Flight: WY: Tetons in Great Abundance

As winter approaches, it starts to become normal that my world gets smaller. 15 hour days give way to 9 hours, with increases in wind, nasty weather, and freezing cold. Remember that I do not have operable heat, and I am flying at elevations well above that which the average person in the West experiences. That unbelievably cold wind and temperature on top of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort? Yeah, I am flying higher than that. Therefore, I spend more time closer to home. That’s not such a bad thing, as winter weather has lots of visual variety.

This flight was another around the Tetons. I owed a friend a favor, and he wanted to see how my photography was done first hand. This guy is a maniac paraglider (who literally jumps off of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort with the paraglider). He has actually taught me a few things about mountain winds, as he has flown them in a way that I have not. He is also a powered flight student pilot, so my aviation evangelism kicked in, and I did my patriotic duty of taking someone who was interested in aviation in the airplane.

He wanted to see things up close and personal, and that’s what he got.

The winds were not cooperative. They were blowing, that was for sure, though absolutely remained inconsistent in direction. Loaded down with fuel and two fatties, it was a requisite to find some wind to create an updraft. After an hour of wandering around over Wilson WY, then Teton Pass, over on the west side of the Teton Range, up over some of the 11,000’ peaks, and then to the SW side of the Tetons, I finally found some lift. That takes the cake on the most mysterious flight, where winds just would not reveal themselves.

Don’t mistake that notion that winds didn’t exist. There were plenty, and I kept finding them the surprising way, getting bounced around here and there. I found some vertical ridgelines and traversed back and forth, sitting on the edge of where the winds transition from up to down. Eventually I heard “I am having waves of anxiety over what we’re doing here.” My reply was educational, as requested, and unsympathetic: “Well, this is how it is done, and you wanted to know.”

Given that this friend of mine is a physician, we tried something new. We took up pulse oximeters to see what my oxygen saturation levels are. At 5,633’ (and at sea level), mine is 98%. At 13,000’, it was 94%. My compatriot had levels of 85% to 90%. So there you have it. That is why I love flying up in glaciated heavens, because I am somewhat immune to hypoxia. I simply do not feel the typical effects, as my oxygen levels are staying high. There is the stupidity of the law, which puts a cap on my fun having, which I think is obtuse, but I digress.

We went back and forth on the west side of the Tetons getting (and sometimes losing) altitude, each time me getting photographs. I decided to share them in more abundance, as this will be the last time I will fly by the Tetons for a long time. I’ll explain more in the next post.

Wilson, WY
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Teton Pass
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Teton Range
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Stubbornly cannot find lift….
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South Teton
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Grand Teton and Middle Teton
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Grand Teton – I cannot get enough of this mountain.
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Improbable downdraft. Retreat back to the last known updraft….
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Some more altitude….
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Dwarfed by Grand Teton, as usual.
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I think this is South Teton.
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South slope Grand Teton.
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Grand Teton
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Phelps Lake. My wife and I hiked to it this last summer and she thought it was not worth the effort.
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Top of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort
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Wilson, WY
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Teton Range
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Southern Jackson Hole
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Flight: ID: Lake Effect Snow in Idaho

Lake effect snow, for better or worse, was a mainstay of my youth. Growing up just slightly north of the snowiest section of Western New York State, I was treated to a youth of howling winds, raw cold, and 115 inches of snow every year, falling mostly in a 105-day period of the winter.

Most people in the Buffalo, NY region just bitched about it. Few really cared to figure out how it worked other than to predict the next bout of snow shoveling misery and preparatory beer stocking.

The meteorological principle is pretty simple: warm water, cold air, wind, and some lift. The cold wind blows across warm water, picks up moisture, gets lifted on the lee side of the lake, and attempts to asphyxiate everyone that lives there by attacking them with snow.

This works on scales both large and small. In my youth, it was 240 mile long Lake Erie, with Canadian air that blew across it. Lake effect snow can happen in the Finger Lakes of New York, Pyramid Lake Nevada, Lake Tahoe California, and really anywhere with a warm body of water and extremely cold air. Research shows this takes place all over the world, and can occur over bodies of salt water such as the Black Sea and Caspian Sea. The Great Lakes are the most profound and regular sources, and take the fame as being the “only” place it happens, even though that is not true.

On this particular morning, I thought about going up and capturing the “fog” after sunrise, as it was forecast to be below zero. I was too lazy and didn’t get out of bed. Looking westward down the valley well after sunrise, I saw some of the remaining cloud and figured that it would burn off before I could start up, warm the engine, and fly. 90 minutes later, it was still there, and it clicked in my mind that this cloud was the result of warm water on the Palisade Reservoir, and it wasn’t going anywhere quick.

