“We made it!”

It took 4 years, but, as they say, fourth time’s the charm. The 2020 Yellowstone Educators of Excellence trip has arrived on June 14, 2023. We met at RDU at 4 AM and had seamless travel to Bozeman, MT. We got lunch, grabbed supplies, and made our way to the Roosevelt Arch for our first team meeting, where we set goals for the trip and bonded over who we’d each choose as our celebrity best friend. Then we began the drive across Yellowstone from Gardiner to Silver Gate, rushing to make it through the “blast zone” for road reconstruction before an evening road closure, work that’s being done to repair damage from last year’s trip-cancelling flood. We enjoyed a burrito picnic in Lamar Valley and started looking for wildlife in earnest. Today alone we saw a pronghorn with twin babies, mule deer, bison, elk, a bald eagle, an osprey, a western tanager, a badger, a black bear with cub, and a grizzly with two cubs. We were pleasantly surprised by the flora, including cacti, sagebrush, lodgepole pine, aspen trees, and many wildflowers. It feels surreal to finally be here after so many obstacles along the way!

group standing under a stone arch with blue sky


“Yellowstone Ready”

By trip leader Melissa Dowland

Right now, twelve educators across North Carolina are wrapping up the school year, submitting grades, packing up their classrooms… and packing zip-off pants, puffy coats, hiking boots, and even hats and gloves for the adventure of a lifetime — the Educators of Excellence Institute to Yellowstone. We’ll meet at RDU at 4 am on Wednesday, June 14 for ten days exploring the ecology and geology of our first national park, learning from experts, and getting ideas and information to bring back to students in North Carolina.

12 head shots of adults in a grid

The Yellowstone Team: Andy, Becqui, Dana, Kimberly, Rachel, Talicia, Eryn, Darryl, Jessie, Scott, Lindsey, and Sharon. Find out more about them on the Meet the Team page!

This incredibly patient group has been waiting more than three years for this opportunity! When they applied to join the Museum’s Yellowstone Institute in winter of 2019–20, little did they know how long it would be before they had the chance to make the trip. As with so many things, our Yellowstone Institute was canceled in 2020 at the height of the pandemic. In 2021, we again put the trip off out of an abundance of caution. 2022 was going to be our year, or so we thought. But on June 13, 2022, just 24 hours before we were set to head to the airport, devastating floods hit the park, washing out roads and closing Yellowstone entirely. Needless to say, we didn’t head into the maelstrom of chaos that descended in the days following the flood. Thankfully, with a lot of hard work, roads have been repaired and Yellowstone is back to welcoming millions of visitors.

Our Yellowstone team is really hoping 2023 is our year! I say “hoping” because we’re not there quite yet, and you better believe I’m knocking on just about every wooden surface in my house as I write this!

Here are a few snippets of the ways folks have been preparing for the trip…


From Becqui Masters:

I’m lying wide awake in bed trying to think of what to write for this blog. The closer the calendar gets to our group of teachers meeting at RDU, the more nervouscited I become. I anticipate our journey to Yellowstone to be a successful 4th attempt. The three year delay has sometimes made me think that we weren’t meant to go. But patience, perseverance and planning by our leaders have hopefully paid off. I’m so elated to be done with school, and we now have 2 months to refresh, renew, and regenerate. What better way than to participate in an educational trek through our country’s first national park! I know that we each have our own reasons for wanting to go on this trip: fifteen different personalities, fifteen different stories to tell, fifteen individuals who will each bring something unique to the table. Friendships and bonds are certain to form. Memories are meant to be made. This morning I finished packing, something that took me weeks to finalize. I took over the empty bedroom belonging to my daughter, who’s away at college. Her bed and floor were covered with all the belongings I overpacked, plus one antsy border collie, who instinctively suspected someone was leaving. I haven’t picked my quote to share with the group yet (one of our homework assignments). I still have the items I prepared for my expert topic last year, but I have to refresh my memory on the actual lesson (our other homework assignment). I’m super excited to see wild bison and elk. But what I’m most looking forward to are the hot springs and geysers. So many mixed feelings about this trip, but I know the rewards will be worth it.

