One Big Family


Brent Jones is a friend who takes his Canon EOS 5D Mark IV on all his outings. He uses a telephoto lens quite a bit, taking pictures of many animals ‘up close.’ His recent visit to Woodland Park Zoo here in Seattle a week ago had many excellent subjects, none more endearing than the orangutan, who reminds me that we are close cousins.

Orangutan, Woodland Park Zoo, image by Brent Jones

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The Hills Are Alive … in British Columbia


Talk about alpine scenery, the Fitzsimmons Range in British Columbia has it in spades. A hike along the high trails will have you singing ‘The Sound of Music’ in spite of yourself. Whistler and Blackcomb, the two most well known mountains, not only have the best skiing in North America but are a major attraction for summer activities. Mountain bikers love it here. For a brief period, wildflowers abound. To boot, the hiking is exhilarating. Views are simply majestic.

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blackcomb lake

Blackcomb Lake

By the way, Whistler Mountain wasn’t named for an explorer, like places tend to be around these parts, but after the hoary marmot. Its whistling calls can be heard throughout the range.

Hoary marmots

The Amazing and Colossal Sanctuary of Ollantaytambo


Streets in the old part of Ollantaytambo are narrow, cobble-stoned, inaccessible to cars and trucks. Along one side, water flows in ancient Inca canals, still used today, no more than a foot wide. Quechua is spoken more than Spanish. Life goes on here as it has for centuries. There is no indication that less than a half mile away, a crush of tourists descend everyday on the railway station to board trains for Aguas Calientes, gateway to Machu Picchu. What many don’t realize is that Ollantaytambo has some of the most impressive megalithic ruins in the world.

That Ollantaytambo lies between Cusco and Machu Picchu is why it gets short shrift by tourists who’d rather spend their time at those popular destinations. A shame really because Ollanta, which locals call it for short, has its own important history and architecture. The town used to be the royal estate of emperor Pachacutec. It was here in 1537 that during the Inca rebellion, Manko Inka Yupanqui defeated an invading Spanish army led by Hernando Pizarro, Francisco’s half-brother. Like a spectacular movie battle scene, volleys of arrows, slingshots, spears and stones rained down on the Spanish troops from high terraces and water flooded the valley that the Incas somehow diverted from Rio Urubamba. Despite the historic battle, Fortaleza de Ollantaytambo had more than a defensive purpose.

This was the first town in Peru where my wife and I stayed last year (2016), following the Amazon rain forest. Like all tourists, we were here to take the train to Machu Picchu. I was also looking forward to spending a day to see ancient megalithic ruins that some regard as the equal of any in the world. No matter where we walked, The Fortress, as it’s sometimes called, loomed over the entire town.

The first thing I noticed was the impressive terracing (andene) that looks from the bottom like one side of a gigantic stepped pyramid. Andenes are one hallmark of Inca engineering.

Terraces at Ollanta

A long stairway on the left side leads to the top. From anywhere along the climb, it’s easy to see why researchers think they served some agricultural purpose, much like the terracing at Moray; the surfaces are broad, deep and flat. Because they’re oriented toward the sun, it’s believed that the terraces were solar energy collectors to provide long-lasting heat for crops, even after the sun set. Not only that, the resulting microclimates made it possible to grow corn, potatoes and quinoa at different altitudes.

Did the Incas use these terraces for agricultural purposes? Note their scale relative to people.

Near the top, we turned left to a stairway that led past incredible stonework that I saw time and again in Peru. Immense, multi-sided stones were fitted together with such precision that no mortar was necessary. This section contains The Ten Niches (Diez Hornacinas). Why go to so much trouble to build a ‘fortress?’ The complex must have served more important ceremonial or astronomic functions.

Stones are fitted so tightly that a razor can’t be inserted in the seams. These have rounded edges.

Some edges are beveled (bottom, left). The planar surfaces are amazingly flat.

Why are these stones cut so non-linearly? The enigmatic ten niches (Diez Hornacinas) are to the left and in the topmost image.

