Sunday, November 28, 2010

Saying Good-Bye to our Truck

The sun was shining at 7 am on Wednesday morning and the high for the day was -10'F with a windchill of -25'F. The "Storm of the Century" had blown over and the hardy folks living in the interior of Yellowstone were left with a debaucle of snow covering every square inch of the park. Our roofs had sky high mounds of snow, our vehicles were buried and the road heading south was so bad that our local maintenance team did not have equipment large enough to get the road open. The meter stick outside the ranger station was reading at just about 54 inches of snow however the high winds left snow drifts of over 60 inches in certain areas. Three feet of snow had fallen in just about 48 hours!

Those of us living at Grant were accutely aware that time was ticking. Only 24 hours to Thanksgiving weekend and everyone had personal and government vehicles that needed to get out of the park before the roads were shut down for the season. Somehow, I just knew on this particular morning that this was going to be "the day", and so by 7:30 am I was armed with my snowsuit, French fur trapper hat, gortex mittens and a shovel. By 8:00 am, as I was unburying the truck, Shane was making the rounds letting everyone know that this afternoon would indeed be the day we get our vehicles out of the park. Usually, we are given 24 hours notice and the decision is made based on some large snow storm that is headed our way. However this year is starting out far from usual! The unpredictable weather  provided us with a 4 hours notice. Thankfully, I had already started shovelling and the truck was already equipped with our emergency pack which contained sleeping bags, extra hats and socks, flashlight, knife, toe/hand warmers, granola bars, water bottles and a first aid kit. In addition to our emergency pack we also had a shovel in the backseat so we can dig out our truck in the middle of winter should we decide to venture to town.

But even with vehicles dug out we were all placed on stand by as the south entrance road had yet to be plowed. In fact, a super-sized wedge plow was on it's way from Mammoth to clear the south entrance road for us. By 11:30 am a group of us had formed at the Grant Village Junction as we all waited in anticipation for the wedge plow to pass by and head south. As the super-sized plow passed the junction I had the uncontrollable urge to jump up and cheer the plow on, much the way spectators jump out of their seats and scream wildly as there favorite athletes zoom by them! With camera in hand I frantically snapped pictures and the smile on my face was that of a child on Christmas morning. However when I looked around I noticed that this event was not nearly as exciting as I thought it was. In fact one person was chatting on the phone and two others were engaged in a full on conversation. Ahh...if only everyone was as easy to please as me!

In no time at all our convoy of one tractor and five vehicles were on the road making our way to the South Entrance where our vehicles will live at Flagg Ranch Resort for the duration of the winter. As the wind continued to blow at a steady 25 miles per hour, the realization that I would not have the sanctity of my warm and cushy truck for the duration of the winter set in. Six days after Thanksgiving I would have my snowmobile and a new chapter in my life at Yellowstone would begin.      

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Storm of the Century

During this afternoon's squad meeting at Headquarters the winter storm, that has been sitting atop us for the last 5 days, has officially been given the name "Storm of the Century". Even Bonnie Hawn, the Grant Maintenance supervisor who has lived here since the 80's says this is among the worst winter storms she has seen! The storm which, rolled in Friday evening, had a winter advisory that was supposedly till Sunday at 5am. And indeed by Sunday at 5am the snow had ceased. The weekend had brought us between 2 to 3 feet of snow. An impressive amount but how foolish we were to think that was it! In fact by Sunday afternoon it was snowing again! 

After battling the weekend storm our friend Jason, who was visiting from Alaska, finally made it to our house on Sunday morning. After a nice warm bowl of chowder Jason and Shane volunteered to assist me in packing down the trail at West Thumb Geyser Basin. One of my duties this winter is to keep a visible trail along the boardwalk for winter visitors. Even though the park does not reopen till December 16th I knew well enough that the weekend snowfall would be covering the Boardwalk. And so the three of us, armed with snowshoes and snowstakes, set out for the boardwalk.
In the summer this boardwalk is a gentle leisurely stroll through the geyser basin however with 2 to 3 feet of light powdery snow on the ground it was going to be a little harder! In fact, our snowshoes did little to keep us above the loose snow and so the three of us took turns blazing the trail whilst we sank to our knees and thighs! We meticulously placed snow stakes along the edge of the boardwalk so that in the future I will know exactly where the boardwalk is regardless of how much snow falls. Although strenuous, the afternoon was enjoyable! We took pictures, laughed and admired the beautiful thermal features surrounded by snow. As we rounded the final corner of the boardwalk the snow began to gently fall once again.

The next day at 8:45 am my phone rings. I figured it was Jason telling me he made it out of the park, however it was quite the opposite. Jason was back at our house! Even with a big Ford F-150, Jason found himself pushing snow with the bumper at which he decided it was probably best to turn back around. Approximately 18 inches had fallen overnight. At the same time I learned that we were once again under a winter storm warning...and this one looked gnarly! Fortunately we were able to get Jason to follow the plow at 11am to the South Entrance where he was then driving onward to our friend Dan's house in Grand Teton NP. Lucky for him he left when he did otherwise he would still be here!

By Monday evening the snow accumulation was becoming more intense and I knew that Tuesday morning was gonna be interesting. And indeed it was!

