Although we have lived just west of Yellowstone National Park for eight years now, we have never been into the Park during the winter. Yes, we make an annual trip (or two) - typically fall and spring - but since YNP changed their winter access regulations (which happened, I believe, our second or third winter here) a winter trip has been outside our pocket book's limit. However, this year, due to the low snow conditions, we did not return to Elk Lake as early as normal. This meant we were 'out' to participate in events which typically never cross our radar. As a result, we were able to participate in Kids & Snow - a superb program put together by the West Yellowstone Chamber.
Part of the day's events included, if one so desired, a mini-winter trip into Yellowstone National Park. Granted, it was a few hours, not a full day, but it was fun to see familiar territory in its light but white blanket. So we signed up - loaded up - and headed out. Since we were the only ones interested in the early morning edition, we had the guide and van to ourselves.
I will admit, I was most interested in seeing critters. Granted, Yellowstone's scenery is worth the trip. However, the diversity of wildlife and the thermal features are what make it unique. Since our trip was supposed to end at 7 mile bridge, we knew there would be no thermal features in the package. However, there was a good chance we'd see something! The first to show themselves were a couple pairs of Trumpeter Swans enjoying the Madison's open waters.
We were quite certain to see Bison. I doubt one could visit Yellowstone without seeing Bison unless they drove through with their eyes closed! The elk were an added bonus. While we know this herd winters in the Park, that certainly is no guarantee we'll see them. Unfortunately no big bulls were hanging with these cows and calves.
Next we spotted a coyote. I realize most folks have come to class these guys in the varmit category. However, since I do not have sheep or goats or chickens (or other small stock which they consider fair game), I can enjoy seeing them. This one, however, probably no longer stalks the river's edge looking for rodents. He had a pronounced limp when we saw him.
During this stretch of our journey, we also spotted several ducks. However, bouncing along in a van (the roads were not snow packed but intermittent snow does not exactly produce a smooth surface), did not promote ideal photographic conditions. While our guide was more than willing to stop, I knew our time was limited so saved the 'stop' requests for bigger game - like this muskrat munching on a weed matt.
We spotted this Canadian Goose while looking at the muskrat. He was enjoying a swampy area next to the road. Obviously one of the many warm springs which dot the Park must have kept this spot snow free. Granted I do not usually get excited about a Canadian Goose. But, remember, my goal was to spot wildlife - as many different species as possible. So. . .this guy qualified!
One of the most interesting parts of the trip - seriously - was our guide. Mark Pierce serves as Marketting Directory for Three Bear Lodge (who contributed the guide and van for these sample trips). He's a great guy who treated us like paying guests (not the freeloaders we were). However, I must admit, I had a hard time getting used to a guy with a prominent English accent telling me about my backyard. Nonetheless, he did his job well! In fact, while I am something of a voracious reader, he brought forth some interesting tidbits of which I was unaware. For one - Bison winter feeding habits.
Elk, as a general rule, head for less snowy country in the winter. As primarily grazers, their feed becomes scarce as the snow deepens. Elk which winter in the Park tend to congregate near the rivers. In fact, Mark told us they do not live as long as the animals who leave the Park - not primarily because of the harsher conditions they endure, but because a large portion of their feed comes from plants growing in and along the river's shore. Because the Park's waters contain an increased amount of silica (the primary ingredient in glass), the animals teeth wear down and their mouth's actually sustain damage. This reduces their ability to eat and thus maintain sufficient health to survive.
Moose handle the winter much better. Their uniquely jointed legs allow them to lift their feet nearly straight up. Thus they can handle snow which would severely limit an elk. Furthermore, their diet consists primarily of woody branches - trees and shrubs which are typically not completely buried. Bison, however, had me puzzled. How do these short, stocky creatures move through deeper snow and access adequate feed. It seems those massive heads play a large role. Instead of pawing for snow, Mark said they drop their heads down into the snow and swing them back and forth. Instead of trying to raise their feet above the snow as they walk, their heads serve as a snowplow. Thus it is common to see Bison with snowy faces.
Because our visit was short, wildlife sightings had changed little on our way back. Furthermore, I was on the 'wrong' side of the vehicle for most of the return trip (the water side always has the most wildlife). However, the weather began to change creating some lovely scenery shots. When we'd entered the Park, the clouds hugged the mountain tops and hid the sun. As we retraced ours steps, the sun's rays began to puncture the gloom and highlight the snow sprinkled rocky vistas.
Yes, the snow was pathetically light. In fact, the 'snow coach' we rode in that day was a two-wheel drive van! However, there was enough fresh snow to sparkle and shine on the rocky ridges which lined sections of our route. Mix in blue ski and fading wisps of fog, and you have a pretty picture - no matter how you take it!
Our guide, Mark Pierce, was a genuinely nice guy who did his best to make our trip interesting. In fact, because he had the time, he took us beyond our designated turn-around. In appreciation for his generosity, I told him I'd 'plug' his company. So. . .if you're heading for West and looking for a great trip into the Park, give See Yellowstone a hollar! They sure made our brief trip a TON of fun!
Lady of the Lake