Tuesday, January 13, 2009

It's Not Just Alice's Wonderland

From the beginning of Yellowstone’s tourist history (1872), a reputation as a “wonderland in winter” established itself. Trees are enveloped in an eerie hoar frost. The air is as if it has been stretched to an unimaginable thinness, and sounds travel great distances. The steam that rises from the thermal pools is pea-soup thick and renders you absolutely sightless as you walk closer. The blissful tradeoff, thankfully, is that you suddenly feel like you are on a Caribbean island when you are enveloped in luscious warmth. After you make your way through the billowing clouds, you discover you are drenched---but only for a brief time as the water droplets seize up in the sometimes 30 below temperatures.

Ask anyone what the best thing about a winter visit to Yellowstone is, and they will tell you: NO CROWDS! It’s true; it’s an inhospitable place in the winter. Days are short, nights interminably long. It is a demanding environment. Fewer services are available, fewer places open. You can’t just show up and expect everything else to be taken care of---you have to prepare. Many have learned their lesson. But to experience all this wonder without having to be overrun by hordes of people pushing and shoving….aah!

I worked several winters in Yellowstone, both for the Park Service and the Yellowstone Institute. In 1999 I accepted a winter position in Yellowstone’s interior from early February to early April. I was told that I might not be able to leave the Park for those eight weeks; and therefore, plan accordingly. ‘Accordingly’ meant to bring adequate provisions to last me for the entire time. This was an emergency hire and I was given little notice, so my preparation included lots of list-making. How long would fresh produce last---certainly not 8 weeks? I attempted to write sample menus with little result. What it boiled down to was that I needed to second-guess everything, because there wasn’t a 7-11 down the block. Not only food (and I include wine in this category) but also planning for clothing, bedding, toiletries. My apartment would have a bed, chair, table, and little else. Every few minutes I’d think of something else and panic. I was informed that I had to limit my gear to a certain number of plastic packing crates. Luckily, Doug has always called me “The Lone Arranger”, so smart packing is my forte.

I met the mat track over-the-snow vehicle in Mammoth for my several hour ride to Canyon. It was also transporting supplies for the Ranger Station, thus the reason my space was restricted. Things were tight, but when we finally headed out I felt a great sense of relief. There was no turning back. I had never been into the interior in winter before, and I quickly fell under its spell. The mat track, a Suburban whose tires were replaced with track system for travel on the snow-covered roads, plodded along at 20 mph. Light was fading as we arrived in Canyon and my driver, in an effort to unload as quickly as possible, could only dump my crates along the road. I began cursing my ‘smart packing’ methodology, as the crates were beyond my lifting and carrying capacity. I dragged and pushed them down the walkway, over the 4’-high berm of hard-pack snow that had slid off the roofs, and finally, finally into my apartment.

A week later, Doug called to tell me he was offered a Park Service job in Moab for the winter. Since he would have to find housing when he got there, he couldn’t take O’Malley with him. My studio apartment in Canyon was in a complex affectionately dubbed “The Dog Pound” because it was the only place employees with pets could live. So, O’Malley became my roommate that winter. I transported him to my duty station (about 35 road miles) by snowmobile from Park Headquarter in Mammoth, hauling him in a kennel on a pull sled. I would stop every 5 miles or so to monitor his condition. I could barely feel my cheeks (either pair) but he was grinning from ear to ear.

Because dogs are not allowed off-leash in national parks, due to that nasty habit of chasing wildlife, O’Malley and I engaged in numerous daily outings. The first was at 5:30 am, before coffee, for about a 4-mile run. In order to leave the door at 5:30 am I had to start dressing about 5:00 am to prepare for the frigid weather. When I would get to work later I would always check the temperature---38 below was my record. It was great to get out there just after the road graders had plowed for the snowmobilers (who use the road system in the interior of the park), because this left a super hard-pack surface on which to run. The “surface” of the road was about 8’ lower than the top of the berm formed along the sides of the road. So, it seemed as if we were running through a tunnel of sorts. O’Malley insisted upon running on top of the berm wall so he could get a better view. Luckily I had a long leash and a good rotator cuff.

At lunch, I would ski or snowmobile back from the Ranger Station and take O’Malley out for a quickie business walk. This would hold him until later in the afternoon when we usually headed out walking the loop road towards the Lower Falls of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. By 4:00 pm, snowmobilers were off the road, at least the smart ones, and the Park resumed its much-needed solitude. You could hear the roar of the Falls a long ways away.

