by Kassandra Hardy, '03, '04, '06
Night 6, Gallatin National Forest on the outskirts of Gardiner, Clear Skies, 34°
Laura and I departed Whitefish around 6 PM. Not a speck of snow on the road, moon so bright we barely needed lights. We took turns sharing adventure sagas to stay awake.
I wrote by moonlight in the tent that night. Chad, Laura’s fiancé, had assigned me reading for my nights in Yellowstone. On top of the stack was Lost in the Yellowstone. Great, I thought, a few nights solo in an unfamiliar terrain in the middle of winter and I’ll be reading about someone getting lost. On the contrary, however, it was an excellent kick-off to my nights on the ground. The short book tells of one man’s peril in surviving Yellowstone’s wilderness for 37 days in the fall of 1871.
Yellowstone National Park is known for many things: our nation’s first national park, 1872 (the worlds first, as well); the largest volcanic system in North America -- aka the ’super volcano,' the host site of the highest concentration of active geysers in the world; its uncanny stench of sulfur dioxide, in which the chemical sulfur (among other chemical reactions) colors the stone yellow; and the wild land fires that hastily blew through Yellowstone in 1988, burning 36% of the park, forcing the NPS to close the park for the first time in history, also resulting in an overhaul of the NPS Fire Management Policies. Today, most people come to view the wildlife: bison herds saunter everywhere, often posing for pictures along the many roads that cut through the landscape; elk, deer, and coyote can be found in most places in the park; and where I was resting my head for a few nights, wolves are known to roam and howl.
Nights 7 & 8, Slough Creek, Full Moon, Clear Skies, 10° followed by a whoppin’ 20° night
Carissa Black, a fellow colleague from Glacier is currently working at Mammoth Hot Springs. While laboring through the process of acquiring a backcountry permit, I asked if she had an interest in joining me for a night. She hopped on the opportunity and we met at the trailhead near six. I skied, Carissa snowshoed, and we hit the trail by quarter to seven. The full moon accompanied us, warranting grins on our faces and headlamps in the off position. There was hardly enough snow to ski or snowshow with only 2-3 inches on the trail. We set up camp a mere 3 miles from the car. As we settled, the first haunting drone of a wolf made its greeting. Carissa and I took a quick glance at each other, ensuring that each of us heard what the other had heard. We opened the book of the evening, Gary Ferguson’s Walking Down the Wild, and began reading out loud. Just as Carissa flipped the third page we heard a second deep howl. Wolves howl to communicate to their packs, especially during twilight. This pack had 6-7 wolves who entered the choral session before the second deep howl subsided. We tried to keep reading, but the howls were too overpowering to continue. We sat in our crazy creeks enjoying the sound of wilderness. Another wolf pack began to howl from the south-east, accompanied by some yelping of the coyote.
Ferguson struck several chords with me over the two nights in Slough Creek. The book captures a 500 mile journey he had through the Yellowstone Rockies. In search of ‘native wisdom,’ this naturalist seeks to learn the nooks and crannies of the landscape through personal experience. He shares that he wants to know the whats and whys of Yellowstone’s nature -- such as when a herd of elk move into winter range, Ferguson wants to be able to recognize if they are early or late; and such that if a peculiar cloud cover hovers Everts that it means rain will fall in Gardiner in an hour. Beyond all of the crannies, however, he reveals a condition found in the foundations of environmental thought that I am too familiar with: we can see much of this from our bucket seat.
But! As in all wild places, the best connections rise through the rhythm of our feet falling on the earth.
I may have been able to hear those wolves from my car, but would I remember the feeling that I had, the memory of lying in my yellow tent for two consecutive nights surrounded by frozen air, listening to the epic call of the wild? My connection to that place -- my reason for this project, is the desire to feel alive.
From my journal: "The second thought -- is about my drive to feel grounded. Initially, I had thought that my drive for this project was that I wanted to ‘just do something fun and productive’ for Glacier’s Centennial or that I wanted to have the ability to share something with the world. Maybe it’s a bit of both, but, whatever it is, it’s a real drive -- being in the wild does make you feel more alive. It forces you to pay attention."
As a true guest at Slough (pronounced SLU, like my alma mater!), I want to remember a few inspired thoughts. One is based on traveling in an unknown area and how this fact has the ability to change, even if just for a moment, what you do know. For instance, having not spent too much time in Yellowstone prior to this excursion, I found myself thinking more about my safety. I told far more people exactly where I was planning to be. I took extra care of my food at night. I thought several times before wandering away from camp into the woods. With this feeling of the unknown two distinct feelings arise: excitement (not like, oh, wow! but much more like an anxious child awaiting Christmas morn) and an uncomforting wonder (What’s around the next corner? What’s the history of this area? Who else is out here?) The latter is what keeps most visitors away, I think.
Before entering my last night on the ground for this trip, I should say that I saw two wolves bearing their bulky winter coats in Lamar Valley. The sun was rising and they were chasing one another down a snow-covered chute.
Night 9, Gallatin National Forest (Laduke!), Clear Skies, 16°
Just a quick reflection on this dynamic landscape. Whenever you set out to observe a place, you inevitably compare it to something else. With no surprise I compared Yellowstone and the Gallatin to Glacier. My first observation was a question -- what’s up with Yellowstone’s wildlife being so visible? Well, the landscape is desolate other than a sprinkle of sage brush and pockets of aspen and doug fir that coat the hillsides -– as to where Glacier is thickly forested and strikingly mountainous in which shelters much of Glacier’s wildlife. I followed this question with a tracking observation. It’s truly difficult to tell what species is coming or going. Tracks are everywhere and on top of one another. I noticed that Spruce Budworm has also infested many of Yellowstone’s evergreens, as it has in Glacier. Ah, and the sage (Salvia officinalis)…it is so beautiful in the winter’s muted light.
Although I would call myself a planner, I never really know what is going to happen next. Not only does this keep things refreshing, but the way the last few trips have unravelled, it keeps the project genuinely inspiring.
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