White on White


It’s a land of steam and snowdrifts, of animals and ice. It’s Yellowstone in the winter, and for Explorers, it offers lessons about life

It was impossible to look off to where the horizon met the sky because there was no horizon. Storm clouds hovered so low and thick and were so close to the same color as the snow that the sky and the earth seemed frozen into a single sheet of ice. Even the shadows disappeared because the sun couldn’t break through to form them. The whole world was white—white on white on white—except for the occasional faded-charcoal spot of a fence post or the ghostly outline of a distant tree.

Luckily for the group of snowmobilers, they were with an experienced guide. Not only did he know the trails, he also knew the group wasn’t far from town and that they could afford to wait awhile for the weather to clear. He’d seen whiteout before, and he knew it wasn’t the best condition to travel in because anyone straying from the trail could slam unaware into holes, rivers, or buried stumps.

For the young men on the trail, LDS Explorer Scouts heading home after a full day of scenic delights and races out in open meadows, the lesson of the moment wasn’t lost. They were tired and eager to move on, but their guide and their leaders were also priesthood holders, and the young men were used to obeying their counsel. Soon the clouds thinned, and the path appeared clearly. The group moved on.

Every year, thanks to a program organized by the Lake Bonneville Council of the Boy Scouts of America, hundreds of Scouts and Explorers visit Yellowstone Park in the winter. They tour the official trails, where they may see caribou, moose, and herds of bison. They gaze at waterfalls tumbling past glaciered mounds of icicles formed by the mist, while bald eagles and Canadian geese soar overhead. They are awed by the lace and frosting nature layers on her trees, and by the magnificent roar of Old Faithful and its jets of steam. They stare at the raw red mud of hot pots as the fluid pops and spits and melts the ice from the edges of its domain, spewing sulfurous “rotten-egg gas” into the air.

Outside the park, the snowmobilers also follow established trails to otherworldly destinations like Two-Top Mountain, where the continental divide follows the crest of the hill and where trees encrusted with coating after coating of wind-whipped frost take on the appearance of aliens from a sunless planet. (Not that anyone would feel out of place among the aliens—the snowmobile suits, hats, goggles, helmets, face shields, gloves, and moon boots make the riders themselves appear like spacemen.)

But for Latter-day Saints who come to the park, the excursion is more than just an excuse to fluff up the snow. Because they sit and talk with their leaders, the young men start to forge friendships. Breaking paths through the snow together often breaks the ice in relationships between the young men, too. And campfire talks in a warm lodge offer a chance for someone who’s trying to become part of the group to relax and feel at home. Add to that the appreciation of God’s creations that comes from seeing nature firsthand, and a winter visit to Yellowstone can build memories that will last a lifetime.

“When you ride two to a machine, you naturally are going to talk to the guy you’re riding with,” explained Nick Harper, 14, of the Tremonton Fourth Ward, Tremonton Utah Stake. “And when you spend time with your leaders, you’re naturally going to get to know them better, to know them as friends. I have to get along with the leaders. One of them’s my dad!”

Nick’s friend Mark Hyatt, 16, from the same ward, said the time in Yellowstone made him appreciate modern conveniences. “I thought of the pioneers, how some of them were trapped during the winter by storms when they were crossing the plains. They didn’t have motorized vehicles made for snow travel. There were no sack lunches ready for them.”

He also said that watching the wildlife had made him more aware of the struggles wild animals go through just to stay alive. “I wouldn’t want to forage around all winter for food,” he said. “But you can tell the Lord designed these animals to survive.”

Derek Reundy, 17, of the Brigham City 20th Ward, Brigham City Utah Stake, said he thought “it was great to be away from everything, out in the wilderness. It’s so peaceful. It makes me feel closer to God, and it gives me lots to talk about when I get home.”

“It taught me a respect for nature,” said Craig Keenan, 19, from the 69th Ward, South Ogden Utah Stake. “It showed me how nice Heavenly Father’s creations are. I want to preserve them so others can see them in the future.” He also said he appreciated the variety of experiences available at Yellowstone. “It depends on what you want to see. If you want to watch the wildlife, stay in the park. If you want the joy of riding through deep powder, go outside.”

“And be glad there’s someone around to pull you out if you get stuck!” said his friend Cory Buckway, 18, from the Uintah First Ward, Ogden Utah Weber Stake. He said that working together in planning for the trip had taught the members of Explorer Post 254 how to set and achieve goals. “It taught us how to work with our brothers, and we learned about self-discipline and organization. That helps prepare us for the mission field too,” he said.

Marcellus Hurpor, 16, from the Tremonton Fourth Ward, said he learned that it’s possible to have fun even when the weather’s bad. “We didn’t have a lot of sunshine while we were here,” he explained, “but we were still able to ride around and see a lot of things. Where else could you find scenery like this?”

Clyde G. Seely, a Church member from West Yellowstone, Montana, who was one of several guides for the Explorers, couldn’t agree more. “Yellowstone is one of the greatest collections of natural phenomena in the world,” he said. “Not everybody lives close enough to get here easily and inexpensively. These young people are fortunate to live close enough to drive here in one day and then spend a day or two having an experience they will always remember.”

When the snow falls in Yellowstone even the sky is white. The trees are flocked with white, and the ground is buried in white drifts and mounds. It’s a world that’s subdued and quiet and waiting for spring. Yet at the same time it’s a world where geysers suddenly erupt, where elk cry to each other while feeding in the river, and where snow-mobiles shred the silence with their heady roar.

For these young Latter-day Saints, the park is a series of scenes indelibly etched in their minds.

Editor’s note: Throughout the United States, winter activities are sponsored at official Scout High Adventure bases. Similar trips are available to Utah Scouts through the Great Salt Lake Council and the Utah National Parks Council.

[photos] Photos by Richard M. Romney

[photos] The challenge: A wonderland beckons, but it’s a cold and frosty wilderness. Explorers rip across a meadow toward protecting trees, then pause to recuperate while watching bison brave the weather in search of food. For animals, winter in Yellowstone is a challenge too—a challenge to survive

[photos] The preparation: When temperatures can dip below zero, it’s best to be well protected. Special suits offer ample insulation, but the group also sports assorted headgear reminiscent of a spacemen’s convention. Explorers always test equipment for proper operation before they hit the trail

[photos] The reward: Splattered thermal mud and mounds of snow compete for the same territory inside nature’s greatest storehouse of phenomena: Yellowstone. Those brave enough to challenge the park in winter will thrill when racing through open powder, watching ice and water collide at Firehole Canyon, or spotting elk feeding in the river. Rest stops are welcome

[photos] The return: No one wants to leave behind a place that builds so many memories. But night is falling and the return trail is long. Bumps grind away at weary bones and steering seems harder and harder. Town is just over the next hill and there the fires are warm. Soon there will be food and laughter, a tale or two to share, and a discussion of plans to come back next year