Thursday, December 31, 2009


Yesterday was our Sunday, our second day off. We slept in (accidentally--I forgot to set the alarm), went to an early lunch, stopped in to see the rangers and our YA colleagues at the visitor's center...and eventually strapped on our skis and headed to the Lone Star ski trail.

This meant going over the hilly, and icy, trail again. We've received a dusting of snow, but most of the employee's conversations at the dinner table or on the trails revolve around snow, how much we want it and need it.

After what seemed like forever (and two spectacular falls by me), we finally reached Kepler Cascades

and left the hills behind. After skiing up the road for a bit we reached the trail to Lone Star Geyser. The trail is on an old service road and it's flat, perfect for us. It winds through the forest alongside the Firehole River.

Here's the daily shot of Steve peering into the river. Steve's never met a river that he hasn't stopped to look into, but here his purpose is twofold: 1) look for fish and 2) look for otters.

Finally our otter karma paid off: Steve stopped mid-ski to take a closer look at what he thought was a log, but suddenly the "log" moved and a head popped up. Soon there were 4 little heads watching us from the water, wondering why we were watching them.

But my favorite was this guy, an otter after my own heart. He was too busy eating to care about us, he was all about his food

We were still a good mile from the Lone Star geyser so we decided it was probably best to head back home. And to be honest, we're more otter people than geyser people anyway...

The good thing about "home" is that you can tell when you're getting close on account of the steam and the sulphur smell

We finally made it home, beat. But we managed to drag ourselves over to check our mail and we had two packages from home, including one full of f-o-o-d

This should keep us sorted. For a little while, at least.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

skiin' and readin'

Since Wendie is finally over her cold we decided to get back to doing some skiing. Yesterday we headed out on the Lone Star Geyser trail. It starts with two downhills. The first one is the one we practiced on during our ski lesson. I caught an edge on my way down and toppled over but Wendie took it cleanly. The next hill goes right down to the Firehole River before taking a sharp left. Somehow we both managed to nail this tricky descent and were over the river

while we left another couple at the top of the hill contemplating how to follow our lead.

The rest of the first half-mile or so of the trail is a steady uphill. Thankfully it is a gradual grade so we were able to ski up most of it. A bigger problem than the rise in elevation is the lack of snow on the trails. We haven't had any snow to speak of for about a week and the trails are all pretty slick, which makes sliding backwards a direct result of climbing to higher elevations.

Finally we made it to the top of the hill and had a nice view of not only the geyser basin down below but also of the trail ahead

Sadly by the time we reached the section of the trail that parallels the road, the trail, due to the lack of snow, had turned into nothing more than sheer angled wall of ice. So with that, and a check of the watch that told us it was getting close to work time, we decided to cut to the fun part: the downhill. Except for few flat sections, we took the whole quarter mile down without even so much as a push from our poles.

After pushing our way up the hills at the beginning of the trail we came out at the Old Faithful parking lot right after the geyser had gone off. As all the tourists hightailed to their snowmobiles and coaches we got our first glimpse of an Old Faithful rush hour, winter style.

We decided to follow up yesterday's skiing with a trip to Fern Cascades, a ski trail that starts right behind our housing location and is a bit of a rite of passage for winter employees. When anyone mentions Fern the first thing that comes up is the hills, and we learned why real quick.

The trails starts with a good quarter to half mile ascent that is almost vertical. We pushed onward, having to herringbone it from pretty much jump street

Despite the near perfect form demonstrated above, it took us a good while to get to level ground. From there, we traveled up and down some dipsy-dos until we made it to the cascade, from where we could see Biscuit Basin down below

After a mile trip through the lodgepole pines, we came to Fern's other hills: the downhill. Unlike the Lone Star trail, there is nothing gradual about Fern's descent; it goes just about straight down and it does so in a hurry.

Fighting the ice and gravity, we did our best to make it down in one piece, which meant falling on purpose a couple of times when we weren't sure if the drop kept going (it did). Our final descent was delayed by a couple that was actually trying to go up the one-way downhill that we were coming down. Somehow I managed to stop like an actual skier (I even sprayed some powder) so I didn't run into them. Wendie got stuck on the hill because, despite my ascertain that I knew what trail I was on, the couple decided they needed to disagree with me right at the bottom of the hill. Finally, after the couple told me we need to post better signs, Wendie too made a perfect descent all the way down to the trail head where we found a big sign saying, "This is a one-way trail." It pays to be able to read I guess.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

snow machines!!

