Thursday 19 February 2015

Snowmobiling in Yellowstone

Old Faithful
Now I don't know about anybody else, but I pretty much have a constant soundtrack-to-life playing in my head. Sometimes, it makes sense - like driving around California singing Joni Mitchell's California in my head (or okay, sometimes out loud). Sometimes it's a little more obscure - like seeing the eucalyptus trees in California and getting Give Me a Home Among the Gum Trees stuck in my head (Will did not help with this - as we drove around he would point to a stand of trees and say 'What kind of trees are those again?' so he deserved every ear-splitting rendition he got). Sometimes, my internal soundtrack is flat out bizarre. So, when you imagine me snowmobiling through the wintery wilderness of Yellowstone, it needs to be accompanied by a rousing chorus of the title song from Oklahoma -

 O-----klahoma, where the wind comes sweeping down the plain
And the waving wheat, it sure smells sweet,
When the wind comes straight behind the rain...

and so forth. It was pretty funny. My face was freezing off and I'm singing about waving wheat, which I'm pretty sure is a summer phenomenon.

Just so you can fully appreciate the full experience, auditory and otherwise.

In winter, many of the roads into, out of and around Yellowstone National Park are closed. In fact, it seems that the only reason the road we used was open is because they still need to bus kids from the other side of the park to school. That means that even with a car, if you want to see certain parts of the park you have to get a bit creative.

We were interested in getting to Old Faithful, a geyser in the south of the park. We were staying at Mammoth Springs which is in the north of the park, near the only park entrance that was open. We had two choices. We could take the snowcoach (a tracked bus) at the cost of about $200 each for the return journey, or we could do a day long snowmobiling tour for $360 for both of us. Not a huge saving, sure, but since we were breaking the budget anyway... actually we were more than breaking the budget. We were flattening the budget with a steamroller, running what remained of the budget through a coffee grinder and scattering the budget's remains into the crater of Mordor. Still, you're only in Yellowstone once, and eating rice for a week isn't so bad. Anyway, so we decided on the snowmobile tour, firstly for the financial reason, secondly because we hoped that on a snowmobile we would get a better chance of stopping for wildlife and a better shot (photographically speaking of course) at them too.

We suited up to the point that we could barely move, in fact, if you needed to see anywhere other than directly in front of you, you had to pretty much move your entire body as one solid unit. A deft twist through the torso worked pretty well. We had a quick lesson on driving the snowmobiles and wildlife etiquette (don't go up to the big bull elk and grab it by the antlers even if you don't like the way it is holding its head for your photo - true story apparently, didn't end well).

Some highlights of the day -

No good photos of the bison herds today as it wasn't really
possible to take a photo while driving a snowmobile!
Bison herds - There are bison everywhere in the park. They become quite commonplace as one is driving around. The first time we saw them we stopped for about half an hour snapping pictures, but eventually we didn't stop the car at all unless the light or positioning was particularly good. However, it's one thing to view them from the car, quite another from the relative insecurity of the back of a low-slung snowmobile. They are gentle, so I don't think they would go for you unless they felt threatened, but they are also skittish and somewhat clumsy, and they have huge horns that don't need to be intentionally aimed to do some serious damage. They have huge liquid, brown eyes that roll towards you, without malice, but you know they see you and aren't entirely happy that you're there. They are quite gorgeous, with beautiful thick fur, like the world's most luxurious teddy bear. In order to get anything to eat during winter they have to shove all the snow out of the way with their massive cranium which means they get snow all over their face too, like a toddler eating ice-cream.

Coyote trying its luck with a (probably
sick) bison lying on the ground
Coyote - these seem to be somewhat run of the mill for most Americans, but I was excited. They are quite beautiful animals. This particular coyote was lurking near a herd of bison where one was lying on the ground. Every once in a while the bison would lift his head and the coyote would back off. Coyotes, being principally scavengers, survive winter by waiting for other animals to not survive winter. According to some people who were down that way the next day, this particular bison did manage to get itself up and around the corner but had died. Presumably the coyote got a good meal out of it.

Same coyote as above wondering what us snowmobiles are looking at

Bald Eagle - These are very noble birds, I can see why the US would want them to be their symbol. They are also flipping scary looking. I tell you, if one of those suckers took a dive for me I'd pretty much turn into a puddle of nervous sweat. Which, interestingly, would probably save me from significant damage.
Bald eagle perched above the river, probably hunting for ducks

Silex Spring
Geothermal features - Yellowstone was originally created as a park to preserve the geothermal features, what with animal conservation in those days erring more on the side of 'how can I conserve the dead corpse of this animal I just shot?' There are a whole range of different kinds of geothermal thingys, some are kind of gross - like this bubbling mud that looks like the Bog of Eternal Stench from Labyrinth (if you don't know what I'm talking about, do yourself a favour, watch the movie). Some are otherworldly beautiful, with this luminescent turquoise colour and clear, clear water. And then there's the geysers, which are probably the most famous. We saw Ol' Faithful blow (so named because it reliably erupts every 90 minutes or so, making it the most popular because you're pretty much guaranteed to see it). It's pretty spectacular.

So, I think I've gone on long enough. At this point, you're probably just skimming the photos. I don't blame you. 

Fountain Paint Pot, sadly didn't really capture the bubbling mud.
Leather Pool
Icicles above leather pool forming from the steam rising off the geothermal features
Clepsydra Geyser
Looking out on the runoff from all the geysers the area
Celestine Pool
Old Faithful

Interested in more Yellowstone wildlife?

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