We fed the bears marshmallows from the back seat of the family car when I was kid. Cranking down the window a few inches we’d toss leftover peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and sweets to the fat bears who waddled from car to car along the road into Old Faithful. Today visitors search for the wolves of Yellowstone, especially in the winter.
“My parents bought honey in the gift shop and fed the bears from their Model A Ford on their honeymoon,” Ginny, a friend told me. Wildlife management has come a long way since the early days of America’s first national park. Changes in wildlife has also changed the ecosystem and fuels winter tourism.
Wolves were once prolific in all areas of the park, but their hides were valuable and they were slaughtered with strychnine-poisoned carcasses and bullets. The population was eradicated in the 1920s, leaving the wilderness wolf-free for seven decades until 1995 when 14 wolves, captured in Western Canada, were reintroduced into Yellowstone. Today there are an estimated 108 wolves in 12-13 packs scattered across 2.2 million acres.
I made tracks to the park with a group of five wildlife enthusiasts to search for the wily wolves. We chose to travel in the icy grip of winter because it’s the best time to see large animals that stand out against the white snow. The wolves stay in the woods and tend their young in dens in the summer. It’s possible to see wolves in other places such as the Grand Teton National Park and Jackson Hole, Wyo., about 70 miles south but, “Yellowstone is still the best place in the world to view wild wolves and the best season is winter,” says Carolyn Harwood, the Resident Instructor of the Yellowstone Institute, the park’s official nonprofit education partner.
A “Three Cat Day” to brag about
Lamar Valley is the best place to watch wolves. It is a wide, expansive valley often called “America’s Serengeti” because it is home to wolves, grizzly, bison, elk, moose, coyotes. My first day in the park I saw bison, elk, moose, coyotes, fox, antelope, eagles, bison and the coveted wolf! Our guide said we’d earned bragging rights – and any employee in the park would understand – just tell them we’d had a “Three Cat Day” viewing a wolf, fox and coyote in one eight-hour period. We wildlife novices were the envy of everyone we told about the “Three Cat Day.”.
Not everyone loves the wolves. Their return, 20 years ago, has caused controversy. When the wolves leave the park boundaries they cause havoc for ranchers who can face real economic hardship when their cattle or sheep are slaughtered. Wolf management is still a very emotional and hot topic.
The solitude and silence of off season travel
So often I thought, “I feel like I have the park to myself” as I photographed bubbling mud pots, steaming fumerals, erupting geysers and magenta-colored alpenglow on snowy mountains at sunset. In the winter you experience the park without the crowds or noise pollution.
Alone with “Old Faithful”
One evening after a fabulous dinner at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, two friends and I took a night hike. We bundled up in layers of fleece and down, and trekked outside to the area where Old Faithful erupts. After the sun goes down and the visitor’s center closes, the eruption times aren’t posted until morning. We had no idea what Old Faithful was up to. We just wanted a walk in the dark along the wooden boardwalk paths on a loop around the geyser. We dared each other to turn off our flashlights. It was scary for a few moments while our eyes adjusted to the black night and our feet found stable footing in the snow along the path. We hiked by hissing, bubbling hot pots and steaming air vents. As tiny snowflakes drifted down from a primeval dark sky, we heard the geyser rumble then roar. We sat on cold benches and watched and listened to the earth exploding. We had Old Faithful to ourselves.
There are only two accommodations open within the park in the winter. The newest of the park’s lodges, built in 1989 is Old Faithful Snow Lodge – imposing and yet rustic-style like the Ahwahnee in Yosemite. Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel is an attractive historic property located near the north entrance . The park lodges have a wide variety of winter tours ranging from half or full-day snow coach tours to multi-day learning and wildlife viewing trips. Contact www.YellowstoneNational ParkLodges.com
The park’s nonprofit education partner, the Yellowstone Association also offers educational and field-based programs, from live-in wolf weeks courses that operate alongside research work, to photography classes. For more information contact www.YellowstoneAssociation.org
Bozeman and Chico Hot Springs
I flew into Bozeman, Montana – a city with lovely Victorian homes, good restaurants, a “must-see” Museum of the Rockies, and a vibrant student population of 16,000 at Montana State University.
Outside the city I visited the fascinating Grizzly Encounter – a rescue and education center with five rescued grizzly bears. We watched one year old Bella prance around the outdoor area and play with a cow hide, like dogs play with toys. Bill Testa, founder and educator explained that the bears are rescued from circuses and one bear was born in a garage in Georgia where an individual thought he would build a wildlife park in his backyard. Bill feeds the bears 90 pounds of food a day from elk steak to veggies.
“Bears are not evil beasts. If we can educate people and stop even one attack, our mission will be successful.” Bill says. He explained there are five reasons for an attack: mother with cubs, protect food, if you sneak up and scare the bear, if you try to run away, if scream of fight back during a mauling. He discussed what you should and should not do if you encounter a grizzly. www.grizzlyencounter.com
Chico Hot Springs – A favorite Bozeman getaway
The charming Chico Hot Spring Resort and Day Spa has been a local’s haven for R & R since 1900. The inn, the stellar restaurant, lively bar and soaking hot springs are quintessential Montana. A rancher from down the road stops in for a prize steak, drinks a Jim Bean at the bar and mixes with the beer-drinking college kids from Bozeman and the cocktail sipping Goldman Sacks execs and Hollywood types with discrete homes in the hills. The resort is unpretentious; the attitude laid back and repeat guests want to keep it that way.
The restaurant, a carnivore’s heaven, is five stars on a Montana scale. Choose from filet mignon, prime rib, ribeye or duck Grand Marnier. I feasted on fresh Maine day scallops, bison ravioli with corn chowder and lamb from the rancher across the road. It earned five stars in my opinion. The resort boasts three chefs who cull fresh greens and pick homegrown raspberries from the on-property organic garden.
The highly regarded General Manager, Collin Kurth Davis is a stickler for quality so he raises his own bees, makes his own honey and is roasting his own coffee beans for guests. The wine menu has won numerous Wine Spectator Awards and stellar offering top notch wines from Lake Country, California (Steele Pinot Noir), the Willamette Valley, Oregon, and Europe.
The century old lodge, with 95 rustic rooms, is a historic gem. Guests from the inn and from Bozeman enjoy two outdoor hot spring pools, ranging from 98’ to 104’. I wondered why a group of young men crowded around one specific spot in the pool. Then I realized they could see the ball game on the TV in the bar through the windows. This is a spa the guys love! Don’t be surprised if you soak, sip and dine and never make it to Yellowstone 30 miles away. www.chocohotsprings.com
“We have guests from age 8 to 85 who have had dogsledding on their bucket lists for years”, according to Absaroka Dogsled Treks who offer daily adventures from Chico Hot Springs. Drive your own team of huskies or sit back and let the guide do the work. I did both and thought standing in front of the guide trying to “mush” and control the dogs was the most fun. Treks go into the Gallatin National Park and range from an intro-level trek to a half day, full day or 3-day Musher’s School. www.absarokadogsledstreks.com