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A Life In Wonderland

Yellowstone's Legendary 'Winterkeeper' Steven Fuller Takes MoJo Readers On An Intimate Exploration Of The World's First National Park


January 7, 2018 —The Beginning

Steven Fuller will be telling the story of his life in Yellowstone through photographs, essays and extended caption.  The image featured here is titled "Sun Pilar" and, in describing why its been a regular muse, he writes, "On a sub-zero cold morning an ephemeral vertical pillar of light appears below the rim of the Canyon at sunrise.  Hexagonal crystals of frost, each  a tiny mirror, float in the still air. The crystals orient themselves horizontally as they float in the still air where they reflect the light of the rising sun back and forth, each amongst the others, creating a crystalline synergistic crowd sourcing that manifests an extraordinary visual phenomena."
Steven Fuller will be telling the story of his life in Yellowstone through photographs, essays and extended caption. The image featured here is titled "Sun Pilar" and, in describing why its been a regular muse, he writes, "On a sub-zero cold morning an ephemeral vertical pillar of light appears below the rim of the Canyon at sunrise. Hexagonal crystals of frost, each a tiny mirror, float in the still air. The crystals orient themselves horizontally as they float in the still air where they reflect the light of the rising sun back and forth, each amongst the others, creating a crystalline synergistic crowd sourcing that manifests an extraordinary visual phenomena."
I'd like to share my inaugural dispatch by sending warmest greetings from this place called Yellowstone, which for nearly half a century has been my home.

For years I have sent occasional emails to friends and family with a few snapshots of some of the remarkable things I had seen in my neighborhood located as it is in the center of the park.

When my old friend Todd Wilkinson launched Mountain Journal, I was delighted at first sight with the quality of the journalism and its’ pertinent focus on the escalating friction between the secular and the natural in the region and with its’ recognition of the fragility of the Yellowstone Park core of the region. A core that has been at the heart of my adult life.

Our culture insists that our individual being is enclosed in a skin bag that defines the boundary between our self and the environment. What is on the inside is “me”, what is on the outside is “other”.

Over my years in Yellowstone, my sense of self has expanded beyond my personal physical boundaries and even beyond my surrounding intimate landscape. Tat Tavam Assam, “That Art Thou”, says the ancient Hindu wisdom.

“That” is my beloved place, and that beloved place is the greater me. It is a truth so deeply felt, that the mutilation of my place simultaneously wounds me, not intellectually but emotionally.
Fuller writes of this photographed titled, simply, “Cock’s Eye Halo”:  A 22-degree halo created by ‘diamond dust’. The halo is the child of several forms of crystals floating in the sub-zero air. Some of the crystals act as mirrors that reflect the light as they tumble through the air, others shaped differently, act as prisms that refract the light into its rainbow colors. Voila!  On foot or on skis there is magic, wonder…despite the pain of the cold, to behold such plays of light, ephemeral aerial optical manifestations. Thanks to HAL, aka Goggle, I just learned that the Cornish, those fey Celts west of the Tamar on the Lizard Peninsula—since the English conquest the furthest southwest of England—a halo round the sun was called a ‘cock’s eye’; presumably, they were domesticated fowl folk.”
Fuller writes of this photographed titled, simply, “Cock’s Eye Halo”: A 22-degree halo created by ‘diamond dust’. The halo is the child of several forms of crystals floating in the sub-zero air. Some of the crystals act as mirrors that reflect the light as they tumble through the air, others shaped differently, act as prisms that refract the light into its rainbow colors. Voila! On foot or on skis there is magic, wonder…despite the pain of the cold, to behold such plays of light, ephemeral aerial optical manifestations. Thanks to HAL, aka Goggle, I just learned that the Cornish, those fey Celts west of the Tamar on the Lizard Peninsula—since the English conquest the furthest southwest of England—a halo round the sun was called a ‘cock’s eye’; presumably, they were domesticated fowl folk.”
In time, among a fortunate few, this comprehension grows to encompass all the creation, which is what the Hindus meant by Tat Tavam Assam all along. In my experience this is one of the profoundest core insights humanity has ever put into words (as alien, even as incomprehensible to many as it may seem in our contemporary shared paradigm of estrangement). 

As Americans we pride ourselves on our mobility. According to Google, typically an American moves more than eleven times in their life.  Not much opportunity for most of us to experience osmosis let alone intercourse with a place. 

For what it is worth, as a consequence of living year round for more than forty-five years in the heart of this ecosystem, I fancy I enjoy a connectedness with this place. 

Prior to the recent modern age, our predecessors throughout the world had the advantage of incorporating not only their own experience but the wisdom of countless previous generations into their understanding and connectedness with their place. One profoundly personal piece of that connection for me is not only the bond I feel for Yellowstone, but that the park is forever imprinted on the identity of my now-grown daughters and may it always represent a homecoming for them.

Here I am a grandfather with no opportunity, other than with friends, to share whatever I have gleaned in a few decades living intimately in this Yellowstone world.  I hope through words and images to share something of my sense of connection with you, my fellow friends of Yellowstone, a place of mutual belonging.  I look forward to our regular meetings. Meantime, join me as we explore together the known and unknown.
Of this image, titled “Crepuscular”, Fuller observes, “As the sun rises crepuscular rays stream out of the light and shadows created as ‘steam’ from nearly hot springs drifts through nearby trees.  The rays radiate like the spokes of a wheel spreading from the hub of the sun at the center. Crepuscular refers to twilight, that magical transformation of day to night, of light to dark, and of night to day, of dark to light.”
Of this image, titled “Crepuscular”, Fuller observes, “As the sun rises crepuscular rays stream out of the light and shadows created as ‘steam’ from nearly hot springs drifts through nearby trees. The rays radiate like the spokes of a wheel spreading from the hub of the sun at the center. Crepuscular refers to twilight, that magical transformation of day to night, of light to dark, and of night to day, of dark to light.”

January 10, 2018—"Bison People" At The Front Door

Steven Fuller observes: "Early in the winter some of the half dozen bull bison/buffalo that hang on in the meadows around the house come up right next to the house to take advantage of the summer sun dried graze that is accessible in the shallow snow shadow around the perimeter of the house, as seen through my living room windows."
Steven Fuller observes: "Early in the winter some of the half dozen bull bison/buffalo that hang on in the meadows around the house come up right next to the house to take advantage of the summer sun dried graze that is accessible in the shallow snow shadow around the perimeter of the house, as seen through my living room windows."
Buffalo have been at home in the sunlit meadows on which my house sits since the blooming of the Holocene Spring and the greening of the central Yellowstone Plateau that followed the melting of the most recent North American glaciation 11,000 years ago.

I have had the pleasure of living in some degree of intimacy with buffalo these past 45 years and without exception I have found them to be most tolerant and agreeable neighbors. I respect their bubble of space and read their body language which is the means by which they communicate with their own kind as well as with us alien species. We have enjoyed a congenial, convivial relationship during my brief tenure here.
"Recently, as I was grinding my morning coffee beans in the kitchen, my cats indicated that there was a being of interest directly below the windows on our enclosed front porch," Fuller shares. "Pressing my face against the glass I saw, then could hear this bull grazing directly below me. Occasionally his horn bumped the exterior wall of the house below my feet. But for the window glass I could have reached out and touched his back." Photo by Steven Fuller
"Recently, as I was grinding my morning coffee beans in the kitchen, my cats indicated that there was a being of interest directly below the windows on our enclosed front porch," Fuller shares. "Pressing my face against the glass I saw, then could hear this bull grazing directly below me. Occasionally his horn bumped the exterior wall of the house below my feet. But for the window glass I could have reached out and touched his back." Photo by Steven Fuller
The American bison survived specicide by a whisker and Yellowstone, only by its isolation, was a last refuge. But like all of the creation, in this narcissistic anthropocentric end of times in which we find ourselves (know it or not), all beings and places survive only by our benefice. All things, secular and holy, are monetized, tis the only criteria of value. So deconstruction of the Creation is deductible from our bottom line. Mammon is our idol.

And so, bison are anathema around the perimeter of the park to the traditional livestock interests “bar room vs. science biology” as well as to the wealthy urban newcomers who are fearful of the nature they have come to enjoy.

