One Off My Bucket List

This past February I was invited on a trip of a lifetime. The kind of trip that has you “one” with nature and leaves you absolutely speechless. Flying into Bozeman, Montana, I quickly understood what “Big Sky Country” meant and everything just felt larger than life. Traveling from Bozeman to West Yellowstone, Montana on Highway 191, I quickly started to identify plant material. Represented in huge numbers were juniper, particularly Rocky Mountain & common types, and it was then that I understood why many nurseries continue to grow this plant in vast numbers.
Day one, of this 4-day snowmobiling adventure, had us traveling into Yellowstone National Park on a guided tour. The lighter of the 3 days on snowmobiles, we still covered some 65 miles. Traversing the Madison River I felt like I was in a National Geographic film. Bald Eagles, Trumpeter swans, elk, coyote and even muskrats were all happy to be a part of our experience. However, for me, it was the bison, whose immense presence had us stopping our snowmobiles and respectfully letting them pass right in front of us. Their sheer presence suggested that our vehicles and ourselves was no match for them and we knew the pecking order here. Our tour guide, Mindy, spoke of the ruminant nature of bison as they were feeding on prairie grasses buried several feet below the snow. As we traveled around, just a small portion of the park, I was most impressed to see a stand of Quaking Aspen, Populus tremuloides. This particular grove, along a hillside, showcased stilts of beautiful, predictable white bark erupting out of the winter snow. Quaking Aspen grows in a wide variety of soil types and has the widest geographical distribution of any North American tree. Unfortunately we missed its outstanding golden-yellow fall color, perhaps a trip for another time. Other highlights this day were the five types of geothermal features we learned about, including the ever poplar Old Faithful.
The next two days had us being a bit more aggressive, covering nearly 100 miles each day on our snowmobiles. The first of these days had us traveling through the groomed trails of Gallatin/Targhee National Forests. Literally hundreds of miles of open trails exist here and you can travel over the state lines of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming quickly. Two Top Snowmobile Trail was the highlight on this day and as we crested the summit, we passed through monstrous Engelmann spruce, Picea engelmannii. Capable of growing every bit of 100 feet, I had to remember that we were traveling on several stories of compacted snow. The most common spruce found in the Rockies, this is an important timber tree for the West. A spruce durable enough to handle “harsh winds, extreme cold and deep snows” (, I felt like these were giant marshmallow trees and the Green Giant would welcome us at any moment. The “Weather Gods” were kind to us on this day as we could see Wyoming’s Teton’s, Idaho’s Centennial Mountains and Lionshead in Montana. However, for me again, it was the trees that gripped my attention. “Constant driven winds create ghostly ice patterns plastered on the trees at the top of this mountain creating famous “snow ghosts””( Imagine, for a moment, feeling like you’re on top of the world at an elevation of 8,200 feet in the Rocky Mountains.
The last day of snowmobiling had us circling a few of the vast number of “bowls” looking over huge drop offs and cliffs. Lodgepole Pine, Pinus contorta var. latifolia was the tree of choice this day. The most common tree in the Yellowstone area, it has its common name from American Indian tribes using the tree to make frames for their lodging. Growing in such abundance and proximity to one another, they almost look fastigiate as they fight for space. What seemed like millions of totem poles rocketing out of the ground, it was this tree that held my attention the longest.
A precursor to this exciting trip, I watched the movie The Bucket List with Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman on the plane heading to Bozeman. A story of two terminally ill men knocking off a to-do list before they die. And while snowmobiling in Montana was not on that list, I think it should be an experience everyone has before they go.