Monday, May 30, 2011

My Fearless Team

The snow is gently falling outside on opening day for the "summer" at the Grant Village and Fishing Bridge Visitor Centers. Instead of being at one of these two buildings I find myself sitting at home in my pajamas sipping coffee. I had every intention of getting up early and heading to work to make sure things went smoothly, however the night prior my team gathered at my house for a dinner party and they informed me that if I tried to leave my house they would lock me inside! It has been a tremendous past three weeks and my team adamantly decided that it was time for me to take a day off! Or at least half a day off!

For the past two weeks I have had seasonal Park Rangers arriving from far and wide to work in either Grant or Fishing Bridge for the summer. They each arrived to find snow on the ground and nighttime temperatures in the 20's and 30's yet they still embraced the "summer season" with open arms. Bundled up in hats, gloves and winter jackets we explored the Park while learning about everything from the Park's resources, how to handle wildlife jams, how to stay safe and how to handle emergency situations. Learning to be a Yellowstone Park Ranger in just two weeks is a challenge all on it's own, however their challenge was increased due to the rubble that Spring had left for us to deal with! Everyday there was something new added to our plates yet each of them patiently and diplomatically dealt with the difficulties that Spring had brought us such as: broken visitor centers, offices with no heat,  computer/internet failures, lack of operational restrooms in our offices and one house with no hot water for over one week!  For every failure I apologized but rather than be upset my amazing crew rolled with the punches that I (nor anyone else) could have prevented. Rather than focusing on the problems we diverted our energy into all the good that surrounded us. After all, we were in Yellowstone, on some sort of pre-destined pathway to a wonderful summer.

Despite overseeing two sub-districts, the never ending spring challenges and the 12 hour workdays, I thoroughly enjoyed seasonal training which came to a successful conclusion on Friday. No, my team didn't know everything. No, the Visitor Center's were not perfectly ready for opening day.  And no, summer weather had not arrived. However, considering our timeline and difficulties we were looking pretty darn good!

Friday evening we gathered at my house for an "end of training" dinner party. The living room and dining room were packed with seasonal park rangers of all ages and backgrounds, unified by the National Park Service mission to protect and preserve. I watched them as they all share stories and laughed in unison. They were a team. Most of them had only known each other for less than two weeks however you would have thought that this was actually an "end of season" party. I sat there feeling quite proud of myself and my team,  but then they decided to take it one step farther! Hushing the group, one of the seasonals delivered a speech expressing gratitude for all the hard work I had done thus far. She thanked me for bring them all together, not only during scheduled training, but also after work through backcountry trips and dinner parties. Presenting me with a card, I opened it slowly, and read the most beautiful and inspiring words written by all who attended the party. I was truly honored. After only two weeks of knowing me they had already adopted me in their hearts as their "fearless" leader. Yet I wonder if they know that in that exact moment I had officially accepted them as my "fearless" team!

And so here I am, on opening day, sitting in my PJ's sipping coffee, with a peaceful mind and full confidence in the people who will be the faces of the Grant Village and Fishing Bridge Visitor Centers this summer: My team!


Saturday, May 28, 2011

Wilderness Therapy

Dark clouds loomed over head on Saturday morning as I reached the trailhead of Blacktail Creek, located in the northern part of the Park. With the daunting clouds and reports of isolated thunderstorms I was beginning to regret my decision to lead an optional backcountry trip for the seasonal naturalist staff. I had just finished working 11.5 straight days in a row and quite honestly I was exhausted. However I knew I couldn't let my team down, and when I reached the parking lot of the trailhead  and was greeted by the happy and eager faces of my naturalist ranger team, I was instantly excited about the trip! We quickly suited up with our rain gear, gathered around for a safety talk, and soon we are on the trail heading towards the Yellowstone River.

Our destination for the weekend was the Blacktail Creek Patrol Cabin- a short 4 miles from the road system but just far enough to enter the wild lands of Yellowstone National Park. It was my first time since October that I had been able to slip my feet back into my trusted hiking boots. I looked down at my sad boots: Dirty, tattered and worn out. They should have been replaced over a year but emotionally I am just not ready to give them up. These boots have hiked all over the country from California and Alaska to Hawaii and Montana. How can I toss them aside when they've helped me see things I never thought I could? Ignoring the unraveled stitching, I trotted down the trail without a care in the world.

