Saturday, March 26, 2011

Spring Itch

There has been snow on the ground for 136 days. That's more than 1/3 of the year. The continued snowfall has resulted in 22 feet of fallen snow, with a snow pack depth of 60 inches. Even as I write this entry there are tiny snowflakes slowly falling from the sky. They are seemingly suspended in time as they float around like bubbles being blown down by a playful child in heaven.

Every other location in Yellowstone National Park, except Grant has been plowed out. Parked outside the employee houses at Old Faithful, Lake and Canyon are automobiles. Parked outside my house is a snowmobile. Plowing out the roads is by no means an easy task due to the amount of snow build up and ice formation. In other snowy places across the lower 48 the temperatures are warming which lends to melting the snow, but here in the interior of Yellowstone the below freezing temperatures remind us that it is still very much winter. 

The employees of the interior all handle to persistent snow in there own special way. Some folks at Old Faithful spent every minute of the day tracking the plows, silently praying that the crew would make it to their house sooner than later. As soon as the plows arrived they were outta there! Fleeing from the park, I am sure they are currently vacationing in some faraway sunny land! I, on the other hand, refuse to look at the daily "plow updates" for fear of self induced depression. Rather than focusing on the plow progress report I focus my energy on my work with the understanding that on April 12th I will be in sunny Utah for vacation!

Although I am not in "freak-out winter blues" mode, that doesn't mean I haven't had any side effects from the never ending winter. This week has been food craving week! Obssessively, I pace through the kitchen constantly opening the refrigerator and cabinets in hopes that something new and exciting will magically appear. Disillusioned I return to the living room and tell myself "you're not hungry, just obsessed with food". My food cravings include strawberries, bananas, spinach, and Ruffles potato chips.  Although my body is manifesting these food cravings I think the root of the matter is actually that I am craving the idea of being able to go to a grocery store when I want, or even a restaurant for that matter.  

But the key to living in the interior is to not allow these obsessions to win. One needs to be mentally strong. In the same manner that an individual works out to stay physically strong, it is important to exercise your mental abilities as well. Living in the interior I exercise my mental strength on a daily basis. When I look outside and see 60 inches of snow on March 25th I just don't let it get to me. Plain and Simple. I find something to do such as writing, listening to music or doing yoga. I just focus on my everyday life as apposed to obsessing over when Spring will actually arrive.

In the meantime, I have also chosen to surround myself with "Spring" inside my house even if it's winter outside! The flannel PJ's are packed and the light pink one's have come out! My pretty "winter scene" coffee mugs are replaced with my brightly colored butterfly mugs and I have retired the dark colored placemats and pulled out the light linen scalloped  placemats. A hummingbird lightcatcher hangs from the living room window and every curtain stays wide open till  8:00pm. "Spring-ifying" my house is my way of sticking it to the man...or should I say the Snow-Man! It's my way of saying "You can't beat me" cause in the long run I know that the only one responsible for my actions and behavior is ME! And so rather than having the spring itch be my demise, I embrace it cause after all, Spring really is just around the corner! 


Friday, March 18, 2011

Diversity in our National Parks

My birthday is on St Patrick's Day, and yes, I do have the luck of the Irish even though I am not of Irish descent! The question of my cultural background is often my least favorite question to answer, only because it is long and complicated. To sum it up I am a New York City born, Montreal raised girl, born to a Colombian father and a half Yankee and half British mother. My last name is Diaz but my second language is French. I love Colombian empanadas and Bluegrass music. I wear hiking boots with pink socks and my extensive first aid kit sits on a shelf next to three make up cases filled with perfume, lotions and lipstick. In every single National Park I have worked at I am an anomaly. Most of my co-workers assume that I am fluent in Spanish and they often ignore the fact that I have repeatedly said that this is not the case. I am often the only person with brown skin for at least a 50 mile radius and I am pretty sure that I am 1 of maybe 5 Hispanic people who work for Yellowstone National Park.