Unfortunately, few visitors to Yellowstone speak “Buffalo” and so what we got here is a failure to communicate with the result that more park visitors are injured by bison than by any other animal.
"Tails are wonderful appendages," Fuller offers. "They are signal flags that communicate an animal’s state of mind and a fly whisk to protect vulnerable portals. Pity we have lost ours but for the vestige coccyx, which has no independent wag left in it. Since wolves were re-introduced buffalo with only a stub of tail are a not an unusual sight…I presume they lost their tails when they were young to raw jerky stick loving wolves that enjoyed the sport of snatching tails…capture the flag!."
"Tails are wonderful appendages," Fuller offers. "They are signal flags that communicate an animal’s state of mind and a fly whisk to protect vulnerable portals. Pity we have lost ours but for the vestige coccyx, which has no independent wag left in it. Since wolves were re-introduced buffalo with only a stub of tail are a not an unusual sight…I presume they lost their tails when they were young to raw jerky stick loving wolves that enjoyed the sport of snatching tails…capture the flag!."
Visitors quite naturally are thrilled by the sight of this archetypal animal who in summer is usually day bedded in a dust wallow, chewing cud and, swishing tail to discourage annoying insects. But, exuberant visitors inevitably mimic a Paleolithic hunting party as they surround the poor beast in search of their perfect selfie. And so, some naive souls end up horn tossed into a tree or onto a distant spot in the dirt, sometimes having had their groin impaled upon a very large horn.

Buffalo live in the moment, their concerns and the current state of their minds at the moment. When we do not understand their communications they may flee or they may boil up emotionally at our ignorance, and severely punish us for our lack of understanding, or in their view, for our bad manners.

The American poet John G. Neihardt’s published “Black Elk Speaks” in 1932. It is the story of a Lakota Sioux who as a boy followed the buffalo with his people and as an old man sequestered to a reservation wearing trousers, eating corn meal and slow elk.

Black Elk, through Neihardt, spoke of the winged people (birds) and the buffalo people…and of the other beings who share the creation. Literal anthropological authenticity be damned, the poetry of the book illuminates an alternate reality and reveals some of the hollow places within us.

Speaking as a west European descended American male I have long felt that our relationship with the buffalo is a touch-stone for a useful self examination of ourselves as a people. a meditation if you please, for retrospection on our larger relationship with this bountiful America of purple mountains and amber fields of grain, this richly endowed continent that we have consistently abused and raped, with occasional gestures to preserve and protect small surviving fragments of an expropriated endowment.

The buffalo people are a useful touchstone for this self examination. That famous notorious photographed mountain of buffalo skulls, let alone countless undocumented pyramids of skulls… "Alas, you poor Yoricks! We never knew you well” and we killed your millions casually, without comprehension or care.
"One of several bulls that spend much of the year, often within sight of the house, and sometimes within a few yards of the door. This bull and I have known each other, that I am aware of, for four years now. He might dispute this and say it has been six or eight years and certainly he would be the more knowledgeable," Fuller says.
"One of several bulls that spend much of the year, often within sight of the house, and sometimes within a few yards of the door. This bull and I have known each other, that I am aware of, for four years now. He might dispute this and say it has been six or eight years and certainly he would be the more knowledgeable," Fuller says.

January 14, 2018—'Backyard Haunt Pulling At My Soul'

Steven Fuller writes, "With a long lens, the view from my stoop, my front step, looking eight miles to the south across Hayden Valley where steam rises from one of many complexes of hot springs, geysers, and mud pots found throughout the valley."
Steven Fuller writes, "With a long lens, the view from my stoop, my front step, looking eight miles to the south across Hayden Valley where steam rises from one of many complexes of hot springs, geysers, and mud pots found throughout the valley."
I once had a lover with whom I delighted to trace the sensual topography of her form. Similarly, there is pleasure in exploring the sensuous contours of the Hayden Valley, a landscape that is the antithesis of the craggy manly mountains that surround the Yellowstone Plateau where I live. On foot, on horseback, on skis. Hayden Valley is the place of many of my most delightful dalliances in nature.

Water abhors Euclidean geometry. In Taoism water is the most feminine of the five elements. Water was the genesis of the Hayden Valley millennials ago when the melt of the last glaciation created a Greater Yellowstone lake that included the basin we know in our tenure here and now as Hayden Valley.

Fuller observes, "Hayden Valley is riven with many of these hydro-thermal areas, most unnamed and little known. Difficult and often dangerous winter conditions and an abundance of summer grizzly bears deter most visitors from exploring the region beyond the edge of the highway." Photo by Steven Fuller. Click to enlarge.
Fuller observes, "Hayden Valley is riven with many of these hydro-thermal areas, most unnamed and little known. Difficult and often dangerous winter conditions and an abundance of summer grizzly bears deter most visitors from exploring the region beyond the edge of the highway." Photo by Steven Fuller. Click to enlarge.
As the ice melted the sand, gravels, and rocky debris that the ice carried were released to drift down to the watery floor of the basin lake where they accumulated in communities of curvaceous mounds. Once the greater lake receded to the remnant we know as Yellowstone Lake remained as the sensuous hills and hillocks on the floor of contemporary Hayden Valley.

Hayden Valley lies at the geographical, and in my mind, spiritual heart of Yellowstone. And it begins just to the south of my home at Canyon. It is dissected by the Yellowstone River upstream from where it flows out of the Yellowstone Lake to where the river falls precipitously more than 300 feet into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

From my front door stoop I have a clear view to the south across eight miles of the valley to one of its’ many complexes of hot springs and mud pots. And, there are many other interesting sights, both geographical and animal, in between.

The dimensions of the Hayden Valley are about 8 miles east/west and north/south (some say 60 square miles), but within these relatively small parameters motorized mischief is prohibited so the valley is made large and enhanced because we enter on foot and so can enjoy a space within which there are dimensions enough for peace, quiet, delight, and danger.

What is the sound of wilderness to me? It is the wind, not a four- or two-stroke engine, nor the sounds of gears.

Hayden encompasses a combination of unique geographical and geological characteristics that are unknown anyplace else on the planet. Seasonally the valley has two faces, in summer it is a verdant Serengeti of wildlife like the Lamar, in winter the valley is an albino desert of great dunes and snowy maria plains.

On skis I am a speck in a frozen oceanic topography of snow, ice and frost. But there are temperate islands hidden though out the valley where I can make land-fall and de-ski and walk on the snow free geo-thermally warmed earth amid the steam, the smells, and the sounds of lost worlds.
Fuller observes, "This rime ice was formed when wind driven “steam”, that is super-cooled liquid water vapor from the nearby hot springs, bumped into this dead tree and instantly froze on contact. Further deposition causes these needles of rime to propagate into the wind." Photo by Steven Fuller
Fuller observes, "This rime ice was formed when wind driven “steam”, that is super-cooled liquid water vapor from the nearby hot springs, bumped into this dead tree and instantly froze on contact. Further deposition causes these needles of rime to propagate into the wind." Photo by Steven Fuller
There are lush green carpets of moss that are nourished by frequent snow-melt water and green succulent like plants that hug the perimeter of hot humid steam vents. Other warm pools sustain micro-climates where brine flies in their thousands graze on green algae mats where in turn they are taken, like sheep, in their hundreds by large predatory spiders. It is a place to listen to the pantheist whispers all round and for a little while I am free of the twattle of the secular world that fills most of our minds most of the time we are alive.

There are many tracks, those of a solitary bison or of a small cow herd whose tracks are often over ridden by those of wolves and coyotes. Sometimes there is a bison holed up in one of these islands. There is little to forage but he or she saves energy by not having to make way through the surrounding deep snow drifts. Sometimes I find him dead, wolf-killed, other times “winterkilled”, that catch all word that encompasses all the makings of mortality… age, injury, starvation, exhaustion.

Zen mind…Sking back, sometimes eight miles, usually as the light is lowering, but sometimes at dusk or by moon light, always with the prevailing southwest wind at my back, I contour through the snow softened topography. The rhythm of skis and poles quiets the mind. When snow conditions are just so I seem to move effortlessly. Other times, when fresh powder is up to my knees I may make a mile in a couple of hours and the physical trumps the mind.
"Snow cornices resembling albino sand dunes grow on the lee side of the hills in the valley. The opposite windward side of the hills is mostly swept clean of snow allowing these bull bison to graze on the forage on the crest, poor as it is, but with a minimum expenditure of energy," Fuller writes. Photo by Steven Fuller
"Snow cornices resembling albino sand dunes grow on the lee side of the hills in the valley. The opposite windward side of the hills is mostly swept clean of snow allowing these bull bison to graze on the forage on the crest, poor as it is, but with a minimum expenditure of energy," Fuller writes. Photo by Steven Fuller
Later, as I ride up the trail to the house on my snowmobile a small welcome light shows through a window in the house half hidden in deep drifts of insulating snow. Inside the frost and icicles on my moustache and beard melt and drop off in the warmth of the mud room as I de-boot and change into house clothes. A couple of cats get up from where they have been napping, stretch, then come over with their tails in the air to greet me. A good day has been had by all.

