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Yellowstone Time: Of Personal Transformation Set To Nature's Rhythms

Off the beaten path, Steven Fuller reveals the national park unknown to most of the masses

When Fuller last wrote for Mountain Journal he was putting another winter to bed.  Here, with saw in hand, he works a heavy snowfall to prevent a roof in Yellowstone from collapsing.
When Fuller last wrote for Mountain Journal he was putting another winter to bed. Here, with saw in hand, he works a heavy snowfall to prevent a roof in Yellowstone from collapsing.
:  Back penning his column for Mountain Journal after an extended absence, Yellowstone 'winterkeeper' Steven Fuller returned with an essay presented in two parts. The first, The Winterkeeper' Cometh, Again, provided a recap of his nearly 50 years in America's first national park. In this piece, he ponders how time moves for humans and Mother Nature.

Part 2: Staying grounded amid shifts larger than oneself

Words and images by Steven Fuller

Let me accompany you now on a journey that began just before the rush of summer tourism arrived in Yellowstone and delivers us now, past the winter solstice, into the dawn of a new year. Let me continue trying to answer a metaphysical question, one that we all might ask, "Where have I been?"

At the end of my first piece intended to get us reacquainted, I shared this observation: "It’s easy to get caught up in operational distractions and those inevitable, sometimes mortal circumstances that are part of life and normal aging. What drives this place and what has given me grounding is heeding Yellowstone’s rhythms, her currents of energy and what could be explained as spirit, the kind that could never be described or explained in a guide book. What does it look like?" 

Often where words might fail, photographs help to communicate the sensual essence of Yellowstone that defies written language.

Summer up on the Yellowstone Plateau is brief, just June and July, with some seasonal ambiguity at the beginning and the end of both months. Summer here is a super-nova of life—sprouting, greening, flowering, courting, mating and birthing, from micro to macro, across the spectrum of creation the season is a brief tumult of life. And similarly, lest we forget, the summer tourist season in Yellowstone brings a tidal wave of millions of motorized primates coming to wonder at nature’s spectacle. But do they notice the nuances and subtleties as they move between the obvious?

Yet soon, no sooner had it started, than the summer season of tumult, both sacred and profane, is passing. In the beginning of the transition, early August brings subliminal hints of seasonal change in the heart of Yellowstone that become peripheral, then finally conscious markers that autumn has arrived. 

One is the return of the local Canyon area buffalo bulls that drifted up to the Hayden Valley in July to do their bit for the annual rut-fest drift back down river to their Canyon home range early in August. Early autumn days—autumn arrives here earlier than at lower elevations— are frequently sunny and the afternoons warm but overnight temperatures are cooling to cold. 
Moose, deer and elk move down from summer ranges. Fat and fit they are at their physical peak after a summer of abundant food and gentle weather. The familiar colors of their summer pelage is subsumed as winter coats emerge and grow thicker. Young animals born only a few months earlier are no longer small. 

The second week in August the velvet that has nourished the growth of their antlers dies and dangles in a bloody tatter from the bone white skeletons of their antlers. They batter lodgepole pine saplings to death as they polish and amber stain their antlers. 

Moved by hormonal changes stimulated by the shortening days bulls who have grazed for months in fraternal congregations split up and disperse, soon to be arduous rivals in the propagation of the next generation of their kind. 

As the daily arc of the sun grows lower and the hours of daylight diminish at an accelerating pace frosts become more frequent and heavier. In response the green chlorophyll in plants breaks down so meadow colors deepen in a widening spectrum of saturated yellows, oranges, and red. 

Most flowers are gone having morphed to seed heads. On the lodgepole forest floor whortleberry and strawberry leaves turn blood red. Smaller hibernating animals, ground squirrels and marmots, disappear, gone to ground till next year. One night rain becomes wet snow that mostly melts off the next day. 

But more snow follows and more frequently it remains in the shadowed and low places. Some of this earliest snow will be the last of the years snow to melt in June. On a cold sunrise a buffalo bull stands deliberately broadside to the waxing warmth and soon a column of vapor rises ten then to twenty feet high above his back. 

At a distance he looks like a burning buffalo. The plume grows stronger as the frost on the bulls’ sunny side vaporizes leaving lingering prismatic droplets of water that hang sparkling suspended in his long curly wool. His shaded side remains white and crystalline for a little while longer. The nights hint at the winter soon to come, while the days recall the season past. 

As meadow vegetation dries out it shrinks and thins making summer fattened mice and voles vulnerable to predators, most obviously to coyotes who hunt in the open for many hours every day. Always alert for the faintest rustle among the brittle stakes, the coyote moves with care and deliberation. Once a prey is located the she stands very still, ears cocked forward and eyes focused on the promising spot. Tensing, she readies to spring. A quick high leap and the coyote lands on his front paws, pinning the mouse to the ground. After sorting mouse from grass, the coyote rises with the small body held delicately in his teeth, its tail dangling. Always wary, the coyote glances around, then with a couple of convulsive snaps of her jaws, swallows. The hunt is resumed. 

