Thursday, February 24, 2011

Getting Healthy in Yellowstone

Arriving in Yellowstone back in August, I was excited that I would no longer have to drive to work. My previous park position did not have park housing and although my commute was only four miles, it was four miles that I almost resented. Those four miles travelled over a highway, passed four gas stations, one grocery store and a pharmacy. It was not the scenic and serene commute I had become accostumed to. After being a seasonal park ranger for many years I had quietly settled into the norm of living in park housing and only having to walk ¼ mile through the woods to get to the office.
On the first day of heading to my new Yellowstone office I was excited to put my new bike to good use! I rolled the shiny white and blue cruiser out of the garage, jumped on, and headed down the road. I was elated as the wind whipped me in the face and within minutes I arrived at the Visitor Center. Soon lunchtime had arrived, and one perk of living so close to home is you get to go home for lunch. I climbed on my bike and started on my way. Within seconds I discovered that the fabulous ride to work was primarily due to the fact that the road has a slight declination from my house to the Visitor Center. Quite rapidly my breath became laborious and the muscles in my legs tightened up and ached. I looked at the road ahead of me and could see the stop sign, which heads to housing, looming in the distance.
“I only need to make it to the stop sign, and then I’ll take a break”, I told myself.
Staggering to the top of the hill, my handle bars wiggled back and forth as the last of my energy had been stripped. Coming to a stop, I took a few minutes to regain my composure, regulate my breathing and force myself to believe that I could make it home.   Now I know this sounds dramatic, but that is exactly what happens when one hasn’t worked out in a while, suffers from respiratory allergies, followed by moving from 3000ft elevation to 8000ft.
I remembered this event yesterday morning while watching the snow falling from the sky, adding another layer to the 6 inches we had just received overnight. It was only 10am, and I had already snowshoed the West Thumb Geyser Basin, shoveled the warming hut walkway, followed by making three runs to the wood storage area. It occurred to me that after 6 months of being in Yellowstone I have never felt healthier!  I have hiked, biked, walked, skied or snowshoed at 8000 ft or higher every day since I moved here.  My constant fitness regime is purely unplanned and unmonitored- it is simply a lifestyle. It’s yet another one of those perks of being a Park Ranger in Yellowstone National Park.
Upon moving here I had assumed that winter would be the time of year when I gained a few unneeded pounds and lost some of my endurance abilities. I envisioned multiple days cuddled on the couch eating fresh made brownies whilst the snow and cold frightened me from even stepping outside. But oh, how wrong I have been! The truth is, my passion for the outdoors has me outside everyday experiencing the park via skies, snowshoes and snowmobiles while on the job and on my personal time. Aside from being physically active, thereis this added bonus of burning a ton of calories just by trying to stay warm! And so this winter I find myself a prime physical condition. 
Some of my friends had warned me that my food consumption would probably sky rocket, and boy, were they right! I eat MAN sized portions of food three times a day and NEVER say no to dessert, yet I have still managed to lose about 5 pounds this winter. (That may not seem like a lot, but if you know me, then you know I’m pretty small already!)  Recently, while at training in DC my peers and teachers were quite astonished at the amount of food I could consume.  “Where do you put it”, they would say, some of them seemingly almost disturbed at my eating abilities. I tried as best I could to explain what winter is like in Yellowstone but I think some of them still just thought I was a glutton!
   Luckily, despite my excessive eating habits my cupboards remain quite well stocked. For the most part Shane and I did quite a good job at assessing how much food we would need to buy for the winter. We have ventured to town a few times, primarily for ski trips, and along the way purchased a few food items. However, these items have been strictly fresh produce such as milk, eggs, fruits and vegetables. After re-evaluating our cupboards last night I can to three final conclusions:
1-      I need to bake more bread and cookies!
2-      There is really nothing to do with cornmeal except make corn bread!
3-      The powdered buttermilk that I bought, but wasn't really sure why... well it has SURE come in handy!
The one staple item which I was completely unprepared to deal with was Cuban coffee, which incidentally cannot be found ANYWHERE in Montana or Wyoming.  Thankfully, my very understanding mom mailed us a large flat rate box filled with Café Bustelo! Thanks mom!
But, the true test of my new found "prime physical condition" will occur this weekend, as I head out on a backcountry ski trip to Upper Berry Cabin in Grand Teton National Park. The trip will entail a 22 mile round trip excursion with a 10 pound backpack, of which at least 6 pounds is food and water! If I successfully make it through this weekend with relative ease then my next test will be to see what happens in the spring. Will my body understand that I no longer need to consume so much food? Or will I gain 20 pounds due to excessive brownie and ice cream eating?! And how will that bike ride to the visitor center feel after all this activity and acclimatization? Hmmm...questions to ponder, stay tuned…

