Sunday, July 31, 2011

Yellowstone 2011

I haven't kept track of -- though someday maybe I should reconstruct -- the number of times I've been to Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton NP, and the Greater Yellowstone Area, though regardless of the number, it's never enough. The area is vast, and varied, ever-changing, ever-beautiful no matter what the weather, season, or the altitude, latitude or longitude at which you stand. KLK and I were there for 10 days in early June this year. Here's a run-down of what all we saw and experienced that goes in our "first ever" column:
Since gray wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995, wolf-watching has been a major fascination for many people. In the winter of 2010, several of the historically predominant packs whose territories were in the Lamar Valley area and thus relatively easy to watch from the road were extirpated by mange. By the summer of 2011, other packs were moving in to replace them, but numbers are still down. But not the watchers, to be sure, they're still there in numbers. See them up there at the top of the hill with their spotting scopes aimed and ready?
But if wolf numbers are down, what are they watching? Surprise! Unrelated (presumably) to the reduction in wolf numbers, this year there has been an unaccountable explosion of watchable badgers (Taxidea taxus) in the old wolf territory. Although I've seen badgers there once or twice before, it was only with the help of people who had already spotted them, and with lots of magnification. This year, there were several dens very close to the roads, and eminently photographable. Here's a mother with a couple of her kits:
Bison (Bison bison) are ubiquitous and iconic. They're everywhere in Yellowstone and are also frequently seen in the Tetons. Like the badgers, bison bring their babies into the world in May and June. But we've never had the thrill of watching an actual birth. This trip, we missed the exact moment by just a very few minutes. We were stopped in traffic, people were out of their cars along the roadside, and we could see a large herd of bison cows with their orange calves peaceably doing what bison do (mostly eating), when all of a sudden we heard a cheer go up. I looked up to see a stream of blood coming out of the back end of a bison, and knew what had happened: her labor was was at last over. At this point traffic started to inch forward, until, within a few minutes, we got our turn to look: 
You can just see a little bit of umbilical cord between the baby's shaky legs. Note, too, the older calves snoozing in the background, and how this exciting event isn't even registered by the others.

But not all is always well among the bison. In spite of their massive size and power, they are still subject to starvation, old age, injury, and predation.We spotted this very sorry old bull plodding along the roadside, by himself, in the pouring rain:
He's extremely thin, scarred up, he has a swelling or lump on his left rear hock. And something else very serious going on: He has no tail. And, he has no anus. On close examination of the enlarged photo, the tail looks like it's been gone a long time (or even perhaps was never there), but the anal condition looks relatively new. Did the injury cause the sickly condition, or did the sickly condition result in vulnerability to attack (wolf, bear, cougar)? Or, we speculated that it might have been a birth defect, given how symmetrical the opening directly into this guy's rectum is. Mother Nature can be cruel indeed. 

