RX for Life: Go Outside More Often

Feeling glum, listless, low on energy and/or ideas? You might be suffering from “nature-deficit-disorder” as Richard Louv called it, or from an “epidemic dislocation from the outdoors” as Florence Williams refers to it in her new book.

Lori in Ravenna Pk

My wife, Lori enjoying a walk in our neighborhood park

Here’s a simple remedy: Take one 15-20 minute dose of walking through a park, natural area or other green space in your neighborhood daily and you will feel better.  Does this sound too good to be true?  Not according to Williams’ new book The Nature Fix – Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative.

Jason Mark wrote in his recent New York Times review of this book: “Imagine a miracle drug that could ease many of the stresses of modern life – a combination mood enhancer and smart pill that might even encourage the remission of cancer.  Now imagine that this cure-all was an old-fashioned folk remedy: Just take a hike in the woods or a walk in the park.  No prescription necessary.”

Although I have not read this book yet (I will), the title rings true. My book Look Up! Birds and Other Natural Wonders Just Outside Your Window http://conservationcatalyst.org/look-up/ preaches the same gospel.

I practiced what Williams and I both preach today. It was a cold, rainy, dreary day here in Seattle.  I had been preparing for upcoming tours and classes when the rain finally broke near dusk.  I threw on my coat and hustled outside for a short walk in the remaining light.  I was glad that I did.


Ravenna Park bike and pedestrian bridge

In the course of my 20 minute walk through Ravenna Park, along a tree-lined boulevard designed by the Olmsted Brothers, and back through a historic neighborhood to my house, I encountered multiple sensations that made this gray day brighter.

Pac Wren 1

Pacific Wren

While crossing the pedestrian and bicycle-only bridge that spans Ravenna Park, I heard the full song of a Pacific Wren sung several times.  This is no ordinary tune.  It is the longest bird song in North America, with a trilling assortment of 40+ notes. The singer is a bird that only weighs 4 ounces. This was a virtuoso performance and an harbinger of spring.

Another sign of spring was just around the corner: a blooming Pieris Shrub .  A cloud of its sweet fragrance filled the air.

As I circled back home through a neighborhood of well-maintained historic wood homes with quirky and artistic statements scattered about, I P1080163came across a yard filled with little ceramic figurines.  It looked as if they were swarming to an event of some sort. I grinned in appreciation of this whimsical artistic statement.

Dusk was falling as my stroll came to a close.  It brought a bit of magic into the day along with relaxation and exercise.  It helped me gain perspective and find joy during a time when the dark days have not only been due to the weather.

As Jason Mark pointed out in his review “Fortunately, getting a dose of nature doesn’t have to be hard.  Most people get a lot of benefit fromravenna forest city parks and as little as five hours a month does the trick.”

This is one of the great secrets in life, yet many never discover it.  And it is free. The more you do it, the more you gain appreciation for what there is to see, smell, hear and discover.  You get ideas, you find inspiration, you become calmer and happier.  It works.


Birder’s Ode to a Dead Tree

Recently, a wonderful surprise appeared in the mail: A poem and painting from Patricia Freres Stinger who said in her letter “I thought you might enjoy this poem (and painting) I wrote last fall. It was inspired in part by the discussion, Woody, in your book, “Look Up,” about snagscaping” http://conservationcatalyst.org/?s=snagscaping 
and the importance of leaving snags in place for the benefit of birds and other wildlife.”

Patricia’s Birder’s Ode to a Dead Tree was recently accepted for publication in the 2018 Wisconsin Poets’ Calendar.  I also thought that it was suitable for framing.P1070970

You never know when an idea will take root. At least six wildlife trees that I know of have been created/saved since I wrote my book. May there be many more. 



Name Dropping at the Dunn Gardens – Guest Blog by Beth Weir, Executive Director of Dunn Gardens

Note:  Beth Weir is hosting a birding class I am teaching at Dunn Gardens on April 11, 2017.  This blog is about her remarkable family connection to the name of one of the birds that inhabits Dunn Gardens during Spring and Summer.

I unexpectedly found the name of someone I am related to in the Seattle Times and felt odd. Reading my family name, Swainson, instantly conjured up a knot of childhood memories. Most notable was an image of my father, gardening with his pet pigeon on his shoulder. That particular memory popped up because the article was about the effect of habitat loss on birds. In particular, the difficulties of breeding of a beloved songbird in urban areas was explained.

