By BrushBuck Guide Trevor Bloom
The Teton Range is an infamous massif overlooking the valley of Jackson Hole. Although named for three great peaks, the South, Middle and Grand Teton, the range is ninety miles long and made up of dozens of magnificent mountain tops. These granite skyscrapers are relatively new geologically and are the youngest and fastest growing mountain range in North America. For the past 13 million years, volatile earthquakes have uplifted ancient rock from deep beneath the earth's crust to their current location 13,775 feet above sea level. Beneath the shadow of the Grand Tetons, Jackson Hole is home to thousands of species of plants and animals which truly represent the American West.
As a guide and a local to the valley, I am often asked the difference between Jackson and Jackson Hole. The answer requires a historical explanation. In 1826 a man named Davey Jackson stumbled over the mountains and into a flat, nearly vacant glacial valley. His goal was to make his fortune in the beaver fur trade. Selling one pelt for 22 U.S. Dollars (inflated to $1500 in modern currency), a man could strike it rich if he could trap several hundred rodents a season. The valley, or hole, was surrounded in every direction by 5 mountain ranges: The Tetons to the west, the Absorokas to the north, the Gros Ventres to the east, and the Snake River and Wyoming ranges to the South. Three years later, fellow trapper, William Sublette, named the valley in his friend's honor: Jackson's Big Hole. The Big, and the apostrophe S have since been dropped. Thus Jackson Hole is the name for the entire region, and Jackson is the charismatic Western town at its heart.
Trappers were not the first visitors to the valley, yet they may have been the first people to spend a winter there. Native Americans summered in Jackson Hole, traced back as far as 12,000 years before present. These Paleo-Indians followed wild game migrations, and also collected edible plants. The greatest staple for these people was a beautiful blue flower with a starchy bulb, called Camas. Fire pits with charred Camas scraps are the oldest artifacts in the valley. By the time Europeans arrived, the Blackfeet, Arapaho, Crow, Gros Ventre, Flathead and most prominently the Shoshone and Bannock tribes had been summering in Jackson Hole for hundreds of years. In 1807, the first white man arrived, predating Davey Jackson by two decades. John Colter was a member of the Lewis & Clark expedition, whom after discovering the west coast decided not to immediately return to St. Louis, Missouri. Instead he continued to explore and uncovered Yellowstone and Jackson Hole.
At the top of Teton Pass on U.S. Highway 22, a sign reads "Yonder there lies Jackson Hole, the last of the Old West." Jackson Hole embodies the American west lifestyle: horseback riding, rodeo, fly fishing, hiking, and most importantly abundant wildlife. Growing up, it was not uncommon for me to arrive late to school because a bull moose blocked my driveway. Once a year in the fall, a herd of 200 or so elk would arrive in my back yard and I was given the task of driving them away from our landscaping by banging pots and pans. Jackson Hole, at the base of the Tetons, is a unique blend of culture and wilderness that must be explored first-hand. BrushBuck offers premium Grand Teton Tours and Yellowstone Tours that will allow you to fully experience the rich history and wildlife of the American West.
I talk among my friends, guides, and travelers quite often of experiences I’ve had in places that haven’t seen many people or places that have seen a lot of people but still remain somewhat intact as a “wild’’ place. Its always an interesting topic as we discuss truly wild places that have never changed like central Alaska, northern Canada or perhaps the deep interiors of the South American or African jungles. Today I seem to notice that “wild’’ to most people is staying in a 4 or 5 star hotel, going out and seeing a few animals that they might forget in an hour or two and heading back to the hotel for the hot tub or the best evening entertainment of choice.
I often find myself wondering what my definition of “wild’’ is? This really hit home when I was in Chobe National Park, Botswana. I was scouting for an itinerary and it just so happens I had to take a game drive to see just how all the animals work. Now on this game drive I could hear some excitement in the guides radio in native tongue and knew we had something good coming up, and it was all that and a dead impala on top! We drove up and there was a HUGE male lion finishing an impala and the other guide said he had taken it from the wild dogs that just ran over the hill! We snapped a few pictures of this lion as the sun had not come up yet and everyone agreed to take off for the wild dogs as they are extremely rare to see, much less tag along for possibly a hunt! We cruised up and waited for the dogs to come off the small hill and into the 4x4 track we were on.
