Yellowstone in February
On my last day visiting Marie in Mountain View we woke up early to catch sunrise from my favorite spot in Sausalito. It made me happily nostalgic to revisit one of my old haunts.
I was sorry to leave Marie’s place, but it felt great to arrive back in Montana. Before dawn the next morning I headed straight for Yellowstone.
Only a few days after returning from Mountain View I had an opportunity to join a chartered snowcoach expedition into the interior of the park. Deby, the professional photographer I met soon after moving to Montana, posted a message on her Facebook page saying there was an extra spot on a snowcoach she’d booked to search for wolves, and I jumped at the chance.
Our group left from West Yellowstone at 8am, which meant I needed to wake up at 4:30am to shower, gear up, and get there with enough time to grab an Egg McMuffin for breakfast. We met at the office of the tour company, Back Country Adventures, where Deby introduced me to the rest of our group: Pam, a photographer and hardware store clerk who lives in West Yellowstone and seemed to know everyone in town; Brenda, a photographer who lives near Bozeman and works as a driver for disabled veterans; and Jurgen and Simone, a pair of German videographers who were making a Yellowstone documentary and needed wolf footage.
Mindy, our guide, loaded all six of us and our bulky photography gear into the snowcoach (a van jacked up on oversized tires) and off we went. Some of the group had been in the park the day before and found the Wapiti Lake wolf pack feeding on a bison carcass near Grand Prismatic Spring, so the plan was to make a beeline straight for the carcass to see if the wolves were still there. They weren’t. Apparently we’d just missed them. A park ranger saw the Wapitis on the carcass no more than an hour before we arrived.
We stood next to the snowcoach planning our next move. “Something’s going on over there,” Deby said, gesturing in the direction of Old Faithful. “I can tell from the birds.” Jurgen volunteered to stay and monitor the carcass while the rest of us continued our search in the snowcoach. Two hours later, no closer to finding the wolves, we returned to pick up Jurgen.
From rangers at the Old Faithful Visitor Center we heard there was a new carcass near Daisy Geyser, not too far away from the Old Faithful Geyser. Deby felt vindicated. “I knew there was something going on over there,” she said. We decided to check it out.
The trail nearest the carcass had been closed, so to get to a viewpoint we had haul our heavy camera gear along a circuitous route through the snow. A friend of Pam’s managed to locate a sled that Jurgen used to drag his 50-pound video camera and tripod.
We arrived near the carcass in the mid-afternoon, set up our cameras, and sat down in the snow to wait. If the wolves came we’d have a good view. But the wolves didn’t cooperate. Our snowcoach tour was scheduled to end soon, so we called Mindy and agreed to pay extra to stay longer. Still no wolves. Brenda’s feet had begun to freeze, so she and Pam headed back to the snowcoach. Excited howls rose up in the distance, and eventually two coyotes appeared from the trees to check out the carcass. “The wolves are right here, I can feel it,” said Deby. But our time was up. Reluctantly we hiked back to the road to meet Mindy. We’d missed our chance.
Back in the snowcoach we felt deflated but still happy. All things considered it had been a fun day – seeing the interior of the park in winter is still a novelty for me, and I was learning a lot from the other photographers. Pam and Brenda in particular generously offered a long list of insider tips about places in the park I should be sure to check out.
And suddenly a shout from Deby: “Wolves!”
Mindy hit the brakes and threw the snowcoach into reverse. We were back at the very first place we’d stopped that morning, a spot on the road with a view of the bison carcass the Wapitis had been feeding on the day before. Several wolves had returned to the carcass, with many more in the surrounding woods. Twenty wolves strong, the Wapiti Lake Pack is the largest in Yellowstone.
In a mad scramble we gathered our gear, tumbled out of the snowcoach, and set up our cameras on the side of the road. The wolves were only about 100 yards away.
What a rush! We counted at least 11 wolves. Some took turns working the carcass while others rested, played, and socialized nearby. Sunset came quickly. We only had a half hour with the Wapitis before they faded into the twilight.
The tone of our ride back to West Yellowstone was giddy. We were all a little light-headed, I think, after such a long, roller-coaster ride of a day. Back at the office I thanked Deby for letting me tag along (and for spotting the wolves!), and I said goodbye to Pam, Brenda, Jurgen and Simone. Having such a friendly group made it even more fun to find the wolves.
The wolf high was followed a few days later by my lowest moment since moving to Montana. Deciding to visit the park extra early one morning, I was driving south on Highway 89 well before dawn when a line of deer darted out of the darkness. I slammed on the brakes, but there wasn’t nearly enough room to stop. Trying to swerve around them, I veered into the left lane but still struck one of the lead deer on the right side of my car.
I skidded to a stop. “No! No! No!” There weren’t any other cars coming so I turned around to scan the area with my headlights. The only deer in sight stood frozen about 10 feet away from the road. I couldn’t tell how badly it had been hurt, and I needed to move – there was no room to pull over and it would have been unsafe to stay parked on the highway.
Soon I reached Gardiner and stopped at a gas station to check out the damage. My passenger side mirror had been torn completely off. There were dents on both doors and above the rear wheel. I felt terrible, sick to my stomach, replaying the scene again and again as I tried to understand how I could have let it happen. I’d been going exactly the speed limit – 65 at night – with my brights on and my eyes scanning the road, and my reaction time when the deer appeared in my headlights was as quick as I could have hoped. And still I hit the deer. The fact that the deer was standing up gave me hope that it might be OK, but it could also be a worst-case scenario, where the injuries it sustained would mean a slow death.
At an auto body shop getting a repair estimate the next day, a mechanic asked me where I was when I hit the deer. “On Highway 89,” I said, “about 10 miles north of Gardiner.”
“Ah,” the mechanic said with a knowing nod, “the Gauntlet.”
It was a perfect nickname. Before hitting the deer I’d had several close calls along that same stretch, and pretty much every day I see a couple of new deer carcasses by the roadside.
Rattled, I decided to drastically reduce my pre-dawn drives to the park, and when I do drive on Highway 89 in the dark I’ll have to go much slower. It feels excruciatingly hypocritical to harm the wildlife I profess to care for so deeply.
Hitting the deer happened to coincide with a deluge of depressing news, including the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and I struggled with the melancholy funk it wrapped around me. Good days in the park helped me gradually shake it off. I’m getting better at finding the river otters in Lamar Valley, and on several occasions they let me hang out nearby for long periods of time. Frozen fingers and toes are a small price to pay for such unique entertainment.
One morning the temperature dropped to -36F, the coldest I’d experienced in the park. I’m always impressed by how well the animals seem to handle such extreme weather.
Towards the end of the month Marie flew in for a long weekend. We made two trips to the park and had good luck. On our first visit we found two otters, and on our second visit we spotted one of the Lamar Canyon wolves – too far away for photos but close enough to watch with binoculars. It was a lot of fun to spend time with Marie and I’m really happy she’s also been able to experience Yellowstone in winter.