The bird was Swainson’s Thrush. http://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/environment/birds-in-the-suburbs-faced-with-development-some-thrive-some-move-out/

Swainson's Thrush

Swainson’s Thrush photo by Woody Wheeler

Swainson’s Thrush Catharus ustulatus) is a small, brown specimen and is named after my great-great-grandfather, William Swainson. He was a British naturalist of some renown, with a cranky disposition besides, if historic (and family) accounts are to be believed.

After seeing the article I emailed Woody Wheeler, also a noted naturalist, but one without the cranky disposition, to ask if participants in his April 11 bird watching class at the Dunn would see Swainson’s Thrush. “Not really,” he told me. “You’ll have to wait till May when there is a chance of hearing one, even if we don’t see it. “ (The call is described as upward-spiraling and flutelike by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Swainsons_Thrush/id


Woody Guiding Naturalist Journey Tour at Big Bend National Park

Woody should know. He has given bird identification classes at the Dunn before and they are always well attended. With good reason. The man has a long resumé that testifies to his passion and knowledge, plus an ability to share both with others. http://conservationcatalyst.org He has traveled the US and eight countries in tours related to birding and will have just returned from Peru as a guide on an Amazon River cruise when the Dunn class is held. So, even if you have been to a class at the Gardens before, there is much you can learn.

Genetic variation being what it is, I haven’t shared my ancestor’s passion for birds, but I enjoy traveling, as did he. And so does the thrush that bears Swainson’s name.

Swainson's Thrush Range Map

The little brown birds travel up and down the Americas in response to the seasons. I am hopeful one or two of them will choose to stop in the Dunn Gardens when they return in May. I will also welcome class members back to spot, or at the very least, to hear one over the summer.

Swainson's Thrush Cornell Photo

Swainson’s Thrush photo from  www.allaboutbirds.org

But, if I have failed to keep up academically with the recognized scholar in my family, I am proud of working to maintain an urban forest, otherwise named The Dunn Gardens. It is an oasis where birds that lose their habitats to urban development can breed and sing. And for Swainson’s Thrush, along with many other birds, that is critical if we want to keep them in our midst. And who can argue against an upward-spiraling and flute-like sound welcoming a spring morning. Doubtless that would have soothed even my cranky great-great-grandfather.

Saving America’s Icon

p1070533I never saw a Bald Eagle during my childhood in Illinois in the 1950s – 1960s.  Not because I was not observant, I was. It was because they had been extirpated in Illinois by 1918, meaning eliminated from this part of their range.  Illinois was not the only state where this occurred.  According to the Center for Biological Diversity,  Bald Eagles were also extirpated in 15 other states:  Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas Nebraska, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and South Dakota.  The state of Colorado only had one pair of Bald Eagles left in 1974.

Here is the good news:  All of these states and the rest of the
United States now have Bald Eagles.  Instead of destroying our national icon; we restored its population.


My home state of Illinois now has 135 pairs of Bald Eagles.  The Bald Eagle population in the lower-48 United States has increased from a low point of 417 pairs in 1963 to 9,789 pairs in 2007, which led to their de-listing.  In the words of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service “It (the Bald Eagle) no longer needs the protection of the Endangered Species Act because its population is protected, healthy and growing.”

The recovery of Bald Eagles is a great national success story.  We brought back our national icon from a downward spiral that could have resulted in its extinction.  In the words of The Cornell Lab of Ornithology “The Bald Eagle’s recovery is a spectacular conservation success story…once endangered by hunting and pesticides, Bald Eagles have flourished under protection.”


Nesting Bald Eagle – Skagit County, WA

The Bald Eagle’s recovery is personal to me.  After moving to the West from the Midwest and eventually settling in Seattle, I recall when a pair of Bald Eagles established one of the city’s first nests at Discovery Park  – the other was in Seward Park – in the 1980s.  My wife and I held our wedding ceremony in Discovery park not far from the nest site.  At Seward Park, I helped establish the Audubon Center that now operates there.  Apparently, I was drawn to the same large parks in the city as the eagles were.  Now Seattle has at least 12 nesting pairs of Bald Eagles within its city limits.  Two pairs nest within two miles of my house.  After growing up in a place where Bald Eagles did not exist, I now see them flying over our back yard.


