CODY — Byron Mowen of Lovell is a first-day traditionalist. When the summer season begins at Yellowstone National Park at a given geographical gate, he tries to be on the scene.
Last Friday, when the East Entrance was poised to open, Mowen and his wife Karen were in their vehicle near the front of the line.
He had already been part of the seasonal opening crowd at the North Entrance, in Gardiner, and the South Entrance, from Jackson, was on his mind.
“Mainly to see what’s new out there,” Mowen said of his early-bird mentality.
He was one of many attracted for the start of the 2019 season from the Cody side. Only one place did not get the message: Yellowstone itself, at Sylvan Pass.
Although chilly, in the 20s, the sky was blue, 100 percent free of clouds. However, overnight there was an unexpected dump of five-plus inches of snow at the 8,524-foot Pass and the road at higher elevation was slicked with ice.
That sent park maintenance crews into action plowing and sanding.
Safety first, Brian Perry, the ranger gate-keeper at the East Entrance put it, as the reason why he literally had to keep the gate closed.
As workers worked, the line of vehicles awaiting permission to enter grew beyond a half-mile long.
“I’ve been here before and had to wait,” Mowen said.
Some compete to be the first in line, the first allowed into Yellowstone from the east.
Stacy McIntosh, a waitress from Powell, brought her daughter Grace, 7, for the occasion.
It is not often night owls are mentioned as wildlife in the Park, but the McIntoshes filled the bill.
They arrived at the gate at 3 a.m., guaranteeing themselves the No. 1 slot.
Daniel Bradford of Cody, driver of the second car and a front-of-the-line regular, said, “I can’t compete with that.”
He gained his spot at 6:30 a.m.
Bradford said he does not really vie to be first, but only wishes to get out early to capture photos of wildlife moving around.
On the Buffalo Scenic Byway heading to Yellowstone, Bradford said he saw a moose, a rarity.
“That’s probably only the second or third time I’ve seen a moose on this road,” he said.
Others saw a bear not far from Sleeping Giant. A bison was breakfasting near the UXU Ranch.
Mowen and Karen, on a three-day visit while staying at Elk Creek Campground, were awakened by a moose in camp, though it was too dark to snap a picture. But he grabbed a picture of the bear.
The McIntoshes brought their patience, as well as fruit snacks, with them. The sky was so clear it was lit by what seemed to be a million stars shining, Stacy said.
“The stars were beautiful,” she said. “It was gorgeous.”
After sun-up, wearing rubber boots, Grace slid over icy patches on the ground as if ice skating. She planned to see lots of animals and report back to her two older sisters, who were in school that day. Grace wore a hand-me-down junior ranger vest the older girls previously used.
Stacy said when it is retired after Grace outgrows it, she will maintain it as a keepsake.
“A lot of memories,” Stacy said. “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get rid of it.”
As the clock approached 8 a.m., ranger Kimberly Kain placed a sign near the gate suggesting the use of snow tires or chains.
Perry was in communication with higher-ups and began walking car-to-car to explain the delay.
“We’re going to give them the bad news,” he said.
Perry projected a 9 a.m. opening.
“It was forecast for sunny skies,” Perry said. “We weren’t really expecting the snow we got last night.”
Those waiting were not grumpy, he said.
“People took it really well,” Perry said. “People understand. Being opening day, we have a lot of local people.”
The clock kept ticking and it was 9:20 before anyone, that being the McIntoshes, were allowed in. There was one catch, though. Mom had to be at work at 11 a.m. She had tried and failed to get the day off. The McIntoshes were able to purchase a season pass, but turned back even before the rest of the cars inched into the park.
It was two lanes, still waiting, when the gate was thrown open, but Perry and Kain processed the customers swiftly.
Forewarned, traffic moved slowly up and over the pass through a tunnel of packed roadside snow.
The biggest obstacle, and one sure to be bothersome all summer for Cody drivers, was construction work at Indian Pond on the way to Fishing Bridge. Asphalt has been torn up, turning the road into ruts and gravel with a speed limit as low as 10 mph and a threatened sit-still delay of up to 30 minutes.
Bison were scattered alongside the road, nosing into thin layers of snow for food, and one bunch paraded in the middle of the road, halting traffic just as if it was midseason.
Ducks and sandhill cranes hovered on or near the Yellowstone River, still closed to fishing until May 25.
Bradford said, “You never know what to expect” on trips to the park.
Randy Allen of Worland concurred. He was on the first of likely his usual 20 annual park visits.
“I like to watch people,” Allen said. “They’re as entertaining as the animals.”
As part of an entry package, the park service hands out a sheet of paper in many languages with the large-type words “Yellowstone is a Dangerous Place” on it.
Allen shook his head over the number of times visitors recklessly engage in bison selfies or walk off pathways near geyser activity.
“They warn ‘em and warn ‘em,” he said.
But whatever he sees never shakes Allen’s core emotional tie to Yellowstone.
“I dearly love the park,” he said.