Snowmobiles are controversial in Yellowstone. This year 318 are allowed in, but you must be with a guide; you can't just show up at the gate and drive in on your own machine. Environmentalist want to limit their impact on the air and the wildlife; on the other side are people that point out that park is "for the people," not just the people that can afford a guide.

In the park, the snowmobile tours won't go if it's -20 or below. Walking to breakfast at 7 a.m., the temp hovered around -20. My eyelashes froze on the way to the lodge and kept sticking together. By 8 a.m. it had warmed to -15 so we were good to go. It was so cold that our helmets kept freezing over, not that I could see anyway with my frozen eyelashes--good thing Steve was driving.

Our first stop was at the West Thumb warming hut, and we all crowded around the wood stove and shoved extra warmers in our boots. Guests have seen otters here recently, so Steve went off to look for them (though sadly, he didn't find them.) Our guide told us that as we passed over the Continental Divide it was -20, -50 with the windchill.

The sun came up as we made our way to Lake Yellowstone. What a difference a week makes--the lake is now completely frozen over.

And Mr. and Mrs. Marshmellow posed for a picture

The outfit works better when you're actually on the machine

The sun was out and the sky was blue and we zipped through the forest

before coming out onto the frozen Hayden Valley.

There was a large herd (200+) of bison grazing in the valley

Before we stopped for lunch we made a detour to the Lower Falls. Last week it was so overcast we couldn't see much, but today the falls and the canyon were clear

We stopped at the Canyon warming hut for lunch, and then traveled West towards Madison

As we rounded the final stretch towards home, we stopped to watch the bison that were still making Biscuit Basin their home (and the small coyote that was running around behind them.)

Friday, December 25, 2009

merry merry

I’ve been fighting off my first high altitude cold of the season, so we’ve been lying low these past couple of days. Out here the days/dates blur, but when we got to work last night there was no mistaking that it was Christmas Eve. People were gathered around the piano singing carols, and there was a table set up in the lobby of the lodge where guests of all ages were decorating ornaments. The “ornaments” are actually used light bulbs from the historic Old Faithful Inn.

This morning Steve braved breakfast (it was –11 out) and I slept in (surprise, surprise.) Walking to work today I was distracted first by the steam coming off of Old Faithful in the distance

And then by the sunset

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

grooming a title

Pretty much every guy working here has a beard. Or as they say, "Old Faithful Snowlodge, where the trails are groomed and the men are not." So anyway, walking to breakfast this morning, all the men I saw fittingly looked liked Santa Claus, a result of the combination of the negative-11 air and their breath turning their beards a crystalline white.

Not only did this look seem festive but it also got me thinking about the pair of loyal readers (whose names both begin with L) who have asked about the origin of the title of our blog.

Well, while driving West we decided, given our combined background in publishing and writing, we needed a catchier and more creative moniker than just "Winter in Yellowstone."

Since there apparently aren't any radio stations between Chicago and Seattle, the car trip was decidely iPod heavy and one song that we kept skipping to was called "Furr" by a band called Blitzen Trapper. Not only did the lyrics fit with our travels, but, given the sub-zero temperatures were encountering, we would not have been least bit upset to know our "flesh had turned fur."

Of course, there were some runner-up ideas like the self-explanatory "SNOT" or "My Face is Freezing", but we felt those failed to capture the true spirit of our trip like our new favorite song did.

For those interested parties, you can download the song here. It is free and legal (I think). (Hold down the Option key while you click on it if you have a Mac. PC users are on your own).

first day off

To celebrate our first day off for the season we decided to put our cross-country skiing ability to the test and hit the 5-mile Biscuit Basin trail. It was a little longer than we planned on doing but we decided the array of thermal features along the path would help to distract us from the effort we would have to put into it.

The thermal features also meant we would get a few breaks, because their heat coupled with the lack of snow we've had this week meant there were quite a few bare spot. Some breaks were just a plain ol' asphalt walkway where we had to take off our skis for 20 yards or so. Other times, we were able to use the astro-turf that has been put down by the ski shop to keep the geyser route skiable despite the warm ground.

