Things To Do in Utah: See Elk by Horse-Drawn Sleigh at Hardware Ranch

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It’s a well-known not-secret that I’ll go out of my way to take a picture of a horse. If it’s a draft horse working in harness, I’ll go even farther out of my way. Which is how I end up every few years driving about two hours through a canyon in the winter time to take a twenty-minute horse-drawn wagon ride at the Hardware Ranch Wildlife Management Area.

It’s a great activity especially for lovers of wildlife and rural tradition; visitors can take a horse-drawn tour through a peacefully grazing herd of wild elk and get a much closer look at the animals than they usually will in the wilderness. There’s also an interpretive center for visitors with displays on the local native wildlife, pelts to touch, and other exhibits, along with a beautiful view out over the wildlife viewing area.

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Utah Department of Wildlife Resources administer the programs at Hardware Ranch, including tagging, testing, and research centered around the elk and other wildlife. The animals are fed in this area when they come down from the higher elevations in the winter, and the feeding program helps to keep them from wandering into town where they’d be at risk of coming into conflict with people. It also ensures that they’ll have adequate feed to get them through the winter, even though the lower elevations that have traditionally been their wintering grounds have been crowded by human development.

You’ll have a chance to visit with the horses who’ll give you your ride out among the elk — by sleigh when the snow is deep enough, and wheeled cart when it’s not — and the drivers are very knowledgeable about the elk, the horses, and the area. In early December, there are also a few special events, including the annual Elk Festival, and a biathalon where the competitors run on snowshoes and shoot muzzleloaders. (I didn’t know about that. I think I know what I’m going to be going to watch next winter. That sounds amazing.)

It might not be a quick trip, but the beautiful snowy drive into Blacksmith Fork Canyon, the beautiful draft horses pulling the sledges and carts, and getting to see elk up close, all make it more than worth the drive. The exhibit in the visitor center are a great added bonus. The scenery can’t be beat and the photo opportunities are wonderful, and if you’re interested in wildlife there’s a lot to learn. If you’re looking to get a little closer to the wild without any off-roading, this is a great day trip.

The horse-drawn vehicle seats about 20 people, and rides are first come first served, with no reservations. Tickets can be purchased in the visitor center. (The cost is $5 for people 9 and older, $3 for kids 4-8, and kids under 4 ride free.) In addition to the actual ride, you may need to wait outside for a little while before your ride (particularly if you go on a very busy day, like a Saturday or holiday), so be sure to dress warm and make sure the kids have their mittens. There is no food or fuel available at the visitor center and it’s a pretty good drive to the nearest service stations and restaurants, so make sure you’re all fueled up on gas and snacks before you leave Hyrum and get on Highway 101. (From Hyrum, it’s about 15 more miles into the canyon to Hardware Ranch.)

For the 2016-2017 season, elk viewing rides opened in early December and will be going until the end of February. They’re closed Tues-Thurs, with Mondays and Fridays typically being the slower days if you’re hoping to avoid doing any waiting in line.

GETTING THERE

Access to Hardware Ranch is along a paved state highway, and it is regularly plowed, but be sure to check weather conditions and the forecast before heading out. (You can call the Hardware Ranch visitor center at 435-753-6206 or 435-753-6168 to check in on conditions, sleigh rides, and any other info you might need.) Chains and 4-wheel drive aren’t really necessary as long as the weather isn’t bad, and the highway back to the WMA is curvy but not winding, for anybody else out there who gets motion sickness. (Holla!)

Unfortunately, plugging the Hardware Ranch visitor center into your GPS doesn’t generally work. I’ve just tracked down the actual visitor center building on Google Maps and added it as a marked place, so hopefully in the future it’ll be easier to find, but as of this writing it isn’t up yet. You can try plugging in the numeric coordinates (41.602161, -111.562611), or use the map below. (Hit the “more options” link to plug in your own address or send the GPS directions to your phone.)

You’ve arrived basically when you reach the end of the paved highway. You’ll likely see the horses and wagons, as well as a large open field with elk, on your left. There are a few pull-out parking areas off the main highway where you can park, but you might want to drive past them to take the driveway that leads up and to the right to park in the lot at the visitor center, where you’ll need to purchase your tickets. (If you run out of paved road, you’ve gone just barely too far.)

