Trip Report - Winter 2000

Lewis and Debra Demler

This is the trip report from our 2000 winter pilgrimage to Yellowstone. We wanted to go for New Year's Eve, but unfortunately Deb and I both had to work. We both work with computers and you know what Y2K was all about. My office shut our computers down on New Year's Eve, but since Deb works in a hospital, they had to keep theirs running. This trip report covers the period from Saturday, January 22, 2000 through Sunday, January 30, 2000.

We flew into Jackson Hole on Saturday, January 22, 2000. We stayed at Flagg Ranch the night of January 22. We took a snowcoach to Old Faithful on January 23. We stayed in the Old Faithful Snow Lodge Western Cabins from January 23 through January 29, returning to Flagg Ranch by snowcoach on January 29. We continued to Jackson and then got a room for the night. We departed from Jackson for Pennsylvania on Sunday, January 30. We arrived back home in Pennsylvania on Monday, January 31, 2000, but that is the rest of the story.

We hope you enjoy reading this Trip Report as much as we did putting it together. Click on the small pictures if you want to see a larger image.

Lew and Deb

Saturday, January 22, 2000

Road to Flagg Ranch We got up at 3:00 a.m. after staying up until 1:00 to finish packing. We were on the road by 4:00. It was an extremely cold morning for Pennsylvania. The moon, just past full, reflected brightly off snow that fell the previous Thursday, and provided enough light to see our animals down in the pasture. For the last five years, we haven't had enough snow here to do any skiing. Now that we finally got some, our skis were packed in preparation for this trip. Gee, which would it be - skiing in the pasture or Yellowstone?

We got to the airport in plenty of time and with the new e-tickets, check in was a breeze. We were able to complete the entire check-in process at the curb and didn't have to wait in the long line at the ticket counter.

The flight to Cincinnati was uneventful. It was beautiful, amazing, and disconcerting to see the number of lights between Harrisburg and Cincinnati. Around each city, the snow reflected the golden street lights into brilliant jewels. The East Coast population is so dense that we were never out of sight of a large area of light.

Winter at Flagg Ranch We had a slight delay in the flight to Salt Lake City, because a faulty sensor was indicating the rear emergency exit was not closed. We had to wait for a mechanic to come on board and check out the door. The call signal for the flight attendants also kept randomly sounding, so we were all given free headsets to drown out the noise.

We arrived late at Salt Lake and scrambled to get to the gate for our connection to Jackson. Fortunately, that flight was delayed waiting for flight attendants or we wouldn't have made it. So we sat down, caught our breath and waited for the crew to arrive. Once they arrived and we got in the air, the pilot made up a little time. We got into Jackson around 12:30 p.m., only about 15 minutes late. Compared with other years, this was a smooth trip.

Winter at Flagg Ranch When we arrived at Jackson, our shuttle driver was waiting for us. We usually unwind from the flight while waiting for the shuttle, but we were happy to get on the road. The driver was in a big hurry to get up to Flagg Ranch, so we couldnít do too much animal watching. Near the Snake River overlook, we spied 4 coyotes hunting in the sage brush flats. And we saw one moose just before Moran Junction.

This is the only winter trip where weíve had sunny skies in Jackson. There were a few clouds surrounding the Tetons, but we didnít run into overcast skies until we hit Colter Bay. From there up to Flagg, we had a few flurries. We got checked in and then sacked out for a couple hours. We roused ourselves long enough to eat supper and were back in bed for the night by 7:30. We were exhausted from the previous late night and the day spent traveling.

Sunday, January 23, 2000

View from our Cabin at Flagg Ranch We woke this morning at 3:00 (we were still on Eastern time), but dozed off and on until 7:00. We got breakfast and walked around Flagg to take a few pictures. It was flurrying again in the morning, but soon cleared up to bright, brilliant blue skies, something we just couldnít get used to out here in the winter. It was about 25 degrees and seemed very warm. We started shedding layers - hats, mittens, jackets, and vests, and finally wound up rolling up our sleeves.

The lack of snow at Flagg was obvious. Typically, there are huge piles of snow all around the lodge where the snow slides off the roof. This year, the only piles of snow were along the parking lot and the sidewalk, where the plows have piled it up.

