Thaw by K.L. Johnston

Yellowstone, January

A few years ago, I was offered opportunity to travel with a group into

Yellowstone National Park during the January thaw. Snow is way out of my

comfort zone. This was crazy. There’s a reason I live in the Deep South. But I

thought about it and realized that for me, this might be a once in a lifetime trip.

Stepping into an eco-system that is totally foreign to you is a good way to open

your eyes to a bigger world. It’s also a good way to get into trouble.

Taking this photo is the first thing that got me in trouble. Snow masking

bulls swing their heads from side to side in the deep snow to clear away patches

snow to get to something edible, and the whole herd benefits. I was fascinated by

this behavior, sneaking closer to try for a better angle for the picture. This bull was

annoyed by my presence – that raised tail is a good indicator I later found out.

Even though he had plowed up a snowbank between us, I learned how much faster

a hungry beast can move than a human and later got a sharp lecture from a park

guide. I was chagrined, to say the least. There are good reasons why the park

stresses keeping your distance from the animals.


In winter, some of the Park’s permanent residents take advantage of packed

and plowed roads. Elk and bison use them, and the bison walk contentedly

alongside slow-moving tour buses, everyone keeping to their own lane.

Ghosting on the Firehole

We never saw the wolves on this trip, although their tracks were evident from time to time.

Most frequently we saw coyotes watching us, curious and discreet, and then

quickly blending into the background if we took too much notice. One came up

from a field and chased our van like a suburban puppy, then scrambled uphill to

watch us as we went on our way. This was one who was different, obviously

having business elsewhere and barely giving us a glance as he trotted by us,

disappearing into the mists by the Firehole River.

Later, on the boardwalk at the Fountain Paint Pots, I looked down into the

blue, blue, 202-degree water, and from a distance watched the mouth of the

unpredictable Fountain Geyser as it got ready to blow. (See, I was learning that

thing about keeping to recommended distances.) One thing I heard caught my

attention as I stood there watching this miracle. Behind me, someone was saying

“I wonder if the volcano activity is increasing this year?” Wait – What? Nobody

told me I was going to be standing on top of a volcano. My perception was

suddenly changed from tourist to concerned citizen. And then I started doing my


Lovers in Solitude

After a couple of sleepless nights, pondering what could happen if

Yellowstone’s sleeping giant woke up, I was feeling small and insignificant. It’s

one thing to know intellectually some idea of the vastness of the forces of nature.

It is another thing to internalize that into a life view.

Even with a determination not to anthropomorphize their beauty, it was

impossible not to feel a measure of peace, watching the trumpeter swans foraging

in the January thaw. Particularly sensitive to human disturbance, the huge birds

fought their way back from the brink of extinction in the 1800s and are slowly

spreading into their original territory. Faithful and patient, long lived and mated

for life, they seem to embody traits that most of us find admirable. It’s easy to see

how swans have become a symbol for lovers. I was fortunate to be able to watch

this pair for just a little while, keeping my distance.

On our last day, standing at an overlook, I remember feeling a moment of

intense cold, and understanding. Looking out across the river valley, we could see

an incoming storm, a defined entity, visible and moving in our direction. We

watched as entire waterfall drowned in snow. Time to get moving! I had a lot of

facts in my head about the environment, climate change, and all the eco-arguments

floating in the media. None of them became part of my reality until winter in

Yellowstone grounded me the beginnings of respect.

K. L. Johnston is an author and photographer whose favorite subjects are whimsical, environmental and /or philosophical. She first published at the age of sixteen and her recent work has appeared in journals and galleries ranging from Burningword to Still Points Art Quarterly. Her other interests include horticulture and historiography. Her guilty pleasure is reading urban fantasy novels.

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