Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Suntans and Frostbite

The talk of the town this week was the massive cold front headed right for Yellowstone Country. Most people who live in this area accept the news of cold fronts with a shrug of the shoulders as if to say "Been there, done that". On the other hand, my family and friends in warmer climates are shocked to hear of such frigid temperatures. Secretly, I was thrilled by the idea of watching the needle on my thermometer go down, and down and down some more! Since accepting my job at Yellowstone I have been told of the fierce cold days that I would experience in the interior of Yellowstone, yet this winter has been unconventionally mild. I wanted to be part of the hearty that could say "Well, I remember the days when it was -40'F!" And alas, the day was to come, but not before I got experience my first winter backcountry ski trip!

 Arriving at the Dogshead Trailhead on January 28, I could not have asked for a more beautiful day. It was no where near what one would expect for January in Yellowstone. With barely a cloud in the sky the sun shone bright and the thermometer read 34'F. The sun reflected off the snow as if it were a brilliant spring day. Putting on our skis we removed our jackets and hats and prepared for our backcountry ski trip.

Shane, Dan and I were soon on our way to Shoshone Lake Ranger Cabin. Making fresh clean tracks in the snow there was no way to determine which way the actual trail went.  The only other tracks in the snow were those of squirrels, pine martins and coyotes. Up and down the rhyolitic lava hills we were soon surrounded by mountains and water is all directions. To the South were the Tetons and Lewis Lake and to the East the Red Mountains, the Absarokas and Lake Yellowstone. Being new to backcountry skiing, Shane and I took turns falling in the powdery snow until we finally got our ski legs in order! Our 4.6 mile ski was soon to be a little longer due to the combination of falling down, along with the fact that the snow covered and masked the clearly defined summer trail. However, I wasn't the least bit worried since Dan had his GPS unit and we were accompanied by the most beautiful January day ever!

After several ups and down, we eventually found ourselves skiing through the tall conifers, down towards the shores of Shoshone Lake- a beautiful backcountry lake in the middle of Yellowstone National Park's backcountry. Sitting along the shoreline was our home for the night: the Shoshone Lake Ranger Cabin.

After shoveling out the the entrance, propane tank, window covers and wood storage area, our cabin was ready for living. The evening was spent sitting around the wood stove, talking, eating beef stew and watching the glorious sun set. As I snuggled into my warm sleeping bag for the night in the loft of the Ranger Cabin I was reminded of why I love being a Park Ranger. 

The next morning was equally as beautiful and by 11am the cabin was cleaned and locked up, ready for the next ranger to use in the days to come. Arriving at home a few hours later I looked in the mirror to discover that my cheeks had turned a light shade of pink which eventually turned into a nice golden shade of brown. 
In the middle of January, while skiing in Yellowstone National Park, I got a sun tan! The spring temperatures, however, were just a teaser from Mother Nature. Two days later I would awake to discover that it was 90 degrees warmer in my house than it was outside!

Watching the thermometer like a hawk two nights ago I was sadly disappointed that it seemed to be stuck at -10'F. I was convinced the weather man had lied but the next morning at 5:45am I jumped out bed to check the thermometer and there is was: -30'F! YES! Elated, I jumped back in bed and proudly exclaimed to my husband "It's -30'F"; but despite my enthusiasm all he did was groan! An hour later I got up to find that it had not warmed up much at all, the thermometer was reading -28'F. My thermometer is located on the side of my house which means that it always reads a few degrees warmer since it is slightly protected from the house. I decided to check the official NOAA weather station data on my laptop and discovered that the true temperature was -35'F. By far the coldest temperatures I have EVER experienced.

If I would have gotten on my snowmobile for work and drove 30 MPH the windchill would make it feel like -73'F...hence the reason why I was still in my PJ's till 10 am. Thankfully, I am fortunate enough to have one of the jobs in the park that is considered "non-essential". Educating the public is not really a top priority in -35'F temperatures. My instructions are to watch the temperature and when it becomes -20'F then I can go to work. By 10 am it was -20'F and I began putting on the many layers that would ensure my safety. As I stepped outside I felt nothing. Ahhhh...three layers of pants, 4 upper layers, thick socks with toe warmers, neck gaiter, balaclava and one neoprene face mask works WONDERS! But although I was ready for work, my naked snowmobile wasn't! As I turned the key it groaned with the aches and pains of frost. I thought about going back inside and throwing in the towel but I thought about the 10 visitors who had just entered the park. Surely they will be frozen when they get to my district and they will be expecting a warm Warming Hut! I walked over to the garage and found a warm sled to use. Driving slowly to reduce the windchill I drove the West Thumb and started the fire. 

Success! As the first visitor arrived the warming hut was 55'F. A balmy 75 degrees warmer than outside. As each visitor took off their gloves and balaclavas I scanned their faces and fingers for signs of frostbite, and with good reason. Two people with 1st degree frostbitten cheeks and one person with 2nd degree frostbitten cheeks. examining their cheeks I gave them instructions for dealing with their frostnip: cover the area with a warm hand, do not rub it, and let's see what it looks like in a few minutes. Luckily, every one's cheeks were looking better in a few minutes and only one person had to end their trip. Before sending everyone back into the cold once again I made sure that they had enough gear that was worn properly and gave them tips to avoid frostbite. Putting all those layers on and making it to the warming hut was well worth the effort!

The cold front could not have come at a better time: right after my ski trip and right before my trip to Florida! Today, once it reaches -20'F, I will head out of the park as I begin my journey to visit my family in Florida for a brief 2 days. Packing shorts and tank tops in my suitcase this morning seemed insane when my thermometer is still reading 26'F below zero. In 24 hours I will be one of tourists I used to make fun of when I lived in Florida- laying on a beach in 70'F, laughing at how it is 100 degrees warmer in Florida than in Yellowstone!  

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