yellowstone national park

Yellowstone: Mary Bay

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My field partner and I had fantastic luck this year with finding the unfindable. Seriously. Just like the salamanders hanging out in the Observation wetland, Mary Bay was even more of an unexpected surprise. There are only a handful of wetlands in the Park that have all four amphibian species and we were able to add Mary Bay to that list…it took us a few tries though.

The bottom portion of Mary Bay is filled with small thermal pools that dry up quickly and one very large pond that is so mucky around the edge that you can barely survey it. It’s actually pretty gross in there because it’s all filled with animal poo. The geese (as you can see in the photo above) and swans fill the wetland up. In fact, everything likes to poo in there. I’ve never seen so much tadpole poo in my life. I was scooping up large clumps of it. Heck, I even had to take a station break and go in the trees nearby. That never happens. Hailey’s Comet is more common.There’s just something very bowel releasing about the place. I’m not sure if that has anything to do with the fact that one scientist in the Park is convinced that if Yellowstone erupts, Mary Bay will be ground zero. Coincidence? I think not!

This is our annual July 4th survey. It’s usually scheduled for a half day and always takes a full day. Oh Mary Bay… The smaller sites were finished quickly because most had already dried up. The puddle-sized ones were bursting forth with tadpoles, adults still calling and attempting to lay even more eggs and metamorphs pouring out onto the dry ground. It was glorious. By the time we hit the Bay of Poo, the sky opened up and completely drenched us. Not the best way to begin an 1.5 hour survey! Because of the quicksand shoreline we were both only able to survey a small portion of the wetland. Despite this, we were convinced that we had seen spotted frog tadpoles, a load of chorus frog tadpoles, two fleeting salamander larvae and no toad tadpoles.

Later on, I spoke to Deb about what we’d seen and she mentioned being surprised that toad tadpoles are never found there because it’s thermal and they dig that scene. I began to question my amphibian identification skills at that point because, in retrospect, the thousands of small, dark tads clumped together along the shoreline seemed like they could have been toads. Toad tadpoles love to hang out in large congregations and are very curious. They won’t swim away when you approach them. In fact, they’ll usually swim right over to see what’s up. Other species definitely don’t act this way. At the time, we just couldn’t get that close to really tell for sure. So since we were returning in a few days to survey the dreaded upper sites, I agreed to give Poo Bay another looksee. Well, low-and-behold after much heated debate, we determined that the clumps of spotted frog tads were in fact, toads. By the hundreds! Thus, we were able to add Poo Bay to our small list of sites containing every amphibian species in the Park.

Surveying in Yellowstone is definitely like a box of chocolates…just not as tasty.

yellowstone national park

Yellowstone: Solfatara

Yup, still working my way through Yellowstone pics. These ones will not disappoint! No way in heck!

Solfatara is another fun site with tons of wetlands which are not too far from a trail. The trail is an absolute godsend because the forest is all downfall with sparse regrowth from previous burns so there’s a fair amount of hurdling involved. It takes about four days to survey the site so it’s gargantuan but extremely manageable.

Adding to my already impressive list of animal encounters this year, I saw the one creature I’ve been completely dying to see and it was waaaaay better than I’ve ever imagined it could be. Right at the start of the field season, I declared that if I saw a single, solitary river otter, even from a distance, than I could immediately go home a happy camper. That was my absolute #1 bucket list animal. And actually the second animal on my bucket list was a moose and you know how that turned out. (If you don’t, well, shame on you and then click here. Actually, click there anyways because I updated the photos.)

This was my third year surveying Solfatara and I’ve never seen an otter there but I heard through the Yellowstone grapevine that they’ve been hanging around those parts so my fingers were crossed. About halfway through our third survey day we got to a rather large pond/small lake. I began surveying first and about 1/4 of the way around a large brown creature plopped into the water only a few feet ahead of me. As you can tell from other posts, when I’m surveying a wetland, I’m not doing a great job of staying aware of my surroundings. That’s definitely something I need to work on because as you’ve read from the moose post, it’s gotten me into dangerously stupid situations.

