Smoke was steadily rising from the chimney of the West Thumb Warming Hut early this morning as the park officially opened for the winter season.West Thumb Warming Hut is a quaint wooden cabin which sits along the edge of a beautiful Geyser Basin overlooking the dark waters of Lake Yellowstone. Throughout the 2.2 million acres of Yellowstone Park there exists a few of these warming huts which serve as a place for visitors to warm up, have a snack and chat with a ranger as they tour Yellowstone by snowmobile or snowcoach. Unlike a traditional Yellowstone visitor center, the warming huts are small, rustic and intimate.
As I arrived this morning on my snowmobile I was warmed by the notion that I was the only one at West Thumb at that exact moment. As a modern day Park Ranger I have been wooed by the stories of early Park Rangers who served in a time when they might be the only ranger for miles in all directions. These "super-rangers" did everything from Maintenance to Enforcement and even Education. But for the most part those times are long gone. Today Park Rangers tend to be specialized and categorized in very specific job duties. However, winter in Yellowstone allows one the small opportunity to experience history.
So, here I was on opening day in Yellowstone National Park. It had snowed 10 inches over night but the morning brought us clear skies and sunshine. As the sun rose it made every flake of snow glisten and shine. I arrived at the warming hut started the fire and shoveled the entry way. I inspected the snow on the roof and determined that it was not a potential "slide" danger. I posted the weather as well as the next Old Faithful predication time.
Next, I grabbed my snowshoes and poles and began packing down the West Thumb Geyser Basin boardwalk. The morning was so beautiful that I could not help but stop every 20 feet and admire the view while snapping a few pictures. Steam spiraled upward from every hole in the ground and the lake was still, while the snow capped mountains stood tall in the distance. The only sign of life across the untouched snowscape were the tracks of a coyote, mouse and snowshoe hare. And each step I took made fresh new human tracks reminding me of how I was the first of the bipeds in the geyser basin this morning. Just me and nature and no one around to take away that relished moment.
Soon the first of the snowmobile guides with visitors arrived; each one making a beeline for the wood stove. Rubbing their hands together they would sudden realize that it would be another 30 minutes on a snowmobile before they would reach the next warming hut. With temperatures in the low 20's, I didn't have the heart to tell them that this was actually a warm day in Yellowstone! Instead I filled them with positive motivation by exclaiming that today was indeed the most beautiful sunny day to experience Yellowstone in winter.
By the day's end I had opened and staffed the warming hut, educated visitors, chopped kindling, packed down the trail in the geyser basin, fixed some signs, recorded the temperatures of various hot springs, identified wildlife tracks and even did payroll- making me feel a little like one of those "Super-Rangers" I only read about in history books.