January 7, 1991
It was not a cold day for Yellowstone in 91. The temperature was minus five degrees Fahrenheit and it was somewhat overcast with a white sky. This was my New Year’s trip for myself after spending four seasons in Yellowstone from May to September. I had never visited the park in the winter. I had arrived the night before. Rented a car and was to make my way from the Airport to Gardner MT. When driving from the airport I had stopped in a small town to ask how far away was Gardner, it was late in the day and snowing and when I asked inside of a local store of the distance? There happened to be a Police officer and he barked at me “The road is closed / or wind up in a ditch”. I gathered the road must be treacherous, at night, in the snow and in the Northern Rockies.
I chose by the prompting of the officer to get a room for the night. Doke’s Inn, I believe was the name of the place but I was happy to be able to get a bed when all the roads were closed. However, the fun had not yet begun. I got something to eat in one of those cheesy semi dinettes / restaurants, you would see in the movies from scenes out west. When I returned to the hotel, a rather rustic place, I went into my room and thought it was sorta cold. I went to the front desk cashier and asked about the heat in the room and they said give it some time to come up. So, I did and maybe an hour later I could still see my breath in the room. I went and reported it again and the guy came and bled the radiator and made sure the valve was open. Just my bad luck luck, the room stayed that way. I asked about a different room and they said they were all full. Yes, I could take my chances and try a different place but the guy said most likely the whole town was full as it was a small town. I did “try” to get some sleep to little avail.
In the morning, I got to the car and brushed off the night's snow. I still remember when you walk on the snow it squeaks when you walk on it because it is so cold there. However, I learned the minus five is really not considered cold there. Maybe minus 40 would be an eye opener. My friend Steve said in the winter everyone bundles up when it gets very cold. Then when the temperature goes back to zero everyone is walking around in T-Shirts and shorts. I got in the car to drive the final trek to Gardner, MT. I had one of the most profound moments of driving in my life.
I was doing about 60 on a mountain road and they don’t plough the roads like they do on the east coast. So, one drives along on a road packed hard with snow. I am driving along and there is a trucker in my rear-view mirror and he is deciding that he wants to pass me. At that moment I did not think anything of it. However, with the temperature outside being about minus 8 or so all the snow you drive on becomes powder. Then, with the trucker going about 65 maybe 68 as he went to pass me and no sooner did the front wheel of his big 18-wheeler truck get just ahead of me on the drivers’ side then all the road became white. Even more so as he was passing me in full it was not only a white road yet you could not see anything not even the hood of the car. Not a turn in the road or a guard rail I could not even see the side view mirror, or even the front of my car for that fact. I did not want to hit the brake as to send the car off in a direction into the abyss and an accident at 60. Even as the truck got past me, I was still behind him and I had to deal with the aspect of doing 60 without being able to see “anything”.
I got to Gardner, MT. around noon and it was a nice day. I went to see my friends who I would stay with. Checking in with them I spoke of my experience and we had some small talk and that was about all I recollect. I remember we went to a local bar in the evening and had a beer or eight or so. At night it was 23 below zero as we were only a few miles outside of Yellowstone at this point. When the door of the bar would open a huge gust of cold air would enter the whole room and everyone would look at the door and sorta grunt. If someone left the door open more than a second the bartender would start barking up a storm of curse words. SHUT the Door you Marmot Lovin Vermin. Another eye-opening jaw dropping thing I learned was the heat for the bar was not only modern yet antique too. They had a pot belly stove fired with wood and a big stack right inside where they would stoke the stove. But, the most incredible thing was when you looked at the pot belly stove it stood 5’6” tall and round like a fat man of 350#’s. But that wasn’t the half of it. The stove was literally glowing orange / almost white with heat. Even at that it still struggled to keep the bar warm and everyone sat at the bar with their coats on.
The next day was my snowmobile trip into Yellowstone. I had an ambitious desire to do the whole loop from Gardner Montana down into Wyoming to lake Yellowstone and then rebound and go up the west side and back and into Gardner once again. I was as equipped as one could get, I had good ski gloves and a nice scarf. I thought it was my job to bundle up and dress accordingly. But when the attendant found me, he said that the way I had dressed would never do. They provided me with a jumpsuit that was super warm and a helmet with all kinds of foam around the bottom of the helmet by the neck and I then was able to use my scarf to cover my neck, the gloves worked fine and the handles of the snowmobile were heated so my hands would stay warm.