Wintering Bald Eagles in Skagit County, WA



While I was working for The Nature Conservancy in the 1980s – 1990s, we were part of the Bald Eagle recovery process.  The Conservancy purchased and protected lands for Bald Eagle nesting, roosting, wintering and feeding sites in Western Washington.  This work, along with many other state, federal, tribal, nonprofit and for profit company efforts led to a major increase in the state’s Bald Eagle population, from 104 pairs in 1980 to 835 pairs in 2007.


Washington now ranks fifth among states with the highest Bald Eagle Populations.  The top five are:  1.  Alaska (15,000 pairs); 2. Minnesota (1310 pairs); 3. Florida (1,166 pairs); 4. Wisconsin (1,065 pairs); and 5. Washington (835 pairs).

The demise and recovery of Bald Eagles begs two questions:  What caused their decline? And how did they recover from it?


Jeff Larsen photograph – 2 adult Bald Eagles

The decline of Bald Eagles was summarized by Cornell Lab of Ornithology: “Bald Eagles were victims of trapping, shooting, poisoning as well as pesticide-caused reproductive failures.”  The widespread use of the pesticide DDT (they used to spray it in my childhood neighborhood, and then suggest that we not play out doors for a one-day period!) caused egg shell thinning in a number of bird species at the top of the food chain, including:  Bald Eagle, Osprey, Peregrine Falcon and Brown and American White Pelicans.  The weakened eggs hatched pre-maturely causing the young to die.

How did Bald Eagle populations recover?  Through a combination of policies and actions, including:

  • Banning the use DDT (1972)
  • Listing them as Endangered Species (Endangered Species Act or ESA 1978)
  • Protecting Bald Eagle Nest Sites (Bald & Golden Eagle Protection Act, amended 1962)
  • Making it illegal to shoot or “take” them (Bald & Golden Eagle Protection Act, amended 1962)
  • Restoring Bald Eagles to the areas where they had been eliminated (ongoing for decades)
  • Cleaning up formerly contaminated streams, lakes and coastal areas (Clean Water Act, 1970 and Superfund Act 1980)

Bald Eagle perches on light fixture above Lake Washington, Seattle

Due to these collective and effective conservation efforts, the Bald Eagle is back.  Regulations along with concerted efforts by all sectors made this happen.  Bald Eagles are not the only ones we have brought back from the brink of extinction.  Peregrine Falcons, Brown and American White Pelicans, California Condors, Whooping Cranes, Grizzly Bears, Gray Wolves, American Alligators, and, Humpback Whales are among the species that have also been saved in the past few decades.  The Center for Biological Diversity estimates that 227 plant and animal species would likely have gone extinct if we had not passed and implemented the ESA.


Eagles soar over our back yard

Why save species? E.O. Wilson, a Harvard entomologist and a southern Baptist raised in Alabama said it best: “This is the assembly of life that took a billion years to evolve.  It has eaten the storms – folded them into its genes – and created the world that creates us.  It keeps the world steady.”

In the final analysis, saving species and the environment equates to saving ourselves.  We are a species too; we need clean air, clean water and a healthy ecosystem in order to survive.



Immature Bald Eagle

We have made great strides in protecting the environment since the 1960s.  I know; I was there.  You could not go swimming in many lakes and rivers; there were massive fish die offs.  The air made your eyes water.  Pollution was rampant.  Species were going extinct.  People threw trash out of car windows.  Nobody recycled.

Let’s not go back to these bad old days of mindlessly trashing the environment.
We have too much at stake and have come too far.

The Bald Eagle’s recovery shows what good people can do to save a fellow species, and in the process, make the environment cleaner and healthier for all of us.


  • Alaska Department of Fish and Game
  • Center for Biological Diversity
  • Cornell Lab of Ornithology www.allaboutbirds.com 
  • US Fish and Wildlife Service
  • Washington State Department of Wildlife

 – photos all taken by author except one as noted by Jeff Larsen

Patriotic About Public Lands


Sunset through “The Window,” Big Bend National Park

Fishing, hunting, hiking, camping, mountain biking, mountain climbing, snowmobiling, rafting, kayaking, bird and wildlife-watching, taking scenic drives, vacations and just taking in the peace and beauty of these remarkable places…this is an incomplete list of the many ways that people benefit from our public lands.

public-lands-eventWhen short-sighted politicians say that they want to sell off our public lands, as they are today, some Americans fail to grasp what this would actually mean.  It might help to provide place names to help people understand what is at stake:


Mt. Rainier National Park

Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Grand Tetons, Everglades, Great Smoky Mountains, Mt. Rushmore, Mt. Rainier, Mt. Whitney, Denali, Little Big Horn, Gettysburg, Ding Darling, Mount Vernon, Sleeping Bear Dunes, Joshua Tree, every National Forest, National Monument and all of the Bureau of Land Management lands.  These are only a very few of the many public lands we have thanks to visionary people like Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot who helped establish them.