Once I heard the plop, I froze and just waited for a second because whatever it was sounded rather large. As I stood at the waters edge, the adorable heads of not one but two river otters popped out of the water right there at my feet. I should have known something was up because I kept seeing spots where something(s) had been sunning itself along the edge and leaving behind half-eaten salamanders. I decided to start my surveys back up again so that I could give them some distance, but much to my surprise, they swam alongside me as I walked along the edge. Then my field partner got into the mix and they had to split their time between us.

Eventually, they found us boring and slid back on to the grassy edge to pose for pictures, perform their obviously well-rehearsed circus routine (which included laying on top of each other and then moving their heads in unison) and tying themselves into a knot and falling asleep. At the end of my survey, I decided to be a bit brazen and see how close I could get to them before they’d actually wake up. Well, it was only about ten feet. They poked their heads up at me, yawned and went back to bed. Its pretty sad when even an otter twosome finds you completely harmless.

Enjoy the pics! Aren’t they something!?!

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yellowstone national park

Yellowstone: Blacktail Plateau Drive

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Welcome to Disneyland people! This site was another first for me and I certainly hope it’s not my last. Honestly, as soon as we parked our car and started hiking, we had elk bounding across our path and birds were perched on our shoulders singing Zip-A-Dee-Do-Dah. I felt like I was in a cartoon. We followed a great horned owl flying from tree to tree along with its tubby two fledglings. This blew me away because I’ve never encountered an owl in the daytime before and a great horned at that!

Our first wetland was occupied by a bison herd so we had to work around them as best we could. They were less than thrilled so they begrudgingly decided to move on about halfway through my survey. This was a bummer for me because everything is better with bison, including field work. As the mass migration was taking place, a few folks on horseback came down into the valley to chat with us while we surveyed. We must really be a site for people to behold. Here they are in the backcountry taking in the beautiful rolling hills of Yellowstone, never expecting to see another human soul, and two little girls with nets and waders pop out from the middle of a bison herd grazing in a wetland. Surprise!!!

Not only was the hiking and the wildlife viewing spectacular, the surveying wasn’t too shabby either. A few of the wetlands were absolutely filled to the brim with salamanders. No complaints there. The last wetland was an extremely large wet meadow comprised of tall, sharp grass which sliced my skin with every net swipe. Not cool. That’s a lot of pain just to find nothing but that’s how the job goes sometimes. The one rather neat thing about that meadow was that the substrate was comprised of itty-bitty fresh water clams. I kid you not. I’ve never seen anything like it in Yellowstone. Until further inspection, they looked like small pebbles. I told my field partner to examine the substrate and she agreed that I wasn’t totally out of my mind. Later, I told my supervisor what I’d seen and in all of her decades working in the area she’s never heard of anything like it. Thus, I’m not sure if someone slipped me some crack or not but at least my field partner was right there with me.

As you will discover from my blog, we survey a lot of Blacktail sites: Blacktail Pond, Blacktail Plateau, Blacktail something-or-other. These areas are in the northern part of the Park which includes a harrowing, pants-pooping trip over Dunraven Pass to get to. Usually, I’m frazzled and in need of medication and new pair of undies by the time we arrive at our destination. It’s certainly worth the trip though.

In all seriousness, this is where the rubber meets the road for climate change. Here, wetland loss is measurable and can be witnessed from year to year. People can argue the causes all they want but unless they have their head completely in the sand, they can’t deny that climate change is happening. This year Andy, Kenda and crew installed some data loggers in a few Blacktail wetlands to measure how rapidly this is all taking place. Time will tell but for now the future remains uncertain for the amphibians in this area. If only it was as easy as gathering them all into a large knapsack and releasing them somewhere safe. One can dream…

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The adult great horned owl in the trees.
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A garter snake sunning and eating all my tadpoles…jerk!
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This fawn and its mama were hanging out on the road as we drove to the site. Look at it scamper. So darn cute! I just want to pinch it! Pinch…Pinch.
yellowstone national park

Yellowstone: Storm Point

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From Indian Pond, to forest, to meadow, to dunes, to lakeside and back again. Storm Point is a super slice of heaven.
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A glorious view of the mountains from the shore of the largest high-altitude lake in the lower 48, Yellowstone Lake.

