20151219: State of Snow (Greater Yellowstone)

After  the Highwood fatbike outing I got the idea to enter a 60k fatbike race in Idaho, JayP’s Backyard Fat Pursuit, in the greater West Yellowstone ecosystem. I can handle 60k on snowmobile trails; might take me all day but it’s not singletrack…Right?

Wrong. Picked up my first fatbike DNF (did not finish). What an experience. It wasn’t too technical and rolling resistance wasn’t as bad as what my bike partner and I have done before, but I was too slow. Thanks so much to the race team, volunteers, and fellow fatbikers for the intro to fatbike racing. Here are some truths.

  1. Fatbiking is not a sprint
  2. Fatbiking is not a spectator sport
  3. Fatbiking only makes winter cycling possible, not easy
  4. Fatbiking is not considered a crime in the American West

Scott and I made the roadtrip to the race into our winter vacation.

We drove south through Montana to Great Falls and crossed the continental divide, continuing south to Park Falls, ID. Race headquarters was the Pond’s Lodge on the “longest main street in America”, in Targhee National Forest on the west border of Yellowstone.

This area is the king of winter recreation. It boasts over 400 miles of snowmobile trails that are groomed daily at a cost of $20 per mile, according to Jay P the race director. Luckily, fatbikers are permitted to tag onto the trail network with the endorsement of the Forest Service.

Snowmobiling is a multi-million dollar industry here. The number of machines in the snomo specific parking lots was mindboggling; rows and rows of them. Even Scott who is from Saskatchewan where snomo is a way of life, was impressed.

After the race, we drove up along West Yellowstone along the Idaho/ Wyoming border that follows the Gallatin River, of “A River Runs Through It” fame. (The original river in Norman Maclean’s writing was the Blackfoot, but apparently by the 1990s it was sadly so polluted the movie was filmed in Bozeman and Livingston on the Gallatin, Yellowstone, and Boulder rivers.)

We passed by Big Sky and into Bozeman, one of my favorite places in Montana, and stopped by Wild Joe’s for coffee and a matcha, and La Chatelaine Chocolate Co. (awarded #1 chocolate shop in America 2011 or something like that) to pick up some hostess gifts for the holiday season. Bozeman’s ideally situated in proximity to three ski resorts, the Gallatin National Forest and is the gateway to North Yellowstone. It’s home to the only North American Ice Climbing World Cup (we were here for IceFest last December), Montana State University (go Bobcats), and a major medical center. Its historic district is filled with fashion, furnishing and curio boutiques, galleries, outdoor recreation shops including the Bozeman Running Co., various fishing and angling shops, and bike shops.  This is Alex Lowe and Conrad Anker territory. It makes sense then, that Bozeman is bidding to host the 2026 Winter Olympics.

Continuing on, we passed by Livingston and through the North Gate of Yellowstone in heavy snowfall. There are only two lodges in Yellowstone open in winter, Mammoth and Old Faithful, and only the North entrance is open so visitors must take the parks snowcoach or arrange private transport between the lodges.  We figured that 468USD+tax for the snowcoach didn’t make much sense with our CAD-USD exchange rate to see Old Faithful and the sights in the interior, and all sightseeing tours in the interior were fully booked (since May apparently) anyway. The Grand Canyon and Yellowstone Lake will wait. We decided to visit just the northern ranges from Mammoth. Next year we’re going to look into a snomo private tour.

Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, like all food and lodging in Yellowstone N.P., is managed by Xanterra. The hotel was much nicer in person than in the reservation website’s promo photos, and cozily decorated with garlands and lights and a sparkling tree in the great room. The hotel had some family activities and educational seminars scheduled, the ice rink was open, and an evening pianist entertained us. We had reservations at the Terrace, the only dining room open, and since we already know what to expect regarding prices in national parks (7USD for a three-pack of disposable razors at the Mammoth gift shop) I guess the value was fair. I tried the Yellowstone signature red (a Sonoma cab), pistacho-crusted trout, and pain au chocolat bread pudding.

The following day we did a wildlife tour that had history lessons thrown in amongst the viewing of elk, bison, pronghorn, deer, bighorn sheep. We learned about Fort Yellowstone and the beginnings of the Park. Much of what the guide talked about regarding the challenges facing Yellowstone (correcting errors of past ignorance, mining and resource extraction, revitalizing ecosystems and the completeness of ecosystems, forest fire management, how to responsibly manage visitation numbers, migratory patterns and human interference, climate change) has clear parallel with current issues in Banff and Jasper and our Canadian Rockies parks.

However what the guide talked about, and what we at home in Canada don’t often educate visitors about, is the role of the native people. Yellowstone appropriately calls itself the first national park and we tout Banff as the birthplace of the Canadian national parks system, but we seem to convey an idea that our natural wonders were “discovered” by western surveyors or Canadian Pacific rail employees or the Swiss mountain guides. That part of history is of course important and shouldn’t be diminished, but we should also recognize that it’s relatively recent history.

Also about how the US parks present themselves to visitors, they are very good at highlighting regional specialties and playing to local strengths in their tourism. Montana for instance plays up its huckleberry with everything from jam to spreads to soaps and toiletries to t-shirts  stating “I’ll be your hucklebear-y”. They play up their trout industry and their bison, and I’ve now discovered A Thousand Arms thanks to Möuntainhead and Bozeman graphic design. In Canada our mountain shops are generic mass produced “Canada eh” merchandise, west coast salmon, eastern maple syrup, northern qiviut, none of which come from our part of the Rockies. We have a market for ammolite but I’d like to see more products featuring wild mushroom, sage, juniper, spruce, fir, moose, elk and bison, our trout, and other local flavors, in our gift shops. Our area of Canada is so special, let’s not allow ourselves to become cliché.

All in all, a very pleasant way to spend a few days with Scott, see some new sights, burn some calories and indulge a bit, too. To everyone, a bright and merry holiday season!



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