January 18, 2018—Red, White And On The Prowl

Foxes were an occasional sight on the central Yellowstone Plateau upon my arrival here, though sightings have become more frequent in recent decades, perhaps as a consequence of the re-introduction of wolves. Which knocked back the population of coyotes which had been killing/eating the foxes.

I am endlessly fascinated by the dynamism of nature here; never is there stasis or equilibrium; what happens with one species affects another.

Now, any winter sighting of a fox with its plush winter tail recalls a high end downy winter sleeping bag, which I suppose when wrapped around a fox’s body while snuggled in a tree-well surrounded by insulating powder snow is quite cozy, particularly if you have a full gut after a successful day snagging voles who supposed themselves safe under many feet of overhead snow.

Regarding this photo, “Dancing Foxes”: I have seen this posture only twice, each time in February, during the canid mating season. I presume the waltz involves that of a mated pair in a brief emotionally-charged domestic couples conversation.
Fuller's photo, "Dancing Foxes," which won him an award.
Fuller's photo, "Dancing Foxes," which won him an award.
One year, late in winter at mid-day, a fox routinely sat on the roof ridge of my house, presumably taking in the panoramic view. The highway to Canyon had opened to the public for the spring season just that morning and the first local auto accident of the year occurred when a van—the gawking driver distracted by the sight of a fox atop my roof—ran off the road into a snowbank.

No one was hurt, it was the first of many similar mostly minor accidents that occur for similar reasons every summer in Yellowstone—of people extracted the extraordinary.

I too feel the magic that foxes exude as well as the charisma of the many other iconic North American predator and prey species among whom I live. All of us, great and small, wild and domesticated, are increasingly in the grip of the accelerating whirlwind of climate change. All our lives will be profoundly changed in ways none of us can anticipate.
A Yellowstone fox in twilight trots toward the sound of stirring voles. Photo by Steven Fuller
A Yellowstone fox in twilight trots toward the sound of stirring voles. Photo by Steven Fuller
For the four and a quarter million visitors from all round the world the sight of a fox, buffalo, or grizzly bear may be the only real experience of these creatures in their lives.

Who can fault them their distraction? None of us, and I include myself, is at our best when in the tourist mind set. I just hope they don’t distractedly crash into me when I am on some mundane domestic mission.

The red fox (Vulpes vulpes) is native to North America and Europe, though I would hazard to guess too many may not realize, as biologists point out, that the majority of foxes seen in the eastern U.S. and plains states are descended from foxes introduced to our continent in the 18th and 19th century. The purpose was supply animals for horseback fox hunts and fur farms.

Recent research in Yellowstone suggest that the foxes resident around Canyon are “mountain foxes” (V. v. macroura), a subspecies that dwell at higher elevations in a few places in the Northern Rockies. Genetic analysis will tell.

It’s tough for a predator to sustain herself in winter. The cold and the heat sucking wind coupled with the exertion spent to make way through deep snow requires a reliable minimum caloric intake. Poor hunting leads to early death.

This sequence of photos shows a fox playing hide and go eat with a vole. The fox’s acute sense of hearing is focused on the faint sounds of a vole busy under several feet of snow in the subnivean zone, that airy interface between the bottom of the snow pack and the relatively warm earth below.
At rest the voles are warm within hollow nest balls of dried grass that are further insulated by the surrounding snow field. They dwell in what's called the subnivean layer.

The fox listens to the rustle of the vole amid the crispy dried grasses of summer, or maybe to the sounds of delicate crystals of hoar breaking as the vole moves about down below. Or, perhaps the fox picks-up on conversations among members of the vole community, or maybe on just the sounds of the vole talking to himself. Every sound enables the patient predator to triangulate the exact location of its’ prey until… Boom!, something big with lots of teeth bursts through your ceiling. End of story.

In myriad ways, we are all predators and prey. For now I eat you, in time you will eat me, and so the wheel goes round.

January 22, 2018—The Language of Snow, Part 1

"Tasting a snow cream puff," Steven Fuller writes, "and up here on the Yellowstone Plateau the snow tastes good.."
"Tasting a snow cream puff," Steven Fuller writes, "and up here on the Yellowstone Plateau the snow tastes good.."
For half of each year Yellowstone is snow country where an ethereal world of countless crystalline mirrors and prisms envelope the terrestrial world and the landscape is transformed into a snowscape.

As a winterkeeper, by trade, I am a carver of snow.

Working with an eight foot saw I quarry big blocks of snow from out a voluptuous dune of snow atop a roof, transforming nature’s sensuous forms into engineered geometries. Then with D-handle steel coal shovel I skid the blocks down off the roof onto a pile of rubble and debris, which in springtime will evaporate, unmaking my mischief.

Snow, pure and pristine, refreshes; falling soundlessly it cleanses the air of dust and soot, and it softens and smooths the world. For awhile it conceals some of our sins and unplowed it heals the highwayman’s scars. In the gloaming the sky is snowing while I hear a chorus of wolves far away.

Snow can fall in central Yellowstone any day of the year but it falls with increasing frequency in September, coming and going until it becomes permanent in November then omnipotent through the long winter until the spring equinox when it recedes in gradual decline to disappearance.

I feel an exuberance as winter sets in—the sparkle of a full moon lit snowfield, the tracery of blown snow on the windward side of a stand of lodgepole pines. There is pleasure even in the face of a blizzard, hunkered down, sheltering within the lee of a tree well to chew some biltong. Then, of course, there is the comfort of a cup of tea within sight of the fire where a cat naps, while outside the stars flare in a deep-cold mid-winter sky.
Surface hoar on snow at the edge of a thermal pool—yet another solid-water manifestation of Yellowstone in winter. Photo by Steven Fuller
Surface hoar on snow at the edge of a thermal pool—yet another solid-water manifestation of Yellowstone in winter. Photo by Steven Fuller
Snow faithfully documents the comings and goings in the neighborhood, which is a very busy one indeed where the tracks of coyotes, buffalo, snowshoe hares, squirrels, foxes, mice, birds, weasels and martens mingle in a muddle until they are erased by the next snow and the accountancy commences once again. There is satisfaction in reading the spoor, of translating its’ hieroglyphics so as to unravel the behaviors and stories recorded in the tracks and scats.

The convention that Eskimos have a hundred words for snow has been repudiated in recent years though a Canadian site documents 30 Inuktitut words for snow and ice.

The internationally agreed scientific lexicon of the cryosphere distinguishes 29 kinds of snow, 8 falling and 21 fallen. Then, there is the vernacular, the lingo, of skiers and snowboarders. Both scientific jargon and ski speak are dialects of specialized sub-cultures, not the complex languages of peoples who live out their lives in snow worlds.
The internationally agreed scientific lexicon of the cryosphere distinguishes 29 kinds of snow, 8 falling and 21 fallen. Then, there is the vernacular, the lingo, of skiers and snowboarders. Both scientific jargon and ski speak are dialects of specialized sub-cultures, not the complex languages of peoples who live out their lives in snow worlds.
Beautiful snow words from around the world: sastrugi, the wind drifted/eroded surface texture of snow. Sun cups. Sun made snow slab and its cousin wind-slab. Snow rollers, sometimes as big as a tire where snow has rolled down a slope forming a tight coil. Snow snakes, those “pendulous droops” of snow formed when solid snow behaves like a viscous liquid. Graupel, wind driven pellet snow that stings the face and signals the presence of beautiful snow squall clouds.
Fuller calls this a "wind-drawn French curve"
Fuller calls this a "wind-drawn French curve"
A few snow words of my own:

Wet and dry snow: when the sun turns some of the surface of the snowpack to liquid water molecules that cause the underlying dry powder snow to stick in clumps to the bottom of my skis.

Sandpaper snow: when the air temp is very cold so the snow has no glide, and it is like skiing on sand.

Mash-potato snow: wet snowman making snow, press a dime into the snow and you can read the date in the cavity left when you remove the coin.

Styrofoam snow: common in late winter when the days are warm and the nights cold. You can walk on it in the morning but fall through it with every step in the afternoon.

Greenhouse snow: delicate windows of ice that form under the strengthening late winter sun above the snow so you can peer through them down into the voids around sage bushes.

On windy days, when the trees begin to creak and groan, one must be cautious skiing through the forest. Heavy pillows of snow, some a hundred pounds plus each, have accumulated on pine tree branches and boughs overhead. When they fall from their perches they create formidable impact craters on the snow pack below. Best not to be hit by one.