The drive is about two hours from central Salt Lake, and more detailed directions can be found on the Hardware Ranch website, as well as FAQs, event information, and probably any other info you’re looking for.

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Things To Do In Utah: The Power of Poison at NHMU

Yeah, I did take a picture of the elevator. The graphic design for this exhibit is just as outstanding as the rest of it.

Yeah, I did take a picture of the elevator. The graphic design for this exhibit is just as outstanding as the rest of it.

Okay, listen. I’m a nerd. Let’s get that right out of the way, just in case you haven’t noticed yet, because I want you to understand that I love the Natural History Museum of Utah. (And am now finally a member! Hell yes!) In the last few years they’ve been host to some seriously remarkable special exhibits. The one about the history of horses? Transcendent, even if I wanted to carry on a spirited argument with that one placard about horse shoes. The one that was entirely about geckos? Life-changing. I literally own four geckos now and my life is profoundly enriched and I would possibly kill a man to be able to go see that particular exhibit again. (It’s cool, I went to the poisons exhibit, I totally know how to kill a man now.)

But I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced the kind of profound museum-related disappointment that I felt when I reached the end of the Power of Poisons exhibit that’s currently on display at NHMU. How had I reached the end? Why, and wherefore? Surely there was more I needed to learn about poisons. SURELY.

Alas, it was the end, which doesn’t diminish the fact that the entire exhibit, from beginning to end, was an absolutely fascinating, fact-packed thrill ride of myth, legend, and science, live reptiles and interactive screens, taking us from the forests of Colombia, to poisons in literature, to modern medicine and forensics. There’s a book whose pages seem to ink themselves before your eyes, illustrated scenes from mythology playing out on pottery, a video presentation on early forensic science, a series of interactive whodunnits, and plenty to see everywhere you look.

Between my interests in history and mysteries, and my slight addiction to forensic shows on TV, I was already a little bit of a poison enthusiast. But I learned so much about poison from this exhibit that I almost couldn’t pack it all into my brain-hole. I need to go back and visit the exhibit again just to take it all in a second time. (Which I can. Because I’m a member now. AMAZING.)

Here are a few of my favorite factoids from the exhibit:

  • There’s a tree so poisonous to human life that even standing beneath its leaves during a rainstorm will cause your skin to blister. No thank you.
  • There are places where ants, to assist the plants they like to live in, have basically killed off every other sort of plant in the vicinity; these are called Devil’s Gardens, presumably because they’re a lush hellscape of ants.
  • When history’s writers like Shakespeare talk about witches’ brews containing ingredients like “tooth of wolf” and “tongue of hound,” they likely weren’t just referring to random gross spell ingredients, but to actual known poisons like Wolfsbane and Houndstongue.
  • There’s evidence to suggest that early warfare might have included things like throwing pots filled with venomous insects or scorpions at your enemies. Bad. Ass.
  • Documents containing specific ingredients for “flying potions” made by historical witches included ingredients that would definitely induce a drug trip that would make the user feel like they were flying. A researcher in 1927 actually made one of those flying potions and got high off his ass. It doesn’t sound like the greatest thing, though… with ingredients like wolfsbane, mandrake, and belladonna, those mixtures would have been highly toxic; another researcher who decided to try one out actually poisoned himself and died.
  • In the early days of anesthesiology, doctors used curare to immobilize patients during surgery, not realizing that while it did keep their patients still, they were still awake during their surgery. Yiiiikes. (Interestingly enough, curare can also be used as an antidote to strychnine.)
  • Radium (yeah the actual radioactive kind) was considered a miracle cure in the 20s and you could buy everything from cigarettes to butter with radium in it, like it was a health product. Same with mercury and a lot of other toxic substances… you used to be able to buy teething powders with mercury in them to put in your kid’s mouth. That is super not recommended today, obviously.
  • Marie Curie not only unlocked many of the secrets of radiation, she also set up mobile x-ray vehicles in France during WWI and freaking drove them herself. Hero goals.

And those are just a few of the incredible collection of fascinating facts. I can’t even list them all because then I’d just be reading you every sign from the exhibit. Yeah, I did take cell phone pictures of them all so I could re-read them later.

This cool interactive book responded to pages being turned and touched. You can also play with it online here!