Storm Point is my absolute favorite hiking trail in Yellowstone. It’s short, non-strenuous, easy to get to and the views are breathtaking. Additionally, I always have interesting animal encounters here. Last year it was an overly-friendly squirrel doing vaudeville, complete with a top hat and cane, right there at my feet. This year was no different. I witnessed a nail-biter of a marmot squabble during my walk. As I approached the rocky cliff pictured above, an older couple warned me that there was a marmot scuffle in progress so I grabbed some popcorn and pulled up a seat (or stump in my case). There was indeed an argument of some sort taking place and I caught the tail end (oooh no pun intended). The triumphant winner is pictured here:

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Sorry for the animal scavenger hunt here. I promise, if you look hard enough, you’ll see the critter peeking out through the dead limbs on the ground…with a satisfied smirk on its face.

The other marmot was sent packing and scurried up the dunes to nurse its pride on a large rock.

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Can you see the pouty face on the rock there?
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Here’s a closer look at the little fella. That, my friends, is the look of defeat. Poor thing. We all win some and lose some, in seemingly equal measure.

Then I literally ran into a rabbit. Yup, tripped right over it. Apparently, it has the right-of-way on the trail? Is this a rule I was not aware of?

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Yet another animal scavenger hunt! Camouflaged against a tree, you’ll see the little scalywag when I’m not running over it.

Then as I approached Indian Pond, right at dusk, I watched the deer graze around the edges and even saw one swim from one end to the other. Ahh… the wonders of nature never cease to amaze. We are all blessed to live in a world where we can witness such things. Don’t take any of it for granted.

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yellowstone national park

Yellowstone: Indian Pond

Indian Pond. Home to a ton of toad tadpoles and many, but not as many, spotted frog tads.
Indian Pond. Home to a ton of toad tadpoles and many, but not as many, spotted frog tads.
Boreal toad tadpoles have this very characteristic behavior of clustering together. They're also very curious. Just dip a finger into the water and they'll swim right over and check you out.
I wasn’t kidding about the tons of toad tads!
Muskrat in Indian Pond
A muskrat tooling around the pond. This is the first muskrat I’ve seen in Yellowstone.
Indian Pond
Indian Pond at dusk. I actually watched a deer swim from one end of the pond to the other. It looked exhausting. That’s another first for me. Up until now, I didn’t really know that deer were keen on swimming.
Adventures, Musings, yellowstone national park

Capturing Wonderland

The Yellowstone Park Foundation is having their 2nd Annual “Capturing Wonderland” photo contest and I thought I’d toss my hat into the ring. I only have a rinky-dink camera so I don’t achieve high quality photos but I thought even if I didn’t win, they may be able to use and enjoy my photos at some point. They have two categories–landscapes and wildlife–and I submitted something for both. I have great photos of bison and common landmarks, which I’m sure everyone has, so I tried to offer something they may not have seen many photos of before. Here are my entries (click on each pic to enjoy it in full size–especially if you want to see the otter’s adorable squishy lil face!):

Here's an otter contemplating a dip in the Yellowstone River.
Here’s an otter contemplating a dip in the Yellowstone River.
Yellowstone River
Where the River Meets the Sky. This is a view of the Fishing Bridge from the Howard Eaton Trail.

I haven’t a clue how to use Photoshop so I’m sure they could be a million times better. In fact, the landscape pic is too dark but I kinda dig it that way because the trees create a negative space where the sky and the glass-like water becomes the main focus. The only manipulation they’ve seen is the standard contrast/brightness/saturation you can use from the Microsoft photo gallery. I haven’t really bothered to learn Photoshop because I’m a true believer in the idea that what makes a good photo is the subject matter and being in the right place at the right time to capture it at its best.