The much-photographed portal

Look at the precise vertical cuts in this joinery.

The Temple of the Sun (Templo del Sol) is the site’s most stunning architectural achievement. Monoliths weighing up to 50 tons and rising 15ft (4.6m) high form a six-section wall made of pink granite (rhyolite), transported from the Cachicata quarry 4mi (6km) away, each stone separated from its neighbor by shim-like inserts. Again, the seams are unimaginably tight. How were these stones brought here across the 1000-ft (300m) deep Urubamba river valley and dressed so beautifully? These are not the handiwork of Bronze Age tools.

Temple of the Sun (image from boletomachupicchu.com). Note the chakana pattern and the smoothing marks as if the surfaces were wet concrete.

The wall might have once been part of a larger structure. Where’s the rest of it? I noticed the ground nearby littered with other gigantic pink stones. Some researchers suggest that the ‘temple’ was left unfinished when the Spanish invasion happened, others feel that the rubble was the aftermath of a massive earthquake or other catastrophe that toppled the structure long ago.

Do these massive stones mean the Temple of the Sun was left unfinished or suffered a massive catastrophe?

The rest of the complex consists of Inca-era walls, buildings and passageways of mortared field stones that, while impressive and extensive in scale, clearly don’t match the technical sophistication of Templo del Sol or Diez Hornacinas. Why is there such a big difference?

The construction here is not as sophisticated as the Diez Hornacinas or Templo del Sol.

The stones are considerably smaller with lots of mortar holding them together.

We wandered through this sprawling area until we got to an area called Inka Misana. The crowds were sparse. Most visitors don’t go through this part, though it’s not far from the main entrance. More large blocks of impressively finished stone were on the ground. Equally incredible were what appeared on the hillsides. You could even say, what didn’t appear. Large cubed sections had been skillfully and smoothly removed from solid rock, with no visible gouge marks, as if the stone were cut by some sort of machinery or unknown technology.

Excavations in rock, some appearing as cubed cutouts, others like stairs.

The planed surfaces are flat with no gouge or chisel marks.

How in the world did the builders accomplish this? Certainly not with hammer and chisel. I’ve wondered before about the different building styles at Machu Picchu. I think the same applies here in Ollantaytambo. Is it so hard to imagine that different peoples may have been responsible for the three styles, the Incas being the most recent, calling into question everything we think we know about human history and its technological achievements?

ollantay pan

(Click to enlarge)

Ollantaytambo should be on everyone’s travel bucket list.

Baby alpaca at the entrance

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Ambivalence About Grand Teton National Park


After the jaw-dropping visit to Glacier, my wife and I headed for another national park we never visited. Grand Teton was predictably snowed in ten years ago when we drove past on our way to Yellowstone. We’d finally get to see what many consider the most beautiful mountain range of the Rockies. The experience was a mixed bag, as I’ll explain.

We had a choice of three routes between Butte (MT) and Jackson (WY). The fastest would have been to skirt Yellowstone altogether via I-15. Time was a factor; we had to get to Teton Village by 5pm for a tour. Still, to skip Yellowstone while in the area would seem like an opportunity lost. Could we at least witness Old Faithful?

Confident, I opted to drive into the heart of Yellowstone, then take the south entrance out. Big mistake. As is becoming more commonplace at national parks, Old Faithful was overwhelmed by tourists with traffic to match. A visitor center ranger informed me that Teton Village was another 2½ hours away. We couldn’t spare 45 minutes until the next Old Faithful eruption, so we reluctantly hopped back in the car but got to drive through a part of Yellowstone we missed last time, Yellowstone Lake.

I took this picture of Old Faithful in April 2007

Yellowstone and Grand Teton could almost be mistaken for a single park. They’re separated by a blink of an eye, a mere 8 miles via Highway 89 (half that, if you consider park boundaries) which traverses the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway.

The parks couldn’t be more different in character. Yellowstone, of course, is a showcase for the world’s greatest geothermal attractions. An enormous caldera is all that remains of several stupendous volcanic explosions that literally wiped out all living things for hundreds of miles around. To me, the idea of a still active supervolcano that could literally go off at any time is a little unnerving.

