Backstage and behind the scenes at Yellowstone National Park, summer 2001.
Originally published in Travel + Leisure, April 2002.
THE FIRST TIME I SAW YELLOWSTONE it scared the living hell out of me. I was eight years old, staring into a burbling, belching cauldron of mud, next to a sign that read DANGER: GROUND MAY GIVE WAY.
I was eight. I mean, what were my parents thinking?
By the end of that nerve-racking visit I’d arrived at a completely new opinion of Nature. In contrast to what I’d seen while growing up in New Hampshire, Nature wasn’t always peaceful, pleasant, or even particularly beautiful. At Yellowstone, it could be downright terrifying. Those hissing steam vents, those earthshaking geyser eruptions, the soul-shuddering roar of a waterfall twice as tall as Niagara: Was I the only kid who had nightmares for weeks?
I’ve since returned to Yellowstone a half-dozen times, and still feel a chill go up my spine when I gaze into the bottomless blue of a thermal pool. What once frightened the wits out of me has somehow become a comfort: I now find it reassuring to have such a visceral reaction to a place, especially a place as overexposed as this. Yellowstone has been reduced to so many three-by-five postcards and Discovery Channel documentaries that you forget how disturbing it seems when encountered face-to-face—this shockingly young, unfinished landscape, bucking like an unruly beast, taunting those foolish enough to climb on. And that’s only the visitors. Can you imagine what it’s like to work here?
The guardians of Yellowstone are a relatively small group, considering what they’re up against. They number about 4,000 in summer, or one person for every 550 acres. In winter the force drops to a few hundred, most of them year-round workers stationed at park headquarters near Mammoth Hot Springs. Less than a quarter of Yellowstone’s staffers are employed by the National Park Service; the majority are with Amfac Parks & Resorts, which operates most of the lodges, hotels, restaurants, and other concessions within the park.
They include grizzly managers and horse wranglers, carpenters and line cooks, criminal investigators and resident geologists. Some are outgoing “people people”; some are happy not to see another human being from one week to the next. They come from Sioux Falls, Colter Bay, even Ghana and Croatia. Some are college kids, some have multiple Ph.D.’s, some are raising families here.
Last spring and summer I spent a few weeks with the staff to get a behind-the-scenes look at what goes into an average day—if there even is an average day in Yellowstone.
As you read this, the park is all but shut down: its trails are nearly deserted, its snack bars eerily silent, its lodges sealed tight against the April chill. Though the snow cover is beginning to melt, winter is far from over. It will be weeks before Yellowstone Lake thaws, before the plows clear the interior roads, bringing with them the first trickle of springtime visitors—and, soon after, the overwhelming tide of some 2 million more.
Life at Yellowstone never really stops, of course. Old Faithful continues to erupt, even with no one here to gawk. Solitary rangers patrol the park border on skis, forever on the lookout for poachers. The Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River still pound into the red-rimmed canyon below. And at his home near Canyon Village, in the heart of the park, Steve Fuller is cooking Thai food and listening to Coltrane.
Fuller is savoring the last weeks of calm before the storm of a Yellowstone summer. Between June and September, more than a million people will pass through Canyon Village, one of the busiest of the park’s six main visitor areas. During that time Fuller will log 12-hour days as Canyon’s chief of maintenance. For the rest of the year, however, the village is boarded up, all roads in are snowed over, and Canyon is accessible only by skis or snowmobile.
This is when Fuller’s other job kicks in. For 29 years he has been Canyon’s resident “winterkeeper,” meaning he spends the long off-season here alone, shoveling snow from rooftops, blowing out water pipes, and ensuring that the elements don’t overpower the place. If it sounds like the job Jack Nicholson had in The Shining, there are similarities—but Jack Nicholson didn’t have 2.2 million acres of backyard to explore on weekends.
Fuller’s house—technically owned by the Park Service, though it’s pretty much his place by now—is a single-story pine cabin on a magnificent hillside south of Canyon Village. From his porch he can see clear to the Tetons, can hear the whoosh of the Lower Falls just over the ridge. “If you’d come here when Yellowstone was virgin,” he says, “this is where you would’ve built your home.” The four rooms are crammed with three decades’ worth of books and framed photographs. Fuller is a gifted lensman; his images of Yellowstone have appeared in National Geographic and Life, and his precious free time is spent exploring the park with a camera. He uses a snowmobile only reluctantly (“I’d happily turn mine in if everyone else would, too”), preferring to strike out on skis or horseback.
