Thursday, December 30, 2010

Going No Where Isn't Always a Bad Thing!

The year 2011 is around the corner and people all across the country are contemplating what this new year will hold for them. Resolutions are being made, vacations are being planned and goals are being set. Our society is often driven by the notion that each year must be bigger and better than the year before which can often lead  to the classic cycle of "keeping up with the Jones".

But what if nobody had the last name "Jones" for miles in any direction? What if we stopped to enjoy the simple pleasures of each day as they come and stop the constant cycle of primping, prodding and planning? You might just be least for a brief moment!

One day per week I head to the Fishing Bridge Warming Hut located 21 miles north of Grant Village. On a normal day I jump on my snowmobile and push the maximum speed limit the entire way there. I quickly glance at the lake and trees while zooming past them at rocket speed, giving them a mere second of admiration. More often than not I find myself in this "rush-rush, get-er-down" frame of mind- no doubt a recessive gene dating back from my city-girl days.

 But this week, Gaea was intent on making me slow down and enjoy the simple pleasures around me. No more than 5 miles into my travels I could not help but notice a distorted large, none moving brown thing on the ice of Yellowstone Lake. As I slowed down to see what it was I remembered that the other rangers had mentioned a wolf kill just north of us. Indeed it was. A semi eaten Bison with ribs exposed, lie motionless against the stark cold ice. Wolf tracks encircled the carcass while an Eagle flew overhead ready to stop for a free breakfast.  This was no doubt one of  the bison which belonged to the herd that had recently walked 20 miles South through cold and snow, finally taking refuge in the warmth of Pott's Basin. It's whole existence was spent living from one day to the next with only one goal: Survival.

The sight of the semi consumed Bison  did little to stop my determination in getting to Fishing Bridge in record time. I blasted towards Bridge Bay knowing that my final destination was only 4 miles away when suddenly my machine began to slow down bringing me to an unpleasant stop. I started the engine again only to go a few feet which seemed laborious and tiring for my snowmobile. I knew my machine wasn't happy. With a quick SOS call on my park radio help was the way. However for 30 minutes I was left in complete solitude with no one around. The sun was still rising and the dim light made the sky blend into the frozen lake.  I took a deep breathe of cold, fresh air, opened my travel bag and found my steamy thermos of tea. As I sipped the tea and looked around I began to notice things I hadn't noticed before on my drive; Like how the ice forms swirling shapes on the surface or how such intense quietness can make your ears want to play tricks on you.

Instead of being upset at my misfortunate situation I thought about this beautiful view and morning that I was being forced to enjoy. Yes, I had a broken sled but I also had 30 minutes to myself to appreciate where I was.  I looked around, enjoyed the view and happily accepted that at this rate I wasn't going to get anything done today. But you know what? There is always tomorrow and in the words of the great Bob Marley "everything's gonna be alright!"


I wasn't the only one "not going anywhere" in these recent days leading up to New Years. In fact, the herd of Bison that wandered to the Grant area were also in the same predicament. As I pulled into the West Thumb Geyser Basin the following day I was greeted by a small herd of Bison that decided to sleep on the road which leads to West Thumb. Cold and tired they looked at me in disdain and were reluctant to get up and move. For the next hour they roamed around the parking lot not sure of where to go or what to do. For the next 5 days they continued to wander around the area in constant disarray. They roamed around the housing area and stood their ground at the Grant Village junction. They wandered up Craig Pass and checked out the road leading south. Their gigantic patties littered every section of road in the Grant District. With a cold front moving in and temperatures predicted to be in the minus 20's they finally had some direction as they headed for the West Thumb Geyser Basin. Surely the hot steam will keep them warm these nexy few cold night.

