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Twilight Of The Yellowstone Winterkeepers
December 24, 2022
Twilight Of The Yellowstone Winterkeepers
With 50 years of solitude, Steven Fuller is a living legend in Yellowstone and an endangered 21st-century icon
By Todd Wilkinson
Steven Fuller has reached his 49th consecutive New Year’s Day morning in Yellowstone. He arrived in America's first national park 50 years ago in 1973.
In years' past, he's often greeted a new annum by skiing into a whirl of falling graupel and trees jangling like wind chimes. With fumaroles billowing geothermal steam around him, he's glided solo into the far "back side" of Hayden Valley when the thermometer reads -20 degrees (or even cryogenically brisker), his silhouette quickly fading into diaphanous light.
Bound for his favorite cluster of prismatic paint pots that shall not be named, Fuller's course often intersects with fresh furrows of a bison trail, tracks of a wolf pack and branches of fir covered in hoarfrost. Stopping to admire these patterns of “animal calligraphy” scrawled in the crystalline snow, it's been his tradition to honor his natural muses by raising his camera to make yet another portrait of his homeland. It's a place that everyone has heard of, but none know as intimately.
Yellowstone is changing—it's climate and the volume of people passing through, in ways more profoundly since he started working there in the 1970s. What he senses—generally warmer winters and fewer extended deep-freeze conditions, wetlands shrinking in their outlines, whitebark pine in the high country turning to ghost trees, longer fire seasons and warmth and dryness lasting longer—is more than gut instinct. It's confirmed by scientific readings going back to long before he arrived. In the northeast corner of Yellowstone there are now, on average, 80 to 100 days more above freezing than there were in the 1960s. (To learn more about that, click here, And download a free issue of Yellowstone Science by clicking here).
As the “winterkeeper” at Canyon Village—a development that sits nearly astride of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone in the park's geographic heart—Fuller has one of the rarest occupational titles in a warming world.
The other day while catching up, he told me he had witnessed more than 14,000 sunrises in Yellowstone “and looking out my front windows I have been thrilled by what I have seen every time. Each one holds greater meaning.”
In his bones, Fuller knows that change is coming as the clock of nature and temporal existence keeps ticking. Old Faithful's eruption seems predictable, reliable and eternal; his tenure in Yellowstone—it's been a longer one than any of his peers in the park's storied history—is ephemeral, he admits, as seasons of memories flash by.
On our spinning, increasingly-crowded planet with 7.5 billion human souls, Fuller is, in extraordinary ways, one-of-a-kind—a modern anachronism. He is a jack-of-all-trades engineer keeping Canyon's buildings operating during the busy summer season. But philosophically, he is a throwback—a mixture of Henry David Thoreau, Henri Cartier Bresson, Ansel Adams, and with pinches of Lao Tzu, Edward Abbey and Noam Chomsky thrown in for good measure.
None of them, however, have courted solitude as he has. When it comes to Fuller's reclusive relationship with winter, he has cultivated a tapestry of poetic idioms—his own Fullerian language— for describing snow and atmospherics that would make even the Inuit proud. Some are meteorological allusions; others architectural; still more customized to describe the otherworldly realm that is his wild backyard which brushes up against more than four million annual tourist visits.
Mountain Journal was founded to illuminate the spirit of America’s last best ecosystem in the Lower 48 and we hope you will support us if you like reading stories like this. Greater Yellowstone, for which Yellowstone Park is its spiritual center. We can think of no one better suited to help make sense of the reasons we celebrate it.
Since Fuller also began writing a column in 2018 and which appears when he has time, MoJo readers have enjoyed an insider’s perspective of Yellowstone. The septuagenerian has filed visual dispatches, chronicling not only his contemporaneous encounters but sharing imagery and vignettes of inspiring, sometimes harrowing encounters going back to his arrival in 1973.
Appropriately, Fuller's column is called A Life In Wonderland. Operating like a journal, it will speak to a kind of hermetic geographical experience that has all but vanished in the Anthropocene—or at least from the Lower 48 states.
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I first met Fuller and his former wife, Angela, in 1982, upon taking a summer job during college working as a cook at Canyon Village. I credit them with deepening my own sense of connection to the park and this region. Angela would go on to gain distinction as a world-class hotelier, overseeing Jenny Lake Lodge in Jackson Hole and the revitalization of the historic Pollard Hotel in Red Lodge, Montana. The couple also raised two daughters at Canyon.
As for Steve, he's never left Yellowstone. A Mojave-Desert-born son of a National Park Service ranger, Fuller studied history at the Ohio campus of Antioch University. Then he spent two years in Europe, studying in England, where he met UK-born Angela.
Eventually tiring of European cities, the young couple set off for Africa, a continent that continues to pull Fuller back every year. In Uganda, Fuller taught in a Shiite Muslim middle school. He sailed to India and Southeast Asia, the only American traveling in steerage class on his boat. Returning to the States, he interned for The Associated Press, covering the U.S. Senate. He also worked as an emergency-room technician at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Then he and Angela made their way to West Yellowstone.
