Friday, July 31, 2009

Exploring Yellowstone, Part Two: Horsing Around in the Backcountry

Day One, Monday Five miles south of Mammoth Hot Springs is an area called Swan Lake Flats, where we began our four-day horse pack trip into the Yellowstone Backcountry. We rode about five miles west into the Gallatin range, to a campsite beside the Gardiner River, with a spectacular view of Electric Peak. Traveling with our family was a lawyer and his twelve-year-old daughter from Charlotte, North Carolina, and a father and son from New Jersey and their good friend, Jack. (It turned out that our lawyer friend was a former Eagle Scout, and his skills were much appreciated in the arts of tent-erecting and fire building.) As the guides loaded mules with equipment, our head guide, Jett, explained to us the ins and outs of riding horses, dealing with grizzly bears, and what to do with your used toilet paper when you're in the middle of nowhere. After a picnic lunch we mounted our horses and were on our way.

Jett and Carrie, a wildlife biologist and Jett's second-in-command, headed our caravan, leading about six mules loaded down with camping gear and cooking equipment; we tourists followed single file on our horses. Bringing up the rear was the third guide, Caitlin, who served as cook, guide, and wrangler. There had been thunderstorms during the night and in the early morning, and the weather was windy and cool. After riding through the open countryside for about a mile, we rounded a corner and saw two hikers heading in the opposite direction. They stopped to wait for us to pass, but as soon as the line of horses and mules were abreast of them, one of the hikers raised his walking stick in greeting.

The next thing I knew there were two mules running back the way we had come at full gallop, and the other horses abruptly turned and started to follow them. I have never ridden on a running horse before, and I will tell you right now I never want to again. I was scared to death. I didn't know what had happened to my husband or children; all I knew was my horse was running as fast as it could, and I was doing all I could to try not to fall off. After my horse finally slowed down, I looked back and saw that two of my kids were still on their horses, and they seemed to be standing still near where the horses first bolted. Finally I saw my husband and oldest son on their horses coming toward me with Caitlin the wrangler. Their horses had run farther than mine. Finally we got everybody back together, hats were retrieved, and the mules re-packed; although I don't think my legs stopped shaking.

The rest of the ride was uneventful until we got about a mile from camp and Jack's horse was spooked or something; it took off running again and poor Jack fell off. By this time Jett and the other guides were getting pretty nervous, and remarked that the weather was making the horses and the mules quite skittish. Finally we reached the camp and set up our tents. The wind made this quite challenging, but we managed, thanks in part to our new Eagle Scout friend. After a delicious dinner of brisket, the wind picked up again and it started to rain and hail. The storm was short-lived, though, and we were able to retire to dry tents and warm sleeping bags. I will admit I didn't sleep well that night, wondering what other excitement was in store for us (no more, please!) but I was thankful to have reached camp safely and grateful to be in such a beautiful place.

The horses rest after a stressful ride. Electric Peak is in the background.

Our campsite offered beautiful views!

After our little evening rain and hail, there was fresh snow on Electric Peak.

Someone put this elk skull on a stump to greet hikers and riders when they arrive at camp.

Days Two and Three: Tuesday and Wednesday When I emerged from our tent the next morning, my husband and several other people were sipping coffee by the fire and looking off into the distance. "Tell the boys to get up," my husband said. "There's a grizzly bear just across the river." I had spent an entire summer in Yellowstone during college, and I had never seen one. While in Mammoth we had decided to purchase an inexpensive set of binoculars, and I was glad we did!

If you look REALLY carefully you can see the grizzly bear. It's just above the gray line of the river, a little left of center. Luckily it was far away from us!