The Tetons, on the other hand, are a picture-perfect mountain range that rises majestically above the Snake River plateau, the result of massive fault-blocking from the stretching of the North American continent and of plate tectonics. Glaciers gave the Tetons their present rugged shape.

As an anecdote, French Canadian trappers are linked to the naming of both parks. Yellowstone (or, yellow stone) is the English translation of the name given to the river by the trappers (Roche Jaune), the equivalent of the Hidatsa tribe’s name for it. Another story goes that trappers saw fit to name three peaks Les Trois Tetons after female breasts, the biggest called Grand Teton. Some historians, maybe motivated by Victorian propriety, insisted that they were named after the Teton (Titunwan) Indian tribe. Guess which story endures? Regardless, the park continues to be known by its French name which most of us can repeat without embarrassment.

Because of the Yellowstone detour, we barely made our rendezvous time with BrushBuck Guide Services in Teton Village for a wildlife viewing tour, the reason we were strapped for time after leaving Butte. It was also why I couldn’t afford to stop to take snapshots. I had to suck it up as we passed Snake River Overlook where Ansel Adams took his famous photo.

We only got to the Village a half hour before the tour. Over its four-hour length, we did get to see some animals: pronghorn antelopes, moose, ground squirrels, elk and bison, but no bears, bighorn sheep or wolves. It was too much to expect to see them up close, so we were happy enough with binoculars, telephoto lens, telescope or our own eyes.

At one overlook, our guide was able to spot with her telescope an animal practically camouflaged by trees and shrubbery.

See if you can spot what the guide saw with her telescope

As in any tour where wildlife sighting is hit or miss, the guide filled the time with lots of interesting facts on the area’s landscape, history and biology.

The next day, our hikes started on the other side of glacially carved Jenny Lake which we crossed by shuttle boat (for a fee). (You can also walk around the lake.) At the landing, the trail splits to the left and right, the left leading to Hidden Falls and Cascade Canyon, the right to Inspiration Point and Paintbrush Canyon. The falls were a real gem. There was no evidence of it at first, just Cascade Creek roaring through a chasm.

Cascade Creek

But a short walk to the side of a foot bridge revealed why it’s called Hidden Falls because it suddenly came into view.

Hidden Falls

Inspiration Point took longer to reach. It had expansive views of Jenny Lake.

Inspiration Point

Photographers have been inspired to capture the Tetons like Ansel Adams did—as a dramatic backdrop to the Snake River, a juxtaposition of craggy range and sinuous waterway. The most striking images are a combination of mountains, river, golden hour light and clouds. Because I never got an opportunity to take this shot, I’ll share again an image taken by Jim Brandt (who is husband of my wife’s cousin) in October 2013. It’s plain to see that Teton’s appeal owes much to how the absence of foothills accentuates the drama of the range.

Teton range (by Jim Brandt, October 2013)

We spent only two nights in Jackson. Is that enough time to spend in the Tetons? The answer is an obvious ‘no,’ but we had little choice. My wife and I would love to have stayed longer, but the rate at one of the chain motels (hint: it has a number in its name, and it isn’t 6), nothing to write home about, was an astronomical $265 per night! This is what you can expect to shell out during prime summer months. Most other inns and lodges, including those throughout the park, will ream you even more. It’s hard to know if ‘gentrification’ by the rich and famous who live here caused this or the properties are just taking advantage. While the Tetons are a beautiful public treasure, it’s likely I’ll never return, the first time I’ve ever felt this way about a national park.

Wondrous Zinnia


The Bellevue Demonstration Garden in my neck of the woods is featuring an entire row of zinnias, flowers I never paid much attention to until now. The specimen above is already fully matured with the outer (ray) florets beginning to wilt, but what struck me was the crown of disk florets that even the bee was impressed with. They continue to flower like that, each ring blossoming above the spent one below, until the disk looks almost like a pineapple.

