Sunday, March 27, 2011

Yellowstone in Winter

          My husband and I are in the lone car arriving at Yellowstone National Park’s north entrance on this February afternoon.  We stop at the visitor center and are told there are wolves at Tower Junction, 20 miles down the road.  So that’s where we’re headed today.
At Tower Junction we found people with spotting scopes; they pointed to a female wolf lying in the snow on a far ridge.  We set up our scope and focused on her.  Her coat, a mixture of tawny and gray, shimmered in the afternoon light.   She was gorgeous.  We watched her for awhile; she got up, trotted down the hill and lay down again.  Then she opened her mouth to let out a mournful howl.  The sound was primal and haunting, one of those classic sounds of the wild.  It was a wonderful moment.  My first ever sighting of a Yellowstone wolf and only the second wolf I’ve seen in the wild.  It’s wonderful that wolves have reclaimed Yellowstone as their own—a wildlife success story.

After the wolf sighting we drove up the road to a pullout where more people were focusing binoculars on a distant tree.  We took a look and saw a giant golden eagle perched at the top of a dead tree high on a ridgeline.  The eagle must be surveying its kingdom, perhaps looking to get a taste of a recent wolf kill.  On the way back to the park entrance we photographed elk and bison and saw three coyotes lounging in the snow along the road.  This has been a great day for wildlife-spotting, as it always is during winter in Yellowstone.

The following morning we ate a quick breakfast and then suited up in our cross country gear for today’s outing to the Indian Creek Trailhead.  We drove to Mammoth Terraces and transferred our gear into a Chevy Van fitted for snow travel.  The van is elevated and sits on four “mat tracks”, wide snow-grabbing chains that convert the van into a snowmobile-like machine.
Our van driver, Dave, has lived and worked in Yellowstone for 17 years as the principal of the Mammoth Hot Springs Elementary School and as a teacher.  Also a naturalist, Dave conducts tours of Yellowstone during the busy summer season.  He has sad news:  Mammoth Hot Springs Elementary, a federally operated school, closed this year due to lack of students after having been in existence for 130 years.
Dave pointed out geologic features along our 12 mile ride to Indian Creek, including a series of travertine rocks which had broken off and tumbled from a mountain to the south of us.  Dave dropped us off by a warming hut near Indian Creek Campground, started a fire in the hut, then drove off in his snow machine.  Now Tim and I are alone in this section of Yellowstone National Park, 12 miles from Mammoth Hot Springs.  Can you imagine?  Our own private slice of Yellowstone.
Indian Creek Campground Cross-Country Ski Area.
We started skiing the groomed trails around the closed campground, then ventured onto two-track trails through the woods.   The sky is azure blue, the air still, the park unbelievably quiet on this pristine day.  The quiet was interrupted by coyotes howling.  Several times they started their howls and yips, their voices echoing across the valley.  Returning to the warming hut we noticed a huge male bison relaxing in the snow.  We were sure not to disturb him.
        The weather has improved since our arrival at Indian Creek; this morning’s temperature registered 11 degrees and now it’s a balmy 23, mild enough to sit on the picnic table outside the warming hut and wait for our ride.  Dave appeared at the scheduled time and drove us back to Mammoth Terraces and civilization. During the drive Dave asked why we don’t come to Yellowstone during the summer and we replied that it’s too crowded for us.  He then informed us that by walking 100 yards from the main roads we could leave the crowds well behind.  According to Dave, most of the people who come to the park spend their time in the bathrooms and in the gift shops.  
Perhaps we’ll take Dave’s advice, return one summer’s day, venture off the roads and disappear into the magic that is Yellowstone National Park.

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