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Friday, February 7, 2014

Winter Wildlife in Yellowstone

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend several days in Montana's Yellowstone National Park on a wildlife viewing trip.

Although I really dislike cold weather and snow, this trip was so amazing that I wasn't at all bothered by the cold. Much of the park, including the very popular Old Faithful geyser area, was closed to all vehicle traffic except for escorted snow machine tours and special vehicles known as snow coaches. These machines come in two varieties. One has treads and several small wheels on both the front and back; the other has treads in back and skis on the front. Regular vehicles, even those with four-wheel drive, would not be able to navigate the groomed but unplowed roads.

As a result of the road closures, the crowds that typically flood the park during the summer were absent. One morning, as I walked near Old Faithful, I realized that I could neither see nor hear another person. It was as if I had the park to myself.

We were blessed with clear skies, calm winds and not-too-cold temperatures during the majority of our trip. Unfortunately, our time at Old Faithful was marked by overcast weather, which made photographing the geyser's eruptions of gray steam against a gray sky less dramatic than hoped. But the scenery of the park is magnificent: snow-capped mountains; ice-covered trees; bubbling, boiling pools of water and mud; pristine snow; frozen rivers, and of course, the wildlife. We saw herds of bison, some clearing snow with their massive, 250-pound heads, to get to the grass beneath. We spotted bald and golden eagles, numerous pronghorn antelope, big horn sheep, elk, coyotes, red fox, mule deer and, far in the distance, a couple of wolves feeding on an animal carcass.

I also was blessed to travel with a dozen wonderful people. There were two couples from Australia, an 88-year-old retired accountant with her attorney daughter, a young widower from Miami (born in Argentina), a retired Navy meteorologist, and other couples and solo travelers. It was a delightful group of travelers. And our group leaders were experts in the biology, geology and history of Yellowstone and its inhabitants.

I am so glad I got to experience Yellowstone in winter. We were treated to video of the park's wolves shot by a wonderful filmmaker, as well as photos taken by the park's original winter-keeper over his 40 years of living in the park. And I tried snowshoeing for the first time. Although apprehensive at first, I just had to try my hand at this novel way of exploring some of the park's trails.
As the guy in the rental shop said, "If you can walk, you can snowshoe." And he was correct. It took just a few minutes to feel comfortable with a large plastic rectangle -- with what looked like saw blades on the bottom -- strapped to each foot. I also bought a pair of Yaktrax, removable devices that make it easier and safer to walk on packed snow and ice.

My biggest disappointment was not having been able to get a closer view of some of the park's wolves. They are reclusive by nature, but one of the guides has had a close encounter with a wolf in the past. Alas, that didn't happen during my trip. But just seeing them through a spotting scope was still a thrill.

This trip was sponsored by the National Geographic Society, and I definitely will look into future NatGeo-sponsored trips for future travels. Everything was well planned, and even a couple of mechanical problems with the snow coaches were handled promptly and with minimal inconvenience to the travelers. I would love to revisit Yellowstone during the spring and fall, when the park retains some of its serenity and visitors can experience a different view of this beautiful place.