Whispering along tracks made just seconds before by those in front of me, my charcoal touring skis glide effortlessly through knee-deep Yellowstone National Park February powder. Sun crystals glimmer on the untouched snow along Cascade Creek. Mountain chickadee chirps mingle with the rhythmic rasp of our breathing. We are 12 silent backcountry skiers, combing the wilderness for a photogenic frosty bison.
The majority of Yellowstone’s annual visitors (more than three million) crowd the park during peak summer season, seeking close encounters with bison, elk, wolves, grizzlies and coyotes. Motorcycles roar and campgrounds bulge. Stars compete with TV’s flickering from titanic RV’s. There are far fewer visitors in winter and 80 percent of these favor snow coach day trips to Old Faithful.
We’re 20 miles from the chaos on a five-day yurt-camp-and-ski-tour adventure based at Canyon Village. Our small group ranges in age from 35 to 82. Owner Arden Bailey reigns over the camp powered by automobile batteries, propane and boxed wine bound with duct tape.
Now we are alone in a snow-globe wilderness of untracked alabaster hills, lodge pole pines and steaming hot springs, a playground larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined.
Ski tour leader, Audrey Gehlhausen, dreadlocks flopping haphazardly behind her multi-colored headband, leads us into the 50 square-mile expanse of the pristine sub-alpine Hayden Valley. Stretching from Canyon to Yellowstone Lake, this ancient lakebed was explored by Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden, whose 1871 survey led to the creation of Yellowstone National Park. We meander along the route from Crater Hills to Sulphur Geyser on the lookout for those bison.
Where snow melts into warm earth near the spouts of Sulphur Geyser, we remove our skis and explore. After lunch, Audrey produces a hoof pick from her backpack. Like well-trained horses, we lift each foot in turn as she scrapes our mud caked boot soles. We refasten our bindings for the afternoon ski to Forest Hot Springs.
Our second foray, the Washburn Loop, begins with pratfalls and face plants as we descend through crusty snow to a peaceful forest track and Decision Meadows. Civil War hero and Congressional representative Henry D. Washburn ascended the 10,243-foot Mount Washburn here in 1870. Several skiers opt for the strenuous climb to a lookout point over Hayden Valley. Others choose the shorter route to East Washburn (Jimmy Hoffa) Hot Springs, backtracking through the forest then climbing steep switchbacks to the sunset-silhouetted snow coach. Still no frosty bison.
The following morning Swarovski-like crystals shimmer on fresh snow as we skirt the shoreline headed toward the Lake Yellowstone Hotel. The grand yellow edifice, with majestic white columns reminiscent of a southern plantation, opened in 1891. Still no frosty bison.
On the final day, skies clear after a second night of flurries. Audrey leads the last tour along Cascade Creek. Off to my left, a monolithic snow-crusted boulder waddles mysteriously. The cleverly disguised bison raises its mangy head. Secretly I peer through my camera lens. The bison stares back, ready for his close up.
—Image and words by Patti Shales Lefkos