Friday, February 24, 2012

Free Heel and Wheel

2/21/12 (I'm a few days behind). 

Dude, where's my trail?

Helen Keller said, "Life is either a great adventure or nothing." I don't know when she said that or under what circumstance, but those words are sewn along the border of my heart holding it in place, keeping it together. When traveling with a pocket full of dreams, minor details like a lack of trail or limited visibility don't stop me. A long time ago, I learned things happen when you take a risk; more importantly, I learned nothing happens if you don't. Therefore, despite the blustery day and a snowed in route, I planned to XC ski from the hotel into the park. For 3 ½ miles, I broke trail alongside the Madison River. I crossed the park boundary and entered into Yellowstone National Park by ski with no one but the birds to keep me company. In an earlier blog, I wrote about the silence of Yellowstone, but I didn’t find the park to be quiet at all. Gone were the sounds of town that often mask nature’s noise, but the woods aren't quiet. It's just a different kind of sound. The river rippled and splashed on a course to the Missouri headwaters, gaining momentum as it flowed south to the Atlantic. The forest creaked and twisted as the wind that earlier tumbled over Firehole Falls now blew through the lodgepole pines along the Wyoming border; even the falling snow left a trail of sound as it filled the tracks behind me.

After a morning of XC skiing, I met Kimi at the hotel for an afternoon of snowmobiling. We hoped to connect with approximately 35 miles worth of trails that would lead into Idaho and to a lodge only accessible by snowmobile. Unfortunately, from West Yellowstone, there is only one way to get there, and when you leave at noon, it's likely you'll be traveling on a banged up and bumpy trail. We endured 10 miles of brutal pain. The trail was along a river and beautiful, or at least I thought it was from what I could tell as I bounced along trying to keep my eyeballs in place. Four bruised kidneys and two stiff backs later, we were back on groomed trails and fresh powder. There are more than 250 miles of snowmobile trails that connect Idaho and Montana with most of them groomed nightly. Why did we have to take the one that wrecked organs? :)

Crossing into Idaho on some sweet groomers

The ride to Meadow Creek Lodge was breathtaking as we went through alder groves and one particular birch tree stand that brought me straight home to the woods of Vermont and the heart of my dad. The name “birch” is derived from old Germanic and Indo-European roots meaning bright and to shine, and its bark is nearly imperishable.  I miss my father, never more than when I’m in places I know he’d love or when I’m in places I love because of what he knew. I cut the engine on the snowmobile; Kimi up ahead on the trail. Sitting in the snowy woods, I remembered being among the trees with my dad and sister talking hand in hand when we were young, walking shoulder to shoulder when we were older. Robert Frost’s words echoed quietly around me ~ the woods are lovely, dark and deep, and I have miles to go before I sleep. I love this life, Robert Frost, and I aim to make the most of it.

We made it to Meadow Creek Lodge in time for lunch. At least 20 snowmobiles were in the parking lot. Meadow Creek was homesteaded by the current owners’ grandfather in the 1800s. A sheep farm initially, I guess they realized there was better money in beef. I'm not kidding; the menu had about 15 different kinds of cheeseburgers to choose from, along with one chicken burger. No sheep, no salads, and no silverware! When everything must be hauled in by snowmobile, only the necessities make the cut. Thankfully, they considered Heineken a necessity, and we each enjoyed warming up with a cold one. I felt it was a well-deserved beer after XC skiing in the morning with only enough time for a change in headwear before climbing onto a snowmobile for the afternoon.

Meadow Creek Lodge in Idaho. Kimi prepares the snowmobiles for the ride to Big Springs.

After lunch, we found stellar trail to Big Springs. The constant snow provided powder refills all afternoon. The bumps and ruts caused by other snowmobiles were quickly filled. We also found long stretches of trail with no one on them but us. As much as I love Vermont's woods, I've never been in a forest as pretty as the Gallatin. Filled with lakes, rivers, tall trees, and streams, it invigorates the spirit and revitalizes old dreams. 

Big Springs is the headwaters of a fork of the Snake River, and it's one of the 40 largest springs in the world. Eventually, the water in front of us would join the Columbia River, roll past Portland, Oregon, and blow out to the Pacific Ocean where it would be pushed by the trade winds into Japan. If I knew that while standing there throwing bread crumbs to the muskrats, I might have also tossed a handful of hope into the water. Imagine a hope so big it reached Japan. Later, realizing the Snake River flowed to the Columbia and eventually the Pacific Ocean, I reckoned we snowmobiled right over the Continental Divide.

Big Springs was my favorite stop of the day. Two moose looking for food on the side of the road welcomed us as we approached the headwaters. The server at Meadow Creek had kindly given us a bagful of bread to feed the ducks and the fish. Little did we know we'd also be feeding muskrat! I'd never seen a muskrat before. They're cute little guys with lots of fur and some personality as well. We were the only ones, besides the animals, at this snowy start to the Snake River, and even now as I write about it, I can hardly believe I experienced this moment in the world. 

A raven and an eagle sharing the same tree at Henry’s Fork, Big Springs.

After Big Springs, we slowly started to make our way back to Montana and West Yellowstone. Darkness comes early in the woods and our gas tanks were low. Neither of us looked forward to the 10 mile stretch of pain that awaited us down the road. That’s when we remembered we had a different kind of tank filled with liquid goodness in one of Kimi’s pockets. Two swigs of Goldschlager later and we almost enjoyed the turbulent ride home! Why didn’t we think of that the first time?!?

Crossing into Montana

Snowmobiling is really fun, and it’s a great way for individuals who can’t cross country ski or snowshoe for whatever reason to experience the power and solitude of the back country.  They're also controversial and an easy target for environmentalists and animal advocates; however, environmentally-friendly machines are available. Ski-doo makes a four stroke that gets nearly 40 miles to the gallon, and after-market parts are available to lessen the noise of their engines. In terms of the animals, when I cross country skied into Yellowstone, I didn’t see a thing. The irony wasn’t lost on me that we saw two moose, muskrats, an eagle, a raven, and plenty of water fowl when riding snow machines. In the park, the animals barely lifted their heads to acknowledge us as we rode past them or stopped for pictures. Also, we noticed the snowmobilers in the Yellowstone/Gallatin National Forest area to be supremely respectful of the rules of the woods, especially in terms of speed and staying on the trails. Everyone, of course, is entitled to their own opinion, and there are a lot of them out there. Thanks for reading mine.

One of the top 5 trips ever


  1. Beautiful! And so inspiring! Just what I needed on a murky nyc day.

  2. I told Billy about your trip. He hasn't even read your stories for himself yet and he's ready to start packing!

    We are $700 closer to our Yellowstone winter adventure!!! Lol I've got 3 years 'til my 40th; I think we'll make it.

  3. I know those murky NYC days - it's good to go elsewhere sometimes, even if it's only in your mind!

    Tracy, I'm impressed! $700 already? What's your secret? lol.

  4. I love that your words and pictures let us go there in our minds! My folks have booked a cabin in Yellowstone for August. They're flying into Salt Lake City and driving about 8 hours to the park. Which airport did y'all fly into in Montana and how long did it take to get to your destination?

  5. Thanks, Mary. We flew into Bozeman, and then drove about an hour and 45 minutes to West Yellowstone - an easy and pretty drive. We entered the park through the West gate. You're going to have a great time. I look forward to reading your blogs from Yellowstone!