Every season has its beauty but many would be inclined to skip exposure to the bitter cold of winter in favor of a seat by a roaring fire with a glass of hot cider. For those prepared to brave the elements, breathtaking scenes beckon, just waiting to be captured in the eye of the beholder and the lens. And what better way to access them than by snowmobile, camera at hand.
West Yellowstone, Montana, likes to call itself the Snowmobile Capital of the World, a title it works hard to live up to. Blessed with an average of 150 inches of snow every winter, the town’s streets are not plowed. Instead, they are groomed to allow for free passage by the sleek, horseless sleds. With nearly 200 miles of groomed trails in nearby Yellowstone Park and over 400 miles in the surrounding Gallatin and Targhee forests, your choice of terrain is almost unlimited. And so it is that we venture to West Yellowstone to meet up with a group of like-minded individuals, led by Barbara and John Gerlach, professional nature photographers and instructors extraordinaire, for a week of photographing landscapes and animals, using snowmobiles to access places off the beaten track.
Snowmobiling in the winter requires some preparation. You have to dress in layers — several layers! Two pairs of thermal long johns, sweatpants, fleece, face masks, hoods, two pairs of socks and gloves, augmented by a one-piece snowmobile suit, boots, gloves, and a helmet. Sunblock is required because even on snowy days, your skin can suffer from wind burn. The snowmobile is equipped with heated seats and handlebars, which are a source of comfort when the temperature plummets to several degrees below zero Fahrenheit, and you find yourself in the middle of a blizzard.
A snowmobile ride is quite bumpy requiring your cameras and lenses to be padded and wrapped to protect them from the jolting before they are stored in backpacks and strapped onto the back of the snowmobile with bungee cords. Decisions on where to go on any given day are taken at the last minute, based on the weather. A bright, sunny day is perfect for a trek to the top of Two Top Mountain from where, on a clear day you can see three states — Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming – two national parks, (Yellowstone and the Tetons) and five mountain ranges.
Driving through the streets of West Yellowstone you cross a large meadow before entering the forest. For about 15 miles you cruise through a world of snow-covered evergreen trees, next to a mountain stream. The deep snow along the banks is piled high, shaped into mounds and gullies by the relentless wind and snow.
As you turn onto a steep slope to drive up the flank of the mountain, the forest becomes thicker. The higher you go, the more snow has accumulated on the trees until, finally, you reach a plateau a few hundred feet below the 9,000-foot summit. Here the trees have literally been entombed in the snow by the fierce winds. They are bent and twisted, covered with ghostly ice patterns until they resemble something out of a frozen fairy tale. You almost expect to see the Sugar Plum Fairy step out from behind the snow sculptures.
Continue further up to the summit of Two Top Mountain and the “snow ghost” trees become much smaller. But be careful, if you step off the trail, you could sink deep into the white stuff; in fact, the trees are completely buried and you are standing near the tops, the rest hidden in the snow dozens of feet below you.
We stop several times to photograph under the expert guidance of John and Barbara. They are patient, helpful and always willing to share their knowledge to ensure that all of us obtain the best photographs possible. They also advise us how to ride a snowmobile up and down steep slopes. You have to shift your weight to be on the uphill ski or you may find yourself unceremoniously dumped into a deep snow bank.
Back at the bottom of the hill, exhilarated by the experience, you look forward to reviewing your photographs over cups of hot chocolate while planning tomorrow’s adventure.