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Yellowstone in Winter

Yellowstone in Winter

“Not Goodbye, Just See You Later”

It has been a bittersweet day, to say the least. While we watched for wildlife in Lamar Valley before dawn, the magnitude of the moment sat heavy with us. This would be our last trip to the valley. Luckily, the wildlife did not disappoint. We were able to see many moose, big horn sheep, bison, foxes, coyotes, and even a golden eagle! A raven put on quite the show for us as we watched for wolves at Tower Junction, the first place the Wapiti Pack graced us with their presence.

Raven on snow

A raven checks out the team as we scan the horizon for wolves. Ravens are bigger than our crows, and have deeper croaking calls.

This afternoon we were joined by Ranger Mike as we walked through the Mammoth Terraces. This is such a unique, ever-changing geologic feature. As calcium carbonate precipitates out of the hot water, new rocks are formed here daily, creating stair step features that accumulate rapidly (sometimes more than six feet a year)! It really looked like something from another planet. Ranger Mike was very knowledgeable about the park, and gave us a great demonstration of how geysers work. His humor and quick wit made learning about the terraces even more fun!

A group of people overlooking mammoth terraces

Surveying the seemingly alien landscape of Mammoth Terraces.

As our time in Yellowstone drew to a close, a somber mood fell over the group. We approached the archway of the northeast entrance, and many a tear began to flow. Katherine read us one final quote in the park.

“Thousands of tired, nerve shaken, overcivilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home: That wildness is a necessity; that mountain parks are reservations useful not only as foundations of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”

– John Muir

With Yellowstone in the rear view mirror, and with very heavy hearts, we said goodbye to this magical, transformative place.

Mammoth Terraces

Mammoth Terraces

Many tears and heartfelt reflections were shared at our final group meeting. It is very clear that we have forged powerful, lasting bonds with our teammates. We have supported and uplifted each other, validated each other in our individual journeys on this trip, and built a truly unique safe space where our vulnerabilities made us a stronger team. Going our separate ways is going to be tough, but we will stay connected and always be in each other’s hearts.

To both our team and Yellowstone ….. this isn’t goodbye, just see you later.

Yellowstone in Winter

“Sunrise, Sunset in the Geyser Basins”

Old Faithful geyser erupts

Old Faithful erupts in the morning light

Our morning began with a breath-taking hike through the Upper Geyser Basin, home to the renowned Old Faithful. As the sunrise gilded the skies, our anticipation began to build, much like the pressure under the thermal features located within the park. Although the Upper Geyser Basin is a meager two square miles in area, it is home to the largest concentration of geysers in the world!

Gathering on the boardwalk, we waited for Old Faithful to mesmerize us. As plumes of steam bloomed and drifted in the light breeze, we began to feel and hear a deep rumbling beneath our boots. Patiently waiting allowed us to reflect on the nature of time and the order of wilderness. Old Faithful did not disappoint, as we watched the geyser perform a spectacular show.

Icy branches from the landscape

Sparkling rime ice coats everything the steam touches and makes the entire landscape magical.

As we made our way in the snow coach to Grand Prismatic hot spring, a collared matriarch bison (#03) and her family group blocked the road. While we watched, four bison crossed the road and jumped a four foot fence! Initially, the tall fence separated a yearling bison that seemed hesitant and unwilling or unable to jump it. It ran frantically back and forth along the fence several times trying to get to the rest of its family before finally making a giant leap and clearing the fence. Unbeknownst to the young bison we cheered and applauded for it from within our snow coach.

Black Sand Pool provide another memorable experience. We were encouraged to “nap” on the obsidian sand beside the geothermal feature. As we laid down we began to feel mysterious thumps beneath us- not unlike what we imagine the footsteps of the giant from Jack in the Beanstalk to sound like. After several rumblings, we heard bubbles erupt from the surface of the pool. Living up to it’s nickname, Thumper, the Black Sand Pool provided us the opportunity to see, hear, and feel the power of the forces beneath us.

The group lays on the ground around Black Sand Pool

Thumper, also known as Black Sand Pool, reveals its hidden power beneath the surface.

When we arrived at the Lower Geyser Basin, we ran quickly to view the spectacular and very large Fountain Geyser. Its surface waters were churning and spewing forth showers of mineral-rich water. The tall and joyous eruption of Fountain seemed to encourage the neighboring Jet Geyser to begin to bubble, boil, and spray at the same time! Our eyes were not wide enough to see the magnificence that was occurring before us. Moving along the boardwalk we admired Red Spouter, the Leather Pool, Fountain Paint Pots, and the Celestine Pool. As the sun began to set in the distance, we bubbled with our own enthusiasm as we relayed how awesome these experiences had been.