But to be perfectly honest, in ten years of working for and visiting National Parks, I never really noticed that I was a minority. Growing up in a culturally robust community with a white mom, white brother, brown sister and brown father, allowed me to see beyond skin color or last names. I was simply ME: a member of my community and family. Thankfully, this is still how I dance through life- with the knowledge, acceptance and belief that I can just be ME.

But working for the National Park Service has always presented this former urbanite with personal challenges, which is one of the things I love most about my career path.  In 2003 my supervisor from Everglades NP had accepted a position at Katmai National Park, a world class bear viewing park. I was mortified and I very directly told him "Don't go! You are gonna be eaten by a bear". I was young and pretty convinced that I knew everything!

Me at Katmai with a Brown bear in the background!
 As the years passed I travelled around the country and learned a lot about natural resources and myself.  In 2006 I decided it was time to overcome my fears and I went to work at Katmai. I was still TERRIFIED of bears and while travelling to the park I broke out in a stress rash that covered my back and arms. I jokingly, yet seriously, would tell my husband that if the bears could choose between him or I, they would certainly choose to eat me because I was small and snack size and because my Colombian blood was obviously sweeter than his! Regardless of my fear, I stepped on that plane. Today it is among my highest points of pride. I chose to step outside my comfort zone and while doing so I broke the cookie cutter mold and had the time of my life! 

This week I was lucky enough to attend a special one week event called the NPS-SCA Academy. Thirty diverse students from all over the country flew out to Grand Teton National Park during their Spring Break to learn more about the NPS while also hoping to secure summer internships within the agency. I was selected to go to this event because at the moment I am the only interpretive park ranger who can make it to Grand Teton National Park without a logistical nightmare. While the rest of the park has been plowed the road south to the Grand Tetons is still snowed in, therefore it was easiest for me to  simply hop on my snowmobile and head south. 

While heading to this event I was a little skeptical. I wondered who these students were and how qualified they were. I was nervous that they would arrive in Jackson, WY and freak out due to the cultural shock of the rural west. Most of these students were coming from cities who's population is greater than the entire state of Wyoming! I tried not to fill my brain with these questions and rather perform my simple duties for the week: Share your story and experiences. Inspire them while also helping them to determine if interning with the my NPS was something they actually wanted.

While some people might have presented only the positive and exciting aspects of the NPS, I knew that I had to be genuine with these young adults. They needed to fully understand the challenges ahead of them in order for their summer to be a success. Together with the students, I attended a variety of lectures on the NPS while also recreating along side of them. Tubing in my park ranger uniform I genuinely laughed with them while gaining their trust. Within a few hours many of them were asking me questions and for advise. Getting to know these students was like a breath of fresh air; they were young, funny, charismatic and inspiring. But it was on night 4 that I truly got to understand them. While sitting around the fire, stories were shared. Stories of pain, struggle, failure, loss, and confusion sat on the table next to ambition, dreams and legacy. Above all, I learned that they had all been scared to step on that plane on Saturday morning, but they did it anyway. They stepped on that plane because they knew that in order the reach greatness, they first had to overcome fear. And as these students accept internships at various National Parks across America they will be taking another leap of faith while also breaking the cookie cutter mold and paving the way for those who follow them.  

Another big snow storm had been travelling through the area dropping 3 feet of snow in Grant Village. The road home was apparently a mess and I knew that if I wanted to make it home I was going to have to leave during daylight. Leaving the Academy a little early on Thursday, I reminded the students that my reason for missing the dinner celebration was because I had to snowmobile back into the park.  Many of them laughed and said "Snowmobiling! You're crazy Ranger Sabrina". And they are right, it is a little crazy but all I could do was laugh and smile because I knew that ten years from now it will be one of them riding a snowmobile back home into Yellowstone National Park.  

The ride home was quite honestly a little scary! At 25 MPH, I slowly went over bumps and hurdles while surfing through the deep snow. The stark white powder had blanketed the park making the way hard to see at times, but I wasn't alone. My dear husband had driven to the park entrance so that I would not have to do the journey alone. Together we travelled through the wintery white wonderland while the brown bark of the trees speckled the roadside providing us with a little color. Arriving at Grant we stopped on the road, took off our helmets and happily admired the bright, almost full moon as it was rising against the dark blue sky. It was 8pm on my 32nd birthday and the ranger, who's favorite color is pink, had arrived at home, somewhere far away from where she was born.    