A bed covered with clothes, bags, a backpack, and other gear.

The scene from Becqui’s guest room before fitting everything in a suitcase.


From Sharon Harbaugh:

Just over a year ago, I heard that I was called up from the waiting list for a trip to YELLOWSTONE. Lots of rushing, packing, rescheduling, and figuring out what to do with my classes ensued. And then, the drive to Raleigh. But on the way, BAD NEWS from Melissa — flooding in Yellowstone might affect our trip. And then REALLY BAD NEWS — catastrophic flooding and park closure and the trip was postponed… until the next year. But I continued on my way to Chapel Hill where I was planning on spending the night with my mom before the trip. In typical mom fashion she said, “ That’s such a disappointment. But now you get to look forward to the trip for a whole year.” And so I did …. look forward to the trip for a whole year. And now it’s almost here. I think that I’m ready, despite having spent only two weekends at home in the last three months. I have been getting ready for Yellowstone — reading about wolves, reviewing information on my expert topic: the Yellowstone cutthroat trout, looking at the map, taking each of my five classes to Singletary Lake for 3–4 days apiece, hiking in Massachusetts with a former roommate, enjoying trails in NC and backpacking on the Appalachian Trail with my daughter. My bag is packed. I’m pretty sure that I have forgotten something important even though I have gone over and over the packing list because this year it all fit in a smaller bag than last year. I did not forget my underwear even though it wasn’t on the packing list (thank you, Becqui), but something must be missing. It’s not the excitement or enthusiasm that’s missing. Hopefully, the only thing missing is the new teacher friends and amazing Museum staff — and hopefully they are all packing themselves.

Two women in packs standing in front of a barn with the letters AT on it.

Sharon and her daughter, Katy, have been section hiking the Appalachian Trail since she was 16. This trip was from Tennessee into Damascus, VA, one of the sections they hadn’t yet hiked.


From Talicia Smith:

The view of mountains, bison and bears became a fixed image as I climbed stair after stair on the gym’s stair climber in preparation for my upcoming Yellowstone trip. At work my coworkers were a little concerned as I was all too eager to climb the stairs carrying armfuls of Chromebook computers to our media center after the elevator broke. Anticipation built as I completed each end-of-the-year task. What presented itself as an ending — this school year — also gave birth to a new adventure: Yellowstone. I chuckled to myself as my trainer at the gym asked me to do “bear holds.” Although cute in name, the all-fours position, which is held for what seems like eternity, was not cute, but required strength and endurance, much like the school year that just ended. Nevertheless, the strain of the hold was worth the adventure I would begin. Yellowstone, here I come.

A collage of images of Talicia working out at the gym.

Now we know who’s going to be the fastest hiker on the trip!

Cross your fingers for us that everything goes smoothly in these last couple days leading up to the trip. Then, when we (hopefully!) make it to Yellowstone, follow our adventure and send us questions and comments through this blog!

Yellowstone in Winter

“When One Adventure Ends, Another Begins”

Although we flew home today, we squeezed in one more adventure. With the help of Ranger Mike, we toured around Mammoth Hot Springs. We followed the snowy boardwalks as the sun rose over Mt. Everts to see the travertine terraces. Steam from the ever-changing geothermal features surrounded us as we listened to Ranger Mike use analogy and humor to educate the group. We compared the Upper Geyser Basin where Old Faithful is located to the Mammoth Hot Springs where we now stood. Ranger Mike explained the travertine terraces build up quickly but non-violently while the geyserite deposits of the Upper Geyser Basin build up slowly but can be violent.

After braving our coldest morning (2 degrees Fahrenheit) yet we packed up our luggage to head home to North Carolina. As we drove from the North Yellowstone Lodge in Gardiner, MT to the Bozeman Airport we continued to use our newly developed wildlife spotting skills. The group finally saw the eighth ungulate, the elusive white-tailed deer. Golden eagles, bald eagles, magpies, elk, ravens and a possible carcass party were spotted along our drive.


