By Francis French
I’ve seen wolves before. But not like this.
We’re with Ken, of the Yellowstone Safari Company. He’s been taking people into remote corners of Yellowstone for three decades, and he’s one of the most enthusiastic people I’ve ever met, with a low, soothing voice that immediately puts you at ease. He picked us up this morning from our hotel at 5:30am, long before the sun rose, and he hasn’t stopped talking in the three hours since. Normally, I’d be too tired and grouchy to enjoy that. But he’s fascinating. We’ve driven south in the dark, lit only by an enormous full moon low on the horizon. As it sets, and in turn the sun rises, the tops of snowcapped mountains glow pink in the dawn. Ken points out where Lewis and Clark passed through the area. Tells us that we are passing through the traditional lands of the Blackfeet people, who still live in the area. And takes us to where bison, bear, and elk have spent the snowy winter, and now are descending to the thawing valley floors in the thousands. But now, as we spot wolves, he becomes quieter. More reverential.
We’re watching them through spotting scopes, as the pack moves on the other flank of a valley in the north end of Yellowstone. It’s not like seeing them in the confines of a wolf sanctuary. Here, these wolves are free. And with over three thousand square miles of national park to roam in, they’re not always seen by humans. This morning, we’re lucky.
It’s pupping season, so the mothers and pups will be safe in earthy dens. We’re watching seven other members of the Junction Butte pack as they hunt for food to bring back. They’ve either caught something, or come across a carcass, and they’ve feasted. One of them ambles over to rip off another chunk of meat, but birds are beginning to find their way to the site, aware that the wolves are sated. They are mostly lying down in the morning sun, bellies full, sleepy after an enormous meal. But rest is a luxury, and soon they are on the move, trotting down the grassy hillside. After we leave, we’re told a bear came by and claimed the carcass. Nothing gets wasted in the wild.
This is somewhere I have always wanted to be, and always wanted to see. I’m lucky to be here.
When San Diego Magazine confirmed I was being given a trip for two, flights and hotel included, flying from Long Beach, California to Bozeman, Montana, my first reaction was delight. My second thought was – Long Beach has a passenger airport?
It does, and it is wonderful. We drove up the coast from San Diego and within two hours we were there – it’s right off the freeway. Unlike the gargantuan LAX airport, just to the north, it’s a friendly little place, with a classic white art deco terminal surrounded by palm trees. Half of the little airport’s departure area is an outside landscaped garden, the kind of thing you can only do in Southern California’s ideal climate. Even the airport’s three-letter IATA Code, LGB, would only need a T on the end to be the most inclusive and progressive airport name ever. With great food options, and that wonderful old-fashioned habit of walking across the tarmac to the airplanes rather than being funneled through a tunnel, this felt like something from the classic era of aviation.
JetBlue have just begun a direct service to Bozeman twice a week, seasonally. My guess is, all of the skiers and snowboarders in the LA area will take full advantage of this chance to leave the beach and get up to the snowy mountain slopes of Big Sky, just an hour from Bozeman. It’s certainly convenient. Who knew you could be leaving the beach and, two hours later, be in snowy Montana?
I don’t ski. I don’t snowboard. But I have an aunt and cousin who live in Bozeman who I hadn’t seen in over a decade. And the place I most dearly wanted to visit in the US next is just south of Bozeman – Yellowstone National Park.
I always thought the park was too far away from anywhere else to be reachable without a lot of effort. I’d once looked at a five-hour drive up there from Salt Lake City and decided, nah. So this was perfect. As was the flight up there. I don’t recall flying JetBlue before, but they have something most economy flights do not. Legroom. Lots of it. More than I needed.
Two hours after leaving the ground, we landed at a similarly small airport. Ringed by snowcapped mountains, it had a totally different theme. Dark wood. Mountain cabin ambiance, down to the roaring hearth fire. How many airports have a fire you can sit by and relax? But we didn’t stop. Within half an hour, I was at my aunt’s home, enjoying a wonderful family catch-up and a great home cooked meal.