Lew holding skin of a Denali Wolf The snow coaches arrived around 11:00 a.m., and even though they normally donít load until 11:45, everyone was so anxious to get up in the park that we loaded up early. While the drivers were packing up the luggage, the ranger from the Flagg Ranch station came down carrying a wolf skin for us all to look at. The skin was from a Denali wolf that had died of a stomach ulcer. It was a beautiful skin, a prime winter coat; the fur was long, surprisingly soft and extremely warm to hold. The ranger said there had been few wolf sitings so far this winter in the Tetons.

Once we got going, our driver said to be on the lookout for an ermine just before the park entrance. She had spotted it on the way down. We looked, but all we got to see were numerous tracks in the snow. That was the start of a theme for the day.

Moose Falls Our first stop was Moose Falls, always a favorite, decked out in snow and ice and perfumed with the most intense pine smell. The sky had turned overcast and we were getting a few flurries, making it seem more like the winter we've become accustomed to. Crawfish Creek was steaming in the cold air. The layered snow along the creek looked almost like sedimentary rock layers.

We pulled over at the Lewis Canyon overlook to note the difference between the lodge pole forest, which we had just traversed, and the severe burn area around the overlook. The next stop was Lewis Falls where the drivers jumped over the bridge and made snow angels for us all to enjoy. We made a brief stop at Lewis Lake to look at an osprey nest. Thatís something we want to check out in May. As we passed Grant, we spied a bison down in one of the little draws. There were plenty of other bison tracks, but only the one bison. From there, it was on to West Thumb. We spent about an hour walking the geyser basin and scanning the lake for otters. Once again, all we spied were tracks - both otter tracks and slides, and coyote tracks. We talked to the ranger there, who said the otters have been out every morning for the past week.

West Thumb Geyser Basin in Winter On the way up to Old Faithful, we noticed many spots where snowmobilers were ignoring the regulations and were sidehilling. We hadnít noticed it this much in the past, so whether it was because there was so little snow and they felt safer doing it now, or what, it was a blatant disregard for the law.

Just past Kepler Cascades, we saw our second bison and the third came shortly thereafter at the bridge over the Firehole River. We got into Old Faithful around 4:15 and were in our cabin by 4:30. As we left our cabin for the Visitorís Center, we saw the local coyote trotting through the cabin area. We caught the tail end of an eruption of Lion and were just in time to see Old Faithful erupt around 4:45. After the eruption, we stopped to talk to Joy, the ranger on duty. We talked to her about the best place to stand for the web cam. The web cam is monitored at the visitors center desk. Joy said an unnamed wife of one of the rangers had waved at the web cam the day before from a location next to the right hand tree and was very visible. So thatís where weíll be tomorrow. She did indicate that there have been a lot of problems with the web cam. If they happen on the weekend, the cam will be down until Monday, since no one is around to fix them.

Sunset over the Old Faithful Inn Joy indicated that Beehive was expected to erupt ďsoonĒ so we walked back out to the end of the Old Faithful boardwalk to see if we would get lucky. As we stood waiting, we listened to the hissing from the aftermath of the Old Faithful eruption, heard the gurgling from the runoff, and the cawing of a couple of ravens. Seven elk came trotting around Old Faithful and five bison were grazing in the distance. After about 30 minutes, we still didnít see anything from the indicator, so we headed in for our dinner reservation.

Monday, January 24, 2000

Upper Geyser Basin

We got up this morning ready to make our WWW debut, but the web cam wasnít cooperating. Little did we know when we picked 10 a.m. that we would be competing with an Old Faithful eruption. Unfortunately, when the server in Washington was upgraded over Christmas, they did not plan for enough capacity to handle the web cam traffic. Whenever an eruption is predicted, web cam usage goes up and overloads the server. It can take up to 45 minutes for everything to return to normal. We tried again at 10:30, but I think we generated too much traffic for the server. We were out on and off between 2:00 and 2:30. We plan on being back out there at 8:00 Yellowstone time tomorrow morning.

Upper Geyser Basin in Winter We spent our day hiking the Upper Geyser Basin. It is obvious there has been very little snowfall this year. There are many more bare areas than weíve seen in the other winters weíve been here. The NPS has cleared a 6-foot wide path out to Morning Glory Pool and the side trail to Riverside, so you can hike the whole way out there now. They have a new monster snowblower that cuts the 6-foot wide path in one pass. It was kind of shocking, because the bicycle path is normally one trail we ski. The skiers are stuck on a small track off to one side on top of the snow from the snowblower. One nice thing was the path to the bathroom by Morning Glory was cleared, so you no longer have to fight the snowdrifts to get there.