The Power of Poison is a traveling exhibit from the American Museum of Natural History, so if you’re not in Salt Lake and you can’t see it at NHMU, all hope is not lost; maybe it’ll wind up in a city near you! It’ll be on display at the Natural History Museum of Utah through April 16, 2017; you can find more information and purchase tickets here. There’s also a live theatrical performance connected to the exhibit, the Extreme Plants Traveling Sideshow, so make sure to check it out while you’re there!

A Ride on the Heber Valley Railroad

I can’t say I’ve ever been a railroad enthusiast, but I’ve always meant to take a ride on one of those tourist-style historic railway tours. I lived near the Skunk Train and the Narrow Gauge Railroad without ever riding either one, so when my brother and his wife were visiting this week, and he suggested we go for a trip on the Heber Creeper, it seemed my time for a train ride had come at last.

The Heber Valley Railroad offers a variety of trip options, including packages with horseback riding and rafting, but we opted for the shortest trip, a half-hour ride through Heber Valley farm country, along some marshy wetlands and creeks, to the banks of the Deer Creek Reservoir. There were some beautiful views, and we were lucky enough to choose a day that was lovely and overcast.

Overall it was a nice trip, though being confined to a single car full of families with young children — one of the hazards of living in Utah — meant the noise level got a little unbearable at times. Part of the ride is entertainment, which includes a stop for a “train robbery” at Soldier Hollow, and a singing train robber through  most of the remainder of the ride, and though I personally had less than zero interest in any of those things, the kids sure seemed to enjoy it. (The singer had a lovely voice, but the train car acoustics and noisy audience weren’t doing her any favors.) For more curmudgeonly passengers like myself, the views were certainly enough to make the ride worth the price of admission.

Natural History Museum of Utah: Because Dinosaurs, That’s Why

I love museums. I sort of have a museum situation, which is a way of saying that I have a museum problem without admitting that it’s a problem. I can spend the whole day in a museum and never get bored, and it’s more than just the exhibits. I cherish fine art museums and embrace my puzzlement at modern art museums and I even enjoy bizarre little local history museums and roadside attraction museums. I’m pretty sure I’d even enjoy that museum with the cavemen riding dinosaurs, if only to bask in our obvious mutual love for Dino-Riders. (I even had a good time with the “museum” section of that Dino-Riders fan site. That is how seriously I take this, you guys.)

I geek out over the brilliance of the exhibit design and how engaging some particular attraction must be for little children (ignoring of course the fact that I myself am usually behaving like a little child by this point) and the mix of kid-sized and grown-up attractions and the interactivity of the exhibits and the sheer mind-blowing majesty of the dinosaur bones and… I could go on, but I won’t. Frankly, when you get me into the proper museum frame of mind I tend to become a little sub-verbal and start gesticulating wildly rather than using my words.

So it’s probably obvious to you by now that one of the things I missed the most, when I was living the last handful of years in very small-town rural America, was having a proper museum at my disposal. When I moved back to Salt Lake last year, I was overwhelmingly delighted to learn that the Natural History Museum of Utah — easily my favorite kind of museum — was brand new and improved. I loved the old museum, which was kind of musty and dark and in my memory possessed nothing but endless halls of taxidermy and shelves full of pinned insects. But the new museum just about made me lose my shit with joy. My photos didn’t do the building’s architecture justice, but if you check out their website they’ve got some great pictures of what the building looks like. I have brought you instead a lot of pictures of dinosaurs. Because dinosaurs, that’s why.

If I were a Dino-Rider, I would use one of these things as my epic cavalry mount. With lasers.

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This Is Why I Prefer Animals That Are At Least Car-Sized

Back in the days of yore, when I was just an idealistic young student taking my first conservation biology course, I remember my professor bemoaning the state of modern conservation. People, she said, were only interested in “charismatic megafauna” — all those big, popular, well-known animals that you expect to see in every zoo ever, like elephants, giraffes, lions, wolves, bears, tigers, and so on. I guess having a problem with this is a lot like being a biology hipster, but I could see her point; while donors pour millions into conservation and research for a handful of these “popular” species, hundreds or even thousands more are much more desperately in need of aid… or even just in need of understanding. It’s tough to raise money for the conservation of a spider because people hate spiders. It’s tough to raise money for the conservation of a jellyfish because, as we all know, jellyfish are the enemy. Try telling people that you want to save the monkfish and they’ll run away screaming. I mean, once you show them a picture. Nobody knows what a monkfish is right off the bat except maybe monkfish enthusiasts, if such people exist in the first place.