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Reflections on my First Winter in Yellowstone

Dark clouds furiously blew in over the south part of the park this week, and as the trees swayed back and forth in the wind the snow began to fall in the same proportions as it has since November. As three interpretive Park Rangers skied the Storm Point trail, it became obvious that the sunny skies were not coming back, at least not on that day!Another winter storm warning was in effect and I quickly realized that Mother nature, once again, was going to blatantly ignore our Park calendar.

The interior of the park officially closes for the winter season on March 15. The northern road, which is plowed all winter, will of course remain open.  However, the roads which have been groomed for over-snow vehicles will shut down as the Park prepares for summer traffic. During the next two months giant plows will work on carving out the densely snow-packed roads that have quite literally turned into slabs of ice. Although this hard work has already started in the northern part of the park, they will not reach Grant Village, in the south, for at least another month. Grant Village and the road south is the last place to get plowed out, which means that while everyone else in the park is driving their cars the hardy folks at Grant will still be riding snowmobiles!

While most are rejoicing in the onset of Spring I find myself feeling a little sad that winter is coming to an end. I know that my workload and daily job duties are about to change dramatically. I will no longer have the luxury of arriving to a quiet warming hut, with my thermos of tea in hand, where my early mornings are spent in solitude- immersed in the resource. The rhythmic daily cycle of shoveling, chopping kindling and packing down the trail will soon be replaced will summer chaos.

Most people assume that winter in the interior must be dreadfully lonely, and for some this might be true. But not for me! The truth is, that in light of this solitude it seems that everyone pulls together and suddenly your circle of friends triples.  Each morning as visitors arrive at the warming hut I grab my hat and walk out to the parking lot to greet the newly arrived faces. The guides, who have all become my friends, give me a big wave as they shout to their visitors "This is Ranger Sabrina, everyone". Their is always a few minutes to chat with each of the guides while the visitors run to the restroom, and it is within these few minutes that we quickly exchange stories, learning a little more about each other as the days go by. The relationships change as the season progresses and soon the guides begin to ask if there is anything I need from town. My favorite day this winter was when one of the guides pulled out a tangerine from his pocket and said "this is for you".  A sure indication that I had been officially "accepted" into Yellowstone's Guide circle!

Now it is the end of the winter season and I exchange hugs and words of good luck to all the guides as I know it may be some time before I see them again. I remind them to visit me in the summer and I thank each of them for making my first winter in the interior truly memorable. But the memories of my first winter in the interior will include more than the relationships built. My memories will include watching otters, tracking wolves, counting swans, and the terrify feeling of passing bison on a snowmobile for the first time. My memories will include the look of remorse on a man's face when he admitted to me that he accidentally  drove his snowmobile off the road into Lewis Canyon, where his sled was now sitting in the river, a 400 foot drop down from the road's edge. Nor will I forget laughing with one of the guides as we duct-taped the broken hood of his visitor's sled- broken because the visitor neglected to stop and smashed into the back of his guide- hence our laughs were actually the laughs of pure astonishment! But most of all I will always remember the faces of bliss, happiness, amazement, fear, shock, wonder and curiosity, as each visitor arrives at the warming hut, responding in their own way to their winter adventure through Yellowstone Park...much in the same manner as how I have responded to my first winter in Yellowstone.


Friday, March 4, 2011

Lessons Learned the Hard Way

Ten years ago my best friend, Jennifer Chenier, and I were finishing up the final chapter in earning our College degrees. There were fifteen of us in our programs graduating class; our small size due to the limiting factor that the program included living at a small ecological field station in Lachute, Quebec. While living at this field station the fifteen of us lived, worked and studied together. It was the same year that the show Survivor came out, and after watching each episode ritualistically, Jenn and I would often return to our dorm room and fantasize about who we would "vote off" the field station if we had such a luxury! I know this may sound mean but living, working and playing, in the woods, with the same fifteen people for six months presents a variety of challenges, especially when everyone is under the age of 22!

