I am up before dawn after a very restful sleep. I bring my stuff outside to load in Doug's car. The air is crackly cold and clear. I see many glittery stars and the moon is just setting behind a high hill. I am dressed in my snowsuit and boots - I am toasty warm and feel invincible. Doug says it's zero degrees! I trot out my camera and walk through the crunchy snow as dawn breaks beyond the mountains. As I am lining up a shot I freeze in my tracks, hearing a sound I didn't expect. I look back at Doug who has stopped in his tracks from packing his camera gear. He listens too. We hear several voices, low and sonorous, a sound both lonely and free and so wonderfully wild. I whisper to Doug - is it wolves? He thinks so. He tries to figure out which pack we could be hearing. It's stopped now. All is silent.
I would say I heard maybe three voices. I tell him I figure it's the wolves at the Discovery Center. He isn't sure as we are at least 8 miles away. I say well the air is so still and dry I thought it could carry that far. He says it's more likely a wild pack closer by. He thinks there are several it could be or maybe even some we don't even know of. We agree it's a wonderful way to start the day!
Along the short drive to West I spot my first coyote. He's mousing in a field on the right, boy he's a small one. We stop and the animal runs quickly for the timber. Doug says he thinks that's a fox! I grab my binocs and I watch as he runs. I believe Doug is right. This animal is much smaller, has a different color pattern than most coyotes I've seen. Much redder. My first Yellowstone fox! As we continue I score more points on my animal spotting-meter. I am looking at an area full of willow branches and say to myself - hah! That one clump of branches looks like moose antlers! HEY! It IS moose antlers! Not only one set, but TWO. We stop again and I get great pictures of two resting male moose. Doug and I wonder how we will get where we need to go if this keeps up! This is the first time I've ever been able to devote myself to full time spotting, having had to concentrate on driving every other time I've been in the Park. I like this!
The landscape is stunning. I am surprised that so much of the snow is still so "pure" looking, barely crossed by tracks of animals, and still in its pristine white shade, given that this snow fell more than a week ago. I am so used to snow in the City turning grey or black in no time at all.
We arrive at the Imax Theatre and I am greeted by a nice man, who ushers me inside to wait and fills me in on what to expect from my Snow Coach tour to Old Faithful. Doug drives off to his own adventure via snowmobile. I am delighted to learn that we do NOT have a full coach today - only five of us plus our tour driver George - which means we have plenty of room. I am riding in one of the vintage Bombadier coaches - more on that later. We head for the West Entrance and I get my first whiff of the fabled blue smoke. I would say there were easily 30 snowmobiles entering the Park at about the same time we did. You can see the haze lingering above the road as you go, (the Snow Coaches contribute a lot to this, too) a foot of discolored air floating above the surface.
The Snow Coach is very noisy, in fact ear-plugs are issued but I don't use them. I share my ride with two couples, one from Sheridan, Wyoming and the other from Denver, Colorado. We make many stops and the driver conveys all kinds of useful and interesting information both about Yellowstone's history and its animal life. We take Riverside drive and are rewarded with sightings of three bald eagles and so many gorgeous white swans that I can barely keep track (I think there were 12!) George our guide tells us there are yearling swans here, fully grown but still in grey feathers, but we don't see them.
Shortly after this, we cross a bridge and the Madison is now on our right side. Soon I see my first bison herd. I see for the first time the behavior I love to watch, that is, the snow-shoveling head swaying action that the buffalo employ to get at the grass beneath. George calls it "eating the box" (as in "the cereal is gone") I remember the large herd that was here in Spring when the babies were so orange. We see one youngster that still has hints of that color in his coat. All the others are dark brown like their mamas and papas. A bit further on I see more buffalo - maybe 30 animals in all. They are on the move. We watch as the leader stops to graze and lets the second in line take over. The animals look robust and healthy, totally accepting of the snow even though it clearly makes it harder to get at food. They pay us no mind at all.