As my trek started, I remember cruising along about 40 mph and seeing the different sites. I remember stopping by many of the waterfalls and viewing them frozen over which was quite a nice experience. Driving along the road I came upon 4 Yellowstone Bison who were crossing the road in front of me. I guess they must have been 80 yards away. Once they proceeded leftward and had moved along, I stopped to see where they had gone. Just at that moment they had endeavored to cross the Yellowstone River. The River was not deep and was not rapid water. I can still visualize it, they looked almost prehistoric, their coats full of fur and ice and white. As they crossed the river they had to swim and you could tell they were not happy doing it. Their lungs were panting and breathing really deep and the only thing I could think of was “Huge Bellows”, was the sound of their lungs as they took in Air and breathed it out. The sound is almost like huge machines hissing in and out with air.
I was on my own during the trip and drove around the park pretty much that way. As I proceeded along I found what I learned was something strange. A snow cat, (that is one of those really big machines that has rubber tank like trads and can seat about 30 people with luggage on the roof). There was one on the road, in front of me and in general I would think nothing of it. However, the thing was so big and wide it took up the whole road. There was no going around it. I sat there on my snowmobile and this snowcat was only going about 5-6 MPH. I guess I had been following him for maybe 10 minutes with no let up.
Then all the sudden the snowcat gunned his huge Diesel Engines and took a hard right. The side of the road had a four-foot-tall snow berm on either side. However, he even went up and over it and into the back country then when he was off the road you could tell he had straightened out the snowcat and was going forward with engines at full blast. Because he had gunned his engines and gone off road all the snow was 3-4 feet deep of powder snow. As he moved ahead, he created a total white out. Just barely you could tell he had then moved back on to the road. Yet I was still fully puzzled as to why? I had come to a stop on my snowmobile and was looking intently forward visually to try to figure out what was happening. Then, there, in the snow, as the deep white mist started to settle and unfold a darker silhouette began to reveal itself. It was a Yellowstone Bison. But wait?! It was more than one bison you could hear. The mist was becoming more revealing. It was a small Herd of Buffalo numbering of perhaps 23-30 and they were not happy. The snow cat had spooked them when it crossed in front of them as it went to pass them so it could get on its journey. At this time, I was looking forward to watching the Buffalo realizing that they were coming MY WAY! I heard voices from behind me and as I had turned to look visually backward. What I saw was a group of perhaps 8 other people on snowmobiles had picked up the back of their snowmobiles and turned them around so they could head in the other direction. I jumped off my snowmobile / but no way!? By this time, the Buffalo were way too close. They were running full gallop in my direction. I was on the side of the road. To my direct right was the snow berm of the road that was about 4 feet high. Plus, it was made of deep powder snow. If I had I tried to run through it I would move so slowly the Buffalo would be upon me in a flash I would be gored for sure. I looked back at the other snowmobilers in a panic. My heart beat must have been over 150-200 beats a minute at that moment and my blood pressure through the roof. I quickly looked back at the charging buffalo. All their tails were sticking straight up, the sign of anger. They were goring each other with their horns and throwing their skulls about in a violent manner. You could see the big blue tongue sticking out and here their deep throated billowing growl and the sound of their hooves pounding on the ground. The whole herd was coming and there wasn’t anything I could do about it. In desperation I looked back at the people on the snow mobiles again and at this point the Buffalo were no more than 15 feet away at full charge. As I looked back at the people, I heard one of them say “Let’s wait here I wanna see this guy get killed”.
I crouched down as low as I could up against my snowmobile. The Buffalo, were Right There, I could literally smell them as they stampeded, with their spit flying onto my body as they threw their heads. They were seething with anger, their big brown eyes the size of baseballs and the ice handing off their coats. I stooped there waiting to get mine and I would be done. The herd had passed. The danger had subsided and it was over. I risked my life many times in my years in Yellowstone and lived to talk about it. However, I have never had death come to my door so vehemently as that day. January, 7 1991