Top: Magical alchemy: a Fuller photo taken at the rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone with mist turned into ice crystals being churned by wind and originating as water tumbling over the Lower Falls then meeting cold winter air. Photo below it: "The iconic waterfalls at the head of the Grand Canyon of the Upper Yellowstone River on a late autumn morning," Fuller writes in the caption for this image. "The Canyon winterkeeper’s house sits about 600 meters directly to the right of the falls." Photograph by Steven Fuller
Winterkeepers mentioned in the lore of Yellowstone were an eccentric lot, a mixture of antisocial, hard-drinking libertarians who wanted to get away from people (and suffered occasional mental breakdowns) and bearing the traits of hardy, rugged individualists.
“Going back to the nineteenth century, winterkeepers tended to be basically backwoods good ol’ boys, and not necessarily with a high level of education. They were looked upon as refugees from civilization, trying to get away by hiding out as hermits,” retired Yellowstone Park historian Lee Whittlesey told me years ago. “Steve Fuller has done a lot to change that prosaic image, but he has his own Thoreauian place as an anomaly in the twenty-first century.”
“Going back to the nineteenth century, winterkeepers tended to be basically backwoods good ol’ boys, and not necessarily with a high level of education. They were looked upon as refugees from civilization, trying to get away by hiding out as hermits. Steve Fuller has done a lot to change that prosaic image." —Retired Yellowstone historian Lee Whittlesey
Yellowstone’s first winterkeeper was George Marshall, who spent the winter of 1880-81 at his now long gone Marshall Hotel in the Lower Geyser Basin. By 1887, there were also winterkeepers at Old Faithful, Canyon, and Norris.
Until the advent of motorized transportation—snow planes in the 1940s, and snowcoaches and snowmobiles in the 1960s—there was no winter tourism to speak of in Yellowstone and travel to the interior did not happen. It was the sole domain of its winterkeepers and parallel to what researchers in Antarctica know today but even they have far more access—physical and digital—to the regular world.
Fuller inhabits an historic wood-framed, cedar-shingled house (circa 1910) that is set maybe a quarter mile above the rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone—the place where Thomas Moran stood and sketched in 1871, ultimately inspiring masterworks that, in turn, inspired Congress to set aside Yellowstone as the first national park in the world a year later.
Notably, Fuller's rustic quarters are also a stone’s throw away from the site of the historic Canyon Hotel, designed by architect Robert Reamer that, in its day, was considered the most inspiring guest lodge in the world, superior in its charm even to the Old Faithful Inn.
Once upon a time, tourists staying there could watch grizzly and black bears being fed in nearby open-pit dumps. But today the hotel is long gone, its remnants having returned to the earth but its departure significantly improving Fuller’s views, some stretching for 150 miles.
When the Fullers arrived in the park in 1973, and subsequently raised and home-schooled their daughters, Emma and Skye, wolves had been eradicated and grizzlies were on their way toward extirpation.
The lack of inundation by humans in the Yellowstone backcountry is one reason why the park still has all of its original mammals and birds that were there in 1491—before Europeans came to the continent and before the park became a pleasuring ground for tourists. For millennia, it was home to a band of the indigenous Eastern Shoshone known as "the Sheepeaters" and other tribes that came seasonally or passed through.
Megafauna in diversity and abundance and which move long distances seasonally in migration are only able to persist in a modern world where lots of people are not—be it human settlements or vast numbers of outdoor recreationists. As seemingly big as Yellowstone and adjacent Forest Service wilderness areas flanking it seem, Fuller says, they are actually quite small, and rare, growing more so with each passing year.
“His situation has allowed him to spend an immense amount of contemplative time in a wild landscape in order to develop his way of seeing," Doug Peacock, the noted author, Green Beret medic in Vietnam, environmental activist, and friend of Fuller told me more than 20 years ago in a story I wrote for The Christian Science Monitor. "Fuller's great value to us is his way of being the shaman who goes out into ... the other world.”
“His situation has allowed him to spend an immense amount of contemplative time in a wild landscape in order to develop his way of seeing. Fuller's great value to us is his way of being the shaman who goes out into ... the other world.” —Doug Peacock
Fuller has a photo portfolio of hundreds of thousands of images of Yellowstone. He has visual impressions of the park’s wildlife and landscapes in all seasons, representing a library that is likely unsurpassed.
Fuller’s eye and technical skill first gained national attention when his pictures appeared in a National Geographic magazine feature, “Winterkeeping in Yellowstone,” in 1978. The story, unprecedentedly long for the time, made him a bit of a folk hero. Later, a photograph titled "Garish Moose, Yellowstone Lake" won the prestigious International Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award and earned him invitations to give public talks at both the National and Royal Geographical societies in both the U.S. and U.K.
“Through Steve’s photographic vision, we all get to experience Yellowstone in a way that few of us will ever witness, regardless of how many times we visit the park,” says Dubois-based nature photographer Jeff Vanuga. Vanuga, who has led safaris around the world and taught and shot with some of the biggest names in photography, says Fuller’s perspective is novel among photographers, past and present. Vanuga instead groups Fuller with nineteenth-century romantic landscape painters like Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran—luminists who exalted in portraying panoramas glowing in the backlight of sun, mist, and moon.