And there is the “whump”, that hollow sound as one skis across the snow pack that signals the collapse of a weak layer and the potential for an avalanche. It is a warning sound, like the woof of a bear, not to be ignored.
Says Fuller of this firescape: "The vertical lines are snags, the burned standing lodgepole pine trees of a forest swept by a very hot fire. The horizontal lines are shadows caste by the snags that reveal the snowy contours of the hills on which the charred forest grew." This photograph won an award at an international photography competition in London and won praise from the legendary artist Ralph Steadman, who served as one of the judges. Photo by Steven Fuller.
Says Fuller of this firescape: "The vertical lines are snags, the burned standing lodgepole pine trees of a forest swept by a very hot fire. The horizontal lines are shadows caste by the snags that reveal the snowy contours of the hills on which the charred forest grew." This photograph won an award at an international photography competition in London and won praise from the legendary artist Ralph Steadman, who served as one of the judges. Photo by Steven Fuller.
On cloudy days when the light is flat and there are no shadows nor highlights, when the eye can’t distinguish between a hole and a hill and it is easy to ski off the crest of an unseen snow cornice.

Then, there is the poignancy of the winters’ passing. In the early years snow brought welcome isolation from the frenzies of the world of man. Not only is snow an effective thermal insulation against the cold, it is also a fine insulation against the white noise of the secular world.

But, in the course of my tenure here, there has been a steady shrinkage of the boundaries of the nivean frontier. Snowmobiles access the previously inaccessible. Snow plows, welcome in mid-April when first we came here, are interruptus of the bliss when they arrive now-a-days the first week in March. In Yellowstone our defined winter has become a much abridged version of nature’s winter.

With human-caused climate change, the effects of which I've witnessed, we are losing more than the snow which makes winter winter. We are losing an amazing medium that makes Yellowstone Yellowstone for half of the year.
How deep does the snow get? "My pantry lies under a snow pillow at the back of the house."
How deep does the snow get? "My pantry lies under a snow pillow at the back of the house."
Digging out to let the sun in. Like Michelangelo plying a piece of carrara marble, Fuller continues the process of cutting away the icy slab almost as dense and heavy as concrete. Photo by Steven Fuller
Digging out to let the sun in. Like Michelangelo plying a piece of carrara marble, Fuller continues the process of cutting away the icy slab almost as dense and heavy as concrete. Photo by Steven Fuller

January 29, 2018—My Golden Assignment

Winterkeeper Steven Fuller ventures into the geothermal mists of Yellowstone. Photograph courtesy Kerry Huller (www.kerryhuller.com) for the Casper-Star Tribune
Winterkeeper Steven Fuller ventures into the geothermal mists of Yellowstone. Photograph courtesy Kerry Huller (www.kerryhuller.com) for the Casper-Star Tribune
My longtime friend, Mountain Journal editor Todd Wilkinson whom I met when he worked as a summer employee at Canyon during 1982 and 1983, asked me to reflect on an article I wrote for National Geographic magazine. “Your article piqued my original interest in coming to Yellowstone,” he told me.

The story I wrote and photographed, “Winterkeeping in Yellowstone,” appeared in the December 1978 issue of National Geographic.

Reading the article for the first time in four decades was poignant. I was smitten by how much was familiar yet at the same time foreign. The same place, Yellowstone, and the same house, but re-reading the piece was a visit to a vanished epoch of my life.

Angela has been gone from Canyon thirty years now, while Emma and Skye, our daughters, have grown into middle age. The 21st century Yellowstone that still surrounds the house and defines my world is different from the one I knew when I landed here in 1973. Nature’s Yellowstone is still mostly the same, but Man’s Yellowstone is much changed.

The article in National Geographic appeared five years after I was hired starting October 1st, 1973, as the Canyon winterkeeper by the then-concessionaire, the funky old Yellowstone Park Company. I wish I could say that I was selected because my impeccable professional credentials or that I prevailed over a pool of competitors hundreds strong.

I got the job because I was the only applicant. It paid $13.25 a day.

In my youth, I had a yen for travel that led me to Europe, Africa and Asia. After ten years of wandering it was time to find a place to put down roots. I recognized the Canyon winterkeeper’s job on first sight as what I had been looking for and what I needed.

Here was an opportunity to live a romantic part of that unique American cultural dream, Natty Bumppo,The Leather Stocking Tales, all over again. A self-sufficient life on the frontier of a wilderness not yet citified and tamed by bourgeois law and order in an unwounded landscape, unlike so much of the despoiled world I had seen.
Steven Fuller's story was widely read and served as a touchstone for millions desiring to hear about a side of Yellowstone most never see.
Steven Fuller's story was widely read and served as a touchstone for millions desiring to hear about a side of Yellowstone most never see.
Here was an opportunity to live in a landscape replete with most of its original wildlife. “Need a helping hand?...look to the end of your arm”, was the ethos. In the early years winter in Yellowstone fulfilled this vision very nicely indeed.

To the two million visitors that came here during summer, running from roughly Memorial Day to Labor Day, Yellowstone was known for its begging bears along the roadside and gateway towns filled with souvenir shops whose profitability was based on the maximum take during the manic tourist season, known to the locals as “the salmon run."

When Angela [then a British citizen] and I moved into the Canyon winterkeeper’s house our nearest neighbors were 19 miles away on the north shore of Lake Yellowstone. They consisted of the legendary ranger Jerry Mernin and his wife Cindy, and two old time winterkeepers, Jerri Bateson and a guy known as ‘Silent Joe”, whom I never met.

Nineteen miles was a long way in those days via primitive snowmobile through the wild Hayden Valley often deep with drifting snow and white-outs. If you got stuck or suffered a fuel-line freeze up in a bitter cold whiteout in the middle of the valley, you could perish. The only other social alternatives were 40 miles west, or 36 miles north, in two small park gateway towns; otherwise, there was not a resident human soul twixt here and anywhere.
Steve and Angela Fuller raised and homeschooled their daughters, Emma and Skye, at Canyon. It was a matchless education and a life that will forever be imprinted upon their identity. Here, at left, Emma uses a frost-covered window as a drawing board and, at right, reminders of their growing years. This spread appeared in National Geographic. All photos by Steven Fuller
Steve and Angela Fuller raised and homeschooled their daughters, Emma and Skye, at Canyon. It was a matchless education and a life that will forever be imprinted upon their identity. Here, at left, Emma uses a frost-covered window as a drawing board and, at right, reminders of their growing years. This spread appeared in National Geographic. All photos by Steven Fuller
We had a landline telephone, mail came more or less monthly, I had a short wave radio on which to listen to the BBC North America service. I subscribed to the weekly tissue paper air edition of “The Guardian/Le Monde/Washington Post”, which usually arrived in outdated clots of three or four copies.

Ours was a world without cell phones or internet. The concept of selfie and texting was a generation away from conception let alone universal realization. Then there were no devices available to immediately share with the rest of humanity your every move, or location, or evidence of existence, so contemporary post-moderns may confuse “solitude” with existential “isolation”.

To me solitude has always connoted a quiet space away from the white noise, both inner and outer, that isolates us from our opportunity for self-realization.
At Canyon, the electricity often went out, once I recall for two weeks, but we had Coleman lanterns and candles and a propane fired refrigerator and our young daughters, Emma and Skye, found power outages opportunities to invent novel new games.

We arrived at Canyon with Emma, a toddler then at 18 months. A year later her sister, Skye Canyon, was born two days after the winter solstice, in the doctor’s office in West Yellowstone, Montana, 40 miles away.

Emotions rush forward now thinking about the magic of young children in a magic place. Emma and Skye started riding horses in diapers on my saddle in front of me and began skiing shortly thereafter. We started winter camping by the time Skye was five and she was independently ski capable.
To me solitude has always connoted a quiet space away from the white noise, both inner and outer, that isolates us from our opportunity for self-realization.
As a family, or with their English mother, they went to England every year and so were comfortable in both worlds, unintimidated by public school boy toffs or by arrogant Wyoming ranch boys.

We homeschooled them, we had both taught in East Africa, until their interests shifted from the home to their peers and so Angela and the children wintered at the north entrance to the park during the school year, while I continued living and working at Canyon.

After graduation Emma, with a degree in Central American Studies, traveled the world. She worked three seasons at the South Pole, and in the course of a decade visited 46 countries until she married a grizzly bear biologist and settled in Livingston, Montana, 60 miles north of the park.