The path continues over and around the Firehole River. Because of thermal water heating the river, rainbow trout spawn in the Firehole this time of year as opposed to the spring (when they spawn in other rivers) so I kept an eye out for redds, or nests, but didn't see any. And we're not taking for granted that this is our backyard.

We did a good job getting up a decent sized hill and the sun even came out as we continued on through the Upper Geyser Basin past Morning Glory pool and a variety of other hot springs.

Making it to Biscuit Basin, we were greeted by a group of bison. Herds (or obstinacies as we have learned a group of bison is called) like to hang around the thermal features this time of year to stay warm and get an easy meal.

Taking off our skis, we toured the boardwalk around the basin which got its name from biscuit-shaped craters that were destroyed in the 1959 earthquake that effected lots of the thermal features in the park (and created Quake Lake, close to where I like to fish on the Madison River in Montana). On this day, the hot air from Sapphire Pool combined with the cool afternoon breeze to create quite the smoke screen.

Skis back on, we headed back home. The hill proved a little much for me, but Wendie took it like a young Hermann Maier.

Even with the downhills on our side it took us a little longer than we expected to get home and we were quite happy not to have to go work that night.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

canyon day tour

Yesterday we were booked on an all-day tour to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, which not only goes to Canyon but also drives the entire lower loop of the park as well. Because all of the interior roads are closed, a tour like this is the only way you can get to the Hayden Valley or Yellowstone Lake. We knew the other six guests on the trip, and our guide and driver was our neighbor and all-around great guy, so we were excited to get loaded up and on the road.

Our first stop was Gibbon Falls, where the NPS is working on moving the road and constructing a new bridge to restore some of the thermal features in the area.

A short while later we pulled over along the Gibbon River to see a total of 6 swans 'a swimming

When the snowcoach is in motion the front windows are kept open a crack to prevent the windshield from fogging up, but whenever we stopped we had to make sure that we closed them to keep out the ravens.

Yup, ravens are apparently winter's criminals, and there are signs up everywhere warning you to secure your lunch. Apparently last year a tour group came back to their coach to find a huge raven inside, ripping into someone's lunch.

We stopped at the Chittendon Bridge, over the Yellowstone River, to look for Otters.

Sadly we didn't see any otters, just their tracks.

Steve still managed a smile anyway.

We had a picnic lunch at Artist's Point, which overlooks the lower falls (and is one of the most photographed waterfalls in the world.)

And then we drove up to the Lower Falls for a quick look around.

We were all anxious to get to the Hayden Valley, as wolves have been spotted near Mud Volcano this week. Our friend, who delivers snacks to the vending machines via snowmobile, interrupted a pack of wolves chasing a herd of bison on Saturday: they stopped just ahead of her in the road and basically shook their heads at her for spoiling their hunt.

Just north of Mud Volcano we spotted two bison off in the distance, and all of a sudden they started running. Soon two wolves could be seen coming down the hill, and we watched them from a (great) distance for a while rolling in the snow and half-heartedly pursuing the bison.

We haven't seen any bison since we left the northern range, but in the Hayden there were hundreds of them, including this guy who looked like he was wearing part of a Christmas tree

and of course, the requisite snow-on-bison-face shot, from rooting around looking for something (non-frozen) to eat.

We did stop at Mud Volcano, where it was cool to see mud bubbling up from the earth, the steam mixing with the snow that was falling.

As we approached Fishing Bridge we spotted this fox on the side of the road. He watched us, we watched him, until he grew bored of us and wandered away into the forest.

Our last scheduled stop of the day was at the Lake Hotel, where Yellowstone Lake has only frozen over about halfway at this point.

We all arrived back at the lodge at 6 p.m. Guests who have taken the tour always tell us how tired they are, and we couldn't understand why until we jumped out of the coach. It was an awesome, but awesomely long day, and we still had to finish up our regular shift. We grabbed a quick dinner (and some caffeine!) and worked until 9. As we were heading home our little coyote friend went running past the front door of the lodge. We watched him, and his partner, for a few minutes before we headed home for the night.