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Cold Faithful
Explore Yellowstone in its purest form -- during wintertime.

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 22, 2004

The snows of Yellowstone National Park are just as reliable as Old Faithful and, by some people, just as eagerly attended. Every year, they return to toss a fluffy white duvet over these craggy valleys, lodgepole forests and steaming thermal fields. For outdoor aficionados, this is the preferred Yellowstone, the serene, muffled, dramatically veiled Yellowstone of winter. For those in the know, single-digit air is something to be embraced, not endured. The cold is just a blood-racing, cheek-pinching companion to a day of skiing through cathedral forests or of snowshoeing up to a mountain-goat's view of the geysers. And nothing refines your taste for a little something hot around the lodge fire more than a few hours in the chill of the Northern Rockies.

Yellowstone's brief winter season is a longstanding ritual for many, particularly snowmobilers and wildlife-watchers, two groups of Yellowstone lovers who have not always loved each other. But this year, the snows are falling on a remarkably shifted scene. In a sharp reversal, the number of wolves in Yellowstone is climbing steadily as snowmobiles have declined.

The wolves, methodically and purposefully extinguished in the park in the 1920s, were reintroduced in 1995 and have thrived beyond all expectations. Snowmobiles, meanwhile, which grew so popular that some 69,000 came into the park last winter, are suddenly themselves flirting with extinction in Yellowstone. A federal judge -- trying to sort out a tangle of environmental lawsuits and conflicting regulations -- slashed daily snowmobile admissions to fewer than 500 a day for this winter and put them on a course to being banned entirely. Two weeks ago, another judge upped the number of snowmobiles to almost 800 a day and ordered the Park Service to draft new rules for next winter. And the legal ping-pong continues.

It's an exchange of fortunes that has some cheering, others wailing and everyone uncertain. But all agree that the winter experience in Yellowstone -- whether wildlife-watching along the northern edge or cross-country skiing around the Old Faithful Snow Lodge -- has gotten quieter.

"For people from all over the world, standing here and not hearing one single sound of human activity is very profound," says George Bumann, an instructor with the Yellowstone Association Institute, a sort of outdoors community college that uses the national park as its classroom. We're on a ridge above Elk Creek in the northern park. Except for the sigh of the distant river and the occasional screech of a bald eagle we can just see wheeling against the dawn sky, the stillness is absolute. "We've had folks change careers after taking one of these classes."

At this time of the year, Bumann and the institute spend a lot of time shepherding people along this stretch of the park. Visitors -- like me and Dan Knotts, a friend from Wilmington, Del. -- spend a few nights at one or both of the two Yellowstone lodges open in winter and a few days with a naturalist scouting for wildlife, especially wolves.

Crazy for Wolves

The drainages along the top edge of the park have become the most popular and reliable place in the world to view wolves in the wild. Every morning -- and most evenings -- an ever-shifting troop of enthusiasts convenes along the northeast entrance road. They are biologists and wolf enthusiasts, photographers with Howitzer lenses and drop-ins with disposable cameras. Some are first-timers, taking a morning or two from a broader Yellowstone vacation; others have been here for dozens of straight mornings.

"They are just gonzo-crazy about wolves," says Bumann, a boyish wildlife biologist and sketch artist who also teaches the institute's nature-drawing courses. "Many of them know individual wolves by sight. They know what's been going on with the pack."

We climb back into the van and Bumann heads up the northeast entrance road, the only Yellowstone road plowed through the winter. Wolf-watching here is as simple as cruising along until you come upon a clutch of people gathered roadside behind a tell-tale thicket of spotting scopes and cameras. Several of the regulars carry radios, and we already know from the chatter that one wolf has been sighted tearing away at an elk carcass near the road. The Yellowstone action is so up-close that viewers routinely watch live as the packs chase, attack and kill elk, bighorn sheep and even bison. That's especially true in winter, when much of the park's wildlife comes down to the shallower snows of the northern valleys.