As we were preparing to eat breakfast, our middle son announced, "I don't feel so good..." and promptly threw up. It was clear he wasn't going to be riding any horses that day. We're pretty sure it was altitude sickness, because the same thing happened a few years ago when we traveled to Colorado. So, hubby stayed back at camp with Altitude Boy, as well as our friend Jack, who wanted to give his sixty-something body a rest after his fall from the horse. We rode a few miles through fields and woods, crossing creeks and rivers, stopped for lunch, and headed back to camp to check up on everyone who had stayed behind. After a brief rest, Caitlin took the group out again; this time I stayed behind with the sick one. A short time later they all came back, and my youngest announced that they had seen the bear again. (At least, we think it was probably the same one.) Hubby said that they went over a ridge and our eight-year-old said excitedly, "Look! That bear is RIGHT THERE!" That's when everyone decided to quietly turn around and come back.

Another beautiful view from our camp site

On Wednesday, Altitude Boy woke up feeling much better, but wasn't too excited about the idea of riding around on horses all day, so he and hubby stayed behind and did some fishing. Jett and Caitlin took us seven miles to the northwest (I think) toward Fawn Pass. It was a long ride, and we didn't quite make it to the top because the horses and riders were getting tired. It was a beautiful ride, though, and I am happy to say my legs and my behind were starting to get used to being on a horse for hours at a time. On the way back, about two miles from camp, I was admiring the beautiful wilderness when I suddenly heard the sound of my youngest son crying. When I looked up I saw his horse, and he wasn't sitting on it; he was on the ground rubbing his head. Turns out that his horse either kicked the one behind him or was kicking at a pesky insect and the kid just wasn't holding on tightly enough. He was fine though, and got back on his horse and rode the rest of the way back--holding on tightly to the reins and the saddle horn.

At the end of the day we had yet another DELICIOUS dinner by the fire, and the kids roasted marshmallows and ate s'mores. It was a clear night, and we spent some time looking at the stars before going to bed. This was the first time they had seen so many stars in the sky, and I'm not sure they had ever seen the Milky Way.

The riders head off on another adventure

Fawn Lake, one of many beautiful sights on our rides.

Near Fawn Pass. We didn't quite make it, but what a beautiful view!

Hubby and Son had a good day fishing

What's camping without roasting marshmallows?

Day Four, Thursday By this time we hadn't showered since Monday, and we were pretty darn grubby. We had a leisurely breakfast, packed up the tents and all our stuff, and headed back toward the trail head and the road. The plan was for the mules to go back the way we came, and for Caitlin to take the horses and riders a different route so we could enjoy more of Yellowstone we hadn't yet seen. At the top of a hill we came across another group of riders on a day trip. Their guide told us that a large tree had fallen across the trail where we were planning to go, and it was difficult and dangerous to try to take horses through there. So, we stopped for lunch, enjoyed the view, and decided to go back to the road the way we came. Later we were glad we did, because some of the horses were skittish again that day (I think they were anxious to be home again), and poor Jack fell off of his horse a second time. He lay on the ground for several minutes before Jack's friends and Cailtin were able to help him up again. (This time, he rode a different horse.) We were so relieved when we finally reached the two horse trailers parked on the side of the road! Jack had to be helped off of his horse, and he said his shoulder was stiff and sore, but thankfully nothing seemed to be broken.

Needless to say, this was a more exciting adventure than we thought it would be. Would I do it again? Absolutely!! (That reminds me--it's time to start saving up for the next one.) Our guides were fabulous, the food was delicious, and we made some new friends. Other trail rides I had been on were only hour-long rides; I realize now that if I'm going to ride a horse for four days, there is bound to be a little bit of excitement. (Jett told us that this trip was more eventful than usual, too.) And now I know I can ride on a galloping horse without falling off. As long as there is a saddle horn for me to hang on to.

View of Bunsen Peak on the way back

The end is in sight! Swan Lake, Swan Lake Flat, and just beyond that, the road.

COMING SOON: The exciting conclusion of our Yellowstone saga! (although, it might not be exciting as this one, but I'll post some great pictures! )

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Exploring Yellowstone, Part One: Mammoth Hot Springs and the Canyon

We arrived at Bozeman airport in the early afternoon on Saturday, and made the roughly 2-hour drive to the North Entrance in Gardiner, Montana. We were immediately greeted by this critter:
On previous trips to Yellowstone, I have seen groups of several pronghorns grazing together in northern Yellowstone; right by the entrance, as a matter of fact, where we saw this one. This time he (she??) was alone.