Chicken-sized blue grouse (Dendragapus obscurus), fairly common in the area, are notoriously easy to tame, and, stupidly or otherwise, often unafraid of humans. We came across this handsome guy, with his feathery  legs and orange eye-wattles, hanging out at a pull-out along one of the high-altitude passes in Yellowstone. 
He was there for two days in a row, and not just unafraid: he was downright interested in people, and seemed to particularly like me. I let him approach and bent down to see how tolerant he would be of my hand. He pecked at it, never quite making contact; if I leaned forward, he acted very offended, puffing upright and opening his wings (more intimidating, you know!), gobbling at me. But if I walked away, he followed, walking 6 or 8 feet behind. If I sped up a little, he sped up too. It seems unlikely he was looking for a hand-out, so far as I know, grouse don't go for potato chips and marshmallows, preferring seeds and insects found in their home range.I guess we'll never know what he was thinking.
Photo courtesy K.L. Kuehnel
And of course there are deer, of many sorts (white-tailed, mule, and their relatives the elk and the moose) throughout the Greater Yellowstone Area. Along the wonderfully scenic Chief Joseph Highway connecting Cody, Wyoming with the Northeast Entrance of Yellowstone, we came across a herd of mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) waiting (fortunately!) to cross the road. 
(From a 2009 trip along the same route)
There was no traffic, so we stopped to allow them to pass. One by one they ventured across our lane, then each suddenly stopped stock still to look down at the yellow and black center line. After considering  for a moment, each then leapt way up over the line as if it were a 4-foot fence, and dashed up the opposite hill to join its waiting mates. We were laughing so hard it took too long to get my camera out, so I caught this young lady, the last to cross, just at the moment she successfully completed her mighty hurdle. 
Bears are notoriously fond of bathing and swimming, and very fun to watch as they do so. But of course they sometimes enter the water out of necessity or other serious intention as well. As KLK climbed down to explore on the hard-to-reach shore of the Yellowstone River just above where Tower Creek runs into it, very swollen and swift with snowmelt after this exceptionally snowy winter, I stood on a high bluff enjoying the magnificent view. 
Photo courtesy K.L. Kuehnel
All of a sudden I saw what looked like a large dark basketball bobbing purposefully was a black bear (Ursus Americanus) whose agenda that day happened to take it from one side of the river to the other. Extraordinarily, powerfully, its long route across the river was almost perpendicular to the shore, with very little downstream drift. KLK caught this moment as it stepped onto the far shore. It's good to have a nice benign demonstration once in a while of how strong bears truly are! 
Photo courtesy K.L. Kuehnel
Bears, it turns out, aren't the only critters interested in water. We often carve time out of our wildness experience to visit the wonderful Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone, Montana, for more intimate views of these beasts that, for one reason or another, but almost always following unfortunate interactions with humans, cannot be released to the wild. They're well cared for there, although as usually the case with such facilities, they don't have much room to roam, and extra effort has to go into providing appropriate stimuli to prevent the development of mental illness. The bears, for example, are rotated in and out of the public viewing area, and between bears, the staff hides treats and toys among the rocks and brush that the bears then have to seek for healthy entertainment. But I'd not seen anything on that order for the wolves (Canis lupus) until this year, when their little wading ponds were stocked with small fish. A couple of them seemed to be fascinated with the fish, but I was fascinated with the bears, so KLK stayed to watch them. He reports that one of them finally caught and consumed a small fish. Who knew these magnificent meat-eaters would consider that fun? Sorry he didn't get an action shot, but here is one of the fishing wolves, watching intently for its chance to bite!

Monday, July 25, 2011

I ate my photograph

Rainier cherries. I photographed them. Then I ate them.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

It's Teddy Time again

Ah, sweetest, funniest Teddy, you've probably just about marked your second birthday (you were about 3 months old when I found you--rather, when you found me--in early October, 2009) but I'm not sure you've left your kittenhood all that far behind. It's for moments like this this morning that I keep a camera out and at the ready. I really wish I knew what goes on in that little cat head of yours!
Teddy is only my second very-own cat (though long, long ago my college room-mate had cats, and I once had a prolonged cat-sitting gig for a neighbor's kitten); with my first very-own cat Winston, I had the foresight to have him declawed (front only) when he was very tiny and the knuckle bones weren't fully fused. By the time Teddy appeared in my life 21 years later, I had been sufficiently influenced, or enlightened, by anti-declawing movements that I couldn't bring myself to declaw him. (While Winston never developed Teddy's muscularity, speed and coordination, I don't know if that was the effect of declawing or just the way Winston was constituted. In fact he otherwise never seemed to miss his claws.) After all, I told myself, people say you can guide a cat to use appropriate scratching devices--sisal posts, whatever. I don't know who those "people" are but they've not met Teddy. Note the nice cardboard scratcher (he disdains the very attractive, expensive sisal post, designated as the "ultimate scratcher" and rated 5 stars--by people, not by cats--we acquired for him) on top of the bench...but he sure finds the furniture to be the most suitable scratching posts ever!
Note how he's totally destroyed the near corner of the bench, and has now moved on to the far corner. The background noise is the air conditioner (which has been going non-stop for weeks now); Teddy's clawing is so satisfyingly robust that you can easily hear it over the noisy A/C. Anyway, it's a good thing that was an inexpensive piece, though I did rather like it better before the stuffing started to pop out of it...