We pull over at an open slope near Crystal Creek where Bumann often has luck. And sure enough, we're barely out and zipped up against the 20-degree chill when he calmly lowers his glasses and points uphill. "There they are." We easily spot two wolves trotting up and along a ridge line about 200 yards away. It's a black male and a gray female, two graceful figures chromatically in synch with the austere winter terrain. Behind them, a droopy spruce heavily swagged in snow is hit by a stiff breeze and seems to explode in a cloud of white dust.

Bumann scrambles to set up his spotting scope tripod. I'm at the eyepiece, dumbstruck by the 40X view of the animals' powerful strides and bright, grinning faces (which conceal jaws that can snap an elk femur), when they finally top the ridge and disappear into the thin aspens. Wolves in the wild. The chill I feel has nothing to do with the season.

From the 41 wolves introduced in 1995 and 1996, there are now an estimated 300 living in 16 separate packs. The population is established and thriving and has proven remarkably obliging to the growing number of folks who come to see them. Yellowstone recently marked its 1,000th consecutive day of wolf sighting, and many a perfect-for-PBS elk kill has unfolded before a riveted audience. No one expected it to go this well.

"It was thought that your Yellowstone wolf experience would be hearing one howl," says Bumann. "And lo and behold, we recently celebrated our 100,000th visitor who has seen a wolf."

Bumann radios Rick McIntyre, a lead wolf program biologist who is staked out somewhere in the valley on most mornings. Riding on, we see blood on the snow from the already-reported earlier kill. As watchers observe all the hunts, fights, affairs and play of the various packs, they report up the line to McIntyre, who gathers the threads into a broad picture of wolf behavior.

"We know more about these wolves than any in history," says Bumann.

A little farther up the Lamar Valley, we watch a group of eight bison wallow in a deep drift, plow-grazing with their massive heads for whatever scant grass remains beneath the snow. They look up with masks of snow, hulking woolly beasts with geisha faces. The snow stands thick on their backs, too, bison being so snugly insulated.

Along the river, elk are everywhere. In one thick stand of Douglas fir near the road, we count more than a dozen stags, most with the towering candelabra racks that hunters murmur about as they fall asleep.

"It's actually tougher to see the wolves in July or August when the elk have all spread out in the higher elevations," says Bumann.

A few miles away, where the valley floor widens into a windswept, snow-blown plane, is a cluster of log buildings. This is the Lamar Valley Buffalo Ranch, the institute's winter dormitory, where visitors who can do without the hot tubs and cocktail hours of the nearby Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel can live in rustic cabins in the very heart of animal country. An old ranch bunkhouse has been converted into a communal kitchen and classroom, and a new bathhouse (with a heated floor!) has eased the rigors of winter morning showers.

Inside the bunkhouse, Wynette Middlebrooks gestures expansively to the kitchen windows. "Where else can you watch wolves and bison and elk as you wash the dishes."

Middlebrooks and her husband, Charles, retirees from Chapin, S.C., are bona-fide Yellowstone fanatics who have been coming here since 1959. But it was only when they made their first winter visit in 2001 that they decided to actually live in the park for part of each year -- the cold part. They're on their third winter as volunteer Buffalo Ranch caretakers.

"Everybody just kept telling us, 'If you haven't seen it in winter, you haven't seen it,' " says Chuck. "And they were right. It's unbelievably beautiful and it's deserted."

More Animals, Fewer People

Well, not quite deserted. More than 140,000 people will visit Yellowstone in its official winter season of mid-December to early March, up from a scant 21,000 in 1971, the first year of winter visitation. But compared to the 3 million who pour in during the year, the park's 2.2-million acres are amazingly unpeopled when the snow is on the ground. Add that some of the wildlife is actually easier to see at this time of year, and the unarguable fact that steaming hot springs never look more dramatic than when surrounded by a corona of snow and ice, and it's easy to see how winter visitors get smitten.

"I'm here at all because of winter," says Jim Halfpenny, a biologist from nearby Gardner, Mont., author of the recent "Yellowstone Wolves in the Wild," a photographically rich summary of the park's newest attraction.

