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.
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
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.