Skye took her degree in Anthropology and spent five years in LA working for the Natural History Museum before moving to Reno, Nevada and then taking a job with Patagonia, the environmentally active outdoor clothing company.

Winterkeeping—the “toughest job in Wyoming” an old timer told me when I took the job. I thought he was trying to scare me off, but there was a grain of truth in what he said.
These photos appeared as part of Fuller's photo illustration for National Geographic. The image on the left features "snow pillows"; on the right is a walk through the Shoshone Geyser Basin while on a winter backcountry ski trip.
These photos appeared as part of Fuller's photo illustration for National Geographic. The image on the left features "snow pillows"; on the right is a walk through the Shoshone Geyser Basin while on a winter backcountry ski trip.
The old Canyon Village, the tourist facility a mile north of the house, was built in the 1950s. The Village had a hundred buildings and I was responsible for seeing that none of them collapsed under their winter snow load.

Early one winter the junk snowmobile I had been given broke down. I took the one-lunger engine out, cradled it in my arms, and skied it down to the highway and put it on a snowcoach in order to get it down to the company repair shop forty miles north. I never saw it again.

I spent that winter skiing to and from work a mile away, where I hauled a ten-foot aluminum ladder, two steel coal shovels, and my eight-foot snow saw on my shoulders from building to building in order to cut the snow cornices off each and every one of them. I never gave it a thought; "it was what it was" and maybe that old timer had been right.

I came to pleasure and take pride in the craft of the winterkeeper, in the knowledge of the properties of snow and of the hand skills required by the work, how to quarry great blocks of snow with a minimum of energy and a maximum of artistry as I wielded my saw, listening to its’ song as it danced over my head. (see Thomas Merton’s translation of Chuang Tzu’s “Cutting Up an Ox”).

In that early decade of our life in Yellowstone the summer people season was short. Canyon Village catered to visitors from mid-June to mid-August. At the end of the season, as the plumber, I helped shut it down, winterized it, and by September the park went quiet.

Closures for bears, done for “resource protection,” were few then, so I could range most wherever and whenever I wished. In April I mingled with buffalo cows while they gave birth. In the autumn I usually horse packed solo into the remote Mirror Plateau, and in winter I skied and camped at will. No permit required, simply be thoughtful and gentle, and do no harm.

But, like everywhere on the planet, the press of people in Yellowstone continues to follow the familiar exponential curve characteristic of recent human history.

With so many visitors, 4.25 million this last year, almost all of whom are urban and to whom Yellowstone outside their vehicles is an alien planet, ever more rules and enforcement are the only way to protect “the resource”, i.e. that Yellowstone we threaten to “love to death” from harm and visitors from self-harm.

No one will ever again know this, our Canyon neighborhood as we once did.
Fuller and his now-grown daughter, Emma, flip through the pages of National Geographic's 1978 issue in which Fuller chronicled his family's life in Yellowstone and his adventures as winterkeeper. Photo by Joe Sawyer
Fuller and his now-grown daughter, Emma, flip through the pages of National Geographic's 1978 issue in which Fuller chronicled his family's life in Yellowstone and his adventures as winterkeeper. Photo by Joe Sawyer

February 4, 2018—Meandering Fates

"The antlers of a bull elk who died at the edge of a pond years ago," Steven Fuller writes. "In the beginning the rack stood high and dry above the boggy surface, the antlers' boney bases and the top of the skull clearly visible, but over the years I have watched it settle ever deeper. I wonder if the antlers will completely disappear before I do?" Photo by Steven Fuller
"The antlers of a bull elk who died at the edge of a pond years ago," Steven Fuller writes. "In the beginning the rack stood high and dry above the boggy surface, the antlers' boney bases and the top of the skull clearly visible, but over the years I have watched it settle ever deeper. I wonder if the antlers will completely disappear before I do?" Photo by Steven Fuller
In English the word “sign” refers to animal tracks, or to other evidence of an animal’s passage or presence.

Having spent several years in the wilder parts of Southwest Africa, (my Yellowstone doppelganger, my “mirrored self”), the Afrikaans word “spoor” evokes a wider spectrum of meanings.

Spoor is an artifact, a trace, a hint, or evidence that tells a story, usually of animals, birds, or insects … day beds, rubbings, horn or claw marks, tracks, scat, an odor, a sound, a feather, strands of hair, bent grass, a dust wallow, or a displaced pebble on an animal trail. Each is an example of spoor.

Early one spring before sunrise while walking a frozen stony “game” trail on which there was no discernable spoor I noticed a single small pebble knocked loose from the frozen matrix of the trail. Nothing else.
Coyote tracks cross geo-thermally warmed ground onto snow covered ground…the difference is delineated by a sharp line between the hot and the not. Photo by Steven Fuller
Coyote tracks cross geo-thermally warmed ground onto snow covered ground…the difference is delineated by a sharp line between the hot and the not. Photo by Steven Fuller
Something ambulatory had recently proceeded me and the knowledge heightened my alertness. I wondered about that pebble, until a mile or so later, where the trail crossed some impressionable hydrothermally- warmed earth, I saw the fresh faint spoor of a bear.

In the absence of any other sign I thought it likely the bear was the prime mover of the dislodged stone.

For at least a hundred thousand years our hunter and gatherer ancestors everywhere in the world, both men and women, were sophisticated readers of any trace of disturbance, any useful bit of information, in their environment. Their livelihood and survival depended upon it. They enjoyed the accumulated wisdom of countless previous generations and there was no separation between themselves and the natural world of which they were integral.
"Wind eroded fox tracks," Fuller observes. "Where the fox has stepped the snow has been compacted and made more dense and thus more resistant to the wind that erodes and strips away the surrounding matrix of airier looser snow—doughnut tracks." Photo by Steven Fuller
"Wind eroded fox tracks," Fuller observes. "Where the fox has stepped the snow has been compacted and made more dense and thus more resistant to the wind that erodes and strips away the surrounding matrix of airier looser snow—doughnut tracks." Photo by Steven Fuller
The ancient art of reading spoor is nearly extinct. The corpus of knowledge, the experiential and intuitive ability to interpret spoor by the surviving, mostly elderly practitioners, the last of their kind, is astonishing to us urbanized aliens.

Until we began to coalesce into agricultural cities 10,000 years ago our ancestors for a hundred times longer lived immersed in nature. Our modern ignorance of who we were for 99 percent of our existence, and just under the skin still are, is at the root of our malice. This disconnect is the genesis of the deep discontents with ourselves and the civilization into which we have shoe-horned our spirits.

My ability to read or even to be aware of the presence of spoor is infantile compared to that of our forebears. But, I enjoy noticing the obvious and speculating about the frequent riddles I find in my rambles.

The distant alarm call of a squirrel or of chickadees is not to be ignored. A flock of ravens may indicate a carcass and perhaps a day-bedded bear. Or a nearby pack of wolves.
Otter tracks in hydrothermally heated mud next to "frost flowers" at the edge of the Yellowstone River. "The tracks are at the end of an otter slide down a snow slope that leads up to where an otter has eaten several fish leaving only shards of skin, the coarser bones, and a nearby midden of urine and scat," Fuller says.
Otter tracks in hydrothermally heated mud next to "frost flowers" at the edge of the Yellowstone River. "The tracks are at the end of an otter slide down a snow slope that leads up to where an otter has eaten several fish leaving only shards of skin, the coarser bones, and a nearby midden of urine and scat," Fuller says.
Where grasses have inscribed crescent arcs in the snow testifies to the wind that woke me last night. The varied properties of buff pies generally reveal the approximate age of the animal that made it, their sex, the season in which the pie was made, and how recently it was plopped.

And there are pseudo-morphs, those shapes, forms, structures that suggest a track or sign but prove on close examination to be the artifact of wind or frost or some other inorganic agency. This is the reason that a single ambiguous track doesn’t count, always there must be two or more as proof of the read.

Whenever we cut the scent trail of a bear my horse companion of 20 years, Ishiwah, would pause, lower his head to the ground and take-in a deep draught of the odor. He was not alarmed by the spoor, he never showed fear of grizzlies in any of our encounters, but his body language made it clear to me that a bear had recently passed this way. His nose enabled me to be aware of visually invisible spoor.
The bones of a coyote that died of injury or age while seeking succor on the warmth of a geyser cone lie in a pool of supersaturated mineral water that is refreshed with each eruption of the geyser, Fuller explains. "The bones provided armatures on which, in the course of years, siliceous sinter was deposited to form an ever thicker encrustation. Mineral deposits eventually closed over the watery window where the bones lay." Photo by Steven Fuller
The bones of a coyote that died of injury or age while seeking succor on the warmth of a geyser cone lie in a pool of supersaturated mineral water that is refreshed with each eruption of the geyser, Fuller explains. "The bones provided armatures on which, in the course of years, siliceous sinter was deposited to form an ever thicker encrustation. Mineral deposits eventually closed over the watery window where the bones lay." Photo by Steven Fuller
Spoor offers endless curiosities: The icy cast of the concave bottom of a buffalo’s hoof, for instance, made when the bull stepped in wet snow. Then the cast was caste from the mold of his hoof creating an artifact that looks like the cotyledon of a seed, once one was so handsome I brought it home and put it in the freezer.

