January 1, 1995

Jackson Hole Without Skis! Watch Big Game From Snowmobiles, Glide To Hot Springs On Dog Sleds, Track Porcupine By Snowshoe, All At Jackson Hole, Wyoming

Susan Bayer Ward Special To Travel
 

Jackson Hole, Wyoming, home to the lively western town of Jackson, plus Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks and the only national elk refuge in the United States, is often thought of - in winter - as the place to go for the best high-country, dry-powder skiing in America.

This is indeed true, but few know that the 60-mile-long valley called Jackson Hole is an even more exciting place, during winter months, for non-skiers.

What could be better fun than high-country skiing? Well, tours with the Great Plains Wildlife Institute for one. Over three million people flood Jackson Hole in summer, surging up into Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks eager to catch a glimpse of deer, moose, elk, bear, mountain lions, coyotes and bald eagles.

“But in winter,” says Billy Helprin, a wildlife biologist attached to the institute, “to the surprise of many, the wildlife is much more accessible - seeable. There may be tons of game around in summer, but it’s hard to see signs of them. Whereas in winter, you always see tracks and scat … You get a much better idea of the masses of wildlife really around.”

Our biologist-guide for the day was absolutely right. And, as I toured the back roads of Jackson Hole, in company with two spirited British women making their fifth trip to explore America, I spied a herd of some 9,000 elk, twelve bighorn sheep, five or six moose, three mule deer, four bald eagles, a gaggle of trumpeter swans, and eleven coyotes massed on the carcass of a dead elk.

During a half-dozen trips to Jackson Hole, in all seasons but winter, I had never seen so much game at one time.

As we gently trundled along snow-encrusted, sun-spackled roads in a comfortable, customized Suburban fitted with roof hatches and containing binoculars, spotting scopes and plenty of soft drinks, hot chocolate and snacks, Billy gladly shared his vast naturalist’s knowledge with us.

And the day got better and better. After a lunch stop at the delightful Gros Ventre River Ranch located north of town, we drove into the Bridger-Teton National Forest where Billy taught us how to use snowshoes (provided by the outfitter) for a 2-hour trek to locate porcupine - yes, porcupine.

Helping out with whatever research projects the well-regarded institute is handling at the moment is part of the day’s fun. Today, the Great Plains Wildlife folk were locating, ear-tagging and attaching telemetry equipment to these secretive, little-known creatures so scientists could learn more about their habitat and lifeways.

We even found a golden-tipped porcupine nestled in the top of a towering lodgepole pine!

I looked forward to my day-long (there are also half-day) dog-sled run. For years I’d wanted to speed silently over a gorgeous, snowy landscape with Alaskan huskies in front and a stalwart musher behind.

There are three fine dog-sled outfitters in the “Hole,” but Frank Teasley’s Jackson Hole Iditarod Sled Dog Tours seemed the best. Teasley himself has run the famed 1,100-mile Alaskan Iditarod numerous times, placing as high as sixth. He’s also known, far and wide, as one of the finest husky trainers in the business.

As my eight-dog team - with musher Matt Hayashida on the runners behind - sped away from Teasley’s kennels, the 125 dogs left behind set up healthy howls wishing they could be part of the run.

“Shadow, hike!” cried Matt, and the lead dog moved the team smartly forward onto a track that ribboned gracefully through the southern reaches of the Gros Ventre Range.

No wildlife today, just beautiful mountain scenery as Shadow, Pat, Flip, Zack, Ringo, Carlos, Happy and Broadway sprinted nimbly across the frozen reaches - past isolated, cozy cabins and ranches, past stands of fir and pine, past mountains and glistening waterfalls, out to Granite Hot Springs our turnaround point.

As I snuggled down in the sled, kept warm by plenty of covers, Matt shared a wealth of fascinating information about the dogs, their training, the Iditarod, Frank Teasley, the countryside and the care and feeding of these extraordinary dogs.

While my musher tended the dogs at Granite Hot Springs, I took a swim in the surprising, snow-surrounded outdoor pool. It’s popular with dog sledders and snowmobilers who stop for a dip, a change of pace, and often an al fresco lunch.

At the end of the day, I was so familiar with these handsome huskies that I helped take the dogs off the main gang line, detach their harnesses and feed them a light broth - hot water laced with venison.

Snowmobiling is another winter sport in the Hole that allows visitors to get into some beautiful back country - most especially Yellowstone National Park - that is only accessible by snowmobile, snowcoach or cross-country skis during the winter season.

Some 15 outfitters operate out of the Jackson area. Pia Valar of Rocky Mountain Snowmobile Tours was my guide for the day as I joined a group leaving Jackson at sunrise for the hour run up to Flagg Ranch located at the southern gate of the park.

After our arrival, Pia jumped the machines off the back of our trailer and gave us precise instructions about how to operate our snowmobiles as well as some vital do’s and don’ts. Our seven vehicles then headed north into the frozen wonderland that is Yellowstone in winter.

My black snowsuit, helmet and boots - all supplied by the outfitter - matched the park’s winter color scheme of checkerboard black and white. Now even the game - buffalo, moose, elk, deer and otters - looked like stark blue-black cutout silhouettes when we encountered them.

Our destination was Upper Geyser Basin where we, and numerous other snowmobilers (sad to say, far too many), made a lunch stop inside one of the winterized buildings around the venerable Old Faithful Inn.

While Pia assembled a welcome meal of cold fried chicken, hot chili, rolls, relishes and brownies, we trooped over to Old Faithful just in time to witness a sparkling, frost-spewing eruption.

