Wednesday, December 22, 2010


I am prepared to argue that I have the greatest commute in the world. Okay, perhaps there is someone out there commuting between tropical islands on a sailboat, basking in sunbeams while dolphins frolic over the hull, but I’m certain I have the continent locked up. Driving a snowmobile along the shores of Yellowstone Lake, watching the sun rise over the Absaroka Mountains, and dodging the occasional herd of bison—aside from slightly nippy temperatures (though it doesn’t feel THAT much colder than a sedan with the A/C on full blast in July), I couldn’t ask for 20 miles of more scenic and lively highway to drive every day on my way to work.
Packing West Thumb Geyser Basin
In order to provide more of a community for the interpretive staff this year, we are all living in the Grant area (at the bottom of the figure-eight), and taking turns driving to Fishing Bridge to staff the warming hut. Today was my “Monday,” the first day of my work week, and as usual it took a few extra minutes to put on all my layers and gather my gear for the ride. After checking over my snowmobile and fueling it up, I pulled out onto smooth roads. The groomer had neatly packed down yesterday’s snowstorm, and I was stopping by West Thumb Geyser Basin to do the same with snowshoes on the boardwalk. The thermal area was fogged in, cooler temperatures trapping the steam from the geysers close to the ground. Though the sun was trying to peek through, the air temperature hovered around freezing, and the basin was steamy and mysterious. The West Thumb of the lake is almost completely frozen, now, and the stillness of the ice only added to the eeriness of the fog. It seems more familiar to snowmobile along the frozen lake, however, and I have been caught by surprise a couple times over the past week to find myself snowmobiling alongside open water. (Even more disturbing, a colleague reminded me that I could still be kayaking on the lake today. Brrrr….)

Otters at Pumice Point
 Ten miles up the road, the sun was finally breaking through the fog and I pulled over at Pumice Point to look over the lake. At this promontory where the Thumb meets the main part of the lake, the sheer layer of ice gave way to open water, though the shores were stacked with blocks of ice pushed up by the waves and the expanding flows. As I was admiring the force evidenced in these ridges, I saw two dark shapes slip out of the water onto the ice. The river otters had discovered the boundary of their habitat, too, and seemed to be out testing both the ice and the sunshine.
Though I was the only snowmobile on the road that morning, it wouldn’t be a true commute without a little traffic jam. Three groups of bison stood today on the road to Fishing Bridge. The first group seemed startled to see the first snowmobile of the day, and quickly moved to the side of the road. Three miles north, I encountered a second group, just three cows and their calves. I pulled close to the animals and waited for them to move to the side of the road, but they hardly seemed to notice I was there—or at least they didn’t care that I was there. It was breakfast time (or perhaps time for a mid-morning snack), and for the next ten minutes I watched these three mamas nurse their calves. My thoughts on this public display:  first, OUCH! Though I can’t speak to it firsthand, I’ve heard that breastfeeding can be somewhat painful. Apparently it’s even worse when it’s three degrees outside. This was not the tender, nurturing experience we claim in our culture. Second, watching these cows stand in the middle of the road giving food to their offspring, when there was absolutely nothing around for them to eat themselves, I was impressed by the sacrifice of their own calories on behalf of the next generation.
Ever the impatient commuter, at one point I boldly tried to slip between the trio, only to come far too close to an awkward dance between a cow bison and a calf clinging to her teats with its mouth. I pulled back, hoping the loud beep of the reverse signal wouldn’t further aggravate the animals, and waited. Eventually, snack time ended and the group started walking, allowing me to zip by on one side of the road. The third group of bison were walking head-to-heel, just like they describe in the textbooks, and I was halfway around the group before I realized we were side by side on the bridge over Bridge Bay. I punched the gas and prayed the bison wouldn’t have the same compulsion my brothers do to throw random objects into any body of water, just to watch it splash and sink.

Pumice Point at Sunset

On the return trip, I now faced the bison head on, and this time the lead animal was the meanest looking bull I have ever seen. Not particularly large in size, this creature had the same look in his eye as those bulls they cinch up at the rodeo. His horns were literally askew, the left one curving gracefully upward, while the right horn pointed directly out from the skull, then bent ninety degrees at the very tip, pointing exactly at the eye-level of a 5’7” human straddling a snowmobile. Perhaps because of the skull injury, the animal’s fur grew forward on the right side, dropping into his eyes and giving him a one-eyed, crooked-horned look which was probably as neutral as any bison stare, but registered in my mind as “I want to beat my head against something… right now!” I drove a little faster, just in case.

Avalanche Peak

Now, I am a tremendous fan of the Winter Solstice, mostly because it marks the moment when the days will finally start lengthening again. One great thing about commuting on the shortest day of the year, though, is that the sun begins to set just about the time I head south. The mountains were glowing pink, doubly so because of their reflection in the lake. I watched a coyote testing the new ice floes, taking a shortcut across the neck of the lake. To round off my second “Three Dog Day” of the season, a fox scampered down the road for twenty feet before bounding easily over a four-foot snow bank. I pulled up to the garage just before night set in, and was home strapping on my skis as the nearly-full moon was rising, calling me out for an evening ski.

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