Still, I think there are perfectly valid reasons for scientists and animal lovers to choose their favorite species the way they do. Take E.O. Wilson, for instance. When he was a boy he suffered an unfortunate accident involving a needlefish and its close proximity to his eyeball which left him blind in one eye. Naturally this would put anyone off the study of fish, and Wilson’s passion for ornithology was rather nixed when partial deafness set in during his adolescence. (It’s kind of hard to find birds when you can’t see them because your depth perception is screwed up and you also can’t hear them laughing at you from their treetop perches.) He turned instead to entomology and became the world’s foremost expert on ants and a pioneer in the study of insect sociobiology, among other things. And all because birds weren’t an option.

This slightly laborious story is all in aid of explaining why I myself tended toward the study of rather large animals: because it’s difficult to study something you can’t see. In school I took an interest in ungulates — wild horses specifically, but also elk and moose and bighorn sheep and generally just anything with hooves because I find them kind of marvelous — mostly because they’re awesome but also, in part, because it’s easier to study something when you can actually see it. Despite an early interest in birds — no doubt springing from my early obsession with dinosaurs — I always knew that I was never going to be an ornithologist, or even a hobbyist birder, because while other, normal people would point to the sky or a tree or whatever and delightedly exclaim over some bird they saw there, I could only squint, perplexed, seeing nothing and wondering whether they were just messing with me. My own childhood brush with blindness was not — thank you nature — courtesy of a needlefish; rather, I was mysteriously struck blind and, after a period of time spent calmly baffling medical professionals, I just as mysteriously regained my sight. This episode was, apparently, as damaging to my eyes as you might expect, and it’s the reason that today I’m not the sort of person you’d want to join your badminton team. Without my glasses, I can see things fairly clearly at a distance of about six inches from my face; beyond that, it’s all impressionist painters. With my glasses, I’m at least legal to drive, but if you expect me to help you read street signs from a distance, you’re gonna have a bad time.

Of course, I’m not a big believer in limiting myself based on things like reality, which is why after I got a membership to Red Butte Garden here in Salt Lake and discovered that this meant I could do things like free birding walks, I was all over it. A nice walk in the garden with my trusty camera and a bunch of other people who have nothing better to do on a Saturday morning? SIGN ME UP. Oh, and please capture the birds so you can hold them very close to my face.

Now that I have been birding, of course, I am extremely knowledgeable. This is a… uh… Blue-Headed… Something.

Apparently hummingbirds like to hang around right at the very tops of pine trees. Who knew?

The nice thing about birding when you are not even remotely a birder is that you get to be delighted by things you probably shouldn’t be delighted by, like this robin who apparently is also a tradesman of some kind, judging by the way he’s building things. Around the fifth time everyone stops to see what you’re photographing, only to find it’s a bee or a robin or a flower, they finally realize you’re an idiot and stop paying you any mind at all. It’s only a shame it takes them so long.

This next animal proved to be a testament to my fellow birders’ kindness and patience toward their fellow man. The conversation with one kind soul in particular went something like this:

Me: I don’t see it. Where is it?
Her: Okay, do you see that sort of bare area in the middle of the tree, where you can see through to the trunk and there aren’t any leaves?
Me: Yes…
Her: Focus on that, then go directly to your right. He’s on that main branch, right out in the open. Really easy to spot.
Me: ….
Her: He’s bright yellow.
Me: Er….
Her: Okay. Do you see the bare area on the tree?

We went on like that for a good five minutes until the bird himself, clearly exasperated, relocated himself essentially to the front and center of the tree, offering us a fantastic view of his yellowness, at which point it took me probably another five minutes to finally see him. I told my long-suffering new friend that obviously I hadn’t been able to see him, there are leaves on that tree bigger than that bird. And he’s more creamy than bright yellow. I mean, seriously. He looks like a delicious well-toasted marshmallow, is what he looks like.

I was going to declare a moratorium on trying to spot any bird smaller than a pelican, but then this guy flew right in front of me, like he was trying to help a girl out. Thanks, angry-looking eyebrows bird.

