Friday, January 28, 2011

Digging, Hunting & Scavenging for Food

As January gives way to February we are now entering what I like to think of as Phase 2 of Winter. It's the time of year where one is truly put to the test of winter survival. The nights are cold and long and the sunny days are sparse.Everywhere you look there is snow for miles.There are mornings where it takes 20 minutes to put on all my winter gear- my flip flops are a distant memory.  Having grown up in Montreal I can still remember the faces of those who had succumbed to the winter blues during Phase 2. With dark circles under their eyes and sallow skin they would trudge through the snow while their coats hung from their body with the weight  of the world. If they could be transformed into the wildlife of Yellowstone surely they would be one of the old and drab Rocky Mountain Elk who live on the Northern Range currently experiencing one of a few harsh winters in their lifetime .

 It has been 10 weeks since the snow began to fall on the Yellowstone Plateau. In Grant Village we currently have received over 140 inches of snow and the snowpack is at a depth of 45 inches. Throughout other parts of the park the story is quite the same- lots of snow! For a long time I thought snow was just snow! I never really put much consideration into the difference types of snowflakes that poured from the sky of my childhood, nor did I make any connections to how that snow affected the ecology of Yellowstone. But this weekend my perspectives on snow have changed dramatically. While attending a winter ecology course in Yellowstone's Lamar Valley I was able to witness first hand how integral snow is in the Yellowstone BIG picture.

Dr. Jim Halfpenny is one of the country's leading winter ecologist. Standing in front of the class dressed in his camo fleece pants and an elk design button down shirt Jim seemed like any other typical Montana man- that was until he brought us outside and began to instruct us on the scientific, methodical art of digging snow pits. After digging a 6'X4' pit to the ground we learned that the snowpack was 38 inches deep in the Lamar Valley. As we studied the layers of snow within our pit Jim began to relate the snow to the wildlife which was all around us. Elk, Bison, Wolves, Coyotes, Fox, Big Horned Sheep,  and more! Lamar is the Serengeti of the America and a favorite spot in the hearts of all who visit. 

 "Lamar is shut down", Jim stated, "There is no way Bison or Elk can dig that deep to find food".

I began to think of the Elk. With powerful long legs they dig with their hoofs down through the snow until they reach the remains of dead shrubs and grasses. They feed on what is often compared to as cardboard- not very nutritious but at least it's something! The Bison uses its mighty muscular hump and head to plow through the snow, also feeding on cardboard. 

Both animals are powerful and impressive, yet the forces of winter will wither them down to nothing. It's late January and Lamar is shut's not looking good for the herbivores this year.   

Later that evening while driving (in a car!!) to Mammoth Hot Springs I witnessed the mass exodus of the Bison. Herds of Bison walking the only paved roads in the park which lead from Lamar to Mammoth. As I slowly approached each herd they all reacted with instant fear. Their eyes bulged with the sense of panic in the brightness of my headlights and it was obvious that my car was yet another horrible stressor in this Phase 2 of winter. They jumped and sprinted and seemed to have no direction. All they wanted to do was escape. I was instantly brought back to the scene in The Sound of Music where Franz Maria and the children are trying to escape the Nazis in Austria. And even though I am an Ecologist by trade and I understand that this is simply nature at work, my heart sank.

The next day I watched a small herd of Elk who had found a shallow patch of snow on a wind drifted hillside. Regardless of the awkward angle that the steep hillside presented the Elk desperately pawed through the snow to the dead vegetation.

All around the park the wildlife are deadly in tune with mother nature. When the valleys become too deep for the Elk and Bison they migrate to lower elevation in hopes of finding a good feeding ground. The wolves closely watch their prey in hopes of finding a weakened older animal to feed upon. On day three of my stay in beautiful Lamar Valley I finally got to see the Lamar Canyon pack of wolves. They  had recently taken down a Big Horned Sheep and were now resting on a hillside above the Lamar Valley. Finding food in winter has it's challenges for the predators too. Running at fast speeds in chest deep snow is no easy task for a wolf let alone the amount of limited energy that is exerted in a chase. But if the wolves can make a kill many will dine. Once the wolves have had their fill the remainder will be scavenged by coyotes, foxes, eagles, raven and more! If the wolves don't make a kill many more will suffer in this phase 2 of winter.