Yakima Canyon, Bureau of Land Management

Who goes to these public lands?  Tens of millions do.  In 2013 our National Parks, Wildlife Refuges, monuments and other public lands had 407 million visits, contributing $41 billion to the regional economies that support 355,000 jobs according to a Department of Interior report.


Grand Teton National Park

Public lands are the great outdoors in America.  As a natural history tour guide, I often take foreign tourists to our public lands.  They are astounded by the scale, beauty and wildness of these places.They visit here specifically because we still have these amazing places.  Few countries have lands that compare to these; they are national treasures.


Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Public lands enrich our daily lives even if we do not visit them on a daily basis.  As Wallace Stegner so eloquently said: “We simply need to know that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.

American Pika in Beartooth Mountains, Shoshone National Forest

It is up to us to pass this land legacy on to our children and grandchildren.  What will our legacy be?

Consider supporting these two organizations that advocate for our public lands:

  1. Public Lands Alliance:  www.publiclandsalliance.org
  2. National Parks Foundation: nationalparksfoundation.org

When Yards Go Native


Yard prior to landscaping

Last month I mowed the front yard for the last time because we just went native in our front yard.  That is, we replaced our grass lawn with a diverse landscape comprised of 70 native plants.  As it grows in, it will be increasingly attractive to the eye as well as to birds and wildlife.

What prompted us to do this?  Maybe it was the ghost of my great grandfather landscape architect, Jens Jensen, whispering in my ear.  Jensen advocated tirelessly for native plants and used them extensively in his own landscapes of parks, gardens, and private yards back in the mid-1900s. He thought native plants were under-utilized and denigrated: “It is often remarked that native plants are coarse.  How humiliating to hear an American speak so of plants with which the Great Master has decorated his land!” he fumed.

In addition to my great grandfather’s influence, going native is the right thing to do.  Native plants are specifically adapted to the soils and climate of the area.  Except for the first year of establishment care, they do not require watering nor do they require fertilizers or pesticides.  A native plant landscape is a sustainable landscape.


Back yard landscape, installed 10 years ago

Yes, there is still maintenance required, including weeding, mulching and trimming, but not much else.  Since replacing the grass in our back yard with mostly native plants, we spend more time there and are motivated to take care of it.  We enjoy the birds, wildflowers, edible berries and other native plants that now occupy our yard.  At least ten new species of birds frequent our back yard since we have gone native.  As my friend, Hilary Hilscher says: “Plant them (natives) and they (birds and wildlife) will come.”



Interested in going native?  Here is a recipe:

  1. woodyloricolorCreate a thoughtful Design. If you can, hire a landscape architect who has designed native plant landscapes.  We did and are very happy with the results. Landscape architects incorporate practical with aesthetic considerations in their designs. Or, if that is not an option for you, research and plan your own design starting with the resources provided at the end of this blog.  In Jens Jensen’s words: “Every plant has a fitness and must be placed in its proper surroundings so as to bring out its full beauty.  Therein lies the art of landscaping.”
  2. p1070251Remove sod. You can do so forcibly with a shovel – a back-breaking job, or via a sod-cutting machine – available for rent or hire.  You can also place cardboard on top of the sod for several months, then remove it to dig up the sod.  We did this in our back yard, and hired a crew with sod-cutting machine for our front yard.  The crew and their machine did our entire yard in several hours, saving time and our backs.
  3. p1070254Stir in topsoil and compost. The mixing part is best done with a roto-tiller but can also be done with a shovel.  Keep ibuprofen handy if you choose the second option.
  4. p1070258Install pathways for access. Paving stones, cedar chips or gravel walkways provide access to your new landscape.  These can be done artistically with the use of attractive paving stones and winding routes.
  5. Plant the natives. More and more nurseries stock native plants.  Be certain to buy actual native species as there are similar sounding names that are not native species. Jens Jensen would be pleased/amazed by the availability of native plants today.  Planting them is the fun part.  Space them properly to ensure their long-term survival and to maximize their beauty.p1070266
  6. Mulch around the new plants to hold in moisture and nutrients while suppressing weeds.
  7. Watch your new landscape grow. You will find that a diverse, native plant landscape draws you outside more often to check for blooms, to see plants undergo seasonal changes and to watch for birds.  Please do try this at home!