 At 7:00 Shane and his team were shoveling snow that reached their thighs in order to get the plow out. By 8:15 am, one park vehicle was stuck in the snow at Old Faithful, by 8:30 am Shane was stuck in Grant and by 8:45 am another person was stuck in Lake! Additionally, both Canyon and Lake Districts were out of power. Mother Nature VS. Yellowstone Park = 5 to 0 ! The battle against the snow storm was ruling in favor of mother nature! The park radio was a confusion of statically charged messages ranging from :I'm stuck, Need help, Are you okay, I'm coming you're way" and so on and so forth! 

As the power flickered for the third time in my office, leaving me in complete darkness, I picked up the phone called my boss and said "Can I please work from home today!" She thankfully agreed and by 9:00 am, I was sitting in my thermals working on my laptop from home, monitoring the radio, and watching the snow accumulate and wondering "IS THIS NORMAL?"

The answer is yes, it's normal. But not in November and not so much in such a little span of time. In fact mother nature is early by one week! The park's calendar clearly states that we do not switch to snowmobiles till next week...Can't Mother Nature READ! Our snowmobiles have not even arrived at the park yet therefore we are plowing the roads when we should be grooming them for snowmobiles.Not fun! 

Continued snowfall and high wind of 25-40 miles per hour are predicted to continue through the night. The snow is expected to taper off tomorrow however the numbing cold temperatures are going to take over. Ahhh... yes, temperatures as low as negative 26'F are predicted. I guess I will find out if my -60 F boots truly work!

 It's moments like this that one truly gets to  find out what we are really made of. A chance to step outside our normal routine and persevere in the face of difficulty.


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Slowly turning into a gear junkie!

It was 55'F when we left Seattle from our vacation and the temperature steadily declined as we drove closer and closer to Yellowstone. After 11 long hours of driving we arrived at the West Yellowstone entrance. It was dark, snowing and the gate barricade was locked but since the roads are currently opened for administrative travel we unlocked the barricade and drove into the park. For some reason I felt like I was doing something wrong- breaking into a National Park!

Our new 4 wheel drive truck is sure coming in handy because although the roads had been plowed the fresh snow was accumulating quickly. The further we drove, the heavier the snow was getting and I began to fear that we would not be able to cross Craig Pass in order to make it home. I began thinking of our options such as breaking into my bosses house in Old Faithful since she was, afterall, on vacation and surely she would approve such a break in! But thankfully as we approached Old Faithful the snow subsided and we crawled up Craig Pass (We were extra safe Mom!). We made it home to Grant to find a winter wonderland. Every tree was dripping with glissening snow whilst the roof tops were drapped with thick white blankets.

It is kinda hard to prepare for Thanksgiving when it feels like Christmas. In fact, Santa did come early this year; 14 boxes of goodies had arrived while we were away! Cabela's, REI, and Sierra Trading Post boxes littered our living room floor and even though it was now midnight Shane and I could not contain ourselves- we just had to open our boxes! And so there we were at Midnight trying on our new Thermal Underwear- Expedition Weight! The next morning I continued to go through our boxes. We had purchased so many things to prepare for winter that we actually forgot what was in the boxes! 

So what sort of gear is needed to spend a winter in the interior of Yellowstone? I learned to not ask this question to the outdoor enthusiasts who have lived in the park awhile because they will say things like "Oh, you'll need at least three different kinds of skis: Crosscountry, Backcountry and Skate Skis! Needless, to say I do not make that much money to buy three sets of skis in my first winter! However it was obvious that winter sports gear was a top priority. As I began searching for what skis to buy I realized that ski shopping is a much grandeur feat than shoe shopping at Dillards where my biggest concern was "should I buy the shiny red one's or the shiny black?" After hours of reading and searching and learning that not only are there numerous kinds of skis but there are an equal number of ski bindings to chose from, I finally found the easy way out: REI's ski package sets! For $300 they would ship me Unisex Rossignol Touring Skis with the compatible bindings, ski poles, and ski boots. Ahhh...problem solved: "I'll take two sets, please!"

Now, that I made my "recreational" purchase it was on to more serious matters such as winter gear to sustain -20F with a snowmobile windchill of -40F. After ample searching I decided on Cabelas Guidewear Gor-Tex Parka and Bibs along with a pair of Winter Range -60'F boots. My Cabelas purchase also included an assortment of soft shell jackets, fleece sweaters and pants in various colors and weights since "layers" are an important part of keeping warm. I also made sure that there was no cotton in my products since "cotton-kills" in wet-cold weather.

Next stop: Sierra Trading Post! One pair of Manzella's warmest weather proof mittens with liners, one red fur trapper hat with a liner, one fleece balaclava (face mask), 1 wool hat, 1 pair of wool mittens, one pair of ski goggles and sunglasses and  90 pairs of toe/hand warmers for the extra cold days! I also imagine myself living in thermal underwear therefore a full set of thermals in each weight: light, mid weight and expedition weight. And the best purchase of the season goes to the calf length down-feather Merrell coat recommended by my friend Laura Goforth who once lived in Grant as well!       

