Merriott column: Yellowstone, then, now and again 40 years later

Frosty Merriott

The field trip for my long-anticipated visit to Yellowstone was finally here! It was 1983 and I was trapsing along with CC Lockwood, a great friend who happened to be an acclaimed photographer and led winter field trips into Yellowstone. It is rumored he and Marty Stouffer of our valley drank a few beers, head sucked a few crawdads in south Louisiana and took a few pictures along the way.

I was so excited I had butterflies. I was fully engaged ready to do this! I wanted to see my favorite critter, “Buffler’s,” up close and personal and see the steam come out of their noses. I marvel now more than ever how humankind could almost cause this magnificent animal to go extinct. There were once more than 60 million spread across North America when we arrived. Now there are less than 20,000 genetically pure American Bison.

Clyde took 10 of us into the park in the dead of winter on a Wildlife Photography Workshop. After the obligatory stop at the Chico Hot Springs Lodge in Pray, Montana, some cold beer (no crawfish), we were met at the entrance to Yellowstone by two top-of-the-line snow cats. Don’t get me wrong here, the only way to get into the park really was by snowcats; snowmobiles don’t count. Hell, I was from north Louisiana I did not know there were such things as snowcats. It vaguely resembled an army half track but with no machine gun out the top.

Clyde soon took his place there with his Army WW II army hat with ear covers. He looked just like Donald Sutherland as Dr. Oddball in Kelly’s Heroes. CC gave the animated sign to move out. I have got to find the slides from that trip besides the three hanging on my wall.

We started into the park on what I guess was a road, but not like one I had been on before. The snow was really deep, appearing to climb half way up the trees. When we came around a bend in the “road” there was a huge bull elk. Maybe 20 points I guessed and bigger than any horse I’d ever seen? I was quickly corrected and told you only counted one rack side in the West. How the heck would a flatlander know that? He was like 30 feet away and could have cared less that we were there visiting his winter home.

Our cat driver was an interesting character for sure. He worked as a park ranger in the summers and worked mostly with problem Griz. He curiously asked if any of us knew how to tell a black bear from a grizzly? Several of us pilgrims answered “color!” enthusiastically. He proudly informed us there were actually black bears that were brown. Well, so much for that old wives tale.

The only definitive way to tell, it turns out, is climb a tree while you are being chased: if he follows you up, he’s a black bear, and if he pushes it over it’s a griz. Turns out he described his summers “scared —-less,” sleeping in a canvas tent in the depths of Yellowstone with the critters and baiting grizzly bears. He was armed only with bear spray, which I doubt was very effective 40 years ago.

The next day we took the snow cats over to the Firehole River to observe the small herds of buffalo grazing along the river. Out in a field on the way to the river, CC caught some movement from his lookout portal and the snowcat was animatedly signaled to halt. There were two coyotes hunting field mice. Don’t know if you have ever seen that. I hadn’t. They stand totally still in the deep snow and then on some internal signal honed sharp by millennials of time as a predator, they pounce head first into the snow, their heads totally buried, sometimes to the tail, and then in seconds they are up, more often than not with a wiggling critter in their mouths.

It was just like watching a National Geographic movie. We were spellbound for quite some time seeing another natural wonder in the place we call Yellowstone. All of a sudden the coyotes cocked their heads up simultaneously. What was it that they smelled or heard that caused then to go to high alert. Then we heard it, too — humming noise from way in the distance intruding on the soliloquy of Yellowstone.

And yep, you guessed it, two renegade snowmobiles; the only ones we saw on the whole trip. One of the rangers guessed fewer than a 100 people were in the park. Imagine that today. It would never happen. No way you could recreate the experience now, and that’s a damn shame.

The snowmobilers coasted to a stop to see what we were looking at. They saw nothing. The coyotes had noiselessly faded into the forest. The National Geographic film was over.

But, you know what? You could hear those snowmobiles for 10 minutes and smell exhaust fumes for 30. Is it worth it? You tell me.

Trip two to follow next month.

Frosty Merriott of Carbondale is a longtime local CPA, former member of the Carbondale Board of Trustees and current appointed member of the town Environmental Board.

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