Suspicious Travelers

A statement from the 1907 U.S. Army’s Rules, Regulations and Instructions for soldiers and scouts on duty in Yellowstone warns, “All persons traveling through the park from October 1 to June 1 should be regarded with suspicion.”

Who besides poachers would brave bitterly cold weather; hidden, yet scalding hot springs; isolation and desolation; almost impossible travel conditions and difficult route finding? Who besides a bison killer or elk shooter would venture into one of the most remote and unknown places in the country…in winter?

In the early days of Yellowstone National Park, winter visitors were primarily poachers, prospectors and army personnel who were directed to manage the park. But, even then there were a few tourists kicking and gliding their way through Wonderland on ten-foot-long skis—basically wooden planks—and steering with a single seven-foot pine pole.

Many years later, I was one of those tourists, albeit with twenty first century equipment, pulling into Yellowstone Expedition’s Yurt Camp at Canyon. Sure, we got there in a heated snowcoach driven on a groomed road, but at first glance at my residence for the next four days all I could think was, “this is going to be really cold.”

Two yurts, connected to function as a kitchen and dining area, glowed warmly in the early evening darkness, but the “yurtlets” (small plywood rooms with canvas roofs, modeled after ice fishing huts) appeared frigid. I was quick to learn that propane heaters kept them warmer than my house before I receive my heating bill.

The following morning my small group, consisting of an art student from Singapore studying in Chicago and a couple from Minnesota, skied through thick lodgepole pines to Inspiration Point on the edge of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Our guides, Jeremy and Soile pointed out the sites in the minus five-degree morning.

I’d been to the Canyon many times before, but never in winter. The road I knew to be bumper to bumper R.V.s was empty except for a few skiers. The striated orange walls of the canyon were dusted with snow, while the falls were mostly ice striped with water. Steam escaped from the geothermally altered rhyolite near the river.

Everyone says winter in Yellowstone is magical; a cliché that’s too true to ignore. The familiar is rendered unknown by a cover of snow. Aspens that shine white in the summer sun appear yellowed against the nivean landscape. Tracks tell tales on animals whose stories would be hidden without the impressionable surface to chronicle them. Skiing along the north rim of the canyon was a world away from driving from lookout to lookout with the summer throngs, stopping only briefly to snap photos of the falls and ospreys.

After a morning on the canyon rim we ate a hearty lunch (one of many enormous and delicious meals) back at the yurt before loading up the snowcoach and driving toward Dunraven Pass. A few miles from the pass we stopped and donned our skis again, this time following wolf tracks rather than the canyon edge. Coyote tracks overlaid the paw prints of five or six wolves, all very fresh. Was the coyote hungry or desperate, hoping for scraps of its larger cousin’s kill? Or was it just wily? No smart coyote approaches a pack of wolves alone. The tracks led all the way to the pass before veering up the ridge of a hill opposite of Mt. Washburn, and down into the next valley.

We abandoned the canine tracks in favor of some downhill play. One after the other we attempted Telemark turns on our skinny skis. Knees bent, one tucked behind the other, we careened downhill until face planting in the fluffy snow. Jeremy and Soile, of course, pulled off the most turns, but we all enjoyed the thrill of the descent and the hard, but rewarding work of the climb back up.

In Paul Schullery’s book, Yellowstone’s Ski Pioneers, he quotes a description by Lewis Freeman of each new army garrison learning to ski. “They grow as enthusiastic as a lot of children with new sleds,” Freeman describes. “Falls? Of course there are falls, terrific ones at that, but no one seems to mind. Imagine 160 pounds of man, going at the rate of half a mile or more a minute, suddenly dashed to the snow…Lucky he is if some erratic slider from above does not ride him down before he can regain his footing. Sometimes his fall is complicated…But they all get up in some way or other and edge back to the top of the zigzag courses.”

After we traversed our own zigzag course back to the top several times, and plummeted down the slope again and again, it was time to head back to the snowcoach and the comfort of the yurts.

At dinner we were joined by Yellowstone Expedition’s owner, Arden Bailey, and a cameraman from Jackson, Wyoming, working on a BBC documentary. Banded together at least forty miles from any town, our group exchanged stories, had inappropriate dinner conversations and came together in our isolation from the rest of the world.

That too, is part of the magic of winter in Yellowstone. Throughout its history as a national park, people have gathered together in tiny shelters or little hotels to find refuge from blizzards and cold nights. Today winter visitors can enjoy the luxuries of the Old Faithful Snowlodge or the Mammoth Inn—both fun places to while away a few winter days—but the yurt camp is more out there, more smack in the middle of winter—despite the gastronomic delights, the hot shower and the dry sauna.

The next morning I woke up before the sun to solo ski the Rollercoaster Trail. The group bonding was nice, but some alone time with my skis was called for. As the name implies, the trail undulates through the lodgepole pine forest. Starting in the dark, everything was black and white, but after twenty-five minutes, the tree trunks turned orangey-brown and the needles forest green like a scene from a colorized movie.

According to the story, the trail, which completely surrounds a summer campground, was built in the 1920s after a little boy wandered from camp and was never found again. Every few minutes I passed a sign pointing toward the campground, the idea being that no one could get lost leaving the camp again.

Many have gotten lost in Yellowstone, both in the summer and winter. Many more have wanted to get lost, at least figuratively. Over the next few days we got lost in our heads, lost in the moment and lost in the season, but fortunately never lost physically.

We skied through a whiteout heading toward mudpots few people encounter. The ground was grayish-white, the sky a similar hue and fat snowflakes lingered between the two. The only things that stood out were the bright jackets and backpacks of our little line of skiers.

Passing from meadow into trees we soon came to the mudpots. The ground was bare of snow, melted by steam escaping from cracks and fissures in the ground and a magma plume just a few miles beneath the earth’s crust. Ooey, gooey liquid rock, thicker than pudding gurgled and plopped all around us.

We found otter tracks along the Yellowstone River above Upper Falls and willed the winter-loving creatures to frolic in view. We watched a bull bison hunkered down in a hot spring-fed creek with fur so think the snow piled up on his shoulders and back without even starting to melt. Bright green algae contrasted oddly with the white snow. We laughed at golden eyes surfing over little waves in the river like expert kayakers, eddying out before surfing again. Fat flakes clung to tree branches and dropped down our necks when we skied too close. There was so much wildlife, beauty, adventure and camaraderie in those few days, that I can’t imagine why more people don’t flock to Yellowstone in winter, but maybe its better (for me) that they don’t.

In the late 1800s, Thomas Elwood Hofer, one of Yellowstone foremost winter travelers commented, “A great many people with a few days practice on snowshoes (skis), can see part or all the Park in winter and be repaid for their trouble…in addition to the game to be seen, certain features of the Park are much more interesting in winter than in summer.”

There may still be reason to be suspicious of winter travelers in Yellowstone, but after my four days at Canyon—despite the cold, the endless trail breaking in deep snow and the long dark nights—I’d be more suspicious of someone who didn’t take the opportunity to experience Yellowstone in its most serene, yet stirring season.

Big Sky Journal
Winter 2008

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