Bison along Firehole River in Upper Geyser Basin We saw the eruption of Old Faithful when we were supposed to have our debut. There were 8 elk hanging around Old Faithful right after the eruption. When we left the Visitorís Center, we saw Lion erupting across the basin. As we walked out toward Castle, we saw a few bison in the foreground and a small herd back in the woods along the hill. We just missed a minor eruption of Castle and since it was a minor one, the NPS wouldn't make another prediction until Castle had a regular eruption. We next stopped at Grotto, which was erupting to about 5 feet above the main cone. We paused at Riverside, but it wasnít predicted to erupt for another 3 hours, so we didnít wait. We passed Norris Pools and stopped at Morning Glory Pool for a short break. It was so warm that the pool had very little steam and you could see the full structure of the vent.

Old Faithful Inn from Castle Geyser We returned via Riverside, where we stopped for a brief lunch. We turned at Grotto and headed up by Giant. Nothing was happening there. We passed by Chromatic and Beauty Pools. Chromatic was very low and Beauty was overflowing. We passed Grand, which wasnít due to erupt for another 8 hours and turned at Sawmill Geyser and headed back toward Castle. A large bison decided to nap fairly close to the boardwalk near one of the small pools there, so we got a few pictures of him. We returned to the Visitorís Center and posed for the web cam again and then headed back to our cabin. That was it for the day.

Tuesday, January 25, 2000

Firehole River near Lone Star Geyser We got to Old Faithful at 7:50 and walked around waving to the web cam. We have impeccable timing; Old Faithful erupted just after 8:00. It was a nice long eruption with lots of tall bursts. We left around 8:10 and headed to the Snow Lodge for breakfast.

Back at our cabin, we got packed up and went back to the Snow Lodge to catch the snow coach drop off for the Divide trailhead. It began snowing on our way out. The scenery was beautiful even though the falling snow limited our visibility. Once we got away from the road, you could no longer hear the buzz of the snowmobiles. The only noise was the swish of our skis, the squeaking of our bindings, and the crunching of the snow. When we stopped, all you could hear was the gentle tapping of the snow falling on our hats and packs and the occasional thud when a branch caught one too many snowflakes and dropped its load of snow on the trail. This is what Yellowstone in the winter is all about.

Lone Star Geyser We followed the trail to Lone Star Geyser. At the junction of Spring Creek Trail and Lone Star Geyser Trail, Lew had to stop and adjust one ski boot. Since we couldnít find a convenient log, he made a bench out of his pack. By this time, we had shed our jackets and were skiing in shirt sleeves. We both were fairly soaked, both from sweat and the falling snow, but Polartec clothing is wonderful. It can be totally soaked and still keep you warm.

We continued on to Lone Star Geyser, getting there just in time for a major eruption. When we got to the edge of the geyser basin around 1:00, water was running down the sides of the cone. Within 5 minutes it was in full eruption, with bursts of 30 to 40 feet. These bursts continued for about 10 minutes, when it converted to a steam phase. The hissing and booming of the steam continued for another 20 minutes or so. We noted the eruption in the log book. It was well worth the trip out.

Bison in the Firehole River Lone Star Geyser trail is groomed to about 10 feet in width, enough room for two ski tracks and a snowshoe trail. The snow eased up on our way out. Part way out, a bison had decided that groomed ski trails make pretty good bison paths. We couldnít figure out how he managed to place each foot precisely in the middle of the tracks. He rarely missed. At least he only left bison spit for presents. We caught up with him along the Firehole where he was wading in the river. He knocked the overhanging snow from the banks and grazed on the long grass underneath. He didnít seem to mind the cold water. We stopped on the bridge over the Firehole and watched him for quite a while. This was a good place to take a break before proceeding on to Old Faithful.

Firehole River in Winter The scenery along the Firehole was breathtaking. Snow was piled up on every log crossing the water and every small island was a white mound. Every tree was frosted with snow. We stopped so often to take pictures that the trip took twice as long as it should have, but we didnít mind.

The sky in the east cleared enough to give us a brilliant blue display to lighten our way for the last mile back. We arrived at our cabin just as it was getting dark.