“Steve’s work has influenced my own vision of Yellowstone by allowing me to see the nuances often overlooked by the casual observer,” Vanuga says. “The predatory spider in a thermal pool, a bone fragment from an expired animal lying in a crystal-clear thermal feature, a backlit orb web covered with dew, or the luminous grand landscape.”
“Through Steve’s photographic vision, we all get to experience Yellowstone in a way that few of us will ever witness, regardless of how many times we visit the park." —Award-winning nature photographer Jeff Vanuga
The way Fuller treats landscapes is often in juxtaposition to the landscapes themselves. “I’ve always been drawn to stark, fierce landscapes,” he says, “whether in the sunburned deserts of Africa or the deep, cold, albino winter landscapes of Yellowstone, especially when either is animated by archetypal wildlife.”
Fuller's favorite expanse of land on earth is Hayden Valley; next are the Norris Geyser Basin and the mosaic of forests and meadows flanking the corridor of the Firehole River. Animals in his viewfinder—and wildlife does frequently appear—are never fierce or imposing. He is not a sharp-focused, headshot opportunist interested in portraying wildlife as trophies. Instead, creatures more often are smallish—reference points for conveying the scale of a vast landscape. In Yellowstone, he has particular reverence for bison. In Namibia, his favorite getaway, he has encountered lions, elephants, rhinos, and hyenas, on foot and next to his tent. Though at opposite ends of the temperature gauge, he craves what these stark landscapes represent: fast-evaporating wildness.
Some have likened Fuller to a seasoned bison bull, weathering Yellowstone's elements, moving discreetly in and out of view. In this Fuller photograph, a bull trudges across the snowdunes of Hayden Valley. "In winter," he says, "the snow, sculpted by wind, is endlessly fascinating and the landscape, flooded with light, shadow and even moonshine, is anything but monochromatic."
“The older I’ve become, the more I’ve begun to appreciate the sentient connections between living things here and the places they inhabit,” Fuller says. Standing in his quaint living room, the walls dominated not by his own photographs but row after row of several thousands of books he’s read, Fuller glances out the window. On a clear day, he can see the Tetons, one hundred miles distant. He recalls the day a treasured acquaintance, an old bison bull, died in Hayden Valley. Long part of the neighborhood, the bull succumbed to the elements and old age.
Afterward, Fuller watched as another old bull came to the carcass and stopped, appearing to contemplate the lifeless body and the loss. When that bison moved on, the park’s scavengers—coyotes, foxes, and ravens—moved in. They made quick work of the remains. Fuller says people who dismiss this anecdote as groundless New Age anthropomorphizing—he isn’t a New Ager—need to spend more time in nature. He points out there are similar accounts of African elephants saying “goodbye” as he witnessed in these Yellowstone bison.
Fuller tells of cow moose and cow elk that lived in the meadows around his home. Each year, they bore calves. In recent years, though, they’ve vanished. The consequences of growing wolf and grizzly populations as well as climate and habitat changes have been profound for some of the things he loves. “One day, I returned home on my snowmobile and came upon a pack of wolves standing over the steaming red meat of those elk. Alas, gone was a poor elk cow, whom for years I knew well. I appreciate the importance of predator and prey, but this was personal,” Fuller says. “I take pleasure in the wolves’ return, the sonic texture they add to the night, and the ecological intactness they bring to the ecosystem, but I’m not a wolf groupie.”
In more than four decades at Canyon, Fuller has had countless close calls with lightning, with wildfire, and with blizzards that forced him to bivouac miles from the nearest human. During Yellowstone’s 1988 fires, trees burned near his cabin. He has busted skis and had snowmobiles break down when he’s been miles from safety and shelter and temperatures are fifty degrees below zero. Then there was a grizzly bear incident in Hayden Valley which he’ll write about in his column.
“You live here, stuff can happen, you accept it, but is it any different, really, from anywhere else?” he asks, saying he prefers his perils—the possibility of avalanches, hypothermia, being mauled maybe by a bear, getting gored by a bison—to being run over by a truck while crossing an urban street or dying of a heart attack in an office cubicle.
Steve’s gift is his ability to illuminate the magic of the ever-changing natural world around us. His integrity, devotion to form and place give us hope that one day we will all be able to bathe in the beauty of that place he so wonderfully illustrates through his prose and imagery," he explains. "I guess this is my attempt at saying Steve is a dream keeper of special moments in time."
Does Fuller have any regrets as he skis along depositing tracks that will only melt away while leaving behind only the artifacts of such moments glimpsed by naked eye and viewfinder? His reply: “Where could I possibly go on Earth that would be more spectacularly unique than this place?”
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Follow Steven Fuller at "A Life In Wonderland" exclusively at Mountain Journal and enjoy the short video profile of Fuller below that appeared on CBS.
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