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The World Center for Birds of Prey

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On a hilltop just outside Boise, the World Center for Birds of Prey introduces visitors to some of the planet’s wickedest raptors. Established in 1984 by the Peregrine Fund, the center not only contains a wealth of information about hawks, owls, falcons and more, but also breeds them in captivity.

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The first thing you’ll see when pulling up to the center is Condor Cliffs, home to two magnificent California Condors. The largest birds in North America, the condors were almost driven to extinction: down to just 22 in 1987. But they’ve made a resurgence thanks to the work of organizations like the Peregrine Fund. Today, there are over 200 in the wild, many of them bred here in Boise. And the number is growing.

I had never seen a California Condor in real life; they’re impressive birds, with a wingspan nearly 10 feet long, and hideous faces. We watched with malicious glee as the condors flapped around their enclosure, chasing a terrified child on the other side of the tarp. The kid was screaming, too young to understand that he was completely safe and could just walk away. This spectacle alone was easily worth the price of entrance.

But there was much more to see. Around twenty birds who are either too old or too damaged for release have been designated as Avian Ambassadors, and occupy cages both outside and inside the center. These birds of prey range in size from the tiny American Kestrel to the majestic Bald Eagle, with plenty in between. There was a Great Horned Owl, an Arctic Falcon, and a richly-colored Bateleur from South Africa. At lunchtime, we watched a Harpy Eagle named Luigi rip apart the corpse of a pheasant. Yum.

Besides the birds, there are a number of displays in the main hall and regular exhibitions throughout the day. There’s also an extensive library dedicated to falconry, with an entire wing about the sport’s history in the Middle East. Among the things one doesn’t expect to find in Idaho: world-class modern dance and a permanent exhibition about Arabian Falconry.

Most of the Birds of Prey Center is used for breeding, completely off-limits to visitors, and even to any staff whose presence isn’t absolutely required. Every effort is made to ensure that the birds hatched here remain as wild as possible. By visiting the center, you can support this important endeavor, and have the chance to meet some fascinating birds. This was an unexpected highlight of our time in Boise.

Location of the World Center for Birds of Prey
Link: World Center for Birds of Prey

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January 7, 2013 at 5:16 pm Comments (2)

The South Eastern Corner of Idaho

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After driving through Soda Springs and Montpelier, we continued along Highway 30 into the southeastern extreme of Idaho, occupied by Bear Lake and a handful of small towns. It was late October, but winter had come early to the region and a fresh layer of snow was blanketing the ground.

Snow-Camping

The border between Idaho and Utah cuts through the middle of oval-shaped Bear Lake. Set on top of limestone deposits, Bear Lake has a unique ecosystem which supports several endemic species, such as the Bear Lake Whitefish. And the strange, intensely turquoise color of the lake’s water have led locals to call it the “Caribbean of the Pacific Northwest”.

But Bear Lake is most well-known for the legendary creature which haunts it. The story of the Bear Lake Monster stretches back to the 19th century, and the arrival of the original settlers. The deadly beast hunts in the water, but can run onto land in pursuit of its prey. Like an Alligator-Shark-Bear. And it totally exists! If you don’t trust me, perhaps you’ll believe that shining beacon of journalistic integrity: Animal Planet.

Perhaps some skepticism is warranted. After all, the man responsible for the original reports of the Bear Lake Monster, Mormon missionary Joseph C. Rich, eventually admitted it was all a scam; a ruse to drum up curiosity about the region. Usually, a full confession would be enough to close the case, but nothing can apparently deter the charlatans at Animal Planet from peddling their sensational myths. And, apparently, being a hoaxster doesn’t put off the voters of Idaho: Joseph C. Rich went on to become a state senator!

The sky was overcast when we visited, so we weren’t able to appreciate the famous blue water of Bear Lake, and neither did we encounter any monsters. But it was still a gorgeous drive. We drove along the lake’s northern border, on a narrow strip of land that separates it from the rather less enchanting Mud Lake, then picked up Highway 89 which brought us into Paris.