They grouped up with some at the flank, a couple in the middle and some more holding up the rear, all in all about 20 wild dogs! They cruised along as canines do looking and smelling for opportunity and as we followed they chased a wart hog until he backed up to his hole for a fight. With tail up and tusks on alert the dogs decided they would go after an animal that runs a little more with less defense weapons.
Then it happens, the lead dog goes on point, they crouch their ears and off to the races through the trees and lucky for us we are able to stay on our track and see impala doing their special “I’m healthy; move on” run to show the wild dogs they are not a good target. Now in Africa, when one animal runs, most don’t stick around to long to see why their running or what spooked them. We could see impala and kudu running out the hill a quarter mile away as fast as their legs would carry them and dogs in hot pursuit of impala in the small ravine we were tracking in! There were dogs working cutoffs of impala and dogs directly behind impala in the struggle for survival in every sense of the word! One bound to slow, one turn the wrong way and the impala would become the breakfast menu on the hot Botswana sand. And just as fast as it started, it was over, and the dogs were coming all back together panting heavily after a tough morning with no success. As they faded to an area we could no longer go we headed back for the lion who would still be enjoying his meal that the wild dogs had provided him.
As we pull up, 3 lionesses from his pride patiently waited as he fed. He was under some dense brush with a small window to photograph just his head and some of the impala as the sun came up. Every minute or so he would look into the vehicle and look right through you, his eyes so wild as he ate you could feel it. You could feel the look that put you in your place of one step down on the food chain. The look that has kept his pride in existence as long as he was there to defend it. The look that no doubt has kept his species on top of the fight for survival over other competitor species such as hyena and wild dog. That look, is the look of the wild. Its what makes the wild when there has been a highway put in place 5 miles away from the national park removing much of the remoteness we like to think of as wild. I often look for those eyes when I am guiding. Sometimes on a winter wolf trip in Yellowstone or an Alaska trip to see the brown bears. I must say that the three species that give it the most would be the wolf that looks right through you, the leopard who stares into you, and the confident male lion who knows without a doubt he owns everything around him, including you!
By BrushBuck Guide Trevor Bloom
Winter is one of the best times of the year to view wildlife in Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. One may think that a blanket of snow, cold temperatures, and short days would prevent amazing animal sightings, yet the opposite is true. On any given Grand Teton or Yellowstone Tour, BrushBuck guides see greater numbers of animals in winter than we do in summer. Why is that? In the winter, large populations of elk, moose, mule deer, big horn sheep and bison congregate in the valley floor near good sources of food and running water. Subsequently, the wolves and coyotes follow the prey.
In summer, grazing animals are free to migrate high into the mountains and disperse widely across the 18 million acre Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. In winter, much of the terrain in the sub-alpine and alpine zone is inhospitable even for the toughest of creatures. Gusts of eighty miles per hour, wind chill of negative fifty degrees Fahrenheit, and 10 feet deep snow drifts force large mammals down to lower elevations and milder climates.
In Grand Teton National Park, this means that most animals spend the winter in the valley floor, some just minutes from downtown Jackson. In the winter, on a Grand Teton Tour it is not uncommon to view 5,000 elk, 200 bighorn sheep, 500 bison, and 20 moose in a four hour period. In Yellowstone, many animals concentrate in the Lamar Valley. Located in the northern reaches of the nation's first National Park, the Lamar Valley receives 1/8 the snowfall of other areas in the park. Thus, it is a refuge for thousands of elk and bison which continue to graze year round.
In the case of both Grand Teton and Yellowstone, a concentration of prey species in a single area leads to an increase in predators. Winter is the season of the wolves! Elk, buffalo, and all other grazing animals struggle to consume enough calories to survive the harsh winter. Any injury incurred during the fall rut, or mating season, will evolve into a life-threatening ailment in winter. Wolves take full advantage of their prey's weakness. Wolves have large paws in relation to their body weight, and like a sled dog, can run on the surface of deep snow. Meanwhile buffalo and elk post hole through the snow and cannot run for long distances before reaching complete exhaustion. This gives wolves a huge advantage, allowing them to hunt prey much larger than themselves.
Grand Teton and Yellowstone winter tours with BrushBuck are the best opportunity to see wolves in the wild. Winter tours are filled to the brim with wildlife sightings and unbelievable landscapes. Better yet there are no crowds, the roads are empty, and you will enjoy an experience that few others ever will. Join BrushBuck for a four-hour Grand Teton Tour or an all inclusive Five Day / Four Night Adventure through Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Park.