Up in the sky! It's a bird, it's a plane, no...
I’m strapped into the bulbous head of a giant grasshopper, listing at a forty-five degree angle to the port side while racing up a canyon above the Yellowstone River towards the iced-over Upper Falls. Beneath me, a Bald Eagle soars quietly across lilting thermals. Robin and I are finally setting out on our three year delayed winter trip to Yellowstone, the trip with the helicopter ride and snow coaches rather than bikes and hiking shoes. He’s in the other helicopter, the one that looks more like a corporate jet with comfy seats and extra steel between him and the countryside.
Two other intrepid women sit with me in what amounts to a glass bubble being flown by a twelve year old across three hundred miles of Yellowstone National Park. Our pilot is probably not twelve, but close, although he says he’s been flying for about ten years. Yeah, sure. His usual job is supporting forest firefighters and dropping telephone poles into the remote wilderness from the air, not flying tourists. I guess the firefighters and the telephone poles don’t mind being shot out down a canyon like a pinball snaking around bumpers. And I don’t either! What a ride.
After that bird’s eye view of the Falls we’re off to view the Grand Prismatic, the third largest hot spring in the world. Today it’s reflecting malachite, teal and gold colors with small wisps of steam snaking upward. The snow is thick on the ground, three to four feet now after the early snowfalls that covered the region. Bull elk are still visible on some remote peaks while bison crowd the cleared roads instead of forcing their way through the frozen grasslands. Miles of mountains covered with Lodgepole pines so close together that only a light coating of snow had managed to penetrate stretch out to meet the horizon.
We started this trip on a typical airline flight into Bozeman, Montana. Delay eight hours, cancel flight from Tampa to Denver, reroute to San Francisco, stay overnight at a barely passable Sonesta, leave SFO a couple hours late after six gate changes and land in Bozeman twenty-four hours after our scheduled arrival. Typical.
The next morning, after experiencing a five-minute tour of Bozeman’s famed Main Street we were off to the town of Gardiner at Yellowstone’s northern entrance. Gardiner has been virtually shut down since June when the Gardiner and Yellowstone rivers flooded and wiped out the northern access to the park and the Lamar Valley, where we’re headed. It’s January, so restaurants and shops that will have lines out into the street all summer long are shuttered now.
We were hoping to see a lot of wildlife on this trip but sort of surprised to see it in downtown Gardiner. A family of mule deer graze on shrubs in the motel parking lot and small pods of elk roam the streets instead of stray dogs. Even a few craggy bison plow the snow in a clearing near the town center. We find it wise to look out the window of our room before just blindly walking outside.
After Gardiner experienced air temperatures circling minus 40 around Christmas, the weather has warmed into what natives are calling an “unseasonable” 15-20 degrees. This means we’ll be able to get out of the van to photograph scenery and hopefully, wolves. The heavy snowpack means that we’ll stay near the road for most of the journey.
Yellowstone in the winter is a different world than in the warmer seasons. There’s almost no one here. Even if the flooding hadn’t shut down the northern entrance until late October when a new road was finished, winter is not the most popular time to visit. As we drive along, we often find our van to be the only one for miles, even when we’re stuck behind a herd of a hundred or so bison meandering up the road. In the summer, things will change: it will be one bison and a hundred or so cars.
Hopefully, we’ll see plenty of wolves since this is a Wolf Photography excursion. I’m traveling with nine intrepid photographers, including Robin. We’ve chosen a “Pro” Photography trip which means, although I don’t know it at this point, that we’ll be spending two hours or more in ten degree temperatures and driving sleet on the side of a road staring into a spotting scope to see some very small wolves two miles away. Apparently, getting the right shot is something of a religion, time and temperature be damned. I’m already thinking that I’ve got to read the trip descriptions a little more closely next time.
We’ll only get to see the northern half of the park on this trip. Most of the iconic scenes are in the northern half so that’s fine with us. After starting in Gardiner, we’ll head to the main entrance at West Yellowstone to see Old Faithful and the hot springs area, finishing up with the Grand Tetons in Jackson Hole.