A tiny town in Bear Lake County, Paris best known for its tabernacle, built in 1889 by Mormon pioneers. A Romanesque structure of red sandstone, the tabernacle is completely out-of-place in the unassuming little village. But the impressive temple is in wonderful condition and still in use today.

We also swung by the Oregon Trail Museum in nearby Montpelier. Although it was closed for the season, we managed to charm our way inside so that we could snap a few photos. More than just a collection of information or dry exhibitions, this museum attempts to recreate the experience of being a settler on the trail; visitors first equip themselves at a general store, then walk along the trail with stops for camp songs and stories.

Location of Bear Lake | Paris, Idaho

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December 24, 2012 at 12:24 am Comments (4)

Yellowstone Bear World

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After two months hiking in the woods of central and northern Idaho, we still hadn’t seen a bear. A major disappointment; and now, we were heading into the bear-free country of eastern Idaho. But there was one last option on the table. As dejected as a family who’d been hoping for a European vacation but settles for Epcot, we pulled up to the gates of Yellowstone Bear World.

Super-Cute-Bear

No, I don’t mean the “bear-rich world of Yellowstone”, but Yellowstone Bear World: an theme-park/zoo hybrid outside Rexburg that has nothing to do with the national park. And which, for two people, actually costs more than the real Yellowstone charges for a week. But by this point we didn’t care. We were determined to see bears, whether they were enclosed or not.

Yellowstone Bear World may not offer an authentic experience, but it certainly delivers the goods. I eventually lost count of the number of bears we sighted, but there must be a hundred running around the park. We stayed in our car the whole time, driving at five miles-per-hour, occasionally having to stop for a bear on the road. It was low-risk but still exciting, and the bears were so used to cars filled with gape-mouthed gawkers that they paid us absolutely no mind.

Bear World offers more than just bears; we also saw bison, antelope, deer and moose. But the highlight was the small enclosure holding the bear cubs. Six little guys wresting with each other, climbing rocks and feeding from bottles. Additionally, there was a small petting zoo with barnyard animals like pigs and goats. Why anyone would want to waste their time petting a goat, when there are wrestling bear cubs right next door is beyond me. (But then, petting farm animals is a thrill I’ve never understood. Even as a child, I would contemplate my peers with disgust as they touched a pig and squealed with delight. How did you think it would feel?)

Almost despite ourselves, we had a good time in Bear World. We had come to see bears, and that mission was definitely accomplished. The entrance ticket allows you to drive through the park as many times as you’d like, so it’s not hard to get your money’s worth. Seeing a bear in the wilderness would have been a lot better, but this was an acceptable consolation.

Location on our Idaho Map
Link: Yellowstone Bear World

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December 12, 2012 at 10:20 am Comments (2)

The Folklife Fair & Sheepdog Trials

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The day before the parade of sheep occupies downtown Ketchum, the nearby town of Hailey enjoys the focus of the Trailing of the Sheep Festival. The Folklife Fair brings the traditional music of faraway lands into the Sun Valley, along with activities and food. And in a nearby field, the Championship Sheepdog Trials are held.

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I had never before considered that sheepdogs might have their own competition, but why not? These animals are as highly trained in their profession as Michael Phelps is in swimming (though they don’t look as good in a Speedo). A competition to crown the very best sheepdog makes sense. We grabbed our binoculars and joined the surprisingly large crowd who had shown up on the sidelines.

At the end of a huge field, a group of five wild sheep is released. The competing dog is dispatched to retrieve them, in a very specific way. First he has to circle and approach the sheep slowly, “introducing” himself. Then, he has to wrangle the sheep through a couple fences and bring them to the other end of the field. His next task is to separate two sheep from the other three, and then get the whole flock into a cage. The dogs are amazing, especially considering that their trainers have to remain in one spot on the field, issuing commands only with a whistle.

The nearby Folklife Fair was just as entertaining. After gorging ourselves on lamb-burgers and lamb-gyros, we grabbed a seat for a series of performances from around the world. Polish Highlanders were followed by amazing Basque Dancers. There was a bagpipe-toting group of Scottish Highlanders and a Peruvian band rocking out to traditional songs. Stands in the fair were selling clothes made of wool, shearing sheep, and providing information about the shepherding life.