Saturday, February 19, 2011

When Snowcoaches Go Off-Roading

"Hello, hello...anyone there? Can anyone hear me?" said the ominous voice on the park radio. I was intensely focused on my work in the office, but the weird radio transmission made me sit up straight and wonder if I had heard correctly. Silence filled the air. After a minute or so I turned back to my computer and recommenced my work. Suddenly the voice returned "Hello...hello". I waited for dispatch or law enforcement to respond, but no one answered. I began to think that maybe I was simply picking up a transmission from another radio channel or maybe some ill-trained employee was testing their radio. Surely I was not the only hearing this radio transmission, I thought to myself.    

Silence filled the radio frequency again. I sat in my chair unable to focus on my work and unsure of what to do. The radio transmission had sounded crisp and clear, as if they were calling from just outside my window. I couldn't sit still and I was frustrated that I could not make sense of what was happening. I looked at the clock: 2:30pm. I knew well enough that guides and visitors were about to arrive at West Thumb Warming Hut within the next 15 minutes as they made their way out of the park through the South Entrance. Since it was time to start heading back to the warming hut I decided that along the way I would do some scouting to see if I could determine where this radio traffic was coming from. 

A burst of warm air and sunshine welcomed me as I left the dark and stuffy Ranger Station. The last few days had been absurdly warm giving one the false impression that Spring had arrived. With highs in the upper 30's and clear sunny skies, the snow was melting ferociously. I got on my snowmobile and drove around the employee housing area to see if I could find anyone who might have also heard the transmission, but there was not a soul in sight. I decided to head towards the warming hut where I could  continue to monitor the radio and also ask the guides if they had seen or heard anything. I never did make it to the warming hut though, because within 1/4 mile I had solved the mystery!

Rounding the bend on the Grant Village Road I discovered a group of people standing in the road whilst their snowcoach precariously teetered on the edge of a slope. 

Road conditions had been troublesome all day. The continued warm weather melted the snow making the normal packed and groomed roads a pile of soft mush. Snowcoaches have the most difficulty dealing with these conditions due to the sheer weight of their vehicles. If they get to close to the edge of the road, where the snow is softer, they can easily get stuck. This not only happens on warm days but also after a big snow fall. Th easiest thing for a snow coach driver to do is to drive in the middle of the road however with two way traffic this poses a huge safety concern. Additionally, the deep tracks that snowcoaches leave behind can be very difficult for snowmobilers particularly when they are in the middle of the road. And so, it becomes a fine art for a snowcoach driver to master driving in the right lane without getting too close to the edge!

This picture really doesn't do it justice!!
Bringing my sled to a stop, I got off and immediately asked "Is everyone okay?" Once I established that no one was hurt or cold I called for assistance on the radio. Both right-side tires of the snowcoach were deeply rutted in the soft snow along a steep vertical slope. The entire vehicle leaned at a 45 degree angle posing a potential threat of the vehicle rolling down the slope. All the riders had safely exited on the left side of the snowcoach and were now all standing in the road, surprisingly, all in good temperament. Two young children without jackets played in the snow while the grown up's joked about their current status. Luckily the warm weather and sunny skies made the situation more tolerable. 

So much worse in real life!
I explained to the group that it would take about 30 minutes before we could get them out of their current situation. I offered to open up the ranger station if anyone wanted to sit inside or use the restroom, but they all insisted that they were fine and that they were enjoying the beautiful weather. Without any guidance the group began to work as a team shoveling out some of the snow beneath the left-side tires which would help to level out the vehicle. Within a few minutes two more park employees arrived at the scene offering assistance. Twenty five minutes later, with the proper paperwork completed,  the Park's Bombardier came to the rescue by pulling the snowcoach out of the snow! Jubilantly the group cheered and they were soon on their way! 

What started as an ominous voice on the radio ended as a series of auspicious events due to a group of people's ability to stay positive and work as a team. Where most people would have complained and scorned their driver this group chose to unite in order to remedy the situation. Even the park ranger's, who are often separated through work divisions, were united. Two interpretive rangers, two maintenance rangers and one law enforcement ranger all worked together to make sure this group was taken care of and eventually rescued. Returning home from their vacation I have no doubt that each of the snowcoach passengers will share their "near death" adventure with all their family and friends; after all who doesn't love a good Yellowstone survival story!                     