Wednesday, January 26, 2000

Fog at West Thumb Geyser Basin The day started out bright and clear with only a few puffy clouds in the sky. We went to West Thumb to try to see the otters that have been frequenting the area. By the time we got there, some kind of temperature inversion occurred and the basin and the surrounding valleys were filled with mist. Steam was rising off the snow everywhere. We checked with the ranger who said she spotted the otters just before the mist settled in. It was very eerie walking around the basin when frost shrouded trees appeared out of the mist. We waited about an hour for the mist to clear, but by the time it disappeared, so had the otters.

On the way back to Old Faithful, we stopped at Shoshone Lake overlook. The snowy lake was shining in the sun, but there were fluffy white clouds on the horizon, so we didnít get to see the Tetons. A rabbit left quite a trail in the snow across the road from the pullout.

Bison near Fountain Flats and Mary Mountain Trail After a brief stop for lunch at Old Faithful, we headed up to Madison. We passed numerous bison and elk scattered along the Firehole. The lack of snow was evident everywhere. In some areas that werenít even thermal areas, the tops of the grass peeked out of the snow. Any area that had the slightest thermal activity was bare.

A large bison herd had taken up residence at Fountain Flats. We had to wait while about 20 or so cows and their feisty calves crossed the road. We were surprised by the number of bison we saw between Old Faithful and the Mary Mountain Trailhead.

We took a break at the Madison warming hut and noticed they had taken a survey of the swans along the Madison River earlier that morning. We decided to head that way to see if we could find them. What a surprise awaited us. Herds of bison dwarfed the number we had seen previously. Bison were everywhere you looked along the river. We figured we saw over 1200 bison today. We eventually found the swans, close to the area where they nest in spring. We saw two pairs that had 3 cygnets each and another two pairs that had 2 cygnets each. It was getting late so we turned back toward Old Faithful.

Winter Scene near Midway Geyser Basin On the way back it got colder and cloudier. The bison at Fountain Flats had disappeared. By the time we reached Midway Geyser Basin, it had started to flurry.

When we got back to Old Faithful, we stopped at the Visitorís Center to buy a book on animal tracks. Because there hadnít been much fresh snow to cover them up, animal tracks were everywhere. We wanted to try to identify some of the less common tracks weíd seen.

While we were there, Lew started talking to the ranger on duty, Tom Hougham, about what had gone on in the basin today. We noted we were in the window for Grand and Tom said we had just missed it. Then we asked about Beehive and he said it went off around noon. He casually mentioned that Giantess had gone off that afternoon. He said if we wanted to go out into the basin, we could head for Giantess as it was still putting out 100 ft. plus bursts every 30 to 60 minutes.

Giantess Geyser On our way out, we saw two bursts that must have been about 100 ft., plus several in the 40 to 50 ft. range. By the time we got out there, the bursts had decreased to about 10 to 20 ft.

We waited for another cycle and had just about given up, when we heard the hiss and roar of another one starting. We stood and watched and felt and heard several more major bursts. You could hear the thud of the bursts and then the water would shoot out of the vent like a rocket. We were so fortunate to be able to see this geyser.

It got too dark to see very much and we were having trouble finding the trail back to the Visitorís Center.

We went back to the room to get ready for supper.

Thursday, January 27, 2000

Road near Fountain Paint Pot The morning dawned bright but bitter cold. We received about 4 inches of fresh snow overnight. We debated whether we would try again to see the otters or go north to Mammoth. Since it was so cold and extremely foggy in the geyser basin, we decided to head north to Mammoth. At each thermal area, the fog created whiteout conditions, making it very difficult to see the road.

We stopped at the Madison warming hut. The ranger said she had driven one of the new four-cycle snowmobiles that had been donated to the park. She said it was about as loud as her Toyota pickup truck and had no visible emissions and little smell.

We asked if there was a way to get in touch with Tom, the Yellowstone webmaster. She checked her phone list and called up to Mammoth to see if Tom was there and could see us. We made arrangements to meet with him

Mount Everts The ride up to Mammoth was bumpy and cold. There were few animals out, scattered bison and elk. The road to the Mammoth warming hut was extremely bumpy. Itís easy to see how someone could lose control of a snowmobile if they didnít slow down.