Or the perfect bloody impression in a snow drift where a wolf thrust its’ face so as to cleanse it of the accumulated gore come of feeding on a winterkilled bison.

Or, in late winter, a buffalo pie caps a pedestal of snow so as to resemble an odd mushroom. Reading the spoor I figure the weight of the pie has compacted the snow making it more resistant to melting than the surrounding snow in the heat of the day, thus is created a short-lived buffalo pie hoodoo.

It might also take the form of a mushroom nibbled by a squirrel, and cached on a limb at my horseman’s eye level, or one on the ground partially eaten by a deer. The feather of a swan, and then more feathers, blood on the snow and drag marks lead to where a coyote had taken the bird into some timber to eat. The belly trough down a snow slope to the river leads up to where an otter has eaten several fish leaving only shards of skin and the coarser bones and nearby a midden of urine and scat.
"My ski spoor is calligraphy writ on the body of the snow world. I contour in what I like to think of as compatible curves that reflect and respect the flow of the landscape. No straight lines, no herring-bone vertical climbs, no zig-sag cut backs while ascending a slope. I try to practice skier’s calligraphy and avoid skier’s graffiti."
Early one spring, my friend, Joe, and I squatted on a game trail debating whether the grizz tracks vivid in the mud were made last night or this morning when another friend, Amy, came crab walking back down the trail where she had gone ahead silently mouthing “grizz!” and gesturing over her shoulder to where a sow and two yearlings were audibly breaking the bones of a winter-killed bison.

Having been here for a long while I am aware of my own spoor both on foot and on skis. I am a peasant skier, not into performance in any sense of the word. In Hayden Valley I like to ballroom dance with the topography as my partner—she leads, I follow.

I contour in what I like to think of as compatible curves that reflect and respect the flow of the landscape. No straight lines, no herring-bone vertical climbs, no zig-sag cut backs while ascending a slope. I try to practice skier’s calligraphy and avoid skier’s graffiti. My ski spoor is calligraphy writ on the body of the snow world.
Go your own way: "A deep trench made by a line of bison, a herd of mostly cows and their recent offspring," Fuller says. "The group probably included some young spike bulls, but certainly no mature or breeding bulls. Each animal steps into the tracks of the one before. The girth of the shaggy barrel of the largest animals sculpts and smooths the sides of the trench and that of the younger animals does the same for the lower portion of the trench." Photo by Steven Fuller
Go your own way: "A deep trench made by a line of bison, a herd of mostly cows and their recent offspring," Fuller says. "The group probably included some young spike bulls, but certainly no mature or breeding bulls. Each animal steps into the tracks of the one before. The girth of the shaggy barrel of the largest animals sculpts and smooths the sides of the trench and that of the younger animals does the same for the lower portion of the trench." Photo by Steven Fuller
I intend no pretentions, but I would like to paraphrase a description of Japanese calligraphy as it applies to ski tracks. The skier has but one chance to create with the brush (skis). The track cannot be corrected, and even a lack of confidence shows up in the work which is best practiced in a state of “no mind”, no self-consciousness, no intent. The skier must be fluid in execution, the track is a statement about the skier in a moment of time. Clear your mind and let the ski ink flow, no need to look back, enjoy the flow of your previous poem on your return home.

Sometimes I cut the spoor of a couple of skiers, I see where they stopped to pee, then the tracks reveal where one was talking over the shoulder about wife, husband or boss. Here is where they stopped to smoke a joint. They leave a spoor of inattention that scars the perfection of the snowscape.

We all make tracks and scat and so we all leave spoor in our travel through life. But, all to varying degrees are ephemeral, even those writ in stone. No more permanent than our shadow, all sign of our winter passage melts with the snow and blows away in the wind.

February 11, 2018—Plunging Into The Abyss

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, a wonder of the world and not well understood even by those who visit America's first national park often. One of the most widely photographed scenes in Yellowstone, Fuller strives to avoid cliches with his interpretation of the Lower Falls. Photo by Steven Fuller
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, a wonder of the world and not well understood even by those who visit America's first national park often. One of the most widely photographed scenes in Yellowstone, Fuller strives to avoid cliches with his interpretation of the Lower Falls. Photo by Steven Fuller
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is a geyser basin like none other in the park. Yes, geyser basin. On cool mornings plumes of steam from geysers, hot springs, and fumaroles rise from the canyon walls and along the river’s edge a 10,000 feet below.

Its edge begins a little more than a quarter of a mile away from where I am writing these words.

The canyon is a river-eroded transected geyser basin and cut into a mountain of volcanic ash leftover from Supervolcano. The rocks at the head of the canyon down river from the Lower Falls have long been and continue to be hydrothermally altered by hot acidic water that rises through the networks of fractures that reach down to the volcanic magma mass that underlies central Yellowstone.

This corrosive chemistry has weakened and degraded the rhyolite lava bed rock so that it is more easily eroded by the river than the harder unaltered rock at the Lower Falls, the upriver boundary of the geyser basin.

In addition, the extreme hydrothermal chemistry acts as a catalyst that alters the elemental components of nature’s pallet of pigments, or more simply said, this is why the canyon is so spectacularly colorful. The canyon continues today to be an alchemical crucible of chromatic chemistry in action.

Mechanically, the Kodachrome canyon gash we adore is the child of the raging melt water born of the very rapid final wasting of the ice of the last glaciation that occurred about 12,500 years ago that flushed the debris from the ancestral canyon and rapidly deepened the canyon we know today.

In some places the upper end of the canyon is almost as deep as it is wide, and since the rims are heavily timbered the forest conceals the chasm until you come right up on it.
The photo here was taken from behind Fuller's cabin. "In the background, a plume of steam, water vapor, rises up and out of the canyon," he writes. "This ephemeral jewel of a light catcher is generated by the fall of the Yellowstone River over the 308 foot cliff at the head of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone."
The photo here was taken from behind Fuller's cabin. "In the background, a plume of steam, water vapor, rises up and out of the canyon," he writes. "This ephemeral jewel of a light catcher is generated by the fall of the Yellowstone River over the 308 foot cliff at the head of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone."
A member of an early scientific expedition in 1869 turned in his saddle to sort out some pack animals while his horse continued on the way as a trusted horse would, when the animal suddenly stopped. He turned back around to see that the horse had halted on the very rim of the abyss.

A threesome of waterfalls is closely associated with the Canyon: first the post card famous Lower Falls at the head of the canyon. Second, a half mile up river, the109-feet-high Upper Falls.
"On a subzero morning shortly after sunrise floating frost crystals born of hot springs deep in the Canyon fill the air," Fuller writes. "There are two shapes of crystals. One acts as a prisim that separates white light into the spectrum of colors visible to us and a second form that reflects white light like a mirror. A photo cannot convey this nuance, but if you have the good fortune to see this in the real world, and take the time to look deeply, you can see the light show of both crystals dancing."
"On a subzero morning shortly after sunrise floating frost crystals born of hot springs deep in the Canyon fill the air," Fuller writes. "There are two shapes of crystals. One acts as a prisim that separates white light into the spectrum of colors visible to us and a second form that reflects white light like a mirror. A photo cannot convey this nuance, but if you have the good fortune to see this in the real world, and take the time to look deeply, you can see the light show of both crystals dancing."
Between the two the river follows a sweeping “J” (“hockey stick”) course where, midway the parent creek of the close-by Crystal Falls, a 129 feet high triple cascade, joins the river. Isolated from these three a fourth, Silver Cord Cascade, descends 1200 feet down a vertical wall on the south side of the Canyon three miles downriver from the Lower Falls.

