Sunday, 29 January 2023, Jackson WY
I worried about oversleeping and missing my ride - would the wake-up call arrive on time? Usually, fretting over an early appointment will cause me to toss and turn all night, but I took an extra precaution recommended by a heavy partier on my dorm floor in my college days: "I drink several glasses of water before going to bed, figuring my bladder will wake me up, even if I'm hung over."
In the end, I slept soundly until the phone jangled on time at 5:10. I had just enough time to grab a bite, insert my contacts, brush my teeth, and dress warmly before the van arrived. "Hi, I'm Athena, and I'm your guide for today," the vivacious woman greeted me. I settled in as she collected the other two clients on this ride - Dan and Richard, two eye surgeons who had met on rotations and now looked forward to vacationing together every year.
Stopping at the Scenic Safaris office, we had our waivers verified, and the staff outfitted us with snow suits, boots, and helmets to keep us warm on the snowmobiles. (The gloves we came with would suffice, seeing that the handlebars were heated.) Several other tour groups wandered in and out, as this was a very busy outfitter. Then we hopped back on the van, and Athena drove us over an hour north to Flagg Ranch, two miles from the southern entrance to Yellowstone - and the end of the drivable road in winter. As we headed north, light slowly returned to the scene, revealing an umbrella of clouds still spitting flakes of snow. No view of the scenery we drove past. Outside temperature: -12°. Hey - I should be used to that by now!
Athena took us to the snowmobiles they'd prepared for us, and gave us The Talk. She assigned me to follow her, with the doctors behind. "The speed limit on the road is 35 mph, but if I see you three have no problems with the machines, I may take us up to 40 mph or so. We've got 60 miles to go to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, and 60 back, so we want to make good time."
We started down the groomed park road, now covered with the fresh snow from the stormy days - a far cry from the frozen ruts I'd experienced in Kenai Fjords. Much smoother riding. I followed Athena to the park entrance, where we had to wait for the eye docs to catch up. Together again, we headed north ... and stopped a couple minutes later to wait for the eye docs to catch up.
Another couple miles down, same story. She walked back again to check with them, reporting that they were fighting a problem with their goggles fogging up. "I told them that if they keep up a reasonable speed, the air flow will keep their goggles clear, but they don't want to go that fast."
After another stop - where we encountered other Scenic Safaris tours - she went to confer with other guides. The new reality: "The eye docs are ready to call it a day. Turns out there was another group of twelve clients led by our guide, and when they reached the park entrance - only two miles in! - ten of them had had enough of the cold. So one of our guides will take the eye docs back to the vans, and they'll return to Jackson with that other group." She smiled at me. "Looks like you get a private tour today!"
Our first destination was the warming hut at West Thumb, bordering Yellowstone Lake. With the delays suffered due to the eye docs, Athena aimed to make up time. The limit of 35 mph fell by the wayside, and we quickly topped 40, and then 45. Before we hit our turnoff, I noticed a reading of 52 mph. (Later, we hit 55 - at least that's the highest I noticed, when I could tear my eyes from the road.)
The warming hut was filled with other snowmobilers, warming their hands at the woodstove. I took a few minutes to chat with the ranger on duty, a young woman with long, blonde hair. "I've been here at Yellowstone for three years," she told me, "a park ranger for eleven." I told her about my challenge, and she asked for my website. When I mentioned my last park venture had included Big Bend in Texas, her eyes lit up. "Oh, I LOVE that park! When I worked there, I volunteered for every job they had. I worked all over that park."
After warming up, taking a quick visit to the (unheated) outhouse, and getting many congratulations for scoring my private tour, I followed Athena out and re-mounted the snowmobile. We now headed north, with the temps still stuck in the single negative digits - but the clouds had fled, leaving a crystal blue sky. The flat, well-groomed road beckoned as we glided north beside the snow-covered expanse of Yellowstone Lake.
Soon enough, we encountered our first wildlife: a solitary bison ambling north on the road. We slowed down, then slowly passed him on the left.
A couple of minutes later, we repeated the act with another solitary bison, this one barely shuffling along.
Seeing these lumbering beasts got me thinking of the sorry history of the settling of the west. Originally, tens of millions of bison roamed the Great Plains, but the railroad companies (who deplored the bison for the damage they caused when the trains hit them) and the government (who decided that removing the food source from the plains tribes would force them onto the reservations) combined to nearly wipe out the species. By the time conservation forces came into play, perhaps only 500 individual animals were left. Today about thirty thousand still live wild, with Yellowstone remaining the epicenter.
