Yellowstone Christmas April 20, 2020
Photos and text by Dave Parsons
December 21, 2019
Starting late in the morning, I drove my bulky cargo van all day through heavy cross winds over 700 miles from Denver through windy Wyoming past herds of pronghorn and the occasional bald and golden eagle perched on a fence post. I forgot my ice scraper, so I picked up a good solid one at Walgreens in Casper.
At dusk before it got too dark, I pulled my single burner backpacker stove out from under my bunk and cooked up dinner off the I-90 highway in the small town parking lot of Garryowen near the Little Bighorn Battlefield. The hot mash potatoes and black bean soup were tasty and gave me more energy for my northern migration. Driving in the dark listening to a Western audio book, I continued past the massive glowing oil and gas refineries in Billings past sleepy Livingston, Montana and parked the van in the dark on a dirt road pullout near the Gallatin National Forest outside Yellowstone. Covering the windows, the thermometer read over 40º, so I used just a down blanket to sleep that night in the van.
December 22, 2019
Passing through Gardiner, Montana at 6:30 am I drove past the old stone Roosevelt Arch and arrived at the North entrance of Yellowstone National Park early in the morning with just enough light to see, a perfect time for looking for wolves. Amazingly, the temperature was still the 40s but quickly dropped as I reached the wildlife haven of the Lamar Valley at sunrise. Huge herds of shaggy, steaming bison were grazing in the sunny river valley and on the shaded hillsides pushing the snow to the sides with their massive hairy heads. Looking carefully at mountain ridges, open fields and valley tree lines, no wolves were to be seen, so I continued on.
Driving past the rotten egg smelling Soda Butte Cone, I soon found a trio of moose bedded down in the willows relaxing along Soda Butte Creek in Round Prairie Valley near the Northeast Entrance Road. I parked at Pebble Creek parking area, put on a thick down coat and pulled out my camera and tripod. I stood next the road in the snow watched them for twenty minutes or so taking a few occasional photos. They looked pretty comfortable bedded down so I headed back to the parking area. More and more people were lined up watching them from the road and soon something spooked the big bull moose with the sow and calf and they quickly moved through the willows down the snowy creek.
I jumped into the van and drove into a open area with great visibility and parked at a road side pull out. Their dark heads bobbed in and out of the shrubs until finally the big bull moose with his massive rack came trotting out of the wall of willows along the creek with the female and calf in tow. Moving cautiously, the family changed direction about a hundred yards away and headed towards my direction at the side of the road. With long legs and snow flying, the big male with massive antlers and steam blowing through his wide open nostrils kicked up powder and snow chunks as he headed right towards me. Standing in front of the van, I had my big 500mm lens on the tripod and was panning the camera quickly to try and keep up with him while he crossed the meadow. I was shooting photos continuously while rotating the camera between vertical and horizontal.
As he got closer I moved behind the hood of the van. He continued to eye me cautiously while trotting a dozen yards out in front of me. The scene made me think of the clydesdale horse beer commercial as the moose family ran through the snow in slow motion with powder flying through the air. I was in awe as the massive bull plowed through the deep snow effortlessly while the female and calf caught up and together the trio made their way into the thick pine forest on the other side of the road. I just watched them walk through the deep snow, through the tall willows and march up a steep hill into the thick cover of pine trees. Wow, what a thrill!
Heading west, I wandered back down to the Lamar Valley where I was able to watch a large herd of bighorn at the confluence of the Lamar River and Soda Butte Creek with the striated Mount Norris in the distance. They all had on thick winter coats as the ewes and young with their short, stout horns walked in a group with the males carrying their large rippled and curling horns grazed on dry tufts of tall yellow grass in melted snow patches on the steep hillside.
Not wanting to drive all day, I skipped back to Pebble Creek for more exploration and exercise. The sun came out and I loaded up lunch and a lightweight camera in my fanny pack. Now into the 30’s the temperature was warm for winter hiking. Walking along a snow packed trail through the ponderosa pines, the canyon walls closed in quickly with tall stone cliffs on both sides of a gurgling creek. Keeping my eyes open for owls I wandered through a winter wonderland with snow covered fallen trees leaning over the creek and boulder encrusted cliffs with hidden alcoves.