My house sits about two New York city blocks distant from but directly overlooking the Lower Falls which is hidden from view situated as it is deep in the narrow chasm at the head of the canyon. The Lower Falls’ location is usually obvious because of the plume of water vapor that rises from it for hundreds or even for a thousand feet or more into the sky.
Often overshadowed by its more prominent sibling, the Lower Falls, the Upper Falls is one of three waterfalls located near the head of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Here, Fuller pays homage to one of the shorter cascades in the trinity, resplendent unto itself. Photo by Steven Fuller
Often overshadowed by its more prominent sibling, the Lower Falls, the Upper Falls is one of three waterfalls located near the head of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Here, Fuller pays homage to one of the shorter cascades in the trinity, resplendent unto itself. Photo by Steven Fuller
I wish I could appropriate the African name for Victoria Falls, which would be as appropriate here as it is there: “the smoke that thunders.”

The house faces south south-east so the plume is backlighted at sunrise and whenever a cold clear night is coincident with the rise of a full moon the plume appears luminescent, as magical as a towering genie.

In the spring, at the end of hot sunny days when rapid snow melt has swollen the river, the roar of the falls fills the night. Surprisingly the noise doesn’t come from the Lower Falls directly below me where the river crashes over a 300 feet high cliff but from the Upper Falls, almost exactly twice as far, .08 of a mile away.

The reason is obvious when you stand at the brink of the Upper Falls looking down river where the spreading canyon walls form a megaphone that points directly at the house.
"Beautiful and seductive, the Canyon is a widow maker. The Canyon is hungry, its hydrothermally degraded walls are often crumby or clay slicked. I have thought of the canyon as an ambush predator, like the sand trap of a giant ant lion."
When low clouds hang over the Upper Falls and the acoustics are just so I can hear the sounds of the riffles in the river below the falls…some evening I expect to hear the song of a water ouzel (American Dipper)—“the bird that flies underwater,” splashing around down there, almost a mile away.

Beautiful and seductive, the Canyon is a widow maker. The Canyon is hungry, its hydrothermally degraded walls are often crumby or clay slicked. I have thought of the canyon as an ambush predator, like the sand trap of a giant ant lion, where the unstable materials around its’ perimeter invite a fatal fall into its maw.
"A winter snowstorm embellishes this old pine snag that has extended a formidable root in an attempt to belay the itself from being drawn into the maw of the canyon," Fuller notes. "Think of clawing your fingernails in slow motion into the top edge of a cliff with a 1,200-foot exposure. Eventually the pull of gravity over-whelmes the life force in all of us." Photo by Steven Fuller
"A winter snowstorm embellishes this old pine snag that has extended a formidable root in an attempt to belay the itself from being drawn into the maw of the canyon," Fuller notes. "Think of clawing your fingernails in slow motion into the top edge of a cliff with a 1,200-foot exposure. Eventually the pull of gravity over-whelmes the life force in all of us." Photo by Steven Fuller
People do fall into the canyon. A motorist backed his car off the north rim until gravity irresistibly captured them, killing him and his wife. A sundry have slipped to their deaths. Others have been killed by rocks falling or thrown into the canyon.

One young man committed suicide with a spectacularly romantic leap onto the brink edge of the lower falls. The father of a longtime Yellowstone friend of mine recalled the time he encountered the corpse of a female, “her buttocks partially emergent, white as ivory” at rest in a favorite fly fishing hole where she had washed down from the upper Yellowstone.

Two men died when climbing the 1,000-foot Silver Cord stalactite of ice attached, until they descended it, to the south wall of the canyon late in May. In the early 1950’s several visitors reported witnessing a bear fall fatally into the canyon, so it is not just us tourists that mis-step.

In winter the Lower Falls is mostly sheathed in ice while a pile of snow and ice accumulates at its’ foot which in some years is massive. The top of the mass may reach near to the brink of the falls, other years it assumes the form of an asymmetrical, but pleasing cone, or it may evolve as a low slung ridge of ice.
“Tom Thumb,” a small geyser near the foot of the Lower Falls was historically accessible at the terminus of Uncle Tom’s Trail near the base of the cataract. Tom, an early private tourism purveyor, created the trail in the decades after Yellowstone was created. Subsequently, much having to do with resource protection and liability reasons, the National Park Service shortened and reconfigured the primitive trail as an iron stairway that no longer terminated at the river level. A new trail will make its debut in 2018. Photo by Steven Fuller
“Tom Thumb,” a small geyser near the foot of the Lower Falls was historically accessible at the terminus of Uncle Tom’s Trail near the base of the cataract. Tom, an early private tourism purveyor, created the trail in the decades after Yellowstone was created. Subsequently, much having to do with resource protection and liability reasons, the National Park Service shortened and reconfigured the primitive trail as an iron stairway that no longer terminated at the river level. A new trail will make its debut in 2018. Photo by Steven Fuller
Every winter its form is different, reflecting variables in temperature, wind, precipitation, water flow, and other less obvious mysteries of the morphology of ice cone formation. Then, some warm mid-March day or night, the whole mass collapses, an event I have never witnessed. Yesterday it was there, this morning it is gone.

In any season the canyon and falls are an irresistible attraction for the aerially empowered. Every few years several jet fighters do a couple of low wide turns around the falls overwhelming everything else with their mega- thunder, vastly louder than the falls can muster even at spring tide. The whop-whop of a single helicopter indicates a rescue or recovery operation or sometimes an inspection by a politician, or a film crew capturing a view unprecedented until now, late in the Anthropocene. One afternoon a half dozen Hueys in formation paid an aerial visit, ‘twere Ride of the Valkyries redux.

The canyon and lower falls are a spectacle immortalized for more than a century on countless millions of postcards, mega miles of film, petabytes of digital memory rendering most of us numb to the reality of what an extraordinary space this place is. Most of us are more focused on bagging it than absorbing it. Check it off the bucket list and hurry on to Old Faithful, the Tetons, or back to wherever.

I have lived closely proximate to this canyon and its’ trinity of waterfalls for many years but it remains an elusive icon, like meeting a movie star in the flesh, how do you connect with the person behind the famous mask, how do you see into a landscape become a national cliché?
"On a sub zero morning, 'snow pillows' sit atop hoodoo rocks on the rim of the canyon and frame an ephemeral sun pillar," Fuller writes. Photo by Steven Fuller
"On a sub zero morning, 'snow pillows' sit atop hoodoo rocks on the rim of the canyon and frame an ephemeral sun pillar," Fuller writes. Photo by Steven Fuller
In one of various intimate forays with this place I once attempted to walk at river level from Seven Mile hole (7 miles below the Lower Falls) to Tower Junction, a further fifteen miles downstream. Along the way trout were abundant and naïve and easily caught in the deep clear pools. On the sylvan bench of a side canyon I found the undisturbed bones of a venerable bull bison and a cast iron griddle and a rusted out frying pan. Who, why, and when remained unanswered.

With increasing frequency sheer cliffs reached down into the river forcing me to climb high in order to by-pass them. Game trails, mostly mule deer, showed the best routes, though in places were so precipitous I wondered if there were goats locally resident.

Once past the cliff I dropped back down to the river until around the next bend I encountered the next cliff and again and again the whole strenuous process was repeated. The trout weren’t the only naif in the canyon, call me Candide.

Having budgeted only three days for the jaunt I climbed out of the canyon on the third day and proceeded along the rim trail the rest of the way to Tower and my pick-up at the appointed time. Pleased, I had experienced a bit of the canyon seldom seen.

Undoubtedly the most successful visionary of the Canyon was the great American painter Thomas Moran. During two of the forty days he first spent in Yellowstone in 1871, in company with the Hayden Geological Survey, he sketched many details of the canyon and falls which, upon his return to his studio, he incorporated into his 7 X 14-foot opus, “The Grand Canon of the Yellowstone 1872." (See at bottom.) This magnificent work was instrumental in inducing Congress to create Yellowstone as a national park.

The canvas is not a literal portrays of the Canyon, rather it is a faithful composite of the whole, a montage of elements based on the details sketches he made on site. As I walk or ski the canyon I sometimes experience a mild epiphany when I recognize some of those details that he rearranged and incorporated in a true rendering of a sense of this place that transcends the photographic.

The painting is a movable feast of saturated colors and shifting illuminating light cast on the canyon walls via drifting mottled translucent clouds after a summer rain. His rendering of this synergy is one I attempt to re-experience each summer when, on rare occasions, all of the right conditions harmonize and confirm the palette of canyon colors and the play of light Moran faithfully portrayed in this wonderful work.

The details: within the canyon the perfect sweep of a mount Fuji curve (very Hokusai) that defines the mound in the middle distance, the scattering of pines throughout the canyon that have pioneered the unlikely but live-able niches on the canyon walls (“bloom where you are planted”), the desiccated twisted snags, those tortured skeletal Yellowstone bonsai.