Despite the clouds our team of nine was in no rush and we stopped often to explore the birds, flowers, scat and bones!  Shooting Stars, Pasque Flower and Balsam Root covered the hill slopes while Bald Eagles and Red Tailed Hawks graced us overhead. We stopped to watch a herd of Bison, at least 100 strong, cross over the hillside, making their way toward the Lamar Valley with little orange calves in tow.  With a wide variety of expertise and experience we all taught each other little facts and told each other stories. Nina spoke of geology, Tim identified birds, and Sacha pointed out flowers. Little did we know when we started that this was not only the trail to the cabin, but also the trail to becoming better naturalists.  And those daunting clouds, well, they never did open up and rain on us!

Several hours later we found ourselves down where the Blacktail Creek drains into the Yellowstone River . The waters the both the stream and river were dark brown in color from the sediment which was being churned from the raging waters. With record high snowfalls it is to no surprise that the river was enormous, grand and furious. We dropped off our packs at the cabin and continued to explore the area.

Crossing over the Yellowstone River Suspension Bridge we magically crossed over into a different world. The sun forced it's way through the thick fog, and the clouds began to disperse. The trail meandered along and soon brought us to a open plateau where giant Douglas Fir trees dominated the landscape. We couldn't help but be drawn to the open plateau, away from the trail. Naturally, we seemed to spread out, each person setting out to discover their own piece of wilderness. But soon we were all drawn back together as we looked over the horizon and found a beautiful alpine Lake. The  turquoise colored lake, which was about 200 feet below us, was silently still and seemingly pristine. The hillside which sloped down towards the lake was covered in green grass and speckled with bursts of colorful flowers. It was perfect- plain and simple. Finding our own little spot we each sat down in peace to admire the beauty which lay before us. After taking my moment to admire the scene, I glanced around inquisitively to see the expressions of my newly hired seasonal staff, and it was just as I expected. In a perfect blend of serenity and silence they were immersed in the resource. They looked engaged, content and at ease. But best of all they looked inspired. With a glimmer in each of their eyes I knew in an instant that they had fallen in love with Yellowstone. I knew that this was officially the start of an amazing summer in the Nation's first National Park. 

Before we knew it dusk was upon us. The evening brought forth a perfect sunset and the song of the river sang us all to sleep. Tucked away in a little cabin somewhere in the Northern Rockies nine Park Rangers were sound asleep while the smoke of the woodstove steadily rose from the chimney. 

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Spring Destruction

Earlier this week I attended a meeting in Mammoth to formally meet the Park's new Superintendent Mr. Dan Wenk. In an effort to get to know the park and his employees better, Dan asked the group to talk about "What keeps us up at night?" With an eager attitude and a big smile I came up with nothing! I could not name one work related item that truly and honestly has me so concerned that it "keeps me awake at night". Of course there are day to day challenges, but nothing so epic that it clutters my thoughts. But, if this meeting had taken place 72 hours later I just might have had a few answers!  

This week, winter has reluctantly been giving way to spring in the interior of Yellowstone, but rather than leaving us with spring flowers it left us with a big old mess! Below freezing temperatures still plagued the night while the warmth of the mid afternoon turned the snow into wet mush. A combination of wet snow, hail and rain fell on the ground each day, adding not a only a heavy moisture content to the existing snow but also provided an element of confusion for the Rangers every morning as we got ready for work. As each day past we would soon learn that it was not only the wildlife who took a hard hit this winter and spring, but the park's building and roads as well. As heavy wet snow sat on top of the buildings it was to no surprise when the first of the "spring damage" reports filtered in.

Among the first reports was that of the Fishing Bridge Service Station. Some time during the last big snowfall the roof could no longer withstand the immense weight of the snow, causing the entire roof to collapse. As it collapsed it tore down the entire face of the store. With caution tape all around, the employees have begun the tedious process of filtering through the rubble to see what can be salvaged.

The following day, after the Fishing Bridge Service Station Disaster, warmer daytime temperatures began melting more snow. Many of the roofs covered in snow began to slide. Among the "slides" was a summer house at the South Entrance. As the massive 3 ft. sheet of snow-ice slid from the roof it hit the pre-existing mountain of snow on the ground which deflected the ice sheet into the side of the meager summer home. The walls of the home buckled inward under the intense pressure. It is still standing but who knows if the walls can withstand the immense pressure. As the days continued more and more reports of sagging roofs and buckled walls were reported, and soon it was apparent that spring was going to be a challenge. 

However, in my little world, things were going according to plan. I had one more week to prepare for the arrival of my seasonal staff and soon I would be setting up both the Fishing Bridge and the Grant Village Visitor Centers. Both Visitor Centers were still tucked away in the snow but it was just a matter of days before Maintenance would plow the road to each of these buildings. My organizational chart was keeping me on track, and despite having a heavy workload I was in great spirits and even reserved time to attend a couple of meetings in Mammoth. But little did I know that my sweet little Grant Village Visitor Center, all tucked away in the snow, had sustained damage and was just waiting to be discovered.

