Introduction to Tom Murphy’s book The Spirit of Winter.
From October until May, some of the water rising from the Pacific Ocean falls out of the sky as snow onto the Yellowstone Plateau. Snow is critical moisture in the Yellowstone ecosystem. It sits on top of the continent for over six months but provides a source of water for the whole year. Some of the snow melts off in the spring and summer, filling the streams with floods of water, moving dirt, rocks, seeds and vegetation, carrying the mountains out to the sea. Some of it soaks into the ground providing necessary moisture so plants can germinate, grow, bud, and flower. Some moisture soaks down past the plants, recharging the aquifers and springs. This subterranean water can flow back out of the ground later as springs, keeping the streams running year-round and supporting the vital riparian areas, Some ground water ends up contributing to the rare and beautiful geothermal features of the region.
At the beginning of winter, when the snow first comes to stay on the land, it begins its visit by sticking to things. The landscape is still relatively warm and the snow is wet. Sticking delicately to the grasses, sage, forbs, pine needles, and rocks, the snow wets all the upwind surfaces and creates a bond, which is strengthened by the surface tension of liquid water. If the air is cold enough, the water bond will freeze and weld the snow crystals to all of the surfaces with a transparent glassy layer of ice. This transformation of liquid water to ice is a significant aspect of winter. In response to this transformation, all plants and creatures must modify their lives or die according to their ancient lessons. Many animals leave for warmer places or go underground. Some grow extra hair and continue to live in the new landscape. Some plants produce seeds for the next generation in the spring and optimistically give up their own lives in the powerful drive of hope for the future.
Soft snowflakes sometimes fall out of the sky as gently as a breath. A mouse can push them along on the ground before him like a cloud of feathers. Sometimes flakes scour the land carried on an icy wind. Eventually, over the course of the season, individual snowflakes can accumulate, melt, and refreeze together into millions of tons of snow with a surface hard enough to support a bison bull.
In winter, the air becomes a living presence, more than in any other season. Its touch on your face or hands becomes a palpable and enveloping presence. Always lingering right on your skin, constantly seeking a way down your neck, up your sleeves, and up from the ground through the soles of your shoes to grip your toes, it is relentlessly testing whether you are ready to stay out in it. The cold is never malevolent, just powerful and steady, pulling the heat from you like the pull of time, unstoppable, clear, and honest. When we move along, parting its invisible almost liquid space, we place ourselves in a subtle tug for life. We become more alive. Our fingers and toes are the first objects that measure how we are faring in the weather. Our faces, especially our noses, ears, and cheeks react to the cold as if they were being pinched and rubbed with sandpaper. This rough feeling on our skin originates from one of the most gentle and delicate objects on earth, air, that acquires the power of death, carried by cold. Cold is a trait of the absence of energy, yet cold pulls energy and life to it. Like an abyss, the cold can pull you into an irreversible fall to oblivion, yet it does not seek you out specifically; it moves along enveloping everything in its steady grip.
When stepping out into the cold I must register and acknowledge the truth of its power, accept the risk and learn to insulate my tropical body from the terrific demands of the cold. While warm summer air feels like a sheltering protective blanket, winter cold seems to carry a direct connection from the brittle snow at my feet straight up thousands of miles to the elemental cold dark solitude of space. While walking or skiing through this cold I am constantly aware of my tiny size and my fragile connection to the organic force of life and motion.
Cold is a cleansing force. Moisture solidifies and falls to the ground pulling most of the airborne dirt with it. This cleaning action is why the air feels so fresh after a snowstorm. When it is below zero ambient humidity will sometimes freeze into tiny needles of ice, which swirl and tumble slowly to the ground. On clear mornings, backlit by the sun, this appears as sparkling diamond dust.
Breathing in the cold is not only exchanging the air in our lungs, maintaining our lives, but also inhaling and exhaling becomes a visible function of life. Inhaling extremely cold air can cause a burning sensation in our sinuses and throat and a hot sensation in our chest as the cold air washes past some of our most sensitive membranes before it warms up. I find it curious that cold causes a sensation similar to a burn.
