Guest writer Leah Levy visited Jackson Hole for the first time this July and joined a Wildlife Expeditions Sunrise tour on her first morning in town. Here, she shares her delightful perspective on what it's really like to experience a wildlife tour with local experts at the helm.
My trip to Jackson began, as many of my adventures do, 30,000 feet up in the air, nose deep in a good book. Stupidly, I went for my usual aisle seat, thinking more of bathroom access than of window views, and so I had no idea what I was missing as the pilot began his descent and my fellow passengers clustered around the windows, oohing and ahing.
“Which mountain is that one?” said the girl next to me to her travelmate. “It’s so beautiful!”
“LOL, this rich cast of characters sure gets themselves into a lot of hilarious binds!” I said to the page in front of me.
In fact, my book was so distracting that I was totally taken off guard as I descended the stairs and made my way onto the tarmac, only to find the snow capped Tetons staring back at me, jagged peaks slicing the blue sky. Apparently, we had flown in over one of the most dramatic and distinctive mountain ranges in the world. Who knew?
“Oh hey mountains,” I said, dragging my roller bag behind me as I walked out to meet my good friend Kirsten for dinner and drinks on Dornan’s, which afforded more Teton views and a deck bathed in golden light. This was much, much better than my book.
Unexpected delights are one of the primary reasons that I travel. As much as I may enjoy my everyday life, new characters, new sights and sounds and tastes and smells are what keep my mind sharp and my soul full. It’s just that, as I’ve grown older and my time for such things has become increasingly limited, I no longer have the luxury of wandering aimlessly from place to place and hoping something great happens.
That’s why I was so excited to embark on a Sunrise tour with the Teton Science School Wildlife Expeditions – yes, even though it meant getting up at 5:30 in the morning, a time when wildlife are really flapping their wings, stamping those paws, and commuting from nest to stream. To me, the idea of toddling along after an extremely experienced wildlife biologist who could at any given moment reveal to me a bald eagle, a bison, or even a wolf, was the very definition of an expedition filled with unexpected delights – and I didn’t even have to arrange any of it!
With eager anticipation and an entire pot of high-octane French press coffee under our belts, our friendly and uber-knowledgeable guide Paul Brown rolled up in one of Wildlife Expeditions’ custom-outfitted safari vans and we climbed on board for four hours plus of wildlife of adventures. Naturally, this began with a basket of freshly baked Persephone muffins and an offer of even more coffee, both of which on their own would have merited a 5-star rating in my book.
About Wildlife Expeditions
Wildlife Expeditions of Teton Science Schools Wildlife Expeditions is operated by the Teton Science Schools, an organization founded in 1967 that strives to connect people, nature, and place through education, science, and stewardship. Located in Jackson Hole, the organization has earned the esteem of visitors and locals alike for its exceptional safari tours led by professional biologists with an uncanny knack for locating wildlife in the wilderness in and around Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Wildlife Expeditions is Jackson Hole's original and oldest safari provider, offering year-round safaris that are perfect for the whole family. Look for moose, eagles, elk, bison, bears and much, much more while learning how our vibrant ecosystem operates its delicate balance--you'll leave appreciating the wildness that lies everywhere, even in your own backyard.
307-733-2623 | 700 Coyote Canyon Rd., Jackson
As we drove towards the National Elk Refuge right outside of the town limits, we got to talking and it turned out, Paul is from Montclair, NJ (East Coast, represent!). When I asked (jokingly) how the wildlife compared, Paul replied that he had even watched the birds there through the kitchen window of his childhood home, before becoming a fervent member of the local Audubon Society. Naturally, once he’d gotten a taste of the Tetons, the wildlife of Montclair no longer satisfied at quite the same level.
Still, this story gave me endless hope, as Paul eloquently articulated a beautiful core mission for these tours: to awaken a love of wildlife for tourists like me to take home to our own settings, no matter how urban they may be.
On cue, we stopped to spot a family of trumpeter swans floating majestically between the reeds, two baby cygnets in tow. Despite having had less than ideal interactions with swans in the past (don’t ask), my heart couldn’t help but swell at the sight. Paul explained that cygnets are very rare, and because these swans aren’t migrating anymore, their presence provides a nice helping of hope for the endangered trumpeter.
Also? Swans silhouetted against mountains as sunlit water steams off of a pond is kind of ridiculously beautiful. Unexpected delight: check.
