I am out of bed and into my snowsuit, trying to walk softly through the lobby in my heavy boots. This is the coldest morning yet. The front desk thermometer reads minus 15. I meet Doug and we head for Old Faithful in the dark. My glasses fog instantly and I have quite a time adjusting all my headgear to keep it from happening, all the while any skin that becomes exposed begins to complain of it immediately. I settle on a ritual of switching back and forth from nose to mouth breathing every few minutes or so.
As we arrive at the wide boardwalk around the central cone we see we are not first after all. A small band of Elk has over-nighted here and we have just woken them. Here is the same handsome spike we saw yesterday. We walk slowly and they settle back down. Doug sets up his tripod and I aim my camera at the elk. Disaster strikes - well sort of. My camera stops working. The shutter clicks but does not reset. What do I expect at minus 15? But we both worry that it's my battery. On Doug's specific advice I bought an extra battery for this trip but neglected to bring it with me to Old Faithful! It's still in Doug's car back in West! Doug takes out the little disk and tries warming it in his hands for several minutes, then puts it back in. No change. I try real hard not to kick myself to the point of depression. I resign myself that I'll get no photos today until we get back to West. Then, Old Faithful starts to plop and splash! Wait! It's too early! It's still dark! Ha ha! We are treated to a wonderful eruption, we have it all to ourselves (well except for the elk) but we get no pictures because there isn't any light! We watch it anyway and enjoy it of course. The splashes and hisses and gurgles it makes are all the more amplified when you're the only one there.
Doug suggests I tuck my camera inside my coat to give it a chance to warm up, which I do. After the eruption is finished I suggest we take a short stroll behind the cabin area. I remember a spot above the river that was picturesque in Spring. I find the going a bit tougher than I expected. Although my boots are completely waterproof, the snow is so deep in this area I either have to slog through or lift my feet up high, both of which take three times the effort as walking. It's awful pretty back here, though, away from the crowds, and we are rewarded by many tracks and lovely views of the snowy woods. And now a gorgeous sunrise begins. This is just what we had hoped for except it is fifteen minutes late (or the geyser was 15 minutes early) We head back towards the Lodge but then suddenly the promising sunrise is cut off by geyser fog. The brightening sky is suddenly dulled to grey. The geyser basin disappears before our very eyes, shrouded from view in a steam of its own making. We shake our heads at this unexpected turn of events and head indoors to needed warmth. It takes a good ten minutes to thaw out this morning! We stop by the gift shop to see if there is a battery for my poor sick camera (no) but lo and behold! It starts working again. The battery wasn't dead; the camera was just too darn cold! Doug suggests that I keep it inside my coat for the remainder of the trip. I do just this and have no further trouble.
After a terrific breakfast we check out and now it is time for my first ever ride on a snowmobile. Doug is in front and I get to perch in back. I am wearing my loaded backpack which scrunches me forward, my helmet which scrunches me down, and I have my long-lens camera tucked in my snowsuit, which scrunches my chest. I feel and look plain ridiculous but the fun has just begun. Off we roar (less roar than the two-strokes, mind you) and I am immediately petrified. I never liked riding on the back of a motorcycle (maybe it's because of that time my hippie boyfriend Spence wiped-out with me on the back) although I do admire them. Somehow, in agreeing to this method of transportation, I had convinced myself that a snowmobile would be different. Wrong. I feel immediately vulnerable. Ah yes! I remember that feeling! Aaaaaa! Yet little by little I get used to the way the thing moves. Doug is very kind to accommodate my speed limit wishes and soon all the other snowmobiles are passing us. Doug must feel like an old fogey. I don't think he knew just what comical torture it was for me on that ride. I do laugh about it now. There was no point in complaining too loudly - I had no other way to get back and I had agreed to it without coersion. I just gritted my teeth and thought of Lamar. If only I could JUST STOP THE WIND from FREEZING MY FACE OFF!
We see a group of Bison foraging on a sloping hillside with a solitary tree. Fog fills the background beyond the hill and the tree is thick with rime. The buffalo are thick with rime as well, but in their great buffalo way seem indifferent to the frosting on their faces, their heads, humps, backs and sides. Oh if only I were a buffalo today! Doug and I figure out some signs for slow down or stop and he gets huge points for being a very good driver. I am still having technical difficulties. The wind on my face keeps my glasses un-fogged but freezes my skin. So I alternate. I can't really appreciate the scenery for much of the trip as I am riding blind. The wind finds its way into any improperly covered spot. My right face, neck and chin are freezing as are both my wrists. Even though my gloves overlap the cuffs of my snowsuit it's not tight enough to keep out wind. My feet are starting to go and then even my torso feels chilly. On top of this, the hand warmers don't seem to be working properly either - one side is scalding and the other cold.
