― Paul Oxton
Whether I am gliding along a trail for the first or for the hundredth time, skiing in Yellowstone is always unique, always an adventure. We often ski familiar trails, and each time we begin with anticipation. What new sights, thoughts, questions, or physical sensations will we experience this trip? Will the snow be knee-deep powder? Icy? Fast? Will we cruise, or slog or hold our breath in fear of out-of-control speed? No matter the conditions, it is all good. Skiing in Yellowstone is a privilege that transcends snow conditions.
A friend and I skied the Tower Trail again the other day. This trip was perhaps the fourth of the winter, and once again, it was new and exciting. We did not slog as Tower is groomed so conditions were smooth. We had no ice because a skiff of warm snow had fallen overnight, creating a velvety surface, perfect for finding prints.
We skied past the Falls and continued up the road toward the Chittenden turn off. As we skied and talked, I watched the snow. I began to see tracks that, while about the size of a small coyote or large fox, just looked wrong for a canid (dog family). I stopped and looked more closely. The interdigital pad (sort of like the palm of our hand where fingers connect to the palm), the placement of the toes, and the over-all shape spoke ‘cat’. I skied and stopped every few feet to verify my thought. Yes, a small cat (bobcat, most likely) had passed this way. We smiled and continued on. Other tracks came into view: Weasels left their every-which-way bounding prints, diving into the snow here and there.
Elk dropped scat (poop) in the trail, then wandered off into the deeper snow in the trees. Coyotes passed through as well. One set of coyote tracks intrigued me. Four prints faced the side of the trail, close together, with other prints around. What happened here? It is nearing mating season—could there have been some practice going on? Could something have grabbed the attention of the side-facing coyote? I imagine the prints belonging to a female who is coming into her breeding cycle. I imagine a male with her, perhaps with some of last year’s pups.
We skied past the skull of a cow elk. Taking a closer look, we saw very worn teeth—this was an old girl. One of her leg bones was sawn cleanly, which told us that wolves had taken her down during the month of the December Wolf Study. This is a time when researchers observe wolves daily. When the wolves have moved off of a kill, the researchers come in and take an incisor tooth to precisely age the elk, and take a portion of the leg bone to determine the condition of the animal. The marrow in the leg bone is telling: If the marrow is peanut-buttery, the animal is not starving. But if the marrow is red and runny—sort of like melting Jell-O, the animal is starving and will die within a few days to weeks. This kind of research has told us that wolves do indeed take injured, old, very young, unhealthy, or very unlucky elk. In this girl’s case, she was old and her teeth were very worn. Perhaps she was not able to get the nutrition necessary to remain strong. As we skied away, I stopped and looked back. A chickadee perched on the skull making a winter meal of some of the left-overs. Nothing goes to waste in Yellowstone. In her death, this elk fed wolves, coyotes, the chickadee, perhaps cats, most likely a fox or two, ravens, magpies, maybe eagles. She has supported an entire ecosystem in her passing.
As we continued up the road, we crossed snowshoe hare highways. They are active at night and seem to either use the same path over and over, or multiple hares use the same path, which turns their track into a narrow highway through the snow. Today the tracks were clear enough for us to see toe prints.
A dark brown spot along the side of the road caught my attention and I skied over to it. Red splotches of blood colored the snow next to what looked like the tip of a tail. Whose tail? Squirrel? Marten? I’ve no idea, though it seemed squared off, unlike squirrel…. Was the blood from the tail or was it from the demise of some animal that left its tail behind? Or was the blood the marking of a female coyote in heat? I am sure an expert tracker like James Halfpenny could figure it out, but for me, it remains a mystery, something to ponder in the small hours of night when I wake from some dream and insomnia takes over.
Though we had planned to ski the entire Chittenden Loop, our sliding perambulations provided so much pleasure that time got away. We returned, comfortably cruising downhill, past the critter tracks we had enjoyed on the upward journey.
Yellowstone is a difficult place to leave: where else can you see so many tracks while taking an afternoon jaunt over the snow? This intact ecosystem is what draws me here, what keeps me here. There are some who can live without wild things. I am one who cannot. I have learned this over the years of living in this ecosystem. I need these wild places. I need them like I need air. Like I need food and water. Knowing that wolves and grizzlies and black bears and elk and marten and bobcats roam the same land that I roam keeps me sane. Keeps me whole.
“The future of wildlife and the habitat that they depend on is being destroyed.
It is time to make nature and all the beauty living within it our priority.”
― Paul Oxton