Friday, June 24, 2011

Welcome Back Summer...

It is 9:30pm, and the sky is a mixture of blue and pink as the sun sets behind the Lodgepole Pines. It's Solstice, the first official day of summer, and for a change the weather actually parallels what that date suggests. Summer has arrived to the interior of Yellowstone. The snow has finally melted in my backyard and our porch railing have been reassembled.  The new deck furniture which Shane built himself out of salvaged wood are accented by our Thai prayer flags. And there is no better way to celebrate the newly arrived sun and warmth than by having a Solstice Party.

By 7pm on June 21st there were 30 people in my backyard. Each brought a dish to share and before I knew it we were all dining on a variety of flavors from homemade Asian wraps to Italian meatballs. Both old friends and new friends were sharing stories, learning from each other, laughing in unison and creating some of their first memories of the summer. A summer spent living and working in Yellowstone is a wonderful example of community. People of all ages and walks of life arrive each day from all over the country. They move into park housing and soon report to their appropriate office- all hoping that their work will have them outside more than inside! They make new friends and are united by a passion to see, experience and protect the Park's Resources. Age, sex, and race seem to matter little.

These past few weeks the human population of Grant Village has grown exponentially while the wildlife also abounds. Elk, which have spent all winter at the Elk Refuge, (south of the interior) slowly made their way back to the Grant Village area. Female Elk sprout up in park housing, the meadows along the main road and in the West Thumb Geyser Basin. This annual pilgrimage was not a new sight for the seasoned staff but for those of us experiencing our first Spring in Grant Village, it has been quite the treat!

Opening my front door slowly last week, I poked my head outside and looked both ways. "The coast is clear" I thought to myself. I was being extra careful as news had travelled around that a Mama Elk had just recently dropped a calf in our housing area. Walking slowly with my pup Alice we made sure to use our keen listening and seeing skills. Sure enough, coming around the corner, I found Mama and her calf cuddled in the sparse brush off the side of the road in housing. Quickly, Mama glanced at me and gave me that panicked Mama Elk look. I'd been thoroughly warned about that look! Mama Elk routinely charge humans when they get too close to their babes. Backing up slowly I re-routed our walk to give her a wide breadth of space.I was soon free of her scolding eye however, Mama continued to wreak havoc in housing for the week. If you weren't being extra careful you would find yourself being chased into your car, your home or even your neighbors home with little to no warning!

 But now I want you to imagine having 5-7 protective Mama Elk with calves in the middle of the West Thumb Geyser Basin with over 300 people at any given time. Yep, now, that is chaos!

What was supposed to be my team's first week of leading guided walks through the Geyser Basin ended up being a week of educating and protecting thousands of people about Elk. After several Mama Elk chargings and some VERY close encounters, it was officially decided to shut down West Thumb Geyser Basin to the public! Placing barricades at each entrance, some determined visitors ignored the barricades only to be chased out of the basin by VERY angry Mama's! Each day our barricades got a little bigger and more detailed until finally all visitors got the message that the Basin was indeed, closed. The interpretive staff stood guard at the entrance areas while also using props like skulls, antlers and pictures to educate visitors about our commitment to protecting the park's resources, which included Elk! But just when things seemed to be under control, two bull Elk with small yet growing antlers, decided they would hang out in the West Thumb Geyser Basin parking lot for two days as well! Hello, Chaos! And so, I take my hats off to all of the Grant Village Field Rangers- whether they work for law enforcement, resource management or interpretation, as they all diligently worked together to ensure visitor and resource safety in the Nation's first National Park.   

Although the Mama Elk and their calves have moved out of the Basin, and into the higher surrounding hillsides, this has been merely a prelude to the chaos that lies ahead of us. As children all across the country finish their last day of school it will take just a fraction of time for  families to pile into their cars, SUV's or RV's, and drive to Yellowstone Park. They will flock to the park in army sized numbers with hopes and dreams of seeing Bears, Bison and Elk.  Every campground and every lodge inside the park will be full by 11am, while the roads will be an endless sea of vehicles.  Soon, our community of rangers will experience more than just Solstice Parties. As hoards of people flock to Yellowstone between late June and early September, our community of rangers will be tasked with visitor and resource protection and education for more than 2 million people. They will lead a variety of educational walks, talks and hikes while simultaneously keeping visitors 100 yards from Bears and Wolves and 25 yards from all other large animals. They will respond to wildlife jams, car accidents, domestic violence, injuries and missing persons reports. They will repair boardwalks, pick up trash, clean restrooms, and purify water. They will try their hardest to maintain the delicate balance between preserving wilderness while also providing public enjoyment. A difficult yet rewarding task in the Nation's first National Park. 

