Going on a trip through nature is quite an experience. Doing it in the dead of winter in the most remote area in the lower 48 states is entirely different one.
Friends Clay Dykstra and John Williams, both of Spearfish, went on the journey of a lifetime through Yellowstone National Park from Feb. 20 to March 12, going on a three-week, 135-mile trek on skis through the remotest wilderness in the continental U.S.
Dykstra and Williams joined Tom Murphy, 66, a renowned wildlife photographer who went on the same journey 30 years before, alone, through the dead of winter. They were also joined by a documentary crew filming Murphy.
Dykstra, the owner of Dykstra Pottery, learned about the trip from Murphy, his wife's uncle.
"We'd done other trips together, and John and I have, too," Dykstra said. "Most people want to go to the Bahamas, but for me, as soon as Tom asked me, I said, "Absolutely.'"
Williams, 32, co-owner of Leones' Creamery, said he was invited after another member of the original party dropped out and jumped at the chance.
"Clay recommended me to Tom, and that's all it took," Williams said.
They began planning in Christmastime for their February and March hike, which saw them traversing through the back country, including a 25 to 26 mile stretch of unpaved road known as the Thorofare, the most remote spot in the lower 48 states.
"You've really got to plan how to do it, because in winter there's really no realistic help in the near future if something goes wrong," Dykstra said.
But they knew they were on a great trip early on when they reached Big Game Ridge with spectacular weather and were able to see everything 360 degrees around them.
"We could essentially see the whole route we were taking," Williams said. "We saw Yellowstone Lake north, all the way up to Electric Peak. It seemed a whole lot more daunting from that perspective, but it was pretty special, being up there."
The team did have one notable bit of trouble as they were on Yellowstone Lake moving toward their destination, the fishing bridge, when clouds moved in to create a near complete whiteout.
"You couldn't see 10feet in front of you," Dykstra said. "There was no horizon line, no ridgeline, nothing."
"You couldn't see anything," Williams said. "Luckily we took a compass bearing before, so we were able to direct ourselves."
Williams noted that though it felt good to get to their destination after an exhausting experience, it was draining to have to maneuver around slushy spots in the river where their skis went under water.
"It makes you wonder what kind of circus you're in," Williams said.
But the two felt it was an overwhelming, positive experience overall, with the team seeing fantastic sights with the added benefit of someone who could point out how the area had changed.
"It's fascinating to hear Tom's recollections of doing it before the fires (of 1988)," Williams said. "He talked about areas that burned, areas that are more difficult because of overgrown trees. I can't even fathom how he carried all of his gear alone in deeper snow ... the deepest we saw was 6 or 7 feet, and his average was 10."
In addition to taking the trip and being part of the documentary, the two were able to raise over $1,000 for the Spirit of the Hills Wildlife Sanctuary, with people pledging anywhere from a quarter, a dollar or more per mile the group traveled. The money will go to a new bear enclosure.
"It's a good pairing to bring some awareness," Dykstra said. "Wild animals belong in the wild, if they can be helped."
Their journey, then, is a testament to the park, to nature, and to being removed, even temporarily, from the modern human experience.
"It's hard to describe," Dykstra said. "It's such a privilege to be out in the wild where there's so few people and to just be out there."
"We didn't see any signs of human existence, and that's a pretty cool feeling to experience," Williams said.
To learn more about the film being made from the journey, visit yellowstone.film.