Fire and Ice

Among famous traitors of history one might mention the weather.
     Ilka Chase

In mid-September, 2016, we spent a few miserable days in Yellowstone. It didn't start out that way (miserable, that is); in fact, we'd planned only to pass through Yellowstone on our way to Pinnacles campground in Wyoming's Shoshone National Forest.

We left home, in northwest Montana, under a brilliant morning sky. The forecast for a wide swath of the northern Rocky Mountains, including all of Yellowstone, led us to believe we'd picked the perfect week to go. We expected partly- to mostly-sunny days with high temperatures in the sixties (F), and chilly nights. That forecast included no precipitation.

Someone, please, explain to me why we pay the slightest attention to weather forecasts. I've not collected data over the long term to compare forecasts to weather actually experienced (I'm sure there's a Web site for that), so I'm guessing. That guess is, the weather that happens over my head matches the forecast no more than twenty percent of the time, and considerably less in Spring, Fall, and Winter. Yet I still look at the AccuWeather app on my phone or tablet, or make a point to watch the forecast by the Weather Kid on local TV, and then make plans based on what I see. That's just plain stupid. Of course, I'm not alone, which doesn't make me feel any warmer on those snowy, 70° sunny days.

Our drive to Yellowstone takes us, in about four hours, to Butte, MT, just east of which is Homestake Pass over the continental divide. To that point we had excellent weather, cool and clear. As we came down the east side of the divide the sky became hazy, and by the time we turned off the interstate to head southward toward West Yellowstone, clouds had built to a low and threatening deck. The rain began fifty miles (80 km) north of West Yellowstone, and as we got closer to town and our elevation increased, the rain changed to heavy, wet snow.

You Can't Get There From Here (Or From Anywhere)

We passed through West Yellowstone; it's not my favorite place, so we stopped only to top off the gas tank, and then entered the park. And encountered our first obstacle. Two, really: a large yellow sign indicated access to Grant had been cut off due to poor road condtions at Craig Pass. Much of Yellowstone is over 6000 feet (1800 m) in elevation. Craig Pass, at 8200 feet (2500 m), had apparently become icy. We expected to camp this first night at Grant Village; without access to Craig Pass we'd have to make a long detour northward to Norris Junction, east to Canyon, and then south through Hayden Valley. Unfortunately, the road from Norris to Canyon travels over an unnamed pass, also at 8200 feet, and (you guessed it) also closed.

Traffic in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, U.S.

The view in my mirror: so many people, restricted by weather and wildfire to a relatively small area of the park.

Disappointing, but finding a campsite for the night became a more immediate concern. We'd camped at the Norris campground several years ago and liked it, so we decided to go there. Norris isn't a convenient location, but since we couldn't get out the south entrance anyway, Norris's more northerly location hardly mattered. It seemed a reasonable Plan B.

Much of the road from Madison Junction to Norris is above 7000 feet (2134 m). The snow continued, but the road remained wet and presented no problems. However, the traffic did. Cars extended ahead of and behind us as far as I could see, and that line of vehicles crawled when it moved at all. Eventually we arrived at the Norris campground, only to find a “Campground Full” sign posted at the entrance.

One needn't be a rocket scientist to understand the reason. Yellowstone has had record attendance this year; the Park Service had a number of promotions, including a celebration of its 100th anniversary, that brought more people to the parks. The so-called shoulder seasons, formerly spring and fall, are now nearly as crowded as mid-summer. Couple that with road closures in the park, and you have a great clot of people choking the roads, all looking for places to stay and eat, concentrated into a small area of the park. Look at a park map. The Grand Loop Road is basically a figure 8. Huge numbers of cars enter through West Yellowstone, at about nine o'clock on the bottom circle of the 8. That entrance road joins the circle at Madison Junction. The closure of Craig Pass meant no one could go very far south from there. Going northward from Madison the road comes to Norris, where the top and bottom circles of the 8 join. The road north of Norris is closed for the year for road construction. The road east of Norris, the middle of the 8, closed due to weather (ice). The Canyon campground had closed for the season (but couldn't be accessed anyway). That left the campgrounds at Madison and Norris as the only ones accessable from West Yellowstone, and naturally both were full.

Snow and gloomy skies at Gibbon Meadows, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, U.S.