Treasures of Dinosaur National Monument


People are fascinated with dinosaurs. I’m one of them. Like for most people, it all started out when I was a kid. I learned all I could about T-Rex, triceratops, stegosaurus, brontosaurus, diplodocus. When Life magazine published its groundbreaking illustrations that appeared in an early 1950s issue, they grabbed my attention from the start. With time, my interest waned, but never went extinct.

For the longest time, I wanted to go to Dinosaur National Monument, but because of its location in Utah’s remote northeast corner, I could never fit in a visit as part of a logical Southwest itinerary, in 2008 or 2011. Neither was the monument a part of the plans my wife and I made to visit Glacier (in Montana) and Grand Teton (in Wyoming) national parks last month. But, as we were about to leave Jackson, Wyoming, a week remaining to get back home to the Seattle area, I studied a map and realized we could drop in on DNM with time to spare.

The monument features a treasure trove of in situ fossilized dinosaur bones, approximately 1,500 of them, in the Dinosaur Quarry. Never completely excavated, the fossils were left in place partially exposed along a hillside, called the Wall of Bones, that is now completely enclosed in a modern, air-conditioned building where visitors can admire specimens up close.

Dinosaur Quarry (aka Carnegie Quarry)

Without trained eyes, it’s impossible to tell what you’re looking at. The exhibit is a jumble of bones embedded in an 80-foot wall of bedrock. Interpretive panels and publications help. The disorder immediately suggests some sort of catastrophe entombed the animals, maybe suddenly. The current theory is that raging waters swept many down to a river bed where they got covered by sand and mud, which later lithified. Considering the size of the park, 200,000 acres spread over two states (Utah and Colorado), I got the feeling that many more of these fossil mother lodes have yet to be discovered. Amazingly, the monument already has some 800 paleontological sites.

The specimens here are Mesozoic era, lodged in a depositional layer known as the Morrison Formation, about 150 million years old and characterized by very colorful rock strata. The nastiest dinosaur unearthed was allosaurus; the biggest were sauropods, like diplodocus and recently discovered abydosaurus. Studies have shown that they and other creatures lived in a moderate savanna environment with several rivers, but this is hardly the case now. If they were to awaken this minute, the animals would not recognize where nature (geological forces) has put them today, thousands of feet higher in conditions they would find inhospitable.

Reassembled Allosaurus in front of an artist’s concept

Embedded dinosaur skull

The fossils are what attract visitors but Dinosaur National Monument is important in another respect. It has a significant number of Fremont culture petroglyphs, which I hadn’t realized until I got here. After visiting the quarry, we hopped in the car to go see them.

Rock carvings for public viewing are found in five areas of the park. Many more sites are not publicized to protect them from vandalism. It’s a sad state of affairs that this is necessary. The pre-Columbian Fremont peoples, who for a thousand years inhabited parts of what are now Utah, Nevada, Idaho and Colorado, used vertical rock faces, particularly those stained by desert varnish, as their palette on which they chiseled representational figures of humans and animals, and abstract designs. Their culture disappeared around 1200 CE suddenly and mysteriously.

Petroglyphs, Dinosaur Quarry

Petroglyphs, Cub Creek site

Petroglyphs of lizards

As if dinosaurs and rock carvings weren’t enough, DNM also has another noteworthy distinction. Of all lands under National Park Service jurisdiction, it contains the most complete geologic record, spanning 1.2 billion years. All the rock layers known to science except three are represented here. I was amazed at the stratigraphic variety even in the small section of the park we visited. More dramatic than that, many layers were contorted, folded, broken or tilted. Continental drift and the upheaval that caused the creation of the Rockies, known as the Laramide orogeny, did a number on the landscape.

Tilted rock layers laid bare through erosion

I don’t know if I’ll ever come back here. It’s not for the lack of significance, spectacle or things to do, but for the same reason that I hadn’t come before. I was glad— overwhelmed actually when it comes right down to it—that I finally did visit. It’s worth a stop at least once even if you think paleontology, anthropology or geology holds no particular interest for you.