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Twilight Of The Yellowstone Winterkeepers
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December 24, 2020
Twilight Of The Yellowstone Winterkeepers
Steven Fuller Is A Living Legend In Yellowstone And An Endangered 21st-Century Icon
By Todd Wilkinson
Steven Fuller welcomed his 48th consecutive New Year’s Day morning in Yellowstone. 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 first arrived in the early 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 San Francisco 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 a 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.
In some ways, Fuller says, Yellowstone's frontcounty today is paradoxically more harried and yet its backcountry wilder considering the restoration of those apex predators. The fact that more people aren't yet invading and overrunning the outback is vital to wild Yellowstone's persistence and its only hope for staying that way, he notes. Yes, it's true that 99 percent of Yellowstone's visitors are found along a road network that covers 1 percent of the park, that road system in the most visited months, and heavy traffic loads moving through it, fragments Yellowstone. And it's doubtful that were the wildlife ever asked if they believed the Yellowstone backcountry was "underutilized" or would benefit from having more intense levels of dispersed recreation involving those on two legs, they would disagree.
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 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?”
A MOUNTAIN JOURNAL INTERVIEW WITH STEVEN FULLER
TODD WILKINSON: To the uninitiated coming into this cold, no pun intended, what is a “winterkeeper”?
STEVEN FULLER: A winterkeeper is a winter caretaker whose job traditionally is to remove the snow from the roofs of summer tourist cabins and lodges so they don’t collapse with the weight of the winters’ accumulation of snow. Keepers have wintered in Yellowstone since the 1880s.
WILKINSON: How has the job changed over your five decades?
FULLER: Isolation, which was the core challenge of the life, second only to hard self-disciplined, physical work, has largely evaporated. When I arrived at Canyon in 1973 my only neighbors were four people at Lake Yellowstone 18 miles south. Town [West Yellowstone] was 40 miles away and accessible only by unreliable primitive snowmobile. I had about 100 buildings to winter keep. Most of these have been replaced with lodges engineered to bear the weight of winter snows without the roofs having to be cleared.
WILKINSON: Are winterkeepers an imperiled profession in this age of climate change?
FULLER: By any short-term model I am aware of, the higher interior reaches of Yellowstone in winter will still be snow country, though the season will likely continue to be shorter, warmer, and wetter but there will still be snow to remove from roofs. The fundamental spoiler to the traditional way of the life is the disappearance of isolation and with it the self-reliant independence that characterized the life of a winter keeper when I came to Canyon.
FULLER: No-one managed you, no one cared about you, which worked just fine for me. But the bit of winter wildness I knew in 1973 and for a few years longer has been tamed, regulated, and managed.
WILKINSON: What makes Canyon special?
FULLER: Canyon lies at the geographical heart of Yellowstone National Park and offers more topographical and ecological diversity than any other location in the park. The Yellowstone River flows through it, the spectacular canyon and three associated waterfalls, an abundance of thermals areas, many little known and rarely visited, nearby Hayden Valley with its myriad of animals and sensuous topography, the close-by mountain range, one of only two within the interior of the park.
WILKINSON: Please share the story again of what the person who hired you said after you accepted the post, which no one else wanted?
FULLER: He said, “You will be snowed in by mid-November. Thereafter you are not to leave Canyon. We do not want to see you again until you are plowed out in mid-April next year, do you understand?”
WILKINSON: You are the longest-serving winterkeeper in history—no small feat given the cast of characters. Can you tell us a bit about the lore of some of your predecessors?
FULLER: Most historic winter keepers have been short timers, a season or two was enough for them. Most were driven by economic necessity, the job didn’t pay much or the seclusion got to them, but it was a job. A few stayed longer. One, who was a winterkeeper here for most of a decade in the late 40’s and early 50’s claimed to have shot and killed a grizzly from the front door of my house. He told me he ran a trap line through the winter cause the wage was so poor. He instructed me how to poach a mule deer for winter meat. Another couple used to ski 20 miles over Dunraven Pass once a month to pick up their mail, then stay overnight at the Tower Junction Ranger Station before skiing back home the next day. All the previous winterkeepers I have spoken with, most are dead now, asserted that their time as the Canyon winterkeeper was the most special in their lives.
As Fuller notes of the devices he uses to remove rooftop snow, "the traditional non-mechanized tools of my humble trade."
WILKINSON: You have witnessed “modern nature” in her rawest, sharp-toothed and most magnificent, literally through the window of your rustic quarters. Wildness: what does it mean?
FULLER: “Wilderness”—there are still wild places in the world, not so many left in the Lower 48… enclaves where you can die in a wild natural way, but few of them are out of cell range, certainly not out of SAT phone range, so you don’t have that feeling of autonomous utter self-dependence where the only helping hand lies at the end of your arm. You screw up, you die, or at least suffer the consequences.
Now, call and someone will come and you may be given a citation and billed for the cost of being an incompetent screw-up. In most current usage “wilderness” has become a marketing commodity slogan. ‘Come join our tour group for a safari wilderness adventure”. Globalization is fast snuffing out any semblance of wilderness and the opportunity to shove off into any semblance of terra incognita. In my experience there are not many places on the planet where you don’t find litter or a place to beam out a selfie.
WILKINSON: You’re going to be exploring many different themes and sharing imagery that speaks to them about your tenure in America’s first national park. Share a few thoughts about how your thinking as a photographer, who has had much of your work published in National Geographic, has evolved?
FULLER: I have been a visual person since childhood. My first job in high school was in a camera store. I have always been drawn to photographing the natural world. For years before coming to Yellowstone I knew I wanted to live in a natural rather than a human landscape.
My years in the park have nurtured a familiarity with place, seasons, animal behavior, so I enjoy some predictability about what may be happening when which enables me to be in the right place at the right time.
WILKINSON: So the camera has been your journal for interpreting solitude?
FULLER: To be alone in the bushes with a camera is one of several facets of solitude that I cherish. In my case photography has never been ambition nor commercially driven. Photography is an excuse to be out in lousy weather at dawn, to be engaged with animals, and to be in touch with the flux of the seasons. I have always been indifferent to the business part of the business; my best photos are in undisturbed storage under my bed. I think of the best of the photographs I have taken, film or digital, as brief after-images of a moment, each ultimately as mortal and short lived as myself.
WILKINSON: Yellowstone. Is it bigger or smaller than when you found it?
FULLER: All the world is fast shrinking. The steady implementation of closed areas in Yellowstone has made favorite areas no longer accessible, so in this sense Yellowstone has grown smaller.
In my early years I had a 20-mile day hike range. During the heydays of my life, for the 20 years, when I had a wonderful pair of horses, my Yellowstone world was much larger. Now as I grow older my accessible Yellowstone shrinks, on foot, on skis. But, not a problem, I focus on connecting with the nuances of favorite places which encompass a richness—places that are not inexhaustible given how fast we are using them up.
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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.