Soon enough though, December had arrived and our field station term had ended. It was time to spread our wings and see what the real ecology work-world was like by completing a two month internship. Our classmates all had different visions- some stayed close to home while others traveled to far away places. I was a strong-willed, sassy 21 year old who had firmly declared "I am DONE with winter". After ample searching I finally accepted an internship as a bird rehabilitator in the beautiful Florida Keys. With a little coercing, I was able to convince Jenn that indeed, this was the internship she wanted as well! And so, on a frigid January morning in Montreal we boarded a plane and flew to South Florida.

One of our running jokes throughout our internship was to wait for the most sublime "Florida Keys" moment  and then say "What would Lisa be doing right now?". You see, Lisa was one of the fifteen; but rather than going someplace sunny she accepted an internship tagging Bighorn Sheep in Little Bighorn NRA in January. At that moment in my life, I thought her internship was the most absurd decision anyone had ever made. After all, who in their right mind would go to Wyoming in January?

In any case, upon saying "What would Lisa be doing right now?", Jenn and I would thoughtfully pause, visualize, and then crack up laughing as we would bask in the island sunshine. Our visualizations were always quite the same: Lisa walking on a snow-covered plateau, pushing slowly through the fierce wind and snow with a staff in hand. Our joke never got old during our internship but now the joke is on me.

Last week I found myself skiing in the backcountry of Grand Teton National Park. The eight days prior to this trip, Mother Nature had graced us with several feet of fresh new snow and a tremendous amount of wind. The weather conditions however, mattered little to me as I was determined to embark on this trip that I had been planning since the Autumn. The destination of this 3 day journey was Upper Berry Patrol Cabin; a perfect cabin along a creek surrounded by steep canyon walls. With a fifteen pound pack strapped to my torso I quickly discovered that the 11 mile journey to the cabin was NOT going to be easy. With every step I took I sank through 12 inches of powder, the wind and snow whipping me in the face. Crossing over the frozen lake, I broke trail for what seemed like a eternity, however I know it was probably closer to 10 minutes. Shane and our friend Dan slowly followed in my narrow cross country ski tracks, which sadly did little to help them since they were wearing their fat downhill skis.   Periodically, I would look up and around only to discover that I was now the leading character in a movie called What would Lisa be doing right now?!

Upon crossing the lake, our next challenge was a series of ups and downs through the mountains- with many more ups than actual downs! These ascents and descents mirrored my emotional status for the next 5 hours. I experienced moments of intense frustration where words, that I shall not repeat for my mother's sake, flew out of my mouth at rocket speed! I was angry at the snow, the wind, the mountains, my skis and even myself. But after each self-satisfying ascent I was refreshed with a burst of energy and suddenly everything in the world was once again beautiful! This emotional roller coaster while hiking/skiing was not new to fact I have been known to cry on the trail before (but that has only happened twice, I swear!). To better deal with my negative emotions while hiking I have learned that my ipod can work wonders. It shifts the focus from my negative mental status to the vibrant and energy boosting sounds of the music. Grooving to my music, Dan asks what I am listening to. Unwilling to admit that the urban tunes of Rihanna, Sean Paul and Wyclef are booming through my earphones while we are surrounded by the beautiful serenity of the Teton's backcountry , I diplomatically respond "Oh, you know, a little of everything".

Comparatively speaking, my mental anguish was nothing in respect to my husband's physical anguish. Skiing with his heavy downhill skis and borrowed boots, each step he took weighed approximately 6 pounds more than mine. About halfway through our trip his pace began to slow and his legs tired. Despite the wind and cold he skied in his fleece jacket and still complained of being hot. His face reddened and his rest breaks increased. I slowed my pace so that I could stick close to him. Taking a quick 5 minute rest I asked him what was hurting, to which he exhaustively answered "Everything". When your 6 to 8 miles in the backcountry "everything" is NOT what you want to hear! My selfish mental anguish quickly dissolved as I shifted my undivided attention and concern to Shane's well being. I offered up my coveted ipod- he declined. I offered to take some of the items from his pack to lessen it's weight- again he declined. Skiing in silence I mentally layed out a "worst case" scenario plan of action in my mind. I knew how to build a snow cave, I had plenty of food and water, I had a park radio, and Dan, who is a law enforcement ranger was just ahead of us on the trail.