FINALLY, some birds I can actually see. And as an added bonus, they’re cute and fluffy. You’re a pal, momma duck.

We saw several more birds at a distance, which for me personally was not very helpful, but whatever. This one looked like maybe a finch to me, which I only guessed because I’d seen Darwin’s sketches of course, but I was assured that it was not, in fact, a finch. I have no idea what it is. I hope you weren’t expecting this anecdote to end with some sort of useful information.

My favorites were the most obvious birds, like this quail, because at least on those occasions I could name the bird and indulge for one brief moment in a magical fantasy-land where I wasn’t completely clueless.

Of course, just because I had no idea what I was talking about and indeed no real idea of what I was even doing there among those very enthusiastic and keen-eyed birders, didn’t mean I was outside the reach of good fortune. While the rest of our company were gazing through their binoculars at some distant thing that as far as I could tell was a pinecone on top of a shrub, I wandered off a short distance down a side path to take some more pictures of flowers, as you do, and then I heard that tell-tale hum and turned around to see this kind gentleman stopping for a snack about two feet away from me.

Hummingbird, you are an officer and a gentleman. Or at least you would be, if it were possible to be those things while also being a bird.

Sure, he might’ve been super-tiny, but at least he recognized my handicap and got right up close… I actually had to step back to put him in focus with my zoom lens on. I might be a frustratingly awful birder — in fact, I think I might take up an interest in elephants, mostly because in order to study something bigger like blue whales I’d have to go into the sea and there are jellyfish in there — but every now and again, at least, fortune chooses to smile on me.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post, with more photos from Red Butte Garden, this time with flowers and bees and… well, that’s pretty much it actually. Flowers and bees. But both of those are pretty much rad.

It’s Just Like the Road Warrior, Only with Minivans

The thing about driving in Utah is, it’s kind of like taking a detour into Bartertown. Sure, you were just minding your own business, driving along the back roads of the American west, maybe treating your dog to a nice vacation and doing your best to improve the lives of feral desert-dwelling children, and then suddenly you find yourself in a Thunderdome cage match, fighting to the death under the approving gaze of Tina Turner.

All of what I just said is absolutely true, except for the part about Tina Turner.

It’s possible that you came to this land on purpose, or that it wasn’t worth the hassle to drive around it on your way to somewhere else, or that your ancestors’ plane crashed here and you don’t know how to escape. I suppose it’s not far-fetched that anybody would come here on purpose; certainly Utah is jam-packed with natural splendor, if you’re into that sort of thing, and Mormons, if you’re into that sort of thing, and apparently a growing number of vegan eating establishments, if my newspaper is to be believed. But the trouble is mostly that it’s packed full of Utahns. And for reasons that nobody can quite explain, they insist on driving to places.

The minute you hit that border, mark my words, it is going to be like The Lord of the Flies up in here. One minute you’re driving along in a civilized fashion, using your turn signals and gallantly allowing traffic to merge, and the next thing you know you’re passing on the right, you’re squeezing into spaces that only Mini Cooper drivers could contemplate before, and you’re using the broken fenders and blood-stained seatbelts of your vanquished foes to create your own personal body armor.

Hey, nobody’s going to blame you. Once you’re across that border, all bets are off, and it’s up to you to protect your car and your family of four and the dog and your extensive collection of Journey cassette tapes. And if that means mounting a harpoon on the roof of your Subaru or ripping out a grown man’s throat with your teeth while hanging out the window of a vehicle doing 75 miles per hour on the highway, then so be it.

To give you the best chance of surviving your foray onto Utah’s practically post-apocalyptic roadways, I would like to offer you some important rules to live by.

1. Every other driver on the road is your enemy. Show them no mercy.
This is the first and most important rule. You might think that lady in the minivan with ten kids in the back is just some soccer mom hauling pretty much the whole team to a match, but in reality those hooligans are her road gang and they are prepared to bathe in your blood. Always remember to screw the other guy before he can screw you; it’s every man for himself in the arena, and as we all know, two men enter, one man leaves. Of course, that doesn’t mean that other drivers won’t form alliances in order to screw you over harder than a single man could do alone. These roadways are full of roving gangs of minivans and they are not afraid to Mormon roadblock you.