Flying down the lake, it became evident that the cloud was continuously forming, getting blown SE to NW, and then broke up as it drifted away from the lake. It clearly was bigger when it was colder earlier in the morning.

The more I investigated, the more I saw that where the clouds impacted the ridgelines to the east, the trees and surface was covered in thick rime ice. As I skimmed the top of the cloud, I saw snowflakes in the air reflecting off the sun! This wasn’t just morning fog; it was a representation of how lake effect snow works on a very small scale in a highly atypical place.

The beginnings of lake effect snow – it all starts with moisture advecting into the atmosphere.

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Wisps of vapor coalescing into a cloud.
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Aspen trees coated in rime ice from the lake effect. While not in the photo, these trees were gleaming white compared to ones not near the lake.

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Downwind section – note that the wisps are getting thicker as they have had more time to traverse the water.
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Section where cloud smacks into terrain.
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And there is the rime ice/snow. The cloud in the previous image opened for a bit to get a shot of the below.
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Back toward the airfield, looking downwind. Note how the wisps are forming into clouds. This is what happens with the Great Lakes on a mass scale.
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Snake River, Alpine WY.
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This tracks were created in the mud before the snowfall, and the sleet that fell on top of the snow pressed the snow down into the tracks.
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Flight: WY: Star Valley Test Flight

Anyone with a brain would want to make sure the engine is working properly after the lovely little escapade in Yellowstone. What followed was two weeks of tweaks, playing, checking, with loads of test flights around the pattern. With the blessing that things appeared to be just fine, I decided to take a longer flight. Some things require an hour in the air to manifest themselves – recall that the original problem took one full hour of flight to show up. My goal was to see if I could flush out a similar outcome after flying for awhile. This time, it would be somewhere safe and in my control.

There is nothing like the Star Valley for this particular purpose. There are two public airports, five registered private fields, one or two unregistered airports, and 70% of the surface is good enough to land on if need be.

Thus, I wandered the length of the valley and back up after a recent snowfall. Here is what you have seen from spring to summer to fall, clothed in winter. The original purpose worked out as anticipated, as the engine behaved the entire time.

Salt River
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The Narrows
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Three Forks of the Salt River – west of Grover, WY
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Afton, WY from the SE
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Salt River Range, west side, looking east.
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Salt River Range, looking north.
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Just south of Star Valley Ranch, WY
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Farm fields
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Salt River – Alpine WY – Black Mountain, ID in background.
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Flight: WY, ID, MT: Emergency Landing in Yellowstone

I spend enough time worrying about a forced landing. I guess the time came to just have one.

The flight was intended to catch some loose ends around Yellowstone. I had the nagging difficulty of finding out that West Yellowstone, MT was closed for 7 months, and Gardiner, MT was out of fuel for months. There was no ethanol-free car gas near Gardiner, so I hatched the plan to take 10 gallons of fuel with me in the cockpit, land at Gardiner, transfer to the wing tank, finish my work, and come home. All told, I had 5 hours of fuel on board.

For the first time in Yellowstone, I filed a flight plan for the flight. It was simply too much flying over remote terrain with a closed park to play the game without it, especially once I found out that West Yellowstone was no longer an alternate. I was literally going into a black hole aviation wise, and at the very least, I intended to be found if something happened.

I went straight north over Madison Plateau, and for the first time, successfully figured out that I needed to call Boise Radio instead of Casper Radio to make position reports. I was successful with a report over Madison Plateau, when I found out that a Center Weather Advisory had been issued for severe turbulence and mountain waves. The advisory covered Yellowstone, though I was on the windward side, and winds were relatively calm. After some back and forth about my imminent death with the flight service briefer, I resumed my flying over dense forest and lakes, continuously tracking tiny little meadows that I might hope to survive landing in if it came down to it.

I made it to Old Faithful and wound around all sorts of hot springs, getting awesome photographs. Unlike the prior flight, I went up to Grand Prismatic, and enjoyed some amazing scenery with cold weather steam billowing off the spring. It was remarkable and I got my best photography yet of that spring to date. Circling a number of times, I had added power to cope with the tight circles and winds as I photographed.

Then I looked at the oil pressure gauge.

Temperatures had spiked from 180 to 210 in a matter of two minutes, and pressure had dropped well into the caution range.

Shit.

Well, that is severely edited.