In this day and age, there are many types of photography and it drives me nuts when they’re judged same way. I see it as boiling down to two vastly different approaches: There are photographers who patiently wait for magic to happen and there are photographers who make magic happen through creative editing. (Most are probably a mix of both at this point, however, I’m predominantly a waiter.) I’m not saying either is better or worse, I’m just saying they are very different approaches. Both are time-consuming and require talent, but one is more about having camera skills and the other is more about having computer skills. That’s basically why it drives me nuts when both are viewed as being the same. One should be considered fine art photography and the other should be considered fine art photo design. However, in this digital age, techniques have bled together making its difficult to determine where one begins and ends. Shew… got that off my chest. Okay, I’m stepping down off my soap box now.

Looking through all my photos was just what I needed to get me into the mood to travel back out to the wild west. Truthfully, a large part of me dreads it every year because I’m not a fan of driving for days on end. However, this year I left myself plenty of time to hike, camp and explore so hopefully it won’t be as painful.

Travel, yellowstone national park

Yellowstone: July 16th, 2013

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One of them about to dive in to look for its buddy.

I spent the bulk of my morning reading and writing. Then I decided to make the most of my last free day by planning a hike of some sort; that is until it started raining. So I waited out the rain by going to the Lake post office and the Lake Lodge for some brief internet use. I paid for one hour of internet and after five minutes it crashed. Typical. Just when I thought my luck couldn’t get any worse, my fishing pole exploded on me again on the first cast into Yellowstone Lake. I was so pissed, I just balled up the fishing line and lure in my fist and shoved the pole into the backseat of the car–hopefully never to be seen again so it won’t remind me of what an epic failure I am. To calm down I took a nice walk by the shore and sat for a while, watching the rainstorm move across the lake. After I’d sufficiently forgotten all about the fishing incident, I drove back to the dorm to see if Richard and Mardel made it back from the juju-laden Pelican Valley safely. They did but they had one heck of a time with the weather out there. Pelican Valley is a lovely area of Yellowstone but it’s chock full of bears and there’s a long history of bad things happening there. Plainly speaking, I don’t go there. Then it was off to Fishing Bridge to get one of those delicious no-bake cookies that I’m addicted to, rock in the rocking chair out front and people-watch, and then hike the Howard Eaton trail. Andrew and I joke that we should re-name the trails after people we know and respect. I mean, who the heck is Howard Eaton anyways? So we renamed the trail to the Wilfred Brimley trail. How that came about I’m not sure but the Wilfred Brimley trail certainly is one of the longest in Yellowstone so you will definitely need a large bowl of oatmeal before the hike. I began at the Fishing Bridge entrance and walked a few miles along the Yellowstone River. It was it lovely. There were a lot of pelicans, geese, diving birds (two of them got into a squabble over a fish in front of me…kind of amusing) and wait for it….wait for it… river otters! I have been telling people that my trip to Yellowstone wouldn’t be complete unless I saw otters and I finally did! I was taking photos of a pelican by the shoreline when I spied a mother and daughter creeping towards me. I thought that was a little strange but I had a can of bear spray in my hand and was fully prepared to use it against this sketchy mother-daughter team. Come to find out, they were kindly bringing to my attention the two otters playing just to my left. Duh! The otters were very friendly and swam right up to them for some close-up pics. I was not so lucky but I still got to enjoy them from afar. They were so awesome–playing around, jumping onto and then diving off of rocks and logs, pressing their faces together above the water, hassling the geese until they flew off. They really seem to live a rather footloose and fancy free lifestyle. I went back to the dorm and instantly rubbed it in Andrew’s face by showing him my otter pics. He was almost literally green with envy.

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Fishing Bridge in the distance.

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Two river otters tangled into a ball goofing around.
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They are swimming by me.
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Two buffle heads fishing and fighting with one another.
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A white pelican.