We arrived at the Bozeman Airport and had come to terms with our grand Yellowstone adventure ending. The once group of strangers knew our newly developed friendships and passion for education would continue to grow. The ideas of bringing Yellowstone to our own classrooms flew out of our mouths as we chatted about the past week.


Through this experience both our eyes and hearts were opened to the importance of conservation of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Our first national park, now 150 years old, is the home of various extraordinary species that need to be protected, studied and learned from. Through the continued preservation of this special place, future generations will have the opportunity to experience all the magical wonders Yellowstone for themselves.


Yellowstone in Winter

“Tired Bodies, Full Hearts”

We awoke this morning with high hopes of a wolf sighting (or at least a howl or two). We set out and met Kira Cassidy who is a wolf biologist with the Yellowstone Wolf Project. She was our guide and led us all around the park as she tracked wolves that had been fitted with radio collars. We bounced from spot to spot trying to get just the right angle where we could catch a glimpse.  All the while, Kira gave us insights into all of the knowledge she has gained on the wolves of Yellowstone over her 11 years in this position. While we were bouncing from spot to spot, we even ran into the author of the famed book, wolf “American Wolf,” Rick McIntyre.

Kira and Rick

Kira Cassidy and Rick McIntyre

Unfortunately, we struck out on seeing or hearing a wolf, but we hit the jackpot on a wealth of knowledge about the wolf population in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The entire group was grateful that Kira was able to share her time and passion about this topic with us.

Next stop was a quick check in with the only aquatic songbird in North America, the American Dipper! Cathy gave us the lowdown on this amazing creature. Including the fact that they nest in rock walls near water, which we saw shortly after on our snowshoe hike.

nest made of moss tucked in a hole on a rock wall

American dipper nest

Speaking of the snowshoe hike, that was AWESOME! We started snowshoeing down a nondescript path along Pebble Creek for a short distance only to make a turn and see this!!!

narrow canyon with snow

Snowshoe hike

It was a truly awe-inspiring experience.

While we were on the hike, Amanda stayed behind and saw two bull moose!

moose in trees

We ended our day with hundreds of bison crossing the road in front of us in the dark, many of them running as if in a stampede. It gave us just a glimpse of what it must have been like when over ten million bison roamed this country. We turned in with tired bodies and full hearts.

Yellowstone in Winter

“For the Birds”

We got to sleep in! We were able to sleep in until 7:00 am, so we could be on the road by 8:00 am. Our day started with a trip through the park, where we saw a herd of bighorn sheep. Then it was off to the house of Dan & Cindy Hartman in Silver Gate, located just outside the park. We were immediately greeted by a plethora of birds that included the Canada jay and the vibrantly blue colored Steller’s jay.

bird with black head, white eyebrow, and blue body and wings

Once inside, Dan regaled the group with tales of his time filming the wildlife, discussing the importance of conservation while showing one of his films. This visit was a highlight for the group because of Dan’s passion and dedication to his craft. It was intoxicating and contagious. The group left with a renewed sense of life and how everything in nature is interconnected, including human beings.

selfie of 3 people

After leaving the Hartman’s we were very fortunate that one of our members excitedly started yelling “Bird! Bird!” when Dustin (impressively) spotted a ruffed grouse from the very back seat in the trees along the road. We excitedly turned the cars around on the icy road to get up close & personal with the bird (from the car), who didn’t seem to notice our presence. After getting our fill of photographs, we were on our way. We hadn’t gone very far when we saw a massive bull elk using its front legs to “snowplow” for the rich grasses below the fresh snowfall. We watched him in awe and then loaded the vehicles to head out of park & back to the lodge. It was an amazing day for all!


