Day 5 - Yellowstone National Park
3:30am NZ time my alarm goes off, and it's well well well below freezing here in West Yellowstone National Park. I showered, shaved, got rugged up real warm, had a bite to eat and was almost done when I heard a big rumbling outside and mere seconds later a knock on my door. The snow coach had arrived!
I climbed in and we set off. Since I was first to be collected I got the front seat which was extra fun cos I was always first off and had the best view. We collected the rest of the group and set off at a blazing crawl for Yellowstone National Park. There was a thick fog out and it was somewhere in the region of –15 to -20°C!
Yellowstone is the world's first national park, and covers a large chunk of northwestern Wyoming (and a little bit of Montana and Idaho). It's geologically very active with numerous springs, geysers, warm patches and so forth. For some reason, despite not being near any plate boundaries, it is a hot spot and a super volcano.
We drove on down tracing a river, with frosted pine trees around us and plenty of snow. It was pretty spectacular, doubly so since the fog hadn't burnt off yet and we were still in the shade.
Our first animal sighting was a herd of bison.
They looked pretty cold, but I'm assured they're so fat they don't feel a thing.
The sun was starting to come out and the fog was burning off. Since a lot of the rivers are fed from hot springs, they are "warm" and so steam away, and do not freeze over like a traditional stream would at these temperatures.
We saw some swans, of a variety I don't remember.
We also saw plenty of Canada geese and various ducks. They all looked pretty happy with the conditions, yet it was utterly freezing outside!
Soon we saw a herd of elk feeding on the far bank of the river. Seems the snow doesn't really bother them.
We stopped at Madison Junction for a bit and I met some of the other snow coaches. The Bombardier Snow Coachers were especially cool:
These were built in the late 50s for quite a few years, as snow busses for use in Canada. After all, people needed some way to get to church, school, do their shopping, etc. They are very cool contraptions and can go quite fast in the snow.
We continued and soon came across some bison walking right towards us, they seemed quite keen to use our road.
I had opted for the Grand Canyon tour, rather than the Old Faithful tour, on the grounds that it'd probably be less popular. I was right and besides our group of 10 there were very few others. It also gave us a lot of freedom to go with our guide Suzie's whims.
We stopped at the first set of falls which were rather impressive.
We continued off towards the second viewing area. All the way we kept eyes peeled for any kind of movement, especially for things like otters in the river, herds of things, or movement off in the distance. We rounded a corner and found quite a few snow coaches stopped, which most likely meant something more interesting than bison up ahead.
Well, there were bison ahead, however there was more than just that. There was a pack of wolves, feeding on a downed bison!
Yellowstone Park was initially wolf free, however in 1995 they started reintroducing wolves and now the park has between 100 and 200 wild wolves. The park has a strictly "hands off" policy with animal populations and so do not interfere in kills etc.
When we arrived most of the bison had been eaten and several wolves could be seen in the distance lying down with full bellies.
Here is the (remaining) herd standing nearby watching.
There were some very expensive looking cameras and lenses on show, after all it's not every day you see a wolf kill in such a visible location. With nearly 900,000 hectares of land, the chance of a wolf kill taking place within camera-range of a road is prett slim. Suzie said she hadn't seen any wolves since December, so was especially excited to see this today.
After a while of watching we continued on with our tour. We soon saw a bull bison on a ridgeline, although after the wolf pack this wasn't quite as amazing.
As we rounded a corner off in the distance one of our group spotted movement. Some quick work with the binoculars confirmed it was a fox. We watched him for a while through the scope that Suzie had. While watching I heard some noises that sounded like a cross between wolf cries and bird calls. Suzie got quite excited and we continued around the corner. She had warned us that we wouldn't see anything to top the wolves, especially nothing like a fox or coyote. Well we'd now seen a fox, and around the corner was this:
That's right, nothing less than a coyote. In fact we saw three.
Seems they sink into the snow somewhat and like to follow each others tracks. They soon disappeared into the trees, however it was great fun seeing them and apparently seeing all three varieties of wild dogs in Yellowstone in one day is simply unheard of!
The scenery here is amazing, with big snowy meadows, and dense forests surrounding them.
Driving back from our detours someone noticed another fox on a hill, this time closer.
He was very cute.
We continued on and got back to our scheduled course, which included some immense waterfalls.
Having seen this we headed back and filled up the van. It averages about 2-3 miles per gallon, whereas normal for a vehicle with rubber tyres on a highway is 20+. Seems the Mattracks aren't very efficient, and shoving such a heavy load through dense snow is naturally going to be hard work.
The story of Mattracks is quite cool, apparently the inventor's son, Matt, came to him one day with a drawing of a truck with tracks and said "Dad, can we make this?" and 2 years later Mattracks was born.
The thermometer at the visitors centre registered -8°C and that was in the sun, in the middle of the day. My super warm coat was definitely earning its keep!
We went back to the site of the kill and as we watched the last wolf finished eating and almost immediately the ravens moved in. Scanning around the trees we could see several bald eagles and soon they moved in too.
At one point there were four bald eagles all on the carcass at once! With some careful cellphone camera positioning in the scope, I was able to get this:
We were now running quite late and so started to head home.
The sun was starting to set now and I was feeling quite sleepy.
However we weren't home yet and as we rounded a corner a huge bison stood in our way!
We tried to nose past him but he made a sudden move towards us so we hit reverse and moved back. He was in no hurry to move and a smaller vehicle managed to scoot behind him, but we were a bit stuck. After a while we carefully nosed around behind him and just when it looked like we were going to make it he started charging the side of our van!
Suzie had warned us to move away from the side of the vehicle because he could easily punture the side with his horns and when he suddenly went to butt heads with us we all feared the worst! However nothing happened and we didn't feel a thing so I guess at the very last second he changed his mind, thank goodness.
We continued on in peace and saw the sun start to set.
At long last we arrived back in West Yellowstone, MT, only an hour and half late. However with all the critters we'd seen no one was complaining at all!
For dinner I went the easy route and got a burger at the Three Bears Restaurant and read my book. It was such an exhausting day I even had room for dessert!
So if you find yourself in this neck of the woods in winter, I would highly highly recommend a snow coach tour. They're pretty amazing, and more or less the only way to see the park in winter. I spent the evening downloading the 250 photos and sorting through them. Poor camera had had quite a work out!