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Wolves, Wilds and Winter

Yellowstone Winter Programs Offer Throng-free
Views of the Geothermal Park and its Animals

by
Dan Leeth

            At a roadside pullout, a group of us gaze through high-powered spotting scopes.  Minutes before, we had glimpsed two wolves from the Agate pack high on a snow-plastered ridge to the north.  Now, three of their rivals have appeared on the hillside to the south.  They stand a few hundred yards away.

            "The dark one is a Slough Creek male," naturalist MacNeil Lyons whispers, referring to its birth pack.  "The other two are females from the Druids."

            I have a tan one named High Sides centered in my scope when I hear faint howls echo from the north.  My subject looks up, then tilts her head skyward.  Her mouth opens, and a cloud of hot canine breath escapes.  A second later, her sirenic cry reaches those of us a thousand feet away on the road below.

            The wolf lowers her head and glares toward her cross-valley adversaries.  In her piercing yellow eyes, I see the very essence of wildness.

            My wife and I have come to Yellowstone National Park in January to celebrate one of those downhill-from-here significant birthdays.  To maximize learning and minimize hassles, we opted for a six-day "Winter in Wonderland," package.

            "You'll get a comprehensive overview of Yellowstone along with a little skiing and wildlife watching," Rich Hoeninghausen of Xanterra, the park's major concessionaire, assured us.  "We build our lodging and learning programs around experiences."

            The adventure begins at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, the park's only car accessible accommodations open in winter.  At a Monday evening gathering, we meet three fellow participants and MacNeil, our Yellowstone Association Institute guide.MacNeil Lyons

            "I want you to see this country through the eyes of a naturalist," he tells us.  "Look at the landscape.  Look at the wildlife.  Look at the habitat.  You'll gain a better understanding of the interconnectedness, and you'll go home with better memories." 

            In addition to dozens of bison, elk, coyotes and eagles, Tuesday's remembrance material includes the spotting of over a dozen wolves.  Fifteen years ago, we would have seen nary a one.

            Already suffering a bad reputation for dining on fairytale grandmothers, the king of the canine's ability to devour 20 pounds of elk or perhaps an occasional cow in one feeding garnered wolves many local enemies.  The last indigenous Yellowstone pack was exterminated in 1926.  It took seven decades, but a dozen gray wolves were reintroduced to the park in 1995.  By the end of 2008, Yellowstone boasted no less than 124 animals in 12 packs.

            Lamar ValleyNow, a decade and a half later, wolf watching has become a communal sport in the Lamar Valley along the park's only snowplowed road.  Researchers like Rick McIntyre carry antennas to pick up signals from the radio-collared critters.  Wherever his yellow Xterra sits parked, one finds a bevy of camera-toting "puparazzi."

            We spot McIntyre's Xterra and more wolves Wednesday morning before departing on a five-mile ski tour to Tower Falls.  By Yellowstone winter standards, temperatures are moderate, which means spit doesn't freeze before it hits the ground.

            Cross Country SkiersIt feels good to glide through the forest, smelling pine and fir.  The only obstacles we encounter en route are two trailside bison grazing in belly-deep drifts.  Rather than use their legs like elk to uncover buried grasses, these brutes shovel snow away with their wooly faces.  When they look up, it appears they've been hit with cream pies.

            While wolves may be the villains of fairytales, the most dangerous animal in the park, MacNeil tells us, is the bison.  On average, he says, four folks get gored every year.

            "Look at its tail.  If it's at a stiff 90 degree angle, the animal's going to do one of two things – charge or discharge.  In either case, you don't want to be in the way."  We slip by without a tail-raising experience.

            At trail's end we walk down to Tower Falls where the creek has frozen into a 132-foot-tall, cryogenic blue and white Popsicle.  Yellowstone, MacNeil jokes, is nine months of winter and three months of tourists.  Today, we share the place with four snowshoers and two other skiers.  The result is a feeling of peace and serenity.Tower Falls

            On Thursday, a four-wheel-drive van equipped with rubber tank-like tracks instead of tires carries us deep into the park's interior.  The fumarole-ladened hillside of Roaring Mountain rumbles softly in snow-muffled quietude, and the boardwalk trails of Norris Geyser Basin beckon with nary another soul around.  Along the Madison River, trumpeter swans swim in an unfrozen flow.  A coyote walks the road ahead, occasionally glancing back at the yellow behemoth tracking him.  Beyond, elk graze by the riverside and bison crouch in a snow-covered meadow, their white faces and bodies making them look like ghostly apparitions.

            Late in the afternoon, we reach Old Faithful Snow Lodge.  Unlike the historic Old Faithful Inn and Old Faithful Lodge, which are summer-only facilities, the 1998-vintage Old Faithful Snow Lodge is the only winter lodging in the park's interior.

            A short snowcoach drive the next morning takes us to the trailhead for Lone Star Geyser, a feature named neither for the state nor the beer.  Instead, the moniker comes from its lonely location.

            Lone Star erupts roughly every three hours, and with lottery-winning luck, we arrive just as water and steam begin shooting from its cone with the sound of a hissing steam iron.  After the lunchtime floorshow, it's back to the van.

            That afternoon, MacNeil offers an optional tour through Old Faithful's Upper Geyser Basin where the charred trunks from Yellowstone's devastating 1988 forest fires still poke from the snow.  Their young replacements now stand 15-20 feet high.

            "Lodgepole pines have serotinous cones," explains MacNeil.  "That means they have a resin on the outside.  Place a flame underneath and the resin melts off.   Fire may torch the parent tree, but some of those cones will lose their resin in the flames.  The cone then opens up and disperses thousands of seeds."

            Snow LodgeAfter dark, with a full moon illuminating the landscape, I bundle up for a short sub-zero stroll.  Not far from the lodge, I hear wolf howls.  In the midst of a Yellowstone winter, I may be mere steps from luxurious warmth, but I'm still surrounded by that same essence of wildness.

            After breakfast, we board our snowcoach for the grand return north.  The first stop is West Thumb Geyser Basin where we walk a snow-covered boardwalk beside Yellowstone Lake.  From there, the snow-packed roadway heads north through old-growth forest to Fishing Bridge on the lake's northern shore.  Here, empty shoreline benches look out onto a vacant landscape of gray and white.  We share the off-season emptiness area with groups of snowmobilers.

            While the controversial machines are allowed in the park, they are now heavily regulated.  Snowmobiles must have state-of-the-art four-stroke engines, groups must be led by commercial guides, travel is limited to designated roadways, speeds are controlled and numbers limited.Yellowstone Falls

            At the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, short walks lead to rim-edge views of the river's famed upper and lower falls.  Both appear as slushy veils of bridal white.  Mist from the tumbling water condenses into artificial snow, forming ski-worthy domes at the base of the falls.

            Back at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, my credit card-wielding wife offers to buy me a wolf for my birthday – a stuffed one, anyway.  We head to the gift shop to see what's available.

            "I appreciate the thought, but these look cuddly, not cunning.  Even Little Red Riding Hood couldn't find wildness in these guys," I tell her.  "Why don't you just buy me 20 pounds of elk tenderloin for dinner instead?"