Yellowstone in January

Heart Spring on Geyser Hill, near Old Faithful

The day begins white and windy. Heavy snow, blown horizontal, obscures the mountains and mingles with steam from the hot springs. Our trip to Old Faithful promises to be an adventure.

We set off in rubber-tracked snow coaches, climbing a thousand feet to Swan Lake Flats. On a clear day, bright mountains ring this broad meadow. Today, there is nothing but snow. Then, looming ahead appears a group of bison, standing in the storm, unmoving even as our vehicles move slowly past.

The snow comes in sheets, sometimes thick, sometimes opening to provide sudden views of windswept wilderness. At Roaring Mountain, we step out in knee-deep powder to watch a group of elk graze bright green water plants in the warm outflow stream.

At the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the clouds come apart. Blue sky widens above, and we are washed by sparkling crystals. Gusts tear through the trees releasing curtains of snowflakes brilliant in the sunlight. We see trumpeter swans at an open spot on the river. A line of bison plow their way to an exposed ridge stripped of snow by the wind as several exuberant ravens cartwheel overhead.

OF minus 40

Old Faithful erupting at dawn, exploding in minus-40 degree air.

A day like this is emblematic of Yellowstone in January: a pure, heart-of-winter experience, with conditions changing rapidly and wildlife ever present. We are comfortable but immersed in the harsh splendor of the season. This is nothing like summer.

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Yellowstone Autumn

September, 2013. The season has turned. Autumn gains strength by the day. Winter begins to waken.

Following is an excerpt from the book Snow Country by Jeremy Schmidt and Steven Fuller.

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A bull bison pauses on a boardwalk in morning mist at Mud Volcano.

Summer in Yellowstone is a tumultuous flowering that lasts a bare three months. From mid-June to late August, everything seems to happen at once as living things rush to recover from and prepare for winter. While the sun shines warmly and the days are long, plants grow and produce blossoms. Insects feed on the nectar of flowers, transferring pollen from one to another. Calf elk and bison, born amid the late snows of May and June, grow fat on mother’s milk and the rich grasses of summer. In the forests, marshes, and waterways, young birds are hatched. Well-fed on insects and vegetation, they grow quickly. To survive, their adult feathers must replace the down of infancy before the snows fall. For waterfowl such as swans, summer is a race against the seasons. The birds do not always win. It takes four months for a young swan to develop so he can fly. If the lake where he was hatched freezes before he fledges, the ice-bound bird becomes one of winter’s first casualties.

September 21 marks the autumnal equinox. From then until the spring equinox, March 21, the nights are longer than the days. Each morning the sun rises farther toward the south, its arc shorter and nearer the horizon. This explains the cold. Though the earth is actually closer to the sun during the northern hemisphere winter than at any other time in its year-long orbit, the tilt of the planet results in shorter exposure to low-angle sunshine.

In deciduous trees and shrubs photosynthesis stops, chlorophyll breaks down, leaf nutrients are absorbed into the plant and the leaves are dropped. To the plants, the value lies in retrieving what it can from leaves which will surely die during winter and then shedding them to make room for the growth of next year’s buds. The bright colors are incidental. They result from the removal of chlorophyll which has masked already present carotenoid pigments. Gradually the reds and yellows become visible. They are intensified by the addition of anthocyanins, bright pigments produced by the last conversion of remaining sugars before the leaf dies. In cool wet weather free of killing frosts the leaves will live longer, produce more anthocyanins and create brilliant displays.

Along stream beds and rivers and on mountain slopes especially in the north part of Yellowstone, aspen and cottonwood trees, shrubby willows, mountain ash, chokecherry, alder buckthorn, mountain alder and other shrubs turn brilliant. In meadows, fireweed breaks open its seed pods; together with salsify seeds the silky parachutes float sunlit against the blue sky. Coneflower leaves dry into husks which rattle loudly as deer walk through the plants. Wild rose bushes bear shiny red fruits. The leaves and stalks and dried flower heads of hundreds of herbs — columbines, buttercups, sunflowers, parsley, glacier lilies and others — turn delicate shades from gray to orange.