Fountain geyser sends showers of water down on us.

The group watches Fountain geyser erupt.

Seeing Fountain geyser erupt was such an awe-inspiring surprise.

Yellowstone in Winter

“A Ride Through Winter Wonderland”

Today was a bit different for us.

This morning, we checked out of the Mammoth Hotel and boarded a monster truck-like snow coach headed to Old Faithful. Chelsea, our coach guide, was incredibly informative throughout the day. Because we were on a commercial snow vehicle, we were able to take roads that are closed to all others.

Today, we traveled back in time – geologic time. We had the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the fire and ice that has sculpted what is now Yellowstone National Park over millions of years.

In addition to understanding the geologic processes that shaped the landscape of the park, we also got to walk around and witness present day geologic activity through hydrothermal features. Our first feature of the day was called Dragon’s Mouth, and it was a fitting name. As we walked across the boardwalk, a deeply felt growl was audible to our ears and our souls. This phenomenon is caused by steam and other gasses exploding through the water causing it to crash against the walls of hidden caverns, resulting in a fearful rumble that can be heard from many yards away. Chelsea shared a origin story from the Kiowa people that is tied to this thermal feature in which a young boy conquered his fear to gain access to a new landscape.

Dragons mouth spring

Dragon’s Mouth Spring

Another highlight from today was the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Randy gave us an amazing lesson on art by Thomas Moran that was inspired by Yellowstone landscapes. It was an incredible view that most all of us considered “indescribable.” Chelsea also gave us an inside look at how subnivean (under snow) micro habitats are affected by climate change.

Canyon

Lower Falls in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

A cross section of a snow drift

Our snow coach guide Chelsea explains the different layers in the snow pack and where different types of creatures can be found.

Once we finally made it to the lodge, we had a very emotional reflection on our day. We are so appreciative for this opportunity and the people we have shared it with. As we prepare for the last leg of our trip, we are going to bed with full hearts (and bellies) and gratitude for this amazing experience.

Yellowstone in Winter

“The Scientists’ Day Out”

We spent an amazing morning with Kira Cassidy, a wolf biologist who works for the park. She showed us her office, which included an incredible amount of binders full of data on the park wolves, going all the way back to the reintroduction in 1995, and some pelts from wolves who have died over the years. She is a wealth of knowledge and answered our many questions about wolves. As educators, we wanted to know what information she would want us to share with our students. She said that the biggest takeaway from the wolf reintroduction project would be the lessons we have learned from the removal of the wolves from the park. Their removal was celebrated at the time as a good thing for the ecosystem. Years later, we realized how important apex predators are to the ecosystem, and began making efforts to correct our mistake. The wolf reintroduction is an amazing example of the power of habitat restoration and management.

So many years of data from so many wolf interactions was humbling to see in the Wolf Project offices.

Once we started driving, we encountered a crowd at the same place where we saw the Wapiti wolf pack yesterday, so we made a brief stop but only saw one and it was pretty far away. We continued on to Lamar Valley to look for a carcass that Kira suspected was there based on GPS data from the Junction Butte pack from about a week ago. We split up into 3 groups to cover more ground, and were able to find it—- SCORE! A bison carcass! Not much was left, but Kira gave us a glimpse of the scientific process the researchers use by letting us help to collect data on the carcass as they attempt to determine cause of death. We sawed the femur in half to collect a bone marrow sample, and then we extracted a tooth to take back to the lab for processing.

Jessica got to saw the femur in half to collect the marrow sample!

Everyone say “cheese”….so we can take a tooth sample!

On the drive back to Mammoth we saw one more wolf, a black likely from the Junction Butte pack. We also heard it give one low howl, which was amazing to experience. Today was also a great day for coyote, we saw close to 10 in various places.

After lunch we had a choice in our activities. Some of us went cross-country skiing, it was the first time for Vin and he got the hang of it pretty quickly! Melissa was in her element, we decided she was the alpha skier.

Randy shows off his cross-country skiing skills.

Another group went to the ‘Boiling River’ (actually the Gardner river, but this is the local name for the particular spot where hot water from a thermal feature runs into the cold river water). After a most scenic walk, we quickly disrobed in the snow and began the descent to the crystal clear water. Temperature reading from the infrared thermometer ranged from 127 degrees to 20 degrees.

Blaire uses the infrared thermometer to measure the temperature of the water we are about to enter.

Slipping and sliding on the algae covered stones we waded in to find just the right temperature. With frozen eyelashes, we reveled in the rich mineral waters as we reflected on our phenomenal experiences. Navigating the hot springs and the flow of the icy river waters we successfully exited for a quick return to the car. American Dipper songbirds greeted and congratulated our daring spirits as we made a quick run for the suburban. Driving back to Mammoth Springs for a quick rinse in the shower, we spotted numerous bighorn sheep.