The temperature was dropping and the sky was changing color as I migrated out of the national park towards Silver Gate. There was no Yellowstone campground open on this end of the park and rangers always patrolled the turnouts and parking lots to kick out any unlucky visitor ‘camping’ in the middle of the night. Past the Northeast entrance, I searched for a quieter place to park overnight and almost got stuck while driving on tiny snow filled roads. Once again, I ended up at my old pull out in the National Forest near the highway. A good night for a movie, I reminisced with ‘Indiana Jones - Raiders of the Lost Ark’ after consuming dried vegetables, mash potatoes and black bean noodle soup for dinner.
December 23, 2019
The thermometer read 5º farenheight in the morning while sleeping in the uninsulated van at 8500 feet in elevation at Silver Gate. My -20º sleeping bag was very nice and toasty as frost clinged to the metal ceiling glistening in my headlamp light. An amazingly clear sky with the Milky Way and bright stars overhead filled the sky and silhouetted the surrounding Absaroka mountains. I used my new scraper to clean the ice and snow off the windshield and drove into the park in the dark with bright headlights shining on the tree trunks and snow piled on the edge of the road. After my banana and a warm breakfast of berries with maple and brown sugar oatmeal, I walked around the Pebble Creek area for a while looking for tracks, doing jumping jacks and quick sprints through the snow to warm up. No moose were by the creek this morning, but as it got brighter, low sunlight started to glisten like diamonds on the fresh snow crystals covering the pine trees and open meadows.
A pair of coyotes called out to one another across the Lamer. I watched and listened for quite a while as one was bedded down along the edge of the river and the other was about a quarter a mile away hunting and pouncing on voles or mice. They kept an eye on each other as they moved further apart and occasionally, in their piercing howls and yips announced their locations to each other.
Still, there were no wolves in sight, so I drove on past the masses of distant bison and headed over the pass to the Slough Creek Valley. I drifted past the fields of massive boulders of glacial erratics and cruised over the tall bridge with the fragrant smell of sulphur flowing from the tumbling Yellowstone River underneath.
Dodging cow patties, rather, bison patties on the icy bridge, I moved on towards the ranger station at Tower Junction and then to the open vistas of the Blacktail Plateau. Lots of bull elk with large, sharp racks and small groups of munching female elk were spread out over the plateau surrounded by majestic mountains. Using binoculars I scanned for movement and lazily watched the elk. It looked like a slow day, there were no wolves in the Lamar and none had been seen by the numerous human spotters, so, I headed back eastwards to get some exercise and snowshoe among the boulders below Specimen Ridge.
With the temperature a balmy 20º and sunny, I strapped on the snowshoes and squeaked through the fresh powder. There were lots of tracks in the snow. Wolf tracks were frozen in the ice along Crystal Creek near a log and twig covered beaver dam and lodge. Dozens of pointed tree trunks cut by toothy beavers stuck out of the snow like dangerous spears. Tons of elk and bison tracks meandered through leafless aspen, willows and fallen tree trunks as another coyote trotted by, meandering through the sagebrush covered meadows.
Brushing off the snow, I hopped onto a comfy boulder with a wonderful mountain view for lunch. After eating a bean burrito, PJ sandwich, apple and orange, the weather was still sunny, so I headed out onto a nearby snow covered dirt road. I hiked along Slough Creek with tons of crisscrossing and hopping mice tracks only to have one suddenly pop up out of the snow and run across the road through a cross country ski track and dive into the base of a sagebrush. After exhausting myself snowshoeing I headed back to Pebble Creek for dinner and then the drive out of the park to Silver Gate for round two with ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple Of Doom.’
December 24, 2019
A warmer 14º this morning on Christmas Eve. I started the van, scraped the windshield and plugged in my ‘Roadpro Smart Car Pot’ and warmed up some water for oatmeal while I drove down to my Pebble Creek pit stop. With my headlamp lighting the way through the sparkling snow, I made my way to the pit toilet. After sitting down on the ‘oh so comfortable’ freezing plastic throne, I kept my headlamp on only to see a beady-eyed, cute and tiny mouse poke his head through the corner of the door jam. He shuffled around twitching his nose and started to shuffle towards my boot. I moved it slightly and he zipped right out the same corner he came in. There is nothing like close wildlife encounters!