We also attended a “foodie fest” in Ketchum called For the Love of Lamb. Walking from restaurant to restaurant, we joined long lines and sampled dishes of lamb that ranged from the exotic to the familiar. The amount of lamb I consumed during our stay in Sun Valley was probably more than I’d eaten in my entire life combined. And it was all delicious. Lamb, veal, duckling… when you consider it, it’s startling how tasteful and tender baby meat is.

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November 21, 2012 at 10:37 pm Comments (5)

Around Redfish Lake on Horseback

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We had done whitewater rafting, zip lining, mountain biking and a whole lot of hiking — but there was still one more outdoor activity we wanted to try: horseback riding. And we couldn’t have chosen a better place to knock it off our list than in the Sawtooth Mountains around Redfish Lake.

Idaho Cowboy

Our trip was organized with the friendly folks at Redfish Lake Corrals. It was right at the end of the season, a spectacular fall day, when we met our guide Cody at the corrals. Cody the Cowboy. Perfectly named and a great guide; friendly, knowledgeable about the area, and patient with our bumbling horse skills.

I was eight years old the last time I was on a horse, and Jürgen has kept his distance ever since one bit him as a child. So we’re not exactly expert riders. Luckily, our horses, Bennett and Wyman, were tame as could be and easy to manage. After a few tips from Cody, I was up in the saddle and steering Bennett around with no problem. I asked Cody how I was doing. “Pretty good!” Just like a real cowboy, huh? [… silence].

Our 90-minute “Alpine Ride” took us up into the hills around Little Redfish Lake, offering unforgettable views of the Sawtooth Mountains in the distance. I was surprised by how quickly I became accustomed to being on horseback; it was comfortable and I liked getting out into nature without having to do any exercise myself. Bennett didn’t seem to mind carrying me around. He was a trusty walker… kind of gassy, but that only won him points since Jürgen was right behind us, groaning with every sloshy-sounding fart.

It was a memorable day out, and one I’d repeat in a heartbeat. If you’re interested, get in touch with the guys at Redfish Lake Corrals. I doubt it’s even possible you could be dissatisfied.

Redfish Lake Corrals – Website

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November 12, 2012 at 5:34 pm Comments (0)

The Salmon River Scenic Byway

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Idaho has no lack of scenic byways. There are 30 which criss-cross the state, and during our six-week road-trip through Idaho, we made an effort to complete as many as possible. Each had something recommend it, from historical sites, to crazy geological formations or interesting towns. But for amazing scenery, none beats the Salmon River Scenic Byway.

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This byway begins at the Lost Trail Pass, on the border between Montana and Idaho. From here, it’s a 161-mile journey along Highway 93 to Stanley, through Salmon and Challis. Both of these small towns are worth a stop, Salmon for recreational opportunities on the river and Challis for the Sacajawea Interpretive Center, but it’s the nature you’ll remember most. The byway hugs the mighty Salmon River along its southwest course, offering landscapes that have changed little in the past 200 years, when Lewis and Clark arrived over the Lost Trail Pass.

The road passes from the Salmon National Forest into the Challis National Forest, and wildlife-viewing opportunities are excellent the whole way. We stopped and hauled out the binoculars multiple times. Outside Challis, a bald eagle soared over our heads. White-tailed deer fed in distant pastures. And most excitingly, we found a large group of bighorn sheep grazing along the side of the river, 30 miles north of Stanley.

At first, we thought they were deer and whizzed by the herd quickly, but something about them made Jürgen take pause, so we looped back around to get a better look. Turns out, Bighorn Sheep are awfully similar in appearance to deer — at least the females and youngsters, who don’t have the distinctive, curly horns. Although safely off the endangered species list, they like to keep out of sight and are a rare sight.

As we approached Stanley along Highway 93, the Sawtooth Mountains came into view for the first time. With a number of peaks that reach over 10,000 feet in height, the Sawtooths are hailed as one of the last great “undiscovered” climbing destinations in America. Hundreds of alpine lakes dot the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, and the region’s remoteness almost guarantees a lack of crowds, regardless of the time of year.

