Sunday, October 15, 2017

Two days at Grand Tetons

There are some places that are magnificent at first sight, but have nothing more to add if you look deeper. Both of us found Grand Teton National Park to be like that. Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying we didn't love it. I'm just saying that the amount of love that we had when we first entered Grand Teton didn't increase over the two days that we stayed there.

We entered the park on a foggy morning, driving straight from Yellowstone National Park. We originally wanted to stay in one of the lodges in the park, because... grizzlies. But the lodges were all full when we had planned the trip five months earlier and we had no choice but to stay in a campground. Grand Teton has several campgrounds and all of them are first-come-first-serve. So we had to go and reserve a site early, and we chose Jenny Lake, the most popular one. It also happened to be one of the farthest from Yellowstone, so we literally saw most of the park even before we got to the campground.
The Tetons from Colter Bay
We missed a spot at the Jenny Lake campground by a whisker. The car ahead of us got the last campsite, while we got nothing. I'm sure this will sound like a classic case of sour grapes now, but we had not liked the Jenny Lake campground at all by the looks of it, and we were sort of relieved when we didn't get a site. The sites were all shaded and wooded and the whole area seemed cold and damp and full of bears. So we turned our car around and drove straight to Lizard Creek campground, which was the second most popular campground at the other end of the park. We found a nice sunny campground close to Jackson Lake here and set up our tent. Over the next two days, we stayed at the campground and went to the nearby Colter Bay village for our dining, fuel, souvenir-buying and ranger-consulting needs. The last of these things didn't go too well, because the ranger that we met there was the pontificating type. Our conversation went somewhat like this:

I: "Which are the best places for photography?"
Ranger: You have to find them. It's not as if I can tell you a spot, you drive there and click a great photo. Go all over the park, get a feel of the places and see what works best for you.
I: Uh.. thanks! Which are the best places to see animals?
Ranger: Right here. You are in the middle of it. Just choose any hiking trail and hike away from the road, and you'll come across animals. Since yesterday, people have seen all kinds of animals within a few miles from here. I cannot tell you where to go, you have to find them.
So we collected a map and a pamphlet from him and left. The pamphlet gave us more concrete directions about where to find animals and we spent most of our time at those places, but in vain. We hardly saw anything worth mentioning, apart from a bear. But I'll come to that later. First let me describe the park.
Evening at Oxbow Bend
The most impressive feature of Grand Teton National Park is the massive Teton mountain range standing right next to it. I have been to Colorado and seen a lot of the Rockies, but I have never seen a mountain range in this country that looked more imposing and majestic than the Grand Tetons. At 13,775 ft, it is only the 60th tallest peak in the US, but it is definitely one of the most photogenic. The park is full of tranquil lakes and calm-surfaced rivers that mirror this range and create picture-postcard scenes round the clock. Apart from the mountain range, lucky visitors also get to photograph moose, elk, deer, wolves, black bears and grizzlies, not to mention smaller animals and birds.

Meteor shower from the campground
We didn't see any of these animals on the first day, though we spent a considerable amount of time sitting by the river at a place called the Oxbow Bend. We did see a few deer when we were having dinner at the Colter Bay Village, but we see deer in our garden at home, so that doesn't count. Other than that, we saw a must-rat or river-otter (not sure which) swimming in the water, and pelicans. That night, we could see the Perseid meteor shower from our campsite and I was even able to take a few photos of meteors by putting my camera on my car dashboard and setting it up to shoot the sky automatically through the night. But in the tent, we slept uneasy because we had heard that there had been six bear sightings around the campground this summer.
Dawn at Oxbow bend
Next morning, we were up before sunrise and back at Oxbow Bend. This time, we saw hoof prints of moose or elk next to the water, but nothing else. After the sun came up, the number of people there increased, and we left. As we left, we saw a crowd by the roadside a mile from where we had been sitting. We stopped to inquire a ranger what had happened.
"Grizzly number 360 was sighted going into the woods next to these roads here ten minutes ago."
We parked our car and got out. I put my telephoto lens on my camera and joined the crowd of people waiting to see grizzly number 360. It was maddening to think that we were drinking tea from our flask standing next to our car at Oxbow bend ten minutes ago, while there was a grizzly on the road hardly a mile from us. While one may be forgiven for considering us unenthusiastic about the presence of bears at our campsite at night, our enthusiasm for photographing such bears in the daylight and away from the campground knew no bounds. If only we had not taken that tea break!

