Marking the 100th birthday of national parks — with the next generation

Somewhere up there, in the foothills and mountains of Yellowstone National Park, the Druid Pack of gray wolves roams and hunts elk for a living.

Among the most famous of the approximately 450 wolves now living in and around our nation’s first national park, the Druid Pack is having an amazing effect on the park’s ecosystems and on the other animals there.

Endlessly and relentlessly hounded and shot and poisoned and chased across the landscape, wolves have a unique place in the animal hierarchy in this country. They were done away with in most of the Lower 48 decades ago, but scientists managed a reintroduction program starting in the mid-1990s that has taken hold and, 20 years later, given the animals another chance.

With an abundance of overpopulated elk on which to feed, the wolves have found life pretty sweet in the Lamar Valley (where we are waiting and watching) and other regions of the park. Although some wolves still drift across the boundaries of the park and into Wyoming and Montana and Utah, where they invariably are shot as vermin, the packs — central to survival and social stability — are managing to hold on and thrive.

I’ve seen wolves, from the air and on the ground, in Alaska and Canada, but never in the Rockies. I’ve never heard one howl, and I really want to before I die.

We’ve come to the park as part of a Wild West tour of parks with our grandchildren, 10-year-old twins Ben and Connie Cooper, budding conservationists and naturalists with strong feelings about animals and habitat and what that means to them and to their own children down the road.

Over two weeks in late July and early August, using our $10 lifetime old folks pass to get into the parks, we put 4,509 miles on the truck while traveling to the Grand Canyon, Arches National Park and Yellowstone, and Navajo and Hopi reservations and villages, reliving some old dreams and taking the kids where we took their mom when she was much younger than they.

I think it’s working, too. Connie sits for two weeks in the seat right behind me, never falling asleep and never taking her eyes off the country outside. Ben stays awake as well but insists he’s filming a documentary on Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. (Thursday was the 100th birthday for our national parks.)

“That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” Connie says from time to time, as we see incredible rainbows and mountain vistas.

At random times during his filming, Ben throws his arms in the air and screams, “Documentary,” scaring the shoes off a few old ladies and his grandparents. He did this at Old Faithful, ending the session by urgently asking, “Where are we? Where are we?”

Both kids are diligent about writing in their journals (bought just for the trip) each night about what they saw that day and what they liked about food and sights, and then drawing pictures of things they saw. They have their own cameras and take pictures of the things that interest them, and Connie completes several spectacular pieces of art that include mountains and buttes and antelope and prairie dogs. Ben draws a picture of a prairie dog with one giant, misshapen foot.

We let them buy presents for their mom and dad and themselves during trips to Hubbell Trading Post in Navajo country and at a couple of small shops Rana had found during a run through Arizona’s Hopi, or the Center of the Universe, as natives call it.

We show them Monument Valley, where several notable John Wayne Westerns were filmed, but that goes right by them. Movies from “Gram Time” don’t call to them the way they did to us as kids.

I love the fact that both of them seem to have a budding love for the wild places of this country, whether it’s the mile deep spot called Navajo Point in the Grand Canyon or Hayden Valley in Yellowstone.

It’s particularly gratifying to see them fall in love with the bison in Lamar Valley, way up in the northeastern corner of Yellowstone. It’s the beginning of breeding season and virtually every bull of age has a cow all to himself. The biggest and most mature bulls walk along the road, mouths open and tongues hanging out as they announce through loud basso bleats and growls their dominance and standing.

The kids love watching their displays of dominance and the occasional fights that break out, when two giant bulls, both of which can top a ton, begin pawing the ground and throwing up giant clouds of dust before lowering their heads and butting each other in wild, woolly displays.

We spent a couple of days in the park hitting as many of the thermal areas as we could, including Old Faithful. There were as many as 3,000 people gathered around the plot of mostly bare ground surrounding the giant geyser, which is the figurehead for the park.

We keep the kids on the walkways around these areas, warning them about the fragility of the surrounding habitat, as well as the dangers of walking too close to boiling, acidified pools and mud pots. That isn’t always easy, though, as some people insist on defying the rules and going where they think there’s a better picture. It’s disappointing, but it’s true.

At the Grand Canyon, where Ben wanted to throw rocks off into the abyss, both the children are dismayed by the sight of adults leading their children off into closed areas to perch them precariously for photos on the edge of the giant river canyon. Some people just don’t know how dangerous it is, I tell them, though both of them are worried someone’s going to get hurt.

Ten days into the trip, as we were preparing to get breakfast in Cooke City, Ben suddenly turns to his grandmother and says, “I’m ready to see my mommy.”

That was our signal to begin the five-day trip home, a trip that took us down through Utah, parts of Colorado and New Mexico and finally back to Central Texas, where the heat was blasting past 100 degrees for another day.

But we finished with great memories and loads of photos, as well as the knowledge that we had given our kids something that they will carry the rest of their lives.

Thanks, Teddy Roosevelt.

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