Bozeman is changing, and you can feel it. It’s going from a small mountain college town to something a little larger. But it seems to be doing it smartly. The new hotel we are staying in seems a good example. The Element is one block from the main street, and is making a very visible effort to be environmentally conscious – from using a large percentage of sustainable energy, down to the design of the shower water flow. They serve healthy food, and recycle more than any other hotel I have seen. It’s refreshing.
Mid-April is an interesting time to be in the Montana and Wyoming borderlands. The roads in Yellowstone are only just reopening after the winter freeze. Wildlife is everywhere. Herds of bison – hundreds of them – are in their winter range, as the snow in the valleys melts and grasslands are revealed for them to graze. Elk, moose, and bighorn sheep are all doing the same. The summer crowds of humans who visit national parks are not there to disturb them. Wide rivers reflect a crisp, deep blue sky. Everything feels sharper, perhaps due to the high altitude. Bald eagles, osprey, golden eagles and enormous cranes catch the morning light. Bison snort steamy plumes as they walk beside and past our vehicle, reminding me of the steam we’re seeing rising from the hot springs running into the rivers. We see otters sweeping through the warm water, presumably enjoying the respite from the chill. Deep snow hangs over the edges of rivers, losing the battle against the sun. It’s warm, and despite bringing many layers, we find we don’t need them. Ken is training us to watch. We look at the edges of fields – the margins where both predators and prey might hide from view. We watch the elk, seeing if something startles them – it could be a sign of an approaching wolf pack. We enjoy the deep silence of the open valleys. It is not an eerie silence. It feels like a friendly silence – a luxury of this remote ecosystem. Ken explains how it is one of the last few unspoiled places left on Earth.
We come across people who do this kind of thing all the time. Some are folks who worked in the park for decades who, as soon as they retired, went right back to doing what they did before – observing and recording nature. For such a wild and remote place, they have a very good sense of wide movements of small groups of animals. They can describe the different wolf packs, who has seen them that week, and where they were. They use radios to tell others – I spotted a bear here, a wolf there. With their spotter scopes set up wherever they can find a good view, they remind me of astronomers – willing to endure discomfort and hours of seeing nothing, for those amazing moments of nature seen with the naked eye.
We pass frozen lakes, and streams and ponds that will soon run dry. We pause to watch a cinnamon black bear, from a safe distance. He’s pawing the ground, like a cat would, foraging for food. A red fox crouches close by, eyes alert, ready to run at the first sign of prey.
Further south in the park, nature dominates in a different way. We’re inside the enormous collapsed caldera of a geologically young supervolcano. We stop at waterfalls roaring over its ancient edge, and see evidence of immense geological forces in cliffs made of ancient ash compressed into rock. We see an entire hillside made of dark, gleaming obsidian. There’s a hot spot in the crust of the earth only a few miles below us, a plume which has erupted upward many times in Earth’s history – and someday, it will do again, although it probably won’t be for tens of thousands of years. In the meantime, sections of the park rise and fall by inches every year, like crust on a hot soup. The ground steams and bubbles and hurls watery geysers up around us. It’s eerie to walk across snow and feel a warm, humid cloud shoot across our pathway, fogging our sunglasses. It doesn’t seem natural. Nor do the colors. Snowy forest gives way to a landscape of vivid oranges, reds, and yellows, ringing steaming pools of scalding hot water that we stay a safe distance from. The pools are a deep, clear blue, and we can see deep into them. They are so hot, the white rock that edges their depths looks pure, gleaming, like ancient Greek ruins. From a distance, we marvel at the steam clouds reflecting the pool edges. Nowhere else have I ever seen steam flash blue, orange and yellow as it mirrors the alien colors below it.
A few weeks earlier, most roads were covered in deep snow. In two months, the most popular parts of the park will be much busier with visitors. These first few days of the park coming back to life feel even more special. I’m sure any time of the year is special there, for different reasons. But I reflect that no one involved in the trip asked me to write anything positive about it. I could be as negative as I wished. I can’t, however, think of a single bad thing to say. This little moment in time is perfect.
With thanks to Mollie Eckman at Element Bozeman, Yellowstone Country Montana, Julie Davis of San Diego Magazine, JetBlue Airways, and Yellowstone Safari Company.