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Three summers back, when I loaded my boys into my (dearly departed) Subaru and drove to Yellowstone (the trip that gave birth to this blog), I met writer and former teacher Brian A. Connolly in Lamar Valley on the morning I took the boys wolf watching. I’ll be forever thankful for how he generously shared his knowledge of and love for wild wolves (and his spotting scope) with the boys and I, and I’ll also be forever thankful for the poem he put in my hands when he found out I am a teacher.  The small print at the bottom reads “Please share this with any teacher you feel is in need of a poem!”  Following the back-and-forth in the comment threads of my last couple of posts, I went and dug it out to share.

Curriculum

It is such a shock
being back
from the wild valley
where for months I lived
in a tent within the sound
of wolves howling,
where bears ambled down mountains
to wander through camp
dressed in the cream of moonlight.

I must clean up my act
for tomorrow’s faculty meeting,
departmental gatherings,
discussion groups where goals are set,
rubrics, outcomes, behavior
modifications are outlined.
I’ll shave, trade sandals for shoes,
wear long pants
so that we can decide
in the high school cafeteria
what we want these kids to know
and how we can tell when they know it;
what battery of tests
will indicate they are ready
to go into the world,
take charge of things,
and do to those who follow
what we have done to them.

Tomorrow, looking sharp, civilized,
with unfailing courage,
I will suggest as a progressive
educational experiment
that we try a field trip;
ten months is all I’ll ask.
Instead of eighty pounds of books,
we give each child a down bag,
a few utensils, a compass, of course,
a blank journal, a good pen.
Drop them off, alone, in wild valleys:
the Tetons, Yellowstone,
the Beartooth, the Sawtooth, the Cascades,
the Adirondacks, the Green, the White,
the Alleghenies.
Let the rustling and snuffling sounds
of darkest night teach them to listen;
let glacial meltwater teach them
the true nature of cold;
let those beings making a living
on icy summits teach survival;
let wildflowers teach beauty;
let morning fog among valley pines
teach them peace;
let the glassy stars
spread across the dark
like a sparkling cloud
be their curriculum.

No tests will be needed,
no mimeograph sheets.
And when they graduate,
each one will know who he is,
that he is part of a living world,
and that his job
is to live in that world
with grace and respect.

–Brian A. Connolly

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We’re in Great Falls, Montana, at the moment, having arrived yesterday after three night’s camping in Yellowstone and the Beartooth Mountains.  Opi is at the laundromat while I hang out at our hotel, letting the boys sleep in.  I don’t have the time to write a proper post, so I’ll mostly let a few pictures speak thousands of words.

Opi continues to cook up a storm, drawing on the experience of “camping” on board his sailboat for nearly two decades.  Two years ago, I mostly prepared glorified backpacking meals on my trip with the boys, but this time we’re taking full advantage of the relative comforts of car camping.  Before departure, we spent the better part of two days building a wooden “chuck box” to serve as the heart of an organized camp kitchen, and we’ve both been inordinately pleased with our creation.  And while Opi cooks, I’ve had more time to fulfill fatherly duties like flying kites or tossing a baseball with the boys.

Tonight’s menu: grilled pork chops with baked potatoes and steamed leeks.

Top of the boys’ list of “to-do’s” in Yellowstone was to try out the new fishing rods they received from their Uncle Michael for their birthdays, so we spent two hours on Saturday scaring all the fish in Nez Perce Creek and a couple more spooking them in the Gibbon River.  Come to think of it, the fish were probably more amused than terrorized by us.  The boys got a lot of casting practice but not a single nibble,  likely using the wrong tackle with the wrong technique in the wrong location.  I was absolutely no help at all, failing miserably in my fatherly duties in this realm.  Fish were rising all around us on the second afternoon, and Uncle Michael would have known what to do.  Nonetheless, I did get a lot of practice untangling hopeless snarls of line, and I no longer need to consult the diagram he gave me for how to tie something on the end.  I practiced enough patience to supply a lifetime of fishing trips.  In the meantime, Opi went and sat on a log and read.

