CSI: Yellowstone

I spend so much time thinking about the complex scientific properties of snow, marveling at its viscoelasticity and ability to conduct and insulate, pausing occasionally to enjoy a perfect (or even less-than-perfect) ski run. What I don’t take enough time to appreciate is the way snow can tell a story.

It’s just after 2:00 pm on New Year’s Day, and Bix and I are cross-country skiing into a thicket of trees in the Gneiss Creek drainage, about two miles from the Yellowstone National Park boundary. Nighttime temperatures have been dipping below -20oF, but now, just after solar noon, the sun bounces off untouched snow to warm our faces, still tender with windburn from yesterday’s outing.

The never-frozen Madison River makes an excellent backdrop for a New Year’s Eve foray into Yellowstone National Park.

Our plan is to camp at or near an established backcountry site about another three miles down the trail, where we’ll escape the constant low hum of two-stroke engines for a quiet night under the stars. We’re carrying everything we’ll need for a relatively comfortable night of winter camping—it’s all jammed in our 60-liter backpacks or in a duffel bag rigged to a tricked-out kiddie sled.

Despite my insistence that I’m more than capable of hauling the sled, Bix is the one pulling it. This means I have to ski behind him—with the extra weight, he is, for once, considerably slower than I am, and we want to ski together. This is fine until he stops short halfway down the drainage, causing me to lurch forward cartoonishly, barely catching the weight of myself and my heavily laden pack on my poles.

I’m about to string together an as-yet unheard string of curse words when I realize he hasn’t just zoned out on the scenery for the dozenth time today.

“Shit,” he mutters, doing his best to back away from whatever he’s just seen. It would be funny, watching him try to backtrack uphill on skis, the sled slamming into his boots with each step, if only I weren’t so alarmed.

My brain begins to conjure the possibilities: A bison? No—too far off their beaten path. Bear? They’re asleep. Armed militia seeking to take back public lands? I can’t imagine they’d have a problem with a couple of skiers, though admittedly I don’t much understand their logic.

I can’t see what’s got Bix’s tongue, so I ski off the path, around the sled, and up next to him.

Before me lies the most gruesome scene I’ve ever encountered outside our annual Halloween slasher movie marathon: a trail of blood and hair winds its way to a freshly killed elk, whose final resting place is less than ten feet off the trail.

Yellowstone National Park occupies nearly 3,500 square miles of wilderness. Boasting some of North American’s most charismatic megafauna—it’s the only place where bison have lived continuously since prehistoric times—the park encompasses most of northwestern Wyoming, occasionally spilling over its borders into Montana and Idaho.

It was the bison, if I’m being honest, that brought me to Yellowstone. I read once that they use their big dopey faces to brush snow away from their favorite grasses all winter, hardily grazing their way through the Madison Valley—home of the river that never freezes thanks to its geothermal sourcing—even as the mercury drops tens of degrees below zero. I’ve wanted to see one of these giant frosty Bovidae ever since.

On our first morning in West Yellowstone, we waited for the temperature to reach a balmy zero and parked our Forester at the Visitor Center. We needed a backcountry permit for our Gneiss Creek outing the following day. Backcountry rangers are understandably skeptical when someone announces they’d like to spend a night out in subzero temperatures in January—it’s uncommon enough that you have to call ahead so a law enforcement ranger can meet you at the Visitor Center to issue a permit, for which you must have a detailed plan—but Ranger Rick seemed satisfied by our combined winter camping experience, and soon we were hashing out the finer points of fish scales versus waxing.

Before he could print our permit, though, his radio crackled to life: we’d have to come back later, he said; there was a CPR in progress in the park.

Bison goring!” I hissed to Bix, who pointedly ignored me. I raised an eyebrow. “God, I hope we see one.”

Bison accomplished.

The ranger at the desk suggested a diversion while we waited out the medical emergency, and twenty minutes later, we were swishing along the Madison River toward Seven Mile Bridge, spotting bald eagles, countless swans, a bobcat, and, to my delight, four bison. I was so excited, in fact, that despite my consternation at the countless stupid wildlife-related injuries reported in Yellowstone each year, I had trouble restraining myself from approaching them to get a good picture and thus risk having the ever-loving shit gored out of me, which I would very much have deserved.

By the time we made it back to the closed-down entrance station—visiting a national park in the dead of winter really makes you feel like you’re getting away with something—the sun had begun its retreat behind the Gallatin Range. We pulled up to the Visitor Center on the edge of town just as a snowcoach full of amateur photographers sputtered its way into the parking lot, and I couldn’t help but feel a little smug that I’d get to explore the park sans company of motorists the next day.