Landscape Architect:  Windrose Landscape Architecture http://windroseseattle.com/

Site preparation, paving stone and plant installation: EcoYards http://www.ecoyards.com/

Native Plantings:

Creeping Oregon Grape Mahonia Repens
Red Columbine Aquilegia Formosama
Tiger Lily Lilea Columbianum
Deer Fern Blechnum Spicant
Maidenhair Fern Adiantun Alueticum
Trillium Trillium Ovatum
Blue Camas Camassia Quamash
Dwarf Redtwig Dogwood Cornus Stolonifera
Bearberry/Kinnickinnick Arctostaphylos Uva Ursi
Mock Orange Philidelphus virginalis



Audubon’s Plants for Birds program: http://www.audubon.org/plantsforbirds

Find native plants for your area: http://findnativeplants.com/

Make your yard more bird-friendly: http://awaytogarden.com/welcome-to-subirdia-by-john-marzluff/


Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest by Arthur R. Kruckeberg

Gardening for Life – An Inspirational Guide to Creating Healthy Habitat by Seattle Audubon Society

Landscaping for Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest by Russell Link

NOTE: There are probably equivalent guides to the last three listed above for other geographical areas

Looking for Accidentals in All the Right Places


Puyallup River at Gog-le-hi-te Wetlands – photo by bridgehunter.com

Birders enjoy searching for “accidentals”–  species found outside of their normal geographic ranges.  I chase them too, but only if they are within a reasonable distance from home.

So why do we do this?  Because it is fun, interesting and novel to find them.  Searching for them takes us to unusual places that often feature other natural and cultural wonders as well.  Witness our last two attempts to find accidental gulls.

One began on an overcast fall day in Puget Sound country.  Although we departed from Seattle in the early afternoon, it already resembled evening! According to E-Bird posts, people had been seeing a Slaty-backed Gull, an accidental gull normally found in the Bering Sea that was found in Tacoma’s industrial waterfront.  Its range is described in the National Geographic Birds of North America guide as “…very rare in winter south through the Pacific States.”  The place where this bird had been found was Gog-le-hi-te Wetlands.


My wife Lori, who only recently started appreciating gulls, joined me on this quest.  As a former EPA Superfund Director, she was familiar with Gog-le-hi-te.  This 12-acre restored wetland on the Puyallup River Delta is a former city landfill.  It now hosts more than 100 species of birds along with as an array of mammals, fish, reptiles and amphibians.  Gog-le-hi-te derives from the Puyallup Tribe; it means “Where the land and waters meet.”





Photo by Port of Tacoma

On our drive to this site, the clouds formed a menacing stew to the southwest.  We headed into the industrial port of Tacoma, a world where semi-trucks and other heavy equipment are the norm and birders in Subaru’s are not.

After route finding through various wood products and shipping container storing sites, we found the subtly marked empty small parking area for Gog-le-hi-te Wetlands.  A police car stopped by to investigate us and our vehicle.  Then a recently-scarred young woman with jagged missing teeth walked over to ask us what we were doing.  When we told her what we were up to, she replied “Oh, birds? There are lots of them down there.” (pointing to the river).


Gog-le-hi-te Wetlands photo by Port of Tacoma

In this setting we felt slightly on guard, the sounds and sights of industry all around, yet grateful that nature in any form still exists here.

We saw a Mallards and American Wigeon on the large pond in the wetlands along with an assortment of Glaucous-winged and Glaucous-winged/Western Hybrid gulls on their way to the Puyallup River.

We finally scanned the shipping containers — the place where the last sighting of a Slaty-backed Gull had occurred several days before.  We sorted through myriad gulls on the multi-colored, and multi-layered containers but alas, no Slaty-backed Gulls.

