollar Cowboy Bar where Shannon finally had her Rocky Mountain oysters. Surprisingly (not!), they had very little for a vegan to eat, so I had my least nutritional meal of chips, salsa, and onion rings.  Nice huh?  Oh well, I ate a bunch of nuts as a snack. I will say that Wyoming has proven to be pretty easy to eat in as a vegan, whether the offerings were truly vegan or could be adjusted to become that way. I had to compromise on the cheese thing a couple of times, but all in all, it wasn't that bad. Our last meal was at a very cool place called Lotus Cafe, and I had vegan lasagna and Shan had elk lasagna.....the perfect place for us!

There's a gallery with several bronzes on benches, so I insisted Shan take my picture with Honest Abe.  She didn't like it because she said they were art waiting to be sold and I shouldn't be messing with them, but I say that if they put them on the street and on benches, they're fair game!

Our shadows on the attempt at art.....

After lunch we had an hour to kill, so we went back to our little cabin, sat at our picnic table, and read. It was heaven because we hadn't had a lot of time to read on this trip. At 5:00, we were picked up by Jean, our guide from the Teton Science School, which is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating people about the area, the environment, and how people can live within it while still protecting it. It ended up that we had a private tour, and we took full advantage!  This was billed as a sunset wildlife safari, so we had four hours to see whatever we could find (which ended up being not much, but we learned a ton from Jean, so we had a great time).  In the picture above, we were hoping to see the giant gray owl that had been hunting in the area, but we never saw him, even though we went back to this spot a couple of times.  Bummer.  That would have been so cool!  We did see a bunch of ducks, a heron, and a heron nest through Jean's spotting scope...which will definitely be on our next Christmas list, along with another pair of binoculars!

Once Jean found out we were both gardeners, she gave us all kinds of information on the local flora, which was great because we'd been checking everything out ourselves, but she had so much more info for us.  For example, we had noticed what we thought was a flower on the sagebrush, but she picked one and opened it to show us that it was actually a gall that the plant had grown to surround an insect that was trying to eat it. Isn't nature amazing?

We did see some pronghorn up close and then got a geology lesson on the Tetons. They are a very interesting mountain range since they're so young (comparatively speaking). Unlike the other ranges surrounding Jackson Hole, the Tetons are not considered part of the Rockies because they were formed so much later than the events that created the Rockies. This picture shows an exposed limestone wall where sea fossils have been found among the mainly granite surrounding rock, showing that not only was the Jackson Hole area under an ocean at one time, but that the wall, which is over 10,000 feet up, was at ground level at that time.


This is baby birthing time in the Tetons, so there are a bunch of areas closed to the public because various animals are nesting/denning in them, and Jean showed us a couple places where we might catch mothers and babies if we're there at the right time. A coyote was denning under one of the Mormon Row houses (which is where Shannon is in the picture above), but we didn't see  Do you hear the foreshadowing going on here?  Just wait for tomorrow's post!

Jean took us to the base of Teewinot Mountain (which means Many Pinnacles in Shoshone), and we could see the peak of Nez Perce, which looks like a howling wolf when seen from this angle, don't you think?  I loved it! There's also another peak across the valley that looks like a big bellied Indian laying down that has an interesting story behind it, but I didn't get a shot of it...sorry!

Our lovely day ended with this beautiful sky as we said goodbye to Jean and collapsed in a pile after this busy day. Tomorrow begins with a balloon ride (we hope), and then a hike up to Inspiration Point above Jenny Lake. We're keeping our fingers crossed!