An elderly couple standing at the "bear jam" told us they had seen a black bear on Signal Mountain summit that morning. The bear had crossed the road in front of their car and later, they had seen it eating berries on the mountain slope. So we decided to go to Signal Mountain.

To reach Signal Mountain summit, one has to drive on a very narrow winding road with dense forest on both sides, and the place immediately screams "bears." Sure enough, Poulami spotted the bear browsing berry bushes on the hillside through her binoculars from the summit. Soon, we were showing it to a growing crowd of other tourists and taking photos. An Indian lady even borrowed Poulami's binoculars for a view, and then while returning them, glared at her husband and said "I told you, we need a pair of binoculars!"
Black bear on Signal Mountain
Snake River Overlook (on B&W film)

Poulami at Cunningham Cabin
It was all bright and sunny at this time, and it was quite warm when we drove to the Snake River Overlook and Cunningham Cabin outside the park gates. But the day went downhill from there. As Poulami tried to cook rice at the campground, the sky darkened and big drops started falling. The rice wasn't cooking because we didn't have a pressure cooker (we were at an elevation of 6,827 ft), but somehow we managed to cook it by weighing the lid of our pot down with a heavy rock. As soon as we had finished serving ourselves the food, the rain came down in torrents and we had to get into the car and finish eating there. Later, we tried to take a nap in our tent as a heavy thunderstorm raged outside, and let's just say that the experience wasn't nice. Firstly, being surrounded by tall pines isn't the best of situations to be in during a thunderstorm, and secondly, after about an hour of torrential rain, our tent started leaking water at the seams. It was only a drop or two coming in through the piercings in the fabric where it is stitched at the corners, but it made the inside damp. The thunderstorm passed after some time, but the sky remained overcast with promise of more rain in the hours to come.
Overcast Tetons at Willow Flats Overlook, second evening

Aspen grove, Willow Flats Overlook
As we sat in our car watching a fresh bout of rain at the Willow Flats Overlook that evening, we simultaneously said something: we were not enjoying this camping experience as much as we usually do. This was the first time we were staying in a tent without actually wanting to do it in the first place. The weather was cold and damp and we longed for a warm lodge room. There was a real fear of bears in the campground that we couldn't put out of our minds despite being repeatedly told the fact that bear attacks were rare. And the thunderstorms were not helping matters; according to the radio news there were more in the offing tonight. We needed a good night's sleep because we had another long drive ahead of us the next day. So we decided we were going to sleep in the car that night. The car was definitely safer than the tent, both from bears and lightning strikes. So after we had finished our dinner with pizza from the village and leftover rice from our lunch, we reclined the front seats of our car as far as they would go, warmed the inside to a comfortable temperature (and turned the engine off), and went to sleep. I woke up a few times in the night, and it was raining most of that time. At some point, I found the inside of the windshield and the windows all fogged up, and opened the windows a crack. I am happy to say, both of us slept a lot better that night. On looking back, I can now see why we had not been able to book lodges at Grand Teton five months before the trip, when even lodges at Yellowstone were available. Grant Teton National Park was on the path of the total solar eclipse of August 21, and people were trying to get in and stay at the park during the eclipse, even if that meant reserving campgrounds and lodges for over a week before the big day.

Arch made of deer antlers, Jackson, Wyoming
We had other plans, of course. We would see the Solar Eclipse from St. Louis, but before that, we had two other important destinations to visit. So the next morning, after coming back from an early morning drive through the park, we packed our stuff and were back on the road. We paused briefly at the Snake River Overlook again, because the Tetons were looking stunning in the early morning sunlight. We slowed down a little as we passed through the quaint town of Jackson where we saw pretty little houses decorated with flowers and arches made of deer antlers by the road. But soon, we were driving towards Salt Lake City, Utah almost six hours away.

Apart from getting my first speeding ticket, this journey was mostly uneventful and we reached Salt Lake City late in the afternoon.

(To be continued...)

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