Luckily, the worst case scenario never materialized and once we rounded the corner and saw the cabin we both breathed a deep sigh of relieve. Smoke emanated from the chimney; a sign that Dan had already been there for a while.  Arriving at the cabin, Shane ungracefully plunked down in the chair. Removing his sweat soaked clothes he was instantly chilled. I searched his pack for some dry clothing for him to put on while also wrapping my sleeping bag around him. As he removed his socks, he revealed why one should never borrow boots for an 22 mile RT ski: Giant and bloody blisters covered the backs and sides of both feet.

For next 36 hours Shane pretty much sat in the same position, with feet propped up next to the fire. Periodically, I checked his feet, cleaned his wounds and forced him to drink a lot of water and tea. I gave up my two day supply of multi-vitamins in hopes that it would boost his energy. I pampered him and fulfilled his every request. But there was still much to do even though we had reached the cabin.

The work does not end when you arrive at a back country cabin. The fire needs to be stoked constantly, wood replaced and kindling chopped. There is drinking and cooking water to collect from the river and snow to be shoveled from the doorway, windows and outhouse. I felt bad for Dan who had already broken 95% of the 11 mile trail to the cabin and so I tried my hardest to pull my weight and Shane's once we arrived. Ignoring my desire to sit next to Shane in a catatonic state of mind, I went outside and grabbed the second shovel. Then it was off to the creek to collect water, followed by cooking dinner. Sleep came quick that night and the following day was an excellent opportunity to recover and prepare for the 11 mile journey back out.

The morning of our departure I spent a great length of time trying to determine the best method for bandaging up Shane's feet. We all knew that no matter what I did it was still going to be painful. Eight giant band-aids, some moleskin and two ace bandages later, we were ready to start the grueling day. Thankfully, the sun was shining and the winds had ceased. My pack was heavier than when I started two days prior even though we had eaten most of the food, but the benefit was for Shane, not me. Shane willingly accepted my ipod and grooved to the tunes, but not without saying "What the heck kinda music do you have on this thing!". Amazingly, he skied 9 miles in excellent time and form but the last 2 miles across the endless frozen lake kicked his butt. Stopping every 3 minutes, no words needed to be spoken for me to know what he was thinking and feeling. I secretly wished he had smaller feet so we could exchange skis and boots, the way my older sister always gives up her shoes whenever mine start to hurt.  

Arriving at the trail head Shane kicked of his skis and threw one of them a few feet. Frustrated with his own demise he angrily barked at me "can you come here and get these stupid things". Without taking personal offense I said yes, but Dan beat me to it. Making his way to the bed of the truck, Shane sat there silently. Like only a good friend would, Dan gave Shane a high five and a "good job" and then proceeded to help Shane remove his boots.

Arriving back at Yellowstone, Shane's temperament had already shifted back to it's normal happy tone. After a much needed, slightly painful, shower he curled up on our leather couch, where he remained for the next three days! Now don't get me wrong, I do not look at this trip as a misfortune. In fact, it is quite to opposite. Despite the challenges I had a fantastic time and was reminded of several good things:

1- Never wear new boots or borrowed boots for a 22 mile trip.
2- You can never have too much safety equipment.
3- Find the thing that helps you get through difficult moments. (music, singing, writing etc)
4- Push your personal limits but be wise to know your physical limits.
5- Before you take things personally, think to yourself "maybe that person is just having a bad day, or week or even a bad year!"
6- Friendship is truly tested during difficult moments.
7- Being selfless is much more rewarding than being selfish.
8- Overcoming adversary is the best mental medicine.
9-I might be small, but I am mighty!
10-  There is no "I" in the word TEAM!

But even though I am a "glass half full" kinda girl, I think I might just go ahead and cancel our 14 mile trip to the Heart Lake Patrol Cabin next week. Maybe, I'll start looking at the cost of plane tickets to somewhere hot instead!