There is nothing like soaking in the ‘Boiling River’!

Today has been full of adventure and new experiences. More importantly, we have continued to build strong bonds with our teammates. We are so excited to continue this journey together!

Yellowstone in Winter

“All creatures great and small”

We woke up to a beautiful blanket of white covering the ground. With snow falling, we loaded up in anticipation for all the animals we hoped to see throughout the day. Within minutes of leaving the hotel, the adventure for the day started!

Giddy with excitement, we eagerly spotted a large group of animal enthusiasts and photographers at Tower Junction. We knew we were in for an amazing treat! On the rolling ridge, bison grazed on grasses. Upon closer inspection of the herd, we captured our first views of the infamous Yellowstone wolves. Our childlike enthusiasm bubbled as we quickly set up our scopes, pulled out our binoculars and prepped our cameras for the wolves. We counted sixteen wolves ranging in color from black, light grey, to the white alpha female. The pack was actively moving across the ridge to the delight of all the watchers lined up. Three of the wolves were in a constant game of chase and tackle. You could feel the joy and companionship of the pack. As the alpha moved the pack would run and reposition. As they reached the top of the ridge it was as if they knew they were being photographed because the pack lined up across the top and begin walking. These magnificent views and interactions continued on the other side of the ridge so we quickly moved. From our new position we had an even closer view and we laughed and ohh and awed as they ran and frolicked down the hill. It was an amazing and awe inspiring experience.

Wolf pack

Wapiti Lake wolf pack

Second only to the wolves themselves we met Rick McIntyre, retired Yellowstone Wolf Project employee, wolf watcher, and writer, and Doug Smith, Senior Wildlife Biologist and Wolf Project Manager for Yellowstone National Park. We had the opportunity to hear them tell stories about the wolves and answer our questions. We totally “fan girled” and asked for autographs and selfies.

Group pic

The group selfie with Rick McItyre

In addition to the Wapiti Lake Pack we saw two coyotes, two pairs of bald eagles, ravens, magpies, a moose, lots of bison, and five Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. To not be out done by the wolves two of the bighorn sheep decided to head-butt each other right in front of us. And this folks was all before 11:30am.

Bighorn sheep ramming each other

It’s not the mating season, which is usually November, but these two bighorn sheep exhibited their territoriality by rearing up and butting heads with a loud crash.

After a delicious lunch at Buns and Beds we headed to meet Cindy and Dan Hartman, leading wildlife photographers and naturalists, at their home on the edge of the park. He started our education by taking us on a snowshoe hike through his backyard. He enthralled us with stories of owls, voles, and moose. Then from the cold he took us into his home to get down to the heart of the matter. All animals deserve our respect and protection. He showed us his astounding photography of all the animals large and small but drew our attention to the smaller species that are the first impacted by human interactions like the pika that we must hold in the same esteem as the wolves.

The group on a snowy hillside

Snowshoeing with Dan Hartman

Our final moment in the Lamar Valley was to soak in a sunset in silence.

Sunset

Sunset in Lamar Valley

I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery- air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, ‘This is what it is to be happy.’ ~Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar, 1963

Yellowstone in Winter

“The Lynx Day”

Our first day in the park was full of excitement!

We got intel from a hotel staff member that there had been recent spotting of a lynx on the premises. Being the wildlife nerds we are, we loaded up in the SUVs after our 5:55 am breakfast and began the lynx hunt. Though we were unsuccessful in our first exploration, the morning quickly proved itself.

Driving through the park before sunrise seemed a bit uneventful, but after a while, we entered area around Elk Creek and experienced the most amazing sunrise over the Absaroka mountains.

Sunrise over a snowy landscape

Sunrise over Elk creek

In addition to waking us up, the warm light creeping over the peaks allowed us to witness some incredible wildlife as they too began their day.

Before noon, we documented sights of: American dipper, elk, common goldeneye, bull moose, red foxes, mountain goats, a herd of bison crossing the snow (and took over the road), and a very regal coyote who stood peacefully on the hillside and eventually walked down to our cars!

Coyote

Coyote, not a wolf.

Male moose

Male moose. We saw 2 others also, for a total of three, but the other two males had already dropped their antlers.

We slowly made our way to Lower Baronette for a challenging, yet incredibly rewarding show shoe experience. With snow in depth past our knees, we embarked on our first trek through the snow. Through the heavy breaths and frigid temperatures, we found solace in this special place. Randy shared with us an activity that NC State Parks leads— a silent walk. Since snow shoeing is far from silent, we opted to rather pause in our tracks and listen… to the cold air blow past our faces, the water rushing from a nearby (mostly frozen) stream, and birds rustling in the trees.