A warm stream flows through the bare trunks of thermally killed lodgepole pine. Yellowstone’s autumn colors draw from a simple palette.

Yellowstone is mostly coniferous. Lodgepole pine is by far the most common tree and at first glance the forest seems unchanged in autumn — evergreen and never yellow. But there is change here, perhaps on a small scale but no less brilliant. Strawberries, high-bush huckleberries, bracken ferns, grouse whortleberries, beargrass, lupine and fireweed combine with other small plants to carpet the forest floor with color.

The nesting territories of birds break down as the young are fledged. Flocks begin to form as the time nears to fly south. Some will remain — the ravens and jays and chickadees and geese and a small variety of others capable of enduring the winter.

Of special note is the annual fall gathering of swans along the Yellowstone River between Lake and Canyon. Between 300 and 450 birds, mostly trumpeter swans but some whistlers, move in during October and stay until the river begins to freeze. Many then move to Henry’s Fork of the Snake River in Idaho where there is open water all year. Yellowstone’s winter swan population fluctuates with changes in the weather.

Autumn has a fragrance all its own of sun-dried grass, thermal sulphur and wet soil churned by frost. The scent of pine is especially pervasive. To one who has known previous Yellowstone autumns, it is an instantly recognizable and pleasing smell.


Three bison stand quietly beside a hot spring on the first subzero day of November.

In most years, there is a snowstorm by late September. Beginning as a cold rain, it turns as night falls into huge, wet foreboding flakes. These melt on first contact with the ground, but by morning several inches of accumulation create a dripping white landscape. In two or three days the snow is gone and the sun again feels warm, but high on the peaks the white dusting remains.


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Wedding Elephant

Varanasi, 1978: I was in the silk district. Late evening. The power went out. Candles and kerosene lamps replaced electric lights, and what had already seemed a wildly exotic stage was plunged backwards in time. I walked medieval alleys lined with open stalls where merchants sat cross-legged on raised platforms surrounded by bolts of silk, brass goods, stationery, bags of grain, and barrels of spices. The combined odors of incense, cumin, and shit filled the air; it was a good smell. Every stall was a dimly lit vignette from a Fellini movie. A donkey leaned drunkenly against a lightpost. Monkeys dropped out of the shadows on raiding expeditions. Sadhus sat chanting, begging bowls at their feet. Sometimes I talked with people. Sometimes I just gaped.


Bathing a big boy at Guruvayur Temple in Kerala, India. I made the shot while researching an article on serial killer elephants for Penthouse Magazine.

Puttin' on the ritz at a festival in Kerala, India

Puttin’ on the ritz at a festival in Kerala, India. The photo is by Ted Wood, from our book about working elephants, “In the Village of the Elephants.”

I came to an open area, a crossroads, as a wedding procession emerged from another alley. Drums beating, curved trumpets blowing up a cacaphony, a crowd of revelers tossing marigolds into the darkness, and behind them, a white horse painted pink and sporting feather plumes. That would have been enough to send me into a kind of exotic rapture, but behind the horse came a more astonishing sight: an elephant painted white, draped with bangles and bells and brocade. On his back was a large glass howdah lit by tiny electric lights, in which sat the bride, alone like a museum artifact, like a temple idol, a dazzling image of colored silk and gold jewelry high above the crowds. The procession streamed noisily through the open area into another dark alley, and vanished. The street crowd flowed back into place as if nothing unusual had happened. The last thing I saw was the glowing howdah casting dim light on second-storey balconies.

It was my first trip to India. I had no idea how rare such sights were becoming. I thought everything in India was rare, and accepted the painted elephant as just one more delight in the garden of the East.


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I wrote this in response to some awful recent news. I don’t remember which.

We are fully equipped
to deal

because we have

but death
is a gift
only if we can hope
for those we leave

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