Once we arrived at Mammoth Hot Springs, we had time to explore the village and were greeted by quite a few more animals:I've never seen a magpie, as far as I know. They seemed to feel right at home at Mammoth.
A mother elk and her calf

These prairie dogs made their home on the lawn of the hotel.

We even had time to attend Saturday evening Mass at the Mammoth chapel. My oldest son got to be an altar server (in shorts and a T-shirt!) and my younger two served as ushers.

The next morning, we took a ranger-led walk through the Mammoth Hot Springs terraces. I had heard rumors that the springs at Mammoth were drying up, and I was curious to see if this were true. We did find that the most famous terrace in the Park, Minerva Terrace, was indeed dried up, and it had been since the mid-1990's. The ranger told us that the amount of water in the springs at Mammoth have stayed constant for many decades; so when one spring dries up, another one pops up somewhere else.
Minerva Terrace as it used to look...

...and now this is how we found it.

This is a year-old spring that's so new they haven't named it yet.

There is plenty of water at Mammoth Hot Springs!

The view of the terraces from the hotel

Folks say this looks like a scary Halloween ghost mask.

Later we piled into our rental truck and took a drive around the northern part of the Park, visiting Tower Fall, The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and Norris Geyser Basin. The highlight of the day was a stop along the North Rim Drive of the canyon, and a half-mile hike downhill--with many switchbacks--to the brink of Lower Falls. Staring down at the powerful waterfall from above was amazing!
The Yellowstone River just before it plunges over Lower Falls

This view made me dizzy!

the view of the canyon from the top of Lower Falls

Lower Falls from a safer distance.

Of course, the hike back up the trail was a little bit more challenging than the walk down, and we definitely were breathing a little harder because of the higher altitude. It was well worth it!

We saw lots of evidence of the forest re-establishing itself after the devastating fires of 1988.

The next day we began our four-day adventure into the backcountry on horses. I'll tell you all about THAT in a later post!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Overpopulation: The Making of a Myth

This is a cute video I stole from Patrick Madrid's blog. Unfortunately, YouTube seems to have many more videos that claim that the world is becoming too full of people. It's frustrating to me that so many people don't seem to recognize that the Earth's most important natural resource is HUMANITY.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

We went to see the sixth installment of the Harry Potter films yesterday. Before we watched the movie, I went online to read other people's takes on it, and talked to friends who had already seen it. I found the general consensus to be that overall, the film was well done. Some said it was the best Harry Potter film yet; others were disappointed that parts from the book were left out, and it seemed somewhat disjointed. After seeing the film, our family had mixed opinions about it: My husband and oldest son said it was OK, but they didn't like it as much as the other films, and it might well be their least favorite. As for me, although it might not be the best (The Goblet of Fire and The Order of the Pheonix are tied for first place in my book) it certainly isn't the worst, and I was not at all disappointed.

If you haven't read the Harry Potter books yet, the story goes somewhat like this: after an intense battle with the evil Lord Voldemort depicted in Book 5 in which Harry's beloved godfather Sirius Black was killed, the teenage boy wizard returns to his wizarding school to find an increased fear that Voldemort and his henchmen will break into the school grounds and attack whomever they choose--especially Harry, The Boy Who Lived, The Chosen One. We learn that Harry's school enemy and bully Draco Malfoy has been entrusted to some evil mission that readers and viewers may only guess at. Meanwhile Harry finds himself in possession of a used textbook once belonging to someone calling him- or herself "The Half-Blood Prince," and the book shows Harry magical secrets that aren't being taught at the school. As the story unfolds, Harry begins to learn dark secrets about Voldemort that neither he nor the school's headmaster had ever imagined. Slowly it begins to dawn on Harry that defeating the Dark Lord might be more difficult than anyone has foreseen.