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November 7, 2012 at 5:58 pm Comment (1)

The Dworshak Dam and Fish Hatchery

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America’s third-highest dam is found in north-central Idaho, just outside the small town of Orofino. In fact, the Dworshak Dam is the tallest straight-axis dam anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. During our road trip along Highway 12, it was the first pit-stop.

Idaho Dam

Construction on the dam began in 1966 and lasted seven years, forever altering the landscape along the North Fork of the Clearwater River. Besides creating a giant reservoir of three million acres, the Dworshak provides the ability to control floods and creates a never-ending source of hydroelectric power. The concrete structure stretches out over a kilometer and reaches over 700 feet in height: as tall as New York’s Metropolitan Tower.

Like almost any project that reshapes the earth, the Dworshak Dam was controversial from the outset. The Clearwater River’s North Fork had always been home to one of the world’s most important runs of steelhead trout, and the dam would to block access to their breeding grounds further upstream. In order to assuage these fears, the government established the Dworshak National Fish Hatchery, just miles from the dam site.

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The hatchery is found on the Nez Perce Reservation and is run jointly by the US government and the tribe. It’s one of the world’s biggest hatcheries for ocean-bound fish; astonishing, since it’s in a state with no border to the ocean. Fish hatched here follow a 1000-mile route that takes them into the Pacific, before they return back home to the Clearwater River.

We took an self-guided tour of the premises, peering into some of the tanks which hold millions of young steelheads, and learning about the work done at the hatchery. I didn’t know (and would have never guessed) that egg-bearing female trout are captured, sliced open, and then have their eggs dumped into a bowl, so that they can be stirred up with a “semen mixture” to promote conception. GAK! Sure, the females would naturally die after laying their eggs anyway, and it’s all for the good of the species, but this is gruesome.

I was also surprised to see a couple people walking around the hatchery grounds with fishing poles. Talk about an easy catch! Part of the agreement between the government and the Nez Perce allows tribe members to continue fishing. Fair is fair. After all, the Dworshak Dam forever ruined their traditional fishing spots.

Location of the Dworshak Dam | Hatchery

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November 5, 2012 at 12:27 am Comment (1)

The Jack O’Connor Hunting Heritage Center

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PETA members, feel free to skip this post. You’re not the target audience for the Jack O’Connor Hunting Heritage and Education Center, and probably won’t appreciate the photos which are to come (hint: a lot of dead animals). Everyone else, please follow me.

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Quick, who’s the greatest hunter of all time? If you know as much about hunting as we did, you’re staring blankly into space right about now, with ridiculous names like “Elmer Fudd” floating through your brain. But now that I’ve visited his museum, I would be able to answer confidently: Jack O’Connor! Jack O’Connor is the greatest hunter of all time.

The museum, found in Lewiston’s Hell’s Gate State Park, collects Mr. O’Connor’s trophies from around the world, along with photos and stories from his life. Animal heads from Asia and Africa to North America line the walls, including impressive kills such as Bighorn Sheep, lions, and the Greater Kudu. Despite having been beheaded and mounted on a wall, the animals somehow maintain their majesty. Touring this museum was almost more fun than a zoo, because you can get real close without getting bit.

Jack was a writer for Outdoor Life magazine and authored a number of books on hunting, some of which have become definitive guides to the sport. Born in 1902, he belonged to a different era than ours: the kind of era where it was socially acceptable to grab a gun, fly to Africa and shoot anything that moved. Back then, it wasn’t a shocking moral crime to kill a tiger. You just killed the thing, and then took a picture of yourself posing with its corpse.

As is often true of hunters, Jack O’Connor was a fierce conservationist and helped promote many of the regulatory laws that still govern the sport to this day. While in the museum, I read from one of his books about the mating habits and gestation time of Dall Sheep. Sure, he was killing them for sport, but O’Connor was an absolute authority on the animals and had a greater respect for them than most anyone else.

After touring the center, we spent some time talking to the attendant, who’s a hunter in his own right. Discounting The Slingshot-Frog Incident of my tenth year, I’ve never shot a living creature, but I appreciate the idea of hunting; the patience, skill and preparation involved, and the admiration it must give you for nature.