Once I finished my victory dance, we caught up over a few beers and chatted with the two fly fishermen staying in the dorm for the week. One of the fly fishermen is from Lubbock, TX and the other used to live in Oklahoma (not too far from Lubbock) so we had a lot to talk about since I did amphibian surveys in the area. As all Texans seem to be, they were completely flabbergasted to hear that Texas has by far the most amphibians I’ve ever encountered (although that’s not saying too much since I haven’t surveyed a rainforest or anything like that). They’re all just in the ground waiting for it to rain and once it does…watch out! You will think it’s the end of days or something. The fly fishermen had a lot of interesting things to say about fishing in Yellowstone. They fish in the early morning and at night with downtime during the day to let the fish rest. When a fish is caught, the angler puts it into a bucket and hands it over to a researcher from Penn State. If it’s a rainbow trout or a cutthroat trout, their fin is clipped for a dna sample to test the hybridization between the two species. Cutthroats are considered native to the area and rainbows are introduced and thus not wanted. So it’s a cool little program that allows anglers to help out with research and they get to fish Yellowstone in the process. Apparently, there’s also another researcher who has radio telemetry units on some cutthroat in the Yellowstone River. They’ve found that cutthroat live in the river during the warmer months and then migrate into Yellowstone Lake in the winter only to be devoured by gigantic introduced lake trout. This has led to the almost complete decimation of the cutthroat population in Yellowstone Lake which, in turn, has led to the multi-million dollar campaign to exterminate lake trout. The fishermen aren’t sure where the northern Lamar population of cutthroat over-winter, perhaps they stay in the smaller lakes and fare much better. Just to bring this full circle, otters heavily depend on cutthroat. Lately, Yellowstone Lake otters have had to find dietary replacements such as amphibians and longnose suckers but those are obviously lower quality food sources. Additionally, researchers say that lake trout are not a suitable dietary replacement for cutthroat, although otters have been known to consume them. I presume it’s because of their size, their jaw strength, and their location in the water column which makes them more energetically expensive and possibly dangerous to catch. So it’s an interesting conundrum. Let me just say this, those adorable little river otters better stay away from my amphibians!

Travel, yellowstone national park

Yellowstone: June 28th, 2013

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Today is Cody’s birthday (one of the forest ecology researchers from Wisconsin). He’s turning the big 1-9! Honestly, I don’t even remember what nineteen feels like. I must have been starting veterinary technology school and meeting my best friend Emily when I was that age. Those were good times. Ahhhh…. Okay back to the here and now. After spending the morning catching up on writing, Cody, Brooke and I jumped in Ling Ling’s car and headed out to view the Grand Prismatic hot spring located in the Midway Geyser Basin (this is where geysers go to die, my friends). It’s the largest hot spring in the Park, measuring 370 feet in diameter and it‘s vibrant colors come from the various thermophiles living in and around the spring. There are two ways you can view Grand Prismatic. You can take the boardwalk around the spring, which is level with it, or you can hike up a nearby mountain to get the birds-eye view of the entire landscape. We chose to see it from above. Hopefully, my photos will convince you that we made the right choice. We parked at the Fairy Falls trailhead (which coincidentally would be the best place to play the license plate game–there were about twelve different states represented just in that tiny parking lot alone), hiked in about 10 minutes and then started climbing up a visitor-made trail. The views were amazing! What a great place to spend a birthday! We took a bunch of pictures and tried not to fall on the sleep climb down (which I didn’t, so there!).

DSCF2383Then we headed off to Firehole Drive, which is one of the best places to swim in Yellowstone. Brooke knew a secret spot to swim where you can avoid the overcrowded touristy spot just up the Firehole River. The water was so nice and warm. There was a strong current in some areas which was fun to jump into and let it sweep you downstream. I caught four rainbow trout with my bare hands (two were dead and the other two were near death so I guess I lose some points for that). I kept giving them to Cody as birthday gifts. He was impressed with the first one but after four the magic was gone. Then we hit up the Canyon general store for some ice cream. The ice cream girl was digging Cody and it was fun to watch his obliviousness. When I tried to look over the store’s beer selection, a worker approached me and said that I was not allowed to go into that section of the store because of a “bear spray incident.” Oh you gotta love people with their bear spray. I guess just a few days ago, a woman saw a mouse in her hotel room so she freaked and sprayed it with bear spray (probably instantly vaporizing the poor thing). They had to evacuate all four floors of the wing from 7 pm to 11:30 pm. I hope that she was punished in some way shape or form–mouse sensitivity classes perhaps?  I would have smacked her upside the head and told her to get a grip. In fact, there should be some sort of sign in all public areas here in the Park that state something to the effect of if you deploy your pepper spray, unnecessarily, you will be subject to public ridicule and perhaps beatings. That way people will think twice before turning it on a mouse or spritzing the beer section of a store.