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

i so to glad you i am love

I have a little counter on my blog that provides a few statistics and other bits of information about visitors, including what key words or search terms they used that landed them at Amusing Musings. This morning my counter reports that someone who searched on "i so to glad you i am love" visited AM. Wow. I wonder if they found what they were searching for?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Bear Country

I have always loved to hike. By hike, I mean walk in the wilds for a few miles, maybe up to about 8 of them if the terrain is pretty flat, though 6 is ideal before my crummy old feet give out. I suppose I limit myself by carrying a heavy pack of camera equipment – two cameras, two lenses – binoculars, lunch, water, maps, bird book, cell phone (which, if I’m hiking where I really like to, is out of range).  Someday maybe I’ll get over the need to be optically over-prepared and lighten my load, but until then, I’m traveling heavy.
View of Swan Lake Flats, Antler Peak, the Gardiner River and Gardner's Hole from Bunsen Peak in Yellowstone; please click to enlarge
Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks and the surrounding national forests offer unlimited hiking possibilities, although I tend to repeat my favorite trails when I can. In Yellowstone it’s Mt. Washburn, its smaller, more easily do-able cousin Bunsen Peak (the photo is a panorama stitch of photos taken atop Bunsen last time I was up there), Slough Creek to First Meadow, Lone Star Geyser and beyond to a couple of great back-country thermals, Hellroaring Creek; in the Tetons, it’s Colter Bay to Jackson Lake Lodge, Phelps Lake from Death Canyon trail head or the Rockefeller Preserve, Two Ocean Lake...the list goes on, but the best part is that there are a vast number of trails out there I’ve yet to set foot on.  Isn’t that great?

There’s plenty of hiking in the other places we go as well, especially in the many other national parks that we have been to, or are yet to visit; there are even interesting trails in the ‘burbs of Chicago. A couple of autumns ago KLK started out on a trail at Peninsula State Park in Door County, Wisconsin. We were surrounded by tall, straight deciduous trees, their green, red, and gold leaves fluttering against the blue sky in the sunny breeze. But something was took me only a few yards from the trail head to identify exactly what it was: there was no possibility of seeing any “charismatic megafauna” and in particular, no chance of encountering a bear.

Given the state of current events--the fatal mauling of a hiker in Yellowstone by a female grizzly bear who felt he threatened her cub; a black bear nibbling on a camper in his tent in Leadville, Colorado--anyone reading this has doubtless by now concluded that I am crazy.

Bear Honker
I have seen bears while hiking (though the vast majority of my sightings are from the road, largely because that’s where I spend most of my park time), and I do carry bear spray and rehearse its use in my head; when I hike with others, I always remind them before we set out that we must not hike too far apart, and if we spot a bear, stand shoulder-to-shoulder so we look big. Or bigger, maybe. Instead of “bear bells” (aka, dinner bells from the bear's point of view) which, take it from me, can’t be heard more than 30 feet away along a rushing stream, around a blind bend in heavy brush, or in a forest full of trees swaying in the wind, I carry what I call a “bear honker,” a $3 bicycle horn, to let bears far and wide know there’s a stranger in their territory before inadvertent confrontation. I’m pretty sure that obnoxious noise carries far enough, as I’ve had oncoming hikers comment, irked, on the distance from which they heard me coming.

