It’s March, and I’m roughly four snowshoeing miles from Yellowstone National Park’s Old Faithful area. Five feet of snow separate me from firm Earth. I wear my thickest down jacket and a balaclava, even though I’m on the move. A squall ducked through overnight and dropped four inches of fluffy snow that glitters when the sun shines. I zigzag through the ghosts of trees burned in 1988’s fires, now black posts rising from a white quilt.
I won’t lie: I’m kind of creeped out.
It takes some time, but I realize that it’s not the cold, or the remoteness, or the fact that the trees look like tall people out of the corner of my eye. The quiet scares me.
My ears capture only two noises, both my own. My snowshoes shoosh through the new powder, a squeakier version of a mother hushing her baby. The other is that of my own breath, measured, metronomic, and, at times, a little wheezy because of the cold.
I say to no one, “At least I’ll hear something coming.”
In Yellowstone National Park, quiet is winter’s king. It is nothing like the jungle, where the screeches, tweets, and zeeps of life create a cacophony. It’s unlike some wild places where, just when you think you’ve left humanity behind, an airplane propelled by Darth Vader engines streaks overhead. And, it is very different from the Yellowstone of summer, with its huffing traffic jams and its one thousand people ooh-ing Old Faithful.
When I walked away from the Old Faithful area this morning, I left a whisper-y world. Hotel heaters from the Old Faithful Snow Lodge sighed steamy air. A hot spring burped water like a boiling pot on the stove. Snowmobiles a couple miles off sounded like wee weed whackers.
A short climb up and over the hump of a hill is all it takes to find complete silence and, apparently, my own fear. I seek signs that something, anything is out here with me. I follow for a while an old set of cross-country ski tracks lying under the fresh snow. The person who made them is at least a day gone. Old bison prints—easily identified because the animals move through snow, plow-like, rather than on top of it—cross my direction of travel, too.
After an hour, I encounter the only other sign of today’s life: a squirrel has hopped atop the new snow between two conifers, leaving its prints every three or four inches. The track maker is nowhere to be seen, but I heave with relief that the little guy is nearby.
Almost everything in Yellowstone’s winter is asleep, gone, or quiet. The silence slips among fir branches and seeps through one’s own skin and bones. The human body, I think, is accustomed to life’s background noises in the same way we’re used to gravity. The absence of either makes a person feel out of sorts. Mostly I think it makes us test our mind against our mettle.
It’s after I’ve seen a frozen lake, after I’ve tramped backwards along my snowshoes’ outbound tracks, and after I’ve started to smell the day’s barn and I’m still pondering the nonsensical series of thoughts that led me to feeling better for a rodent’s presence. I laugh; I can’t help it. My laughter is the loudest noise I have heard today.
I realize that a day like this one is good for more than just a snowshoe through a national park. It’s good to know that quiet is king somewhere. It’s even better to be a part of that silence, if only for a while. It’s good to let those ears rest. And, it’s good to find camaraderie among the wild kingdom, including the squirrels.
Here’s the beta you need to do winter right in Yellowstone National Park:
• In winter, the majority of Yellowstone’s roads are closed to cars, covered with snow, and open only to pedestrians and organized snowmobile or snowcoach groups. Check out the park website’s Winter Activities page to help you start planning.
• The winter climate can be extreme, with low temperatures that will endanger the unprepared. Do your meteorological homework, then wear and carry the right clothes and gear to get you safely and comfortably through your outing. This forecast page by the National Weather Service provides a baseline for what’s happening, weather-wise, at Yellowstone.
• The entire park is located more than a mile above sea level, and you’ll find yourself hanging out mostly above 8,000 feet. Altitude sickness is a real possibility for sea-level visitors. Stay hydrated, well-fed, and ready to ease off on vigorous activity if you’re feeling poorly.
• Yellowstone may be almost silent in winter, but it’s still filled with wildlife. If you’re engaging in backcountry travel, especially on the shoulders of winter, it’s a good idea to carry bear spray. While the park’s black and grizzly bears den for most of the winter, they make occasional forays into the snow. Also, never approach a wild animal. If it’s modifying its behavior because of you, you’re too close.