My Mom and Dad came to visit in Big Sky, MT and, like I've mentioned before, I will gladly tour guide for food and beer. Actually they used to live not far from here when I was a baby and they know the area decently well, though I don't think they had spent time in Big Sky. My Dad's idea was to go dogsledding and then the next day go snowmobiling in Yellowstone National Park.
We made dogsledding reservations with a company out of Ennis called Spirit of the North. The company's website seemed a bit outdated, and the driving directions they e-mailed my Dad were on a hand drawn map, but the company itself was pretty legit. We show up and they already have the sleds laid out, and what seemed like more than 100 dogs leashed up, all howling in their own way, creating more noise than I had heard in awhile. The lead guide gives a big yell and every single dog hushed up. It was pretty impressive. One of the coolest parts of the experience was that every dog was friendly and we could go around and pet any dog we wanted. I probably petted over a hundred Alaskan Huskies that day. The crew set out to get the dogs on their proper sled harnesses, and they let us help out. They told us to grab a dog, we would bring it over and then strap it in. It was very hands-on and I enjoyed that. I like puppers. During this time the dogs could sense the coming activity which they enjoy so much, and again the barking, yipping, howling frenzy was cranked the 100. The dogs were just stoked. Another cool part was we got to drive the sled without a guide on it at all! Now, the dogs seemed to have this route dialed in, they never strayed, and I really did nothing but apply the brake when we got too close to the sled in front, but just the principle was so awesome. The sled goes surprisingly quick and the dogs seem to get a huge thrill out of it. There's nothing quite like it, big puffy snowflakes slowly falling everywhere, the only sound is the huff and puff of the 15 dogs in front of you, and the sound of the sled sliding on the snow beneath you. Lean into the turns, brake here and there, and smile when you realize what you're doing. I'm driving a freakin team of dogs and its actually not a horrible failure. Halfway through our loop we stopped for hot chocolate, cookies, and to take some pictures. Then we were off and Lynnea was able to drive while I sat on the sled, dodging the poop the dog in front of me was excreting, never stopping or losing speed, simply kicking it back at me as he pulled along. When we got to the end, we helped take the dogs off the harnesses and get them back in the truck. I freakin love dogs! At this point I was seriously going through what kind of demands and preparations are necessary to own a sled team and to own a business like this. Seems pretty legit! Did I mention I love dogs?
The next day we were to go snowmobiling in Yellowstone, all the way to Old Faithful, with a bunch of stops there and back. We decided to go with a company in West Yellowstone called Two Top and they were nothing short of amazing. They had brand new sleds with heated grips for driver and passenger, and foot warmers, as well as full face helmets that kept the chilly wind of your face. The sleds are all 4-stroke low emision motors so you aren't constantly riding through the stinky exhaust of the people in front of you. The speed limit in Yellowstone at this time is 35mph, and the sleds are governed down to about 40mph to avoid the temptation. We also rented one-piece jumpsuits that were super insulated and super warm. Almost all of the park is closed to cars at this time of year, and the only way you can get in is with a guided tour. Companies offer all kinds of snowcoach expeditions which vary from a huge lifted bus on monster truck tires, to a vintage looking snowcat on tracks, where you are inside with the heater blasting and the windows fogging up. I personally feel the only way to go is by snowmobile, where you are out there in it, in the elements, nothing between you and nature. Unless its one of those good ol' -20 degree days. Then I might consider some heater time.
Our tourguide was amazing, I believe his name was Justin, and you could really feel his passion for this place. He was constantly stating interesting facts about the history, the animals, and the geography, and if you asked questions only more interesting statements would come out. He truly made the trip fascinating. We stopped at a waterfall, stopped by a huge bald eagle, and stopped as 4 or 5 gigantic bison stood in the road. We were literally feet away from these beasts, nothing in between us but our sleds, as they mosied their way on down the road. Fun fact- bison won't even feel the cold until it gets down to -40 degree temps. Beasts. Also, both male and female bison can grow horns. They appear very slow and lethargic in winter which is because they are conserving energy. There is very little food at this time of year and if they get overworked it can cost them their life. That is much of the reason for the stern regulations of Yellowstone in the winter. We saw some buffalo digging under the snow to find some food. Justin told us the nutrients they get from eating up the frozen plants underneath the snow does not even outweigh the energy burned to digging them up. As he told us this, a bison carcass, picked dry by wolves and other animals, lies in the middle of the resting bison. That's just life out here.
As the tour went on, we visited boiling mud pots, learned about the microbiology at play there, learned how a super volcano formed the entire region, and also I dug into stories of some of Justin's past guests who were less than friendly. Later in the the day we saw two bull Elk, one was perhaps the biggest I've ever seen. Another fun fact, an elk's antlers are the fastest growing bone out of any animal in the world. The antlers can grow to be up to 40lb! Yellowstone in winter is much different than summer. With so few guests tromping around and disturbing the wildlife, and with the high snow levels, the animals tend to use the paved roads as travel routes in the winter. This leads to a much more up close and personal perspective of Yellowstone. I saw much more wildlife on this winter trip than I had on any of my summer visits, and I learned so much more because of the mandatory tour guide. I'd highly recommend it to anyone brave enough to face the elements of winter in Yellowstone.