Since moving to Yellowstone I have realized that I have become more in-tune with my personal daily cycles and less consumed with what is happening outside my little world. I have no idea what movies are playing in theaters nor do I have any concept of the hottest new items on the market. Rather than planning ahead (like I usually do) I find myself planning each day as it comes because nothing is predictable in Yellowstone. The benefit is that I  am living in the moment and not in the future. With New Year's Day only hours away my resolution is to not have any resolutions, my goals are to live for the moment and take my blessings as they come and my travel plans are to go where the wind takes me- even if it means I am not going anywhere!            

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas in Wonderland

Every tree across Yellowstone National Park is decorated for Christmas; adorned with snow and frost they each seem to sing Christmas carols in perfect unison. As each day brought us closer and closer to Christmas it was easy to become enamored with the holiday spirit. Visitors arrived to the park from far and wide, all seeking the solice and magic of Christmas in Wonderland. Their holiday adventure surely to be filled with watching Old Faithful, cross country skiing, wildlife watching and of course enjoying fine dining and drinks in the evening whilst they snuggle up close to the fireplace. For many it will be the trip of a lifetime and even though I am not a park visitor I found that I have fallen into the same category of a starry eyed Christmas guest in Yellowstone. 

My Christmas adventure began last week while I unpacked my Christmas boxes filled with decorations, lights, plates, mugs and so on. Before the day was over our home had been transformed into a storybook with Christmas lights strung in the windows for all 15 people living in sleepy Grant Village to admire. The only thing missing was a Christmas tree.

The next morning Shane and I attached our tow sled to our snowmobile and headed for the electric line roads. Trees which grow under the power lines are regularly cut  down by the Park's fire team to prevent damage to the lines. In a National Park where all is preserved cutting down trees is not usually permitted unless they pose some kind of danger. So, only trees on these roads are allowed to be taken as a Christmas tree!  Within 30 minutes Shane and I had found what we thought was the perfect tree! We dug out the snow which had settled around the base of the tree and chopped it down. As a former urbanite this was my first time harvesting my very own tree. I was filled with pride, and once decorated, I was filled with admiration for my beautiful "wild" Yellowstone tree! With everything in place I was ready for the holidays, although it was still looking a little bare under the tree (which was soon to change)! 

Living in the interior means that we only get mail once or twice a week. In fact, all of our mail is received in Mammoth  Hot Springs which is then collected by the Park's courier who neatly packs it on a snowcoach and delivers all the mail to the folks in the interior on Tuesdays and Fridays, weather permitting. On these two "mail days" I find myself glued to the Park radio waiting the hear the voice of Rachel, our courier, saying "heading from Lake to Grant". When I finally hear the transmission, I head to the Grant mailroom excited to see what treasures await me! So far I have yet to be disappointed. Priority mail gift boxes from my mom, sister, brother and friends arrived every mail day for two weeks and soon our tree was surrounded by packages! Patiently, we waited to till Christmas morning to open them!

Christmas Eve soon arrived with the blessings of a beautiful sunny day. I rose early to bake cookies for the courier and doggie cookies for the 4 dogs who live in Grant. By mid afternoon Alice and I began making our rounds delivering Christmas cheer in the shape of gingerbread men and candy canes. It seems I was not alone in "holiday spirit" because several other people in Grant arrived at my door sharing fresh baked cookies, homemade salsa and even homemade soap! However the highlight of the afternoon was once again the courier- but this time it was not because of the gifts she delivered but rather the fact that she was dressed up as an Elf and Santa had joined her! Needless to say Alice was the happiest puppy ever and even got to take her picture with Santa and his Elf!

The beauty of the day was only amplified by a perfectly clear night which graced us with one thousand twinkling stars in the dark cold sky. With extra warm hats and mittens a group of us went for a moonlight ski through Wonderland. Pure silence filled the air and the stars and moon guided us on our Christmas Eve ski. Conservationists John Muir used to say that the mountains and forests were his Christian temple, and on this Christmas Eve I could not agree more. Invigorated by the crisp air my cheeks were a bright red as we finished our moonlight ski  and headed to the Dessert Party. 