All of us want to see wildlife and we’re immediately rewarded with a herd of bighorn sheep on the side of the road. They’re very active today. Young rams are practicing their fighting skills sending the hollow sound of their knocking horns across the valley. Pronghorn antelope stand near us as we all look on with curiosity.
There are about 5,000 bison in the park and I think we saw all of them. They use the cleared roads to move around the park to avoid slogging through the deep snow until they reach a feeding area. Bison “plow” through the deep snow with their powerful heads and shoulders to clear a path to the sparse grasses below. The coveted shot is one of snow-speckled bison staring into the camera. We’ll have many chances for that one.
Our main guide tells us that the scientific name is “bison” and the popular name is “buffalo.” Apparently the park is trying to get everyone to use the term bison but most visitors think they’re buffalo. It’s exactly the same animal but we’ll be confused for the rest of the trip.
Except for bison and ducks, other forms of wildlife are scarce. Bears are hibernating and red fox must be busy elsewhere. After our initial encounter with the big horn sheep, we don’t find any others. A couple coyote, a white mountain goat, a lonely moose and some swan pairs pop up to occupy our time. We do end up sighting two separate wolf packs but they are very skittish. Apparently, the wolf “harvesting” that happened just outside the park last fall was very successful, so successful that the wolves have no interest in being anywhere close to human contact. Hence the spotting scopes which allow us a chance to see the wolves play and jump, but no chance to photograph them, even with our longest lenses.
We have two vans and two guides for this trip, so one guide, five photographers and equipment in each van. I’m taking some pictures, but with an Iphone and a very small Sony camera. No tripod, no multiple camera backs, no gimbles, no long lenses, no filters, no specially designed camera suitcase. All the equipment makes position in the van a hot topic. Everyone wants instant access to their very special gear so they can get the perfect shot, or really, shots. Robin will come home with over 5,000 images and he’s not nearly as rabid as the rest of the group who he describes as wildlife paparazzi.
Six of the amateur photographers (we’re all amateurs) have done this trip three or more times before. The retired FBI agent has literally 10,000 photographs of bald eagles. The retired policeman from London takes miles of video and spots scenes for his wife who does seminars on the western parks throughout England. She’s very pro-Brexit which I really didn’t need to know. The couple from Bermuda are on their third tour of Yellowstone. A new widow from the Netherlands, by herself for the first time, will test positive for Covid halfway throught the trip and will quarantine until Jackson Hole. Finally, we have two Taiwanese accountants from southern California. We’ll have the most fun with them.
Our main guide, Sean, is from Greeley, Colorado. He’s an active duty fireman with a lot of paid time off that he fills as a tour guide. Sean regales us with tales of his life “off the grid.” He lives on a ranch, drives a Rivian electric pickup ($100k +), makes electricity from solar collectors and buys water that he stores on the ranch and hauls in with a tanker trailer. He also flies gliders and is a photographer. Robin is looking up openings for firemen on Linked In.
Jon is our second guide, on board because he taught photography at Montana State and grew up in Idaho and Montana and knows the area well. We end up riding with Jon most of the time because Sean knows the repeat travelers. Just as well.
In Yellowstone, there’s only one road open to car and van traffic during the winter. When it’s time to head to West Yellowstone, we’re in snow coaches. These big yellow mini-buses have three foot high tires that are inflated to only about 10 psi. When we’re heading down the snow-covered roads south to West Yellowstone, we look like Mr. Magoo’s car bouncing down the road. Yellowstone grades all the snow-packed roads every night but at the end of the day, the bumps can be prodigious. It’s best to strap in and hold on tightly to your equipment.
When wifi shows up, I hear on the news that the FAA has sort of “lost” a database necessary for airlines to fly. Of course. After they manage to find it under the sofa and get the air traffic system working again, I decide to check to make sure our return flights haven’t been changed. The only change I can see on the United app is that they’ve disappeared. Head banging ensues. I spend an hour with a United rep based somewhere in India until she can glue our itinerary back together.
