Guest post by NHA guide, biologist, and photographer Sean Beckett
The interior of Yellowstone is inaccessible in the winter without a snowmobile or a snow coach. Opting against the frigid and blustery snowmobiles, we fired up two bombardier snow coaches and headed from the relatively mild Jackson Hole north into a blizzard. For the first two hours, we climbed up the side of Yellowstone’s volcanic plateau, plowing through snow drifts and ripping through a foot of fresh, un-groomed powder that had built up on the trails overnight. The crosswind whistled over the top of our coaches as we skirted just a few feet beside a thousand-foot precipitous drop into the Lewis Canyon. The treads under the coaches whined for traction in the powder that was spitting into the air behind us. At the top of the pass we disembarked the coaches to gather our bearings in the heart of winter. River otter slides and pine marten tracks accented the riverbanks at the base of an icy waterfall. This road will see thousands of sedans and campervans every day this July, but we were alone in this wilderness all day.
The next day, the weather broke and we continued onward, witnessing Yellowstone’s geothermal oddities- steaming earth, hot springs, geysers, and roaring mountainsides. Our goal was to cross the volcanic plateau and descend into Yellowstone’s Northern Range, the lower-elevation valleys teeming with wildlife like bison, elk, bighorn sheep, deer, and pronghorn. While we were eager to see these creatures, we had really come to this part of the ecosystem to catch a glimpse of one of Yellowstone’s most elusive inhabitants, the grey wolf. We drove towards the setting sun into Cooke City, a small mining town just outside the park’s northeast gate, tucked away deep in the Beartooth Mountains.
The next morning we woke up at five-o-clock to prepare for that golden hour of dawn light that is so critical for seeing wolves in the wild. I flipped the switch on the bedside lamp but it didn’t turn on. I tried the switch for the room light- nothing. I looked out the window, expecting to see the floodlight that illuminates the only street in town, but the whole village was dark. A blizzard in the Beartooths had knocked out power to all of Cooke City overnight; not a terribly unusual event here. We gathered the group and walked to breakfast with our flashlights. Richard and Teresa at the Cooke City Bistro were ready with a gas stove, a small generator running a coffee machine, and a most welcoming fire in the stone fireplace. The restaurant smelled like bacon (the exhaust fans were out, after all), and we ate a hearty warm breakfast in the candlelight.
We arrived in the Lamar Valley right as dawn was breaking. A wolf biologist came over the radio. “Unit one, unit fifty. I have something at soda butte creek.” Hearing this, we raced to a small overlook and set up a spotting scope to scan across the valley. As the darkness lifted, two wolves materialized on a bull elk carcass at the base of a hillside. For hours we watched these wolves, the last remaining members of the Lamar Canyon pack, so famously fractured last year by wolf hunting outside the park’s boundaries. No other wolves were seen that entire week in the Northern Range. We were all humbled by the experience. Each week in Yellowstone brings new sightings and surprises.
Adventure is about expecting the unplanned and creating opportunities from challenges. It is about putting yourself in the right place at the right time, then embracing whatever this formidable ecosystem offers up.
To read more about Sean’s exciting journeys and to see some more of his remarkable photography, check out his blog at www.thegreenmanblog.com. His most recent post has some unbelievable photos!