He opens two cans of coconut milk—there are 23 more in the cupboard—and adds the finishing touches to a spicy shrimp curry. The term fully stocked doesn’t begin to describe Fuller’s pantry. “I haul everything in by car at the start of each winter,” he explains. “Can’t seem to buy anything except by the case or the ten-pound bag.” Before we sit down to eat, he latches the window above the stove. “A grizzly once reached in and swiped a pot of stew right off this stove. Made a hell of a mess.”
When Fuller was hired, in 1973, Yellowstone was almost exclusively a summer destination. “Back then, the whole park went stone-dead after September,” he recalls. Only in the last decade has winter tourism taken off, thanks to the rise of snowmobiling and, in 1999, the opening of the winterized Old Faithful Snow Lodge. Roughly 30,000 visitors now descend on the lodges at Old Faithful and Mammoth Hot Springs from December to March—to ride the famous snowcoaches, to ski or snowmobile in the backcountry, perhaps to spot a pack of gray wolves romping across the white expanse of the Lamar Valley. With the influx of snowmobilers, the quiet that Fuller enjoyed in those early days has been disappearing. But his corner of the park remains suitably remote, and he still goes weeks without seeing another soul—which is fine with him: “I see it as four months of hell in the summer, followed by eight months of bliss.”
After dinner we take a walk under an astonishing canopy of stars. Fuller checks on his horses in a corral up the hill. “It’s a peaceful place, most of the time,” he says. “But you can never let your guard down. Last spring a bison tore through that fence and gored my Appaloosa to death. Of course,” he adds, “that’s all part of living here. A beautiful day can just reach out and eat you.”
Two summers ago, one did just that. On August 21, 2000, three AMFAC employees—a 20-year-old woman and two 18-year-old men—spent an afternoon hiking near the Firehole River, not far from Old Faithful. Darkness set in quickly, and the group had neglected to bring flashlights. With no moon to illuminate the terrain, the trio walked straight into a thermal pool. The water was 178 degrees. The men were able to scramble out, burned over 90 percent of their bodies. But their companion had fallen farther from the edge, and those extra few seconds in the scalding water were the difference between life and death.
Law enforcement ranger Curt Dimmick was one of the EMT’s who treated the burn victims, an experience he will describe only as “one of the hardest days of my life.” A soft-spoken man with a doctorate in zoology, Dimmick once planned a career in research but grew frustrated with “academic politics” and came to Yellowstone in 1995. He’s one of 60 law enforcement rangers working year-round at Yellowstone; an additional 50 are hired each summer. Their beat covers 310 miles of paved roads, 1,000 miles of trails, 2,500 campsites, and the park’s perimeter.
That boundary sees a good deal of action. Poachers in search of prized elk antlers and other big-game trophies make frequent incursions across remote borders of the park. “For the backcountry rangers who patrol those areas, stopping the poachers can be risky,” Dimmick says. Though rangers now carry sidearms, they’re occasionally outnumbered, or even outgunned, by the hunters: “We don’t get many shootouts, but we’ve had some tense standoffs.”
As a federal territory, Yellowstone has its own U.S. magistrate and its own jail at Mammoth Hot Springs. Dimmick’s team at Old Faithful makes an average of 12 arrests each year, for offenses ranging from disorderly conduct and DUI to heroin possession and burglary. “Car clouting”—stealing valuables from unattended automobiles—is a common problem throughout the park system. “Unfortunately, criminals go on vacation, too,” Dimmick says, “and they certainly do like national parks.” (After September 11, an additional ranger was hired to patrol the park, and cameras were added at park entrances and other locations.)
As on any police force, rangers juggle a number of roles: one minute they’re directing traffic at a “bear jam” or helping a driver who’s locked her keys in her minivan (“we get half a dozen lockouts a day,” Dimmick says). The next they’re handcuffing a belligerent drunk or giving first aid at the scene of a horrific car crash. “A friend of mine was called out to rescue a hiker who’d broken his leg,” Dimmick says. “When he got there he recognized the hiker as the same guy he’d busted the night before for public intoxication. Then he had to fit him in a splint and carry him out. He laughed and said, ‘Remember how mean you were to me when I arrested you?’”
Managing humans is relatively straightforward. “Most will eventually do what they’re told,” Dimmick says. Animals are a whole other matter.
