Mammoth After almost a year of waiting for our winter safari in Yellowstone, the two hour fog delay in SFO is a bit of an annoyance. But after an uneventful flight we are at Mammoth Hot Springs, and excited about the trip. The last time we visited Yellowstone we only drove thru Mammoth. This trip we spend some time at the Hot Springs and they are truly fascinating. The springs are scattered over a collection of terraces, some active, some dormant, and the combination of steam and snow with the mountains in the background is amazing. Wouldn't expect any less of Yellowstone!
Black Bathing Suit This is Rick & Randy's first trip to Yellowstone, so Upper Geyser Basin and is a must. Our trip is cut into multiple pieces: the two Old Faithfulness days, and the two wolfness days, all connected with individual nights at Mammoth. We are staying at Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, which is a nicely refurbished old hotel with heat issues on the fourth floor: we have to leave our windows open for a few hours, during a single digit temperature evening! But this is nothing compared to the biggest shock of the day: the restaurant's food was actually good, which we thought of as an impossibility for any Xanterra-run hotel! A pleasant surprise! Something else that is also a surprise is the black "bathing suit" that Assana wears to the hot tub… He he!
A Private Park The park's roads are unplowed thru the winter and closed to civilian traffic; only authorized vehicles with tank tracks get to go past the mound of snow at the end of the road… a "If you can climb past this hump you are welcome to get into the park" type of a message. Arden Bailey of Yellowstone Expeditions, a great guide trapped in the body of a comedian, picks us up at Mammoth. Arden has over thirty years of experience, and it sure shows. He entertains while hauling us around from one touristy spot to another. Turns out on his way to Mammoth the Canyon Pack crossed the road in front of him. We are so excited at the possibility of seeing wolves. (We didn't see any.) It is a beautiful day - the only fully sunny day all trip - and we are taking in the sights.
Random Thoughts Anywhere we stop we have the place to ourselves. Kinda surreal given the millions of tourists milling around in Yellowstone during tourist season. The most pleasantly odd experience is our Old Faithful eruption at 9:45 the next morning: in the entire place, there are the four of us, plus two other people who show up right before the show starts! Again, for Dan and I who have seen the benches packed with people this is an odd experience. Love it! And the trails of Upper Geyser Basin are no different. Pretty nice. It snows the entire morning so some of the geyser colors are not as vivid as when it is sunny, and not very many do their geysery thingy, but they give us great bison-in-the-snow photo ops and cause for the steamy landscape to be that much more dramatic.
The snow coach back to Mammoth is an interesting experience: by the time we get to the coach the other 7 passengers are already loaded up. Randy grabs the front seat, Dan in the middle row by the door - he needs the leg room - so that leaves Rick & Assana in the 4th row of the van at the back. Longest and bumpiest 3 hours ever. Dan and Assana's brains wonder in all sorts of directions: "Where is Bachelor Gulch anyways … How to best store a bunch of PNG thumbnails in a single file… What's the difference between delegates and function pointers … I should check with other rental companies for the car rental in DF… I wonder if the shoe rack fits under the cabinet in the garage … What happened to our Denner shipment … Boden, oh Boden! … Can I use fts to scan a volume… I wonder if Shreve stopped by Yellowstone on her journey across the country… Can you compactly save location in a database… inodes… etc."
Cat Food The wolf portion of the trip is not what we anticipated… well, actually it starts quite disastrous. Ken Sinay of Yellowstone Safari, the reason Assana picked this outfitter, is unavailable due to some conflicts. Assana planned this trip to be guided by Ken, whom she had read about in NG Traveler. Our driver, Peter, is a nice guy but he is definitely not a guide. His knowledge of wolves is limited and, well, it turns out Assana knows more! Peter drives us on the dry plowed road (Oh, yeah, another thing: not all the Yellowstone roads are unplowed. The road thru Lamar Valley is open all year round)… past all the wolf watchers … and keeps on driving. Stop dude!! Pull over! But Peter seems to need an invitation to a HUGE spot in the turn-outs before he is comfortable enough to pull over. We see an elk kill on the cliff RIGHT OFF THE HIGHWAY, and what does Peter do? He drives on by! STOP!! Nooooo… no room in the turn out! And soon we have passed the turn-out and we can't stop on the road! Sigh.
There is a cold lunch in 15 degrees + wind weather, followed by more silent driving and no wolves. Bummer. We do see adorable coyotes, a foursome of big horn sheep bachelors and of course the ever present bison. Things do turn around when we stop by Dan Hartman's studio. Dan is an accomplished wildlife photographer and a serious wolfer. Looking at his portfolio is inspiring and perks us up a bit. A yummy dinner at a local diner in Silver Gate, simply named The Bistro, and a lot of silly conversation (Assana declaring to love cat food in the midst of a seafood conversation) ends the day.
Canis Lupus The next day is not as grim. Peter continues to not spot any wildlife for us, but we manage to convince him to pull over in turn-outs where we spot other wolfers, and to allow us to piggyback off of their spotting. He does. At the first spot we see two wolves walking about. Then there's a third one… and a forth… and finally a fifth. We watch them interact and goof around, and eventually walk up into the forest. We are thrilled. But the highlight of the day is the next spot. There's a wolf munching on an elf leg… and across the valley, there's one sitting on top of the hill, both still quite far, but close enough that we can view them thru our zoom lenses. By now it is snowing like mad and it is hard to spot them. And as though the wolf on the hill wanted to make sure we do see him, he howls! And again, and again. OMG! We stand there in silence and stare in awe. What a magnificent creature.
Eventually our boy goes to sleep and all we can see are the tip of his pointy ears. We are back on the road, but cajoling Peter and dealing with his reluctance has taken a toll on us. We cut our tour short by half a day. We have more things to visit that we skipped the last time, so our afternoon is not wasted. Note to self: next time visit the Boiling River with a bathing suit!
Incidentally, Ken and Susi of Yellowstone Safari handle Assana's feedback with utmost grace and generosity. We will definitely go back to Yellowstone to try out some of their other itineraries, maybe the Llama Trek? Thanx guys!