We’ve only had a few animal sightings at West Yellowstone, so finding a rarely seen bobcat gets us all excited. Apparently, they don’t like to be anywhere near people and usually the best sighting is a glimpse of what looks to be a large tabby cat disappearing into a rock cavern. We’ve found one sitting near a mule deer carcass that is thankfully mostly covered with snow. Sean thinks the bobcat has driven the deer to jump off the nearby cliff to its death. Hmmm. At any rate, the bobcat vigilantly guards the carcass in a spot openly visible to our snow coaches.
Since this is such a rare sighting, we spend several hours three days in a row waiting and watching for the bobcat to make any move. The cat sleeps, stands up, stretches, has snacks and goes back to sleep. A high point was his yawn. Several other snow coaches got the word about the bobcat so we’re watching with about 50 people and their tripods—everyone in this section of Yellowstone. I knew you’d want to see the cat. The brown things sticking out of the snow are the ears of the dead deer.
This part of the park is full of hot springs and mud holes. Old Faithful is just down the road. It eventually shoots off, and we dutifully take photos, but compared to the bobcat and the gorgeous scenery, it’s a disappointment. We’ll see the Firehole River, the Fairy Falls and Biscuit Basin on our trek. Yellowstone is a mass of seismic activity just waiting for the next eruption. We’re not staying for that.
The final leg of our trip is in Jackson Hole near the Grand Teton National Park. We give up the snow coaches and load back into the vans for our circuitous drive south through Idaho to Jackson Hole. The scenic Yellowstone roads that will be a great drive in the summer are closed now and won’t open until late May.
On the way, we pass through the growing suburb of Driggs, Idaho. Driggs is where the people live who work in Jackson Hole. Driggs is separated from Jackson Hole by a treacherous windy road through the Teton Mountains. If the road closes, no one in Jackson Hole has any staff, including the small hospital. It’s open as we slide through. Driggs is also where the less rich people’s private jets park. I guess even gazillionaires need to economize on some things.
Everything in Jackson Hole is under construction. The whole town is being dug up and rebuilt. Even the Historical Society is knocking down its old home and rebuilding. Prices here are similar to resort prices all over the country with an extra zero or two. A million or two for a knockdown, $ 5 million for a relatively modest ranch, $25 million for a nice ski chalet near the slopes. A million here, a million there, pretty soon you’re talking real money.
The restaurants are fabulous and there’s a Four Seasons (where we aren’t staying). We take a horse drawn carriage ride through the Elk preserve and of course, see quite a few elk who winter here rather than high on the Tetons. The perpetual cloud cover that drapes the Tetons most days lifts for us on our second day. That means we’re off to photograph the iconic scene that Ansell Adams made famous, the Tetons and Snake River. The National Museum of Wildlife Art is located here and it provides a great afternoon of excellent art and sculpture without the need for the Canada Goose coat.
We’re petering out at this point. Nine days of getting in the van or snow coach at 6:30 and driving until 5 have worn us out. We’re all wearing the same clothes all the time—no need to change. By the time we hit Jackson Hole, I’m in desperate need of some clothes that don’t include long underwear, snow boarding pants, more long underwear, turtle neck, fleece and Canada Goose coat. Fashion icons we aren’t.
Finally, it’s time to fly home. Our typical 7am flight out of Jackson Hole to Denver and quick connection to Tampa went as expected.
The Jackson Hole flight boarded on time, de-iced, sat for a while to burn off enough fuel to take off, landed at Denver late, skidded past the gate, backed up, found the gate crew on coffee break and finally disgorged us. We sprinted a half mile to the Tampa flight, arrived to find the gate locked and the Tampa plane sitting there but inaccessible to us. We rebooked for the next flight 8 hours later, arrived in Tampa, got met by the limo and got pulled over by the Sarasota Police a mile from home.
As much as I try, I can’t make this stuff up. Glad to be home.