There’s no doubt that the risk of a rendezvous with a bear, be it black or grizzly, heightens the pleasure I get from hitting the trails. Of course there are other thrilling possibilities as well. Once KLK and I were heading up to Avalanche Peak in Yellowstone, when we heard a great crunching up ahead. I just knew it was a huge, and grumpy, grizzly. I knew it and my heart was pounding in my throat. We froze. Then what should emerge from the brush but an immense bull moose with a magnificent full rack. It stopped mid-trail, and, calmly chewing his cud, looked us up and down, then stepped into the tall trees to our left and, faster than imaginable for a 1,200 lb animal, vanished.
Cinnamon-colored black bear, Yellowstone
On another occasion, a friend and I were two-thirds along the short trail to Trout Lake when I spotted a cinnamon-colored black bear about 30 yards off the trail. He was minding his own business, but I didn't want him getting the idea of following us after we passed. So I squeezed my bear honker and yelled I HAVE BEAR SPRAY!!! (which was true) and jumped up and down and waved my arms and repeatedly ordered him to skedaddle. He looked at me like I was surely some kind of major village idiot, and I suspect he was right. In any case, his little bear brain wheels turned slowly and deliberately, as going away wasn’t on his agenda, but ultimately, after several minutes of my terrifying threat display he decided discretion was the better part of valor and turned tail. A lot of adrenalin at the time, but in retrospect, probably a tempest in a teapot.
Grizzly bear along the roadside, Yellowstone National Park
Part of the inspiration for this post comes from “Up the Crick,” a story by Tom Reed in the May-June 2011 issue of Wyoming Wildlife News. Wyoming Wildlife, an excellent publication by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, is of course highly responsive to the interests of hunters and fishermen, but unfailingly so from the viewpoint of a highly responsible conservation ethic.  

Reed’s superb 25 column-inch story is about the vibrancy and inspiration that comes from being in bear country and the mental and physical clarity it demands. He concludes, “I know there are other opinions out there, those would rather have an absolute serenity in the wild, would rather not have even the ghost of a grizzly in the territory. I am different. I would rather feel that shock of a hammering heart, would rather hit the soprano note in my “Hey BEAR!” and would rather be alive in a country where we have learned to tolerate and respect. This is the difference between the wild and the deep wild. Or, perhaps this is the difference between just another piece of country, and one that holds mystery and an adventure, a feeling of what it once was when it was all this way. I like having that charge of fast-twitch electricity in my neurons and blood. I like the charge.” I could not have put it better myself.
Grizzly with three cubs, Grand Teton National Park

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Web cam updates

Click on photo to enlarge for detail
I'm an addict of web cams, at least those pointed at various wonderful subjects in the greater Yellowstone area, which I check multiple times every day. It's been a few months since I posted favorite or interesting cam captures - one reason is that just a month ago KLK and I returned from another great adventure in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, with a 36-hour side trip to Cody, Wyoming, so stay tuned for upcoming posts about that wonderful trip. 
Meanwhile, here's a picture taken from one of the two cams atop Mount Washburn where they are housed in the lookout and used to survey their respective domains for signs of wild fire. In the lower left corner is a good-sized herd of bighorn sheep, all, as far as  I can tell, ewes with lambs. On close inspection, it seems the big-curl rams are spending the summer in bachelor parties elsewhere. There are also a couple of hikers along the trail.
We have hiked to the top of Washburn several times, but it wasn't an option early this June. I took the photo below along the road from which both the northern and southern trails to the summit depart. Hikers are now (mid-July) to be seen on the web cam every day. 

More posts soon from Yellowstone at ground level!

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Shingles Shot Saga: or Why America Needs More than a Little Health Insurance Reform

This is a story of a timeline, a modicum of savvy, access to resources, and perseverance, more than anything else.  It is also a story about how our health care access and insurance systems can fail, and how someone who is fully eligible for coverage could completely fall through the cracks.

