CREATIVITY is the soul reflected

Master Painter

Master Painter
Prairie Sunrise by Charlie Clark

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Yellowstone: Winter Wonderland

Photos by Kay and Charlie

I think I've just awakened from an incredible dream. I was in Yellowstone  and Grand Teton 
national parks, flying over a four-foot snowpack in a strange little buggy, seeing bison, elk, trumpeter swans, and other wildlife; on a sleigh ride through an elk sanctuary with 7,000 elk; and the highlight—my lifetime dream—wolves  and grizzly bears up close. 

Charlie and I have just returned from our first bus tour, departing from Wichita, KS on February 27 and returning late last night, March 5. In between we covered about 2,850 miles and experienced temperatures ranging from -19° to 70°. 

Where to even begin?! First, sort through about 1,500 photos of everything from tiny frost formations on bubbling red mud pools to towering snow-covered peaks and bison right outside the coach window. Next, pick up our lab Sadie from the kennel; catch up on e-mail, empty the luggage, do laundry, and sleep; go to the post office to pick up snail mail, and get some groceries—all too mundane when you've been in a fairyland where vapors from hot springs freeze on trees and you've had snowdrifts out your third-floor lodge window! 

It's very hard to capture and summarize what all that entailed. I kept a travel journal along the way. 

In my automatic e-mail response while gone, I said "We haven't had winter here (in Kansas), so we're heading to Yellowstone." Never could I have imagined walking and riding over a 4- to 6-foot snowpack! Or being 20 feet from an alpha male wolf—with snow falling all around. Granted, it was in a sanctuary and I was in fenced off structure, but experiencing the magnificence of those creatures that close is beyond description. Despite my lifelong fascination with wolves and dream to see one in real life, I was still astounded by their beauty and impact. 

The Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone, MT has two packs of wild wolves, along with eight grizzly bears.

One of the River Valley Pack

One of the High Country Pack

McKinley, alpha male of the High Country Wolf Pack, is the largest—120 pounds—at the center.

These animals may not be able to roam the wild (they are either "rescued" creatures or have been born in captivity), but their habitat is huge and mimics the wild area from which they came. There is no human interaction—feeding is done by hiding their food so they can forage and hunt for it. 

This grizzly is one of two cubs brought to the center after their mother had to be put down. It has just been foraging for its food in the snow.

Both wolves above are members of the High Country Pack

While I have been to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons in warm weather, this was an entirely different experience. The only modes of transportation for visitors in winter are snowmobiles, snowcoaches, or—if one is especially fit and adventuresome, skis or snowshoes. The snowpack is so deep no ordinary vehicles are allowed. 

Our snowcoach—not much bigger than a van—held eight riders plus the driver and had skis on the front, with rugged tracks like a tank on the rest. The technology for these vehicles was developed in 1939, but has been modernized. Our coach—the oldest in operation—was 1952 vintage, with a souped-up Chevy engine (I admit to not understanding the technical details). Our main guide was a 19-year veteran and previous owner, a walking encyclopedia about Yellowstone. It's obvious he and the other driver-guides thoroughly love their work. Our tour group filled six such coaches.

Yellowstone sits atop a smoldering volcano. Stops over the two-day excursion included magnificent scenery and natural phenomena: 14,000-foot peaks, frozen waterfalls, bubbling mud pools, rising vapors,  and sulfur fumes from the geothermal features. We were told that acid so strong in some pools immediately ate the pants fabric of some naturalists kneeling on the ground nearby. How on earth can living creatures survive in such environment? Lifeforms such as algae turn the mud into rainbows of color, from red to turquoise. The freezing vapors crystalize on every surface, turning the surroundings into a fairyland. 

Of course, for many Old Faithful is the draw. We experienced the geyser late at night in the crisp still air, under a star-lit sky. And again early the next morning (-17° by then)—we nearly missed the eruption because we had to board our bus. Walking away we heard it and decided it was worth hurrying back to see the plume of steam and water shoot up into the air. But there are many other geysers that are just as impressive; they just are not as predictable.

Outside Jackson, WY, is an elk refuge —25,000 acres—where 7,000 elk winter. One herd of about 2,000 did not consider us a threat because of our team of Belgian draft horses Duke and Daisy, we were told. The sleigh is a big wagon, with seats inside. We were tucked down inside, nearly hidden from view. Our driver eased up close to the "smaller" herd, about 20 feet away from the closest ones, where we were able to see the big bulls with their monstrous antlers and pregnant cows. 

How many layers of clothing can a person wear and still be able to move? We piled them on and—despite a very stiff wind, single-digit temperature and occasional snow showers, we did not get cold (though some folks without as much protection were uncomfortable). Blankets were also provided. 

As I said, this was our first bus tour.  Part of the experience was traveling with a group of people we had never met—and coming home with some good friends. There were 47 guests. Somehow, eight of us gravitated towards each other during the first couple days. Charlie and I alternated eating, riding and visiting with those three other couples, sometimes all of us in a group together—like on the snowcoach and at dinner. We found we had common interests and thoroughly enjoyed each other's company. We exchanged e-mail addresses and promises to keep in touch. I look forward to that. 

In the interest of getting this published, I will go ahead and post it with a few photos of the wolves and bears, and add to it as I am able to process our photos. Check back….

1 comment:

  1. Great pictures and great trip! It'll take a while to sort through it all, but you made a good start!