So, although I was officially ready to take on winter in the interior my attention shifted to Alice, my little 38 lbs Beagle-Shepherd mix whose favorite thing to do is lay in the sun! I had no idea the price and variety of winter dog gear! With a little research I decided to play it simple: one fleece jacket, a new warm plush bed and doggles. Yes, you read right: DOGGLES! Goggles for dogs! So now when she rides to town with us on the snowmobile her eyes will be protected.

Thankfully, Shane and I already had snowshoes and a lighter weight snowsuit and the park will provide us with snowmobiles and helmets. This weekend will be the big snow tire purchase and hopefully that will be the end of our purchases for next 5 months! Total expenditures of gear to date: $2800. Luckily the park has paid for $800 of our necessary gear.  

I am quickly learning that winter in the interior is not for wusses or for those who want to save their money! Purchasing Keno's flip flops in Key West was the old Sabrina;  the new Sabrina wears Cabelas Winter Range -60F boots!     

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Last Call for Motorists

As I was driving home from Jackson yesterday the DJ on the radio declared that all roads heading into the interior of the Yellowstone National Park are officially closed to the public starting this Monday. They will reopen for snowmobile traffic starting December 15. The DJ advised the public that this was their last chance to tour the park by car. The weekend weather is calling for sunny skies and high's in the 50's which is pretty incredible considering there was a snowstorm on the 31st! The park's visitation is up by almost 9% and I wonder what this last weekend will have in store for us? Luckily, I do not have to worry about it! My two weeks vacation starts today at 5:00pm!

Although the park roads are closed to the public they will remain open for administrative purposes for the following two weeks. That is to say open for official government business and for the people who live in the interior to make their last few vehicle trips into town to stock up on last minute provisions. It is kind of a special time of year because the crowds of visitors are gone and for 4 whole weeks the only people in the interior of the park are the staff who live here. I often wonder what the wildlife think? Are they relieved to have their home back without people pestering them; without the hoards of tourists snapping cameras while they eat, sleep and poop? They've gotta be thrilled!!

Shane and I are off to Washington State for one week. Our first stop will be North Cascades NP, where we will visit with our friend Andrew who is also a park ranger. Next, we'll hop over to Seattle and stay with our friend Rebecca, followed by a visit to both Olympic National Park and Mount Rainier National Park. I don't think Shane and I have taken a vacation in over 8 years that has NOT involved at least one National Park Unit! Even when we travel abroad. But I guess that makes sense since the world's natural beauties and culturally signficiant places are usually preserved within our National Parks!  

Monday, November 1, 2010

How much wood is enough wood?

I once used a chainsaw... And that one time was enough for me to realize that I never want to use one again. Intense vibration, loud noise and the looming idea in the back of my head that I might lope off an arm was all too much for me handle. Now give me an axe...and that's a different story! The rhythm of chopping with an axe combined with the gratification to look at your work and think to yourself "I did that,all on my own!" is quite satisfying!

Believe it or not, part of my college courses involved learning the proper techniques to use both a chainsaw and axe! While studying Ecological Technology at Vanier College I lived at a Field Station about one hour from Montreal. While living there our team of 16 individuals did everything from lake surveys, birding banding, small mammal trapping to chopping down dead trees! I can still remember the shock on the faces of my friends and family when I would return home each weekend and say things like "This week I chopped down trees!" Although I was excited to share my accomplishments I clearly thought that I would NEVER need to use my chopping skills again. That was until I moved to the interior of Yellowstone!

For the last three weeks Shane and I (well, mostly Shane) have been collecting wood. Actually, Shane is collecting TREES and I am collecting TWIGS to give you a size comparison! Our yard has been an ever growing pile of trees and twigs and the bigger it got the more daunting the task of "wood chopping" seemed. But with an storm brewing to the west of us it was evident that this weekend would officially go down in the books as "The Weekend of Wood Chopping"!

Some people might imagine wood chopping as a small task- chopping just enough to make the house feel cozy on snowy nights. For us this was rather a matter of survival. Our goal this winter is to heat our 2 story, 4 bed, 2 bath house solely using our wood stove. Now we do have electric heat should we need it however there is some motivation involved in this story. Rent for our cozy government house includes the cost of an average electric bill. If we use more heat than the average we of course have to pay for it. On the flip side if we do not use the electric heat we will get money back. Now exactly how much money is worth chopping wood ALL weekend? Well, upwards of $1600! That's enough motivation for me!

Having never done this before it is hard to determine just how much wood we'll need. Our neighbors have the exact same house as us however they have enough wood to heat every home in Montana for one year! Such over-achievers.

After two straight days of chainsaws & axes followed by wood stacking we now have three 8 foot by 16 foot walls of neatly stacked wood, along with 5 boxes of kindling. Oh and I almost forgot we]]I also have very sore muscles...from my thighs, to my arms and even my hands!!

By the evening of day two when I was just about "done" with this long tedious weekend the sky turned a bright orangy pink as the sun set behind the Lodgepole Pines trees. The view was amazing and it was a pleasant ending to a long hard weekend. The next day, despite my sore muscles, I proudly admired my well stacked rows of wood as the second winter snow storm of the season blew in.