I am a big believer in immunizations and I am also well aware of how devastatingly debilitating shingles can be, and how anyone, whether healthy or compromised, can suddenly be affected. Shingles is the resurgence of the dormant varicella herpes virus in individuals who have previously been infected with chickenpox. Most of us had chickenpox when we were little. In fact, doctors used to encourage parents to allow their children to be exposed to this contagious infection with the idea that the disease is much more serious, with a much higher complication rate, the older we get, so kids ought to just get it over with when young and resilient. It used to be viewed as pretty harmless, though now many children are vaccinated for chickenpox. It’s not a requirement in most venues but I strongly feel it should be, because by preventing chickenpox the incidence of shingles in older populations can be vastly reduced. No infectious disease is fully benign, including shingles.
Shingles, which arises from the nervous system where the virus resides, in its simplest and most common manifestation causes a burning, extremely painful skin rash along nerve roots that usually, but not always, resolves within a month or so. In some people, such as my mother, the pain takes far longer to resolve–sometimes more than a year–and the rash leaves tender scars. And it can be much worse, invading the eyes for example. So why would anyone  leave themselves open for that if there is effective prevention? It is recommended, given that there was no avoiding chickenpox in my cohort, that folks over 60 be given a “shingles shot” to obviate or mitigate the occurrence of shingles. Please read the official word from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
So at my annual checkup early this year, I asked my doctor about it. Note that he practices at the University of Chicago, which styles itself “at the forefront of medicine” and is indeed a major tertiary medical center. Mind you, I am 61, so why he didn’t bring it up himself I can’t say. In any case, he told me that because the vaccine is not carried in the University’s formulary he would give me a prescription, and told me to get it filled at a pharmacy and to bring it back to clinic to be administered. I checked at my local Osco Pharmacy; yes, they could get the vaccine, but they would have to order it. The cost was $225. Okay, I thought, I’ll check my local Walgreens to see if they have it in stock. In fact, Walgreens had a big lighted sign to that effect at the corner of two main drags and two more lesser signs near the store entryway. From the signs I learned that the pharmacist could not only sell me the stuff, but administer it as well. Bingo! 
Assuming no appointment was required, I presented myself at Walgreens pharmacy one early March evening. The pharmacist on duty happened to be the grandson of my neighbor. I’ve known the guy since he was a pre-teen. He’s a perfectly lovely and very intelligent young man who now works for Walgreens as a rotating fill-in pharmacist. Although this neighborhood has long been his stomping ground, he doesn’t work regularly at this particular store.  He said, “Sure! I can administer it, give me a few minutes and I’ll take care of you.” He then disappeared into the back for a good 20 minutes before emerging to confess he could not find the vaccine. I said, “OK, I’ll just come back another day.” (drat!) By the time I got home, he had left a message on my answering machine that he had finally located it and I could come back any time.
The next free moment I had was several evenings later, by then someone else was on duty. “Sure!” she says, “I can administer it, if you can wait about 20 minutes.” I said fine, and sat down to people-watch at this busy drug store. After a half hour, I inquired as to whether I was still in the queue. The pharmacist said, “Oh yes, I was just trying to figure out how to charge it to your insurance (Blue Cross-Blue Shield).”  I said, “Oh, don’t bother, I know they won’t pay for it, because Walgreens is out of network,  but I can pay for it out of pocket and [based on how they had handled my claim for a $29.99 flu shot, administered at another pharmacy the previous fall] although they won’t reimburse me, they will at least apply it to my deductible.” So with this information, she finally came out to the waiting room and gave me the injection, somewhat embarrassingly, it the blobby fat at the very back of my arm almost in my armpit. Apparently this is where “subcutaneous” injections are now routinely given. Whatever. I’m usually pretty oblivious to injections, but this thing might as well have been a wasp sting. Yikes!
It quieted down, but with a day or started to itch and burn and turned a quite large patch of skin deep red like nothing else. I looked it up on the internet (thanks, Google!) which assured me that this is not an unusual reaction. I think (I hope) it meant my immune system was launching a robust response to the antigen challenge. Anyway, it took a full week for it to settle down. After all that, I’d better be good and resistant to shingles for the rest of my life!
So in order to claim the out-of-pocket $219.99 against my deductible, I mailed the claim (regular old 44¢ USPS ) to BC/BS of Illinois on March 12, four days after receiving the injection. I checked on it on April 1, but did not see it on-line in my account, so I FAX’d it. It wasn’t there in April 12 either, so I called. “No, I’m sorry, I don’t see it” said the nice service representative. I FAX’d it again April 18. Still didn’t show up a week later, so I tried again April 21. On April 26, I had KLK FAX it from his office. Finally! (Don’t ask me why it worked for him but nor for me, in spite of the confirming assurances of the FAX machine where I work.) Samantha, another pleasant service rep, confirmed on the phone that it was in the pipeline at BC/BS.  I patiently awaited adjudication, assuming it would be treated the same as the flu shot: no reimbursement, but counted toward my deductible.
Lo and behold, at the end of the first week in May I got an explanation of benefits. Although the principle was precisely the same as the flu shot that was denied as being “out of network,” unaccountably they determined it would be eligible for 50% coverage. The EOB announced, “Payment of $110.00 was made to VERONICA WALD on 05-06-2011 check number 56176223.”
WOO-HOO, methinks, although I’m mystified by why it wasn’t handled the same way as the flu shot last fall. So I wait almost a month, and guess what? No check. I call, and am politely told I must wait 30 days before a new check can be issued. Thirty days later I was out of town, so I called on June 20, thirty days and then some, later. The kind representative said, “We’ll issue a new check, expect it in 10 to 30 days.”
Do you believe it? The actual check showed up on July 1. I deposited it immediately. What do you think the chances are the check will bounce?
But the real points of all this are: 1. Health care professionals, even at highly reputable institutions, can be oblivious to the potential enormous benefits of inoculation, so take charge of your own doctor visits; 2. I supposedly have very good health care coverage, but it’s amply clear I must monitor it closely and stick up for myself, because the administration of the plan is not even remotely efficient; 3. My “quality” health care insurer can’t determine what its own policies and coverage rules are and apply them consistently; 4. If I were  elderly, debilitated, without have convenient access to FAX machines (since mail turns out to not work either), or otherwise had no way to work the system, I would certainly not have received any reimbursement. $220 is a lot out-of-pocket for some people, and those who could not afford it would just not pursue vaccination; 5. The insurance company is being very shortsighted by not readily paying the full cost for vaccinations, regardless of where they are administered. Those unfortunate enough to have to seek help for full-blown shingles would then cost the health insurance system far more than $220, including a diagnostic visit and semi-palliative, though not curative, treatments; 6. What if the stakes had been really high, like with cancer treatment, organ transplant, by-pass surgery, and the insurance company lost claim after claim and then didn’t apply its policies consistently?   

