I sleep in till 6:30. I'm not going to Lamar today. I'm taking a snowcoach to Canyon.
In the lobby I discover that Richard and Linda are also taking this trip. We have a great time sharing stories and comparing notes of our past days' adventures. There are three other guests; Michael and Sue from Hawaii and long-haired Bill from Colorado.
Our snowcoach is one of the new Mattrax types, not the stinky, jerky Bombadier. Our driver is Trent, young and enthusiastic with lots of experience. He tips us off that since we are a small group we may have time to see more than usual. I like the sound of that.
Off we go, heading for the Upper Terraces. I agree with Lew and Deb that this is definitely the way to go. The ride is much more comfortable, the views are much better and there is no nauseating fuel odor. The only problem we have is temporary, about a half-hour into the trip, when the inside windows begin to frost over. After ten minutes of constant scraping we finally solve the problem by opening the back window a crack. Even though it's barely 10 degrees outside it's still warm enough inside for most of us to take our coats off.
I see plenty of elk close up on the first part of the trip, all over the upper Mammoth area. We cruise through the Hoo Doos and then creep through the Golden Gate. The road is heavily sanded here and I don't know what it must have been like for the snowmobilers to ride this part. I'm only glad I wasn't doing it that way! Rustic Falls is very cool to see, totally frozen over.
We come out into Swan Lake Flats and light snow. Oh, is this gorgeous! A soft blanket of virgin snow stretches as far as the eye can see. Well, almost. We see the cross-country trail and some skiers far in the distance. Linda spots a coyote way out by the Lake. Overall, there are few tracks in this area. In comparison to what I have been seeing daily on the road to Lamar, this seems empty.
We see some bison herds way out, and some bull elk. This area is well worth seeing and makes a nice change of pace from my last five days. Trent points out many interesting things along the way and happily answers all our questions as well. He seems to be enjoying the trip as much as we do. He says it's his first trip in two weeks and there is far more snow now than there was then.
I enjoy the forested sections immensely. We begin to see how much more snow there is in this area and how it seems to not have had a chance to melt in a while. Heavy crowns have piled up on every stump and fallen log. Snow clumps fall from upper branches, sending a powdery spray to glisten in the sun.
At Grizzly Lake I look up at the hills and wonder how many grizzly moms are snug inside their dens. Trent explains a lot about the thermal activity in the lakes of this area and about a special type of grass that only grows in one thermal stream. Roaring Mountain is amazing to see in snow and we find a small group of bison, with rime-coated humps enjoying the vegetation here.
We get close-up views of Frying Pan Springs and hear it sizzle. Then we stop at Nymph Lake where we see a single Trumpeter Swan and many ducks and geese. At Norris we turn left and head up the steep hill. My smile broadens as Trent turns onto the side road to Virginia Cascades. This year the Park has made this road accessible to snowcoaches only. I can immediately feel the smoother ride since it has none of the moguls that snowmobiles create. The scenery here is utterly breathtaking. Such thick snow, all untouched by man or even beast. In spite of the snow blanket on the frozen stream there are tiny patches here and there of free black water trickling. There are snow sculptures everywhere made by wind and the continual melt and re-freeze. It feels as though we are trespassing on a secret fairy world.
Back on the main road again we pass a snowy glade and Richard spots a coyote. Then a second one! The pretty pair move into the trees. The first coyote has a long stick in its mouth, which turns out to be the leg bone of an elk. We watch them disappear into the white woods and I look at their trail, trying to piece together where they came from and what they were doing before we came upon them.
We reach Canyon at 11:20. It is really something to see how much snow this part of the Park receives. We go straight on to the Canyon overlooks. Trent takes us to three different spots, all gorgeous. The magnificent Lower Falls still roars but not quite as loudly as in spring. So much of its water is caught in time, trapped in ice. The Canyon itself is just as gorgeous and the pinnacles and spires take on even more fantastic shapes with the coverlet of snow. Whole sections of the yellow hillside steam in defiance of winter, too warm to permit the snow to remain. We view the frozen Upper Falls too, and I marvel at the vast ice towers that crack and re-form below the brink at astonishing heights.