This reminded me of a passage I'd read in Arctic Dreams. Granted, the author was talking about the culture of far northern tribes, but I imagined local Native Americans had similar tendencies:
"A fundamental difference between our culture and Eskimo culture ... is that we have irrevocably separated ourselves from the world that animals occupy. We have turned all animals and elements of the natural world into objects. ... A second difference is that, because we have objectified animals, we are able to treat them impersonally."
Before long, we reached Fishing Bridge and the next warming hut - 45 miles down! We stopped here for the lunch Athena had packed, a turkey sandwich and bag of chips. I opened the bag, popped a couple in my month, and did a double take. Looked at the bag... jalapeño-flavored chips! Nothing like spicing up lunch!
I got the chance to get to know Athena well. She moved here from Indiana, seeking adventure. She accepted a job as a rafting guide, never having rafted before - but that's what guide school is for! (We bonded over that, since I had also taken whitewater guide classes after the Litterwalk.) Since raft trips don't run in the snow, she added snowmobiling to her resume, and has learned to fly planes. When I found out she has also bicycled cross-country, we really clicked.
The next stretch turned into our best stretch for wildlife. We passed a small group of bison foraging in the snow, trampling through the fresh snow.
Beyond that, at a bend in the river, we saw an otter playing in the water. (He disappeared before I could get the camera ready.)
Finally we reached Artist's Point, the overlook into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. As Athena related, "Thomas Moran painted his famous work depicting the falls of the Yellowstone River here, a picture that proved
instrumental in Congress passing a bill to protect Yellowstone as the world's first National Park." [That was 150 years and 334 days ago.] She then added, "He took a little artistic license in the painting, adding the Tetons in the background."
After the Lower Falls views, we motored over to the Upper Falls view for more pictures. Day's goal achieved!
[Even more amazing - I hadn't fallen a single time on this adventure!] Now we had to retrace our path back to the Flagg Ranch, with a couple of stops scheduled. The temperature still hung in around -5°, and the sky remained achingly blue. On the next leg, my helmet visor began fogging a bit, forcing me to leave it open a small amount - and inviting the cold, wind-sharpened air to chill my face. Not a huge deal.
On our way back, we stopped at the Mud Volcano and Dragon's Breath Spring. Both spewed immense amounts of steam into the air, cloaking the nearby trees.
Mud Volcano was a geyser when early pioneers first named it, calling it a “most repulsive and terrifying site.” A few years later an explosion blew out the side of the cone, turning it into a mudpot - a boiling, steaming pool.
We made it back to Fishing Bridge, where we paused to warm up before hitting the road again. Next to the lake, we saw another bison (the same one?) still ambling down the road. To document it, I handed the GoPro to Athena, who filmed the behemoth as we passed it (and then caught video of me behind her).
Good thing we filmed it, since we saw no more wildlife from then on.
Athena stopped us one last time at Lewis Lake for a late photograph.
I appreciated the pause - my visor was again starting to fog, and with the sun sinking lower in front of us, it formed a glare on the plastic. I had to slow my speed for the last dozen miles out of caution. Still, we made good time back to Flagg Ranch, where I could remove my sonw suit and get comfortable for the drive back.
As we made our say south, the sun sunk behind the Teton Range, and we encountered our first clouds since that morning. The interplay of last light behind the mountains, with the slopes reaching to the shores of Jackson Lake, providing one last chance for photography on this closing adventure of the winter tour.
Now It's just a matter of winding down, preparing for the hassle of traveling home. For my final dinner of tour, I found the Nepalese restaurant open, getting a tasty order of momos (Nepalese dumplings). The next day - with another bright, cloudless sky promising great photography - I considered walking over to the Snow King ski area in town and taking a gondola ride to the top for a couple of hours. However, a crisp, -20° temperature persuaded me to spend my time packing, then wandering around Jackson,
looking at the public art and wandering in to a few of the galleries.
Traveling was, well, traveling. At JAC, the Tetons dominated the scenery as the planes taxied by and took off and landed.
Unfortunately, my window seat was on the east side of the plane, so I didn't see them as we took to the skies. I passed several hours at LAX, waiting for my connection to Phoenix. And for my overnight flight back to Philly, I luxuriated in my first-class seat (I had found a bargain online, with the tickets barely more than coach) - on a Boeing Dreamliner, you get a pod where you can nearly stretch out horizontally. Nice!