The secret bonus to attending the winter ecology course was that I was given the chance to make a pit stop at the Food Farm in Gardiner, MT. The Food Farm is a small, simple grocery store where everyone knows everyone! The aisles are barely big enough to allow one shopping cart to pass another. I've never been excited about going to Food Farm, however when one hasn't seen a grocery store in eight weeks it is HEAVEN! I walked up and down the aisle stalking the shelves like a vulture. Suddenly, my predatory eyes caught a glimpse of freshmade donuts. Grabbing the box, I pulled one gooey donut out and with three swift bites it was gone! The remainining donuts sat in my cart- no chance of escaping, I would save them for later. After satisfying my initial craving I began to stalk my Food Farm prey with a little more thought. I slowly meandered up and down the aisles taking particular interest in the cold and fresh sections. I stopped and admired the neatly stacked yogurt and after examining their expiration date I decided that they were too old for my taste. I used my keen sense of smell to locate the fresh basil but it too was not worth price. Finally I settled on a few choice items: fresh pineapple, lettuce and milk. I roamed around some more looking at the food, wanting to add it all to my cart but finally reminding myself that I had no where to store it.

 Once my animalistic food desires were fulfilled it was time for the long journey back into the interior of Yellowstone. After strategically loading my food on my sled and strapping everything down safely I started on the two hour snowmobile ride back home. With 10 new inches of fresh snow I returned to the interior where it appeared that every animal I saw was scouting for food. The trip included bison, four coyotes, three foxes, a pine marten and a grouse, all of which took absolutely no interest in me as they travelled through the park on some sort of predetermined mission. Arriving at home I unpacked the food and shared it with Shane. Looking at the fresh green lettuce it was easy to decide that salad was absolutely on the menu for dinner. Dining on homemade lasagna and fresh salad I was silently thankful that my dinner did not involve digging, hunting or scavenging... well at least not in the literal sense!            

Thursday, January 20, 2011

It's the little things that make life so sweet!

A brief moment of sunshine with a storm on the horizon
After days and days of cloudy skies, the sun came out for a brief yet sublime moment yesterday as I drove through Hayden Valley where I was completing my weekly swan surveys. I slowed my snowmobile and came to a stop so that I could take in the moment. The intense sunshine reflected off the snow which surrounded me, forcing me to squint and shield my eyes until they adjusted. Off in the distance a coyote trotted along the Yellowstone River seemingly unaware of the sudden change in light. I turned around only to see that the next storm was on the horizon. I pointed my face up towards the sun in hopes of getting a little Vitamin D, as I realized it might be my only chance of a sun tan for a lengthy period of time. 

When I returned to the Fishing Bridge Warming Hut  I was elated to see that the snowmobiling fairies had passed through while I was basking in the 10 minute heatwave. Lately, each time I return to the warming hut, whether it be in the morning or when I return from lunch, I find little treats that have been left behind by visitors and guides. These little treats come in all shapes, sizes and flavors, from apples and mini carrots to chips and chocolate! I never know who has left these pleasant surprises but I like to think of them as my little snowmobiling fairies!

Despite the name, the Warming Huts are more than just a place to warm up. They are a refuge from the outside world, where visitors share stories, re-adjust clothing, ask questions, share pictures and even eat lunch. By 11:00 am the first visitors start to arrive at Fishing Bridge. They pile into the small cabin and huddle around the wood burning stove. In no time at all, the cabin is filled with the rich scents of stew and deli sandwiches combined with the sweet smell of burning Lodgepole Pine. Southern drawls and foreign accents dominate the soundscape as stories are exchanged among the travellers. On some days there is only standing room in this little warming hut but no seems to mind as they are all overjoyed by the simplicity of warmth and food. Once their hands, feet and minds have thawed they seem to suddenly realize "What about the Ranger? Where does she live? What does she eat?" A few bold people will even ask about my romantic life as they become curious as to how rangers can find love under such remote and intense conditions! Bombarded with every question under the sun, I kindly and patiently divulge all my secrets: I live in the Park, my husband is also a ranger and we like to ski and enjoy the park on our days off. I explain the logistics and process for getting food which includes driving a snowmobile 30 minutes south with a tow sled  trailed behind our machine; followed by shovelling out our truck, driving 1.5 hours south to Jackson Hole, and then shopping. But let's not forget the return: driving 1.5 hours back to our truck, strategically loading everything into coolers on the tow sled and then driving the snowmobile back to Grant Village making sure to not toss around the food to badly...only to find out that bananas and lettuce don't like to be in -10 F' for 30 minutes on the tow sled!

When lunch is over each group prepares to head to their next destination, but before leaving they offer a plethora of thank you's: Thank you's for preparing the fire, thank you's for the conversation and thank you's  for staffing the warming hut. I graciously accept their thank you's while also reciprocating as I thank them for visiting Yellowstone National Park.

By the days end, each warming hut across the park is left with little treats which are sometimes found on our desk, table or window sill. I can only imagine that as each visitor learns about our lifestyle and lack of fresh food in this remote territory they feel the need to leave behind an apple here and a bag of chips there. These small yet sweet gestures are a testament to their appreciation of the work we do. As they leave the park and return home I like to think that they are pleased to know that somewhere in the middle of Yellowstone when it's -10'F there are a few rangers protecting the Nation's first National Park. 

