A Winter’s Night at Nez Perce Creek

geyser basin
Lower Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park.

It was my first winter backcountry excursion, and my first time on cross country skis. Yellowstone Park in late winter, carrying a heavy pack, is probably not the best venue for taking on new experiences like that. It took me a while to get used to the skis, which were old wooden Fischers (one had a broken tip capped with a plastic cover), but the groomed road was the best learning ground for that. Aside from almost sliding into some alarmed bison along the Madison River, it went well. The weather was excellent, with cold temperatures and mostly clear skies.

Skiing in from West Yellowstone with my friend Mike, we followed the groomed road up the Madison River to Madison Junction. That was our first night’s camp in the snow, made more agreeable by the heated bathrooms there. The second day we spent skiing leisurely up the Firehole River road toward the geyser basins and Old Faithful. Occasionally a Sno-Coach or pack of snowmobiles would trundle by. Since we were on the cusp of late winter and early spring, there was wildlife everywhere. Elk and Bison in meadows along the road, coyotes hunting mice, swans, deer, eagles, geese . . .I remember thinking at the time, “This is America as it used to be”.

That second day we made it to Nez Perce Creek, on the edge of the Lower Geyser Basin. It was there we decided to camp in a grove of lodgepole pines, right on the edge of a large open plain. The creek provided some warm, mildly sulfurous water and the trees provided refuge, we hoped, from the bison. We were concerned that foraging bison might accidentally trample us in the night. We could see the animals, dark shapes on the far side of the snowy plain, silhouetted against billowing plumes of steam.

We trampled down a spot with our skis and got the tent set up on it. As the sun set, the afternoon clouds dispersed and the temperature went down. And as the temperature went down, our appetites went up. We cooked up a big pot of stew and greedily ate it all. It’s amazing how many calories you use up just staying warm in the winter. Staying warm was a challenge at night and in the early mornings. The temperature fluctuates wildly that time of year, going from below zero F at night to above freezing during the day.

After dinner, I put on my skis and went to the edge of the trees. Other than the gurgling of the creek, it was quiet and still. The cold air had a crisp silence to it. A bright moon lit up the snowy landscape, including the steam plumes, which had grown considerably in the colder air. It also revealed the dark shapes of foraging bison. A few stars bright enough to shine in the moonlight were sharp and still in the night sky. Looking out at that scene, in that wonderful silence, I felt an indescribable peace. Everything was as it should be in that moment. Everything was in a state of pure reality, unsullied by thought or anxiety.

Unable to capture the scene with a camera, I did this watercolor soon after the trip.

I stood there as long as the cold would let me and then reluctantly returned to the tent. Mike was already in his goose down cocoon and I slithered into mine, along with a couple of water bottles, boots and other items I didn’t want to find frozen in the morning. The snow bed was comfortable and I drifted off to sleep. A few times I woke up during the night and listened, lucky to hear nearby bison breathing, snorting and crunching through the snow beyond our trees.

Mike and I woke up the next day to a sunny morning, un-trampled by our night visitors and ready to move on toward Old Faithful. I’ve never forgotten the absolute beauty, peace and serenity of that cold winter night.

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