“It is an incalculable added pleasure to any one’s sum of happiness if he or she grows to know, even slightly and imperfectly, how to read and enjoy the wonder-book of nature.” Theodore Roosevelt
We have been driving into Yellowstone National Park (the Park), so that I can get some easy skiing in to rehabilitate my knee and my spirits.
The drive to the Tower Fall Ski Trail takes about an hour each way. We cannot complain about those two hours. Each drive reveals more facets of this place. We see bison, elk, pronghorn, mule deer, bighorn sheep. Once a fox crossed the road in front of our car.
The trail itself has shown us bison, ravens, coyotes. And a mystery: as we skied along the Overhanging Cliff, the ski tracks went through what looked like elk fur. We stopped and found light red traces of blood but not much else. We looked over the edge of the road, thinking something might have jumped or been dragged down the steep cliffy terrain, but saw nothing fresh. The coyote along the trail as well as canid tracks told us that something surely was in the area to provide winter sustenance for carnivores. We skied on, ok with not knowing all the answers. Another day, a deer carcass lay very near the trail. We were told that a mountain lion had brought it down a few days earlier. We stopped and watched a coyote intent on his survival meal, completely ignoring our presence, gulping down ripped off chunks of meat.
There is much to be said about spending time in an intact ecosystem, about realizing that we are not the main attraction, about the possibility of running into wolves, coyotes, bears, bison, elk, weasels or their tracks around every corner. Even better than just seeing the beauty, knowing some of the back story adds dimension to experience. As T. Roosevelt said, being able to read, however imperfectly, the wonder-book of nature gives me great pleasure.
I’ve often said that you could live in Yellowstone your entire life, learn something new about it daily, yet not know it all even if you lived beyond mortal years. Learning is what first attracted me here. It is what made me fall in love with this place.
The other day we drove past Junction Butte. I thought about the geology—a basalt intrusion, in the range of 2-2.4 million years old. I imagined a liquid flow of 1200 degree basalt a few million years ago swallowing everything in its path. Today, that basalt flow pokes out every so often along the Yellowstone River. I look at Junction Butte, think of the basalt, then think of the Native Americans who passed by and probably climbed the Butte. About the elk grazing on top in the summer. About the grizzly sow with two cubs that I saw browsing flower tops on its flanks one May. About the wolf pack, named for the formation, who live and den in the vicinity.
Though no wildlife was visible on this day, the tracks were abundant, criss crossing the base of Junction Butte and contouring along the ridge.
When I’m out on my own personal time, it never matters to me whether I see a wolf or other charismatic mega-fauna. It is enough to know they are there, and to know a bit about their behavior and pack structure. And, if I do see one, it is icing on the Yellowstone cake.
“One learns a landscape finally not by knowing the name or identity of everything in it, but by perceiving the relationships in it–like that between the sparrow and the twig.” Barry Lopez