Receiving a phone call on Wednesday I was informed that there had been some damage to the VC. I quickly got a hold of Maintenance and soon we were post-holing to the front door  of the Grant Village Visitor Center. The building was ice cold and dark, but the sound of dripping water was unmistakable. The over sized back doors and windows provided just enough light for us to see water, slowly yet steadily, dripping from the ceiling onto the Visitor Center desk. Suddenly, my eye caught a glimpse of something large on the back porch. As we approached the back doors it quickly became apparent that the large structure lying on the porch was in fact part of the roof. It all began to make sense: The newly constructed A-frame roof was collapsing under the pressure of the snow.  

Walking around the exterior of the building we soon confirmed our assumptions. The weight of the heavy snow bent the roof inward on either side of the A-Frame. Wood beams and supports were cracked and even some of the fire suppression system had broken and was lying on the ground.  As the snow melted it found fissures and cracks in the roof and began leaking into the building. Within 30 minutes my whole perfectly planned agenda was out the window and replaced with one hundred questions like: "Will my visitor center open on May 28 as planned?" and "Where will we present our two Ranger led Patio Talks now that the patio is destroyed?" 

Picture courtesy of NPS- YELL
The next day, while I dealt with my little worldly disaster, reports of an avalanche on Sylvan Pass came in. The East Entrance of the Park was closed as four avalanches brought down heavy, wet snow from the steep escarpments of Sylvan Pass. The road was now covered in an expanse of snow averaging 20 feet in height. Thankfully, no one was injured however there was a Ranger on scene when the avalanche took place. Placing a few phone calls, I sadly informed several of my seasonal staff that they were no longer going to be able to enter through the East Entrance of the Park.

Despite the week's chaos, Thursday morning brought sunny skies to Yellowstone and temperatures in the high 50's. The employees of Grant Vand Lake District were all diligently working. Wearing summer uniforms, we would take a few breathers throughout the day to glance up at the sunshine and let the warm rays of sun provide us with both the physical and emotional nutrients needed to get through these challenging times.   

Saturday, May 7, 2011

A Mother in Distress

Sitting on the cold and wet pavement 6.6 miles North of Grant Village sits a young female Bison. There are four foot snow walls that surround her and no food in sight. She's painfully thin; her backside a mere fraction of the size when compared to her enormous head that weighs on average 100 pounds. She was one of many Bison that ventured to Old Faithful this winter in hopes of finding warmer ground and something resembling food. A little over a week ago she, along with a few other Bison journeyed over the harsh, snow covered road called Craig Pass. They were heading back towards Hayden Valley - a 40 mile journey from Old Faithful via the roads. But while her herd has moved on and made it to Hayden, this particular Bison is still 10 miles shy of the others. Surrounded by piles of her own excrement, the reality is, she is likely to never make those last 10 miles.

Most visitor's to Yellowstone will drive all the roads in the park just once. They search for wildlife along their drive and snap some photos, but they never have the chance to really develop a relationship with the wildlife. They don't wake up in the morning thinking "I wonder what happened to that limping Coyote I saw yesterday?" But being a Park Ranger, we often see the same animals throughout the year, sometimes the same individual day after day. We don't necessarily track all the wildlife as some visitors think, but rather we can identify them based on subtle differences in their appearance and behavior.

Last weekend I discovered a small female Bison sitting on the road in Grant District. I found it a little curious that she was sitting in the road, all alone, in the middle of the day. I couldn't help but notice her ribs and hips jutting out and thought to myself  "Boy, she's not looking well at all". But as a trained Ecologist and a Park Ranger who clearly understands the National Park Service's mission to preserve natural cycles, I wrote her off as the likely dinner of Wolves and Bears. But the next day, I found her in the same spot, undiscovered by Wolves or Bears. I informed some of my colleagues and we all agreed that since this particular road in the park is still closed to the public, we would leave her alone. After all, it would only be a short while before a big Old Griz discovered her. 

The next morning rumors circled around Grant Village that she was dead. I was secretly relieved because it meant she was finally put out of her misery. However, we all know never to trust a rumor. It turns out that our near-death, skin and bone Bison actually was not dead. But rather in the early dawn of a cold morning she gave birth, alone, to a calf that she had been carrying throughout the harshest of winters. During the birth a Park employee came upon her, only to find three coyotes tormenting her during the process. Without the safety of a herd, the 3 coyotes intuitively knew that she was defenseless while giving birth. They jumped and snapped at the baby bison's legs as it breathed it's first breath of fresh air. The arrival of the employee scared off the coyotes, and mom was finally able to bring a small orange bundle of joy into the harsh wild world of Yellowstone.  But rather than feel joyous my heart sank even more. Without the safety of a healthy mom or a herd the chances of survival were slim. Things were looking worse and the longer the saga continued the more of a relationship I built with this Bison. 