We paused and listened to Yellowstone. We heard what she had to say, and though to many it would seem like nothing, there was great wisdom, stories, and soothing words spoken in that peaceful moment.

Snowshoeing with the group

Vin leads the way on our snowshoe adventure

After lunch, we embarked on yet another snowshoe hike to Trout Lake. We were excited to walk right into the path that we had earlier seen a herd of bison and two moose. We were moved to see tracks of bison, weasels, coyote, and wolves. We had entered their domain. At the high point of our trail, over 7,000ft, we paused yet again to reflect in our journals. Amidst the silent snow, once again, Yellowstone spoke directly into the hearts of each and every one of us. We shared our journal entires and embraced the immense gratitude for this experience and those with whom we are sharing it.

The group cross the bridge at Trout lake

Crossing the footbridge at Trout Lake in snowshoes!

“This place was so much more than I was expecting…”, “If I stayed here forever, I wonder who would I become…”, “I have unleashed a wildness in me that I didn’t know was there.” Moved from the words of our fellow participants, we embarked on our descent back to the trailhead just as the sun began to set, hoping to hear the howl of a wolf.

So though we didn’t technically see a lynx today, thank you Yellowstone, for all you did show us. It is only the first day, and you have already left us in awe. We are eager to hear and see the remainder of your secrets, hidden within these white walls.

The group at the entrance to Yellowstone National Park

Welcome to a very snowy Yellowstone! This picture is at the northeast entrance sign.

Blaire, Chip, Davanne, Randy

Coyote Team

Yellowstone in Winter

“We made it!”

Our travel went great, and everything was seamless. All of the participants made it, along with all of our luggage. The weather was also very cooperative. Brittany enjoyed her first plane flights ever.

Group at airport

Just before our early departure from RDU

Once we arrived in Bozeman and started driving toward Yellowstone, we started seeing wildlife almost immediately. The list includes: magpie, raven, elk, mule deer (and maybe white tailed deer), bald eagle, pronghorn, bison, and duck.

Group packed in car

We didn’t get many close ups of the wildlife we saw today… but we looked a little wild after a very early morning, hours of travel, and trying to cram ourselves and all our stuff into our rental cars!

The geology is also amazing! We saw all three rock types on our drive (sedimentary, igneous, and metamorphic), and the mountains are very beautiful. There is also evidence of past glacial activity and landslides.

Looking at mountains

Blaire checking out some pronghorn in front of Devil’s Slide, which is a great example of uplifted sedimentary rocks and igneous sills.

It is really exciting to see the biology and geology here, especially since it is so different from what we are used to in North Carolina. We had our first team meeting to share our first impressions and goals, and we started to form bonds with each other before breaking for dinner. We have settled in to the Mammoth Hot Springs area and are eagerly awaiting our first full day in the field tomorrow.

Yellowstone in Winter

“A Week of Firsts”

Brittany tries out her new parka to get ready for Yellowstone in winter.

I have never really considered myself adventurous. Sure, I’ve been here and there on vacation or for work, but on those trips I pretty much knew what to expect. Next week, I will be embarking on a true journey that will be full of the unexpected. One that will probably prove to be very adventurous. A week from today I will be at Yellowstone National Park with an amazing group of educators and scientists exploring all that nature has to offer.

There are so many “firsts” for me in this journey. My first time west of the Mississippi, my first time on an airplane, the first time I’ve been away from home this far away or for this long, and most importantly my first true adventure without friends or family (although I’m certain I’ll make plenty of friends during this adventure). This is a real leap out of my comfort zone, and I can’t wait to see how I’ll learn and grow from this.

I began preparing for this trip when I found out I was accepted into this program in September. I’ve been getting out in nature more, trying to walk and exercise more, watching documentaries and reading about the park, and acquiring gear to keep me from turning into a snowman (shout out to my parents for getting me the gift of not freezing to death for Christmas, LOL). I feel like getting to this point has been a journey of its own. Even with all this preparation, I still feel that I could never fully be ready for all this trip will show me. I know there will be sights, experiences, and emotions I’m not expecting, but I’m so excited to begin this journey with this amazing group of adventurers!

May this trip be filled with wonder, laughter, growth, and safe travels!

~Brittany White, Science Educator, Edgecombe Early College High School

Yellowstone in Winter

“Getting started!”

We were thrilled to receive a record-breaking number of applications for this year’s Yellowstone in Winter Educator Trek – more than 100! It was very difficult, but selections have been made and 11 North Carolina educators are very excited to participate in this exciting workshop in January. Check back this winter to follow along on our adventure!

4 people overlooking a frozen lake, hot spring in foreground