The prevailing wind on the Yellowstone Plateau comes from the southwest. Air rising up onto the plateau cools, and rising again, it cools even more when it encounters the Absaroka, Gallatin, or Washburn Ranges. Temperatures here have been recorded in the minus 50-degree F range. Animals staying here during the winter must endure the extreme cold and move and feed when they can, trying to maintain their strength until spring comes again. Cold air in Yellowstone is almost always dry and sound carries very well when the wind is still. Coyotes’ and wolves’ vocalizations can carry for miles.
One of the defining aspects of winter is the absence of many things. Color is absent or at least subdued, much of the wildlife is absent, most natural sounds are muffled by snow, and daylight is less. This simplification draws attention to the basics of survival, elemental forms and shapes, clarity, concentration, and a distillation of what is most important. Wildlife pay attention to the elemental factors of living, and the ones that do it best survive and carry this knowledge on to the next year and the next generation. It is a strengthening process, an adaptive process, where luck, skill and knowledge form the basis not only for surviving but also for prospering.
People often ask me how I learned to tolerate the cold so well. Weather was a big part of my daily life as a child. I was raised on a 7500 acre cattle ranch on the open prairie of the northern Great Plains in western South Dakota. Our ranch lies a few miles northwest of the Forks of the Cheyenne River. The interior continental weather there is compared to that of Siberia, hot in the summer and cold in the winter.
I sat for days on red International Harvester tractors putting up hay in 100 degree plus temperatures in July and August. Then in the winter I cut ice out of galvanized steel water tanks and threw the same hay to cattle, sometimes sitting on one of those same tractors but more often standing on a haystack holding a pitchfork or bale hooks, often in temperatures substantially below zero.
A feature of the Great Plains weather is the nearly constant wind. One reason I have never worn a cowboy hat is that too often the wind sent my dad’s hat spinning and tumbling across the prairie like a poorly thrown Frisbee, and it was my job to retrieve it for him. The combination of cold and wind in winter produced wind chill temperatures that were life threatening. Blizzards were normal every winter. A blizzard is a snowstorm where visibility is reduced to less than 100 feet.
I slept in the ranch bunkhouse, a 12′ x 12′ building, which sits about 15 feet from the main house. After lunch one day in the house, I intended to walk the 15 feet to the bunkhouse door. At 1 p.m. in full daylight that day I could not see the bunkhouse because the 30 to 40 mile an hour wind was full of snow. I had walked this short distance to the bunkhouse door thousands of times and I knew where the building was supposed to be. Facing into that blizzard was like putting my face in a whitewater stream. Cold and nearly suffocating with water and wind, I made four steps towards the bunkhouse door but missed it by three feet. I slid along the wall until I found the door and stepped inside. It was then that I realized how easily one could get lost in just a few seconds in weather like this.
When I was in grade school my dad had a two-wheel drive 1951 Chevrolet 1/2-ton pickup. The snow did not have to get very deep before a two-wheel drive pickup, even with tire chains, became stuck. We used horses to get around in the snow then. After a storm the sky usually cleared, and it would be sunny and cold. Beautiful snowdrifts and light were spread across the rolling prairie on these winter days. I wish I had been there to enjoy the view, but there were cattle to tend.
One night when I was 23, a mid-January storm arrived. The storm didn’t leave much snow, but for the next three days the wind blew under a clear, sunny sky with temperatures between 35 and 40 below zero. Winds gusted to over 40 miles per hour. Wind chill charts show this temperature to be equivalent to around 80-90 below zero. Exposed skin will freeze within 5 minutes at these temperatures.
During this storm, none of the gasoline engines on the ranch would start, which meant that no machinery would work, no pickup or tractors, everything would have to be done by hand, and we would have to walk.
The calves and heifers were over the ridge, to the west, on Killdeer Creek. I put on every piece of outdoor clothing I owned and my four buckle overshoes to walk the mile and a half northwest to the water tank and feed troughs. The wind was coming from the northwest, so I walked straight west for the first eighth of a mile protecting the right side of my face from the cold. When I reached the top of the ridge overlooking Killdeer Creek, I was hit by the full force of the wind and had to walk straight into it. I looked into the wind and my eyes immediately filled with tears. I blinked to see through the tears but the cold froze my eyelashes together and froze my eyes shut. I scratched the ice out of my eyelashes and tilted my head so I could see upwind. My cheeks, nose, and lips were puffy and numb by this time. To protect my face and especially my eyes, I found the best way to walk down off the ridge to the creek and to the cattle was to walk backwards for the next mile looking down with quick glances ahead. Every time I had to look into the wind my eyes would freeze shut again. I had to take my mittens off to remove the ice with my fingernails. I tried to do this job quickly while huddled with my back to the powerful wind so my fingers wouldn’t freeze.