On the wall of the canyon he portrays the familiar creep of a dark vegetative mat below a hot spring, in another the multi colored aqueous abstract patterns that recall the ancient art of marbled paper

And the peripheral details, small, but they convey the landscape context in which the Canyon exists. The speck of an eagle high in the sky, small plumes of steam that mark hot springs on the walls of the canyon. In the far middle distance he acknowledges Hayden Valley. And, most appropriately, the plumes of hot springs and mud pots at Mud Volcano eight miles to the south.
Every February for a short time in Yosemite National Park, sunshine strikes Horsetail Falls and creates a visual effect that resembles a waterfall on fire. Similar kinds of phenomena happen in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone depending upon the seasonal arc of the sun, weather and steam pouring out of the ground. "What marvelous hot springs lies hidden in this canyon cliff cleft revealed on this cool morning by an ephemeral tease of steam," Fuller writes of this image. " Photo by Steven Fuller
Every February for a short time in Yosemite National Park, sunshine strikes Horsetail Falls and creates a visual effect that resembles a waterfall on fire. Similar kinds of phenomena happen in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone depending upon the seasonal arc of the sun, weather and steam pouring out of the ground. "What marvelous hot springs lies hidden in this canyon cliff cleft revealed on this cool morning by an ephemeral tease of steam," Fuller writes of this image. " Photo by Steven Fuller
On the far southern rim of the Yellowstone plateau, way beyond the canyon focus of the work, he portrays a suggestion of snowy mountains, or be they clouds?...or both? Ambiguity is rampant up here on the Yellowstone Plateau, one of its’ many charms.

The painting is “psychedelic” in the sense that it “creates an elevated sense of awareness” of the wondrous nature of this “scenic climax”, a term in the lexicon of the modern scientific formulaic criteria used to quantify the aesthetic values of scenery, usually as a means to monetize the place. Master artists, conflicted poets, and the simple minded recognize the canyon’s numinous nature on first sight, no spreadsheet required.

Moran was first a master of observation, seeing the whole in the mélange of the details, then on the canvas he was a master colorist with the technical skills to convey his poet’s minds’ eye.

Osborne Russell, the first and the last of the literate mountain men who knew Yellowstone in the late 1830s, put it well, “For my own part I almost wished I could spend the remainder of my days in a place like this where happiness and contentment seemed to sing in wild romantic splendor”. Moran said something similar and so do I.

Of course, it was viewed for the first time by humans long, long before that. Native people frequented the interior of the park since at least 9,000 years ago, though I am not aware that any evidence as old as that has been found in the canyon area.

The first evidence of a person with European ancestry visiting the Canyon were the initials “J.O.R. and the date “Aug 19, 1819” near the Upper Falls. The graffiti was last reported in the 1890s when it had naturally grown over and was nearly indecipherable. Thereafter it was lost.

In the 1890s there was a serious proposal to build an elevator to the base of the lower falls, an amenity attractive to the less robust amongst the visitors of the time and a revenue generator for the more entrepreneurial/savvy among us. Opponents of the idea were disparaged as elitists. Such thinking more broadly about nature still echoes today.
Thomas Moran's "Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone" unveiled before Congress in 1872.
Thomas Moran's "Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone" unveiled before Congress in 1872.

February 22, 2018—Riding The Storms Out

Late in the day before the storm came. Do animals know that it's time to stock up? The fox is intent on something moving around the stump. Whatever it was she ate it. In the far distance, to the left, two buffalo graze on a windswept ridge. All photos (c) by Steven Fuller
Late in the day before the storm came. Do animals know that it's time to stock up? The fox is intent on something moving around the stump. Whatever it was she ate it. In the far distance, to the left, two buffalo graze on a windswept ridge. All photos (c) by Steven Fuller
With 46 inches of snow on the ground and wind drifted cornices many times deeper, these bulls have moved onto windswept ridges. The graze is poor, but they avoid burning energy plowing through deep snow to get at the graze below. Whatever their strategy by this time in the winter they are burning more energy than they are taking in. The equation will kill some of them before spring.
With 46 inches of snow on the ground and wind drifted cornices many times deeper, these bulls have moved onto windswept ridges. The graze is poor, but they avoid burning energy plowing through deep snow to get at the graze below. Whatever their strategy by this time in the winter they are burning more energy than they are taking in. The equation will kill some of them before spring.
Knowing a strong storm was on the way I wanted to clear this snow loaded roof before the weather hit. The roof is way too steep to clear with a saw and shovel in the traditional fashion.  So, up on top, I cut a curf with my snow saw the length of the roof ridge, then set a loop of wire down in the cut. Next, I dropped each end of the wire down to the ground.  With one end of the wire secured to a “dead-man” I pull the other end of the wire closing the loop releasing the snow mass from the roof.
Knowing a strong storm was on the way I wanted to clear this snow loaded roof before the weather hit. The roof is way too steep to clear with a saw and shovel in the traditional fashion. So, up on top, I cut a curf with my snow saw the length of the roof ridge, then set a loop of wire down in the cut. Next, I dropped each end of the wire down to the ground. With one end of the wire secured to a “dead-man” I pull the other end of the wire closing the loop releasing the snow mass from the roof.
The winterkeeeper's humble tools of the trade. No snowblowers are taken up on a pitched roof.
The winterkeeeper's humble tools of the trade. No snowblowers are taken up on a pitched roof.
The goal is to set off a controlled slide and stay clear. Unfortunately, in this case, there is a “hanging chad”, where a part of the cornice on top hung up. This will be a problem when next I wire the roof.
The goal is to set off a controlled slide and stay clear. Unfortunately, in this case, there is a “hanging chad”, where a part of the cornice on top hung up. This will be a problem when next I wire the roof.
That afternoon it began to snow. A glimpse of the sun in-between storms; light soon to vanish.
That afternoon it began to snow. A glimpse of the sun in-between storms; light soon to vanish.
That night the house shook with the wind and occasionally a dusting of little snow crystals came in through my open bedroom window and drifted onto my face, pleasant tingles.
That night the house shook with the wind and occasionally a dusting of little snow crystals came in through my open bedroom window and drifted onto my face, pleasant tingles.
Unconcerned the cat, Tiger, napped at the stove.
Unconcerned the cat, Tiger, napped at the stove.
The next morning. Unbeknownst to me, last night’s storm was only a prelude to the next five days.
The next morning. Unbeknownst to me, last night’s storm was only a prelude to the next five days.
The drift at the back door, my winter entrance, the next morning. There was much more to come. Tiger and Black Girl, permanently confined to quarters, long for the snowy world outside. At the foot of the door were tracks and urine left by a pine marten.
The drift at the back door, my winter entrance, the next morning. There was much more to come. Tiger and Black Girl, permanently confined to quarters, long for the snowy world outside. At the foot of the door were tracks and urine left by a pine marten.
Eventually the storm—this one—passed. And we can only hope for more, nature's insurance against wildfire for now only a notion.
Eventually the storm—this one—passed. And we can only hope for more, nature's insurance against wildfire for now only a notion.
Overnight the temperature dropped to -30 degrees F according to the thermometer outside the back door. I had to stand on tip toes in the doorway to make out the temperature over the drift. I passed the next two days digging up out from the door, excavating the snowmobile, and breaking a snowmobile trail out to the road—all harder than it sounds. There is a lot more winter to come and I am seriously concerned that it will be necessary to put a ladder in the snow hole so as to get in and out of the door.
Overnight the temperature dropped to -30 degrees F according to the thermometer outside the back door. I had to stand on tip toes in the doorway to make out the temperature over the drift. I passed the next two days digging up out from the door, excavating the snowmobile, and breaking a snowmobile trail out to the road—all harder than it sounds. There is a lot more winter to come and I am seriously concerned that it will be necessary to put a ladder in the snow hole so as to get in and out of the door.
Cold days and nights followed. The view from the front door looking south. After the storm laid down several feet of new dry powder snow and the -20 degrees F cold clarified the air and the secluded world was renewed.
Cold days and nights followed. The view from the front door looking south. After the storm laid down several feet of new dry powder snow and the -20 degrees F cold clarified the air and the secluded world was renewed.
Steven Fuller
About Steven Fuller

Steven Fuller has been the "winterkeeper" at Canyon Village deep in the heart of Yellowstone National Park for 45 years.  Well traveled on several continents, he is also an award-winning nature photographer.  Follow him at A Life In Wonderland appearing exclusively at Mountain Journal.  His collectible photography is also available through Yellowstone Gallery.  Steven Fuller profile photo by Neal Herbert/NPS
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