Early the next morning, we chatted with another ranger, who double-checked our plan and sent us on our merry way.

“Happy New Year!” she ended our exchange, “Enjoy your night out!”

Surveying the scene in front of me, I can practically hear the Law and Order theme song. Neither of us speaks for what seems like ages, until I can’t stand it any longer.

“What did this?” I ask of no one in particular.

The trail, such as it is, cuts through a clearing from the top of the gully to the bottom, bisecting a gentle hillside. A hundred feet above us is the top of the knoll, populated by shivery quaking aspens, and across the little drainage are dense trees, coated in snow the consistency of icing on a birthday cake. The only trees near the trail are two lodgepole pines ten feet below us, one of which shelters the remains of the elk.

I spend so much time thinking about the complex scientific properties of snow, marveling at its viscoelasticity and ability to conduct and insulate, pausing occasionally to enjoy a perfect (or even less-than-perfect) ski run. What I don’t take enough time to appreciate is the way snow can tell a story.

Here’s what it tells us today:

The site of the kill, in the least grisly depiction available on our camera.

The tracks leading to the elk carcass plunge deep into the snow, the work of an ungulate on its long last legs. They stagger downhill, marking the path of least resistance with tiny droplets of now-frozen blood. This poor creature wasn’t giving up easily, but it didn’t have far to go.

Running alongside the elk tracks are another set of prints. Unlike the elk, the creature that made these tracks wasn’t in a hurry: it followed the elk downhill slowly, calculatedly. The narrow, perfectly spaced pawprints are in stark contrast to the elk’s panicked, uneven pace. They spoon their victim’s tracks down to the tree, where what’s left of the elk now rests.

Surrounding the carcass are prints of all shapes and sizes: magpie feet, marks that mimic the way a bear slashes a tree trunk—raven wings, timid coyote tracks; even a good-sized badger has lumbered over for its share of the bounty.

Across the gully and uphill into the woods is a set of tracks matching that of the predator. Each print is the size of my fist. It could easily be confused with the print of a domestic dog, except one teeny detail: those perfectly round toe pads don’t have claw marks in front of them. Cats keep their claws retracted unless they’re, say, killing an elk.

Textbook cat tracks.

The feline’s tracks are just wide enough to accommodate the detail that quickens my heart rate—it’s as if the creature that left them was dragging something behind it.

Something like a tail.

This isn’t a harmless, tailless bobcat. It’s a cougar. A big-ass, watching-you-right-now, I-finally-got-an-elk-and-you’re-keeping-me-from-eating-it cougar.

Startled, we look around. Of course we can’t see anything. You don’t see a cougar unless it wants you to, probably because it’s about to make you into charcuterie.

Cougars, mountain lions, pumas, panthers—call them what you like, depending where you live; a Puma concolor by any other name is still an apex predator. Its interactions with humans are fewer and farther between than most of the heavy hitters: you hear about bear maulings and shark attacks all the time (humans are usually at least partially culpable), but cougar encounters are pretty rare.

When I was in college and living in Boulder, I read David Baron’s The Beast in the Garden, which takes place in the foothills just outside of town and scared me off hiking by myself for a good six months. Cougars had finally gained protected status in the American West after more than half a century of bounties for their carcasses—an overblown response to intermittent livestock killings, not discontinued in Colorado until 1965, by which time over 1,700 animals had been killed in exchange for monetary rewards. Their proliferation, unfortunately, coincides with incessant urban sprawl; the mountain residents concerned about cougars encroaching on their space are, ironically and literally, in the lion’s den.

The most dangerous creatures, of course, are the individuals we’ve habituated, but despite their close quarters, mountain lions rarely attack healthy, fully-grown humans, and certainly not in broad daylight. While this is cold comfort for unattended pets and small children—or, as it turns out, the fledgling outdoorswoman I was at twenty—odds are good that a wild, non-habituated cougar is much more frightened of a  pair of humans with skis and sleds than said humans are of it.

Despite our assuredness that the owner of this carcass isn’t going to leap on us out of nowhere—I envision myself fending it off with my ski poles, hoping I come off as tough, rather than ridiculous—we don’t exactly want to linger in the clearing.

Bix starts off down the hill, the sled bobbing on and off the trail behind him. He stops again and points wordlessly at the trail in front of him.

The cat has followed the trail down the hill. This makes sense; it’s much easier to walk on snow packed down by humans on skis than to finish each step submerged in feet of fresh snow. The prints sink deep into the snow—it’s heavy. Bits of blood and fur, the occasional squirt of cat pee (it smells just as strongly of ammonia as that of a domestic feline)—it was here within the last couple of hours.