The cattle were all standing in the open on the little creek bottom sheltered somewhat from the full force of the wind, which was howling above them in the ash and elm trees. There were maybe 10 mile per hour gusts going through the creek bottom so it was relatively warm there. The poor cattle stood forlornly humped up with their feet bunched together and their necks pulled in, trying to be as small as they could. The first job I had to do was to get them some water. The 10′ steel tank was full of water, but it was frozen. I spent at least a half an hour with a single bit ax and a pitchfork cutting two feet of ice out of the tank and throwing the chunks on a pile nearby. Only about six inches of liquid water were left in the bottom of the tank when I was done. The half-horse Briggs and Stratton gasoline water pump engine wouldn’t start, so I used some wrenches and disconnected the engine and pump jack that we normally used to pump water for the cattle. A cast iron pump handle was leaning against a post in the brittle weeds. This handle was part of the pump head mechanism but we almost never used it. Connecting this to the pump head, I hand pumped the water and after pumping for about 20 minutes the 1200 gallon tank was full again.
The cattle were thirsty and took tiny little sips that seemed to give them ice cream headaches. The ambient temperature was so cold the surface of the water steamed and turned to slush right away. Within 10 minutes I had to break an inch of ice so the stragglers could get a drink too. The good news for me was that after all this work I was warm, not warm enough to open any zippers, but comfortable. I told the calves that it was time for some food and spread some grain in the troughs for them. Then all 160 of us walked to the next creek bottom where they watched me use a pitchfork to throw loose alfalfa hay to them over the barbed wire fence. They did not appear particularly hungry, but hay was probably less attractive when it was served at 40 below zero.
Walking home was easy because I was going with the wind. I repeated this routine for the next two days. The cattle lost noticeable weight during the three-day storm, but we didn’t lose any of them. We heard that some of our neighbors had, so we did well.
These and hundreds of other experiences I had as a kid working outside in the prairie cold prepared me for my life as a wildlife photographer, and gave me plenty of confidence to ski, camp, and photograph in Yellowstone’s cold.
Until we have our own experiences being out in the weather, our imagination may not allow us to anticipate how we or other creatures could possibly survive and even thrive in such harsh, extreme conditions. Practical observations in the natural world reveal amazing adaptations and survival techniques that other creatures have made. There are miracles every day of survival in the frost and deprivation of winter. Needs, desires, and activities in difficult times assemble into essentials quickly and those who survive are the ones who managed their possibilities well.
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Skiing has provided me with many wonderful opportunities to experience Yellowstone’s winter beauty. Many years ago, when I was first learning to backcountry ski, my friend Wayne Yankoff and I had skied up Bear Creek, one of the tributaries of the North Fork of the Shoshone River. Our route was over the Absaroka Range near Pyramid Peak and down into the head of the Lamar River.
We had left camp that morning at Frost Lake and were looking for a route down the steep headwall below us. We started on the top of the pass at nearly 10,000 feet and only two miles away near the mouth of the Little Lamar River, the elevation was about 7500 feet. Twenty five hundred feet of elevation loss in two miles is steep. I knew there was a trail there somewhere, but I had no idea where it was as I started down in soft powder that was nearly up to my shoulders. I had not learned to do a telemark turn yet and was a very poor skier. My method of going down steep hills at that time was to zigzag down at quite shallow angles doing kick turns back and forth across slopes. The extra deep powder held me back pretty well though, so I was facing almost straight downhill.
It was fun to push a huge wave of snow down ahead of me. I was aware of avalanche danger, and Wayne and I each had a thin red 100 meter nylon cord tied to our waists with little numbers clipped on every two meters, indicating how far it was to reach us, along with a small black arrow pointing to the end that was tied to us. The idea was that a searcher would find a piece of string on top of the snow after an avalanche and read the direction and distance to a buried victim, namely Wayne or me. It would be sort of like retrieving a crab pot in the Bering Sea, only the rescuer would have to dig us up instead of reel us in.
