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Driving Through the Clouds Into Yellowstone


Sunday October 8, 2006
Pine Edge Cabins
Silver Gate, Montana

We left Thermopolis this morning. On our way to Cody, we saw the Squaw Teats formation for the first time, though just barely, at exactly the spot where our Roadside Geology of Wyoming said it would be. When I typed Squaw Teats into Google, the first entry linked to a 2000 story on stateline.org that says that “more than 1,000 different geographical features had Squaw in them” in the United States. Some states, Maine is mentioned in the story, are working to change all those names. Apparently, this Wyoming rock formation has escaped the wrath of politically correct Native Americans. It’s a wonder somebody hasn’t complained about Teats, too.

Looking at the map, there is serious wilderness on our left. That is the Wind River Range out there, and it contains many of the highest peaks in the state. No major roads for sixty to eighty miles in any direction and hundreds of thousands of acres of wilderness, it is an important buffer for wildlife coming in and out of Yellowstone from the east and south.

If the state has its way in a protracted struggle with the federal government wolf delisting plan, it would also be a place where a Wyoming citizen could kill wolves, for any reason, a position contrary to the wishes of the federal government, environmentalists or anybody with a lick of sense in their heads. This wilderness is the wolves’ best protection, and Wyoming wants to turn it into a shooting gallery. Assholes would line up twenty deep to kill a wolf.

After we stopped for a couple of forgotten items and lattes in Cody, we head out Wyoming 120 and then Wyoming 72 for Red Lodge, where we pick up Beartooth Pass. After stopping for the sublime banana-cream pie at the Hungry Bear restaurant in Bearcreek, Montana, we head up the steep drive out of Bearcreek valley, above the lovely-in-the-fall town of Red Lodge and onto U.S. Highway 212.

The 70-mile-long Beartooth, opened in 1934, was called “America’s most beautiful highway” by Charles Kuralt, but it still doesn’t bring a wave of tourists into the northeast entrance to Yellowstone. It crosses from Montana into Wyoming and back again during this part of its route.

There are two passes that lead into the northeast entrance, and we try to use both. This year we are going in over Beartooth and back on Chief Joseph Scenic Highway. Beartooth was closed last year after mud and debris slammed down and damaged the switchbacks in a couple of places. Beartooth is only open about five months max anyway, and it usually closes sometime in October.

The valley west of Red Lodge, heavily reminiscent of German alpine terrain, was socked in a heavy fogbank, which continued more than 4,000 feet through the narrow switchbacks, hairpin and U-curves that lead to the mesa at the top. We pulled out at one spot at about 6,000 feet and were blessed with a view of what we had just driven through, now looking like an overdose of whipped cream lapping at the entire valley.

At this turn-out, I finally solved a personal mystery. We stopped at this same spot on our first trip over this pass in the nineteen eighties, and I remembered the Precambrian rock across the valley looked like the crumbling remnants of ancient civilizations. When we came across two years ago, I couldn’t find this place. And though I couldn’t see ancient Jerusalem this time, I realized that it was the same rocks. The shadows of the early morning sun had given me that moment almost two decades ago.

As we climbed to treeline, snow was blowing across the road and sticking, and the swirling clouds limited our exposure to the twenty peaks of the Beartooth Range that are above 12,000 feet. You never think that you’ll ever reach the top after what seems like hundreds of switchbacks. It was a stirring passage, and the Aerostar performed admirably all the way up to 11,000 feet and back down.

Riding across the mesa at the top, I always like looking back down into the Bighorn Basin from whence we came this morning, but it was far too socked in for those kinds of views, which gave us time to concentrate on the wonders along the side of the road itself — rows of cliffs, scattered rocks and fissures and frigid lakes. The western slopes were blissfully free of snow, and we were in Silver Gate by three. By 4:30, with Anne Whitbeck, our friend and longtime wolf guide onboard with her walkie-talkie, the Aerostar was heading into the park.

Anne caught us up on the latest news about wolves, bears and the Wolf Watchers who keep track of them. The road across Dunraven Pass is closing tonight, and there has been activity up there, both wolves and bears.

And she informs us that Beartooth Pass also closes tonight.

No wonder it was so weird up there at the top of the world this afternoon. We were among the last few to get over before it was closed.

Anne’s unerring senses are on once again, and we spend half an hour with four black bears in the high forest along the newly paved road.

First was a mother and cubs who walked along about fifteen or twenty feet from the road on a shelf about ten feet below us. They were foraging in the snow, mostly oblivious to the 20 people taking snapshots, pointing and shooting – when will these show up on YouTube?

They are in search of pine cones, and the mother gives two lessons: 1) how bears find food and 2) why they tell you not to climb a tree to get away from a black bear. Mom suddenly bolts up this conifer, and in less than a minute she is near the top, about 35 feet, after no real effort whatsoever. When she gets to the top, she begins to break off limbs with pine cones and dropping them for the young ones. (Her move appears to signal that she isn’t concerned about our proximity to the cubs, although I’ll bet she could come back down just as quickly and easily.

About a minute later, one of the cubs climbs an adjacent tree, just like a pro. Black bears learn to climb trees to avoid danger at a young age, and there are good reasons for that. I have seen a black bear treed by a grizzly over in Slough Creek, so if you’re a black bear, it’s a good skill.

But the cubbie, once it gets to the top, doesn’t seem to know what to do and is just swinging back and forth up there in the wind. Soon enough, both of them climb back down just as easily as they ascended, and soon the trio have disappeared down into the shadows of the forest. About a mile farther, we get a pretty good look at a cinnamon black bear beneath Mt. Washburn. It seems to indicate a desire to cross the road at one point but scampers back up in the trees high above the road as the voyeurs gather. Good bear.

It was our first time over the pass on the new road, which was completed again this year, and we stopped at a new pull-off with signage about the activity here – the major eruptions that have taken place here and the magma changes below Lake Yellowstone going on today.

One of the reasons we climbed Mt. Washburn two years ago was to stand at the northern end of that last eruption, and this place offers another good angle on the gap created more than 250,000 years ago. As the sun went down, the snow-capped mountains to the south turned first a fiery orange, gray and, finally, metallic blue.

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