We stop fairly often for photos, including at the pretty slanted-light forest I made note of on the way in. Each time we stop I try a new adjustment to minimize my discomfort. I usually solve one problem only to have a new one pop up as soon as we get underway. I finally decide that ALL snowmobilers go through this, that it's part of the rugged aspect of the sport. This philosophy sticks for about 5 minutes. The weather remains sunny and bright but the air continues very cold. By the time we get to the Madison Warming Hut I am SO HAPPY to have a break from this that take a long time sipping hot chocolate (so delicious!) adding a second pair of socks and fishing out my jacket. I wish I had thought of my jacket before. It stops the wind from freezing my wrists. It keeps my torso warm. The hood stops more than half my neck from freezing so now I only have my lower face and chin to deal with and by now I am so adept at pulling one thing up and the other thing down that I nearly feel invincible again.
We take a quick side trip through the Firehole Canyon and get some lovely photos of the falls that I couldn't get on the way in. I notice the elk cow and calf have moved up the canyon and are now above the Falls, still nibbling sweet grass along the river. We are soon on our way again and headed for West. Shortly passed Madison Campground we see our first coyote, mousing by himself on a flat, snow-covered island in the River. We stop and watch a while. Along Riverside Drive I spot a bald eagle in the tip of a tree. We see a second coyote in a field and I am tickled at how easy it seems to be to spot them. A little movement against the snow - it's much easier than against a sage hill!
Back in West we see Carlene again, return the machine and the gear. John joins us and we go back to his house for a quick visit. We trade stories and discuss a few possibilities for his meeting us on Saturday. There is snow in the forecast which they need, badly, but it causes concern about the drive. We leave him with several options and hope for the best.
And now we set off for Bozeman. Doug needs a part for his spotting scope and knows just where to get it in town. Again this part of the drive is stunning and to my delight I have a fair number of animal sightings. First I get another coyote trotting in that cocky way on the far side of he Gallatin. But it's quite close because the river happens to run right next to the road in this section. Later, in a gorgeous narrow valley I see a shape that just has to be...MOOSE! We are past it before I get the word out. I ask Doug to go back. "You won't believe how close" I say. We stop and watch. It is a cow moose, resting under a tree next to a creek. It's a nice silhouette and we both take shots. Just as we are leaving, another car slows down, sees what we see, and stops. We made a moose jam! Doug spots an immature bald eagle in a tree and we get a fourth coyote trotting in a field of sage. We also get a stunning sunset in that Big Montana Sky sort of way, which we stop for as well.
We have great luck in Bozeman, from low traffic to finding a close parking space to finding the part Doug needed in the camera store. We now head east to Livingston as darkness falls. There is some stiff wind through Bozeman Pass and the temperature warms to 55! Once we're off the highway and aim for Yellowstone, though, things become colder and colder. At Emigrant it's down to 20. And then the stars start to peek out. Doug talks about seeing the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter and the Orion nebula. Then, unexpectedly, the moon rises huge and brilliant, full and white and clear. The light bathes in the snow and the snow sends the light back. To see these mountains so sharply etched in moonlight is utter magic. I am again astonished at the surprises that constantly occur in this place. I feel I am about the re-enter the Park in an almost mystical way.
And we do. We pass under the fabled arch and right away I tear up. There are elk resting in a field next to the gate, as plain as day since it is so preposterously bright. Up the winding canyon we go, easily seeing all the nooks and crannies one can see by day. Doug points out the spot in the Gardner River where he spied a carcass and the coyotes on it, and the place where he saw the flock of cedar waxwings.
We arrive up top at the Mammoth Hotel but are so jazzed about where we are and what we have seen that we consider driving right on out to take a look at Lamar. In the end we check in to our rooms, grab the last dinner reservation of the night and have a quick meal. At 8PM we head out for our magical moonlight drive.
