“Again, last night, the coldest place in the nation was West Yellowstone, Montana.” That’s a story we hear winter after winter on the nightly news, a kind of weatherperson’s joke. It’s all most American citizens know about Yellowstone in the winter.
Which is no doubt a good thing. Winter protects Yellowstone from the hordes of recreational automobilists and bicyclists and tromping backpackers with their multicolored gear, all the cartoon tourists of summertime. You and me and the kids, and Uncle Ted in his Winnebago, and sister Sue whose eyes are blue, everybody in pursuit of a few sweet moments spent checking out a sacred remnant of what we persist in calling wilderness, even after the highways are built. Maybe two million visitors between mid-May and Labor Day.
And then the crowd goes home, leaving Indian summer for those who live in the northern Rockies year-round. Along about the middle of September the leaves go seriously into the business of turning brilliant color along the Firehole River and the other fishing waters. And the trouts, the wonderful slick-bodied trouts, rainbow and brown and cut-throat and brook, hungry again in the cooling streams and given to lifting ravenously to suck down an ephemeral bit of feather tied handsomely to a barbless hook.
It should be explained that the hooks are barbless if you are an honorable person and only interested in a spot of morning or evening sport. Some meat-eaters go out equipped with a frying pan and a couple of spuds and an onion, and corn flour mixed with salt and pepper in a little baggie.
And a lemon. Such persons plan to kill one or more of God’s living fish right there on a gravel bar, snap the spine and split open the tender belly and scatter the guts into the brush for the pleasure of raccoons, and wash the trout body in cold onrushing waters, and cook up in the twilight and eat with their fingers.
But much of the time we are not that way. After all, we are the folk who had the good aesthetic sense to live here year-round in the first place. We simply feel it makes good lifetime karma to live in a place where on the evergreen mountain slopes, by early October, the tamarack turns golden, their needles falling through the perfect clarity of afternoon light to litter the undergrowth along the trails like some detritus from heaven.
If that sounds romantic, excuse me. But it’s an old custom, our simpleminded xenophobic glorying in the world we have chosen to inhabit in our West. For good reason. Yellowstone is a sacred place, believe it. And it is sacred for reasons beyond landscape and Old Faithful and even the great waterfall on the Yellowstone River. It is sacred for reasons that have nothing to do with our American pride in having at least tried to save some special part of that fresh green continent our people found and overwhelmed with our cities and automobiles and survey lines. It is sacred because of the ecosystem that survives there.
After the tourists are gone Yellowstone belongs to nature again, to the forests and the fungi and, most visibly, to the great animals, all of whom are sacred. It’s the way many of us would have it all the time. Fence off the whole damned works, some people say, and lock the gates. God bless them, the extremists, who would kick out everybody but themselves. And I’d be for it if such measures could save the grizzly, who is to my mind the most sacred of all. But that’s to my mind.
The damned old gorgeous, terrible grizzly bear. You walk in country where the grizzly lives and you are alert in an ancient way, let me tell you, and in contact with another old animal who walks inside you every day, trapped and trying to get out. Without the grizzly, on our nature walks, we’ve got nothing to be afraid of but ourselves.
In fall the grizzlies turn irascible as they ever get, absorbed as they are in the hustle for food, layering on fat for the long dozing winter. But we don’t mind their outbursts of self-centered crankiness, most of us here, so long as we don’t get hurt. What the hell, we say. You don’t tear down the Tetons because some climber fell off and got hurt, or killed.
The seasons here are turning, and the thronging thousands of animals are coming down from the high country. The bull elk are responding to hormones and bugling their echoing long cries through the forests, gathering harems and breeding and rigorously defending their lady friends from violation by weaklings and youth. Soon they will be swimming the icy rivers and heading for their winter feeding grounds, mostly outside the Park, maybe 4,000 of them going south to the National Elk Refuge, near Jackson Hole. Another huge herd of perhaps 15,000 will move north of the Park to the country on the west side of the Yellowstone River, beyond the Tom Miner Basin. The bighorn sheep are undergoing the same trials, the rams sniffing the air for signs of females in estrus and running at each other like football players, head to head in heedless combat, the crashing of their collisions echoing among the rocky peaks.
The mallards and the Canada geese and all the other migratory waterbirds gather into vast clamoring flocks and lift into the gray skies of November, heading south. The trumpeter swan does not migrate and endures winter on such open waters as the outlet of Yellowstone Lake. The beaver stockpiles green saplings into his house for winter food, and the timid tiny pika, down there between the rocks on some scree slope, gathers harvest grass to feed on through the winter.
And those few humans who live in Yellowstone during the months between November and March, the Park winterkeepers, they are drying mushrooms and canning peaches and stockpiling three-gallon tubs of ice cream into their freezers. Envy them. Soon the first heavy snows will come, and the Park will be deserted, and they too will settle in, with War and Peace or Atlas Shrugged or some rugs to weave.
The snows begin to sift through the branches of the Douglas fir, and the interior of the Park is officially shut off to automobile traffic.
Imagine forty below. It’s colder than the temperature inside your freezer, and not uncommon when winter has come down on the Park like the hammer it can be. The first heavy snows roll in from the Pacific in great waves, as though they might go on forever in some inexorable end-of-the-world scenario. The plateau around Yellowstone Lake is over 7,700 feet high, and the snow piles up five feet deep on the level. The heavy-browed bison plow along, swinging their heads to sweep away the snow and uncover buried yellow grass. The coyotes prey on tunneling rodents who have come up for air, make predatory moves toward buffalo calves, and study the otters at their fishing, hoping to frighten them away from their catch. It doesn’t often work.
The cold is now sometimes terrible, and always there. Wind sculpts the frozen snow, and steam rises from the hot pools. The ice on Yellowstone Lake sings its music of tension, the coyotes answering back on clear nights. Elk wade in the Firehole, which is fed by hot springs, and feed on the aquatic life. This is winter in the high northern Rockies. Things have always been like this, except for the snowmobiles.
My friend, Dave Smith, who was a winterkeeper in Yellowstone for six years, says the Park in winter is like a woman’s body, lovely in its undulations and dappled with secret places.
“Living by yourself,” he says, “you make a pact with trouble.” Which sounds like a way of saying “death.” Some simple mistake, like a bad fall on cross-country skis, can kill you very quickly when the daytime temperatures run to twenty below and the night starts to come in out of the east at four in the afternoon.
“But once you’ve settled your mind,” he says, “then you just go out there, and you find the warmer places, where some little steam vent comes up from the thermal. The ground is soft, and green things are growing.” Which is what he means, I guess, when he talks about secret places.
“Winter,” Smith says, “is a time of dreams.”
William Kittredge was director of UM’s Creative Writing program for many years. He is the author of several books, including Owning It All, from which this essay was excerpted, Hole in the Sky, The Nature of Generosity and Southwestern Homelands.
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