Even as our guide regaled us with more of his knowledge of the ecosystem during our drive north to Grand Teton National Park, I wasn’t ready yet to fully believe I’d have the capacity to spot much of anything. The only two wildlife tours I had been on previously (both in India) mostly consisted of thundering down forest roads in hunt of the noise-shy Bengal tiger, then sitting there while guides pointed out brown birds expertly camouflaged against brown bark.
“Can you see it, madam? It is right there. There? See it? Follow my finger!"
“I’m following your finger. I can’t see it.”
“But it is right there. Can you see it?”
“I can’t see it.”
And so it was with a distinctly Where’s Waldo? brand of skepticism that I followed Kirsten and Paul to a bank overlooking the Snake River, pressing my eye to the spotting scope in search of a bald eagle.
At first, my fears were confirmed: nothing. But then? A flash of movement and oh my god there was not just one bald eagle, but two, just hanging out! In fact, one was dragging an actual fish towards the other for a little snack! I couldn’t believe it! I mean, I’ve been encountering bald eagles on dollar bills ever since I was a little girl, and yet here were two real ones in front of me in full color and crystal clear detail. What could I do but salute? And hum a line or two of America the Beautiful? And celebrate with a bite of muffin?
The experience only got better from there. As Paul drove us along rugged dirt track roads, he seemed to have a laser eye for wildlife. There was no “over there madaming” at all; every time we stopped and pulled out the scopes, I was rewarded with a vivid look at unique wildlife I’d never seen up close before – all in nature, just doing their thing. Paul always knew where to go, where to look, and how to guide our eyes in the right direction. Because we looked through tripod-mounted spotting scopes and well-tuned binoculars, we were treated to sharp, startlingly “close” views, all while remaining at a safe distance.
The very pinnacle for me was when we drove along another country road to the Elk Ranch area, a spot frequented by bison , and popped open our special roof hatches to find a herd lumbering across the road. Though I couldn’t help but make Oregon Trail references, once again I was entirely moved by the sight: the grazing cows and their patchwork summer coats; the red calves scurrying to catch up, stopping occasionally to suckle; the lone bull, blinking slowly back at us, utterly perplexed at the sight of these awkward humans with weird binocular faces. Our group was also delighted by the derring do of a group of mountain bluebirds who landed on the beasts’ great shoulders and hopped along the road.
Throughout our adventure (and, really, throughout my time in Wyoming), I was struck by the sheer variety of different ecosystems. Coming from drought-ridden Austin, TX, I imbibed the roaring rivers, the lushness of the mountain meadows, and even the full green of the sagebrush. All of this while never more than an arm’s length away from a trained and passionate biologist to answer all of my questions and pique my curiosity with more facts about the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Never did I waste a moment squinting across a plain, trying to determine just what had led my fellow touring compatriots to pull their cars off the road and leap out onto the pavement, waving excitedly. Nor did I have to waste time planning any of the stops, only to fall short, having lacked expert knowledge of my own. With our tour, I always knew that when Paul said to look somewhere, I better look, lest I miss an opportunity to once again feel my soul swell.
Maybe it was luck, but I couldn’t help but feel that the rest of my Jackson Hole visit benefitted enormously from our Wildlife Expeditions karma. Kirsten is a Jackson native and therefore knew exactly what to do in the region, but with the advice of Paul to ground us, we also knew the best places to go in Yellowstone for less congested hiking trails, as well as the best times and places to go wildlife spotting on our own. In that way, a tour with Wildlife turned out to be the perfect orientation for the rest of our adventure.
Perhaps that’s why over the course of my visit, we casually ran into a bison grazing in a meadow of blue bonnets, glimpsed bighorn sheep traversing a mountainside, and witnessed a mother goat and her kid nursing on top of Mt. Washburn.
Not sure what magical strings Paul was pulling for us with the universe that day, but all I can say is, “Thanks, Wildlife Expeditions!”
Next time I visit – because I’m certainly coming back – I’ll be sure to snag that window seat on the plane.
Related: Jackson Hole Tours: The Essentials
Leah Levy is a writer from Austin, TX. She writes green, lifestyle, marketing and tech articles for several major companies as well as blogposts, newspapers web copy and white papers for corporations and small businesses. She is also the founder and head writing consultant at Just Start Storytelling, a company that helps high schoolers, college and graduate students find the right programs for them and write the best applications to get them there. Her fiction writing and terribly drawn comics are available on her blog.