The first thing that struck me during my all-too-brief foray into the life of an aspiring ecologist was the sheer volume my trip added on to me. I refer not to body fat (although Jesse and I did improvise a fairly mean pad thai) but to layers of clothes. First, I donned long underwear, then a turtleneck, then a fleece vest, then Jesse’s down coat, then my ski coat, and then the monster green refrigerator suit, which was also the culminating layer of my lower half: long underwear, flannel pajama pants, snow pants, refrigerator suit. Then, I added wool socks and hand-warmers used as toe-warmers, then attached on all of the external accoutrements: liner gloves, outside gloves, neck gaiter, balaclava, and then the crowning glory: a snowmobile helmet. Suddenly, I no longer resembled an 18-year-old girl on Earth but rather an age-vague, genderless astronaut on Mars or some other alien planet. My 31-hour stay in Yellowstone with Jesse was both the closest I would ever come to seeing wolves and the closest I would ever come to interstellar travel. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the picture below.
Once I actually entered the park, I was again (as I have been every time I have ventured 20 feet outside with a DeVoe) amazed by the way Jesse—who was both driving the snowmobile and looking for wolf tracks along the side of the road—would not only spot elk, swans, coyotes, bald eagles, and bison which, I—who was riding on the back of the snowmobile, doing nothing but gawking—would entirely miss. Not only that, but after Jesse would stop and point out what he had seen, it often took me a long time to catch sight of an animal at which he was pointing directly. Only by the next day did I begin picking up on the animal sightings on my own. We played a game on the way into the park from West Yellowstone: count the swans. This was not a competitive game, but I am still fairly sure I lost. Once I started to be able to spot the swans, though, I fell in love with their snow-white feathers and long, elegantly curving necks. I also loved the way those graceful necks fluidly dipped below the water to look for greens, leaving their headless bodies bobbing almost comically on the surface. We counted 21 adult swans and 1 junior. This headcount is delegitimized, however, by three swans that flew past us upriver; we did not know whether to count them, ignore them, or subtract them from future totals. In the end, like true scientists, we decided to pretend the inconvenient fly-by had never happened.
Our swan-counting was interrupted only by our periodic halts to check for radio transmissions. On my first cycle of swing-arounds with the receiver, we heard pulsing alive signals from many elk. Little was I to know then how rare those happy pulsations would be over the rest of my time in Yellowstone. Not to sinisterly imply the death of all elk and wolves over the course of a single fateful day—rather, it was just that the wolves were not within range of our signal receiver, and we never again searched for all the elk. Still, you never know… Over the course of my two days in Yellowstone, I gradually (and significantly) increased the speed and efficiency with which I swung the receiver the requisite 360°. We checked along the Madison and Gibbon river drainages that day, then motored up the Firehole towards Old Faithful to try to triangulate the position of a wandering elk who seemed to defy triangulation via an uncanny ability to be in multiple places at once. Perhaps this helps her stay alive and evade the wolves.
Hearing about the elk population dwindling out as a result of the wolves was fascinating. To me, it seemed the corollary of a post-Apocalyptic movie, or one in which aliens take over the earth and try to exterminate all human life. I pictured what life must be like to the elk cow we were trying to locate—I imagined that my brothers, sisters, parents, and most of my children had been killed by a ferocious species that was incessantly trying to hunt me down and kill me, too. I had long been reduced to trying to survive from meal to meal, travelling in a scared, ravaged group whose members were getting picked off one by one—my best friend had just been devoured, and I was left with her child and mine to take care of and somehow try to shield from the predators who were searching for me. It was a pretty bleak but definitely dramatic picture, and would make a rather tragic but striking Disney movie.
I also appreciated getting to experience a possible real-world application of what I had just been learning about in last semester’s calculus class: systems of differential equations that analyzed how different species and interdependent population growth rates would interact, given different initial conditions. As Jesse talked about the wolf-elk, predator-prey relationship, I envisioned phase plane analyses—null clines and arrows directing the interacting populations which spiraled towards equilibrium or curved towards extinction, impassively describing the species’ destinies and by extension condemning elk herds and wolf packs to their fates. Jesse’s interest was piqued by this calculus application, and I attempted to work through a systems of differential equation problem that night to show him how the math worked, but unfortunately could not get all of my negatives and positives straight in writing up the problem—accordingly, I adhered to the time-honored math instructor’s tradition of saying, “Well, let’s pretend this was the answer I got.”
I was also very diverted by learning about elk mating habits—particularly the way bull elk gather up harems in the spring, travel around with them a bit while mating, and then abandon them to care for their young while they go wander off on their own, perhaps with a bachelor friend for company. First, I felt sorry for all those poor single-mother elk who were forced to raise the children on their own and try to protect the children from wolves without even getting an alimony check. Second, I was reminded of a study my sister Bonnie had told me about, in which it was found that, out of some not-quite-identified sector of countries, Australian men were the least likely to help out in the home. And I feel that perhaps elk might have some of the same tendencies as Australian men.
I never did see a wolf, but Jesse and I examined many tracks (I became passing capable at distinguishing between coyote and wolf paw prints), and I got to both watch coyotes picking at an elk carcass at a wolf kill site, and examine that same kill site later. The blood, hair, and unidentified bony things were very interesting, to say the least. It made me briefly re-contemplate the stance of people who adamantly insist that we butcher our meat more humanely. It just seemed strange that humans killing animals in the most efficient way possible is an outrage while wolves sinking their teeth into elk to bring them down, certainly without a thought as to the elk’s comfort, is perfectly natural. To clarify, I think that humane conditions for the animals that we kill for food are a good thing, and that being civilized and human means not just following our animal instincts and, for instance, sinking our teeth into our poultry, cattle, etc. to bring them down. Still, the contrast was interesting.