We meet him at a trail head, little shards of ice still in his beard from a ski-and-lecture trip he's just led with a group of institute students. "It's not just the lack of crowds. It's winter itself, the pristine beauty of the white snowfields. It used to be just hard-core travelers who came in the winter, but now it's getting to be a much broader cross-section."

To make the season more appealing to more visitors, in 1999 the park opened the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, a snug, timber-framed resort a few yards from the venerable but decidedly non-winterized Old Faithful Inn. With hot showers, a well-stocked bar and an adequate dining room, the Snow Lodge is a cozy outpost in the middle of Yellowstone's remarkable geyser basin.

Yellowstone by Snowcoach

As none of Yellowstone's interior roads are plowed, the only way into Old Faithful is by snowmobile or one of the bizarre "snowcoaches" that ferry visitors back and forth. Early on our second morning, Dan and I board one of these hybrid oddities, a GM passenger van that has been lifted off its wheels and dropped onto a set of half-track treads and two steerable skis. Off we go with a lurch and a slide, trundling deep into the heart of the park. As we head south, we gain elevation. The snow banks along the road grow deeper and the rivers more lively. Waterfalls are draped in long curtains of ice with nearby trees entombed in a glass coating of frozen mist.

Ken, the driver, slows to a crawl to let a line of bison lumber by. Two coyotes, one a youngster, keeps pace with us for a few hundred yards, stopping every now and then to sniff a scent, or to leave one. They cross the road in front of us before climbing up a slope and out of sight.

A fellow passenger, Allison Pollack, shakes her head at the abundance of critters. She's on her second winter trip from San Jose, Calif., with her husband, Michael, a wildlife photographer. "When we came in the summer we didn't see one coyote," she says. "In the winter, we might see 10 of them."

Postcard shots of wildlife are everywhere. Much scarcer are the snowmobiles. About halfway down to Old Faithful, we meet up with just two small groups of them at an overlook above the Norris Geyser Basin. In previous years, the road would have been swarming. But in the mid-1990s, after snowmobile exhaust at park entrances was shown to violate the Clean Air Act and fresh air had to be pumped into the gatekeepers' booths, environmentalists and regulators began the ongoing legal and regulatory fight to ban them -- or at least restrict them to smaller numbers of cleaner, quieter machines.

"Usually you'd see dozens more along here," says Ken, as he steers the stolid snowcoach into the Old Faithful compound.

It's a sprawling place, as befits the epicenter of Yellowstone's summer hubbub: a huge general store, a visitors center, three separate hotels. But now most of the buildings are hunched in a shuttered, snow-covered hibernation. A worker shovels snow from the roof of the 100-year-old Old Faithful Inn, relieving its ancient bones. But the new Old Faithful Snow Lodge is built to take it.

Snowshoeing the Geysers

A fire crackles in the lobby as we check in. We drop our bags in the room and head right for the ski shop. After two days of vehicle-based touring, we're eager to plunge into the cold proper. For the next two days, we'll spend almost every minute of daylight snowshoeing and skiing around the most active thermal basin on the planet.

Eventually, we huff in snowshoes to the lip of an 800-foot-high ridge that obviously hasn't been hiked since the last big dump. Our great webbed feet sink a few inches into fresh powder as we high-step through a stand of young pine regrowth, one the many woods beginning to come back from the storied fires of 1998. Some rare sun breaks through the winter ceiling, casting long sapling shadows across the impossibly bright snowy hillside.

A few miles to the south, we see a distant plume that -- if we're holding the map correctly -- may be the Lone Star Geyser, a remote thermal feature we plan to visit the following day. We'll join another institute group on a six-mile cross-country ski trip past frozen falls and along the Firehole River, which is tempered by hot springs and runs glossy black between its icy banks.

But for now, we linger on top of the ridge, surrounded by Yellowstone's winter parts: bison and elk milling through the conifer forests all around, a coyote yap echoing from the mountain walls, a hiss of wind picking ice dust off the trees.

