The lone wolf is lying in the snow, his luxuriant black coat insulating him against the biting January cold. Occasionally, he lifts his head, ears cocked and looks west down the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone National Park.
Even if he could see us – about a kilometre away, standing on small squares of blue sytrofoam and stamping our feet to try and keep warm while we watch him through powerful telescopes – he wouldn’t be interested. He’s got more important business.
“He’s negotiating travelling through territories with rival packs that may well try to kill him,” explains Rick McIntyre, a park biologist who has spent more than 1,000 consecutive days watching the wolves of Yellowstone.
Sadly, this wolf, known as “755,” lost both his mate and his brother to hunters after they strayed outside the park boundaries a couple of months earlier. Now, 755 is looking for a new mate from another pack – but it’s a life-and-death gamble.
“If he’s successful in what he’s trying to do – to draw off one or more females – he’ll be back in business with a new family and a new litter of pups within a few months,” says McIntyre, who acknowledges he’s cheering for him. “It’s hard not to root for an individual like that, that’s going through tough times.”
If this were July and not January, chances are I would have missed watching this canine drama unfold amid the mayhem of summer.
More than three million people will visit Yellowstone this year, and about 98 per cent of them will pour through the gates between June and September, clogging the roads and filling every one of the 2,200 hotel rooms and cabins, 11 campgrounds and one RV park. On the week we visit we see more snowmobiles than cars, more bison than people.
But aside from having a lot more elbow room, we see a dramatically different park in winter. “Everything is magnified,” is how Marysue Costello, from the gateway town of West Yellowstone, Mont., puts it. “I would say there’s more breathtaking beauty.”
I can’t compare, this being my first visit. All I know is, it’s more than I hoped for. Take, for example, the bison. In winter they move to lower ranges where there’s less snow. We see them everywhere: mothers and yearlings emerging from treed glades at dawn or ambling along the road; a lone bull standing majestically on the bank of the Firehole River; a herd grazing peacefully.
But the most astonishing sight is when we come upon Yellowstone’s two iconic images – bison and geysers – at the same moment. We’re travelling by snowcoach – a heated van that’s equipped with tracks instead of wheels – between Mammoth Hot Springs and Old Faithful. After crossing the invisible rim of the Yellowstone caldera, we arrive in the first of three geyser basins. Stunning on its own, the scene is amplified with bison in the foreground.
Late one afternoon, I set off on skis on a trail that cuts through the geyser field at Old Faithful. Before leaving, I check with the visitor’s centre for the next anticipated eruptions (times are posted for the most predictable geysers). I’m hoping to catch Daisy Geyser blowing her stack at 4 p.m. and be back for Old Faithful at 4:26, about a kilometre and a half round trip. Shouldn’t be a problem.
But even when they’re not exploding, geysers and their relatives – hot springs, mudpots and fumaroles – are fascinating; hissing steam, belching gas and turning the surrounding muck vivid shades of orange and yellow. I’m so mesmerized that I don’t make it to Old Faithful for her next performance. Still, I get something better: a private encounter with a coyote.
I’m on my knees photographing a bubbling “pot” when I notice something moving. I look up and see the tawny creature no more than a dozen metres away. It’s just her and me in the fading afternoon light. I pick up my ski pole just in case, but she’s harmless. She stops to relieve herself, then nonchalantly walks on.
If there’s one downside to visiting Yellowstone in the winter it’s the relentless cold. “Last week was 30 to 40 below [F],” says our snowcoach driver and guide Victor Sawyer. “It was brutal.”
Yet, the cold is an indispensable part of what makes Yellowstone a winter wonderland. It transforms the thundering waterfalls in the park’s Grand Canyon into a silent still-life photograph. It condenses molecules of water from countless geysers into amorphous white clouds. And it makes you really appreciate the Boiling River.
One day, after skiing around the colourful travertine terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs, we’re ready for a good soak. It’s painful disrobing in the frigid air. Then we must pick our way carefully over slippery rocks, avoiding the spot where scalding hot water from deep underground flows into the icy river. At last we’re immersed in water of the perfect temperature: Yellowstone’s winter sweet spot.
IF YOU GO
Fly to Bozeman, Mont., the closest regional airport to Yellowstone. From Bozeman, rent a car or take a shuttle van with Karst Stage (karststage.com) to either Gardiner or West Yellowstone, the northern and western park entrances, respectively. Arrange a tour into the park by snowcoach or snowmobile. Note that most roads in the park are closed to wheeled traffic in winter (about mid-December to early March).
Where to stay
Two lodges in the park (yellowstonenationalparklodges.com) are open in winter: Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Cabins. North of the park is rustic Chico Hot Springs Resort (chicohotsprings.com).
What to do
The non-profit Yellowstone Association offers “lodging and learning programs,” such as the three-day Winter Wolf Discovery (yellowstoneassociation.org).
Snowmobiling is welcome in the park, but you must be with a commercial guide and stay on the road.
Snowcoach tours are a warm, comfortable way to explore the park and the only way (other than snowmobile) to get from Mammoth Hot Springs to Old Faithful and Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon in winter. To find private operators for ski, snowmobile and snowcoach tours, see nps.gov/yell.
The writer travelled courtesy of the Montana Office of Tourism. The agency did not review or approve this article.