We were in the car by 5:30am this morning…. driving through the darkness to Lamar Valley which is also Know as the Sergei of Yellowstone National Park. It is in the Northeast Corner of the Park and positively brimming with wildlife, but it is most famous for its wolves. Wolf Watching is especially popular in the Valley in the winter for two reasons: dark wolves are easy to see against white snow and the road from Gardiner to Cooke City which goes through the Valley is the only road in the park maintained for wheeled vehicles in the winter. I hoped to see them again as I had when working in the park.

The temperature, according to our car’s dashboard info, kept dropping the further we journeyed in the park. Near Tower a coyote shuffled along the road looking at us with golden eyes as we drove by. Not a wolf, but I was still happy to see a wild canine. The temperature was -6 Degrees Fahrenheit when we entered the Lamar Valley. It was still dark so we decided to drive along and  search for a good place to ski. Wolf watchers were gathering at the pullouts watching for the sun to rise. We drove 6 miles short of Cooke City before turning around and parking near Soda Butte. We decided that the best option for us would be to  ski along the road. With the temperature still -6 I pulled my buff up to just below my eyes and zipped my jacket up over the other 6 players of clothing I wore on my upper body. We snapped on our skis and headed down the road as the sun began to rise at 7:15am. We passed the wolf watchers, but they hadn’t seen anything this morning. I didn’t mind too much as I know seeing wolves is purely chance and hadn’t gotten my hopes up. Besides, the valley was gorgeous in glowing morning light. We traveled down the road for 2 miles before turning back… taking layers off as the sun’s warmth penetrated our bodies.

Further down the road we stopped again near the Lamar River and skiied the road again. I had seen a snow plow pass on our drive into Lamar Valley, but already there were new tracks on the shoulder of the road… and the tracks belonged to wolves. We had missed them by an and hour or so. I smiled at seeing their mark in the snow though. I am sure they were watching us.

A law enforcement ranger paused as we glided on the shoulder. He was nervous for our safety skiing on a road shared with cars and suggested we ski more inland beside the Lamar River. We knew we were using safe practices stopping and moving far to the side whenever a car came, but we decided to head off the road and cut some trail to the river for the hell of it. It was tough with the thin skis and 3/4 of the way in we decided to turn back to the road, but just as I was about to turn I say the outline of a canine on the high bank of the opposite side of the river. Then it disappeared down the bank. We hurried to the high bank on our side of the Lamar River. I knew the creature would trot along frozen river and out of sight way before we arrived. We ended up getting another glimpse of the critter before it disappeared around a bend when we reached the bank. A line of fresh tracks were imprinted in the snow down the center of the frozen river… but we didn’t dare try to cross the ice. By the size of the canine we think it was a coyote, but we’ll never really know.

We drove back toward Gardiner pausing to look a snowy faced bison from the safety of our vehicle.  We pulled over  just beyond the turn to Petrified Tree. A groomed ski trail (we did not know the name at the time) was just a bit further down the road and we still had a few hours of daylight left. The glided up the trail though forest and open vistas that revealed the distant mountains and prairies of Yellowstone. But greater to me than the the landscape was the groomed trail in from of up made imperfect by not only ski tracks, but dozens of wolf tracks. It was a large pack and they were using the groomed trail as a superhighway. The packed snow allowed them to travel quickly and the overlooks probably made prey easy to locate. Many tracks were large which is to be expected, but one individual, which I assume was the alpha, had prints with a width of about 4.5 inches. Gigantic! We ran into another couple heading back down the trail when we were 2 miles in on a high overlook area. They told us of a bison the trail that had caused a avalanche when he stood up. They also informed us they we were on the portion of the Blacktail Plateau Trail. We didn’t go very far after meeting the pair as it was getting late. We turned a headed back down passed the same couple as they headed back the way they had come searching for the rest of their group that was lagging behind. We glided effortless down the slope at first, but stopped short when we noticed a large male elk with a full rack standing in the center of the trail 30 yards away.

This is what makes Yellowstone such as adventure: wildlife does what it wants and you have to wait. We yelled a bit at him, but after examining us for 5 minutes he went back to grazing. The he disappeared around the corner of the trail and out of sight. Two skate skiers came down the trail along with the couple we had met earlier and their slower comrades. The skate skier and Eric decided to peak around the corner to see if the elk was still there… he was. They promptly retreated. The elk came back into view and the 8 of up yelled and waved our poles. The bull during care… he knew his power and continued grazing. It had now been above 20 minutes. Five minutes later he moved just off the trail into some trees. The skate skiers decided to sprint pass him. Eric and I followed suit stopping only when we 25 yards away to look back (of course the other skiers were way too close to the bull taking photos which bothered me immensely).

We glided down the gentle hill and skied along the road back to our car. It was 4:30pm by then a getting very cold. One of the skiers we met on the trail asked for a lift back to his track at the other end of the Blacktail so we gave him a ride. He was semi-local from Bozeman and told us how much things had changed since he was younger. Bozeman was once more of a town than the big city it is  today. After dropping the gentleman off headed back to Gardiner seeing herds of bison digging through the snow searching from dead grass with almost no nutrition. Such is the life of wildlife here in the winter.

In the fields just inside the North Entrance two pronghorn wandered the snowy landscape. I wondered by they hadn’t migrated… and by the arch grazed a herd of elk. Another great end to a perfect day… oh yeah, and it was Christmas we realized later!

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