No, I did not track THAT animal

Nine hours late for the meet ‘n greet, I pulled into the Institute’s parking lot at 3:00 a.m. The crunch of gravel sounded my arrival as I fumbled to switch off the car’s headlamps. The cabins were small dark patches in the near distance, but I’d no idea which was mine. If that was on the confirmation they sent, the detail had seemed unimportant enough to ignore. Looking around to check the appropriateness of the spot for parking (having already assumed I’d be sleeping in the car for the remainder of the night), I was surprised to see the movement of someone coming toward me. Only half out of the car, the Park Ranger reached my door. He was hatless — the first Ranger I’d seen without one of those funky brimmed hats. In his hurry to see who was pulling in, he’d neglected to stick it on, although the holstered gun was in its rightful spot. My eyes turned to his face and were confronted with eyebrows lifted so high I could only see the whites of his wonder and amazement. As I quietly introduced myself his heavy gaze kept alternating between me and the Mazda. I didn’t know if he was more shocked at the lateness of my arrival or the transport that’d gotten me there. Not interested in chit-chat, he pointed his flashlight toward the black field in front of us, light dimly reflected by the dirty snow. “You’re in Cabin 9”. I took two steps away from the car, and tersely he said “Ma’am do you have a flashlight?” Accommodating his impatience I quickly replied, “Yes I do, but I’ll find the cabin just fine. My eyes will adjust quickly.” He said, “There’s wild buffalo out here and they kind of like roam a lot, and well, you wouldn’t want to bump into one of ‘em.” He turned away so quickly, the gravel clicked under his heels. The sound was one of a head sergeant making an about face on my pride. Despite my reluctance to dwell on what 400 inches of snow per winter meant to humans and driving conditions, the recognition had been made earlier that I’d entered a new, potentially dangerous world. Long hours ago I’d shed any notion of being adventurous. With his last words hanging in the air, I realized with horror not only was I not adventurous, but the most feared type of greenhorn. I was the New-Yorker at his first small town Oklahoma rodeo, walking up to the wrong end of large, hoofed animals. Head hanging, flashlight in hand, I located Cabin 9.

Five months ago, I left everyone and everything I knew for a new job in Jackson Hole. Knowing nothing of the area became a source of unexplained courage that morphed far too easily into bouts of ignorance. I quickly learned bears are to be revered and buckling myself behind the wheel of my beloved 1995 Mazda MX-6 didn’t make us a conjoined Superman. The front wheel drive had limits despite my imaginations’ lack thereof. Notwithstanding the artesian well of bad judgment and a steep, often painful learning curve, I quickly became familiar with the area.

I’d explored much of the wilderness near-by but the new job had prevented venturing into Yellowstone National Park. About the time winter began shutting down my exploration activities, a new friend handed me a brochure and suggested a course through the Yellowstone Institute. Looking through the brochure, I chose the course that appealed most to my Old West daydreams, an animal snow tracking course. I knew nothing about snow, much less tracking. Having experienced only a few snowfalls in my life and never having been in temperatures much below freezing, the course promised a new world. The brochure said we’d be staying at the Institute’s headquarters, the Lamar Buffalo Ranch Field Campus in the northeast corner of Yellowstone National Park. They provided cabins with propane heaters but we were responsible for our own sleeping bags, blankets and food. Aside from how exciting this sounded, the actual course description really intrigued me “You’ll learn classic tracking techniques, such as measuring gaits and distinguishing species. You’ll also learn the specialized knowledge and techniques required for reading tracks in the snow.” What stories I’d have to tell! In retrospect, my excitement at the inimitable bragging rights resulted in glossing over a lot of the brochure’s most important details, like “you’ll need to approach the Park from the North” and something about experience with cross country skis.

At the end of the previous work day, I’d blasted toward the West gate of the Park in West Yellowstone, Montana. Weeks earlier I’d learned the hard way the South gate closed on November 1st. Last night another difficult lesson was conferred when I discovered the West gate closed. Redundant I know, but separated by several weeks and many miles means it counts as separate and unrelated incidents, doesn’t it? Tears erased all bravery and bluster. Breaking down over my plight (I’m in a car with only enough clearance to not be a turtle killer), a West Yellowstone police officer confirmed the North Entrance was the ONLY gate open into the Park during the winter. Gathering myself, I checked the map — it didn’t appear too terribly far. It was a clear night, the snow highly reflective, the roads plowed; my confidence returned, if only momentarily. Getting to the Institute meant driving around through Idaho, up and then back down into Montana, through mountain ranges. It meant hair-raising amounts of snow and ice on roads with signs that frequently read “CAUTION: 11% grade ahead.” The Mazda carried me through tunnels of snow banks so high, had we lost control on the ice covered roads it would have been a simple matter of bouncing and spinning off the sides to a self-contained stop. Our hope was should we wind up burrowed into a bank there’d be enough left visible for a passerby to spot us. That was truly optimistic – those snow banks could have swallowed that car whole without so much as a burp. It was another bout of courage-morphing-into-ignorance and a pronounced one.