2. In order to deter attack, you must engage in displays of dominance.
You stand a better chance of surviving if other drivers are too frightened to fight you. This is why you must engage in ritual displays that will intimidate other drivers. The way in which you drive can send a strong message; for instance, if you always drive with a distance of only 0.2 microns between your front bumper and another vehicle’s rear bumper, it’s sort of the equivalent of humping the other driver’s leg while chanting, “Yeah, you like that, don’t you? Who’s my bitch? Who’s my good little bitch?” By refusing to allow other vehicles to merge in front of you, you signal your unwillingness to be mounted. Should you choose to decide to drive in two lanes at once rather than picking a single lane, this is a lot like lifting a leg and marking your territory. You get the idea. By engaging in subtle — and completely unsubtle — displays of dominance, you will demonstrate to other drivers your willingness to destroy them and to violate their spouses. This will also help you to identify which of the other drivers on the road will challenge you — they’ll attempt their own dominance displays in response — and which ones will roll over and piss themselves.

3. Predictability is the same thing as kill-ability.
An enemy who can anticipate your movements is an enemy who can effectively target you. This is why it is essential to keep your movements unpredictable, and actively practice misdirection. Never use your turning signals, except when you are not actually turning. Have you encountered a roundabout? Treat it like a four-way stop. Actual four-way stop? You go when you decide, not when the law dictates; hell, roll right through that bad boy, or refuse to go even when it’s your right-of-way. Traffic light out? Just blast through there as fast as you can, I’m sure it’ll be fine. Train coming? Flip a U-turn across the tracks; an oncoming train is a great way to shake pursuers, if you manage to survive. I know because I saw it in a movie once. I think it had Vin Diesel in it.

4. Take every opportunity for clever concealment.
Of course, you’ll be wanting to cut other drivers off as much as possible — as we’ve discussed, if anybody’s going to be doing any leg-humping here, it ought to be you — so it’s important to practice concealing yourself on the open roadway. When beginning to overtake another vehicle, spend as long as possible in that vehicle’s “blind spot,” that area where you are nearly invisible thanks to your disappearance from the other driver’s rearview mirror. Imagine yourself as a lion on the savannah, creeping up on a helpless baby gazelle. You may also find it helpful to conceal yourself by finding a large vehicle — like a camper or eighteen-wheeler — and driving so close to the bumper that it looks like you are in fact being towed. It is the perfect camouflage, particularly from police, and though it may seem dangerous to be following that closely at highway speeds, I’m sure you’ve seen The Fast and the Furious plenty of times, so you’ve got this.

5. Posted signs and road markers may be misleading. Do not trust them.
We all know that posted speed limits are merely meant as a challenge and that lowered railroad crossing arms are just an excellent opportunity to teach your car how to jump hurdles like a fine show pony. But road signs and markers in Utah add an extra layer of complexity that will keep you second-guessing even as you’re trying to engage in open combat with your fellow drivers. There may or may not be a sign to let you know that your lane is about to end abruptly. You may be rerouted into a single slow-moving lane for months by construction signs which never actually yield forth any construction. (More the fool you if you accept these delays by following the directions of construction signs. They’re not the boss of you.) When it rains, you are entering a special bonus round in which the lines on the road completely disappear and you are free to occupy as many lanes as you possibly can at any one time, while engaging in a billiards-like driving strategy where instead of simply turning the wheel to direct your vehicle to the appropriate off-ramp, you merely careen into the vehicle next to you and use the rebounding force of the impact to propel you in the right direction.

I know what you’re thinking. Utah? The reality can’t be that hard-core. Those people are known for their ties and their interesting ideas about marriage, not for their murderous road rage. Surely the drivers are worse in places like New York or Boston or Los Angeles. (Little-known fact: Drivers in LA are intense but you can rest assured knowing they’re all stunt drivers.) And it might be true that drivers elsewhere are more aggressive, but you’d be hard-pressed to find any drivers who pay any less attention to the road than Utahns. I think maybe it’s because they’re expecting God to protect them and also they had a very poor science education. They don’t realize that two objects can’t occupy the same space at the same time. Oh, and also, they want to kill you and use your sun-bleached skull as a football. I’d wish you luck, but honestly, I have to drive here too, so now that you know how to survive your next foray into the Deseretdome, I sincerely hope that you’ll stay out of my way because otherwise I will have to destroy you and everything that you love.

