Encounters in Yellowstone

I never enjoy hearing that alarm go off at 4 AM in Cooke City, but I have learned to treasure this morning. It is the moment when our group is finally tied together-- in the way many groups are united-- by a common uncomfortable experience. My travelers have to finally ante up. Up to this point, they have just had to climb into the vehicles and let us whisk them away to amazing places in (generally) total comfort. But this morning is when folks face the facts that wolf watching is never easy. No matter how fresh the fruit, how experienced the guides, or how nice the equipment, there is no way to get around the reality that the best experiences in this ecosystem happen at first light, if they happen at all. Discomfort is required.

I like getting to breakfast early to watch the group arrive over a cup of tea. Many folks stumble into the dim café, sit down next to the fireplace, and quietly look down at their cup of coffee, groggily sipping away. Others come in with their guns drawn, hollering about the snowmobilers ripping down main street at 3 in the morning. Others arrive in a bewildered and disheveled haze, clearly not having woken up this early in years. The most straitlaced traveler lets his guard down a bit, arriving in purple sweatpants and eating his bacon with his hands. Everything smells like coffee and blueberry pancakes. There is a blizzard outside that has to be navigated in the darkness to get to the restaurant from the hotel a hundred yards away.

As we rounded the corner, I looked to the right to respond to a traveler sitting in my passenger seat, and noticed sheep feet whiz by on the cliff edge just out the window. I screeched to a halt and reversed, and we were able to spend half an hour enjoying this big ram enjoying some dead grasses growing between rocky outcrops. The deep cut bands in the horn indicate the age of the sheep. The horns grow year-round, but much more slowly in the winter because of the poor forage quality. Each of the prominent bands represents one winter that this sheep has survived.

Our naturalist friend Dan Hartman has these inquisitive pine martens living around his cozy log cabin. A world-class naturalist of an endangered breed, Dan invites us into his home to share stories and cookies with us. Occasionally, one of these beautiful martens appears just outside the living room window to listen in on Dan's tales.

When the temperature drops, steam explodes from Yellowstone's thermal features. A frosty morning along the Firehole River. Many of Yellowstone's largest hot springs and geysers drain into this river, keeping it open all winter long. Bison congregate along the riverbank to forage on exposed vegetation right along the shore. Every winter morning in Yellowstone feels like the first time that humans have witnessed this magic place.

In the summer, as many as 5,000 people might congregate along the boardwalks to watch each eruption of Old Faithful. This night, there were four of us. All alone, we could hear the water gurgling inside the geyser cone and feel the water blasting into the sky. The steam froze instantly and geyser snow fell on our noses.

After a cold, misty morning, every branch is coated in ice, turning this burned skeleton forest into a crystal chandelier. It is often after the most unbearable weather that we are rewarded with nature's most beautiful shows.

Alpenglow on the Tetons reminds me to appreciate this view each time I pass by. The burst of color lasts only a minute. This show precedes every clear sunrise, making sure that I never regret waking up in the dark in this valley.

Trumpeter Swans fly north to Yellowstone to access the rivers and streams kept open by the influx of geothermal waters. After a long bath and preening session, this swan extends his wings to ensure that his feathers are aligned just so. This bird, once threatened with extinction due to feather trade overharvest, was rediscovered and recovered in the Yellowstone Ecosystem. This region is now one of the best places in the country to see this magnificent bird.

I go outside and shovel a foot of snow off the roof of the vehicle. Then I figure out which of the four gas pumps in town will turn on that morning. I need four-wheel drive just to make a turn around the pump without sliding into the dozen snowmobiles lined up next to the service garage. The only lights in town are coming from the Sinclair gas sign, the inside of our cozy restaurant, and a streetlight down the road illuminating a dog and nothing else of importance.

My anxiety builds alongside the group’s. You can be in the right place (Yellowstone’s northern reaches), at the right time (before first light), with every possible controllable variable under control. Then all you can do is hope. You’ve flown in from New York or New Zealand, paid a thousand dollars or a million, been motivated by mere curiosity or by a lifetime dream to see a wolf in the wild, but the animals are the great equalizers. They will show up or they won’t. At some point, between bites of muffin or sips of coffee, this realization gradually materializes in every traveler, and we roll out of Cooke City, unified, into the first glow of dawn.