WEST YELLOWSTONE — The state of Montana is known for a lot of things — from stunning nature to diverse wildlife — it’s why they call it the Treasure State.
However, one of its many jewels not known to many is the true essence of what small-town Montana is all about.
Yellow buses are the norm for most schools across America, especially for team travel, but when it’s the middle of winter and a national park separates you and your conference opponent in Montana there’s only one way to make the 54-mile trek from West Yellowstone to Gardiner, and that’s by snowcoach.
"I don’t know any other place that has something this unique to get to a basketball game," West Yellowstone boys basketball coach Jeff Mathews smiled.
But it’s of course easier said than done.
"Very few people get to do it, and even our kids it’s a once or twice-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Three Bear Lodge general manager Travis Watt shared.
While most of the park roads are only accessible by either snowmobile or snowcoach, even that is limited.
“You have to go through a business who has a contract and then has the willingness to provide it," Watt explained.
However, not every business can obtain a contract.
In West Yellowstone alone, there are only 11 available, and it’s a ten-year bidding process to acquire one.
“Just in the last ten years it’s been harder and harder to get on a snowcoach to even get into the park," Mathews added.
A big reason for that is to cut down on emissions, noise, and stress that can affect wildlife roaming Yellowstone, which is why there is also a limit to how many times a business can access the park on any given day.
So what's the magic number? An average of three tours per day.
“We’re fortunate in these small communities that we have great companies because if you’re giving up a tour that means your giving up the opportunity for somebody else – maybe a paying customer - to do that," Watt said. "It’s kind of a neat thing, and it’s not a hard ask.”
Now, this is where the true essence of small-town Montana comes to light because competitors or not, it was a community effort to make the Wolverines cross-park travel a reality.
“Jerry [Johnson] had an extra vehicle," Watt shared. "I had the ability to take a permit, so we can borrow or use each others.”
“I don’t have any left, so I’m going on Three Bears permit because they have some left, and then the drivers are all donating their time — at least my driver is donating his time because he wants to go over and watch the game," Back Country Adventure owner Jerry Johnson chuckled.
For children that grew up with Yellowstone as their backyard, opportunities like this may seem ordinary, but that’s only because of the people that make up those towns – forever putting their community first.
“It gives you a sense of pride," Johnson stated. "We’re all Wolverines. We’ll be Wolverines our whole lives.”