Skiing in this kind of unstable snow was a poor place to be, but we floated along, falling downhill, with the plume of loose snow that we kept pushing for nearly a half of a vertical mile. When we looked back we had left a swath of disturbed snow about 30 yards wide. Often the snow was holding me up against my whole body, and it felt like I was gliding in air supported by a dense cloud. When I was a kid watching giant, puffy cumulus clouds, I used to imagine climbing and jumping from one giant puff to another, imagining that the puffs would cushion my falls and embrace me and bounce me back up into the air to fly off to another puff. This real experience was as close to that dream as I have ever felt. Once in a while my skis would cross down under the 5 feet of snow, and I would fall down. Scrambling around after removing my pack and getting everything reorganized spoiled the ride a couple of times, but we safely arrived at the Lamar River after a couple of hours, where we coiled up our skinny red nylon tails and put them back in our packs.
The primary reason I do backcountry ski trips is to see what life is like for the creatures that live there year round. On one such backcountry ski trip about two days east of the Lower Falls, near the head of Moss creek, I was breaking trail. My two partners Brian Chan and Dave Long were out of sight about an eighth of a mile behind me. This rolling plateau we were on had burned extensively in the 1988 fires 13 years before and now most of the terrain through which we were skiing was thickly covered with new eight to ten feet tall lodgepole pine. A dense lodgepole forest like this one is referred to as a lodgepole desert, because few species live there and little food is available. It is almost a monoculture of pine trees. Visually it was uninteresting, and it was quiet and cold.
I skied through the trees up a low rise that arced to the left. When I skied around a corner, I saw ahead of me about 30 mountain chickadees in one of the thousands of pine trees. I actually heard them first, then saw them fluttering among the stiff pale green needles, some of them hanging upside down, some standing on the little twigs, and some fluttering and spinning in the air. Chickadees are one of the happiest sounding and most cheerful birds I have ever watched, and in the silence of the winter they created a particularly joyous sound. I immediately stopped about 30 feet away, amazed at this remote concentration of activity. They saw me too of course, and they all stopped moving and singing. The ones who had been in the air landed on the nearest branch, and they all silently looked at me as intently as I watched them.
I was smiling to myself at the optimistic enthusiasm of these little chickadees out there in a cold, snowy desert happily making a living in a place that was otherwise virtually abandoned in the winter. They seemed to be just as awestruck by my abrupt appearance. “What in the world is he doing out here?” they seemed to be thinking, as they silently tipped their beautiful black and white heads, their glassy, shiny bright eyes intently looking at me. I think I was holding my breath at their audacity and their elegant ease in thriving in that bleak spot. A small pine tree stood beside my left shoulder. After maybe 30 silent seconds, (I have no idea how long the world stops and waits for such glorious wonder to hold our hearts) the chickadees started to flutter and sing again, and as a group they rose out of the little branches and needles like a feathery splash and flew to the tree immediately beside me. They landed there just two feet from my shoulder, continuing to flutter and sing.
They were busy hyperactive creatures while they chattered, feathers all fluffed up in the cold. They each looked at my pack, my stocking cap, my ski poles, and me. They tipped their heads and seemed to be saying to each other and maybe to me: “How about…?”, “What do you suppose…?”, “Is that…?”, and “Hmm?”. I know I was holding my breath while they were so close because I did not want them to be frightened of me. I outweighed them by a factor of thousands.
It was as if they were the spirit of life, so powerful that I felt I was in the presence of a smile or a laugh from the heart of the universe. We met each other in amazement, and all I could do was try not to move or otherwise be a clumsy oaf. They were trying to figure out what I was, in the joyful way of trusting honest innocence. I knew they all wanted to land on me when the boldest one hopped up on my hat. Just as it touched my hat, my ski partners made a sound behind me that the birds and I both heard. The connection was broken, and they all immediately flew off, disappearing into the maze of tens of thousands of acres of pine trees, frost, and snow.
My heart was filled with them. I felt like they were leaving with a part of me. I wanted to call to them, “Come back. Can I go with you? Where will we meet again? Where can I find this beauty again?”
I know the search has to be in the quiet solitude of wildness, where beauty touches the core of all life and all connection. This search is the first giant step in finding our place in a world where tolerance and real acceptance of the profound and equal value of every other creature is what is needed. It is a difficult lesson without help from the pure, honest joy of wild creatures like these.