When time stands still
Ice crystals hang suspended in the air — brilliant, sparkling particles contemplatively covering the distance between sky and earth. The sun has just peeked over the layered hills on the horizon, and as it slowly gains altitude the rays catch tiny shards of ice and ricochet until the sky is illuminated with scattered light. The refraction of light through ice creates a sundog —  a circular rainbow that appears concentrically to the sun’s center. The artistic phenomena seems like compensation for the harshness of winter, as sundogs only appear on the most brutally cold days when diamond dust shimmers in the air. This morning in mid-December is well below negative-20 degrees.

A group of bison stand knee-deep in snow and sage beneath the spectacle. The white frost dusted on their backs catches the refracted light and sends it back skyward. They remain mostly still — occasionally dipping their great heads to nose through the snow at their feet — concentrating as much energy as possible on keeping their bodies warm beneath their thick, shaggy fur. The animals know, as they have for thousands of years, that it’s time to settle in and hunker down. Although peaceful and stunningly beautiful, winter in Wyoming is long, bitterly cold and requires patience and endurance.

Like the ice crystals in the brisk air, time during these winter months is suspended — the world frozen in four months of languor. The big game migrations of fall draw to a close and the critters settle into their various winter ranges before heavy snow makes travel nearly impossible. Deciduous trees stand bare and skeletal, conifers cease their growth and bend their limbs to heavy snow loads and grasses are frozen flat beneath layers of snow. This is not a season of surplus and growth, but one of maintenance and stillness. The wildlife have their own strategy for withstanding the frigid conditions and scarcity of food. Some burrow deep beneath the snow in the high country, some band together as great herds in the lowlands and some choose to forego the season altogether through hibernation or long-distance migration.

Four thousand feet above the valley floor and slow-moving bison, the high alpine is buried beneath several feet of snow. The snow insulates the ground against the most bitter mornings like this one, maintaining a ground temperature just below freezing. Tucked away in a dry spot sheltered by a large, flat boulder is a curious collection of grass, leaves, stems and flowers large enough to fill a large kitchen sink. It’s the haypile of a nearby pika, who survives on the stored greens throughout winter, not missing a moment of this severe, yet meditative season. When storms rage, pikas are safe and warm beneath the snow. When calm is restored they may break the surface and scamper to exposed rocks, enjoying the strong, alpine rays that seep through their fluffy pelts and bearing witness to the light show illuminating the vast white snow fields. A tranquil scene unwitnessed by some small alpine mammals, like marmots and chipmunks, who enter long bouts of torpor, their body temperatures creep down near freezing during a nine month hibernation. 

The sun continues its gradual march across the southern sky, penetrating the bitterly-cold air and incrementally elevating the temperature. In an open meadow on the valley floor bordered by a forest of tall pines and leafless aspen trees, the world above the surface of the snow appears entirely still and serene. But three feet down, an exhilarating chase invisible to the outside world is underway. An ermine has caught the scent of a foraging vole. The thin, lythe body of the small weasel allows it to slip into the labyrinth of tunnels that stretch across the meadow beneath the snow. Like the pika in the alpine, many non-hibernating small mammals spend the winter navigating the insulated world between frozen ground and packed ice crystals, building this network of tunnels only revealed to humans when the snow melts. The ermine is closing in, and with a lunge it has the vole in its jaws. With the vole quickly dispatched, the weasel finds shelter to feast in the white-washed world above. Its brilliant white coat makes it perfectly camouflaged, unnoticed by a great grey owl silently scanning the nearby forest. The ermine pauses to survey the glittering meadow, as brilliantly bright as the maze beneath the snow is dark. 

A few miles away on the shore of a lake another adept winter predator is on the prowl. Its coat is a brilliant splash of color against the monochrome backdrop of winter. The red fox slowly picks its way through a fir forest, large ears pricked intently. It, too, has zeroed in on a vole, not by smell but by the tiny, scuffling sounds of movement, dampened by two feet of snow. It gathers its energy in its haunches and springs upward, gaining enough height to catapult its long nose deep into the snow bank. Not quick enough — the vole sensed the danger and scampered along the underground labyrinth — the fox came up empty. Shaking the cold snowflakes from its  whiskers and fur, it scampers back toward the lake’s edge. It will  have to find a different breakfast. 

The sun is well above the horizon now, its watery light clearing a stand of cottonwoods. The valley floor is clustered with small groups of houses, smoke clashing with the frigid air as it billows from chimneys. Near a squat, log house two bull moose nestle among the sagebrush, their breath leaving their nostrils in wispy puffs that slowly dissipate like the smoke above. A young girl is the first of her family to rise on this sleepy, Sunday morning. On her way to the kitchen for hot cocoa she pauses by the woodburning stove to warm her toes from the remnants of last night’s fire. Glancing up, she spies the enormous creatures. “Two bull moose in the back field!” she calls, breathless with excitement. Her pajama-clad family members trickle out to investigate the cause of the raucous. They speak softly, admiring the rippling muscles beneath thick, chocolate winter coats. The sun glints off of their tawny antlers, soon to fall to the ground to begin the new cycle of growth. Although the rut has passed, something seems to have come between the two bulls — perhaps the frigid air gnawing at their joints — and they lock their antlers together in a spar. They are not particularly forceful, but almost seem playful in their gently swaying heads and deliberate side steps. The family enjoys the performance and exclamations drift muffled through the cold, glass panes separating them from the frosty air. 

The low, flat valleys formed by glaciers millenia ago are the most suitable winter range for most large mammals, including people. While the deepest snows provide the best insulation for creatures like pikas and voles who hide protected from the frigid air, they are a barrier for animals that rely on the preserved plants buried below. But on bluebird days they benefit from the sun’s rays penetrating their thick pelts and observe the glittering, still and peaceful landscape. Great herds of elk, bands of mule deer, these bulls and cow and calf moose pairs, bison, bighorn sheep and pronghorn congregate in the lowlands, like a large watering hole offering the greatest chance to make it through the daunting season. Winter brings these critters much closer to us. They often pick their way through our neighborhoods and can be seen in great numbers from our roadways. The proximity is a treat but also a reminder of our responsibility not to make this harsh season any harsher. We keep a respectful distance not to add stress to the doe mule deer with two fawns to fend for, or the red fox with kits on the way.  Human development in the already limited winter range has restricted and fractured critical habitat. Putting out grain to help them along might seem tempting, but only pulls them from the lifestyles that have allowed them to survive Wyoming’s winter for centuries. These animals are tough, and as long as we give them space they continue to endure the coldest mornings, from under the snow in the high alpine to the frigid air in the valley lowlands. 

As the sun nears the highest point in its arc across the southern sky, the glittering, frosty, white world is illuminated in all its glory. It seems as though time has slowed with the dropping temperature until it is suspended in the cold air. The wildlife have settled into their winter ranges and are prepared for the four months of dormancy to come. From observing these critters we humans can learn how to appreciate these months — it is a time to slow down, burrow in and stay close to home, reflect on life and the beauty that comes with it and appreciate the little pleasures like a crackling fire, a good cup of tea, or the warming rays of the winter sun on a bluebird day. 

— Emmie Gocke is a Wyoming native who continues to enjoy Wyoming’s outdoor activities, many of which are during the winter.
— Mark Gocke is the Game and Fish public information specialist in the Jackson and Pinedale regions.
Photographer Info
Mark Gocke, WGFD

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