It is a gloomy,
gray and altogether nasty morning. A milky froth has settled over the
mountains, and the sun has dissolved without a trace. Snow falls, but there is
no wind, and the huge flakes drop straight and silent through the pines. We
have to get moving, obviously, but I for one am somewhat reluctant to pull on a
pair of frozen boots and venture out into a raw and moody landscape that more
closely resembles the surface of Jupiter than anyplace else on earth.
Self-discipline at this point is a superhuman virtue, and after considerable
shouting and mutual beratement we begin moving.
For several hours
we tramp through magnificent stands of fir and spruce, gratefully aware that
descending a mountain on snowshoes is easier than ascending one. Following
ice-clogged Cache Creek, we arrive eventually at its junction with the Lamar
River. We hear the river long before we see it. The sound comes rolling through
the snow like the gentle rustling of curtains. It is the first sound in 24
hours not related to our movement, and we savor it. The river appears black in
the dull light, and water vapor rises like smoke off the surface, marking its
erratic course until it meshes in the distance with the gathering mist.
We move north
along the waterway, cross a convenient ice bridge near Chalcedony Creek and
move downstream into the broad Lamar Valley. In the shelter of the valley we
begin encountering game: elk, moose, buffalo, mule deer, a few bighorn sheep
and the inevitable coyotes, ravens and magpies. Of these, elk are by far the
most numerous. They are all around us, moving silently through the gloom like
goblins on the moor. In areas of heavy grazing the valley is crowded with them,
thousands of animals weaving through the falling snow in a tangle of antlers.
The herds extend as far as we can see. Our route becomes a maze with animate
blockades. Close contact is unavoidable and, although many animals are wary,
there is no panic. We pass close enough to some to brush away the cape of snow
that covers their backs; our jackets are soon damp from touching the rivulets
that trickle down their sides.
buffalo mingle with the elk, but these are usually solitary animals grazing
apart from the larger herds along the Yellowstone River. They forage with heavy
lumbering movements, plowing through the drifts with pendulum swings of their
massive heads. Most of them are feeble and stalked at close quarters by coyotes
that give us scant berth on their perpetual hunt. Winter is a fat time for
predators. Our travel is frequently punctuated with gory scenes of coyotes and
magpies tearing strips of flesh from dead or merely exhausted animals.
We camp at the end
of the day in a tumble of boulders at the base of Specimen Ridge, hoping the
natural shelter will keep us from getting stepped on and also provide some
relief from the rising wind. The elk are still with us. I can hear them
browsing in the dark; panning with my flashlight I fill the night with dozens
of glowing green globes. A few coyotes investigate our presence or, more
precisely, investigate the beans we're cooking. We toss them strips of beef
jerky, and they reward us with a community sing. The valley soon reverberates
with a high, lonesome yodel.
It is still
snowing, but the dense cloud cover has warmed the air to a stable 6� below.
Feeling adventurous, I strip to long underwear and socks before crawling into
my bag. As an afterthought I pull in my boots, pants, a fuel cartridge for the
stove and a canteen of water. Sleeping with these items is the only way to keep
them from freezing, and I'd rather sleep in a lumpy bed than spend half an hour
trying to jam my feet into frozen boots.
We awake the next
morning as cramped and stiff as before, but this time the stiffness does not go
away, it gets worse. Our muscles are as hard as wood and will not flex without
pain. During the night my knees have swollen so drastically that pulling on my
pants requires stubborn effort, and after we move out I begin to feel the
grating of bone in my knees and hips. Our movement slows. Walking till dark on
snow packed hard by foraging animals we cover only seven miles. High adventure,
I'm beginning to realize, is not synonymous with fun.
We had planned to
ford the Yellowstone River pioneer fashion at the ancient crossing on the old
Bannock Indian trail, but the trail is lost somewhere under eight feet of snow,
and we prudently consider the alternatives before attempting to negotiate an
unknown stretch of water. We cross instead the bridge near Tower Falls and head
south along the spectacular river gorge. Behind us now are the rolling gray
meadows of Blacktail Deer Plateau. Looming somberly in our path are the
Washburn Mountains, a few tight peaks on the lip of Yellowstone's Grand Canyon.
Although it involves another serious climb, we must cross this range to reach
the Central Plateau and Yellowstone Lake.
A north wind
rises late in the day, pushing clouds that skid along the ground, filling every
creek bottom and ravine and pouring through the passes around the mountains
like rivers of smoke. Since our first night in the park we have been dogged by
snow squalls, low cloud ceilings and poor visibility, but now I have the
feeling that something serious is about to happen. There is a certain tension
in the wind. A storm center is approaching. Already our path is blocked by
swirling drifts, and the new snow drives through the trees with a terrible
stinging flakes that dodge through the darkness like swarms of hornets, we
prepare camp near the base of Mount Washburn, four miles from Dunraven Pass.
The wind is pounding much harder than before. Snow whirls through the night,
and the wild gyrations of the treetops paint silver trails on the black cloud
bottoms. Too tired after our climb to cook dinner, we settle for jerky and a
frozen brick of cheese and use the last of our water to make lemonade. I sleep
restlessly, my body so cramped and twisted that I am unable to stretch full