We didn’t just look at animals on our trip through Yellowstone, we also stopped at some of the amazing geothermal features in the park. Because Yellowstone is a dormant volcano, there are a lot of places for gasses and minerals from deep in the earth to escape. These create geothermal features around the landscape, including the most famous, Old Faithful. Geysers, mud pots and thermal springs can be found throughout the park. Here is one that we stopped at. In winter, they become almost eerie in their beauty.
I was able to get away from the group in order to take these pix. It was my first chance to be “alone” amongst the landscape. It felt wonderful.
What do you do when you can’t drive somewhere because the roads aren’t plowed? You take one of these!!!
Bombardiers, named for the J. Armand Bombardier, who patented the Bombardier Snowbus in 1939, are, quite simply, “da bomb” when it comes to snow travel. I urge you to check out the website of the company we used, they have the most authentic versions of the snow bus (aka snowcat, snow coach etc.).
We piled in, took our seats and took off on a wild ride through the snow. Occasionally we would see wildlife and stop to take pictures from the roof hatch. Traffic was pretty nonexistent except for the occasional group of snowmobilers (ugh) and the lone park ranger. Regulations on winter travel in the park are pretty fierce and it is kept down to a minimum in order to keep the ecosystem as calm as possible. Each driver had lots of stories to tell and kept turning around to yell them to us (it’s a little loud in there) and so I was glad that there weren’t too many snowmobilers or bison or moose or…
Riding in one of these is an interesting experience that I’m glad I had…wouldn’t want to do it for the rest of my life but for a couple of days it was fun!
We were driving along the road back to Jackson Hole in the van, minding our own business, when over the intercom we hear “uh, Kevin…remember that porcupine we saw in the tree last year? Well it’s back.” Kevin’s reply; “cool Sean…let’s stop and look.”
Gosh I wish I hadn’t felt so crummy that day, I might have actually trudged into the field to take a better picture of it. But alas, the cold germs were doing their duty and I stayed in the van…I did manage to get a shot of it from afar.
Despite a fuzzy head I learned something that day. Porcupines climb trees. Porcupines sleep in trees. Porcupines eat trees. I had no idea. But it makes sense. If you’re gonna go so far out of your way to get away from predators, why not munch a little bit while you are there? I think in the second picture you can see the stripped bark on the branch above the sleeping blob. Also, (s)he’s so close to the road because, once again, (s)he wanted to conserve energy and it is easier to walk on a paved road than to plow across a field. Besides, predators tend to stay away from roads, especially during the day. So (s)he’s safe. Not so warm, the wind was howling along this road, but (s)he’s got a great coat.
I had such romantic visions of dog sledding; rugged men with snow in their beards, large snarling dogs, and a gentle ride for those reclining in the sled. I know, it’s not exactly a congruous picture, but all I had to go on were pictures on the TV.
The reality of dog sledding is a little bit different. It is an all-senses assault that takes quite a bit of strength and concentration. The night before our adventure, it snowed 2 feet in the mountains which changed the experience enormously. We had a tougher time getting to and from the trail, having to forge our way through tiny man-made paths. If the sled in front of you is not as fast, you have to stand on the brake…a lot. This was my experience and I found it really tiring…so did the dogs, they kept looking around to see why we were slowing down. When we were going at a good clip (usually downhill) I had to be careful, I was standing on the two runners that stick out the back of the sled. These are about five inches wide and sometimes I couldn’t see them because of the snow. If I missed and fell off the sled…buh bye. I didn’t fall…had a couple of scares but I stayed on. It was so tiring (and I didn’t know it at the time but I was coming down with the horrendous cold) so I asked if I could sit in the sled on the way back…it was a much more relaxing and enjoyable experience. I also didn’t realize that we would have to share the trail with snowmobilers…not my favorite group activity.
The Drivers: They are both women and men, enthusiastic young adults who obviously care deeply for there charges. They are given 20 dogs to care for, which includes naming, feeding, grooming, taking care of their “kennels” and knowing all the personalities of the canines in their care. This last is especially beneficial when putting together a team. They are also responsible for “training” us newbies in how to start and stop a sled.
The Dogs: They are not large snarling dogs, but a group of intentionally-bred beautiful Alaskan Huskies that are incredibly eager to run with a sled. Each one has a name, given by its driver. (My favorite was Cabernet of course) They are all loving to humans, in fact they will lean on you and get pet all day long if that is your wish. They all have personalities, some are scrappy, happy and focused, others are a little unfriendly with other dogs. Each driver is responsible for knowing who likes whom and who works well together. Each sled has up to eight dogs, but they can be switched out depending on the abilities and the focus of the day. It is not unusual to see blood on the snow, between nipping at each other and sometimes getting caught up in the excitement of the run, there are minor wounds on just about every dog.