When we got to Mammoth, we stopped by to see Tom and to check on the little red car. Tom showed us the web cam in the window of his office and explained the problems with the refresh. Thereís a software problem with the server in Washington that will take some time to fix. Tom said he would join us for one of the Loonion lunches. By the way, we found out who owns the little red car.

Gibbon Falls We stopped to see the exhibits in the Albright Center and then went to the administration building to look at the storyboard on the spires in Lake Yellowstone. A ranger asked if we had any questions. We told him we wanted to see the storyboards and then asked him about the four-cycle snowmobiles. He said he had driven one and that it definitely had enough power for the groomed roads in the park.

After lunch at the Mammoth dining room, we headed back to Old Faithful. On the way down, we saw several coyotes, many bison and a few elk here and there. Near Gibbon Falls we saw our first bull elk of the day. He was so handsome with his massive rack that we thought he must have had quite a harem in the fall.

Sunset in the Upper Geyser Basin We were greeted by an eruption of Old Faithful upon our arrival back at the Snow Lodge. We checked the Visitorís Center to get a rough idea of when Riverside might erupt the next day. While we were there we noted that Grand was predicted to erupt at 4 p.m. plus or minus 2 hours. Since it was just before 5, we were still within the window. After checking with Ranger Tom, who said it hadnít erupted yet, we decided to head out and wait. After waiting for about 50 minutes, we were rewarded with a three burst eruption of Grand.

We went back to the Firehole Lounge and celebrated our good fortune with Black Butte porter beer. Since we couldnít get Roosevelt beans, we substituted onion rings, assuming they would have a similar impact.

Friday, January 28, 2000

Bison near trail in Upper Geyser Basin We got a late start today. After breakfast, we stopped at the Visitorís Center to get the geyser predictions. Since one of our winter traditions is to watch Riverside and we hadnít seen it yet, that was the key item on our agenda. We were in luck, Riverside was predicted for a 1:15 eruption. We had time for a leisurely stroll out the bicycle path.

On the way out, we noticed a young woman with a tracking antenna. She was tracking several collared elk that were in the Old Faithful area. Her job was to locate them, collect urine and feces samples and monitor their feeding behavior. Part of the study is to determine the nutritional status of the wintering elk. That was the reason for collecting the samples. Believe it or not, there are people doing this for a living (perhaps a job opportunity, janeR?). We found the collared elk a short distance from Castle. There were about 6 cows, two with collars, and their young from last spring.

Riverside Geyser As we walked on, it started to flurry. The snowflakes landed in perfect six-pointed stars on our fleece jackets. We were so well insulated that they didnít melt, but had to be brushed off when we were finished looking at them.

Grotto was practically dormant, with very little steam. This is one of our favorite geysers because of the weird shapes and holes in its cone.

By the time we reached Riverside, the pool was overflowing. We cleared the snow off a bench and sat down to wait. Five others eventually joined us. After about 45 minutes, Riverside erupted and continued for another 20 minutes. After the eruption, we broke out our lunch, which was a mistake, because as we were eating, Grand erupted. It wasnít even within the 2-hour window for the prediction, so we were very disappointed that we could only see the steam rising on the horizon. Thatís all you get sometimes.

Beehive Geyser After lunch, we walked up to Geyser Hill, giving Grand a good scolding as we went by. We stopped briefly by Lion and watched Little Squirt erupt on the other side of the boardwalk loop. We walked around the loop and stopped to take a few pictures at Doublet Pool. The sun was peeking out of the clouds, creating sundogs on either side, which were reflected in the pool and the runoff channel.

As we rounded the bend at Giantess, Beehive started to erupt. We quickly walked down the hill, but with the icy condition of the boardwalk, we couldnít walk fast enough to get close before Beehive finished. It was an impressive eruption, nevertheless.

Old Faithful Geyser We finished the day with a wonderful eruption of Old Faithful. The lighting was perfect, since the sun was low in the sky and the clouds had disappeared. The wind was blowing away from the Visitorís Center, so the sun reflected beautifully off the column of water. The sky in the background was that deep Yellowstone blue that we all love. A perfect ending to a wonderful trip.

We spent the evening packing for our trip home and had a final dinner at the Snow Lodge.