When the Harry Potter books first became popular, I was reluctant to read them at first because I kept hearing talk--mostly from evangelical Christians, and a few Catholics as well--of the stories' fascination with the occult and that they might encourage Satanic practices. After all, Harry Potter is a wizard, and practicing witchcraft is strictly forbidden in Christianity. (Heck, he even attends a school that teaches him how to use magic and spells and such.) Once I decided to read them myself and form my own opinion about them, I was hooked right away. I read the first three books nonstop; when I got to the fourth book (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) I got a little weary of the long account of the Quidditch World Cup (Quidditch being a game people in the wizarding world play while flying around on broomsticks) and put Harry aside for a while. When Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was released, I picked up the fourth book again and read it as fast as I could so I could hurry up and read the fifth. (I learned that the Quidditch World Cup is a very important event in the story because things happen there that set the foundation for the rest of the book. But I digress.) Like millions of others, I counted the days until the sixth and seventh books were released, and devoured them as soon as I got my hands on them. We started reading them with our kids, and they loved them. We even talked to the boys about why some Christians aren't fond of Harry Potter, and that practicing magic and witchcraft are very dangerous things that we are not allowed to do. We've talked about how the witches and wizards in the Harry Potter books rely on their magical abilities for their joy and fulfillment, and as Christians we are to trust in God.

I've enjoyed watching the young actors in the Harry Potter movies grow from cute children into adults--young adults, mind you, but I'm pretty sure they're all over 18 now. (Let's just say I'm old enough to be their mother.) I like seeing the different adaptations of the individual stories: the first three were basically children's movies, while the next three have more serious and mature themes. Throughout the series, in both the books and the films, Harry has been tormented by a bully named Draco Malfoy, whose father is one of Lord Voldemort's sleazy henchmen, the Death Eaters. In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, we begin to see how Draco's father's legacy as a Death Eater is taking a toll on him, and the Dark Lord even trusts him with a dreadful mission that any follower of Voldemort would be honored to perform. (Almost every good story has a reluctant hero, and Harry Potter certainly fits this mold; I think Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is kind of unique in that it also has a reluctant villain in Draco Malfoy.) I thought this was conveyed particularly well in the movie, and Tom Felton, who plays young Malfoy, does a great job portraying his inner torment as he struggles to reconcile his desire to follow his father's wishes and become another of Voldemort's chosen, his fears of failure and of disappointing the Dark Lord, and his own conscience and real need to to what is truly right. Yes, there were some aspects in the movie that were different from the book (No Moaning Myrtle in this film, thankfully), and one scene was added where a gang of Death Eaters attacks and burns down the family home of Harry's best friend. I wasn't sure why that was put in the movie, but I suppose we'll find out when the next one is released.

Overall, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a fun film to watch, especially if you've been a fan of the books. If you haven't read the series the movie might be hard to follow in places (so I've been told), but it's fast-paced fun and lighthearted where it needs to be, and just the right amount of intensity and emotion when the scary and the sad parts come.

Why am I Catholic?

I first saw this video posted on Aussie Coffee Shop. Many people have asked me over the years why I decided to become Catholic when I seemed perfectly happy as a Baptist. (I WAS happy as a Baptist, as a matter of fact, but the Catholic Church offered so much more.) This video is a beautiful representation of thoughts I often struggle to put into words.


It's time to count my blessings once again. Thanks as always to Jennifer for starting this tradition on her blog!

1. Praise God for keeping us safe on our travels.

2. Praise God for his infinite love for me, a weak and selfish sinner.

3. Praise God for my loving, patient, and kind husband. Happy birthday, sweetie! :)

4. Praise God for fresh peaches, berries, and beans!

5. Praise God for my friends close to home and for those far from me. I pray that we'll always stay in touch.

So many things to be thankful for, I can never name them all.

Happy Sunday!