Gibbon Meadows, near the Norris campground; snow, poor visibility, and gloomy sky.

We parked in a turn-out in falling snow, under dark gloomy skies, tired, frustrated and wondering what to do next. At nearly 4:00 it'd be getting dark soon, as the afternoon had been fairly dark all along. We needed a campsite. Pat suggested returning to West Yellowstone, and then checking out any of several Forest Service campgrounds along the route north of town outside the park. So we retraced our steps, fortunately in a bit less traffic. The first campground north of West Yellowstone, called Baker's Hole, had a few empty spaces; we grabbed one and set up camp in the rain. This is a quick and easy process with our little camper. Pat threw together a wonderful hot dinner, which we ate inside the camper. After cleaning up we read for a bit while listening to the not unpleasant sound of rain softly drumming on the camper. Sleep came quickly; it had been a long day that wound down with a series of frustrations, but it ended with us safe, and fed, and dry.

Turning Lemons Into Lemonaide

Our campsite at Norris, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, U.S.

We found a little snow when we arrived at our campsite in Yellowstone.

We awoke the next morning, inside a 42° F camper (it's not heated, but the bed was warm). It had rained off and on during the night. We ate a cold, drizzly breakfast, packed up, and returned to the park and up, again, to the Norris campground. We assumed people would be leaving and we'd be able to get a site, and that turned out to be the case. When I backed the camper into our assigned site we found plenty of snow, a good eight inches (20 cm)! But the day slowly warmed, the passes reopened (although the south entrace didn't), and since the crowds could spread out things seems a little less hectic. We drove to one of my favorite areas, Hayden Valley, and then out across the top of Yellowstone Lake toward Sylvan Lake. We experienced heavier traffic than I'd come to expect for this time of year, and most of the turn-outs and parking areas had a number of vehicles, but compared to the previous day it seemed almost serene.

Mid-afternoon the sun appeared, much of the snow melted, and we had a lovely evening. Because the campsite remained wet, with several inches of snow still on the picnic table, we enjoyed our dinner in the camper, but in much warmer conditions than the previous evening's meal. After cleaning up we drove just a couple of miles north of the campground to a large overlook providing a view down into the Norris Geyser Basin. We were two days away from the full “Harvest” moon, and I had an idea to photograph the rising plume from a steam vent in moonlight. It's possible to get closer to some of these vents safely, down in the basin, but a wider, possibly grander view could be had from the overlook. I decided to come back at 2:00 am.

In the meantime, as we watched the moon rise and the sun set, a pair of ravens stopped by to check us out, probably hoping for a hand-out. They didn't get that, but they got their picture taken. Ravens are smart and curious and often comfortable around people; this pair watched me as I watched them. As the smaller bird, probably the female, groomed the larger one, they allowed me to get quite close, watching me but showing no fear. By the time the sun had dropped below the horizon I'd done all I could photographically, given the setting. The birds seemed to sense this and wandered off. We did the same, returning to our campsite.

A raven pair made my day.

A couple of cooperative ravens at the Norris Basin overlook, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, U.S.

I awoke a little before 2:00, opened the camper door and could see no stars. The sky had been clear, completely cloudless, at sunset. Less than seven hours later, we were under a low ceiling of heavy clouds. A cold drizzle fell, and while once again disappointed, I didn't mind climbing back into the warmth of the bed. The unheated camper retains some warmth from its occupants, which held some appeal compared to a 40° drizzle. But we'd had enough. In the morning after breakfast (in the car, thanks to the on-going drizzle) we packed up the camper and headed for home, which we found to be the same 70° (21° C), sunny and dry, as we'd left it.

Outdoor photographers are a picky lot; we don't want it too bright or too dark; we want clouds but not enough to obscure the good light; storms are great but we don't want our gear getting wet; we want to photograph wilderness but we don't want to be eaten by bears; photographing in winter is wonderful but it's so darned cold. We're at the mercy of the weather. We can't count on forecasts, so we take it as it comes, having little choice really, except to stay inside.

Some trips are better than others. This one wasn't, but you can't win 'em all. Yellowstone, we'll be back. We've now tried four years running to get to the Pinnacles; each year a situation beyond our control prevented that. Maybe next year.

September 2016

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