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Travel Stories

Winter in the Gros Ventre Wilderness, Wyoming


Bighorn herd

A moment of rest

Downtown Jackson
by Melissa Cicci

[From Winter 2009]

Directly east of Jackson, Wyoming is the Gros Ventre Wilderness. Located in the Bridger-Teton National Forest, within the greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the Gros Ventre is a mystical wilderness of fertile riverbed, big pines, cottonwoods and ranging herds of elk, moose, mule deer and bighorn sheep. Twenty peaks rise 10,000 feet over the valley and 200 miles of trails run throughout the area. Along the valley floor the Gros Ventre River, a tributary of the Snake, follows an alternating path through narrow canyons and a broad, cottonwood-lined bottom. Although many visitors explore nearby Yellowstone and Jackson Hole, the Gros Ventre is relatively unknown.

Our family has traveled with close family friends over the past several years. The eight of us, four adults and now four teenagers, find common pleasure in adventure and occasionally stepping out of our comfort zones. On our ski trip to Jackson Hole this January, we decided to spend a day off the slopes and on snowmobiles. We imagined a cold, sunny day in the Gros Ventre, with long views down the valley and back towards the Tetons. But, as our guide would remind us throughout the day, in Wyoming,“it is what it is.”

What “is” meant on this day: blowing, heavy snow, remote stillness, frozen river crossings, a slow-motion rollover on one Arctic Cat, and an unintentional 20 foot-drop off the edge of a trail on another. In the whiteout of an early January blizzard, life in the Gros Ventre is like a desert mirage – all shifting shapes and images.

If you opt to try a day on a snowmobile, sign up with Rocky Mountain Snowmobile and ask for guide Dale White. Originally from Missouri, Dale has been in Wyoming for 18 years. When not guiding winter snowmobile tours, Dale leads hunting and fishing pack trips with his herd of 30 ponies. His respect for Wyoming’s wildlife is evident when he spots a small herd of bighorn just over the edge of a rise. We stop along the trail and walk softly so as not to disturb the herd. They seem as interested in us as we are in them. Their huge eyes stare placidly; they cluster together and watch our huddle. I imagine we look like Martians in our oversized black snowsuits and helmets, but to them we are just Man.

Later, as we pass a stand of cottonwoods along the frozen river, Dale points out a pair of golden eagles perched high on bare branches. They mate for life, he says, and in this remote and isolated valley one can understand why.

The name Gros Ventre is almost as mystical as the place. Meaning "big belly" in French, some say that the name refers to the Nez Perce Indians who once lived in the area. Others say it comes from the long round belly of the nearby Sleeping Indian Mountain, or from Indian sign language meaning “always hungry.”

Snowmobile traffic in the national parks and wilderness areas is not without controversy. Some believe the potentially negative environmental impact is a serious concern. The Wyoming Wilderness Association has published a recent study outlining its concerns and suggestions for limiting snowmobile use in Yellowstone National Park. During our day in the Gros Ventre, our guide showed great respect for the wildlife and the wilderness area. At no time did we venture off trail or attempt to engage or arouse the wildlife.

I am eager to return to the Gros Ventre in summer, when the river is lively and the valley is lush. Perhaps Dale will round up some of his ponies and guide us once again.

Details:
Our snowmobile tour was arranged by Rocky Mountain Snowmobile Tours. Please visit their website at www.rockymountainsnow.com

How to Get to Jackson:
Limited daily non-stop flights to Jackson Hole Airport on American (from Dallas and Chicago); Delta (Salt Lake City and Atlanta); and United (Los Angeles, Denver and Chicago).

Where to Stay in Teton Village Ski Area
(location of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort - all rates are for mid-January, 2009):

Snake River Lodge & Spa (doubles from mid$200s)
www.snakeriverlodge.com

Hotel Terra (doubles from $249)
www.hotelterra.com

Four Seasons (doubles from $495)
www.fourseasonsjacksonhole.com

Jackson Hole Resort Lodging (condos and private homes)
www.jhrl.com

Dining:
Osteria (Italian bistro and wine bar in the Hotel Terra)
3335 West Village Drive, Teton Village
307.739.4100
www.jhosteria.com

Trio (American bistro)
45 South Glenwood Drive, Jackson
307.734.8038
www.bistrotrio.com

The Merry Piglets (family-friendly Mexican)
160 North Cache, Jackson
307.733.2966
www.merrypiglets.com

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