Monday, February 14, 2011

Early Dawn and New Beginnings

It’s early dawn and the high jagged domes of the Teton Mountains are covered in a blanket of indigo sky. The air is frigid, and the lack of warm winter gear makes the cold even more bone-chilling. Shuffling quickly through the darkness I remind myself:

“ In 14 hours it will be 100 degrees warmer“.

Twenty-four hours later the sun is rising 2500 miles away from Yellowstone. In white linen pants and a loose fitting sleeveless shirt I discover that I am still sweating despite my well planned "warm weather" clothing. My mom and I leisurely stroll along the boardwalk which guides us over a watery grassland filled with turtles, coots, hawks and delicately shaped herons. We stop under a shaded gazebo and take in the sultry morning while enjoying our morning café con leche and guava and cheese pastelitos. The sounds of exotic birds fill the air. I am a long way from Yellowstone, both physically and mentally.

The next day I head a little further south to the world famous South Beach, Miami. The dawn of a new day begins once again and I am exiting a small apartment only three block from the beach. I have come and gone from this apartment more than a thousand times and it has become my home away from home. Walking down the stairs I find myself suddenly choked up. Tears well up in my eyes as I silently think to myself that this might be the last time I walk down these stairs and get my morning café at the local Cuban bakery. I push back the tears and swallow the choking feeling in my throat- after all, the only constant in the world is change. I elect to enjoy what might be my last visit to South Beach for some time. Another wonderful bike ride with my dad down to 1st street, followed by an afternoon swimming at the beach. Mentally, we were both in the same state; no words needed, just a mutual understanding that this exact moment in time was indeed special.

It’s early sunrise. I take a deep breathe in and this time it is cold air that fills my lungs. Exhaling, I instantly steam up my glasses. The backdrop has once again changed, and as I round the corner in search of something comparable to cafe con leche I turn to the right to suddenly notice the capital building with a myriad of orange and pink colors behind it. It’s beautiful, but in a completely different and incomparable way to the early sunrise of Yellowstone. The city is still quiet; the streets sleepy, and for a moment the city is mine. I stop to admire the perfect white dome supported by great Romanesque columns. I am injected with an instant shot of good Ol’ American Pride. I soon discover an amazing French Bakery named Vie en France and indulge in an Almond Chocolate Croissant. I wonder what our founding fathers would think about me finding pride and glory through eating a French Croissant whilst admiring the Capital Building.

For the next four days I reconnect with my National Park Service Fundamentals classmates. It’s been one year since we all joined together for a two week training at Grand Canyon. This week marks the last stage of a 5 part class designed to help us better understand the National Park Service, ourselves and others. My classmates reign from all over the country: North Cascades, Saguaro, Channel Islands, Mount Rushmore, Yosemite and so on. Each person as different and as similar as the national park units themselves. We spend the week learning about our leadership capabilities and how to accept others, embrace differences and collaborate by drawing on each of our strengths. We visit museums, monuments and the offices of our leaders. We humbly walk in the shadows of our past great leaders: Lincoln, Washington, Martin Luther King Jr. and our war veterans. 

Standing on the same spot that Martin Luther King Jr. stood while giving his “I have a dream" speech, it is impossible to not be filled with ambition and courage. Change is inevitable but how we act in light of that change makes all the difference. With Lincoln to my back, and Washington ahead of me I vowed to make my existence meaningful. To face life with open eyes and without fear. Standing there, I recalled a photo of King giving his speech. In this photo there is a park ranger standing next to this great leader. Why was the park ranger in the photo? Because Park Rangers protect America's heritage and treasures; from Yellowstone to the Lincoln Memorial, and the Statue of Liberty to Hawaii Volcanos. It is a Park Ranger that you will see at each of these sites, standing tall in their green and grey uniform and flat hat. It is the Park Ranger that raise the flag each morning, greets each visitor with a smile and protects and preserves our American culture.  

At the end of the four days we meet at the Department of the Interior building for our graduation. Our instructor/mentor stands in front of the class ready to present us with our certificate. She is close to retirement from the National Park Service and has spent the week sharing her wisdom and experiences with us. She gives us one final speech before we head back to our home parks. With teary eyes she stands in front of us and expresses that she is honestly and truly proud to call us the future leaders of the National Park Service. And so, I return to Yellowstone with a deeper meaning of what my purpose is in the greater spectrum of life. While making fresh new tracks with my snowmobile, I return with the knowledge that in this great country one can pave their own path, and the path for others who may choose to follow.

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!