Location of the Jack O’Connor Museum
Jack O’Connor Hunting Heritage & Education Center – Website

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October 5, 2012 at 1:34 am Comments (2)

The Snowdon Wildlife Sanctuary

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Wild animals who have been injured or orphaned could never be called “lucky”, but those in the McCall area at the time of their accident might at least consider themselves fortunate. For the past 23 years, the Snowdon Wildlife Sanctuary has been dedicated to the care and rehabilitation of Idaho’s wild animals, large and small.

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Since their primary goal is rehabilitation, Snowdon is normally off-limits to visitors. The less contact these animals have with humans, the better, and the staff try and keep interaction to an absolute minimum. For the curious public, there are occasional open houses, and “The Dome”: an educational center at the sanctuary’s entrance, with pelts and information about animals from bears to wolverines.

We were invited to take a rare peek behind the gates, and meet some of the animals currently under care. There was Luta, a beautiful red-tailed hawk who’s been in captivity her whole life. She doesn’t know she’s a hawk and wouldn’t survive long in the wild, so is one of the refuge’s permanent guests. The same goes for Ollie, a magnificent Great Horned Owl whose right eye was put out after a run-in with a truck.

Snowdown had recently been in the press thanks to Boo-Boo, a bear cub orphaned during the wildfires that ravaged Idaho in 2012. All his paws were burnt, but he was expected to make a full recovery. In fact, during our visit, he was already up and about, and we couldn’t even find him in his large enclosure at Snowdon… “Probably up a tree” explained Carolyn, who was acting as our guide. We did spot two other orphaned bears, as they were running away: sisters, who were slated to be released before hibernation season.

Snowdown is a non-profit corporation supported entirely by private donations and grants. Their facilities are small, but they manage to re-release almost every animal brought into their care. It’s an enterprise worth supporting — visit their website to help contribute and, if you can make it to one of their infrequent open houses, make sure to do so!

Snowdon Wildlife Sanctuary – Website
Location on our Idaho Map

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September 24, 2012 at 6:20 pm Comment (1)

Bald Eagle! USA! USA!!!

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After our moose encounter, we didn’t have to wait long for Mother Nature to rear her head once more. Minutes before we entered the Snowdown Wildlife Sanctuary outside of McCall, a bald eagle swooped down from a tree and soared over the stream in front of us.

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It was the first time I’d ever seen our national bird, and I immediately remembered the lessons of my youth. This might surprise any non-US readers, but it’s a fact that in every school across the country, American children are drilled on the proper reaction to seeing a Bald Eagle. So as it soared over my head, I jumped into the air, pumped my fist, and screamed “Home of the Brave!” Behind me, fireworks. In front, amber waves of grain.

Jürgen was impressed, I could tell.

After I had calmed down, I went straight to the internet and researched Bald Eagles. When bragging about the encounter (and, oh, did I plan on bragging), I wanted to have more to say than “eagle was pretty”. So please, friend, take a seat and allow me to dazzle you with my EagleFacts!

On average, Bald Eagles live up to twenty years. Along with Golden Eagles, they’re the largest raptor in North America, with an average adult wingspan between 5.9 and 7.5 feet. Females and males are similar in appearance, but the ladies are larger by up to 25%. They build the largest nests of any bird, and return to them year after year, continually adding material to them. These nests can reach thirteen feet in depth, and eight in width. The eagles mate for life and can fly faster than 40 miles per hour.

Bald Eagles live all over America, but are sensitive to human presence and prefer remote areas with plenty of access to rivers and lakes. This explains why they are so often found in wild, remote Idaho. They mainly eat fish (which they rip apart with their talons), but will attack and eat anything they can manage, including raccoons, small reptiles and geese. They’re not preyed upon in the wild, and so are considered apex predators.

First a moose, and now a Bald Eagle. And all within our first few weeks in Idaho. We’d spot Bald Eagles a few more times during our stay, but I’ll never forget that first encounter.

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September 23, 2012 at 3:58 pm Comments (0)

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