I finished breakfast, did my exercises and tracking exploration and continued my search for wolves. Wandering slowly down the road I looked again for the moose trio. This time, the female with her calf were nibbling off the tips of the willows by the creek. Snow was falling heavily now and the sun still had not come up as I watched the pair wander and nibble. The creek gurgled under the ice as the wind gently blew through the pine trees.
Now brighter, the overcast and snowing Lamar Valley opened up with Soda Butte Cone coming into view. Humans and their vehicles lined the pullouts in front of the Butte - the human spotters had found something. Their spotting scopes on tripods were lined up in front of their vehicles pointing towards the Soda Butte Creek, so I slowly proceeded while looking into the river valley. Sure enough, there were ravens and eagles flying around and perching on a dead tree in the creek - a sure sign of a wolf kill.
I parked in the next pull out about a quarter of mile away from the mass of humanity. Carrying my camera gear I walked down the side of the road. I set up my tripod with a view through the hills to the river bottom. Snapping the 500mm onto the tripod I saw a pair of what looked like wolves through the heavy falling snow. I locked my 2x teleconverter in between the camera and 500mm. More clearly now, I could see two coyotes tugging on the carcass with ribs poking out of the snow as magpies, ravens, golden and bald eagles stood nearby. The wolf or wolves must of left the kill at first light. I watched the tug of war continue as the snow fell.
After waiting and watching for any sign of wolves for much of the morning I later questioned the wolf biologists monitoring the kill. One female wolf with another wolf were seen on the wooded hillside above the carcass when it was much darker. In the excitement a visitor vocalized loudly and scared off the pair from the carcass and then the coyotes moved in. No comment about noisy humans.
Once off the kill, a single shy wolf or a pair of shy wolves would most likely wait till dusk to feed again. Had a pack of wolves made the kill, they surely would not tolerate any coyote feeding on their hard earned carcass. So I continued down into the Lamar.
Once again, at the confluence of the rivers, the bighorn were bedded down under a ponderosa pine tree on the hillside. As for predators, it seemed with so few wolves in the Lamar, the coyotes had the valley to themselves. The same pair of coyotes roamed nearby as tourists stopped in the middle of the road blocking traffic to take pictures with vehicles lined behind them.
As the Lamar River meandered close to the road I pulled over next to a couple of other vehicles at a popular place to look for river otters. Looking through binoculars I scanned the icy scene. With surprise, I saw an otter off to the left zip out of view near a log in the ice. Then another head or the same head popped up through the ice further away. Then another head on the other side of the river. Like whack a mole, the otter head or heads kept popping up. Where the rapids prevented ice from forming a pair of otters slithered down stream and out of view.
Just down the road, numerous coyotes wandered the wide valley and I watched them hunt, probe the snow with their long noses and pounce on tiny prey.
Now into the afternoon I rolled back towards Soda Butte and parked in the same place I had in the morning. I hiked out to a clear overlook of the river carcass and set up the camera gear. Surrounded by sagebrush, I sat down on a foam mat in the snow and watched the scavengers decimate the dead elk. Eagles hopped and flew past the carcass chasing each other as coyotes yanked off pieces of meat. Ravens, eagles and magpies perched on tree branches like Christmas ornaments.
Windy snow storms delivered blizzard conditions and then cleared suddenly with the sun breaking through the clouds. For hours this went on, being pelted by giant snow flakes and then melting in the sun. But still, no wolves. It was finally too dark to see, so I made for Pebble and dinner.
After eating and on the way out of the park the icy roads had found another victim. Lying at an odd angle on the side of the road with his lights still flashing and the hood plowed into a pile of snow, a big 4x4 with a camper top had discovered the ditch and how not to drive on icy roads. Nobody was in the drivers seat or standing nearby as I looked to see if everybody was ok. Continuing to drive cautiously in my rear, two wheel drive cargo van, a tow truck came zooming by in the opposite direction. Later that night it was ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade on the nine inch tele!’
December 25, 2019
No stars this morning. Clouds blocked the Milky Way as a gentle snow drifted down in the brisk 19º air. On this white Christmas morning the carcass was picked clean and nothing but bones remained leaving only a few scavenging birds. I continued past stinky butte and into the Lamar Valley.