With new friends all around I sipped homemade Coquito while my cold cheeks were warmed by the slowly burning fire. But it was my heart that was truly warmed as I looked around and thanked God for the gift of family and friends both near and far, and the opporunity to spend Christmas in Wonderland.    

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Bison Equation

Whenever Yellowstone Wolf Biologist, Doug Smith speaks about the "Mollies" Wolf Pack he always mentions the "Bison Equation". Wolves,which were restored to the Yellowstone ecosystem in 1995, thrive on a healthy diet of  mostly Elk. However the Mollies Pack, which live in Pelican and Hayden Valley consume mostly Bison. Through trial and error they have figured out and mastered the art of taking down a massive powerful beast weighing in at up to 2000 lbs! Now this mastered art does not come without peril, in fact members of the Mollies pack have been kicked, butted, bruised and it some cases killed while trying to take down a Bison. However, by solving the "Bison Equation" they are able to survive in Pelican and Hayden Valley year round- even during the worst of winters. 

While staffing the Fishing Bridge Warming Hut, one of my duties is to check out the near by valleys for wildlife which I can then inform the guides and visitors about. On Sunday morning while heading out to Fishing Bridge I was informed by a co-worker that the Mollies had once again solved the Bison Equation and were presently out in Pelican Valley feeding on the carcass. Shane decided to accompany me for the day with the anticipation of seeing Wolves. As we headed out that morning, the 17 mile journey was fairly quiet- that is until we approached Fishing Bridge Junction.  As we rounded the bend and drove toward the junction I suddenly noticed a large brown blob in the distance. Within seconds I deduced that the blob was a herd of Bison. "No worries", I thought, "they are on the other side of the junction". But suddenly, while driving 35 MPH I realized that I was approaching the Bison quicker than the speed I was going, therefore meaning one thing- The Bison were on the move. The Bison were, in fact, charging down the hill towards the junction that I was charging towards in the opposite direction. Suddenly, both the Bison and I came to slamming halt as we both seemed to notice the impeding head on collision we were about to have! Frustated and aggitated, the Bison sat at the junction staring at us as if to say " I'm bigger, YOU MOVE!"

Assessing the situation, Shane found a small pullout that the groomers had created behind us. We backed up into the pullout and the herd of fifty slowly and menacingly walked by us. With only a snowmobile distance between us and the bison, we sat motionless for fear of angering the herd. As each one passed us by they seemingly glared at us, making my stomach churn. As I sat in the shadow of the last Bison which passed us, I was reminded of how man is nothing against beast without his tools and technology. 

We resumed our course and headed to Fishing Bridge where we started the fire and then headed out to look for wolves. As we passed over Pelican Creek I instantly saw three black figures standing out perfectly against the white snow. WOLVES! For the next 20 minutes we watched a total of six wolves move back and forth across the snowy white landscape as they dined on their Bison breakfast. With sheer strength, resilience and team work the Mollies Pack had taken down the same animal which I could only cower next to on my snowmobile; a true testament to the powers and wonders of nature. The wolf has indeed solved the Bison equation but I myself am still doing the math! 

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Opening Day for the Winter Season

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.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Challenges of Switching to Over-Snow Traffic

Following a heavy snowfall last Friday the folks in Mammoth (headquarters) decided to officially switch over to over-snow traffic, which essentially means snowmobiles, snowcoaches,  Bombardiers and  mat-trax. Most of all the seasonal winter staff had arrived safely in the park already except one- Melanie who is set to live at Grant and work at both the Grant and Lake warming huts this winter. I called Melanie and gave her the inconvenient news that she would not be able to drive into the park and I would have to to meet her at the South Entrance with a snowmobile and a tow sled. Melanie, who is embarking on her fourth winter in Yellowstone, accepted the news with the flexibility of someone who has obviously experienced living in the interior of Yellowstone in the winter! 

