Winter In Yellowstone: Thriving On The Coldest Days
The coldest night I've ever spent in a sleeping bag was about -35 to -37 degrees Fahrenheit and I was not prepared. I had a 30 degree bag and I brought lots of blankets. I remember covering myself up with several of those as well as sticking a “hot hands” packet in my sleeping bag as well as one in each of my hiking boots, which I all kept underneath the blankets while I slept.
I spent that night in the back of my pickup bed beneath my truck topper and I'll never forget waking up the next morning with frost literally everywhere including my eyelashes, the hat that I was wearing, and all across the blanket. The top blanket became basically a piece of frozen solid cardboard and when I put my boots on my feet, they were so cold that I had to run up and down the road for probably 5 to 10 minutes just to warm up my boots and get my feet somewhat warm. I've been out in cold temperatures like that a number of times in the past, but I’ve never spent the night sleeping in those temperatures until then.
The weather report didn’t have it predicted to be that low, however, we were in the bottom of a canyon. In canyons, the air flows through the mountains like a river and the cold air gets trapped at the bottom of the river valleys and cold wet air will create temperature swings into the negatives like you wouldn't believe, when you're in certain places in the mountains. I was with a couple of friends and we were going to snowshoe a couple of miles up the mountain and try and get there before sunrise. We had woke up that morning probably an hour and a half.
Before the sun came up and we managed to do just that. It really wasn't terrible hiking up the trail that morning until we got to the place where we were trying to get to and took a short break for a while. I remember looking over at my friend and making eye contact with him as he looked back at me and we somehow communicated to each other that this was way too cold to be out here trying to enjoy ourselves.
Needless to say we did not spend very much time up there so the story is pretty short, but one thing that is burned into my visual memory was the most exceptional sun dog I've ever seen. Minutes before we left, right after the sun started to peek over the horizon, I remember seeing the sun dog and thinking to myself that it's got to be the most vivid, intense, and most magnificent one that I've ever seen. And going to school and living in North Dakota for the better half of a decade, I've seen a lot of them. North Dakota has sun dogs on a regular basis throughout the winter; the air can just get so frigid cold and there's also a lot of moisture, so when the conditions are just right sometimes you can see them throughout the day, straight up in the air, but this one in particular it was just on a totally different level.
It's funny, I remember thinking about how much it brought me back to living in the Great Plains and it just had me very nostalgic for a moment and I knew that at one point in time I had to find a way to incorporate a scene like this into my work. But, for the longest time I wasn't sure what I wanted to accomplish with that if I was going to attempt it, that is, until a recent trip up into the mountains with our camper where we saw another very beautiful sun dog. We were up at Yellowstone National Park at the time and of course there were a lot of bison.
Bison are animals that I've spent a fair share of time around being someone who went to school for Wildlife Biology and worked at national parks for seven years, and so I feel like I could go on for days with stories that I have related to bison. But, there's one thing that I always come back to with these animals and that's how shocked and how impressed I am with their ability to withstand the cold and to thrive in some of these unforgiving and sometimes disastrous environments. They are truly built like a tank and what I think is even more impressive than being able to withstand the cold is being able to go from that, to withstanding 103 degrees just six months later.
In some of these places where they live, their ability to adapt from one extreme to another is mind-blowing to me, and I know there's a lot of other animals that share the landscape with the bison who can also adapt very well. However, these animals carry themselves in a different way that just makes them all the more impressive.
So after spending that night in our camper in the park, it was pretty cold that night. Not -30 but probably closer to -10 degrees. Cold enough to where the rivers and streams were steaming into the cold winter air and after coming to this one spot where the river was partially frozen, the ice was breaking and the steam was lifting off. The sun dog was there in the background and it just all connected for me right there seeing the bison nearby. I was really inspired to take all of these experiences and all of these passions of mine and put them together into a piece that would be my first large bison painting.
This scene overall means a lot more to me than what's just on the surface. It has so many levels that I can connect with and personally, it's almost as if it brings two chapters of my life together into one: the Great Plains where I once lived and the mountains where I live now and what's special to me are the similarities and aspects that each of these regions share together. In a sense, it captures everything that I've personally held close and near to my heart for the better half of my adult life.
This painting, which is the third painting in my series this year, gives me a lot of inspiration and I hope that it can do the same for you as well. Life can be so tough in the northern Great Plains as well as places like Yellowstone, but at the same time offer such beauty. I wanted this painting to capture just that and exhibit the relationship between the two and the animals that roam the land.
I'm Chuck Black, landscape and wildlife artist based in Southwest Montana.
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