Friday, September 25, 2009

National park memories: Yellowstone

We'll get a good look at our National Parks this fall with the new Ken Burns series for PBS. The National Parks: America’s Best Idea —a six-part, 12-hour film— is scheduled for 8 p.m. slot Sept. 27 through Oct. 2 (check local listings). As a huge fan of our national parks, I'm eager to see the series. I'm sure they'll spend a good deal of time at one of my faves: Yellowstone National Park. The thought has had me combing my memories for some of my best times in Yellowstone.

And while the park gets most of its visitors in summer, I love Yellowstone best in winter. The park's first official winter inspection didn't occur until 1887--15 years after it had been designated a national park. Those first inspectors tramped around for a while on heavy wooden skis, half frozen to death, before turning back and declaring the park unfit for winter visitation.

Indeed, Yellowstone in winter is no picnic: snow swirls, winds can howl, and crowds largely melt away. Except for one northern route, roads are snowed in and you can only enter the heart of the part via snowcat or snowmobile (or, of course, by skis). That's when Yellowstone regains its true wild self.

My first winter visit was probably 30 years ago. Here's how I remember it: From West Yellowstone, I climb into a marginally heated red Bombardier snow coach, equipped with tracks like a tank (and about as comfortable) and we rumble our way into the park. Out frosted windows, I see hissing fumaroles spray clouds into the bitterly cold air.

Along the road's edge, we pass small herds of bison lumbering down into warmer, wind- sheltered valleys for food and warmth. The journey takes a couple of hours, including stops alongside the pewter, ice-flecked Yellowstone River to watch trumpeter swans and the occasional elk, looking majestic with a spreading rack of antlers, pawing through the snow to munch on grass below. When we turn the engine off, I stand before a forest glittering with ice, and wrapped in a thick blanket of snow. The silence is so deep, and the sense of alone-ness so complete, it's almost frightening.

Arriving at Old Faithful, I find the geyser still does its thing, just as in summer, but it explodes above a smaller crowd, one swathed in helmets and snowmobile suits, fresh off their ski-dos. The main access to the rest of the hissing stars of Lower Geyser Basin is by snowshoe or cross-country skis. And there, with a bit of effort, I can watch the geyser show in relative solitude. I love lesser-known Castle Geyser, wreathed in mounds of snow and steam, with its white cone continually reformed by hot blobs of mud that erupt like burps. I stand for a while and listen: the geyser almost seems to breathe, as each exhalation adds another crust of ice to the silvery branches of overhanging trees.

I step gingerly toward a steaming, algae-and mineral-tinted pool, edged in hot pink and mustard yellow, with an aqua blue center (kind of like an alien eyeball). Then I remember stories of foolish tourists fallen into the pool and a horrible, boiling death. One wrong step off the snow-packed trail could lead to trouble, so I step carefully back to the snowy path and stick to it.

As I ski along the loop trail, I pass more small geysers and odd steaming formations before swinging around back to the trailhead. The Old Faithful Inn looms into view, shuttered for the season, yet still grand, it's dark wooden roofs and lacy balconies mantled in snow. I'm snapping out of my skis, ready to walk the rest of the way back to the Snow Lodge, when I catch a shadow out of the corner of my eye. Then, it moves.

Here, less that 50 yards from the side door to my lodge and 'civilization', is a furry, dark brown bison. I freeze. He seems almost as big as the snowcoach I rode in on, and certainly as terrifyingly powerful. His liquid brown eye, fringed in long lashes, locks with my eyes, as if in a game of who-blinks-first.

Then he snorts, and slowly crosses the trail in front of me and shuffles down into the basin, as I slowly exhale. Wild, man.

Details: It's a perfect time to plan a winter trip to Yellowstone National Park, a great family destination. The park service offers a handy trip-planner, click here. To book your lodging with the park concessionaire, Xanterra, click here. Or just watch the live geyser-cam showing you Old Faithful.

1 comment:

newnorth said...

I hope I get a chance to see Yellowstone on the winter! I worked at the Tetons for the GTLC for the summer in 08 and I really want to work at more parks.

I have a degree in architecture but I really want to travel and I'm trying to figure out the best way to do that more then working in the food and beverage. Hopefully I will figure it out. Otherwise I'll probably end up a fry cook.

 
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