Ah-oh, more people, this time, in busses. The group was pulled over near the Lamar River. I quickly found a spot and joined the crowd looking into the river. Swimming and popping up onto the icy bank was the pair of mischievous river otters. They would swim under water only to pop up yards away from where you were looking. I moved away from the crowd and found one of the otters on the ice rubbing and squirming all over the place. I held the shutter button down and the camera mirror sounded like a quiet machine gun. He held up his cute paws as if to say ‘look at me’ as he rubbed his backside on the ice. I watched the otters tumble and slide through the rapids as they eventually disappeared into the icy winter land. Walking along the snowy edge of the river, I found their scat, tracks and what looked to be a possible den.
Getting low on gas, I drove west towards the small entrance town of Gardiner in search of wolves. On the way there I could quiz the wolf spotters about any sightings, plus gas was much cheaper there and I could wash my severe hat hair in the cold water sink at the Mammoth Hot Springs campground. You can’t use soap, even biodegradable in any of the bathing hot springs by the way.
Climbing the steep hill up to Mammoth I slowed down as a coyote neared the road. He dove head first into the snow and pulled up a tiny gray critter with a little tail, crunched a few times and gulped it down. By now the rear wheel drive was spinning out and I rolled to the opposite lane for better traction. Of course at that moment, police lights were blinking wildly in the rearview mirror. Still sliding sideways in the oncoming traffic lane I had to put it in reverse and force the park ranger to back up too. Finally the van got traction and I pulled into the right lane to crawl up the top of the hill with spinning wheels where I soon pulled over and rolled the window down. The uniformed ranger strode up to my door ’license please.’ He took my ID back to his car computer and returned after a few minutes. At least he realized I was sliding on the ice. He gave back my license and let me continue without incident, only suggesting I drive the road after it melted a bit more - thanks for the heads up - Merry Christmas!
Warning me of ‘tire pressure’ an idiot light flashed in red on the dashboard. Everything was closed in Gardiner except the gas pumps. Unfortunately, the station’s air compressor was ‘out of order’ - figures. With gas filled up and clean hair, I called the wife and family to wish them a Merry Christmas and tell them about the moose and otters while neglecting to tell them about the park ranger ice incident.
Climbing many more icy hills, I made my way back towards the Blacktail Plateau. I passed through the gravelly s-turns and crested the hill to see a line of spotting scopes with bundled up Michelin men people standing behind them - a good sign. Harassing a big bull elk, a pack of wolves moved in and out of the trees like ghosts as the elk stood his ground. They eventually got bored and bedded down while some yearlings peeled off from the adults and wandered through the snowy meadows. Talking to the bundled spotters, I learned this could be the ‘Eight Mile Pack’ with five black wolves and one gray in view.
With friendly permission, I watched through their spotting scopes as the wolves trotted around, chased each other, wandered over the hills and disappeared into the trees. It was a relief to actually see real wolves running through the wild. For some diehard wolf spotters this was an annual Christmas event. According to one spotter, after years of attending, ‘There has never been a year when we haven’t seen wolves on Christmas Day!’
It was a noisy scene there in the icy parking lot with numerous people talking. Spotters were describing what each wolf was doing; the current status of the bull elk, where an eagle flew and what pack this possibly was. Radio chatter and static interrupted conversations as park volunteers and spotters described the current wolf status to the dedicated wolf biologists who drove the road daily to track the movements and behaviors of the various packs. Visitors, photographers and tourists drove in and out of the parking lot or shuffled around asking the same questions over and over to the spotters. ‘What are you seeing - wolves? How many? Really!? Can I see?’
After watching and listening for a while, the racket became too much. If I wanted to hear the wolves, I had to get away. Moving the van across the street to a trailhead parking lot I strapped on the snowshoes, put the tripod and camera gear on my back and found a trail through the deep snow and sagebrush.
Heading up a steep ridge line, I warmed up quickly. I removed and repacked my layers of down coat and fleece as the wind and snow whipped across my face. Reaching the crest of a windblown hill, I shuffled across pumice and rhyolite rocks and pebbles poking out of snow. Weathered windblown whitebark pine trees lined the 7300 foot high ridge while colorful neon green lichens was splattered on boulders and fallen trees in the vast mountain wilderness.
