MT-ID-WA-OR-ID-WY-MT-ND-MN-MI

In case you didn’t figure it out, the title contains the state abbreviations of our route since the last real travelog blog post about five weeks ago. Whereas our first five months of travel involved many stops and few long drives, the last five weeks have been quite different because of the detour to Oregon for the total solar eclipse, as described in the last post.

After finishing our last scheduled prairie stop, in northeast Montana, we headed southwest to try to find Western Small-footed Myotis, one of only four species of bats in western North America we have not recorded. We obtained a single recording in two nights at Coal Banks Landing in the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, a premier river paddling destination. It is possible here to canoe almost 150 miles without rapids or a portage, seeing some areas that are almost unchanged since Lewis and Clark first explored them. Wanting to obtain more examples, we continued southwest to national forest land near Butte, Montana, and managed one more recording in two nights.  In this area we enjoyed seeing Rocky Mountain plants and animals for the first time in many years. At one campsite we had a fine assortment of butterflies, five of which were new for us! Other highlights were a family of Golden Eagles, a family of Peregrine Falcons, and a flock of about 50 Common Nighthawks foraging low overhead at dusk.

Helenium autumnale, Upper Missouri River Breaks NM, MT
Sneezeweed, Helenium autumnale, Upper Missouri River Breaks NM, MT

We had intended to spend the rest of our extra time before the eclipse exploring Montana further, but the air quality was very poor because of forest fires. As we would be nearby anyway, we instead decided to visit Mount Hood in northwest Oregon, to search for Aplodontia. Also called Mountain Beaver or Sewellel, this is the most primitive living rodent in the world, and is the sole member its family. We had seen their holes near Lolo Pass in early 2016, and also had heard them a few times in California, but had never seen the animals themselves. We soon found several sets of holes that had fresh dirt and also had cut vegetation outside them, indicating animals in residence. However, the Aplodontia spends little time above ground, and most of that at night, so we put in many long hours staking out the best-looking holes near dawn and dusk and at night using an infrared scope. Although we could see that some cut vegetation was moved or disappeared overnight, we never were able to spot an actual animal. Someday …

Melissa Blue, Soap Gulch, NE of Melrose, MT
Melissa Blue, Soap Gulch, NE of Melrose, MT

After the eclipse, we had eight days to make our way to the extreme northeast corner of Minnesota (about 1200 miles), where we had boat and camping cabin reservations to visit Isle Royale National Park, one of just two national parks in the Lower 48 we had not visited. We decided to travel through Yellowstone National Park on the way, as we had not been there in so long. We got through the west gate early in the morning without any wait (it can take hours at mid-day), and made it to our desired campground across the park around 9:00 a.m. Despite the early hour, this non-reservable campground was already full for that evening, but the host said that one party might be leaving earlier than expected, so we hung around a while and got lucky.

Lamar Valley, Yellowstone NP, WY
Lamar Valley at dawn, Yellowstone NP, WY

Much of our time was spent in the Lamar Valley, famous for its wolves, and the one area of the park that we had not explored previously. After lots of time spent scanning with binoculars and telescope, we did see two Grizzly Bears very well (one at a Bison carcass), as well as four Gray Wolves playing at deep dusk! Other mammals seen were many Bison, including one swimming across a river; Elk; Bighorn Sheep; Pronghorn; and Mountain Goats (not native to the area, but still fun to see). One day we paddled across Lewis Lake and up the Lewis River a ways, where we had our first Gray Jays of the trip.

Our extra days used up, we headed for Minnesota, taking Wyoming State Route 212 out of the northeast corner of the park. This has to be one of the most remarkable drives in the country, with the road reaching 10,950 feet elevation as it passes through the Beartooth Mountains. I believe that the only paved through-road (as opposed to dead-end road) higher than this in the U.S. is Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

Eared Grebe, Lewis Lake, Yellowstone NP, WY
Eared Grebe, Lewis Lake, Yellowstone NP, WY

Isle Royale National Park is an island in western Lake Superior; though closer to the Minnesota coast it is in Michigan. Only rarely are animals able to reach and colonize the island because of its distance from the mainland. Long ago there were Caribou there, but more recently Moose and Gray Wolf have inhabited the island, and they became the basis for the longest-running study of prey-predator dynamics in the world. The wolves have suffered seriously over the last three generations from inbreeding, desperately needing fresh colonizers from the mainland to provide new genotypes and suppress deleterious recessive traits. There are now only two closely related remaining wolves left on the island, and there is debate about whether to introduce more or allow them to naturally disappear. If the latter occurs, the Moose can be expected to damage vegetation severely and experience wide population swings.

Pronghorn, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone NP, WY
Pronghorn, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone NP, WY

We stayed in a camping cabin at Windigo, on the west end of the island. We brought our canoe and spent one day paddling, and one and a half days hiking, enjoying many northern plants we had not seen in over a decade. The birding was also good; we saw Philadelphia Vireo (I believe we last had this sometime in the Pleistocene), Gray-cheeked Thrush, a family of Black-backed Woodpeckers, and about ten species of warblers.  Our return boat was cancelled because of high winds, so we spent an extra day and a half on the island. We had hardly any remaining food and the tiny store was about to close down for the season, and so had almost nothing left. Fruit Loops figured prominently in the resulting cuisine …

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