Meanwhile the rain intensified, the daylight diminished and the wind picked up.  At 3:30 PM it looked like sunset.  We called it a day (night?). Yes, we came up empty this time on our search for an accidental, but outings like these make life interesting.

p1070064This brings me back to our second gull search to another odd place between the Renton, Washington airport and a huge Boeing plant.  Sandwiched between them is the mouth of the Cedar River as it enters Lake Washington.  A long green corridor with a 17 -mile bicycle walking trail extending along the river creates a riparian habitat zone that often draws rare birds to this area. Remarkably, salmon still spawn here as evidenced by the one I saw one wriggling upstream.  Gulls and other birds gather to feed on their carcasses.

We were searching for a Sabine’s Gull, a common migrant off the west coast that is seldom seen on the mainland where we were looking for it.


So many gulls, so little time…

There were at least 100 gulls of multiple species to sort through, but the petite Sabine’s Gull stood out clearly in contrast to the hulking Glaucous-winged Gulls around it.  It was a “life” bird for us.


Sabine’s Gull


What a fine way in which to spend a part of a day!


The entire experience was free of charges except for the price of gas and the initial investment in a car and optics. You can attend movies, plays, sporting events and the like, pay tens to hundreds of dollars to do so, and have very mixed experiences.  When you go out in nature – even restored nature in places like these – you almost never have a bad day.  In our consumer-oriented, human-centered society, it may come as a surprise that the best show on earth is free.  The ticket price is a little time, your senses engaged, patience, and a pair of binoculars.

Fall is Golden in Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem

When it comes to fall colors, the eastern half of our country has the reputation for the most colorful displays. Another less-heralded display occurs in the west that combines brilliant fall colors with a major river, abundant wildlife, a backdrop of spectacular mountains and more than half of the world’s thermal features.

The 22.5 million acres that comprise the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem include Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, but also seven national forests, three wildlife refuges and three major mountain ranges.  This is what makes it so special, so wild, and so beautiful.  Lit by fall colors, but minus the crush of summer tourists and insects, September is a wonderful time there.

Here is a taste of what we experienced on a Naturalist Journeys tour I led with Greg Smith this fall:

p1060277Stupendous views opened up along nearly every turn of the Snake River in Grand Teton National Park. Golden-green – rosy hues of Aspen, Willow and Cottonwood trees were illuminated by an ever-changing cloudscape with the Grand Tetons as a backdrop.

p1060308At Oxbow Bend, the astounding fall colors reflected in the Snake River in impressionistic fashion creating a view that Ansel Adams would have probably photographed and Claude Monet would have likely been inspired to paint.

p1060889We awoke in Yellowstone to the haunting sounds of elk bugling.  Later, we saw the buglers in action:  a bull elk herding his small harem of four cow elk.  On the way to Hayden Valley, we met a lone Bison calmly wap1060666lking toward us in the opposite lane of the road.  He continued strolling beside our vehicle, unperturbed by our presence.

At our first Hayden Valley viewpoint we once again heard elk bugling and then saw a herd of 20+ elk on a high bench across the Yellowstone River.  A was coyote hunting on the hillside just below us – he would walk a few steps, side-step, pounce, sniff, dig and then repeat in its never-ending search for food. We then moved to another viewpoint in sight of a known wolf den.  We found two in the scope:   a black and a gray morph wolf.  What a treat to see them on our second day out!


Hayden Valley

Acting on a tip from other wildlife watchers, we headed to Bridge Creek in search of a Great Gray Owl.  Soon, we were watching in amazement as one perched, flew, hunted, pounced to the ground and at one point flew to a perch within ten feet of us.  Seeing this, the largest of p1060442all North American Owls, was a life bird for most in our group, including me.

Moving on, we walked to several viewpoints above the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, including the upper and lower falls with their 100-p1060436300 foot drops into the multi-colored canyon.  It is so vast and beautiful that photos and paintings cannot do it justice.  Thomas Moran, renowned national park painter and promoter said that it “was beyond the realm of human art.”

Continuing into the center of Yellowstone and its huge super p1060537volcano caldera, the animals just kept on coming:  Big-horned Sheep seen on a hike and along the roadside; Elk lounging on the hot water and travertine formations at Mammoth as if it were there personal spa;



a large cinnamon-colored Black Bear foraged on a hillside near the Tower area, walking and balancing on logs with the grace of a gymnast.



