January 27, 2023
A winter storm was due to descend on the greater Yellowstone area by Thursday evening. Peeks out my hotel room door confirmed that it had arrived on schedule, and by Friday morning I was brushing a few inches of snow off the car and scraping ice off the windows.
Once we got going, it seemed that the roads would be manageable, but as the sky brightened (ever so slowly) it was apparent driving east was going to be a little treacherous. There hadn’t been much plowing done yet, so we took it slowly, often sticking to the middle of the road, following the few tracks before us and avoiding the sneaky soft shoulders that have claimed so many victims.
A good half hour into our drive, a call came over the radio. Wolves near the road somewhere ahead! We couldn’t “race” to the destination, of course, but our focus sharpened and I’m sure we all felt we were steeling for all manner of dramatic wildlife happenings ahead.
Unfortunately, when we arrived at the site reported on the radio, the few vehicles there were circling aimlessly in a nearly-blinding whiteout. The wolves had been spooked by a snow plow and vanished almost instantly into the white mess.
The next couple hours looped repetitively: we went back and forth, pulled over occasionally to listen for howling, I tried to not drive off the road, we squeezed into the occasional free space in a pullout, or muttered under our breaths while passing the pullouts that were full of poorly parked cars.
Eventually, the wolves did reappear, but the best view from one of those packed pullouts, so we could only remark and point at the ghostly dotted pattern of animals hugging a distant tree line.
Eventually, we came to a stop in a pullout where one wolf was still in view, barely. And I mean barely.
(The editing of this image makes the wolf much more obvious than it actually was with the naked eye.)
It was howling to its packmates on the other side of the road, eliciting the occasional response. And though it made a couple of barely discernible feints in our direction, it ultimately melted back into the hazy, swirling curtain of white and gray.
It was already 11am by the time we convinced ourselves to break away and move on. Over in the eastern Lamar, a snow plow had collided with another vehicle earlier in the morning, and we hoped the accident had finally been cleared as we headed that way. First, we had to pause for the red light in Lamar Canyon, which was being supervised by a snowy bison.
The accident had indeed been cleared, and we crawled all the way to the northeast gate and out without any sightings. Not even a fox in town. So it was time for lunch at our place in Silver Gate (extra beautiful in these conditions!) before we returned to the park.
Our only non-bison mammal sighting in the valley was Tiny Tim, the limping coyote, who moved so well down the road past us that my clients’ previous sympathy for him quickly evaporated.
To the west, the earlier wolf excitement had also dissipated. We did stop for bison marching through the snow, for the sake of photographing something.
In order to avoid an almost photo-less day, I decided it was time to head back out of the park and find some bighorn sheep. Which we did out at Corwin Springs. A few rams were near the road, so it felt good to step out and fire some frames.
At one point someone pulled up and mentioned a huge ram down the road. His Duck hat gave me pause, but his info was good. Though not as meaty and full-bodied as some of the other rams hanging out with the ewes, this boy had a nice big curl… which was doing a fine job catching snow.
Thankful that we got some photography in to end the day, we returned to Gardiner. Only one more day in the park for us all. We hoped Saturday would end the trip with a bang (not the snow-plow-colliding kind of bang).
January 28, 2023
I received a text message early this morning from someone, asking (paraphrased): “Are you going into the park? It’s really windy!”
I had no clue, but peeked outside and they weren’t kidding. The flag across the street was at attention, and snow was swirling. Friday’s morning drive had already been sketchy without the wind. This was worse. I called for a slightly later start time in order to let the plows get on the road (hopefully) and for daylight to brighten up our route.
Still, it was 7:15 when we did hit the road, following a short parade of other drivers that seemed to hit the curves and hills warily. With good reason, as the plows had maybe tackled one side of the road at that point (debateable), and by the time we reached Blacktail snow was drifting in from both sides.
I was thankful for tail lights in front of me, as visibility was quite poor. Our caravan was fortunate nobody was driving westward, since we were confined to the middle of the road away from the drifts.
Yesterday’s wolves were nowhere to be seen. Somewhere in the same area, presumably, but scans of the distant hills yielded no sightings. Entering the Lamar, we encountered worse road conditions than on Blacktail. Drifts from the opposite lane were encroaching on us. For some reason they had not been plowed yet. We were to soon learn why.
We pulled over at Soda Butte to check “frosty bison” off my clients’ lists. In the distance, I noticed flashing lights. Someone leaving the pullout said that a snow plow had flipped over. Yikes! This was on the heels of yesterday’s plow/car collision. It hasn’t been a good month for park plows!
We weren’t sure if we’d be able to get through… or, if we did get through the accident, if we’d get trapped on the other side while they tried to clean up the scene. But I had to get up to Silver Gate at some point to drop off supplies, so we went for it.
Making it through was fine, and the road conditions in the northeast actually seemed a lot better than what we’d experienced the rest of the morning. As we drove past, I wondered about the miracle tree that has sprouted out of the newly formed Pebble Creek Mountain.
We traveled all the way to Cooke and participated in what was by now a familiar routine: don’t see foxes, instead get treats at Cooke City Coffee.
After saying goodbye to Kara, I offloaded my gear at the cabin, and we headed back in. Past Thunderer, we slowed for a small gathering of people staring into the woods. Four moose stared back.
The plow still had not been righted. Well, the cab had, but the rest of the vehicle didn’t participate. It was going to be a more complicated fix than anticipated (later in the day, heavy equipment was finally entering the park before darkness to presumably take care of it).
The small bit of afternoon sunlight that peeked through the haze gave the Instagram photographers a brief chance to pose for their feeds. A short stop at the Confluence produced a magpie sighting, but no coyotes today. Back in Little America, we again paused to see if the wolves had popped out, but beyond some howling heard by others, there was no sign. And a final go at the northeast yielded the same results as before: no fox, roadside moose.
We said our final goodbyes to my favorite area, and started the journey home. Aside from getting caught in a minor bison jam, it was a fairly smooth commute. For us, that is. Past Blacktail, another vehicle was off the road, this one being yanked on by a ranger vehicle.
Slipping by, we traveled downhill and said our farewells to the park, but not before encountering a wide swath of bison returning from the hunting grounds to the west.
My clients requested one last search for bighorns before it got dark (and before our dinner reservations!), so we traveled out to Corwin Springs. The sheep were up high, however, and we couldn’t even find pronghorns on the way back. It was sort of a quiet end to what undoubtedly has been a very quiet two+ weeks in the northern range. But this group (and my last one) got a bobcat! So we can all feel thankful, and that we participated in something really special this season.
Big thanks to my clients this week: Amy, Jeffrey, Linda and Ted! It was a lot of fun, and I already know I’ll be seeing them all again on future tours.