My closest encounter with large wildlife, in fact, occurred the next day: we were snowmobiling along until our way was blocked by a slowly moving bison herd. This presented a conundrum typical to Yellowstone winters: we could not snowmobile off-road, but still had to get through the herd. I am quite accustomed to this situation during the spring and summer; my family used to inch through the herd in our car, with a reasonable, albeit probably not irresistible barrier of glass and metal between the buffalo and us. However, on a snowmobile it feels like a quite a different state of affairs. So, Jesse told me, “Just pretend they’re cows,” and we crept in among them, slowly trying to weave the snowmobile through the herd of lumbering, massive, horned beasts that could easily trample or gore us both. I tried to keep a firm grip on myself and not try to hunch down behind Jesse, but did not entirely succeed—I would tell myself that the buffalo were cows, but then I would look only a few feet away at a mad, dark eye and then look away and try not to think about my vulnerability. Once we were out of the herd and away a safe distance, I could take a few deep breaths. Referring to a rafting incident a couple of summers ago in which I had been rowing a raft that Jesse got swept out of in a rapid, Jesse told me, “Now we’re even. You tried to kill me once, I tried to kill you once.” I took a picture of the bison herd that we had temporarily joined, for novelty’s sake.
Back on the first day, our attempted triangulation of the mysteriously disappearing elk cow fit in nicely along our course to Old Faithful, where we disembarked from the snowmobile and wandered among the geysers of the Old Faithful Geyser Basin. I told Jesse about how my sister and I, in our very early years, would insist that the geothermal feature occasionally be called “girlsers” because we felt the term “geysers” was sexist. Jesse and I critiqued (sometimes positively, sometimes negatively) the naming of the geysers: Crested Pool and Beehive Geyser were very aptly named, as were Castle, Old Faithful, Ear, Grand, Spasmodic, and Doublet. Others were less fitting; Anenome is this strange dual-outlet/intake geyser where every so often one of the basin’s water level rises as the other sinks. The first one erupts, and then all the water in it sinks out rapidly, leaving it empty. Jesse felt it should be called Toilet Bowl Geyser. We also were unsure about what inspired the name Liberty Pool. Incidentally, I have always thought Lion Group sounded like a band name. I also shared with Jesse a dream I had when I was little, in which bees angrily swarmed out of Beehive Geyser and a dark, unnatural, humanoid figure rose out of Old Faithful and pursued Bonnie, Laura, and I around the boardwalks and into the Inn. It was a terrifying dream at the time—dark and cold. Funnily enough, in the growing dusk of the geyser basin, Jesse and I started to cavalierly point out eerie grottoes from which we could imagine Gollum-like figures emerging—a bony, dark gray-green arm suddenly reaching out and clasping the edge. Then my imagination got rather overwrought, and I attempted to stop thinking about it.
Jesse—to my utter amazement—had not yet seen Old Faithful erupt during his winter in the park, so fortunately we stayed in the basin long enough to see it erupt twice. It was particularly and strangely beautiful, with an otherworldly backdrop of snow and a sky with translucently blue clouds. Even more unusually, the entire area was deserted except for us—no snowmobile militias were trooping through, no other curious souls looking on. After participating in so many heavily populated summertime (and a few wintertime) viewings, with the boardwalks crowded with people, and the benches crawling with children running along, balancing on top of the long, flat slats—the stillness and emptiness were striking. I almost felt as if there had been some nuclear flash, and we were the only ones left surviving to witness that faithful, periodic eruption of water and steam.
As we mounted the snowmobile again, the sky had grown dark, and I could make out stars as I peered up through the lights around Old Faithful. We motored away, and I kept flipping up the visor of my helmet so that I could tip my head back and revel in the stars that revealed themselves above my head as the night darkened. I put in a request to Jesse that, at some point on the ride back to Madison Junction, we stop somewhere where we could drink in the stars, and so we did.
Jesse picked one of the most perfect star-gazing sites I have ever seen: a wide bowl, with icy plains stretching out on either side, and the white land rising up to dark ridges all around. I tried standing for a while with my head cricked back, but eventually yielded and laid down in the snow, my multiplicity of hoods creating a dry cushion for my head. We watched as a dazzling night sky emerged from the darkness—there was so much light above me that it was almost hard to pick out individual constellations that had been so familiar, when theirs were the only stars that I could see. Instead, I could only make out Orion, large and clear, and connect the dots of the Big Dipper. The Milky Way stretched in a white haze across the sky. It was a striking, wintry, breathtaking beauty—the snowy bowl beneath us, stretching out to the horizons—white accented by black trees—and the starry dome above us, stretching out to the crests of land at the edges of our vision—black sprinkled with white points of light. The utter peace was disturbed only by the occasional far-off sound of snowmobile engines. It was also the only time during the course of my visit to Yellowstone when my hands and whole body got cold, as I suppose bodies are wont to do when lying in the snow. We stayed for a long time, taking in the quiet night.
It was moments like these that brought home to me what I love so much about Yellowstone—especially in the solitude of the winter. Its otherworldliness is like a mist that cloaks the entire area. Somehow, when you pass through the tollbooths at the entrance of the park, you pass into another world: where bison alternately trudge and bounce (one of the strangest things I have ever seen), where wolves howl (although I never did hear it), where elk struggle on in ravaged groups (even pre-Apocalyptic ones). Coyotes pad with lithe elegance, bald eagles soar with unconcerned majesty, the quiet sounds of nature can be heard, and the stars can be seen because the night is clear and dark: unobscured by smog and electric lights. The strange thing is—and I have to keep reminding myself of this—Yellowstone is not another world. It is Earth, but maybe it is somehow more Earth, in the way Earth was meant to be, than is the rest of our crowded planet.