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Yellowstone Lake: Beautiful yet Complex

What was once a frozen Arctic landscape is now a mixture of water and melting ice. Yellowstone Lake, the largest lake above 7000 ft in North America, is slowly melting. It changes by the minute; at times the newly exposed water saturates the ice giving it a crystal blue color, other times, in the early dawn, it looks like a frozen ice cap once again. These changes however are only a mere fraction of the changes that are occurring beneath the surface. As Spring slowly raises the water's temperature it causes the indigo waters of Yellowstone Lake to "turn over". Beyond the view of our eyes the water "flips", causing nutrient rich sediment from the bottom of the Lake to be brought towards the surface- a critical and  important cycle in this Lake's ecology. The churning waters provide rich nutrients for microbes and amphipods to feed upon which in turn provide food for larger critters. Eventually this cascading effect touches the lives of everything living in and around the Lake- including the humans!

For the residents of Grant Village, the Lake's ecological "turn over" process has the ability to deeply impact the survival of the human population within Grant Village. And no one has a more clear understanding of this than my husband Shane.While the Lake turn-over is a prolific, almost joyous time, for microbes and fish, it happens to be a rather unhappy time for the man who runs the Grant Village water treatment facility.

I received a call at 5pm on Wednesday from Shane telling me that he would be home late. By 8 pm he finally walked through the door after being at work since 7am. Over a quick dinner Shane explained that our drinking water in Grant Village comes from Yellowstone Lake, therefore what happens to the Lake greatly impacts our drinking water. It's Shane's job to make sure that the water which comes out of our faucets is ALWAYS in compliance. One aspect of "staying within compliance" is to make sure that the turbidity level of the water never exceeds 0.3ppm. I would soon discover that is not an easy task.

At 10pm Shane said he had to go back to the water plant for about 1 hour in order to make sure that our drinking water was being processed properly but two hours later I awoke to find that he had not returned. Remembering that I couldn't call him since his cell phone had recently died,  I decided that he was probably fine and just running late. But when I awoke at 1am to find that he had still not returned I began to get a little nervous. Tossing and turning I knew that I was not going to get any sleep until I knew he was safe. Throwing a jacket over my pajamas, I jumped into the truck and drove a short 1.5 miles to the water plant. In the cold of the night I knocked on the aluminum door and I was quickly relieved when I saw Shane's face opening the door. Entering the plant I looked around and realized that in nine months of living in Grant I had actually never seen the water plant.

 "Want a tour?" Shane asked. "Why not!" I said. And so at 1:30 am, in the still of the night, I was touring the Park's water treatment facility in my pajamas!

 By 2:00 am I was well versed in how the Lake's ecological processes cause the water's turbidity to increase thus putting our water treatment facility on the brink of being out of compliance. I watched as Shane pressed buttons, tested water and completed mathematical equations in his mini laboratory. He is the "guy behind the scenes" treating water for more than 5000 people a day who will brush their teeth at the lodge, cook their dinner at the campground, and fill up their water bottles at the visitor center. He is the park ranger who is seldom seen but who is entrusted with a great amount of power.

Thirty minutes later we both crawled into bed with the acceptance that tomorrow was going to be a long day. However, when the phone rang at 3:15am it became apparent that it was going to be a REALLY long day for Shane. The call was from the Park's Dispatch office, calling to inform Shane that the turbidity alarm was going off at the plant. It would be another 45 minutes before he crawled back into bed and when the sound of the alarm clock went off at 6:30am Shane was back in his uniform preparing for another day of "Shane versus Lake Yellowstone".

Day 2, did not prove to be much better at the water plant. With limited sleep, Shane somehow managed to work another long day totaling 16 hours. With over 8,000 years of experience, the Lake's natural Spring cycle was giving Shane's a run for his money! The water was turbid, and the only way to keep the drinking water in compliance with the limited technology at the water plant was to have someone managing it around the clock...which Shane did with success. By Day 3, Shane was gaining momentum, and when he arrived at home by 5:30pm I knew the battle had subsided. 

