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January: Strong winds of powder and freezing silence

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January: Strong winds of powder and freezing silence

Jan. 1, 2020. As to celebrate the new year, snow is invited tonight.

The day dawns painfully under a gray and pale sky, a strong wind pushes the powder, which begins to form snowdrifts.

High Country Chroniques

The day dawns painfully under a gray and pale sky, as strong winds push the powder into snowdrifts. Claude Poulet spends much of January indoors, with temperatures averaging -10 degrees Celsius.

Given the weather, not much to do outside. I have leftover meat and decide to tackle a recipe I have never made: stuffed cabbage. It’s a typical dish from my native region in France, Auvergne.

After three hours simmering in the oven of my antique stove, the verdict arrives: success. I may even open a restaurant in Jackson.

I plan to go down to Dubois this first weekend in January to replenish provisions, wish my friends in France a happy new year, and, of course, send my column to your favorite newspaper.

The snowmobile descent is going well; a lot of animal tracks in the forest, but I don’t see those who made them. Shortly after the bridge over Horse Creek a red light comes on on the dash. I stop, seeing a trace of green liquid staining the ground. There is no doubt I have a coolant leak. I arrive where I parked my car and the trailer, filling the expansion tank with snow.

Joe the repairman delivers the news: a week of work and $600. Fortunately a friend, Jeremy, has a side-by-side quad that can take me back to Spring Mountain.

This second week in January is not pleasant: The wind blows strongly almost every day. Daytime temperatures are low, averaging around minus 10 Celsius. I rarely go out, and photograph in a limited area around the cabin. I do not see animals, which are probably in the wind. Only a solitary jay sometimes comes to visit me.

High Country Chroniques

In the cold and stillness of January, Claude Poulet receives few visits near his cabin, save for a solitary jay outside his cabin.

With the wind and snowfall the cabin starts to disappear under the snowdrift that forms here every year.

High Country Chroniques

Wind pushes snow into drifts that tower around the little cabin.

After about a week it’s time to go back down to Dubois to collect the snowmobile. Jeremy had warned me that he wouldn’t be available and it is on snowshoes I have to go to the Moose Willow Ranch to call someone to collect me. The day rises with a clear sky, promising to be magnificent. I cheerfully harness my sleigh to travel about 11 kilometers.

High Country Chroniques

Claude Poulet cheerfully harnesses himself to a sleigh to travel 10 kilometers toward Dubois in hopes of picking up a repaired snowmobile. Once in town, he finds the machine still needs work, and he returns to the cabin on foot.

The snow is doing well. The wind, like a well-inspired artist, has drawn harmonious shapes on the snowpack, some hard and brittle, others gentle. After an hour’s walk, I sink into the forest. I advance at a good pace, lost in my thoughts, when I perceive a movement. I advance cautiously, spotting a moose under cover.

Taking the photos, I see he is a male. He’s already lost his antlers, one of the first. He moves away majestically.

High Country Chroniques

Claude Poulet comes across a moose while trekking toward Dubois on snowshoes. The moment between the photographer and mammal is brief.

I continue my journey. Two kilometers farther traces of wolves join the track. There must be four or five.

When I arrive in town bad news awaits me. The snowmobile is not repaired; Joe cannot find an important part. On snowshoes I go back to Spring Mountain. During a week the wind blows strongly.

I don’t have much courage to go out and endure these unpleasant gusts. The temperatures are far below freezing. With peaks over 25 mph and more the wind leaves no respite. Some days the thermometer doesn’t rise above minus 15 Celsius.

I stay warm. I have to stoke the stoves, but the cabin is comfortable, and from my office I can appreciate and observe this landscape that I love so much. Finally the wind calms.

This morning as I eat I gaze toward the window, a movement grabbing my attention. A magnificent gray wolf approaches 100 meters from the cabin.

Time to grab the camera, put on a jacket and go out. The wolf dodges between the trees, giving just enough time to make an image. On a small hill I see another, a black one. A few minutes later the whole pack gallops on the ridge.

High Country Chroniques

A streak of gray catches Claude Poulet’s eye from his breakfast table, inspiring him to grab a camera and head outside. He finds a pack of wolves moving across the hillside.

With the return of more pleasant days, I resume my walks on the ridges where I love to stroll, enjoying without restraint a magnificent view. The frost has done its work, freezing the vegetation in an icy embrace.

In late January good weather endures. During one of my hikes I find the trace of the wolf pack. I follow their trail. At the end of the day, when I am about to turn around, I see some crows. I approach and discover the carcass of an elk. He was killed a short time ago. The culprits fled, the pack must have felt me. They must not be far away; only a third of the elk has been eaten.

Unfortunately it is late and the day falls quickly at this time of year. I cannot wait. I’m afraid the banquet will conclude overnight. My fears were well founded. When I returned the next day, only a coyote and a few magpies fled from the scavenged body. The next day still gives me the chance to quietly cross these wild lands. As it snows a little, I spy a magnificent elk, ruminating quietly on the edge of the forest. Wolves have not devoured them all.

High Country Chroniques

Though the frigid temperatures and snow made life in the high country harsh, elk can still be found quietly ruminating in the forests.

January ends, but Wyoming’s long winter isn’t over yet.

I love when evening falls on Spring Mountain, when the sky takes a steel- blue color, before the first stars begin to flicker.

In these moments, I often think of these lyrics by Tom Petty:

“It’s good to be king, if just for a while

“To be there in velvet, yeah, to give ’em a smile

“It’s good to get high and never come down

“It’s good to be king of your own little town.”

Claude Poulet has freelanced for French and foreign publications for 30 years. While his work has sent him across the globe — including to Africa, the Americas and Europe — Wyoming and the American West won his heart. He has split his time between Wyoming and France since 1982. Contact Poulet via 732-7076 or valley@jhnewsandguide.com.

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