Gaining the top of the ridge, I looked out over the entire Blacktail Plateau with the 10,000 foot high Gallatin Mountain Range in the distance. Only a few other distant travelers were enjoying the wilderness solitude of snowshoeing or cross country skiing.
Leaving trails in the snow, large herds of bison meandered around groups of sturdy bull elk and their harems of females and young. Snowy meadows dominated the view with pine forests dotting the valley and ridge lines. The entire plateau was surrounded by snow covered mountains close and distant. I felt like I had gone back in time to the last ice age.
Setting up the tripod and long lens, I sat in my ‘Crazy Creek’ recliner and soaked in the wild until the sunlight started to dim. The wolves had disappeared, but the quiet was magnificent. Occasional ravens and magpies drifted by with a swoosh of wingbeats and vocalizations. The wind whispered through the pine trees as a clark’s nutcracker picked up nuts around the base of a whitebark pine. My stomach grumbled.
The temperature started dropping like a lead weight and the wind and snow picked up. It was time to head back to my metal shelter.
The wolves were back in view as a single spotter remained in the parking lot. We both watched quietly as the pack mobilized and trotted down a ridge line and out of view. It was almost dark and time for food. What a white Christmas!
9º F was reading on the thermometer as frost crystals covering willows and pine trees glistened in the headlights. I passed through the Lamar Valley as the bighorn sheep once again grazed on the hillside. Coyotes were everywhere along the road. Not wanting to experience the circus of the previous day at the Blacktail Deer Plateau, I drove directly to the trailhead.
I parked and walked across the street where the single spotter from the previous night had arrived at first light. He told me the wolf pack had made a elk kill during the night. Excited, looking through his scope, I narrowed down their distant location. The pack was lying down between some dead trees, one of which held a perching bald eagle. I prepared to climb.
Loading up lunch and the gear, I dressed for snowshoeing uphill, packing the heavy coat. Changing directions from the previous day, I headed to a more direct overlook where the wolves had made their kill. Breaking trail in the deep snow was much more work, but as I got to the crest of the first hill I could finally hear the call of the wolves. Distant howling from the entire pack drifted by as the wind gently blew. Individual voices would drop in and out as they continued. The sound was primal and timeless. I stood still and absorbed the moment. No matter how many times I hear wolves, It’s always a thrill.
Over a half mile away, I explored up and down numerous hills to find the best viewpoint. Trying not to drop anything in the snow with my cold fingers, I set up shop against a large glacial boulder. Promptly, one of my cameras rolled into the snow. I scooped the snow out of the lens shade and dug through numerous pockets to find my lens cleaning cloth. Now cold, I threw on my heavy down coat and watched the wolves sleep. For hours.
The kill site was not in view, but once again plenty of scavengers were adorning the nearby trees. Throughout the entire day, the pack would sleep, wander into the gully where the carcass was located, chase a bird, play a bit, wander a bit more and basically lounge around the refrigerator. I took the occasional picture and explored more on the plateau and eventually hiked back to the van for more food. It was nice to spend a day hanging out in ice age Yellowstone, with one of the most complete ecosystems in the world.
At dusk, I headed back to the Lamar to watch the sunset clouds over the snowy Absaroka Mountains and eat dinner at a quiet spot. Traffic and people were getting more numerous and by default, worse. It was a weekend on a holiday. Time to leave
December 27, 2019
Last night was sleepless as more traffic than usual roared by at all hours. Groggily, I found my headlamp, crawled out of my warm, downy worm, put on freezing clothes and down booties, started the van and plugged in the water. I figured, why pay for a hotel next to a highway when I can enjoy my own comfortable bed and not lug luggage. Who needs heat or a shower?
Banana, maple and brown sugar oatmeal with berries and raisins consumed, I said goodbye to the pit toilet mouse and rolled out of the Pebble Creek parking lot. The big bull moose was munching willows as my headlights passed over him. With the heat cranked and my tire pressure light on, I drove through the wonderful Lamar, then Slough and past the distant wolves still on the Blacktail. As the sun warmed Mammoth, I located the spot I left on my audio book and rolled home after another great Yellowstone trip!