Increasing temperature and decreasing pressure is normally associated with one thing: loss of oil. Based on my obsessive reading of accident reports, modern engine analyzers that track electronic gadgetry on modern engines before a crash tend to report about 5 to 10 minutes of declining pressure before it hits zero, and the prop stops. The problem was, I had just changed the oil. Did the quick release valve not close thoroughly, and with the now warm oil, it had run out quickly?

I had 5 minutes. And I was 30 minutes from the nearest airport.

For about 6 seconds, I pretended I could rationalize my way out of it. “Maybe it just got hot and I can let it cool down.” Nope. “Maybe I could fly to Gardiner.” And end up an NTSB statistic? ‘We do not understand why the pilot elected to fly over harsh terrain with a declining engine when suitable landing locations were passed over.’ “Either I land now and save the engine and myself, or the engine seizes ($10,000 repair), I crash, and I might be dead. Damn it! We’re going in! This is going to be three days of paperwork landing in a [severely edited] national park!”

I called Boise Radio, advised of the situation and position, requested Park Ranger assistance, and advised I will be landing on a road. The park was closed and the radio call was critical to prevent waiting 6 hours to be found. After confirming the radio reports, I set up the approach and came in for the road.

Ten feet above the ground, I passed a big old bison. He didn’t give a crap that a plane just went whizzing by.

Arguably not my best landing, I applied brakes, came to a stop, cut the engine, and then sat there for a second. The whole affair took two minutes. I was just photographing in flight, and all I hear now is the whistle of wind and silence.

It finally happened. Here I am. And it’s so damn anti-climactic.

Hell, I always wanted to see this section of the park on the ground.

I checked the engine oil and it was full. Something must have been up with the overall flow volume, allowing it to get very warm and lower pressure after an hour of flying. I decided to let it cool down and would check pressure again once temps were where they belong.

I tried to call Boise Radio. No answer. Emergency frequency. No answer. Salt Lake Center frequency (airliners overhead). Nothing. So much for the god damn radio when I need it.

I checked cell reception. No bars. Texted my wife “Can you get this?” She wrote back “Yes” to my surprise. I advised what was going on and to call Flight Service on the phone and advise I am unharmed.

It took 15 minutes for a paramedic to arrive (NOT BAD!)

Park Rangers showed up 20 minutes later to commence the interrogation. After 2 and a half hours of interrogation, discussion, and approvals, I was allowed to take off again. Checking the engine at idle, pressures were up, so I decided to get the airplane out of the park before a storm blew in the next day and entombed it for the winter. I had one hour of flight time before temps got too warm, and Montana was 12 minutes away by air. Montana allows landings on roads legally, so I had a large area of non-emergency surfaces to land on.

I elect to not share the full magnitude of the story, as I have not decided how much I will tell, and what book(s) it will end up in. Needless to say, the interaction with the park rangers was hilarious in retrospect (at one point, I seriously considered refusing to say another word and getting a lawyer).

The flight home was uneventful.

If this happened anywhere else, it would not have been a big deal. Yellowstone, in winter, while it’s closed, with no alternates, while its cold and snowy? That was about as bad as it simply could get.

I have talked to many pilots relaying the story, and every single one of them, from different countries and all levels of experience levels agree that the landing was the smartest thing. Even if the aircraft needed to be disassembled and removed by trailer, it would have been the smart choice on all levels, confirming my ability to still be here and write this blog post.

Grand Teton with Snake River
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Grand Teton with C-130 on approach (I know, I said that happened in the last flight)
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Snake River, under Jackson Hole Airport approach path.
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South side of volcano caldera – Yellowstone. Note mountain waves over the Absarokas.
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Madison Plateau, Yellowstone.
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Shoshone Lake
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Some geyser.
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Same geyser, different angle.
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Last photograph before emergency landing.
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There is the bison. He walked up the hill a bit after the landing.
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Yellowstone…..from the ground.
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Before takeoff.
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Hebgen Lake, Montana.
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Targhee Pass – ID/MT border (MT to the left).
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Grand Teton from the NW.
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Flight: WY: Yellowstone and Grand Teton with Snow

So I digress a couple of days to a flight taken up to Yellowstone. This was part of the snowfall orgy that took place, and the attention deficit disorder induced maniacal fusillade of back-to-back flights.

Yellowstone was closed. Not just closed to car traffic – closed to cars and snowmobiles. Snowmobile access starts in December, so this was an unholy gap, where a park the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined becomes a ghost town, save for the enormous carnivores.