Far below, we see Old Faithful doing its thing -- with a crowd of just five tiny figures in attendance -- one of several spouts erupting along the basin floor. It's like some primordial tableau down there, with the mighty bison picking their way across glistening ice and hot-spots alike. They emerge from the swirling steam in misty silhouettes, lumbering artifacts from an ancient age. Here, in the virtuous chill of winter, they live on a planet still being born.

Steve Hendrix will be online to answer questions about this story Monday at 2 p.m. during the Travel section's regular weekly chat on www.washingtonpost.com.

Details: Yellowstone in Winter

GETTING THERE: Yellowstone's north entrance at Gardiner, Mont., is the only one open to cars all year (this is also where the main wolf-watching activity occurs), so you'll probably want to fly into Bozeman, Mont., about a 90-minute drive to the north. Round-trip airfares from Washington to Bozeman start at about $330. Park entry fees are $20 per car or $10 per pedestrian, both good for a week.

WHERE TO STAY: Unless you are the hardest-core of cold-weather campers, you'll want to stay in one of the two Yellowstone lodges open in winter. The 100-room

Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, just inside the park's northern entrance, is a roomy but utilitarian base for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and wildlife-watching in the Lamar Valley. Its dining room is only about average for national park cuisine, but the secluded hot tubs excel at cutting the chill of a day outside ($15 per hour). Rooms with baths start at $101 for winter (or $77 without baths). Mammoth is also the jumping-off spot for the drive -- via tracked snow vehicles -- to Old Faithful, which costs $51 each way.

Once there, you'll find the 100-room

Old Faithful Snow Lodge, opened in 1999 to give visitors to the park's interior someplace cozier to stay than the drafty summer hotels of the thermal basin. A few dozen paces from Old Faithful, it's a snug, modern outpost in the midst of endless white wilderness, complete with a ski shop, fast-food lunch restaurant and evening programs. Its bar and dining room, which share a fireplace, is where you'll find the only crowds of winter Yellowstone. Rates start at $80 for outlying cabins, $159 for the main lodge. Info for both properties: 307-344-7311,

www.travelyellowstone.com

.

If, like me, those steaming thermals billowing in the snow make you want to take a hot plunge, you can't do it in the park (for one thing, a 190-degree dip will kill you). The locals steered us to

Chico Hot Springs Resort (1 Chico Rd., Pray, 800-468-9232,

www.chicohotsprings.com

), a Wild West throwback hotel between Yellowstone and Bozeman that has a vast outdoor hot-springs-fed swimming pool adjacent to a genuine saloon and near an excellent dining room. Ask for a room in the original creaky 1900 inn, which costs $79 (with private bath) during the winter; there are other pricier rooms in the many modern annexes.

WHAT TO DO: The

wolf watching is, unbelievably, so easy and reliable you can do it yourself. Starting at Mammoth Hot Springs, just drive the northeast entrance road (the park's only plowed road) on any given morning and look for the clots of people gathered with binoculars. They are watching wolves -- and bison and elk and bald eagles and the other wildlife that is surprisingly abundant in the winter.

For a more curated experience, the

Yellowstone Association Institute (307-344-2294,

www.yellowstoneassociation.org

) runs field seminars and guided courses through the winter (and warm seasons as well). Field seminars last from one to four days and topics include wolf- and wildlife-watching with a biologist, winter ecology, photography and drawing. Rates average $70 a day for instruction. Lodging and meals are additional. You can stay at one of the park lodges, in nearby Gardiner or at the spectacularly situated Buffalo Ranch in the Lamar Valley, where you sleep in rustic cabins and cook your own meals in the common kitchen ($25 a night, per person).

For a cushier experience, the institute offers a range of "Lodging and Learning" courses based at park lodges. Classes include cross-country ski tours of the thermal areas, snowshoeing and family outings. The two- to 5-day packages typically include instruction, room, breakfast, lunch, ski and snowshoe rental and park transportation. Prices range from $115 to $165 a day, double occupancy. (Lodging and Learning programs can be booked through the hotel reservation line, 307-344-5566.)

INFO:

Yellowstone National Park, 307-344-7381,

www.nps.gov/yell

.

-- Steve Hendrix

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