My next door neighbor in the Dog Pound, Wes, was a law enforcement ranger. He spent his days patrolling the roads on snowmobile, attempting to maintain the 45 mph posted speed limit. He told me that one time he stopped some guys he had clocked doing 75 mph. Even if you were lucky enough to ride immediately after the graders had plowed the road, and lucky enough for it to be just the right temperature, cruising at 75 mph would have been enough to have caused permanent back injury to anyone.

Wes had a golden retriever that he had trained to ride on the seat of the snowmobile with him. With a headband around the dog’s ears, after ear plugs were inserted of course, goggles over his eyes, and his paws hugging the handlebars for balance, Wes and pooch rivaled any Duckboy postcard I’ve ever seen.

Since I started this assignment after the beginning of the winter season, I met all the other employees at Canyon one by one that winter. But, because it was always well below zero, no one dared to removed their face masks or balaclavas to introduce themselves and talk. Most of the time, they never took off their snowmobile helmets. So, I got to know people only by their voices. My life in Canyon that winter was an adjustment. No newspaper, radio, TV, and this was well before the days of being an internet junkie. I skied/jogged/walked with O’Malley, read a book a night, rarely socialized---pretty much led the life of a hermit. Exposure to two somewhat famous Yellowstone spectator sports quickly hooked me as a fan: shoveling the roofs in Canyon Village and observing the robber ravens. The interaction between ravens and snowmobilers deserves an entire post to itself, so I will not elaborate now.

The roofs of the buildings in Canyon were constructed apparently ignoring the snowload factors of Yellowstone Park. Every year, as the snowpack mounts up and compresses, mathematical formulas are calculated to determine when the winterkeeper will perform his/her most significant duty---clearing the snow. It was an activity that captured the attention of tourists and employees, watching the winterkeeper mark off sections of hard-pack snow into giant sugar cube-like blocks. Special shovels had been constructed for this task. After marking off the checkerboard pattern, each sugar cube was carefully wedged out and slowly propelled down the roof.

At the end of the season, we all waited with baited breath for the plows to reach us as they cleared the roads of snow in advance of the opening of the summer season. That year, there were lots of equipment problems as the plows encountered layers of ice that derailed their progress. All the delays were causing depression to set in at Canyon. Somebody suggested an end-of-the season bonfire and then a potluck. It gave us something to look forward to, and planning committees formed.

On the day of the potluck, we all showed up at the warming hut at the appointed time with little scraps of whatever food items we had left in our stashes. Suddenly I realized that I didn’t know who some of these people were. None of us were wearing our face masks or balaclavas anymore. I almost had to close my eyes and listen to the voices to figure it out. The conversations were bizarre. I kept hearing the same question being asked: “So, how long has it been since you’ve been out?” If I didn’t know better, I would have sworn I was in a prison waiting room. I overheard a lengthy discussion about how Yellowstone in winter is living in sensory deprivation. You look outside your window, and everything is white, white, white. Broken up by black spikes, the remaining standing charred lodgepole pine from the fires of ’88. But the rest is white. It drives some people near-mad.

I packed up my stuff and left Canyon that morning. The sun was brilliant, the melting snow twinkling so bright I could barely see. Bison were calving, bears out of hibernation and feeding on winter kill, osprey returning and nesting, ravens no longer making easy prey of the snowmobiler’s backpacks for food and trinkets. The annual rejuvenation of Yellowstone had begun. And for O’Malley and me, our winter was also over. It was time to move on.


Linda said...

Wonderful! We have been planning a trip into Yellowstone to ski in LaMar valley this Friday. My past experiences in the park in the winter were either on snowmobile or on snowcoach tours that we took guests on when I worked at Lone Mt Ranch. Both experiences were fun, but decidedly without the solitude you describe. Old Faithful was so crowded I swear that the snowmobiles create more noise and stink than all the cars in the summer. Tom has stayed at Canyon in winter with Arden Bailey's group and says it is really different. Your post motivates me to make more trips into the park this winter. Thanks Nancy!

northofandorra said...

Harley emailed me and asked what my 'job' was that winter in Yellowstone. I was on an emergency hire to replace the district interpretive ranger who was on detail to another park---quite a mouthful, eh? My duties included hiring the summer seasonal employees; negotiating for their housing; filling in at the warming hut and providing info to snowmobiler; and going on snowmobile 'roves' to some of the Canyon overlooks.

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid I'm one of those people who would have "gone insane" from the sensory deprivation...I can't fall asleep at night unless the TV is on! I have to have audio and visual stimulus or I go nuts! When the electricity goes out and it is so quiet, I just pace...I can't even fall asleep in the dark and quiet surrounding me. You are obviously more adaptable within the universe than me, Nancy!

Your pictures are starkly lovely.