Winter AT Yellowstone Natural pleasures: A four-day snow ecology course showcases the park's exquisite -- and quiet -- beauty

November 26, 1995|By Nancy Shute | Nancy Shute,UNIVERSAL PRESS SYNDICATE

I stepped out of my tent one midnight in the middle of Yellowstone National Park, bracing myself for the sharp slap of a cold February night. But the falling snow felt soft, as if a thousand goose-down pillows were being shaken loose far above. I pulled off my cap and let the tiny crystals kiss my cheeks and eyelids as they melted.

My fellow travelers were asleep in their warm tents; the park was mine. I strained to hear the Upper Falls a mile away, but the air was silent save for the almost imperceptible murmur of falling snow, sifting another foot onto Yellowstone's 20-foot-deep winter blanket.

This was Yellowstone as I'd never experienced it before: no crowds, no commotion, no RVs queuing up to see the grizzly bears as if at a drive-in zoo. Instead, I had thousands of acres of geysers and bison and elk and stately spruce and fir, laid out for me on a snowy tableau that turned the tiniest fumarole or most furtive transit of a pine marten into a drama.

"Yellowstone is large in summer and small in winter," said Steven Fuller, a photographer who has spent the past 23 winters in Yellowstone as a "winterkeeper."

"In winter," he said, "the animals are driven into a few concentrations, mostly along the thermal areas and catch basins. One of the pleasures for visitors is the chance to see large concentrations of animals up close and accessible. And the geothermals really come into their own."

Seven of us had come to see for ourselves, on a four-day snow ecology course offered by the Yellowstone Institute, a nonprofit foundation. We were provided with expert instructors and accommodations at Yellowstone Expeditions' yurt camp at the Canyon area, the only place to stay deep within the park short of skiing in with a backpack, no easy matter at 40 below zero.

Arden Bailey, owner of Yellowstone Expeditions, had met us at Mammoth Hot Springs with his "snow coach," a van mounted on tracks. This was far better than using snow machines, cousins to the snowmobiles that have become so prevalent that on some weekends more than 1,000 of them converge on Old Faithful, generating noise and pollution worse than even summer's onslaught of humanity.

Mr. Bailey spent his first winter in Yellowstone in 1979, and, like Mr. Fuller, has never quite left. Now he works as a research geologist in the summer and in winter runs the yurt camp, serving as backcountry guide, chef and dishwasher.

His greasy coveralls and thickly callused hands were testament to the fact that keeping snow coaches and a backcountry tourist camp running through a Yellowstone winter is no light labor.

During the two-hour snow-coach ride south from Mammoth to Canyon, Mr. Bailey and Don Nelson, director of the Yellowstone Institute and our snow ecology instructor, talked familiarly about Yellowstone's transformations, much as the rest of us recount the doings of a fabulously eccentric aunt.

"A lot of times the only thing you can hear is your ears trying to hear," Mr. Bailey said of his winter home. "Although Yellowstone's winter use has increased in the past 20 years, it's still easier to get away from the crowds in winter than in summer. The difficulty of access actually adds to the experience. It makes it an expedition. It makes it special."

Mr. Nelson, the biologist, talked about how winter narrowed wildlife's already slim survival margin. "You can really see the screw factor in action here," he said, pointing at the wind-driven snow that veiled the van in a mini-blizzard, even though the sun was shining. His reference was a scientists' mnemonic for how winter's variables -- snow, cold, radiation, energy and wind -- "tighten the screw" of survivability. Change any one of those factors a tiny bit, and life becomes precarious.

Winter gives Yellowstone's animals three choices: They can move, adapt or die. The motion was easy to see. Trumpeter swans and white pelicans had fled, and bull elk huddled on bare spots melted by geothermal activity. The dying was easy to see, too. At Swan Lake Flats, we spotted three coyotes and a half-dozen ravens converging on the carcass of an elk whose stores of fat, laid on in summer, had run out before winter did.

Adaptation to winter is a subtler matter. Lightweight animals such as lynx and snowshoe hare glide across the snow on their wide, padded feet, but no human can walk in deep snow without quickly becoming exhausted.

We adapted by bringing cross-country skis, and traveling proved easy, even for those in our group who had just taken up cross-country. Staying warm was more complicated. We had packed duffels full of polypropylene and pile clothing as instructed, and carried extra layers at all times.

It helped, too, that Mr. Bailey had outfitted our tents with propane heaters and thick sleeping bags, and that the main yurt, where we gathered for meals, had a wood stove and a constant supply of hot water for washing and making hot chocolate.

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