As my day comes to an end and I return to my home it's the little things, when combined, that make my day grand- a brief ray of sunlight, a chocolate chip cookie, and a sincere thank you from a visitor.       

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Fine Line Between Work and Play

Work or Play?
Standing in front of the Warming Hut today I watched four bull Bison slowly meander down the road. Joining me for the show were about 30 visitors. After answering a variety of questions related to both Bison physiology and behavior I couldn't help overhear one of the visitors proclaim:
" Man, if I had a job like this, I'd never leave it!"
I turned around, smiled and nodded in agreement. Comments such as this one are not uncommon in a Park Ranger's life; each day we are greeted by a visitor who either wanted to be a Park Ranger or who wants to become one. This week, in addition to this comment, two comments were also made to whether Park Ranger's work or play!

For the average American there is a clear distinction between work and play. I think of my mother who works in the ER of a hospital- for her, work is absolutely WORK. Work in America is a very serious matter.It is our culture to take pride in our work, regardless of the job, and to work hard. Two continuous weeks off for a vacation is considered a lengthy amount of time off in America however if you are from Australia your "holiday" is often times 4 weeks. But, our culture dictates that by working excessively hard in our younger years we are promised, hypothetically speaking, a luxurious, stress-free retirement at 55. Well, at least that's what the commercials say. I wish I could say that I buy into this cultural notion, but I don't.

For me, there is a fine line between work and play, and that's just how I like it! There is one sure distinction to know if I am working or playing: the uniform! When I am in the green and grey, I'm working and when I'm not, well, I'm playing! However for the most part the activities are often quite the same. 

This week after work I headed to Old Faithful to watch a special presentation by Dr. Jim Halfpenny. Jim, is a renowned animal tracker who was going to be giving a presentation on Canada Lynx and Grey Wolves. The weather prediction was -20'F for that particular night but I didn't let the cold or the nighttime snowmobiling deter me, and thankfully so, the presentation was fascinating and I was quite pleased that I had spent my evening going to see it. The next day, while at work, I was able to engage in two detailed conversations with visitors whereby I was able to share my new found knowledge from the previous nights lecture. You see, my personal interests are deeply connected to my profession making work feel a little more like play.  

The following evening, a girls night had been planned on my day off. By 7pm three girls were skiing in the dark towards West Thumb Geyser Basin. After the three mile ski we had arrived at the same warming hut which we work at every day. But tonight, instead of it being the "office" it was the destination of our girls night! We walked around the same geyser basin that we have each walked one hundred times for work but tonight it was all ours with no visitors for miles! After our walk we returned to the warming hut where Darlene stoked the fire, I got the TV set up for a movie and Mel was busy setting up the snacks! During the daytime the wood stove usually has cold visitors huddled around it but on this night it was heating up water for hot cocoa while three girls, snug in our sleeping bags, watched movies and camped out! 

While on duty today I drove to the Fishing Bridge Warming Hut to start the fire, shovel the walkways and chat with the visitors. I was the first one on the road and the light snowfall from last night left a smooth powdery surface for my snowmobile to glide upon. About 20 minutes into my drive I came around a densely wooded corner and found myself 50 yards away from a beautiful Gray Wolf who had been walking the quiet road. Startled, the wolf jumped into the snow and ran into the woods. For a few minutes I sat just there in awe as I watched him as he disappear into the tall Lodgepole Pines. I was soon joined by a group of visitors who didn't see the wolf but who were enthralled by my story just the same. I was on work time and they were on play time but really the only thing that distinguished me from them was my uniform.

Fishing Bridge Warming Hut
Winter in Yellowstone is altogether a different sort of job. There is more time to ski, watch wildlife and chat with visitors however the day to day challenges are more extreme. For example snowmobiling 20 miles to Fishing Bridge in -20 'F weather so that we can start the fire in the warming hut. Or passing a herd of Bison
with only a snowmobile between you and them. Then there is the daily "Are you warm enough?" question that we ask every visitor we see to ensure that they will not get frostbite while touring the park. The job becomes so ingrained in your blood that even on my lieu days I find myself counting how many swans are on the lake, warning people to back away from the Bison and yes, on occasion asking people "Are you warm enough?"
When the day is over and I head home my daily commute has me passing Bison, watching Bald Eagles and looking out onto the frozen Yellowstone Lake. As I pull into the employee housing area I pass a hundred more Lodgepole Pine trees- the same trees which make up 80 % of Yellowstone's forest. The same forest that earlier today a Wolf had run into. But best of all as I think back on my favorite "Yellowstone Moments" I realize that I have no recollection to whether they occurred on work time or play time.


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.