Ten days ago winter took its first deep breath and exhaled across Yellowstone National Park. It rolled over Electric Peak and Sepulcher Mountain to the northwest, then over the wide open face of Mount Everts to the east and Bunsen Peak to the south. Soon the entire park was shrouded in snow and cloud. When the snowstorm withered away to the east a few days later we were left buried under more than a foot of snow. At last winter had arrived following an autumn that would not let go of summer.
The snowstorm has driven a small herd of twenty-five bison into Mammoth a bit earlier than usual. They came seeking better forage. I watch them shove the snow aside with their large heads then nibble on the grass beneath. Although Yellowstone’s interior closed for the season a few weeks earlier, the snowstorm is what sent the last of the park’s four million visitors home. Now the park has grown quiet and it is for this reason that winter is my favorite time of year. Come spring I will have forgotten the hordes of tourists and I will say summer is my favorite time of year.
I look out of the window from my desk chair, the glow of the computer screen lighting my face, and sigh. I would not be going out to enjoy the newly fallen snow. Instead, I had an article to write that was due in a few days, a part-time science writing job that I am learning to balance with my full-time job as a wildlife biologist, this blog to write and two women who are counting on me to uphold my end of the bargain. In other words, I’m busy. Ironically, too busy writing about wilderness to be in wilderness. My mind was there, but my body was firmly planted in an uncomfortable office chair.
But the wild within was clawing for the wild without and I knew I had better listen to my inner beast so I called a friend who is always up for an outdoor adventure. One friend became three friends and my dog, Meg whose been giving me ‘sad eyes’ about only getting walks around the neighborhood – and on a leash no less. It was time for us both to be untethered.
Mel, Trudy, Michael and I pile into Michael’s car with Meg in the back and we wind our way up the long icy road at Eagle Creek in the Gallatin National Forest that borders the park. On our way we pass a gauntlet of hunters determined to fill their deer and elk tags before the season ends. We pass a grizzly bear feeding on the remains of one hunter’s success and are glad that we brought our bear spray and orange vests and hats.
Just shy of mile post five, we unload our gear, click in to our skis and head up the road. Others have skied along the road before us and we get in line with their tracks, grateful not to have to break our own trail. Meg is grateful too and she follows close behind me. Occasionally she wanders off the path and into the deeper snow. Her small but dense body sinks right and she rolls around like an otter. She shakes off and looks at me while wagging her tail then runs ahead to catch up with Mel who is always just a little bit ahead of the rest of us. It’s a bright sunny day and I can almost feel the vitamin D synthesizing in my body. My mood lifts and I’m no longer thinking about work or my to-do list.
The trail up the mountain is gradual but my body isn’t used to skiing yet and I begin breathing more deeply with the alternating swish of my skis. We stop at every viewpoint. At one stop Michael spots a bird soaring across the valley. It’s a long way off but I can tell from its wide lazy circles that it is an eagle. Its white head and tail flash against the blue sky.
We continue up the trail and pass a group of trees where two years ago I remember spotting a northern pygmy-owl perched in a snag, but today he does not make an appearance. At three miles up we stop for lunch and I feed Meg apple slices and Michael treats her to a carrot.
This might have been our turn-around point but Mel, always the one to push just a bit farther, suggests that we go an extra half mile. The grade is steeper here and the snow is deeper. The path narrows making the trees seem larger. Snow crumbles away from their branches in large clumps. We’ve separated now and each ski at our own pace. When we reach the turnaround I don’t want to leave, but the trail is downhill all the way back and I look forward to the rush. I gain speed on the steepest parts. Meg runs behind me. I’m not going that fast, but I wobble anyway as my body remembers how to stay upright on skis while my mind remembers that my life is more than my to-do list.