Saturday, January 29, 2000

Kepler Cascades We got up at 5:00 a.m. so we would have plenty of time to get ready and get checked out early. We had heard the night before that a large tour group (6 snow coaches) was leaving and we wanted to get into the dining room for breakfast before the crunch hit. We got there by 6:15 and a line had already formed. When the dining room opened at 6:30, the line stretched back to front desk. Fortunately, they had set up a buffet and most of the tour group went that route.

The tour snow coaches left first, around 7:45. We got on the road right on time at 8:00. We made a brief stop at Kepler Cascades, but didn't stop at Shoshone overlook, because the Tetons were covered with clouds. We spent a little bit of time at West Thumb, but once again, the temperature caused the steam and mist to fill the area around the lake, so we didn't get to see the otters.

Deb with our Snowcoach Driver We made good time down to Flagg Ranch, arriving around 10:30. The shuttle driver for our Flagg to Jackson trip had just started a few days before. He was a jammer driver from Glacier, so he liked to play tour guide. We stopped at several places to get pictures of the Tetons. We didn't have any luck seeing animals however. We got down to Jackson a little after noon, in plenty of time to get checked in to our room and eat lunch at the nearby Chinese restaurant. We didn't want to get too stuffed because we had made arrangements to meet Tim A. and Betsy for dinner at the Wort Hotel. After lunch, we went back to our room and made final adjustments to our packing for the trip home.

Our dinner with Tim and Betsy was great fun. The Wort really puts out a spread on their buffet - lots of seafood, which we cheat with occasionally. Tim and Betsy are a wonderful couple and we are looking forward to spending more time with them this summer. After a couple of hours (the waiters probably thought we'd never leave), we said our good-byes and headed back to the motel.

Sunday, January 30, 2000

Mount Moran and the Teton Range We got up at 4:00 and turned on the Weather Channel to check on a storm that was predicted for the East Coast. It looked like it would be bad, but it wasn't expected to hit until the evening. We were hoping to be home by then. Skywest and the Jackson weather didn't cooperate.

The temperature at the Jackson Hole Airport was -22 degrees. Our plane had come in the night before and we were on the first flight of the day. As we were taxiing out, the pilot kept revving the engine and then putting on the brakes. When we got to the runway, he came on the loudspeaker and said, "Sorry folks, we have to head back to the terminal. We are having a hydraulic problem. We'll have to bring in a mechanic to check it out." Jackson does not have a mechanic on site, so one had to fly in on the next flight from Salt Lake City, which didn't arrive until 9:30. Of course this meant we missed all our connections and had no chance of making it back to Harrisburg before the storm hit.

Grand Teton and the Teton Range We had a wonderful ticket agent, Norma Jean, help us reschedule our flights. By the rules since we had special fare tickets, she could not confirm us on any of the flights. We were flying stand-by the whole way. She got us boarding passes for the next flight out of Jackson and got us wait listed for a flight out of Salt Lake that had plenty of seats. She also got us wait listed on the last flight into Harrisburg. It got us in at 11:00 p.m., well after the snow was due to start.

Once we got to Salt Lake, we tried to get information about Harrisburg, but they wouldn't say anything beyond that it was currently open. Little did we know that airports up and down the East Coast were beginning to close because the snow had started earlier than predicted. I called my mother who said the snow had just started there and was coming down hard. When we got on the ground in Cincinnati, the flight attendant gave us a gate for our Harrisburg flight, but had no further information. We checked the first monitor we could and found the dreaded, red CANCELED by our flight. Having nothing to lose, we headed to the gate anyway. Delta and ComAir were great. They had a voucher for a room at a nearby hotel waiting for us. All their flights for the next day were booked, so they got us on a US Airways flight. Unfortunately, it didn't get in until late in the day, but at least we would make it home.

While we waited for ground transportation, we met others who were flying on United and US Airways. United had offered their passengers a $40 voucher and left them on their own to find a room. US Airways didn't do anything for their passengers. The hotel was nice; we were just glad to have some place to rest.

Monday, January 31, 2000

We took our time getting ready this morning since our flight didn't leave until 11:30.

When we finally got home there were 24 inches of snow to contend with. Our section of Pennsylvania had two major snowstorms while we were in Yellowstone. We got more snow in PA than we got while we were in Yellowstone. The snow was so deep that our 4-wheel drive could not handle it. We had to posthole up to the house and Heidi had to bulldoze behind us.

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