I’ve always thought of unsuccessful fishing as a great excuse for spending more time in locations like this one.

At any rate, Yellowstone was magnificent as usual, and I could fill paragraph after paragraph with superlatives.  I have to laugh, though, that we saw three wolves about a mile from our Madison River campsite—after years of my mostly fruitless effort over a half-dozen visits with students to see Yellowstone’s wolves (hiring expert guides, getting up in the wee hours to be in position at dawn, waiting patiently for hours in freezing temperatures), these three might as well have walked up and introduced themselves.

The boys agree that thermal features, like campfires, are more watchable than television, even static ones like Grand Prismatic Spring.

After two nights at Madison River, we camped in a delightful Shoshone National Forest site up in the Beartooths, right under the two iconic peaks known as the Bear’s Ears.  Somehow I neglected to take pictures, probably because I was too busy enjoying a few Father’s Day beers with my Dad and poking at the campfire with my boys.  I won’t need pictures to remember this night.

That’s enough for now . . . it’s time to leave Great Falls and head north into Canada.  Hope everyone is doing well at home.  Mom, we miss you!

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Without a doubt, the most beautiful seven words right now in the English language are “Will, take your brother to the bathroom.”

As I dreamed about and then planned this trip, I had any number of people ask “are you going to be able to handle those two by yourself for all that time” with the same disbelieving tone they might use while asking  “Are you sure bison-tipping is a good idea?”  I had every confidence in the world that I could—my boys are good travelers, and our agenda was loose enough as to be functionally non-existent if need be.  At least that’s what I hoped.

And they have been good travelers, mind-blowingly good travelers, even better than I expected.  I’ll give you a for-instance: this morning I dragged them from their sleeping bags to go wolf watching in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley, revisiting the central point of wildlife watching etiquette as we drove—no loud noises of any kind (you even close your car door witha gentle shove of the hip).  The hard-core wolf-watching regulars with their spotting scopes and two-way radios are unfailingly warm and friendly with the casual tourists, but then again I wanted to be accepted by the inner circle (or should I say “pack”), and most parents with six and four-year olds don’t hang around for two hours at a stretch.

Anyway, they did me proud and then some, hanging around in the car and entertaining themselves for long periods when there was no action and getting out quietly and eagerly when I knocked gently on the window.  And then when Will stepped down from a wolf-watcher’s spotting scope, took out pen and paper and began earnestly drawing what he had seen without any prompting whatsoever, I thought my heart would just explode.  (More on wolf watching—our Sunday morning church service—later in this post.)  Needless to say, the pack approved.

As good as they have been, as regularly as my heart has wanted to explode with gratitude and pride, this has still been tough going for a lone parent.  Someone always has to go to the bathroom or needs to be buckled in or wants something to drink or needs his pancake cut or simply wants a response to a “Dad?” call before asking another question.  I have to laugh at myself for packing my usual traveling library of field guides and tree-hugging literature; I think I’ve read one chapter of Scott Russell Sanders and opened my bird field guide once.  I’m surprised I’ve done as well as I have with taking pictures; every time the camera comes out they start asking to take turns, no longer satisfied with having little disposables of their own.  Will and I have had some earnest discussions about the meaning of the word “pester.”

A very typical Andrew pose.  “Daaad, I caan’t hold it!”

I told Belinda on the phone the other day that I was wrong when thought I’d be the one who most wanted to camp.  I figured the boys would push me to stay in hotels more often.  In fact, it’s been just the opposite—the boys love camping, are disappointed every time we head for town.  And why not?  Each campsite is a big playground for them.

The main attraction at Pebble Creek campground, our home in Yellowstone for three days.  Why am I not in this picture?  Well, I guess because I’m taking it, but in other circumstances it’d be because I’m too damn busy.