I am awestruck by the landscape around me, how altered it is, and how perfect it seems. "Winter wonderland" is no exaggeration. I see so many incredible sights: the curling, wafting steam reluctant to leave the surface of the Madison River; the thick, white rime coating the branches and needles of every tree along the riverbank; the streaks of white snow making art on straight bare trunks in an old burn; the sturdy new green pines poking upward despite the burden of a heavy white icing on their limbs; gorgeous patterns in black and white on the jumbled rocks of a steep slope, and the soundless dive of a small black dipper who then pops up just as silently on a thin ice shelf only to dive again.
We take our time but I would have stopped far more often. I look ahead in anticipation of spot after spot that I remember from Spring only to find it looks vastly different when I come upon it. Snow, of course, makes it so. The burned areas are even more beautiful, perhaps because the green of new growth is more vibrant when set off by white.
At the Madison Warming Hut we get out and take a break. This is where, in summer, one finds the Madison Junction Visitor Center. It is now full of snowmobiles and Snow Coaches. On this tour I saw not a single "bad" incident by any snowmobiler; the people I met on snowmobiles seemed just as nice as all the other people I've met in Yellowstone over the years. I did notice several places where a single snow machine had left the road in pursuit of freer riding. I also noticed that these tracks appeared almost exclusively in areas where posted signs warned against such action. The rebel in me understands completely and I find myself quite sympathetic to the individual rule-breakers, as those flat, pristine fields of snow look far too tempting. To me a snowmobile is a motorcycle, complete with its iconic status. Most motorcycle riders I've known are rather fond of rule-breaking, an attitude I generally applaud.
Yet, now that I have seen them in use in the Park, I find myself firmly siding against them here. To me, this type of travel is made for other places, and does not seem to match, in my mind, what Yellowstone has to offer. That said, I have not really become a fan of the Snow Coach, either. I don't mind sharing space with other tourists although it helps when the others are courteous as my coach-mates were. But the Bombardier, for all its fascinating history, is very uncomfortable and I can't imagine how cramped it would feel with a full load of 11. I have mentioned the noise, but there is also an unpleasant smell that I believe comes from it, in addition to the blue-smokers roaring past. I became mildly nauseous and had to improvise ways of reducing the impact of the sharp bumps and jolts. I was told that the low level of snow on the road contributed to the amount of jostling, but there is no way the Park can guarantee a heavy snowfall to smooth out this mode of transportation. The Coach wins points for being more economical and less wasteful than individual machines, but I hope the Park will retire these old warriors and invest in the newer, van-like models that I saw driven by day-trippers. In the end I decided that for me, for the areas of the Park closed to cars, the most appropriate way to travel in winter is on skis. I intend to make that my NEXT adventure.
Alright, I'm jumping down from my soapbox now.
I am happy to get out and walk a bit, to take a break from the bumps, the noise and the smell. In fact, after surviving the long line at the ladies room, I have fun trudging through the knee-high powder and taking pictures. I see many tracks: bison and Elk, coyote and rabbit. I enjoy seeing how transformed this spot is from the many times I have been here before. The River makes some lovely lazy curves here and it is still steaming like crazy. I recognize the spot where I cooled my whole head one September. It is still quite cold but the sun comes out in full and sets snow sparkles everywhere.
Across the road in the flats along the Gibbon I see the snow has been trampled, sure sign that a bison herd (or perhaps elk) has spent time there. I climb back in the Snow Coach and we continue on. George turns onto Firehole Canyon Drive. Here I ache to get out and walk so that I can stop and enjoy the scenery at my own pace. When we do stop we spot another bald eagle up in a treetop.
Further on at another stop George lets us get out to take pictures of our first Elk. A cow and calf are grazing the river's edge far below, one on each side. The calf seems very tall. I guess it may be a male, perhaps destined for greatness. The Firehole sends up an even greater steam in the Canyon than I saw on the Madison; the rime on the trees is the thickest yet. The winter sun makes perfect backlighting, adding a golden outline to trees already too beautiful for words.