On a bright July afternoon, Kerry Gunther is crouched inside what looks like a giant overturned oil drum, carefully arranging a bloody, half-frozen elk carcass into what he hopes will be a tempting snack. Satisfied with this morbid still life, he crawls out and tests the spring lock on the mesh-steel door. The barrel is large enough to hold six grown men—or one average-sized grizzly.
Yellowstone’s chief of bear management has done this sort of thing “plenty of times,” but even he can’t help laughing at the Rube Goldberg absurdity of the grizzly trap. “I guess it does look pretty stupid,” Gunther admits. “But hey, it works.” He slides the steel door into position, climbs into his truck, and takes off down the road to wait.
Gunther has worked with Yellowstone’s bears for 19 years. His role, as he sees it, is simple: “Just try to keep bears and people from hurting each other.” To that end, he and his three-person team spend most of their time ensuring that food and garbage remain inaccessible to the animals. “Once a bear has acquired a taste for human food, it’s difficult to keep him away from people,” explains Gunther.
Anyone who visited Yellowstone before 1972 will recall the sad image of bears foraging at the park’s garbage dumps (for a time, spectators could watch from bleacher seats). In ‘72 the dumps were closed, and grizzlies who’d grown up on discarded french fries were suddenly left without a ready food supply. Yellowstone’s bear population tumbled during the following decade. Since then, however, the grizzly has rebounded dramatically; estimates put the current population as high as 600. “We’re actually at carrying capacity for bears now,” Gunther says, “so the grizzlies are using the open corridors along the roads.” Unfortunately, this means more chances for human-grizzly contact, which is where Gunther’s troubles (and the bears’) begin.
For several weeks now, a lone grizzly has been wandering too close to a camping area, and Gunther and his team are going in with these traps. “We keep a walk-in fridge full of roadkill,” Gunther says. “Real tasty stuff: elk, coyotes, deer. When he tugs on the meat, wham!—the door of the trap slams down, and we run in with a tranquilizer gun. Then we’ll fit him with a radio collar and take him by truck or helicopter to a remote area of the park.” This procedure is known as “bear relocation.” It’s easy enough to do, but in most cases the bear comes back.
Should the bear persist, Gunther’s team might ask permission from a neighboring forest service to drop the animal in their territory, farther from developed areas. Alternatively, they’ll try to find a home at a zoo (Gunther has a list of zoos-in-need). But zoo openings are limited, and are usually reserved for adult females. “If the problem bear doesn’t fit that profile,” he says, “and no one else will take it, then as a last resort, we’ll destroy it. But it rarely comes to that.”
Humans, not bears, are more often to blame, Gunther says. “It’s amazing what people will do. Someone who wouldn’t approach a big dog in the city will run up to a grizzly with nothing but a disposable cardboard camera. The bears aren’t doing anything aggressive. It’s not their fault people get hurt.”
It was simpler in the old days. Back then, no one made a fuss about recycling or fuel emissions or keeping things “eco-friendly.” That wasn’t even a word yet. Yellowstone was, after all, “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” as the sign above the gate still proclaims. And life was easy for visitors in the park’s early years. A hot spring was as good a place as any to clean a load of laundry. Grizzlies were chained to trees for photo ops. Elk were displayed in roadside cages. And when a geyser refused to erupt on schedule, no problem: rangers would pour in some detergent, stand back, and, bingo—your tax dollars at work.
At a certain point people realized that detergent wasn’t necessarily a good thing, and that bears were better off foraging for berries than groveling for Twinkies. After much debate within the National Park Service, a radical shift in philosophy emerged in 1968. The new “Natural Regulation” policy was dedicated to giving Yellowstone back to itself—returning the land and its inhabitants to their natural (if occasionally destructive) tendencies; and minimizing human interference.
It took tremendous effort and patience, but in certain ways, Yellowstone is arguably closer to its “natural state” than at any time since its founding 130 years ago. These days, leave it alone could be the park’s unofficial mantra—and if “leaving it alone” requires some rigorous micromanagement, the irony is not lost on the park’s proprietors. “The best thing we could do for Yellowstone is pack up and go,” one veteran ranger told me. She was half-joking, but only half—and her words illustrate the paradoxes of running a national park. How do you balance a hands-off philosophy with active conservation? When does “positive interference” become unwarranted intrusion? At what point do you simply get out of the way?