Still horrified this morning at the greenhorn thought (the night was brief), I’m first to the community building for breakfast, even after quickly parking the Mazda behind the farthest cabin. The other eight people in the course straggle in enabling me to meet them one at a time. Anxiety prevents me from eating much of the granola bar. No one inquires after my whereabouts last evening which means either the Park Ranger has already gotten to them, or he’s still sleeping. Either way I’m thankful no one seems the wiser about last night’s odyssey and sit down for class relieved my dignity’s intact. We’re all on a level playing field again.

Class consists of a combination of lecture, slide show and video of various animals’ tracks in the snow. It’s interesting but my rumbling stomach is glad that lunch is announced. Over the course of making our lunches and visiting, I discover the group of students to be mostly scientists or doctorate program candidates. Deciding to tell them I’m a financial geek in order to explain why I can’t carry any of the conversation about animal gait garners nods of interest from them and revives the greenhorn phobia for me. So much for the level playing field. The instructor mills among us for a while and announces we’re heading outdoors for the rest of the short day.

Pulling on my appropriate, albeit unique cold weather clothing, I feel pretty smug about the cost of the rental snowmobile suit. I’ve not invested yet in much cold weather clothing and couldn’t see starting that investment for this course. I look around. I’m warm, no one’s looking at me — I feel confident until we step outside. “What cross country skis!?” “Yea, I think I can get these snow shoes strapped on.” Maybe. Sweat. Lots of sweat. I thought snow shoes kept you ON the snow! It’s negative 10 degrees, I’m waist deep in snow attempting to stay up with people on cross country skis and trying not to have a heat stroke. The group stops to examine tracks. I struggle to join them. Bending down to see the tracks of a snowshoe rabbit, sweat is dripping off me. Then I realize it’s not sweat. It’s snot. Lots of it. The guy next to me starts laughing and hands me a handkerchief. NOW everyone is looking at me; some with concern, some with amazement. I start laughing. I’m dumbfounded at how much snot has been manufactured during my sweaty trek in frigid temperatures. Muffled by the handkerchief shielding my overflowing nose, I say “I can’t believe the course material doesn’t mention anything about the snot-effect”. Having placed myself purposefully in situations like this repeatedly, I’ve learned bonds occur through this kind of honesty. Everyone laughs and to my delight, the ‘snot-effect’ becomes part of the course lexicon.

I can strap on the snowshoes with no assistance, am the first to spot a black-tipped ermine running across an open field, correctly identify a snowshoe rabbit print, and stand beside an elk carcass for a photo opp. We shovel a large hole to observe snow melt under varying conditions, and discuss how UV rays affect the melt, snow pack types, and the various kinds of crystals. I learn in sub-zero temperatures exposed body fluids freeze instantaneously and if the fluid is not exposed but close enough to the surface, like in your nose, it’ll freeze there too. The men with beards provide hours of entertainment with the frost and frozen schmutz created by the warm area around their nostrils and mouth. The film in my camera cracks into shards. I realize the stark beauty of it all is really a mask of death, but that doesn’t stop me from falling in love.

Frigid Wonderland

Frigid Wonderland

The final day brings a lucid sun juxtaposed above acute cold and finds us mixing, pouring and carefully extracting plastic mold from tracks. It’s as painful a process as anything I’ve endured. The effort of arms oscillating from forming a shield for my eyes, to wiping away the tears freezing on my lashes, to mixing then pouring, and back again is exhausting. The tracks have to be deep and sharp for the best result from the molding material and mine appear to be made by a recent, elusive moose. Despite ardent searching, no one has seen either a wolf or wolf tracks, which is disappointing as I distinctly recall the brochure mentioning this likelihood (one of the few details I absorbed).

It’s afternoon, the sun has warmed the snow’s surface sufficiently to make it crunchy and a bit easier to traverse with snow shoes. Trudging back to the Institute, there’s a ruckus of sorts ahead of me. Our instructor is excited about something he’s spotted on the ground. Being the only one on snowshoes, I’m last to arrive at the group. I’m in a hurry to see and they excitedly wave me into the circle. Still a blundering newbie on the snow shoes, I’m unable to gauge and control where the end of the shoe will fall. A pile of semi-thawed poop squishes through the tip before anyone can stop me. I groan at the poop. The group groans at me. Bear scat.