Breath billows in clouds of steam as I climb up Snow Pass. Fifty minutes later I crest the summit, slide my skis down the other side and cruise the Glenn Creek trail over old ski tracks.
The weather is near perfect: light winds, sunny skies, temperature in the low 20’s. A few inches of new snow fell last night. It’s blown over the trail and made the track fast and true. My wax is right and the glide long and smooth. The Gallatin Mountains rear to my right, Electric Peak hovers over my shoulder and Travertine Mountain rises on my left. Diamonds sparkle in shades of white snow, blue skies shine above.
Joy bubbles up as I get into the groove. Arms swinging, legs pumping, I glide along, body working like a well-oiled machine. The groomed portion of the 10 mile trail comes along, and as I ski, I look around, expecting to see bison. I am not disappointed. Ten of the huge brown creatures stand next to the trail, pushing their heads into the snow to get at the grass beneath. This time of year, bison are at their shaggiest, their thick coat holding in warmth during sub-zero nights. Frost collects on their humps overnight then slowly steams away as morning sun warms the fur. They are uniquely adapted to winter conditions, facing into winds unlike other wildlife which stand tail into the wind. These guys are grazing along the wind-blown sections of the trail, intent on getting the most nutrition possible from the dried grasses.
Just below the bison, a coyote looks at me, hops off the trail, and wanders slowly up the hill. He pauses and looks back, hesitates, and continues on his way, obviously not worried about my presence.
I stop to drink it all in. The coyote looks large: well-fed and fluffy. I ski to his rectangular four-toed tracks while keeping one eye on the bison ahead. I watch the bison for a while and decide to give a particularly large bull a wide berth by skiing off trail. As I carefully slide by, he lifts his head and looks at me. I gently say ‘Hey Buddy, it’s ok’. He takes me at my word and goes back to grazing.
A half mile later a movement catches my eye: this time instead of grey I see red: a red body, black legs, a pointed nose and a very fluffy tail. One of the most beautiful foxes I’ve ever seen stands in the trail facing me. He sees me but does not seem at all concerned. Slowly he angles up the hill, pausing to look back as if waiting for a friend to come along. I warn him of the coyote ahead but he does not take heed.
Checking the fox tracks against my memory of the coyote tracks tells me that I need more tracking practice.
Shushing along, the top of the hill comes into view. I do not pause at the caution sign but continue on around the first sharp turn. That first curve is always a breath-taker: this time pocked with bison tracks and blown snow. Once through, however, the trail smoothes out and I begin to fly. Edging around hairpin curves, barreling down the straight-aways, wind in my face, tears in my eyes.
Yellowstone skiing is joy.
“…But we who do not aspire to competitions, we who may still be struggling with the snowplow or the stem turn or perhaps something a bit more ambitious, we amateurs; who shall say we do not share, and deeply, the joy of flight on skis? Do you remember the first time you rode down a slight incline and did not fall? The achievement of something new, however modest, is always memorable. So, as we swung and dipped among the potholes on that sunny morning, with a glorious mountain range as a backdrop, it seemed we could hold no more of joy.” Olaus Murie