Friday, July 1, 2011

City in a Zoo

Mother and baby possums by rufus50
Mother and baby possums, used by permission, rufus50 on Flickr.

One of Chicago's several mottoes is urbs in hortis (or urbs in horto) which means, aptly, "city in a garden." It is indeed a conscientiously woodsy and flowery place in the summer, even, maybe especially, in the heart of the Loop. It could equally aptly be the urbs in bestiary. There have been sightings, in neighborhoods far from mine, of deer, coyotes, and once even a cougar (peremptorily shot to death by the police; they never did figure out where it came from). In my neighborhood, which is one of many parks, small woodlands, and ample fresh water, we routinely see racoons and cottontail rabbits, as well as predatory beasts of the air such as peregrine falcons, kestrels, and red-tailed hawks. This morning my friend Karen and I were heading out to the path along Lake Michigan for our constitutional when we noticed something furry moving in the shrubs in somebody's front yard. We're both always on the lookout for stray cats, so we stopped to take a look. What should pop out from under the greenery than a momma opossum with two babies gripping her back, exactly as in this photo (with my thanks to Brian Walak for its use). The babies, miniature replicas of their parent, and their mom fixed their shoe-button eyes on us. We could see whatever wheels opossums have in their little heads were turning: are these two-leggeds going to leave us alone, or should we make a run for it? Or play dead? Or??  Finally, in the name of getting to work on time, Karen and I broke off the stare-down and continued our power-walk; mom promptly ducked under a garden gate just exactly far enough so the kids wouldn't be scraped off her back, and took them safely under the hostas in the next yard.
Although there were plenty possums (as they're usually called these days) in southern Indiana where I grew up, they are nocturnal and most often observed in the form of road kill. They're usually not considered attractive - their long naked tails make them look a lot like oversized rats. So this is really the first time in my life I've come across a living family up close, and I have to say, the babies clinging to their mother's back and the look on their mother's face were in fact quite endearing.