Out of the wind, into the wild

Cross-country skiing into the home of bison, moose
Johnathan Hettinger —
Tuesday, December 18, 2018
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Photo courtesy of Evelyn Mailander

Reporter Johnathan Hettinger, in front of a bison, goes cross-country skiing in Lamar Valley, Sunday.

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Photo courtesy of Jim Peaco/National Parks

A cow and bull moose are photographed at Pebble Creek in Yellowstone National Park, Jan. 16, 2016.


At the trailhead for the Lamar River Trail on Sunday, a couple men sat and watched three moose resting by the river. They saw our skis and told us to be careful, half joking and half serious.

“Moose really don’t like blue,” one of the men said to my friend wearing a bright blue winter coat.

It was my friend’s first moose; just a few minutes earlier, she had seen her first wolves. We had stopped when we saw about four scopes, surrounded by six people.

A group of five wolves howled at the other end of the scope across the valley, far enough that we wouldn’t have seen the dark figures without the guidance of experts. It was the first time I heard wolves howl, and without the generous wolf watchers, I doubt I would have been able to identify the bone-chilling howls as a sound distinct from the whistle of the wind.

As I have written on this page multiple times, Lamar Valley is my favorite place in Yellowstone National Park. It provided a day of firsts for our group of four friends Sunday: first wolves for two of us, first time cross-country skiing for two, first moose for one. Where else on earth is that even possible?

By the time we crossed the bridge over the Lamar River, got our skis on and figured out how to maneuver, we had forgotten about the moose.

As we approached, the bull stood up and one of my friends let out a little shriek. About 50 yards in front of us a moose stood in the middle of the trail. We stopped to admire the three moose, making sure they knew we were there, and they started walking away from us, toward the forest. I feel a twinge of guilt disrupting the moose’s relaxing day, as well as moving them farther from the road where the animal watchers would have the opportunity to see them.

As they moved away, I hoped the disruption was just a mere annoyance, as it seemed to be as they lumbered away.

Not even a quarter mile up the trail, a small herd of bison was in the trail. As we skied up, most of the bison didn’t move, stand up or acknowledge us. One that was closer than the rest kept his eyes on us.

The wild animals provided a distraction that I think made cross country skiing for the first time even easier. Instead of focusing on my feet, I was focusing on the animal’s behavior, trying to figure out what to do if I got charged by a half-ton beast.

I figured it would be the end of me, considering I would likely end up stepping on my skis and flipping on the ground and getting trampled.

That vulnerability, that exposure was comforting. Yellowstone is one of the only places where you aren’t in charge, and even this time of year, when the grizzlies are in bed for the winter, the moose and bison served as a reminder of that.

I can’t stop thinking about what one of my friends said as we saw a small herd of about 30 bison.

“You know, that’s more than there were in the entire park when they almost went extinct,” she said.

For the past couple months, as the winds have started to blow (man y’all weren’t joking about the wind, I’m sorry I was skeptical) and the nights grow long and the ground develops an inconsistent slush, I have been going outside much less. A couple times, I’ve driven down to Lamar Valley in order to look at bison, but I’ve been less likely to go on long hikes, where I get away from the winds, from the stories I write, from the responsibility of day-to-day life and working a full-time job.

I have increasingly been feeling like I’m living in a zoo, not that I’m the animal getting looked at but instead the earth is a real-life zoo where the animals are contained in a small area for our viewing pleasure.

At a zoo, you’re generally guaranteed to see an animal. I mean, maybe the tiger is in its indoor den or the penguin exhibit is closed for renovation, but you still get to see a hippopotamus or a rhino or a polar bear. It’s a guaranteed way to experience an exoticness that is unavailable in your daily life. In a zoo, the animals exist and live on our terms. Here, the bison can’t go past Yankee Jim Canyon. The grizzly bears can live as long as they don’t go to houses or attack humans or eat elk carcasses sitting in the middle of the forest.

Even though we’ve removed grizzly bears and bison from 99 percent of their habitat, we kill the ones that stray from where we allow them to go. We have commandeered the planet to the point where even the food, in the few places we left the wildlife, is disappearing. Now the animals want to come to places where they can find food and if they do it in a way we don’t find appropriate, they are killed.

Most of the time, those animals can do nothing to you. They have to stay in their cages, even if it’s a cave as large as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Most visitors to the park are protected by their cars. Even when you go out into the national forest, you know you’re visiting that zoo and are able to prepare yourself.

It’s almost as if the wildlife that are kept around are here more than anything to ease our collective conscience. I think that people feel a sense of guilt when they think about extinction. I mean, I’m sure they feel sad when something like a dodo or passenger pigeon or whatever goes extinct, but I don’t think there’s too much guilt about limiting the habitat for these animals.

I think that most people are OK with populations being kept small, as long their life isn’t affected and they can see them if they dedicate a reasonable amount of time.

I understand why it’s become this way. Grizzly bears, if expanded, could hurt people. The expansion of bison would cause property damage and create competition with grazing cattle.

Sunday, as I stood there, staring at the bison, watching puffs of a bison’s breath slowly form and disappear, I felt like I was taking a step back in time, to a place where I was vulnerable, to a place where these animals reigned supreme. I was out in the snow, on skis, out of the Livingston wind, in the sunlight, embracing the winter, after a couple months of being cooped inside, thinking about the zoo.

I talked to the bison — and the moose behind them — under my breath.

Thank you for sharing this space with us. Sorry it’s all you’ve got left.