It is so eerie, so beautiful and serene. I almost think that driving here this late is somehow verboten, like sneaking inside of the Imperial Palace. Doug drives slowly and I feel like I'm inside a dream. I can see every feature, I can identify animals fifty feet from the road, including some big bull elk just past the Wraith Falls turnout. Doug knew they would be here as he has found them every day for two weeks. But I've never seen them. And yet there they are, clear in the moonlight, great big bulls with huge 5 and 6 point antlers. I count five of them.
I can't believe this is happening. Here I am, getting my first glimpse of my favorite place on earth in this cool, soft, fantastical light. Just below Blacktail Deer Plateau we stop to listen. Doug knows there may be wolves here, the Leopold Pack. He spotted some several days ago. He turns off the car and we sit, windows down, listening, breathing, gazing amazed at the landscape in which we find ourselves. We agree that this is the brightest spot of all. You can see every single mountain peak, every notch and slope, distinguish trees, rocks, and...there's a coyote. There are some elk up there, look they're moving! Oh, back to grazing again. A few more marvelous minutes and we go on. We simply must see Lamar like this. We get another coyote at Phantom Lake. On the slopes beside the Lake I see stark moon shadows cast by the fir trees. They are so bright and distinct they are actually two shades, lighter at the top and darker at the bottom. I have never seen this effect before. We get another coyote at Floating Island Lake. How many is this! I can't keep track!
We make the turn at Tower. All is still. I have seen two more coyotes, trotting right on the road. Then here are the mystical boulders of Little America with soft snow-crowns smoothing their tops. Each boulder is a beacon of light amid the rolling hills. I see elk moving up a ridge and I get the sense that we are disturbing them a little, even though they are well away from the road. I'm sure ours is the only car they have seen in several hours.
As we round the bend at the top of Lamar Canyon and come into the center of my heart's realm, I catch my breath at the fantastic beauty revealed in these broad, soft hills basking in moonglow. But there is still another surprise. A HUGE elk herd is here, on both sides of the road. They are jittery and wary and Doug has to stop several times as they are crossing and re-crossing the road in front of us. Between stops Doug just creeps along. Now this is the ultimate experience of an utterly amazing day. Two humans surrounded by a herd of elk in the moonlight in Lamar, home of the Druid wolves. How they stare at us, wondering what our intentions are. How they mew and bleat, mothers to yearlings and yearlings to mothers. How they stamp and prance and prong and trot quickly this way or that. They are all around us and we are the only ones to see. We listen for any sound of wolves, but it is the elk making all the noise tonight. After several amazing minutes the road clears and Doug continues driving up the valley.
I am dumbstruck and have trouble looking anywhere but straight ahead. Finally I turn and what I see is now etched in my mind forever. I glance to the river and the bench below Specimen Ridge. I see a perfect black and white study of the valley I know so well and know so little. An Ansel Adams original is born right in front of me, this night, under this moon as it will never be again. This dream of a valley that I see even with my waking eyes, glowing in such lovely, clear detail; in white, in grey, in black.
I think neither Doug nor I speak for quite a while. What I remember next is that he says something like "l think we should see at least one buffalo before we head back." I come back to reality somewhere past the Buffalo Ranch. Shortly after this we find three old bulls, shoveling snow with their heavy bearded heads, white with moondrops. They look up with disgruntled, perhaps even accusing stares and let us know that we really ought to be going. Now. Yes, sir, Mr. Buffalo. We turn around.
On the way back Doug stops again as we get to the elk. I listen and try to remember the sound they make so I can repeat it tomorrow. Back through Little America with its spooky grey boulders, and ANOTHER coyote, this one is collared. Across the Yellowstone Bridge and through the hills to Tower. On again through the twists and turns and through forest and burn up to the top and back down the other side of the Plateau. When we reach the spot where we saw the five big bulls, we find they have vanished. I feel almost like I am waking slowly from a dream. The moon is still bright but now a ring appears around it. I don't know what that portends.
What a night! What an incredible way to return to the Park. We sneak into the Mammoth Hotel like criminals, carrying our loot past the front desk. I dump my stuff and collapse, then manage to scribble a few notes that will make no sense in the morning. But l'm here. I'm finally here, back where I've so wanted to be. And my wolf watching adventure has just begun.
Today I saw: 2 bald eagles (one adult and one immature), 10 coyotes, HUNDREDS of Elk, at least a dozen bison, 4 swans (two grey and two white), Ravens, 1 moose and 3 Loons