Yellowstone in April
The relativity of time is fascinating. I’m not saying I contemplate Einstein as I wander around Yellowstone, but I’m always amazed at how dramatically my perception of time fluctuates on a day-to-day, month-to-month, and even year-to-year basis. The years I spent in high school and college, for example, felt long and stretched, while most of the years I spent working at an office job in my 30s passed in a flash. Why is that?
Lots of factors are involved, no doubt, but I’ve noticed – for me at least – the degree to which I’m experiencing new things plays a big part. Time speeds up when life becomes routine. And routines come very naturally to me. A well-worn routine frees me to retreat into my head while the rest of me goes through the motions on auto-pilot. I become less present in the moment.
The trap of routines, and my tendency to fall into them, is one of the reasons I like traveling so much. Arriving in brand new places makes it much more difficult to switch on auto-pilot, and I find that time typically draws itself out when I’m on a trip. The year I spent traveling around the world in 2010-11 felt as long as a college year.
Unfortunately my time in Yellowstone seems to be speeding up. I can’t believe I’ve been here for five months already. Back in December, when the experience was new, time moved slowly. But all too quickly I slipped into a comfortable winter routine. Most days I woke up before sunrise, drove straight to the park, looked for wildlife along the single road open to regular vehicles, and returned to Livingston in the afternoon. The months raced by.
Beginning to feel restless, I hoped the arrival of spring would shake things back up. More of the park’s roads open, new animals appear, and snow starts retreating from some of the other amazing places in the area I want to get to know – like the Crazy Mountains and Glacier National Park. But winter is reluctant to release its grip on Yellowstone. Early April felt a lot like January.
In mid-April at a pullout in Lamar Canyon I met a gruff old curmudgeon named Bob. He was peering intently through binoculars at the cliffside across the river. “Osprey nest,” he said, pointing. Sure enough, a tangle of broken branches woven together at the top of a tall pine tree. The head of the female osprey peeked out of the top, while the male flew in and out delivering building materials.
“This nest is in a terrible spot,” Bob said disdainfully. “The old nest was better.” It took several minutes of questioning to uncover Bob’s reasoning. Apparently the ospreys used to have a nest that could be viewed from above, offering a view of their chicks, but this nest was too high up for that. We watched as the male osprey returned with a fish in its talons and perched on a nearby tree.
“This is the worst I’ve ever seen it here,” Bob said as we watched the ospreys.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
Bob gestured broadly at the area around us. “Too much snow, not enough green. I know a guy who’s been coming here for 30 years, says it’s the worst he’s ever seen it too. Bison are gonna start giving birth next week probably, and there’s not enough for them to eat. A whole bunch’a the babies are gonna die because the moms won’t have any milk.”
I thought the snowfall had been no more than mildly above average this year, but I heard from others as well that spring in the park seemed significantly behind schedule. And the bison did look thin.
Later that same afternoon I came across a surprisingly large group of cars clustered along the road near Tower Junction. “This almost looks like a bear jam,” I thought. And that’s exactly what it was. Someone helpfully pointed up the hillside to a black bear mom with a cinnamon yearling cub, my first bear sighting of the season. I joined the crowd of people by the side of the road and set up my camera just before the cub climbed up on a rock to pose for us.
The very next day, April 15th, I had another first sighting of the year: a newborn bison calf. The little guy couldn’t have been more than a day or two old but he was already keeping up with Mom as they trotted along.
Soon afterwards spring truly hit the park. We had some beautiful sunny and relatively warm days that began melting the snow and turning what had been a dull white landscape into an unfamiliar hodgepodge of half-frozen ponds, surging streams, and ever-widening patches of newly exposed grass. Ground squirrels and marmots appeared for the first time. The bison turned frisky and celebrated the end of winter by butting heads and rolling in the dirt.
On April 20th more of the park’s roads opened up and I was able to drive from Mammoth Hot Springs down to Madison Junction and over to West Yellowstone. Large areas of the park were still buried in deep snow, but it felt great to be able to expand my horizons. The tradeoff, of course, was that the road openings and warm weather attracted crowds. I’ve grown accustomed to sharing the park with only a small number of winter regulars, and it wasn’t easy to adjust to waiting behind a line of cars stopped in the road to gawk at a bison.
The spring crowds still pale in comparison to summer, however, and while visiting Yellowstone Falls one morning I had Artist’s Point entirely to myself.
The suddenness of spring’s arrival was a little jarring. People here joke that Montana has two seasons: winter and construction. And so far that feels very true. In mid-April I was driving through snowstorms in Lamar Valley, and a week later I was waiting a half hour in 60 degree weather to pass through a road construction site between Mammoth Hot Springs and Norris.
Towards the end of April I decided to hike up the hillside that overlooks Grand Prismatic Spring, but the parking lot for the trailhead was roped off. Signs said grizzly bears were coming out of hibernation in the area this time of year, and as I turned to walk back to my car I noticed a brown shape moving through the grass on the other side of Firehole River. A grizzly! The first I’d seen this season.
The bear, already looking well-fed and healthy, ambled slowly along the river, stopping occasionally to dig up something or investigate a smell. Hoping for a better angle, I raced ahead of the grizzly and tromped through the marshy terrain to what I thought would be a good spot for photos. Unseen by me, however, the bear decided to swim across the river, and when it appeared again from behind the trees I was too close.
After a brief, breathtaking moment of eye contact, the bear nonchalantly went about its business and continued up the river. I slowly retreated to a safer distance, chastened by my poor judgment and vowing to be more careful in the future.
My days and weeks in Yellowstone are still passing too quickly, but time did seem to slow down (and on one occasion stop) after the park began opening up in late April. Hopefully that trend will continue – at least, of course, until I inevitably slip into my spring and summer routines.