When Sunday morning arrived I had exactly 4 hours of snowmobile time under my belt. The road South had been barely groomed and not packed. Regardless, I put on my helmet and headed south with 2 other rangers- Shane and Steve. We plowed down the road, weaving in and out of chunks of frozen snow and keeping our knees loose for jumping the moguls that had formed in the middle of the road! As we made it to the South Entrance I sighed a breathe of relief while simultaneously feeling quite proud of my "Yahama Mama" skills. We neatly placed Melanie's personal belongings onto the tow sled (which looks like an old fashioned sled that is attached to the snowmobile), covered it with a tarp, strapped it down with bungees and headed home "Grinch-style".

Monday morning my new Interpretation team of three met at my house for the first day of seasonal training. Since winter is a little less formal I decided to start our morning by serving pancakes, scones, and bacon to my new team members Darlene and Melanie. We chatted about winter in Yellowstone and laughed about the challenges we had already experience; little did we know a much bigger challenge was on the horizon for Grant folks! 

After breakfast we sat in on a park wide conference call regarding winter road conditions. The Grant team was supposed to be leaving Tuesday via snowmobile to Mammoth for training. The trip would take about 2.5 hours through the park on our machines. However, much to our dismay the conference call revealed that most of the park had not been groomed in addition to the fact that there were many bare patches on the road which could damage our machines. This resulted in a decision that the Interpretation Rangers in Grant could not, and would not, be permitted to drive our snowmobiles north to Mammoth, however we were still expected to attend training! That left only one option- immediately pack and load our stuff on tow sleds, snowmobile 45 minutes to the South Entrance, unload our belongings and put them in a vehicle, them drive 7 hours AROUND the park! And so by 1 pm on Monday, as the snow began to fall some more,  we were loading our machines and making out way to Mammoth. Twenty-four hours later we had arrived at Mammoth where everyone commended us on our ability to make it to training ON TIME regardless of what the situation was, to which I proudly responded "That's the way we roll in Grant!"


Thursday, December 2, 2010

Yahama Mama in Training!

There was not one bit of fear in me as I swung my right leg over the seat of the snowmobile. I had carefully read the Yellowstone Winter Operations Guide, I listened attentively during the lecture portion of the training and I had performed mechanical work on my machine which included changing two belts, checking the oil and checking the dropcase.  Now with my helmet tightly fastened I was ready to become a "Yahama Mama"! 

Snowmobile training could not have happened on a more beautiful day. It was a warm 32'F and the snow was falling only as it does in Christmas movies- giant fluffy flakes gently dropping from the sky. The morning was perfect and I was filled with the excited energy that I often feel when something big is on the horizon. As I walked over to the Maintenence shop to get the latest "Yellowstone News" (which is more gossip than anything!) I was informed to "get ready cause snowmobile training starts in 30 minutes". I have fully embraced the idea that if you live in the interior of Yellowstone you must be prepared to fly by the seat of your pants! So back home I went, to put on some more appropriate clothing and to inform others of training.

Frank, our instructor, carefully explained eveything from safety procedures to park policies and snowmobile mechanics. And before we knew it our hands were covered in grease as we changed belts and checked fluids. Needless to say I was filled with "woman-power" pride after changing the belt!

After lunch it was time to get on our sleds and take them for a test run. Surprisingly, I felt calm and in control. I cinched my helmet, swung my leg over the sled and started the engine. During my first few runs I kept my speed at a conservative 20 mph- a great speed to do things like jerk the handles, break suddenly, take sharp turns etc. in order to get a better idea of what your machine is made of. Our two test runs quickly became an excursion on every back road in Grant and we all secretly resisted the clock which was ticking, forcing us to get back to Maintenance. As the day drew to an end I sadly parked my sled and turned the engine off. I felt a little lost about what I was going to do for the rest of the evening because all I wanted to do was ride some more! The fact was I had fully embraced the Yahama Mama persona. However, I am not quite yet a full on Yamaha Mama. I strongly feel that in order to fully be a Yahama Mama  one must ride in -20'F, get stuck in snow and change a belt in the field. Then I will officially a Yamaha Mama. For now, I guess, I will have to settle for being a Yahama Mamacita.