The Kennels: Each dog has a “kennel” made from an industrial cable spool. In the winter they are on end so that they can be rolled to the top of the latest snowfall. In the summer, they are put on their sides so that they provide the maximum amount of shade.
The Sleds: Almost like a papoose on runners, if you are sitting (lying) in it, you are literally inches away from the snow covered trail. If you don’t lean the right way, you can fall over if the dogs drift towards the side of the trail…this is especially true of our run because of the new snowfall. The ride is not exactly smooth or incredibly comfortable, but I loved it.
The Sounds: Dogs barking and whining (especially the ones who didn’t get to go), runners of the sled on the snow, the brake digging into the snow, groups of snowmobiles passing on the trail. (Yuck)
The Smells: Snow, dog poop (yes, what you don’t see on TV is that dogs poop while they are running…we were the last sled…nuff said), snowmobiles. (Yuck)
The Sights: Snow. the backs of the dogs running, sometimes a little crookedly, snow, the top of Anne’s head, the back of the sled in front of us, snow and a gorgeous view of the terrain of Wyoming.
When viewing wildlife in its natural environment, the goal is to not disturb it. This often means talking in whispers, looking through telescopes from a respectful distance and sometimes not even getting out of the vehicle. We were fortunate to have vans with big windows and hatches in the roof in order to pop our heads out like gophers and take pictures of animals that were really close.
After showing you pictures of things from far away, I thought I would give you a break and show you some of the animals that I could actually photograph without a telescoping lens. In the winter the rule of survival for wildlife is to expend as little energy as possible. This sometimes means using the paved road to get where you are going. We saw coyotes, fox, moose and even a wolf use the road for a little bit. But the animal that is best at this is the bison. This means you always have to keep paying attention because you never know what is going to be around the next corner.
Our guides could not guarantee that we would see most animals, however, they guaranteed that we would see bison…and they weren’t wrong! (P.S. the word bison is interchangeable with buffalo.)
And finally, a couple of days ago I posted about big horn sheep hiding in the cliffs. Well, they do come down off the cliffs during the day to eat the shrubs under the snow that aren’t as high. We were fortunate enough to come upon a group having their lunch right by the road. I am amazed at how sure footed they are even on such an incline. However, we did learn that predators sometimes catch a sheep by surprise and send it tumbling off the rocks in order to kill it. Not very fair perhaps, but when you’re hungry…
There are lots of moose in Wyoming. Believe it or not, they can actually hide if they are lying down in the brush. Only their big heads can show and only if you are looking for them. They lose their antlers in the winter which makes them even harder to see. Moose are actually more graceful in snow, their long legs are perfectly proportioned and designed to use as little energy as possible stepping in tall snow drifts. They are still kinda funny looking though.
I lost count of how many we saw, I think it stood around ten. Here are some of the places we saw them:
Okay, look for the lone cottonwood tree…do you see it?
Now look to the right and see the long strip of grasses?
Just to the right of that you should…
Oooooooh I see them!!!
This is what we heard a lot of on our trip. When you go on a naturalist trip, you tend to spend a lot of time describing where you saw whatever amazing animal(s) that you are looking at. Looking through a scope (aka a telescope) is very different than looking through binoculars or even the naked eye. It tends to isolate what you are seeing and when you pull away from it, you lose the animal in the bigger picture and it can take a while to find it again. But when you do, it’s magic. Even after seeing my 100th Mule deer or bison, I never got tired of being able to spot them. The best part was being the first to spot a group of mountain goats on a mountain side that was easily a mile away from us. It was almost like a game.
This is one way that animals have of defending themselves. If you blend into the landscape, and are upwind, a predator might have a more difficult time spotting you. And the cool thing is we were less than five miles out of town (Jackson, WY) when we spotted most of the animals I am showing today.
Here are some of the pictures I took while we were “glassing the slopes” (the term used when one is searching through scopes to find wildlife.) Since I don’t have a telescoping lens on my camera, I was forced to take pictures and then blow them up to see the animals. I think you will be able to see what I mean.
Of course, sometimes the sheep would oblige and show his silhouette against the sky…
Now here’s your test, there are actually two sets of sheep in this picture, can you see them without magnifying the picture? (You can click on each picture to see it more clearly)