It’s just so much bloody work–unpacking the car, pitching the tent, inflating the mattresses, assembling the stove, cooking the food, cutting the food, washing the dishes, picking up and disposing bear-attracting scraps and so forth and so on.  All while “Daaad” rings out every three minutes.

And so there’s no way we could function without my giving them more and more responsibility and freedom.  That’s why the words “Will, take your brother to the bathroom” are the most beautiful in the English language.  Followed closely by “Andrew, ask your brother to help you.”  Or “You boys stay right here for two minutes and don’t move while I [go to the bathroom, run across the street to the ATM, whatever].”

And I have to say something about their ability to entertain themselves.  Right now I’m sitting in a restaurant in West Yellowstone, and Andrew is playing some sort of game with two pieces of silverware (in lieu of talking to Mommy on the telephone).  They’ve made up games using colored pencils, hotel room keys, sticks, rocks, empty water bottles—you name it.  Just before leaving home two weeks ago I decided not to let them pick out a couple of toys to take with them, and I’m frankly glad I did.  And this experience just reinforces my absolute refusal to ever buy a car with an onboard DVD system.

So what have we been up to?

Even the tortoise arrives at his destination eventually.

We entered the park on July 4th by the Northeast Entrance and made camp at Pebble Creek, a rather small and remote site, nothing like the industrial campgrounds at Canyon and Madison.  We drove up and down Lamar Valley and made a quick visit to the crowds at Tower Falls, but mostly we hung around camp and explored its immediate area before going back up the road to Cooke City for fireworks in the evening.  The fireworks were okay, about what you’d expect in a town of 140, but the way the big blasts echoed off the surrounding mountains for a full seven seconds was pretty impressive.  For his part, Andrew spent the whole time with his hands clamped firmly over his ears and asking to get back in the car . . . until they were over and he started talking about how great they were.

On Saturday, we drove toward Canyon, visited the super-cool new Visitor Center, checked out Upper Falls (but had to leave quickly because Andrew had to pee), had lunch by the Yellowstone River in Hayden Valley, and walked around the Mud Volcano thermal group.  Will and I are both big fans of the feature called Churning Cauldron.  Andrew isn’t real sure about the “stinky steam.”

Maybe we can catch a fish for lunch!

Will, I don’t want to go in the stinky steam!

But the big highlights for the day were the bears.  We saw four black bears, including a mother and cub, and three grizzlies, including one which we watched for a good thirty minutes from a distance of probably only 40 yards, a truly magical and bizarre experience, the bear being safely atop a thirty-foot roadcut cliff and being ogled by hundreds of tourists below.

No I don’t (yet) own a really big telephoto lens (I top out at 150mm).  He (she?) was really that close

The bear kept digging and eating, digging and eating.  Occasionally a rock would cut loose and roll down the slope, dropping off the roadcut and narrowly missing a tourist car parked below.

And then yesterday we had our wolf morning.  In the past, I have spent a lot of Westminster’s money, contracting with the Yellowstone Institute for their guides to take my courses wolf watching.  I’ve stood and shivered through a number of early mornings, waiting to see what might turn up in what were considered “sure-fire” locations.  And I had seen nothing.  So I debated trying again with the boys, but I’m thankful that I did.  Most of the pack stayed back in the trees, but we heard them howling a couple of times, and then one adult made a circuit all the way around our position, popping in and out of view for a half hour or so.  As wolf sightings go, I guess it was pretty ho-hum, if there is such a thing (yesterday in another part of the Park we just missed seeing one take an elk calf), but it totally made our morning.

We spent the afternoon hiking to Trout Lake, where the big attraction was watching the spawning Cutthroat Trout swim up the inlet stream.

Hiking through a garden of wildflowers . . .

. . . to a beautiful little lake.

They don’t really show in this picture, but there are at least a dozen big cutthroat in this riffle in front of Andrew.  He squeals with delight every time they give him a good splash.

Okay, that’s our progress so far.  If there are any typos, I’ll have to fix them later . . . our laundry is done and the boys are hungry.  This evening, we’re off to Old Faithful.

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