Forget Darwin—this is a dilemma for Dr. Spock. Yellowstone is the textbook example of an unruly child: it chafes at those who would try to control it, yet veritably begs for nurturing; it defies prediction and changes demeanor almost hourly; and it grabs our full attention only when it starts acting up.
Consider the notorious case of the lake trout. Sometime in the past decade, this non-native fish was introduced (most likely deliberately and illegally) into Yellowstone Lake, where it preys on the smaller, indigenous cutthroat trout. The lake trout is now wiping out the cutthroat at a dizzying pace. And the 40-odd species that rely on the cutthroat for food, including white pelicans and grizzlies, are also under threat.
In this case, the laissez-faire policy has gone out the window. Because the arrival of the lake trout is seen as a “non-natural event”—it was brought here by man—park officials are responding with full force. Tens of thousands of visitors still come to fish in Yellowstone (fishing licenses are a major source of revenue), but regulations now require that all native species, including cutthroat, must be released, and any caught lake trout must be killed. Meanwhile, the park is spending $200,000 a year on traps and gill-netting operations in an attempt to eradicate the lake trout.
I join a boatload of visitors for a tour of Yellowstone Lake. As we pass a Park Service trawler, a collective gasp goes up from the crowd: the trawler is piled high with a few hundred pounds of slaughtered lake trout. Officials insist this is a necessary step—after all, one small element can upset the whole ecosystem, with disastrous results.
In that sense, every action (or inaction) at Yellowstone comes down to one crucial question: Do we allow nature to sort things out on its own—even if the park is changed forever?
That dilemma was at the core of the most controversial event in Yellowstone’s recent history. In the summer of 1988, wildfires raged across the park, ultimately burning a third of Yellowstone’s 2.2 million acres. And the Park Service’s philosophy of noninterference, which applied to forest fires as well as wildlife, was called into question by government officials and onlookers alike.
The so-called let-it-burn policy (officially termed “wildland fire use”) had been in place since 1972. At that time, fire was seen as a restorative process, clearing old and dead trees to make room for new growth and returning nutrients to the soil. (The cones of the lodgepole pine, the most common of Yellowstone’s conifers, are actually stimulated by fire, helping them release their seeds.) After 1972, instead of extinguishing every little brush fire, the Park Service turned its resources to monitoring and controlling all naturally occurring fires: it would allow them to burn in manageable patterns, for the health of the forest, and would interfere only when human safety or buildings and roads were at risk.
But by late summer, when the ‘88 fires began to threaten everything in their path—including the beloved Old Faithful Inn—many people were outraged by what they saw as the Park Service’s inaction: How could they have allowed it to go this far? Never mind that firefighters were by then desperately battling the inferno. All summer long, TV cameras showed a landscape reduced to soot, and no ecological reasoning could convince the public that fire was somehow a good thing. In the aftermath of ‘88, natural-burn tactics did come under attack, yet the ecological argument prevailed, and the policy still holds today—albeit with more emphasis on the “controlling” part.
I drop into Yellowstone’s fire command center, which is located in a converted garage at Mammoth Hot Springs. Six separate fires are burning inside the park—five of them started by lightning, the other by a neglected campfire. Each one is marked on a wall-sized map, along with a projection of its likely path. None of the fires is larger than one-tenth of an acre—”which really isn’t much in a park this size,” explains fire management officer Phil Perkins.
Perkins, who resembles Ed Harris in The Right Stuff, is examining that morning’s “fuel samples” from the terrain around Fire No. 3. (Measuring the amount of moisture in surrounding vegetation helps predict a fire’s speed and direction.) “We don’t plan to fight that one yet,” Perkins says. “It may run out of food and burn itself out. Still, we’ll see in a few days.”
A typical fire season—from June 15 to September 15—sees 4,000 to 7,000 acres burn across Yellowstone. Fortunately, the summer has been a slow one so far. Thanks in part to heavier-than-average rains, Perkins and his 33 colleagues in the fire office haven’t been forced to extinguish any fires themselves—yet. But they’re hardly just “letting things burn.”
“Nobody likes to call it a ‘let-it-burn’ policy,” Perkins says testily. “We’re not kicking our feet up. We’re out in the field taking fuel samples, recording wind and weather patterns, plugging those into fire-behavior calculation formulas, and projecting the daily growth of a fire up to a month or two away.
“For example, this one here”—Perkins points to a red X on the map—”is close to Mammoth. If it threatens the developed areas, which it may do if the rains don’t put it out, then we’ll go in there and fight it.