We returned to the dorm to Brian, the Wisconsin crew leader, slaving away at making us an authentic Mexican meal in honor of Cody’s birthday. Brian married into a Mexican family so he’s been taught most of their delicious tips and tricks. He even handmade margaritas for us older folk (not that yucky pre-mixed stuff). Yum! For dessert, Patsy put nineteen candles into a bunch of double chocolate muffins. We all sang Cody Happy Birthday and gave him a hard time when his young lungs couldn’t blow out the candles all at once. The muffins were portioned out amongst us and served with a scoop of even more ice cream. You will never hear me complain about there being too much ice cream. It’s the best stuff on earth. We stuffed ourselves, laughed and swapped stories for most of the night. Then it was back to reading the third book in Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy. Sooooo good!

 

 

Travel, yellowstone national park

Yellowstone: June 26th, 2013

 

Lewis Lake has been my favorite catchment thus far. The view alone makes it a 5 star catchment. The trail is beautifully groomed making it easy to hike and takes you through all different types of terrains, from riverside to forested to open meadow to beach. The views of Lewis Lake from the trail were breathtaking. It looks like you’re in Alaska with an enormous white-capped sea of a lake in front of you, with towering snow-covered mountains in the background. Ugh! It’s so freakin gorgeous! There are some beachy areas along the way where you can just relax and take in the view. We decided to survey the closest wetlands today and save the furthest away for tomorrow. It was an hour hike to our forested wetlands. The first one we surveyed was an “accident” or I like to think of it as a warm-up.  Andrew, who had the GPS at the time, thought that it was our first sight so we took the half-hour to survey it. We found tons of chorus frog metamorphs jumping along the wetland edge–which I guess is unheard of this early on in the year because the snow just melted in that location. Plus we found lots of chorus frog tadpoles in various stages of maturity and spotted frog tadpoles. When we finished and walked towards our next site, Andrew realized that we had surveyed the entirely wrong site. The one we had just surveyed was just outside the catchment boundary and the real Site 1 was in fact 60 meters away, safely within the catchment boundary. So we like to loving refer to that wetland as our warm-up. The real Site 1 was almost the size of a lake and took us each almost an hour to survey. Ironically, the real site didn’t come even close to having the abundance of tadpoles that our fake one had. To make matters worse, there were so many downed trees along the edge that it was like constantly doing hurdles. Going up and over, dipping your net, going up and over, dipping your net…this went on for an hour. Since my waders were still wet from the day before, I didn’t even bother taking them. Luckily, when I fell on my ass in the wetlands, of course,  I didn’t have waders to worry about. The rest of the catchment was easy and the one-hour walk back to the car was sooooooo nice.

When we arrived back at the dorm, the Germans had cooked us a vegetable & cheese casserole (one meat version and one veggie for me) in celebration of their last night in Yellowstone. They’re headed back to Germany to process their site samples and begin the tedious work of data analysis and writing it all up. All three of them are working on different projects and for different degrees. Their cooking was much appreciated, especially because it was downright delicious! Two home cooked meals in a row–things are looking up! I will say, the Germans certainly do love their sour cream. My system just doesn’t know what to do with that much dairy, but I devoured it all the same. To heck with the consequences, I was hungry! Most of us stayed up late, telling stories and making each other laugh. I will miss zee Germans. Such nice people. I’m lucky to have made their acquaintance.