We come around the corner at the bottom of the hill, looking for a place to stop and discuss our new plan. A few hundred yards ahead, we’ll need to cross an open stream, landing ourselves in a meadow with a relatively unobscured view of our surroundings.

Before we can get to the stream, we encounter another pair of tracks: the elk has crossed the trail, again, heading up the hill toward its final destination, its gait already faltering. Our eyes follow the tracks to their origin and see signs of a scuffle—displaced snow everywhere, the morbid snow angel of a beast about to leave the corporeal world. There’s an old set of cat tracks alongside it stalking it up the hill, and then—

Fresh tracks.  Everything around them is covered in feathery hoar frost, but these are totally undisturbed, practically warm.

The cat was ahead of us, but it doubled back, probably when it heard us approach its cache. It’s watching us from somewhere up the hill.

We stop to catch our breath—or, in my case, breathe at all—across the little creek. Bix pulls out some coffee. It’s supposed to get down to fifteen below tonight. We’ve both slept out in colder, but we’ve made a Plan B, anyway: if either of our old cold injuries—his a finger, mine a toe—starts to look worse for wear, we’ll simply ski back out after dinner.

Now, though, we don’t relish the idea of tromping up the drainage at dusk, when our crepuscular friend will be feeling friskiest. This is to say nothing of my disinterest in being anywhere near the kill site after dark.

With our escape route cut off, we table our disappointment, stuff our parkas into our backpacks, and make ready for the snow to tell us one more story.

I’m always hearing people say they get mixed up about how to react to various animal encounters: “Do I play dead or fight back?” they ask. I often wonder if I’d have the presence of mind to remember how to react to a grizzly versus a black bear, should one actually attack me, but the protocol for mountain lion confrontations is, thanks to my wide-eyed reading of the aforementioned book, etched permanently in my mind.

Talk loudly. Better yet, yell. Give it an escape route. Don’t turn your back. Make yourself big. Raise your arms. Bare your teeth. Stare it right in the eyes. Don’t look away. Fight back. Protect your head and neck. Go for its eyes.

Basically: Become a cougar.

Not that your inner cougar is any match for the 180-pound genuine article, of course. They have more practice.

We haul ass through the clearing and make it within spitting distance of the park boundary in just under half an hour, unmolested by cougars. I am nonetheless thoroughly shaken up. Bix suggests we stop for another coffee break and I readily agree: I want to tell him something that will make his stomach churn.

Hauling the sled in less hurried times.

“Wanna hear something that’ll make you feel like barfing?” he asks.

“You first,” I tell him.

As we headed back toward the kill site, Bix had looked down and noticed something odd. The trail, from which the cat tracks had been erased by our passage on the way down, was not blank. It had a fresh set of prints, these leading back up the hill—same direction as us.

It had been waiting for us.

Indeed, this story makes me feel a little nauseous, especially since I have corroborating evidence: as we crested the hill, out of sight but no more than two hundred yards from the carcass, I heard a scuffle and, in my hyper-alert state, jerked my head around to see what it was.

A conspiracy of ravens scattered into the bluebird sky, squawking in protest at having been displaced from their prize.

I don’t know of much that’ll scare a group of birds away as quickly as the sudden appearance of a cat, though this was in much larger scale than your typical finches-fleeing-Sylvester-in-the-window scenario.

“And don’t come back,” I picture the cougar telling us, shaking its fist in our direction.

After processing our near-miss over our now-cold coffee, we skied to the car and headed back to West Yellowstone. The ranger we’d talked to that morning had asked us to call when we were out of the field, and her alarm was palpable when she answered our call, placed some eighteen-odd hours earlier than she’d expected, on the first ring. She asked us to meet her at the Visitor Center, where we marked the location of the cache on a map and showed her an array of grisly photos.

“The Resource Management guys are going to love these,” she told us, unable to conceal a tinge of envy, “Man, we never get to see cougars!”

It’s true: in all our collective time spent in the wilderness—which, between Bix and me, is many years—neither of us has ever seen a mountain lion outside of captivity. We don’t know many people who have.

It’s a jungle out there.

I could say we’re lucky not to have been attacked, and that’s certainly true. But there’s more to it than that. Ungulates make up some 99% of a cougar’s winter diet, so there are ostensibly scenes like this all over Yellowstone National Park each year—most far from the places humans find ourselves on New Year’s Day. We’re lucky to have experienced this incredibly intimate aspect of the ecosystem we chose to travel in, and lucky we did it at a point in our lives when we had the Nancy Drew skills to know what happened.

The snow writes the stories of these everyday triumphs and tragedies, two sides of the same ecological coin, if only you know how to read them.


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