Monday, February 20, 2012

Winter Roads

Snow machines, a park pass, a guide, and cameras mean one thing in these parts:

Over the snow vehicles are the only motorized vehicles allowed entry through the West gate in the winter because of the heavy snow and wintery road conditions. Personally, I found the road conditions to be perfect.

Within the first few miles, we came upon a pair of eagles perched high on the branches of a lodgepole pine and elk foraging for food across the river. As we watched the elk, we heard the yip of coyotes as they crossed a meadow, also in search of breakfast. Yellowstone was awake. The cold air and 360 degrees of natural beauty started to wake me up too. Standing on a river's edge surrounded by so much life, those parts of me that lay dormant in Portland began to wake. Portland is a beautiful city, but still, a city and I crave the wilderness. When I'm surrounded by big sky and tall trees, I'm alive, and all my senses are awake. The coyotes, meanwhile, didn't find what they were looking for in the meadow and swam across the river hoping for better luck. The beautiful simplicity of crossing a river for breakfast left me longing for a self-reliance I'll never know.

We had a 40 mile ride ahead of us into Wyoming and to Old Faithful, and although we weren't on a particular schedule, after awhile, we were content to leave the elk and the coyotes to their morning. Plus, it was 6 degrees out, and no matter how good your gear, that kind of cold rubs up against you when you're standing still. My snowmobile was equipped with hand and butt warmers, and I was ready for them!

The next few miles through the park were stunning panoramas of cold mountains, endless snow-filled meadows, rivers that remain ice free because of the geothermal activity in Yellowstone, and life. Throughout the day, I would find myself awestruck by the amount of life in the park time and time again. This park, where temperatures can drop to -60 degrees, is bursting with life and it all revolves around one thing - surviving the winter.

The big animals in the park are herbivores living mostly off stored body fat. The guides and rangers warn us to keep our distance not only for our safety, but for the safety of the animals too. Getting too close may spook them and cause them to run. The rangers don't want the animals to burn any of their precious energy with extra movements caused by visitors.

The park teems with life, but there is also death. Winter is a dangerous predator of Yellowstone's wildlife. More than a thousand trumpeter swans winter in Yellowstone from the arctic. All but a handful have left. We spotted one in the river on Sunday sleeping with his bill in his backfeathers. Our guide speculated he was injured and probably couldn't fly as he was alone (unusual for trumpeter swans) and still in the park. He will probably be coyote food soon, our guide said. We looked for him again Monday morning when we rode through on our way to the Canyon and were happy to see he survived the night. I hope he is an unusual swan, one who loves Yellowstone so much that he wants to be here in the summer too. I don't think so though.

Another ill or injured animal lay in the snow just beside the road. I heard he's been there for almost two weeks. I took a picture of him, but I'm not sure why. Maybe to capture the harshness of Yellowstone's winters, maybe because I have pets at home and seeing him dying alone under a tree in a snowdrift was heartbreakingly sad; mostly though, I don't want to forget him.

I asked about rehabilitation, but the rangers in Yellowstone typically let nature take its course. Food is such a scarcity in Yellowstone in the winter and early spring months, and animals like this bison end up providing sustenance for Yellowstone's hungry scavengers, such as eagles, coyotes, and ravens. I tried to feel better by thinking that the trumpeter swan from earlier in the day and this bison are a natural part of the food chain and how the ultimate last act one can do in death is to give someone else life, but I still cried for him as I got back on my snowmobile leaving him to die in the snow.

This bison may actually get a little help from the rangers. Because he is so close to the road, they will likely euthanize him and use a tractor to move him somewhere away from the road. He will still provide the needed sustenance to others, but not along the roadside where accidents may occur if too many animals catch his scent.

Around noon, we reached Old Faithful, Yellowstone's most famous geyser. She lives up to her name too, as she is both old and reliable! However, she is not the most predictable geyser in the park nor does she reach the highest heights, but it's the combination of the two that draws people from around the world to watch her blow. It's a sight to be seen, but you know what, so was this after riding through the park on a snowmobile all morning!

After Old Faithful, we stopped at Fountain Pot Geyser Basin. We walked through the geysers and were lucky enough to catch one called Jet blow. Bison dung and hoof prints were everywhere. Apparently, on the really frigid nights they roll the dice and bed down alongside the geysers for warmth. Sometimes they get burned, which was the prevailing thought for the one we saw earlier by the road.

I'd take that gamble on a 60 below night with the wind kicking and the snow blowing. Wouldn't you?

By now, it was getting close to 4 o'clock. We turned for West and started to make our way out of the park, but Yellowstone had one last surprise for us. A herd of bison were also using the road for travel. Our guide told us to go slow, don't stop, and stay close together. I gotcha, Guide! Passing by these animals on a snow machine really revealed their magnificence, especially their magnificent horns and hoofs! We got through safely with nobody overtly stressed. Another Yellowstone moment!

Later that night, we took our snow machines out for pizza. I'll tell ya, pizza tastes better by snowmobile and nothing beats bungee cording your leftover pizza to the back of your machine. Good times!

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  1. Sounds like a fantastic trip. I've yet to get to Yellowstone, so it's fun to experience a bit of it through your words!

  2. Definitely one of my top 5 trips. I look forward to reading about your experience when you get there!