While driving to Fishing Bridge the next day the view of the Lake alternated from rippling open water to frozen stacked up blocks of ice. A family sat and ate their lunch on the shores near Pumice Point while the first fishing boat of the season launched from the marina. Whether we realize it or not, we are all are somehow connected to Yellowstone Lake's ecological cycles.  Water molecules everywhere circum-navigate the globe which means that the water in your community could one day end up swirling around in Yellowstone Lake.  However, I hope that you become connected to the Lake on a more personal level. I hope that one day, you might visit Yellowstone and spend an afternoon fishing for trout on the Lake. Or maybe you'll sit along the shoreline admiring a flock of ducks as they float on the surface.
Perhaps, one day you'll even be lucky enough to photograph an Eagle enviously watching a River Otter who dines on fresh fish. But even if you never visit Yellowstone, you are connected to this Lake in a metaphysical way, because your mind and heart know that somewhere beyond your community lies an enormous alpine lake which is being preserved to ecologically function the same way it has for over 8,000 years. And even if you never get to experience first-hand the beauty  and complexity of Yellowstone Lake perhaps, one day your children, or your children's children, will.  

We do not inherit the land, we borrow it from our children.
 ~ Native American Proverb

Monday, June 6, 2011

Memorial Day Snowstorm

My Grill- Memorial Day Weekend
Hot sun warming my golden skin, kids playing in the backyard with water guns, the smell of charcoal fired grills with burgers and hot dogs simmering; this is what comes to my mind when I think of Memorial Day. It's an American holiday spent with family and friends remembering the past while embracing the newly arrived summer season. But here, in the interior of Yellowstone, Memorial Day  is more like a winter scene from a Christmas holiday card.

De-boarding their tour buses, visitors from all over the world arrived in Yellowstone this Memorial Day weekend to find that they were in the midst of another classic Yellowstone snowstorm. Big fluffy snow flakes tumbled from the sky whilst gusts of wind sent the snow into upward spirals of mini tornadoes. But rather than be upset over the snow, I watched as people both old and young gathered outside the visitor center, whipping snowballs at their brothers and sisters, and catching snow flakes with their tongues. They were in awe of Yellowstone despite it's erratic weather patterns.  
Snow fell on the Yellowstone plateau for 48 hours, depositing up to two feet of snow on Craig Pass, which is the road between West Thumb and Old Faithful. A fair amount of snow at high elevations and icy conditions at lower elevations can only result in one thing: Road closures! With the South Entrance still opened, flocks of people arrived to the Park only to find out that they would be stuck at Grant Village Visitor Center each morning until the roads were safe to re-open.

In addition  to the snow and road closures, the newly arrived seasonal park rangers at Grant Village were dealing with a few other "opening" issues. The lights flickered off and on all weekend and eventually the heavy wet snow caused a complete power failure. As the power surged off and on all day it caused the phones to go out, which only added to our technological failure as the computers were already down as well. It looked as if "Yellowstone" was kicking our butts on opening day!

But as you well know, there is no use in getting upset over naturally caused, unpreventable failures. It was just after high noon on opening day when I arrived to the visitor center and the natural light filtered through the large windows and doors providing enough light to make the power failures inconsequential. And as for computers and telephones- well, I personally think they are all over-rated. We have plenty of books to study from and our Park Service communication radios connected us to the greater Yellowstone team while also providing us with the  most up to date weather  forecast. The lack of technology brought me back to my seasonal park service days when I lived in remote Katmai National Park, where the lack of technology created an environment where we seldom knew what was going on outside our little world...nor did we really care! We were in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness, just where we wanted to be.

Although, I was ready for spring, or at this point summer, to finally arrive I couldn't help but smile as I walked Alice that evening in the middle of a snowstorm. Thoughts of happiness cluttered my brain: I was truly alive, living in the interior of Yellowstone, experiencing things that other people only read about. And yes, it was snowing on Memorial Day. But it was an entirely new and different experience for me; one that won't readily blend into all the other Memorial Days. For me, this is what life is all about: embracing new experiences, pushing personal boundaries, overcoming new challenges and sometimes, catching snow flakes with my tongue on Memorial Day weekend!   

Within a couple of days the falling snow turned into falling rain, and mother nature whispered in our ears that with a little patience summer would eventually arrive to the interior of Yellowstone, bringing with it sunny skies, rushing rivers and blooming flowers.