Yellowstone in Winter

“From Bacteria to Bobcat”

We started today by coming together to watch Old Faithful erupt. It teased us for 45 minutes with small belches of water and steam before finally putting on a show. This was followed by a tour of the Upper Basin by Ranger Colin, whose passion for the world’s greatest concentration of geysers got us excited for our upcoming day of observing geothermal features. We had just missed Colin’s favorite, Beehive Geyser, due to Old Faithful’s antics holding us up.

At our next stop, we split up to choose our own adventure. Some went on a short but snowy hike to Black Sand Pool, laying down to feel the thumping from below. The others took to the boardwalks around Black Sand Basin, braving boardwalks covered in packed snow and slippery conditions, only to have to pause for two bison who decided to walk across the warm ground after wading through the cold river winding through the geysers and springs. Remember to stay AT LEAST 25 yards from a bison! They finally disappeared into the mist, and we continued our explorations.

people laying on the ground near a hot spring

Midway Geyser Basin started with the Excelsior Geyser Crater and Grand Prismatic Spring. The combination of snow, warm steam, and ice make the boardwalks here very slippery, but we persevered. We saw the thermophilic bacterial mats, the silica deposits in the flowing waters, and ephydrid flies! We witnessed larva and adult flies, all happily eating the bacterial mats. They stay active in winter because the waters coming from the springs keep their environment warm enough for them to live.

ephydrid fly

The next stop was Fountain Paint Pots. It was like a scene from another planet: smaller geysers erupting, steam rising from fumaroles, acidic mud bubbling, and colors from both mineral deposits and bacterial mats. Dustin gave us a lesson on Thermus aquaticus, one of the many bacteria making up the colorful mats where the warm waters from thermal features flow over the land.

Hitting the road again in the snowcoach, our driver John had to deal with bison in the roadway. He handled it like a professional, patiently waiting for the herd to decide to move out of the way. This was just out first encounter with road-bison today!

We stopped to see Firehole Falls, where the Firehole River splits the difference between two ancient lava flows, tumbling down exposed rhyolites. While exploring the stop and enjoying the view, we found a nice snowbank that made for a perfect slide.

Further down the Firehole Canyon we came upon a rare sight: a bobcat was feeding on a mule deer carcass on the other side of the river! The bobcat had been feeding on this carcass for days. No one knew how the deer died, but word had spread, and there were many snowcoaches pausing here to take photos. And the bobcat could not have cared less.


Next, we had a brief stop at Gibbon Falls, enjoying once again the power of flowing water to reshape the land. From there we drove home, but on the way we had an opportunity to experience stillness and silence. Stopping in the middle of Swan Lake Flats, we all stepped out of the snowcoach, John turned off the lights and engine, and we enjoyed a few minutes just absorbing the night-time scene.

Yellowstone in Winter

“Sights, Sounds, and Steam by Snowcoach”

Day two did not disappoint! We began our early morning with a fine breakfast and got off to a fast start. We arrived in Mammoth Hot Springs at 0715 and loaded into the snowcoach. We then took a very scenic ride on closed (but groomed) Yellowstone National Park roads.

a snowcoach - large yellow van with giant tires

Our first stop was at Roaring Mountain. We all stood very still and used our “deer ears” to hear the mountain speaking to us. Venturing further into the heart of Yellowstone we visited Nymph Lake and observed common goldeneye and ring-necked ducks as well as trumpeter swans. Further in our travels we visited the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, where we observed frozen waterfalls and tens of feet of ice buildup at the base of the falls. The largest, at 308 feet tall, was the Lower Falls, where Thomas Moran and William Henry Jackson once painted and photographed the magnificent scenery. Their art helped convince Congress to preserve Yellowstone as our first national park.

lake surrounded by snow and pine tree covered hills

Nymph Lake

happy looking people in front of a waterfall

Group photo at the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone

Next, we traveled to the Mud Volcano and Dragons Mouth Spring. Here we used our senses to appreciate our surroundings, including the feel of warm steam, the smell of sulfur, and the deep bass sound and feel of steam explosions. The steam explosions of Dragons Mouth sounded like waves crashing into rocks, and Mud Volcano sounded like bubbling grits. Lakeshore Geyser, Black Pool, and Abyss Pool – three of the thermal features in West Thumb Geyser Basin – were amazing to witness. As we traveled on toward Old Faithful, we were able to lay eyes on the Grand Tetons from approximately 30 miles away. This evening, we’re enjoying our stay in the grandeur of the Old Faithful Snow Lodge!