Lamar Valley



Heading east we entered Lamar Valley where thousands of Bison were joined by Pronghorns, Coyotes and other birds and wildlife.  This valley, along with Hayden Valley, offer a glimpse of how the west might have appeared to Native Americans and early settlers.  These valleys have been referred to as North America’s Serengeti due to the abundance of wildlife they host.

Indian summer weather prevailed as we continued northeast from Yellowstone Park to the Beartooth highway which the late great television journalist Charles Kurault said was “America’s most beautiful.”


Beartooth Mountains

Our group described the Beartooths as: “Indescribable, majestic, sublime, overwhelming, intoxicating, fantastic, beautifully brutal, awesome, humbling, breathtaking, expansive, spiritual, ineffable, stark/beautiful, dazzling, joyous, and unbelievable. “

p1060573At Beartooth Pass, just below 11,000 feet, we searched for Pikas on a rocky scree slope.  It did not take long for us to find them.  First we heard a nasal “beep!” and then saw one perched on a rock.  Other beeps!”  and more Pika sightings followed.

p1060720Our last stop in Yellowstone was Old Faithful geyser basin.  There we hiked to the iconic Morning Glory pool that resembles a giant piece of Southwestern Indian jewelry with its deep tones of blue, green and yellow.

As we reluctantly departed from Yellowstone, the fall colors increased in intensity in Grand Teton National Park along the Snake River valley, reaching a crescendo at Oxbow Bend. Everyone departed from Jackson with fond memories of the natural wonders of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem embellished by brilliant fall colors.  This is a magical time in which to visit a magical place.


Oxbow Bend on Snake River with Grand Tetons behind



The Guides:  Greg Smith and Woody Wheeler

Photos by Lori Cohen & Woody Wheeler



On 100th Birthday National Parks Loved But Not Secure


Oxbow Bend, Snake River, Grand Teton NP

On the summer of the 100th anniversary of our nation’s national parks, I had the good fortune to visit two of the most popular:  Grand Teton and Yellowstone.  What makes these parks special is not only the spectacular flora, fauna and scenery contained within their boundaries, but the fact that they are part of the larger 20.5 million acre Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE).

yellowstone day 2 001The GYE encompasses seven National Forests, three wildlife refuges and the two enormous national parks.  The result of this intelligent design is a place that has been referred to as America’s Serengeti,P1050660 where wildlife ranging from grizzlies to wolves to bison to pronghorn abound.

It is triumph of conservation made possible by linking public lands into a massive integrated ecosystem.


Yellowstone Park’s Magnificent Hayden Valley


People love the GYE and show it by visiting the area in droves.  Last year more than seven million came to the GYE, setting a new record. In 2013 our National Parks, Wildlife Refuges, monuments and other public lands had 407 million visits, contributing $41 billion to the regional economies and supporting 355,000 jobs according to a Department of Interior report.

Given such popularity and economic benefits you might assume that the future of national parks and public lands is secure in America.  You would be wrong. The current U.S. Republican party platform calls for selling public lands off to states and divesting the lands from federal management.

yellowstone day 2 009

Grand Canyon, Yellowstone NP

This is bizarre given that the architect of our public land system was the great Republican president, Teddy Roosevelt, who once said “There can be no greater issue than that of conservation in this country.”  In her inspiring new book The Hour of Land, Terry Tempest Williams pointed out that: “He (Teddy Roosevelt) was a man of his word.  During his administration, Theodore Roosevelt was responsible for protecting 150 National Forests, 51 federal bird preserves, 4 federal wildlife preserves, 18 National Monuments, and 5 National Parks, 230 million acres in all.”

Will Rogers, president of Trust for Public Land addressed the disconnect between the Republican party’s view on public lands and that of the vast majority of Americans in his recent column in the New York Times Our Land Up for Grabs: “Rather than selling off the lands we all own, or looking for other uses for the many approved at the ballot box for conservation, our leaders should listen to voters and find ways to protect more of the places that make America special.”


Grateful tourists thank me for showing them a grizzly

As a guide, I have witnessed the profound appreciation that travelers from around the world have for the vast, beautiful wildlife haven that is the GYE.  Author Terry Tempest Williams interviewed a traveler from London who shared this deep appreciation: “In London, there’s nine million of us in a very tiny space.  Here there’s only a handful.  What can I say?  I’m just so grateful some people had the foresight to protect these lands for me and my children and their children for the future.”

