Spying a gaggle of onlookers at the side of a road in Yellowstone National Park offers a sure sign of watchable wildlife ahead. So even before our snow coach pulled off along the road that parallels the Madison River, we knew we’d find something interesting.
The day before along this same stretch, we had seen a large Bull Elk sitting just off the road in obvious distress. He’d been observed in the same general area—our driver and guide told us—for a week or more, and the Park service suspected he would not see another Spring. (He had a unique shape to his antlers, and when I later looked through a collection of Yellowstone photos, I found images of him that I had taken several years earlier when he stood majestic in his prime, the largest among a group of bachelor bulls, enjoying the lush grasses along this same road.)
On this afternoon, however, not an Elk but a Bobcat, drew the unending stream of watchers and photographers braving the sub-zero temperatures. Though the park closes all but one road to wheeled vehicles during winter months, snow coaches and snowmobiles brought people from West Yellowstone and (like us) the Old Faithful lodge to the Madison plateau that day, and almost every vehicle stopped for at least a few minutes to enjoy the relatively rare glimpse of a Bobcat in the wild.
To be sure, the onlookers seemed far more excited by the Bobcat than he (or she) of us. Over the course of an hour or more, the Bobcat slept, stretched, scratched, and sat unperturbed on the fallen tree, apparently confident that the cold and quickly flowing Madison River would keep his admirers from getting any closer.
When the cat finally jumped off the trunk (after a long stretch that bared his impressive claws), he completely disappeared in the thick blanket of snow below. Ten minutes or so later, we spotted him again about fifty yards upriver. There, he sat quietly in the snow along the bank, watching a few mallards bobbing along the river, before disappearing (for good, this time) in the dense forest behind him.