Andy takes the temperature of Abyss Spring at West Thumb Geyser Basin

Yellowstone in Winter

“Ermines and Everything, the Best Day Ever!”

Up before daylight and heading to Yellowstone after a long day of travel, we were all a little bleary-eyed, but soon we sprang to life!!! The first bison of the day was sighted shortly after Roosevelt’s welcome to the park (the famed arch at Yellowstone’s north entrance). The herd was closer and larger than we could have imagined, we could even hear them chewing (safely, from the car)! This was a great start to accomplishing our goal of an octo-ungulate day. As we continued our journey, we were able to rack up six more hooved-mammals (elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, Rocky Mountain goat, and moose) leaving us missing the ever-elusive white-tailed deer.

bison in road

While viewing the moose, much to our surprise and delight, a subnivean creature popped into view. Mayhem ensued as we scrambled to see the even more elusive ermine. It was hopping over and traversing through the snow drifts at lightning speed, finally crossing the road in front of us. Excitement continued as we tried to capture the perfect picture to share. This was a favorite of the 19 species we spotted today for many people in the group.

white winter weasel with black tail tip in snow

We wrapped up our day with a snowshoe hike to a lovely view of the Yellowstone River. This was a challenging first for many of us in the group and we are proud to say, we all made it to the top and back down. We can’t wait to see what tomorrow holds for us.

Dustin, Julie, and Tonya

Yellowstone in Winter

“Travel Day: The Adventure Begins”

Our day started at 4 am with a trip to Raleigh-Durham International Airport. After our first flight was in the air, we heard that the FAA had grounded all flights until 9 am due to a software update! Thankfully, we had already made it to Minneapolis and it only added an hour to our layover. We spent learning more about our trip and each other, which allowed us to begin our journals. We were given stickers of maps and our background info to begin our reflections, to which we added our own goals and expectations.

people sitting in airport

Our first flight was joyous, with only 35 people onboard. We could all spread out and some people even had 3 seats to lay down! The connector from Minneapolis to Montana was packed tight. After arrival we hit the grocery store for snacks, then hit the road to Gardiner via Livingston. We followed the Yellowstone River south from Gardiner and saw elk, mule deer, bald eagles, and magpies!

view out airplane window of snow covered mountains

We arrived at the North Yellowstone Hostel at 5:30 pm local time, 7:30 our time. A taco dinner awaited us as we had our first group meeting. We are now ready for our Yellowstone National Park journey tomorrow!

poster of lodge logo

Yellowstone in Winter

“Getting Ready for an Adventure”

The adventure is less than a week away and I can hardly contain my excitement. Getting ready for an adventure like this is what I live for. Give me a packing list and an agenda of what is ahead and I hit the ground running — or should I say organizing, ordering, packing, and making plans for all that will be left behind (including my teaching partner/pup, Andi)! The packing list is long and the weather is unpredictable, but I am determined to be as prepared as I can be. I even got some new boots to upgrade my favorite L.L. Bean boots from 7th grade; it probably was time! Weather conditions look to be favorable and hopefully not quite as chilly as it could be, but best to be prepared. I’ve started watching snippets of Yellowstone 150 on Netflix and reading the book American Wolf. I hope we’ll get the chance to see a wolf pack during our observations of the Lamar Valley. I can’t wait to travel in a snow coach to Old Faithful. My students are getting excited, too, and have begun asking questions. I am thrilled to be able to share this adventure with them and hope that it will inspire them to reach out and explore the world around us. I am ready; bring on the snow and cold!
two pairs of boots - one old, one new with tags still attached

by Tonya Dobson