Dispatch: Wildlife Viewing in Lamar Valley at Yellowstone
Photo by David Cogswell
Randy, our guide on the Tauck Winter in Yellowstone tour, warned us that Wednesday would be the most challenging day of the whole trip, and the coldest. It was important to dress warm, he said. To help keep the extremities warm, he offered us little hand and toe warmers, strange little packets of chemicals that got hot for several hours after you opened the package.
We were going out game viewing, on a safari in the American wilderness.
It was single-digit cold at the beginning of the day, but not windy. The cold had amazing penetrating power. It was a big, dense cold, and though I had many layers on, it got through to my toes quickly, like a slow motion bite. Fortunately, we were never out in the cold for very long before we were able to get back in the van to warm up and head off to our next stop.
When we stopped at Lamar Station, the woman who was keeping the store there said it had been 17 below 0 Fahrenheit there that morning. But when the sun rose, the landscape warmed quickly. The intense cold was really only for the first couple of hours. Then it became more moderate.
Our group of 20-some people split into two winter-proofed vans just after dawn to try to catch sight of some of the wildlife that would be still at large at dawn, but would start to disappear as the day progressed.
We were looking for wolves, moose, foxes, coyotes, longhorn sheep, mountain goats, otters, anything we could spot with binoculars. Our guide brought a telescope on a tripod that brought you quite close to what were only tiny figures on the landscape to the naked eye. Bison were plentiful and easy to find. Some of them had been grazing near the front of the hotel when we first pulled up.
READ MORE: American Safari in Yellowstone
Since the grizzly bears and black bears are normally hibernating in February, we were told we probably wouldn’t see any. There had been some rumored sightings of bears that may have come out of hibernation early because of record-breaking warm weather.
Our guides said the mountain lions are there, but very elusive. So it was not likely we would see them or their cousins the lynxes or bobcats either.
We stopped near another van at a pull-over spot where wildlife could be seen across a broad snow-covered landscape. There were only a few people within many miles, and they were helping each other by sharing information about good opportunities to see beautiful animals living.
We saw some wolves and elk at our first stop. According to park regulations, you are supposed to stay at least 25 yards from the herbivores and 50 yards from the predators. When it comes to grizzly bears, I’m not sure 50 yards would be enough for me, unless I was standing next to a door.
But people tend to shrug off those kinds of guidelines, and every year there are incidents of people being injured or killed by wild animals in Yellowstone. The bison are not predators, and they appear usually to be so peaceful and benign that some people mistakenly approach them. Some of them get gored. It’s very serious business.
The bison is a magnificent creature. As pretty and cuddly as they may appear, they are formidable beasts. The bulls are practically all muscle, with massive shoulders and trim, powerful haunches. They are prodigious athletes. It is said that they can leap 18 feet straight up into the air without a run, or 40 feet horizontally. They can be six feet tall, 10 feet long and weigh a ton.
So forget about selfies with bisons. In general it seems park visitors are respectful of the parks, but we did see people ignoring the guidelines and getting way too close to the animals.
We stopped at a place where longhorn sheep were grazing on the bank next to the highway. The bank was a nearly vertical cliff, maybe a 75-degree angle. But the sheep traversed it as effortlessly as if it had been flatland.
Forget about the image of sheep; the domestic sheep that are the classic, docile herd animals with no will to resist anything. These longhorn sheep bear little resemblance to them. They have the rolled-back horns of the Aries ram and have no problem butting each other’s heads with massive force. They are big, strong, lithe and beautiful. They ignored us as they fed heartily, and one of them ventured closer to us than the 25-yard limit.
Some photographer from another van approached the sheep with a telephoto lens as long as your arm and came within a few feet of the animal to photograph it close up. What the telephoto lens was for I couldn’t figure out unless he was photographing the fleas on the sheep’s flank.
Out of respect for the animals and for the whole tradition of the park, we humans shouldn’t crowd or molest the animals. We don’t have to stress them out by getting too close. We are their guests. It’s their turf, not ours. But people with cameras sometimes seem to have left their minds in the little black box.
At one point as we drove along the highway our guide spotted a fox and we stopped to look. It was a red fox, the smallest of the three canines of the area, counting wolves and coyotes.
The fox was a radiant orange in color. It was 50 yards from us but with binoculars we could see it clearly. It was stealthily stalking something. It turned out to be a mouse down in a hole in the snow.
We saw the fox cocking his head as he listened. He was focused intently on a hole in the snow. He crouched quietly as he listened. Then suddenly he leaped three feet up into the air and came down like a swan dive, his nose aimed right into the mouse hole.
The leap gave him the power to dig instantly into the hole and grab the mouse before it had time to respond. We saw the fox pull back out of the snow, the mouse dangling from his teeth, and then crunch it down with what appeared to be a look of satisfaction.
Seeing free wild animals is something that has a powerful impact on people who have grown up in cities. For me the impact was not something I anticipated or had any idea of the first time I experienced it on safari in Kenya. I didn’t realize what I had missed until I saw it.
It’s the old thing about a fish having no concept of water because it is the total medium in which it lives. Only “a fish out of water” experiences that world beyond, which for a fish is certain and quick death.
Until I saw magnificent large animals in the wild, I didn’t realize that all my life I had only seen them in artificial packaging. Any lion I ever saw was in a zoo or a circus, maybe a photograph, or a documentary movie packaged with explanations by a narrator. Just to see real live animals living in a more or less natural environment had a subtle but powerful effect. It was a brand new feeling and created a new perspective on life.
The animals are the characters on the stage. They punctuated the safari, gave it form. But even without seeing animals, the landscape of Yellowstone is an ever-present spectacle. Words fail and no camera can capture it.
The sun sparkled in an undulating movement across the pristine snowy surface as we drove along. The snow-covered mountains, the rivers and waterfalls, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone were not just the backdrop of what we were observing. It was all part of the process that we were observing, as referred to in the quote by John Muir that opens the Ken Burns film “The National Parks, America’s Best Idea.”
“And here … one learns that the world, though made, is yet being made; that this is still the morning of creation.”
The earth is still in the process of creation, and we all have the opportunity to participate. From the perspective of a human life it’s a nearly imperceptible motion. But it is happening now. You can discover it. In Yellowstone you can experience a place that is very much as it was before the United States was a country.
More by David Cogswell
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