January 15, 2009
We had a full day canyon tour today from 8 to 5 that took us around the lower loop of the Yellowstone roadway system. We were excited to get off the road between Mammoth and old Faithful as we’ve now done that road a number of times. Unfortunately, the full day tour was in a Bombardier which is less comfortable than the snowcoaches. There were 5 of us paying customers, 2 employees taking the tour with us, and our guide. In addition to our vehicle, another Bombardier set out on the same tour.
Today was the first day that we got into some bison traffic on the road. The first time we encountered bison on the road, there was a park ranger on a snowmobile near us, so he gave us some info while the photographers like me popped out of the 3 hatches on top of the bombardier so we could take close up photos of the bison. The bombardier’s are pretty neat because they have these hatches so we don’t have to get out to take photos or look around. The second time we encountered bison, there were 2 on the road galloping towards us. Thankfully we were in our tank-like vehicle, but I’ve heard from snowmobiliers that in a small snowmobile the bison are quite intimidating up close. It is odd to see the bison running in the winter. While they can run pretty fast, in the winter usually they limit all their body movements to conserve the much needed energy they need to survive the winter. In fact, it is very important, especially in the winter, to not get so close to the wildlife that they are forced to move away unnecessarily and use those extra calories just to get out of our way. Our third roadway bison encounter included another herd of bison crossing the roadway. In this herd we saw a bison with (for our UT friends) it’s horns pointed down. Apparently it’s not so rare to see bison with other than the normal two horns pointed up. The employees with us have seen bison with more than 2 horns and horns pointed all different directions.
Our most exciting wildlife encounter was as we were driving through a typical meadow and found 3-4 wolves napping in the distance. We stopped and pulled out the scope to view them. We figured they had probably eaten recently as they were lounging around. They were close enough to show up in my 200mm zoom as wolf-shaped pixels and close enough to notice with the naked eye. So, that was neat. We spent a lot of the trip searching for otter as we drove along a river that had otter in it. In fact we saw many many otter tracks along the river, but never did spot those otters. We saw some eagles, lots of bison, trumpeter swans, Canadian Geese, and other birds. I don’t think we saw any elk. The most exciting part was when the sun came out for a good percentage of the time lighting up the landscape with interesting patterns. Sunlight and the shadows that result change the snow-covered landscape drastically. All of a sudden the snow has definition. During a cloudy day, it is so hard to determine what is going on with the snow. Many times we can’t even tell if the snow in front of us has a footprint hole or a slope or what. It’s like walking on a lumpy blanket in the dark.
We did get to see both the lower and upper falls in the Yellowstone Canyon. The lower falls were about halfway frozen making interesting ice patterns on the sides of the canyon. Actually, when it “freezes,” it is really just an ice cover on the waterfall that freezes, at least at these falls. The mist from the falls freezes underneath the falls as a huge snow-covered lump of ice. It is really quite amazing that a force so strong can freeze over. The upper falls had ice cover on the two sides of the canyon, but the majority of the falls in the center was still moving.
We made a stop at Yellowstone Lake, which covers 136 square miles of area and is the largest body of water in Yellowstone. In the winter, the whole lake freezes over! It’s incredibly to look at. The difference between Yellowstone in the summer and Yellowstone in the winter is amazing. It’s like a whole different park. Shortly after our stop at Yellowstone Lake, and while the sun was setting in the distance, our Bombardier made a strange noise…..emitted a burnt rubber smell….and then stopped. Hmmmmmm. We are still over an hour away from Old Faithful on a road that is not traveled very often. Luckily we had just seen the second Bombardier in front of us a minute ago, so we radioed them to turn around. After a good thirty minute break, they determined that one of the fan blades was breaking off, and the mechanic on the radio told us they’d send a vehicle out to tow us in. Meanwhile, all us paying customers jammed into the working Bombardier and we went back to Old Faithful just a little late. Later in the evening, we saw the employees that had to be towed in arrive about 2 hours after we did. Over-snow-vehicles do not travel very fast, but we guessed that we got all the way up to thirty miles an hour coming in to Old Faithful in the Bombardier. The snowcoaches only go around twenty and many times we are going about ten miles an hour. I think that these slow speeds are the best way to see the park because there is time to look around and watch what is going on outside. I never did get tired of riding in the snow vehicles and just looking outside the window.
Pictured below, you’ll see a few of the Bombardiers, bison, and a view of one of the creeks we passed over.