We spot a fifth bald eagle in a tree above the falls. Much of the falls is frozen solid but still a lot of water makes its rushing and roaring way between the rocks. George reminds us that swimming is still permitted in the warm water pool but no-one wants to venture down the ice-covered stairway. We re-join the main road and chugg onward. Shortly thereafter I see a familiar face with a familiar camera on a tripod at the roadside. George agrees to stop. Here is Doug, taking photos of...the yearling swans! Of course he has found the grey beauties, along with their beautiful parents. They preen and feed and sail up and down the river in their supremely elegant way. The swans seem to have picked the absolutely MOST beautiful section of the Firehole River in which to pose, or maybe Doug arranged it all. In any case, between the steamy fog on the water in the foreground and the snow-blanketed trees in the background, the curve of the river and the grace of white and grey swans is just too much. I am on overload and have to literally look away to catch my breath.
So this is Yellowstone in winter, I think to myself. This is what they've all been talking about, those lucky few who have seen it! It envelopes me, it surrounds me and I can't speak for a while. The Snow Coach plods on, allowing me glimpses of sight after sight. I have been looking mostly to the right, at the ever-changing landscape along the River. I try to give myself a respite by looking to the left. But here, too, is unexpected beauty. I take particular note of a forest of straight bare trunks, rising out of a thick blanket of untouched snow, on which the slanted winter light plays shadow-tricks. I must stop here tomorrow, I tell myself.
We are about to cross a very flat section when we are suddenly enveloped in geyser fog. I can't see more than a few feet ahead and since the road is as white as the fog, I feel fully lost in space. Looming up suddenly is the back of another Snow Coach and a human form to the left. George stops and tells us that he is going to do what he can to help the other driver, who is having mechanical trouble. I'm happy for the break and climb out to explore. I can barely see what exists on either side of the road, the geyser steam is so pervasive. It is wonderfully spooky and it's warm. The fog has melted most of the hard-packed snow from the road. I take a few tentative steps to the side to examine the many animal tracks here. I can easily identify a single bison, so I double back to find where it crossed the road and where it headed after that. Whole stories can be read in tracks, I am discovering, although my beginner guesses are pure conjecture.
The other Snow Coach is fixed quickly and we head on. We emerge from the fog as quickly as we entered it and I can see we are very close to Old Faithful now. George ignores the familiar cloverleaf in favor of a more direct route and in no time at all we are back in civilization at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge. We say goodbye and thanks to George and wander into the Lodge to check in. In a very short time Doug arrives, toting his heavy camera gear. We dump our stuff in our rooms and decide to have lunch. By the way, I found my room to be absolutely wonderful - worth every penny. Not that I really need such comfort and luxury but it was welcome nonetheless.
I inquire as to the whereabouts of Matthew from every employee I meet. Each one cheerfully tells me a different thing, and each thing proves to be untrue. At the end of our lunch we overhear our waitress offering a custom geyser-tour to a group of tourists next to us. She says she and her boyfriend often give tours of the Geyser Basin. Doug and I look at each other with a grin. "Excuse me" Doug says to her "but do you, by any chance, mean Matthew McLean?" Her eyes go wide. "Yes" she says, adding with a smile "everybody seems to know Matthew!" We burst out laughing! Her name is Mary and she and Matthew have been dating for quite a while. They are both nuts about geysers (could our Funkyman date any other kind of girl?). We have a wonderful time chatting with Mary and she assures us he will soon be at work in the gift shop today. We make plans to meet later that evening for a drink.
Doug suggests we take a tour of the geyser basin and bring our cameras along. You don't have to twist my arm! But first we head to the gift shop and there, as promised, we find Matthew. He is just as warm and enthusiastic as he was when I first met him in New York, the first Loon I ever saw face to face. We have a very nice chat with him as there are few customers to distract him and we tell him of our adventures so far. He agrees to meet us after work and says he may even see us in Lamar later this week.
Out we go into the brisk afternoon air. Our path takes us past the Visitor Center and Doug asks the Rangers about the recent activity of his favorite geyser, Beehive. For some reason he is not able to get very accurate information. We decide to head towards Castle and then follow the boardwalk to the far side, coming back up behind Old Faithful. At once we are amazed to see the large numbers of bison scattered here and there in the smoking valley. We see a few hardy cross-country skiers and hear the whine of machines in the distance but the valley has so many charms it is easy to concentrate on them.
