Thursday, January 24, 2013

Adventures in the Tetons (cont)

December 30

The Oxbow

It was -10 below much of the day.

At these temperatures the air is literally crystalizing. It shimmered in every direction, kissing my face and hands and coat.

Warmth is all about layering. A long sleeve layer of  Under Armor,  a light long sleeve jacket, a heavy vest, and a think outer jacket together keep one nice and toasty. Snowshoeing generates a lot of heat and energy. Lifting ones leg up through three feet of snow on each step can turn up your inner furnace pretty quickly.

The Oxbow is a place of great beauty. The Snake River winds out of Jackson Lake at the Jackson Lake Dam, and creates this little oxbow area shortly thereafter before heading south. This area is habitat for about every creature that lives in the ecosystem.  In the spring, the large open sage fields on two sides of the river are calving grounds for a large elk herd. This, in turn, makes it prime country for Grizzly Bears. They tend to spend a decent amount of time in this area, when they aren’t hibernating. Willows line part of the shore and are such home to several moose. An otter family lives toward the back of the oxbow, and eagles, swans, sandhill cranes, and pelicans are always around. Wolves also stop by, and there are a few coyotes with dens close to the river.

Snowshoeing this area is enrapturing to me, especially because it is difficult to venture into in the summer. Not only the high chance of running into a Grizzly mama and cubs, but there is a lot of wetland and marshy areas near the river. So it’s an area I only get to explore in the winter.

Not many folks venture into this area, possibly because of the heavy snowfall (it is north in the park, which gets more snow). Whatever the reason, I am glad that I have it to myself.

The mighty Tetons tower to the west. Magical Mt. Moran is perfectly framed with the water and sits at a marvelous angle that one gleans nearly only from this vantage point.

After a short climb over the six foot tall plowed snow banks, I wind through a series of willows. The snow here is tricky, as it lays on top of very uneven surfaces and bushes. Frequently one foot drops down to the hip. But after some negotiating, the willows are left behind, and ahead stretches a wondrous open field which slopes down to the mostly frozen river on two sides. Many deer and coyote tracks dash this way and that.
An eagle calls a greeting (or sounds our arrival) from a dense stand of large pines and cottonwoods. Though it sits on the uppermost branch, it takes a while to locate. The nest in which it will live in the spring is two trees over, and giant.

Another eagle responds from across the river.

Other than this, there is absolute silence. Silence to the point you make a small vocalization simply to make sure you haven’t lost your hearing.

The upper route is not a flat, easy path, though it seems it. The shoreline waves in, sometimes several hundred feet, causing you to either go all the way around it, or down into the little valley and back up the other side.      

The day feels quite warm by the time I reach the far bank of the river. The sun has been shining proudly, my face is getting a tan despite the zero degree day. I unzip my outer jacket.

The far bank of the river is bordered by a tight forest one the back side. The eastern side winds along the open field before heading into the forest. The western branch runs along open fields all the way to the dam, a mile or more west. Here the river is not totally frozen. Numerous ducks swim along. A very large beaver crawls out of the water, gnawing on something there on the snowy ice.

Farther west along on the shore, I muskrat swims. A few of the ducks there angrily shuffle off. Coyote tracks dot this whole scene. Often I have seen the otter family playing on the banks, sliding down big piles of snow like a ride at a water park. Today, though, they are off elsewhere.

The second eagle is finally visible as it sits stealthily still on a branch near the very top of a large pine directly across the river from me.

Time ceases to exist here. If it wasn’t for the movement of the sun and the approaching evening, I would have no idea as to the length of time spent. One of the great mysteries of the woods is its ability to transport you to a place where time doesn’t exist. Where your mind is not thinking about how long you’re hiking. 

Hours pass swiftly here, and stand still at the same time.

After several hours basking in the wildness and exploring the shore, I head back, following a long trail of coyote tracks. This is his hunting route. Every now and again the tracks are accented with big puff out sections where the coyote punched into the snow after the little mole or other such small ground creature that runs under the snow.

Some tracks drifted off, away from the shore, leading to his den, tucked neatly against where the land juts up to the field. The angle of the uprising, and the piles of snow create a natural den, and the coyote has taken great advantage of this. The coyote himself came jogging out of his den after I had nearly finished the hike.  
Clouds had begun to move in, wrapping around Mt. Moran like a shawl. A brilliant purple shawl. The setting sun was throwing cool pastel colors upon the mountain like a child imitating Jackson Pollack.

A moose wondered out of the willows on the far side of the river from me as I climbed the bank back up to my van.

What a wondrous place!

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