Saturday, January 8, 2011

Ski Yellowstone!

When Yellowstone National Park was first established the cavalry had quite a learning curve when it came to patrolling the park in winter. Skiing, although common today, was not so common in the late 1800's and early 1900's. In fact, most of these early park rangers arrived to Yellowstone with no skiing experience. Referred to back then as snowshoes, skis were up to 13 feet long and weighed up to ten pounds. Early skiers often made their own skis out of wood and used one long pole which served for both balance and as a rudder/stopper when going downhill. These winter pioneers patrolled the park by ski in the worst of conditions with not even a fraction of the amenities that we have today. Needless to say they were forced to become experts overnight!

Today, as I clipped my boots into my lightweight, 5'3 inch skis I was reminded of how far we have come in the ski world. However, the learning curve still exists regardless of how many years separate me from those early pioneers! Prior to arriving in Yellowstone I had never x-country skied. On day one of this new learning experience I immediately face planted into the snow. My legs stretched in every direction and I undoubtedly was quite a sight to see!  It has been 4 weeks since day one yet I still manage to fall at least once a day. Every day there is a new bruise or sore muscle from my regularly scheduled falls, crashes and catastrophes but each time I pick myself up and keeping on going. It's like riding a bike and each day I find myself getting better and stronger at this new concept. 

Despite the bruises and soreness I openly love cross country skiing. I love it so much that I find any excuse to pop on my skis, which are permanently housed outside my front door, and ski right from my doorstep. I haven't walked the dog in a month because I ski her! I ski to the garbage dumpster, I ski to my office and I ski to my snowmobile. The greatest part of living in the interior of Yellowstone in the winter is that NOTHING is plowed which means that you can ski just about anywhere! 

Now don't get me wrong, I still love my snowmobile however the advantages of skiing are worth every fumble I make. At 4:30 pm everyday I can be found leaving my house with my dog and heading out for my evening ski. As I round the corner of the housing area and head off into Yellowstone Country I am relieved of all the troubles or concerns I might have. My mind is focused on my skiing techniques and my surroundings. As the last snowmobiles head out of the park for the evening I am left in complete silence. I ski through what in the summertime is the 200 site bustling campground, but now it is a quite forest where the tracks of mice, rabbit and coyotes transect my ski tracks. Besides the mental therapy I get from skiing, I am physically getting a great workout which is so tiring that I am asleep by 10 pm at the latest! 

Ranger Mel & Ranger Darlene
But skiing in Yellowstone is more than just a workout for a park ranger; it is a lifestyle that has history inter-twined in your bindings. With each push forward you're re-living while simultaneously creating a small piece of Yellowstone history. For a period of time in Yellowstone's winter history it was required to have three people on any ski patrol, with one of them being of an advanced level. This week our Park Ranger Naturalist team of three headed out on a short trip to Riddle Lake. Leaving from behind the ranger station, Ranger Melanie, Ranger Darlene and myself found ourselves skiing up and down small hills through the woods to Riddle Lake. The weather was ideal while the light and powdery snow gave us a few uphill challenges. Ranger Melanie, who is spending her fourth winter in Yellowstone, was our keen leader who graciously gave out free tips to both myself and Darlene as we crawled up hills only to roll down them! All to soon, we returned from our ski trip safe and sound- just another great day in Yellowstone Park.

The next day I found myself doing what many others have done before me: skiing the Old Faithful Geyser Basin. The warmth of the geyser basin left the trail in a half snow, half cement condition, while the steam from the hot springs created some significant ice. The Bison, which were in the basin the previous day, were kind enough to leave giant patties and ruts in the snow that did exist. Thank goodness there were no wipe outs or face plants on that particular day! The difficult skiing conditions however, were nulled by the beauty of the geysers that each seemed to command respect regardless of their size or shape. I shared the basin with only a handful of people, which seems unimaginable when compared to the thousands of people who walk the basin in the summer. As I returned from skiing the visitor center was booming and the parking lot was filled with day trippers outfitted in snowmobile suits. I headed to the geyser grill where I feasted on a greasy hamburger, cheese fries and a soda, followed by some shopping at the gift shop.

As my day came to an end I found myself eager to leave the Old Faithful Metropolis and  to head back home to sleepy Grant Village. I enjoyed my burger and soda but it was also a nice reminder of how much I love working in a more remote part of the park in winter. Within 30 minutes via snowmobile I was back at Grant, skiing with Alice on the fresh powdery snow where the only thing I shared the trail with were the quite tracks of rabbits and mice.



  1. Hiya, this is Aaron, the guy who skied through the park. Thank you so much for sharing the Yellowstone Ski Pioneers book with me. That was wonderful to read a book about exactly how I was traveling through the park. I hope this finds you and Shane staying warm and happy!

  2. Hi Aaron,
    Hope your last night wasn't too cold! After you left Mel and I were talking about how awesome your trip was and you have now inspired us to ski the lower loop next winter! It was great to meet you!