It was freezing cold, with illustrious blue skies, dry air, and to my pleasant surprise, some fog burning off over the Lewis River. The fun started with a request to Jackson Tower to head straight north through their airspace, and the controller was more than obliging. I was able to photograph Grand Teton with a butte normally reserved for busy air traffic in the foreground. I was then treated to a military Aegis C-130 shooting an approach into Jackson with Grand Teton as a backdrop. Yeah, that was cool.

Heading north, I was reminded again why this whole affair is an exercise in survival, diligence, and pushing boundaries. Yellowstone is plainly rough. Snow was extremely deep compared to Alpine, with glorious rime ice on the ascending terrain from the Snake River Plain to the hills east of Mt. Sheridan. It was a picture perfect blue sky, with fog, rime ice, snow, mountains, lakes, and hot springs.

I went under the fog layer, came out east of Mt. Sheridan where the sky was clear, went under again over to Old Faithful, and then headed straight south over Madison Plateau, above the clouds (read: the hell with it – it was too beautiful to worry about being 20 miles from the one road going through that area). Madison Plateau effectively has a timberline, even though it is a plateau at about 9,000’, likely due to extreme wind and high snowfall. It is about as remote as it gets in the park, with the only consolation being that there is a big powder poof snow cushion to land on if need be.

I decided to do something new with the Teton Range. Instead of taking the same “boring” run back to Alpine, I stayed at 9,600’ and traversed quite close to the eastern terrain of the range, just above what I call the “skank layer” (official meteorological term: inversion layer), photographing the canyons and peaks as I went along.

This is one of those flights that was so dynamic, with such incredible photographs, that I will look back when I assemble the Yellowstone book and wonder if the book would have been suitable had I not taken this flight. Almost every book I have published has that one flight that pushes the dynamism of the finished product to a level that is worth publishing. Anything less and I wonder if I would shelve it.

Grand Teton with the restricted airspace butte in view.
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Grand Teton. This never gets old.
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Jenny Lake and Grand Teton
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Jackson Lake & Teton Range
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Yellowstone under the rising fog layer.
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Snake River – Yellowstone
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Looking toward Absarokas – note rime ice on pine trees.
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One of many hot springs.
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Madison Plateau
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Southern Yellowstone
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Teton Range
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Grand Teton
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Waiting for takeoff at Jackson Hole Airport with a Delta flight landing.
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Backside of Ferry Peak
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Flight: UT, ID, WY: Great Salt Lake

Ok. Snow is fun. Its neat to see all of the mainstays of Wyoming flying: Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and the Star Valley, all clad in raiment bridal white, resplendently beautiful with crystalline skies and crisp scenery. In the case of a wedding, there is one bride, not a nonstop torrent of the same thing, as that would get old quick. Thus, I am deviating from my linear bean counter fed theology of writing all of my blog posts in the order that the flights were taken. This one is a few days after the ones that will be coming up in the short-term future.

I decided that I am finally going to do something with the practically unquantifiable amount of texture aerial photographs that I have. These are the close up shots of any number of interesting things all over the United States that are not farm fields. I am going to do another book, because I have enough stuff to do it. That being said, how can one do a texture book and not fly over the Great Salt Lake, especially when it is two hours away?

The flight was southwest to Brigham City, UT, over to the Salt Lake, down to the salt ponds, east to Ogden for fuel, and then almost straight northeast back to Alpine. The air was so clear, I could actually see Grand Teton from Utah. It was about 100 miles away.

This was a neat flight because it had beautiful farm country, mountains, the Salt Lake, and a bunch of other goodies, minus the feelings of death. It was like experiencing aviation all over again, the joy of flying a plane from point A to B, as a mode of travel, faster than a car, pretty, and without a metaphorical gun to one’s head. The incredible irony is how quickly I get bored with said forms of flying, gravitate to terrain that forces me to think about death, and then start whining that flying isn’t easy anymore.

One of many “hills” in Idaho – Camp Peak to be specific
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Blackfoot Reservoir, ID
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“China Hat” – Middle of nowhere, Idaho
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Farm field textures – Idaho
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Somewhere near the UT/ID border
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Somewhere in Utah
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Valley north of Logan, UT – note smog from Salt Lake City
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North of Brigham City, UT
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Great Salt Lake
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North Ogden, UT
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Salt Lake, again
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Willard Peak, UT (9,764′)
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Mantua, UT
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North of Mantua, UT
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Logan, UT
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Bear River Range, Utah
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Star Valley, WY
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Cow prints in snow – Star Valley, WY
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