Here There Be Sea Monsters (And Also Snuggly Little Otters)

As you may recall, I am in general not always a big fan of creatures of the sea. Jellyfish, for instance, are at the top of my personal Threatdown list. But there’s more to an aquarium than jellyfish — and the lure of otters is too strong to resist — so today some family members and I took a field trip to the Living Planet Aquarium in Sandy, Utah. I haven’t had much of a chance to practice my low-light and zoo-ish photography, so I brought my camera along (with apologies to my awesome long-suffering sister-in-law, who has to put up with this same nonsense from her husband all the time) and managed to get a few shots I quite liked.

I want to get one of these frogs and carry it around on my shoulder at all times. It looks like it's really wise and might enjoy advising me on how best to conduct my business.

These Lion Fish are actually venomous, but they were also pretty good about showing off for my camera, so I guess they're not just straight-up jerks.

The aquarium itself was a bit of a disappointment — their interpretive signs left much to be desired, and a great many of the animals’ habitats were both small and overcrowded, with some of the views obstructed by slightly grimy tanks — but it was about what I expected from an aquarium of its size, especially considering that looking at the building from the outside it appears as if they converted an old K-Mart or something. I have to applaud them for having done as much as they have with the space they’re working with, but it’s clearly not the best possible situation. Luckily, a brand new aquarium building is in the works, with 130,000 square feet in Draper and what looks like a much more purpose-built and animal-hospitable building. Currently they’re planning to break ground this summer with a possible opening as early as spring 2013. I can’t wait to give the new place a try when they’ve upgraded their facilities. For now, if you’ve been to SeaWorld it’s not going to even remotely impress you, but if your aquarium experience begins and ends at the pick-your-own-crustacean tank at Red Lobster, then you’d probably find all of these exhibits incredibly diverting and educational.

They had several kinds of sea horses, which was awesome, but the leafy sea dragons were apparently hiding -- or just so good with their marvelous pretending-to-be-a-bit-of-plant-matter disguise that I couldn't spot them -- which was super-sad.

These piranhas were particularly super-awesome... those gold-colored flecks are just incredible. I wouldn't want to take a swim with them, though.

OMG OTTERS.

In case you've ever wondered what an otter looks like while it's pooping, this is the answer. YOU'RE WELCOME. It occurs to me that this always seems to be the pose that taxidermists choose to put stuffed otters in, which makes me wonder whether that's some sort of bathroom-related inside joke among taxidermists all over the world.

Here is a photo of a jellyfish. Jellyfish thing. I don't even know. I'm just showing you this so that you can identify the enemy.

Here is the obligatory NEMO! moment. Now that we've gotten that over with, we can move on to the serious biznis.

Like for instance this eel. Eel-thing? This is definitely serious. I couldn't find a sign saying what sort of eel this is, but I'd guess it's a giant moray. And thanks to Google I've discovered that eels gape their mouths open in this very threatening-looking fashion to help them keep water flowing through their gills and help them breathe. Rad. Also rad? That frilly corral-looking thing at the bottom left is a wobbegon, which in this case seems to mean a shark disguised as furniture, and it was chilling out with a huge eel so it had instant street cred. Tank cred?

This lobster is apparently over 45 years old. That kind of depressed me for reasons I can't really explain. Also, he's totally pretty and blue, which made him seem rather decent for being a cockroach of the sea.

I'm not really that into fish, but I did like the frogs. They were incredibly colorful and also adorable.

And speaking of adorable, here are a couple of Axolotls. I had to Google that to make sure I was spelling it right. What would I do without Google? Probably curl up in the corner and cry.

I don't know what this is, which is why I'm calling it a "gecko-y thing maybe" like that is its official taxonomical classification. My brother says it's a newt, which is probably the case, but "newt-y thing" doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

I was surprised at how well some of these photos came out, considering my camera is not exactly the latest in DSLR technology and it was really quite dark in there. This last photo, of a sleeping green tree snake, is one of my favorites from the day. (That first frog shot is definitely the other top pick.)

I’ve been having a great time lately finding occasions to visit some of the local attractions here in the greater Salt Lake City area… it’s sort of fun to make yourself be a tourist in your native land. Keep an eye out for more posts and photos from around town as I continue to endeavor to get myself out of the house….