DAY ONE - Saturday, January 6


I'm headed for the airport in the dark. I feel less prepared for this trip than any other I've taken in a long while, I guess because I am trying so many new things. This makes for high excitement and anticipation. I am able to calm myself with the knowledge that today, this very day, I will see my most favorite place on earth. I will be inside her borders, see her high mountains and wide valleys, fill my lungs with her clear air. I remember that on this same ride, for my spring trip, I was treated to a beautiful sunrise. Today all is dark, the weather cloudy and dawn is nearly two hours away.

Half a day later I watch out the airplane window as we approach Bozeman. I was expecting to see the beautiful Tetons on this hop from Salt Lake City, but instead I get a better and unexpected treat - suddenly I recognize the outline of Yellowstone Lake. Excitedly l strain to follow the Yellowstone River from up this high, hoping to recognize Hayden Valley. I can't quite do this but instead I DO find the Upper Geyser basin, the Old Faithful Inn and the Faithful geyser herself. I give up on trying to see the Grand Canyon and a glimpse of Fairyland and instead follow the Firehole River, easier to do because of its many thermals. I am thrilled to be able to announce to passengers nearby that that weird orange and blue thing down there is Grand Prismatic Spring, in all her glory. I eventually lose my way but now I am distracted by the astonishing beauty of Yellowstone's winter landscape: snow-topped peaks, dark forested hillsides and winding rivers. It looks very cold but nonetheless, inviting.

Note to Mark R: my connection through Salt Lake was much easier this time, due to the gates being in the same terminal, but my face still got red. Reaction to the altitude, maybe?

My Loon buddy Doug Dance is waiting as promised in the baggage area. It's great to see him and to learn of his trip's incredible success already. His new lens is working better than he'd hoped, he has already developed some wonderful slides including snarling coyotes on a kill, bighorn sheep close-ups, a charming and chattering flock of cedar waxwings, and most satisfying, many, many wolves, including Druids, Rose Creeks, Leopolds and the newly named Tower Wolves. As we drive down the gorgeous Gallatin River Valley he tells me of his adventures so far and we discuss our upcoming ones. It is a little hard to concentrate at this early stage as I am so overwhelmed with the quiet beauty of the snow all around me - the way it clings, so ponderous and weighty to the fir branches; the way it softens the tops of granite boulders with fleecy caps of white; the way it disguises the edges of the riverbank, making a beautiful treachery for unwary feet.

I have never been on this road before although it has been praised and described very accurately by my Loon friends. Doug and I see no animals on this drive except for dippers and a big black raven, but I am not disappointed. I recognize the one huge advantage that visiting in winter has over all other seasons: one is always assured of the ample presence of wildlife due to the simple fact that one can see their tracks.

And we see LOTS of tracks. The best place to look is along the rivers - both on the banks and on the frozen surface itself. The rivers of Yellowstone run so fast that they do not freeze up in total - some of the pools may develop a crust of ice over which snow will accumulate, sometimes thickly, sometime thinly, but the current rushes onward underneath. In many sections the water runs free from bank to bank, and appears shiny black in color, while in other sections it seems a dark grey and gives off a witch-brew of curling steam. In the partly-frozen sections, where the snow has fallen and remained, the area is a maze of tracks.

Doug points out the typical track of the coyote, a straight-aiming single line of familiar dog-paw prints. We see these everywhere we go. We also see what we think are rabbit tracks or maybe hopping squirrels; the deeper and rounder hoof marks of Elk; as well as those of birds, probably ravens. On the other side of the road away from the river we also notice tracks made by human animals: skiers and snowmobilers.

We check into our rooms at the Super 8 near West and call John to let him know we're on our way over. We have quite a silly adventure finding (or should I say losing) our way to his snug home, discovering, in the process, a rather posh new neighborhood that looked strangely deserted. As far as how we finally get to John's, all I will say is thank goodness for cell phones!

John and Carlene make me feel very welcome - their home is so nice - it feels like a very large cottage, and is closer to the wild edge of the Park that I had thought. The fireplace, the views and our generous hosts remove the chill I had begun to feel. I am still getting used to the low temps and the unusual dryness and I am immediately teased for all the layers I am wearing.

We have a lovely chat and make plans for Druid watching next Saturday. Then we head into town for dinner. First, however, we stop at the Three Bears to rent a four-stroke snowmobile and I experience the unique joy of choosing a one-piece snow-suit to fit me. It takes a while but I finally find one. I also rent heavy-duty boots, gloves and a helmet. I look very silly but I am confident these items will keep me warm. We head to Bullwinkle's for dinner and find it jammed: a fifteen minute wait. Am I still in New York, I wonder? It's Carlene's idea to take a walk, which we do. At the end of the street looms a forest - in fact, the edge of the Park. A ski trail begins here that leads to Riverside Drive. The moon is astonishingly bright on the thick snow and we walk along this ski trail, careful to avoid the ruts. It is SO quiet and SO bright and the air we breathe is so crystal clear, I don't even mind the whine of snowmobiles on the other side of town.

I step further off the trail, cracking through the stiff top layer into pure powder - up past my knees. The snow squeaks and crunches in a way I have never heard before. We all look up and find it easy to make out the glittering constellations above. A little while later we are back in the restaurant, eating, chatting and laughing. We talk of the Park and of the Loon Page and environmental stuff, of our chat page friends, of John and Carlene's future plans and how they like it so far in West.

After dinner it's back to John's house for a bit more talk and I get to visit with Rachel and Joe. Then Carlene pulls out the marshmallows! John provides sticks and we each take a turn demonstrating our skill at the fire. I come from the golden-brown-jacket school of marshmallow roasting but there are blackeners here as well. A new Loon tradition is born; we vow to include this at the 2001 Loon Odyssey in May.

Finally the travel and the time change get the better of me and I begin to think of sleep. Doug and I say our thanks and goodbyes and head off to the Super 8. As we leave West I smile as I see some still twinkling Christmas lights on homes and businesses here and there. I'll bet Christmas in West Yellowstone is something to see.

Today I saw: two dippers, a raven and 5 Loons.

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