Blowing and drifting snow, a distinct possibility at any time in a Yellowstone winter, nagged at us on the way down, but it just added to the thrill of seeing a huge bison suddenly loom out of the whiteout unexpectedly.

One Sunday I spent a delightful morning driving onto the 25,000-acre National Elk Refuge just north of town. Quiet in summer, it’s a beehive of activity in winter as some 9,000 elk ultimately make their way onto the refuge from their summer pasturage in the surrounding high country. They remain here for six months, the rangers feeding them during the most severe two months of the season.

You can take a horse-drawn sleigh ride from the Visitor Center onto the refuge, coming close to browsing or snoozing elk - the males sporting huge racks of antlers.

This day I also drove north of town to the Moose Visitor Center in Grand Teton National Park where, if you make a reservation (a must), you can join a group for a free snowshoe tour with a park ranger. The Park Service even supplies snowshoes and poles.

For two hours I trekked along behind ranger Susan Kelly, who carried a backpack full of surprises which she unleashed on the group at intervals.

One of her most vivid, and educational, tours de force came when she unpacked a two-piece shovel, snapped it together, quickly dug a deep hole in the snow and produced a stuffed rodent - seemingly out of the atmosphere - to demonstrate how small animals live and move far below the snowpack where it’s safer and far easier to scurry about.

The Park Service also offers ranger-led ice-fishing expeditions and snowmobiling treks. A great deal!

Monday evening I made my way to the top of Gros Ventre Butte which looms just above Jackson for an after-dark sleigh ride at Spring Creek Resort, the only AAA four-diamond, year-round resort in Wyoming.

Having stayed there in the past, I knew its charms full well and looked forward to my ride across the top of the butte - hot mulled cider inside me, a lap robe pulled over my knees, and two monumental draft horses named Chub and Checker snuffling, snorting and straining on the reins ahead.

At Spring Creek, you can purchase a sleigh ride-dinner package, and after my ride I warmed up nicely in their handsome, renowned Granary Restaurant where I feasted on made-from-scratch mushroom soup with wild rice and beef tenderloin.

I even took a day off from more supercharged endeavors to roam around this wonderfully compact town, which is duded up with Christmas lights from just after Thanksgiving well into March.

The four famed elk-antler arches of Town Square twinkled with tiny Italian lights as I ambled through some of Jackson’s 40 galleries (it rivals Santa Fe and Scottsdale as an art mecca); perused handsome Indian jewelry, leather goods, western wear and outdoor gear in some of the shops; and finally bellied up to the bar at the much-visited Million Dollar Cowboy Bar situated right on the square where saddles serve as bar stools and you run into everyone you know, or want to know.

As I sipped my beer, I peered out onto the street at a fresh snowfall and mulled over tomorrow’s non-ski possibilities. Maybe a few pleasant hours of skating at the new state-of-the-art Snow King Center Ice Arena would be in order; or a comfy snowcoach (enclosed and heated) tour of Yellowstone with an overnight inside the park itself.

Happily, there were plenty of adventures still in store.

MEMO: This sidebar ran with story: TIPS FOR VISITORS: Before you go Phone or write for a 48-page booklet, Taking in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It lists everything from accommodations, outfitters, restaurants, art galleries and shops to airlines that service Jackson, car rental agencies, the S.T.A.R.T. Public Shuttle Bus which makes up to 50 stops a day running between Jackson and Teton Village, and more. Complete with names, addresses, phone numbers and small data-blurbs, the booklet is great to use at home before you come, and while you’re visiting Jackson Hole. To get this booklet, contact the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box E, Jackson, WY 83001, (307) 733-3316.

Once you’re there As soon as you hit town, ask for a free copy of the Jackson Hole Picture Map from any hotel, shop or restaurant. It’s compact, easy to read and shows you where all the stores, eateries (some 75 in Jackson!), gas stations, groceries, lodges and more can be found.

Be aware Jackson is high and dry (altitude 6,200 feet) and it’s wise to take precautions. When you first arrive, take things easy for a day or two to acclimate. Also, drink lots of water even when you’re not thirsty; you get dehydrated easily. Bring plenty of body lotion and lip salve. Lots of moisture is the thing out here - both inside and out. And, even in the winter months, suntan lotion and sunglasses are a must.

This sidebar ran with story: TIPS FOR VISITORS: Before you go Phone or write for a 48-page booklet, Taking in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It lists everything from accommodations, outfitters, restaurants, art galleries and shops to airlines that service Jackson, car rental agencies, the S.T.A.R.T. Public Shuttle Bus which makes up to 50 stops a day running between Jackson and Teton Village, and more. Complete with names, addresses, phone numbers and small data-blurbs, the booklet is great to use at home before you come, and while you’re visiting Jackson Hole. To get this booklet, contact the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box E, Jackson, WY 83001, (307) 733-3316.

Once you’re there As soon as you hit town, ask for a free copy of the Jackson Hole Picture Map from any hotel, shop or restaurant. It’s compact, easy to read and shows you where all the stores, eateries (some 75 in Jackson!), gas stations, groceries, lodges and more can be found.

Be aware Jackson is high and dry (altitude 6,200 feet) and it’s wise to take precautions. When you first arrive, take things easy for a day or two to acclimate. Also, drink lots of water even when you’re not thirsty; you get dehydrated easily. Bring plenty of body lotion and lip salve. Lots of moisture is the thing out here - both inside and out. And, even in the winter months, suntan lotion and sunglasses are a must.


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