With a heavy heart I jumped into my truck and headed north to see it with my own eyes. Sure enough, 6.6 miles north of Grant Village lie the pair. Mom was looking worse and babe was cuddled up next her, both lying quietly on the bare pavement. As much as I wanted to do something I knew that I couldn't. This was the harsh reality of the wild animal kingdom and it happens everyday, we just seldom see it with our own eyes. 

The next morning I headed back to the site so that I could see what the dark night brought forth. I could find no tracks, no blood, no sign of the little orange calf- he/she was gone, just like that. I had the sad realization that the last few minutes of the calf's life were probably much the same as the first few minutes. 

The young mom was still alive, in the same place she had been the day prior, but this time there was no orange ball cuddled up next to her. Taking pity on her someone placed hay next to her to feed upon. Feeding the animals in the National Park is, of course,  illegal but I can understand the sympathy and compassion that someone felt. Sadly,  I fear that this gesture will only drag out the inevitable: She will not make the last ten miles of her journey. And so on this Mother's Day weekend, as we celebrate Mother's all across the world, my heart goes out to the young female Bison, who sadly will not be celebrating Mother's Day.  

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Baby Bison and Frozen Waters

May Day is here and if I was still living in my little roundhouse in Flat Rock, North Carolina I would be watching the dogwoods and daffodils bloom in my yard. A pair of America Robins would insist on nesting above the light on my back porch and if lucky, the Mallards would return to nest in our Koi pond. But May Day in the interior of Yellowstone is dramatically different than that of Western North Carolina.

The snow in Grant Village still covers the landscape with average depths of 4.5 feet and early morning temperatures still hovering at around 18'F. I am told by those who have lived in Yellowstone for many years that this winter has been amongst the harshest that they have witnessed in a long time. Although I know Mother Nature is greater than I, I still sometimes think that this "record" winter is partially my fault. I have a long history of irregular weather following me. Throughout my short thirty two years of existence I've experienced the 1997 ice storm of Montreal, severe droughts and extreme high temperatures in the South in 2002, 4 major hurricanes in Florida, a 5.5 magnitude Earthquake in Hawaii, and now this year's record snowfalls and persistent winter in Yellowstone. The weather Gods constantly challenge me. However in light of the irregular weather patterns across the USA this Spring- from tornadoes and floods, I should consider myself fortunate.

But my woeful story of winter weather in Yellowstone is very much exclusive to the interior. This vast park which covers 2.2 million acres of land is extremely diverse in terms of flora & fauna, landscape and weather patterns. That is why this weekend, with little hesitation, Shane and I decided to head to a sunny, less snowy part of the park.

On our way towards Hayden Valley I was surprised to see that winter was still taking it's toll on the wildlife. A lone female Bison sat on the road about 6 miles north of Grant Village. With ribs and pelvis jutting out it was painful to look at how famished she was. Surrounding her were 5 foot walls of snow- no accessible food in sight for another 10 miles. Another 14 miles down the road lie the remains of a Bison Carcass in the snow. I can only imagine that in it's last few days of life it's ribs and pelvis were also jutting out with the tell-tale signs of food deprivation.  A Coyote, an Eagle and some Ravens enjoyed the feast while Hayden Valley still remains a winter wonderland with areas of 20 foot snow walls along the road.

But soon we descended into Mammoth Hot Springs where we watched a Maintenance Ranger grooming the grass and cleaning the roads. No snow in sight except in the high country. Heading towards Lamar Valley there were sporadic patches of snow but it was obvious that Spring had Sprung in this part of the Park.
Newly born baby Bison all covered in orange fur clumsily galloped next to their mothers while new sprouts of vegetation were beginning to poke up from the cold ground. Blending in with the vegetation a wolf trotted along the river's edge off in the distance; And the chirping of Mountain bluebirds and America robins filled the air with the reassurance that Spring had arrived in the Lamar Valley. 

But even though Lamar Valley is indeed part of Yellowstone National Park, it is still a 2.5 hour drive away from Grant Village, which clearly means that the diversity within the Park is extreme. So while Spring has sprung in Lamar, the waters of Lake Yellowstone remain an impenetrable frozen ice cap. As we drove back to Grant that evening we watched our truck's thermometer steadily decline from 54'F to 34'F. The next morning I awoke to find the thermometer reading a balmy high of 12'F. And so I ask all of you, if you are enjoying a warm sunny day please blow some of that warmth to the frozen Interior of Yellowstone!