At 7:30 this morning it was 28 degrees. Yay, I thought as I readied to leave the house. Below freezing! This is perfect weather in April: below freezing nights and mornings with temperatures climbing in the afternoon, and if there is sun, even warmer temps.
Every year I look forward to the opening of the the Park roads here in Yellowstone. But I look forward to it not for work, or even hiking. I look forward to mid April when I can drive to Swan Lake Flats. I look forward to being able to strap on skis, look around, and connect those white spots of snow. Today Diane and I hesitated. This year the sagebrush-filled spaces seemed larger and the white snowy spaces smaller. We looked and pointed, saying: ‘I think we can get over there, that snow looks like it connects to that other snow on the hillside…’
And indeed, we connected those puzzle pieces of snow as we cruised the crust back toward Quadrant Peak. Crust cruising is what we call that early spring skiing, when warm days and freezing nights create a thick crust on the morning snow that enables one to ski just about anywhere, gliding along away from any sort of trail. I love it.
The only part of crust cruising that I don’t love is the early morning alarm. Get out there while the snow is still cold and hard, ski until the snow softens and get back to the car by noon or 1:30pm. As much as I hate that early alarm, especially when working mega hours teaching, crust cruising is well worth opening my eyes when they would prefer to stay closed.
This year, though we had more snow than last, bare spots seemed to be larger, the sagebrush poking out and greening much of the land. Diane, and I headed out in the chill morning air, sun just rising over Bunsen Peak. We’ve done this multiple years now, so much that it feels like an annual tradition. We ski and explore places not visited for so long they seem new. We find different things—this year two bull bison had died over the winter, leaving their bones for us to discover and wonder over.
Another tradition has also been a huge part of my April for the last 6 years. The Naturalist Guide Certification Class takes over my life for the month of April. Connecting snow puzzle pieces on Saturday turns to connecting students to the resource Monday through Friday. This class uses Yellowstone as a vehicle to teach the hows and whys of interpretation. How do you involve your audience? How do you make it relevant and enjoyable for them, and thus for yourself? As I teach these concepts I continually ask myself how can I reach my audience, how can I engage them more fully? I grade myself on their success.
This year, Diane and I explored a new area above Swan Lake Flats. In the end, we had to take our skis off briefly, climb down to the bottom of a steep gully and clean mud out of our bindings before slapping skis back on and side-stepping up the other side. Like the Naturalist Guide Class, I thought as i picked my way down. When we explore a new idea or skill, sometimes we have to take our skis off and get dirty in the mud, maybe slipping along the way. But perseverance brings us through that tough spot and back into the smooth cruising of white snowy crust.
Almost back to the truck, Diane and I crossed grizzly bear tracks. We stopped, exclaimed, photographed. Then I found our earlier tracks. The grizzly prints imprinted over our original outgoing tracks, meaning it had passed this way between the time we left the truck and the time we returned. We paused, breathed and looked around.
“Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.” Max Planck