I stop for photos frequently. The sun makes sparkles on a patch of snow. There is a thin layer of clear ice clinging to the edges of the little a run-off stream right by the path; I watch the water trickle underneath and sometimes gliding over top, melting it a tiny bit as it does so. There are frosted weeds bending over this stream that frame the ice just so. But the main attraction is, of course, the geysers themselves. Castle is an all-day show and we sit on the bench and let it entertain us. The cold eventually gets us moving again and we head towards the Firehole. I learn to negotiate the parts of the walkways that are ice-covered and find the best way is to go slow. As we reach the bridge I look back towards Old Faithful. There are numerous bison grazing the river's edge and both Doug and I see good picture potential. As he sets up the tripod Doug gets a wish he probably forgot he made. Beehive roars to life, spouting straight to the heavens with its characteristic sustained whoosh. Now we have a gorgeous tableau of River, Bison and Geyser, all lit beautifully. Yellowstone is a photographer's dream. We partake heartily of its riches.
We continue along the boardwalk, taking in the numerous marvels and eventually wind our way close to the forested slope. An unusual problem now confronts us. About 50 yards ahead a group of bison are grazing within a foot of the boardwalk. We have no alternatives other than turning around and going back the way we came. I don't know what to do but I sure don't want to challenge a buffalo for the right of way. Doug seems confident that a way will open. We walk on, very slowly to about 10 yards. We stop and wait. Doug suggests that I not look straight at the animal but turn my head a bit. I do this yet keep the huge animal in view out the corner of my eye. Doug says we're just going to watch his (her) body language a while. I scout out what trees might do in a pinch and I search for a trustworthy path away from the boardwalk in this treacherous basin.
But it is not necessary. I see the bison lift its head, chewing. It looks at us casually and seems to consider its own options. After no time at all, the animal turns its rear end toward us and walks slowly downhill away from the boardwalk, offering an unmistakable signal to go ahead. Doug and I walk on, slowly but steadily. We pass the midpoint and continue on to a spot near a tree about as far away as we were when we stopped. All the while I try my best not to look the gracious animal in the eye, but rather keep my head turned away in as casual and non-threatening a posture as my nervousness can manage.
Mere moments after we stopped by the tree, this amazing animal turned around again and went right back to the spot he had been. I have never had a close encounter with a bison before and I am not foolish enough to believe all bison are so easy-going. But it was clear that some bison will be gracious if you let them and do it on their terms, rather than insisting on yours. It was a valuable lesson Doug taught me and I will not forget it.
In fact, we tested this practice again about 20 minutes later on the boardwalk in an even tighter spot with another bison. The exact same thing occurred. Wait. Let the animal see you. Let him assess you. Make no threatening moves. Animal turns and gives us space. We move through, stop at a fair distance, animal moves back to where he started. Doug and I remain at this location a while because the picture potential is so wonderful. Sunset is beginning and the river turns lavender. The bison cross it one by one, in silhouette.
A little later we come upon a small herd of grazing Elk, mostly cows and yearling calves and one pretty young spike bull. We cross the River again and trudge uphill behind Old Faithful. We wander slowly back to the Snow Lodge. Once inside we collapse with a kind of happy exhaustion that only a winter workout can bring. We sip tea and hot cider by the fireplace. Later we have a great dinner and then retire to the bar to await our guests. Mary and Matthew arrive soon and we have a rollicking time with them. In fact their unbridled youthful enthusiasm wore me out! We talk of geysers and Loons and New York and Chicago and summer and winter and snowmobiles and skis and whether the paintings on the wall are actually photographs. We discuss the possibility of working in some wolf watching in Lamar when/if they travel to Gardiner on Wednesday to visit to a friend. But plans change and given the long drive and unpredictable weather and intermittent phone service we don't hook up after all. Matthew and Mary, I'm sorry to have missed you. I promise we'll make up for it when I see you in New York.
Today I saw: 5 bald eagles, a fox, two moose, 16 swans, several geese, ducks, ravens and dippers, dozens of bison, dozens of elk, and 3 Loons