“Trees will grow back,” Perkins adds. “Historic lodges won’t.”
Historic buildings, after all, are as integral to the park as canyons and geysers and hot springs. Who can imagine Yellowstone without the Old Faithful Inn, which many call the largest log structure in the world, a 1904 marvel that rises nearly as tall as the geyser it’s named after? Or the 300-room Lake Yellowstone Hotel, its bright yellow Victorian façade visible for miles across the water?
Of the roughly 2,000 man-made structures in the park, several, like the Old Faithful Inn, are protected historic landmarks. The crews who maintain these buildings often shun power tools in favor of antique implements, such as broad axes and adzes, which are better suited for the task of, say, fashioning struts out of lodgepole pine. Quirky practices like this are common in Yellowstone, where unusual jobs require unusual, often forgotten skills.
Jerry Thomas has picked up quite a few of these skills in the 17 years he’s worked at Yellowstone. He started as a horse wrangler at Roosevelt Lodge, then took a job driving a stagecoach, which led to off-season work repairing the coaches in the park’s garage, and then eventually to his current job at Yellowstone’s vehicle service center.
“I’m just a mechanic, really,” Thomas says modestly—though you’d be hard-pressed to find another mechanic working on such a strange array of equipment. The vehicles in Thomas’s garage run the gamut from horse power to horsepower: here are the famous Bombardier snowcoaches (gas-fueled tin-sided buses on skis and tank treads, some almost 40 years old); there are the Wild West stagecoaches; an electric cart in need of a battery; and the park’s 406 touring bus, built in 1937 and still making daily sunset tours around the lake (it’s in for a quick tune-up).
Thomas is tinkering with a stubborn old snowcoach that he and his crew have nicknamed the Millennium Falcon after Han Solo’s cantankerous cargo ship. “The damn thing’s always breaking down,” he groans, “but she never dies completely. So we keep patching her up and pushing her back out the door.” Bombardier stopped making the snowcoaches in the early eighties, and spare parts are impossible to find, so those at Yellowstone are now put back together with parts from a dozen different vehicles. “We call ‘em Frankenbuses,” Thomas says. “Kind of gives conservation a whole new meaning, doesn’t it?” In this dormant snowcoach, however, the problem is not a faulty transmission—it’s the piles of bark, leaves, and branches strewn across the Falcon’s floor. “Pack rats,” Thomas explains. “They like to nest inside.”
Couldn’t they lay out traps, or get rid of them with mothballs?
“Nah, can’t do that,” he says. “It’s a national park, remember? Gotta let ‘em do what they do.”
Driving south into Mammoth Hot Springs, visitors will notice, off to the left, a small neighborhood of single-story ranch houses, with sprinklers in the lawns and basketball hoops in the driveways. This is Lower Mammoth, home for many of the park’s year-round employees and their families. Squint and it could be a suburb in a Steven Spielberg film.
Despite the isolation—Bozeman, Montana, the nearest big city, is two hours away—residents of Lower Mammoth have a quality of life that those in any “normal” town would envy, says Mary McCaleb, whose husband, Jim, is the general manager of Amfac’s operations at the park. It’s clear that what they give up in convenience is more than made up for by what they gain.
The McCalebs’ daughters, 12-year-old Kathryn and 14-year-old Lindsay, were born at Mammoth and attended the Yellowstone Park School from kindergarten through sixth grade. “It’s the proverbial one-room schoolhouse,” Mary says. “Only five to seven kids per class, excellent teachers. And the parents here tend to be very educated and involved.”
Both girls now go to the public junior high in Gardiner, Montana, five miles away, where, again, most of their peers are children of park staffers. When vacations roll around, the McCalebs visit major cities: New York, Chicago, Seattle. “We want the kids to see what the real America is like,” Jim says, “so they remember that this isn’t the mainstream.”
In the “real America,” presumably, Halloween jack-o’-lanterns wouldn’t be eaten by hungry elk. The real America wouldn’t require that your soccer team ride three hours in each direction to find another school to play. The real America would probably have a Gap or two.
In the real America, confused tourists wouldn’t be “peering in the kitchen window during dinner, like we’re in a zoo,” as Lindsay McCaleb says. “Yeah, or knocking on our door going, ‘Bathroom? Bathroom?’” Kathryn adds, giggling. “Hello, people! We live here!” •