Then back to the warming hut we go. I'm glad I have food with me, as the selection here is limited. Since the sun is out so nicely I just scrape the snow off a picnic table and eat outdoors. I soon have a companion in a pretty Clarks Nutcracker who flits down boldly and then zooms away again. I speak firmly to her, letting her know I'm on to her tricks. It's a very pretty bird, blue-jay sized, with a grey-brown body and pretty white head. It has a large brown eye and a yellow beak.
A point of great interest here at Canyon is the amount of snow on the roof of the Hamilton store. It receives so much snow that it would collapse under the weight if the Park did not arrange to have the snow removed three times a season. The way it is removed is worth selling tickets to. Great cubes are cut with a saw, and then each cube is pried loose by a human with a shovel. A single, hardy fellow walking to and from on the slanted roof. The man gives the loosened cube a shove and it slides down and drops off the edge, making a gigantic snow pile all around the building. As a cube drops it sometimes splits in two or into several chunks or sometimes simply lands and remains in cube-shape. It is an amazing labor-intensive process that really must be seen to be appreciated.
To my great delight Trent takes us out to Hayden Valley, a place I have long wanted to see under snow. It does not disappoint. The area is still popular with bison, which is a surprise to me. We don't see any elk but we see lots of coyote tracks. We have heard reports of a wolf sightings but I am skeptical. Yet I keep my eyes peeled for a glimpse of one of the Nez Perce Pack.
I am not prepared for the beauty of the area. How can you be? There is a section of the Yellowstone River that is usually wide and languid; when we pass that section the whole river from shore to shore is a flat white sheet. Down the center runs a black ribbon of open water no more than 3 feet wide, and from this distance it looks pencil thin. Yet three black moving dots are ducks in that water.
The familiar soft hills and bison-wallows of Hayden Valley are indistinguishable from one another. All are covered in snow and the wind has sculpted them into ripples and overhangs and cornices and folds. The sun makes whole mountains of sparkles. For miles and miles the snow is virtually untouched; a soft, undulating ocean of white.
There are some bison on the road ahead and we stop. Many snow-machiners are stopped too. Most are content to wait but two are not. One is a guide. He roars past us and guns his engine as he approaches the animals. They spook and run, plunging their heavy bodies into the snow. They stop about 100 feet away and look back, none too pleased. I can feel them plotting vengeance. We watch this group a while. There is one bull much larger than the rest and the others seem to defer to him.
We go on south and see a constantly-changing but always gorgeous vista of white on white on white. We stop at the Mud Volcano and walk the short loop to the Sulfur Caldron and the Dragon's Mouth. The mudpot is wonderful, the spray is warm. The gurgling and plopping sounds tickle me. We pass an odd natural art form that I name the Frozen Man. It is an uncanny shape that looks like a hunch-backed man missing an arm below the biceps; his profiled head is complete with hair, ear, eyes, nose, lips and chin. And it's all made by snow clinging to a tree.
We roam around leisurely, taking photos, enjoying the warm sun and each other's company. Then off we go again, the way we came, having a second chance to marvel at the abundant beauty.
We arrive back at Canyon for a quick break and it starts to snow. Only very lightly but it makes the air sparkle. We are still ahead of schedule so Trent adds another adventure. It's as if all my wishes were coming true! He drives uphill along the Dunraven Road. This area offers more lessons in the shape and weight of snow. We see many more tracks here, elk and coyote and rabbit (snowshoe hare). We go as far as the road does, to Washburn Hot Springs Overlook. I get out and gaze into the distance. That way lies Fairyland I think to myself. We see a cross-country trail that looks so tempting and marvelous. What a trip that would be for some intrepid folk!
There is a stiff breeze up here and we get cold much too quickly. Inside the van we go again for the return trip. It is every bit as pretty as the way out. When we get back to Swan Lake Flats we see a very nice sunset developing. We even get sundogs! This is where I run out of film. I have taken four rolls and I thought that would be enough!
We rumble through the Golden Gate and back to the land of wintering elk. I am glad to see them again. Trent has earned some good tips. It's about 5:45 and I'm not hungry yet so I curl up near the fire and begin to write. I have gotten behind in the last eventful days and if I had not grabbed this moment you would not now be reading this report!
Today I saw: Bison, a Clark's Nutcracker, 3 coyotes, ducks, elk, geese, a raven, a swan and a Frozen Man.