Friday, July 24, 2009

"If You're Too Busy to Pray, You're Too Busy"

There was a time when I used to get up REALLY early every morning and pray the Rosary. It was about an eight-month period from the time my second child started sleeping through the night, until I found myself pregnant with my third. We live next to a small lake, and if the weather was warm I would sit and look at the water while I prayed. On misty mornings I loved watching the fog dance across the water, as though it was praising God along with me. Other times I would just sit and look out the window and watch the trees and the birds. When I found that my mind was wandering I tried to incorporate those thoughts into my prayer, and even into the mysteries themselves. If I was worried about a sick relative, perhaps the mystery of the visitation helped me remember to call or visit that person. During that time, my best friend had recently given birth to premature twins, who spent months in NICU before they came home; I prayed for them many times, especially when I prayed the joyful mysteries. I treasured these quiet times every morning, and I miss them. I will still pray the rosary occasionally if I'm up early, but not on a regular basis anymore, except maybe during Lent.

I remember talking to our parish priest about this; often, I told him, in the afternoon if I'm tired I think to myself, "Gee, now's a good time to pray the Rosary; I think I'll take a nap." His reply was, "Sometimes you just need a nap." This made me feel less guilty, and I even imagined that Mary must have taken afternoon naps when she really needed them.

Now that it's summer, I don't get up quite as early as I do during the school year. I had time to pray this morning, but what did I do? Checked my email (mostly spam), my Facebook page (nothing interesting posted since 11:30 last night; everyone is still sleeping, duh), and checked for new blogs. I have many things on my to-do list for today, and soon I'm going to need to wake up my kids so I can take my oldest son to swim team practice. I don't know that blogging about praying counts as praying! During the school year I get up just about as early as I did in my daily-rosary days, so why don't I pray then? Lunches to make; gotta feed the dog; the kids need their breakfast; I need to eat my own breakfast; if I don't read the paper now I'll never look at it. Oops, I forgot to check my email! These are my excuses.

I heard a priest on EWTN recently quote Mother Theresa, who, when another priest lamented to her that he was so busy these days that he didn't have time to pray, she replied, "If you're too busy to pray, you're too busy." Unfortunately, many of the things we're too busy doing are time-wasters like watching TV, surfing the Internet (Do I REALLY need to watch that new Harry Potter trailer AGAIN?), or reading trashy novels and magazines. My excuse today? I feel the need to update my blog, and I might not have another chance to do so until next week.

Truthfully, I was about to begin telling you about our amazing trip to Yellowstone last week. We've been home since Monday, and now that I'm finally finished unpacking and the laundry is somewhat under control, and I've posted the pictures on Facebook, I'm itching to tell you all about it here! I have also seen some interesting things posted on other blogs I want to share with you too; and I've read a couple more books I'm hoping to tell yu about. When I logged in and got ready to start typing, I thought to myself, "I wonder if I should pray the Rosary instead?" Hence this blog post.

My son in up, and I need to get moving. Maybe I'll have time for a quick Divine Mercy chaplet before the day gets too busy for praying.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Bookworm, Blogworm--I'm still here!

I thought the summer would bring me more free time--time to read, clean my house (ha, ha, who was I kidding!), and blog. I have had more time for reading, and I have been devouring books one after the other. I've tried to keep up a pattern this summer of alternating fiction with nonfiction titles, and so far it's going very well. I've been more selective in the books that I'm choosing, and so far I haven't read one I haven't liked and/or learned a great deal from. I was away from my computer over the 4th of July weekend, (a fabulous trip to Watkins Glen, NY for the Indy Car race there, and a wonderful weekend with friends. I hope I get a chance to tell you more about it; it's beautiful up there and we had a great time.) I spent about a half hour this morning reading up on some of the blogs I'm following--not all of them, I'll admit, and I left no comments.

Here's a rundown on some of the books I've read recently:

1. Population Control: Real Costs, Illusory Benefits by Steven W. Mosher, the president of the Population Research Institute. It's an eye-opening account of how big organizations like the World Bank and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) are encouraging government leaders to control the birth rates of their respective nations. Everyone knows about China's one-child policy, and China arguably has the most oppressive population policies, but did you know that the UNFPA actually partners with China to encourage population control? Mosher tells some horrific antecdotes that he has collected over the years from Chinese women, and women from other nations as well, who have been intimidated into having abortions and sterilization procedures. Overpopulation fears began as early as 1798, believe it or not, when Rev. Thomas Malthus predicted that by 1890, the Earth would be dangerously overpopulated. In the 1960's there were fears of a population boom (or "bomb" as the term was often used; presumably an analogy to the atomic bomb), and some decided that we must do something about this "problem." To make a long story short, big and powerful people began imposing population control programs in many countries; in fact, some global relief organizations refused (and still refuse) to supply aid for their nations' poor unless contraceptive services were encouraged. In many developing countries, clinics are well stocked with contraceptives, but have no supplies and medicines to treat diseases such as malaria and other preventable infections. To control the spread of HIV, condoms are handed out, and abstinence is given a dismissive wave of the hand. The HIV epidemic is getting worse in many places, and there is evidence that it's actually being caused by population control programs: A woman goes into a clinic for a shot of Depo-Provera; except the needle has been used on an HIV-positive woman (unbeknownst to anyone because she's never been tested) and not properly sterilized. (Plenty of contraceptives, but inadequate equipment to sterilize tools properly. Go figure.) In many countries, there are, or soon will be, too few young people to help support the elderly populations, because people have been discouraged or prevented from having children. I would recommend this book to anyone, whether pro-life or pro-choice, who is concerned for the welfare of Earth's poor.

2. The Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv. This is a must-read for every parent and teacher. Remember when you were growing up and you spent all your free time outside? Especially in summer, when you roamed the neighborhood and built forts and tree houses, played hide-and-seek, and searched for crayfish in the creek. You played pickup football in the vacant lot, or maybe in your neighbor's side yard. What do kids spend their free time doing these days? Playing video games and surfing the Internet. Kids go to school and learn about how the rainforests are quickly disappearing, and humpback whales are becoming extinct; but too many kids don't know what plants and animals live in their own neighborhoods. How will kids grow up with concern for the spotted owl in Oregon when they haven't really played outside much at home in Virginia or Florida? Spending time in nature is a great way to reduce stress--how many times did you climb a tree or go fishing or head down to the creek to skip rocks when you were upset and needed to cool off? I will tell you this: my youngest son, I am happy to say, is NOT a victim of nature-deficit disorder; every day he brings some new critter into the house that he's found under a rock or down by the lake near our home. He likes to watch the birds hop around the yard looking for food. My other two boys are not quite as attached to nature as the youngest, but I hope we are limiting their "screen time" enough and encouraging enough outdoor play that they will appreciate and take good care of the natural world around them. The most recent edition has great resources for parents and educators, including specific activities to do with kids to help them develop a love for nature.

3. The Lucky One by Nicholas Sparks. I read this one over the Fourth of July weekend. I admit it--I'm a huge fan of Nicholas Sparks, even though some friends and family members cringe every time they hear his name. I know Sparks' novels tend to be somewhat predictable and full of his own cliche's, and they typically follow a similar pattern: in coastal North Carolina, a boy and a girl meet and fall in love. Things seem to be going great until some tragic event or strange twist of fate threatens to tear them apart. Sometimes one of the lovers ends up dying, leaving the other to try to get on with life without them; other stories have happier endings. The Lucky One reads like a typical Sparks book: a soldier serving in Iraq finds a photo of a girl in the dirt, and when no one claims it, he keeps it. Soon he discovers that carrying the picture everywhere he goes seems to protect him from harm, like a lucky charm. Once he's finished with his tour of duty, he sets out on foot from his home in Colorado to track her down to Hampton, North Carolina. The two end up falling in love, much to the consternation of her ex-husband, who is the father of her son and the deputy sheriff. Yes, it's predictable, but there are enough surprises and little twists to keep you reading; and I will say that the ending is satisfying if not a little sad. If you like Nicholas Sparks' books, The Lucky One is as good as any of them.

I hope to write a few more blog posts before the end of July; I want to tell you about our recent trip to the Finger Lakes and the racing we watched there. (Every year I become a bigger fan of the sport, it seems.) I hope to blog some more about other books I'm reading or plan to read; and later on this summer I will DEFINITELY tell you about our trip to Yellowstone National Park, which is coming up soon! I'm sure I'll post some pictures, too.
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