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Field Note: Winter Wildlife in Yellowstone Expedition

By Jeremy Schmidt
January 2008

The day begins white and windy. Heavy snow, blown horizontal, obscures the mountains and mingles with steam from the hot springs. Our trip to Old Faithful promises to be an adventure.

We set off in rubber-tracked snow coaches, climbing a thousand feet to Swan Lake Flats. On a clear day, bright mountains ring this broad meadow. Today, there is nothing but snow. Then, looming ahead appears a group of bison, standing in the storm, unmoving even as our vehicles move slowly past.

The snow comes in sheets, sometimes thick, sometimes opening to provide sudden views of windswept wilderness. At Roaring Mountain, we step out in knee-deep powder to watch a group of elk graze bright green water plants in the warm outflow stream.

At the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the clouds come apart. Blue sky widens above, and we are washed by sparkling crystals. Gusts tear through the trees releasing curtains of snowflakes brilliant in the sunlight. We see trumpeter swans at an open spot on the river. A line of bison plow their way to an exposed ridge stripped of snow by the wind as several exuberant ravens cartwheel overhead.

A day like this is emblematic of Yellowstone in January: a pure, heart-of-winter experience, with conditions changing rapidly and wildlife ever present. We are comfortable but immersed in the harsh splendor of the season. This is nothing like summer.

Jeremy Schmidt