While celebrating the remarkable legacy of our National Park system, will we work to continue to cherish and steward them or compromise them for short-term exploitation and profit?  I have faith that Americans and visitors from all across the world will not allow the latter to happen.  We are better than this.


Yellowstone still one of best places for wildlife encounters


As Tempest Williams reminds us “Our public lands – whether a national park or monument, wildlife refuge, forest or prairie – make each one of us land-rich.  It is our inheritance as citizens of a country called America.” May we steward and enhance our public lands for the next 100 years and beyond.  They ARE, as Wallace Stegner said in 1983, our best idea and they ARE sacred places.

Bicycling’s Best Idea   Recently updated !

The year 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of AP1050486merica’s National Parks. Author Wallace Stegner referred to their creation as “America’s Best Idea.”  It also marks the 40th anniversary of Bikecentennial, bicycling’s best idea.

Bikecentennial was a massive organized ride across the country that intentionally coincided with the nation’s bicentennial. As Lael Wilcox,  a Montana Bicycle Celebration banquet speaker and long-distance bicycle racer put it “Bikecentennial laid the foundation of bike touring in America.”



More than 600 bicyclists gathered this summer in Missoula for the Montana Bicycle Celebration.  It featured organized rides, exhibits, speakers, music, a trail dedication, banquet and other festivities.  Despite the troubled times we find ourselves in, the spirit of this event was unabashedly positive.


Me with Dan Burden – a Bikecentennial founder – photo by Jeff Miller


Conceived by four cyclists while on their epic 18,000-mile Hemistour from Alaska to Argentina, Bikecentennial was intended to be a cross-country tour to celebrate America’s bi-centennial in 1976 and to establish a trans-America bicycle trail.  The founders – Greg and June Siple; Dan and Lys Burden; along with an intrepid crew of people they hired or recruited as volunteers – fleshed out the concept.  What they created was a stroke of bicycling genius.


Bikecentennial attracted 4,100 participants, including more thanP1050488 2,000 who rode the entire 4,250 coast-to-coast route.  There were a mix of bicycle camping and bike inn groups, the latter who slept indoors each night as opposed to pitching tents outdoors.  The route was glorious, winding through mostly rural, low-traffic roads in extraordinarily scenic and historically-significant areas.

As a Bikecentennial tour group leader, I was one of the fortunate participants.  To qualify as a leader, I had to apply to and then pass a bicycling leadership course in Tillamook, Oregon.  They had us lead short rides for the rest of the trainees, taught us how to fix bikes as well as how to manage group dynamics.


Most Bikecentennial riders were between the ages of 17 1976_Bikecentennial_01_001and 35.  The oldest was 86 and the youngest, nine.  Men outnumbered women by a 3:1 ratio.  My group, pictured here, reflected these statistics. We rode from Reedsport, Oregon  to Yorktown, Virginia in 82 days.

The ride remains one of my finest memories, a movie permanently etched into my consciousness.  As Erick Cedeno, aka “The Cycling Nomad” said during his perceptive talk at the Montana Bicycling Celebration banquet “…everyday miracles happen pedal by pedal” when you travel by bike.



This journey was not only a great experience, but it resulted in a great legacy for bicycle travel.  The legacy has so far been manifested in the form of the Trans America Trail, the Adventure Cycling Association  with its 50,000 members, its 45,000-miles of bicycle routes upon which it leads regular tours and its advocacy efforts that enhance and expand bicycle travel in the U.S.

1976_Bikecentennial_01_019When we rode across the country in 1976, very few places had bicycle infrastructure.  Eugene, Oregon was one of the first cities to have a designated bicycle trail.  Now most, if not all cities ranging from Butte, Montana to New York City have and continue to build bicycle trails, lanes, signage, racks and other facilities.

Missoula, Montana, home of Bikecentennial/Adventure Cycling, has built the impressive “Missoula Bicycle System.” It includes three large bicycle/pedestrian bridges that cross the Clark Fork River.

Adventure Cycling’s mission is to inspire and empower people to travel by bicycle.  Bikecentennial did this for all of its participants, big-time. Some former Bikecentennial riders have become advocates for bicycle travel in their home towns.

The Siples and Burdens hit a metaphorical grand slam with Bikecentennial.  They envisioned and then implemented bicycling’s best idea.  The rest, as they say, is history.