An abundance of scat, neat packages of grey hair and jaw bones complete with tiny teeth, are frequent on the animal trails across the meadows. As the nations’ schools resume and summer slips into autumn the high tide of park visitation begins to recede. There is a noticeable diminishment of mid-day bumper to bumper high season traffic while retired RV “snowbirds” become more visible.

In September and October the influx of regional tourists, come “to avoid all the tourists," swells on the weekends. Early October and the bugling of scattered bull elk tending cow herds reveal the acoustic dimensions of the landscape. Nervous and ever predator alert cow elk are most visible at first morning light or by moon light. 
As the rut-fest of the elk people ramps up wolves move into the places where they congregate and especially in the crepuscular hours dawn and dusk wolf songs and conversations mingle with the bulls bugle calls. Some years, in the middle of the night, a bull elk has bugled so close to my bedroom window that I wondered somewhat dubiously if he wasn’t bugling at his own reflection. In open lodgepole forests the thump of a heavy resinous pine cone, then another, hits the forest floor and is a sure sound of autumn. 

Up in the canopy a pine squirrel energetically nips and snips cones which then he comes down to gather each where it falls fell to store them in hollows or under down logs. Often the caches are made in ancient middens, formidable mounds accumulated of cone scales stripped one by one to access the seeds inside the cone by countless generations of pine squirrels. 

In 1988, in the wake of the great fires, some middens smoldered like underground coal fires for weeks. On sub-freezing nights molecules of atmospheric moisture freeze as frost/ice on suspended particles of soot, dust, and pollen that seasonally for a long time have obscured the clarity of the sky. At sunrise the atmosphere is suffused with “diamond dust," a myriad of drifting crystalline motes, that glitters as the crystals tumble through the air. 

As the frost/ice accumulates on atmospheric detritus it weighs the particles down until they fall to earth. Thereby the autumn air is cleansed and the season comes to be distinguished by the crystalline clarity of its atmosphere. Chilly rains coincide with the appearance of an abundance of mushrooms, mostly varieties of Boletes or in more colloquial parlance, “Slimy Jacks.” 

Sitting tall on horseback, ambling along an animal trail through an open lodgepole forest, I pass at eye-level a mushroom hanging upside down in the branches of a pine bough. A squirrel has taken bites out of its’ fleshy cap and left it as on a drying rack to which she will return, or is it a forgotten snack? 
Another time I stopped and sat quietly in the saddle and watched a mule deer undisturbed eating a patch of boletus mushrooms. During periods of deeper cold, overnight these shrooms freeze “hard as rocks”, with no obvious immediate ill effects on their edibility, either for me or the deer. Up on the Washburn mountain range north of where I’m writing now, whitebark pine nuts come into season. The seeds are similar to pinion nuts, but to my taste pleasantly more resinous. More importantly they are a critical source of pre-winter nourishment to squirrels, jays, and bears who raid squirrel caches then leave handsome scat made exclusively of mahogany nut shells.

Snow in fits and starts advances then retreats on the mountains, first on the distant Absaroka forming the eastern rim of the park and then on the local Washburn mountain range. 

But the seasonal trend is clear and by late October the mountains near and far remain snow covered. Afternoons are still sunny, but the gentleness is gone. The weather snow and the cold become consistently more harsh. 

In order to match the transformation of the landscape the coloration of snowshoe hares changes from brown to white and weasels from brown to ermine. Sometimes there is a mismatch but the trend is well founded, and seasonally accurately sequenced. 

As the park stays busy later and ever later into the fall visitors, increasingly Asian, come to Yellowstone understandably ignorant of the inclement weather and hazardous conditions up here. Their inexperience makes them particularly dangerous fellow travelers during this late season in the park. Periodic severe, autumnal snow storms provoke prudent closures of park roads by the authorities for several days as the season moves toward winter. 

A familiar secular sight of the season is that of workmen planting snow poles along the edges of the highways, critical markers that will guide winter travelers on snowmobiles and in snow coaches during winter blizzards and white outs and that later will orientate the snowplows in the spring when they come to clear the roads in prep for the next summer season. 

By early November visitation to the park slacks to near nil and across the park maintenance folk hurry to drain plumbing systems, shut down boilers, turn off the electricity, and put up shutters on doors and windows on tourist facilities no longer in demand. Thus most of the buildings, lodges, and stores in the interior of the park go into hibernation for the winter. After a last late season pack trip in the outback it is time for me to take my horses down to where they will winter in one of the lower elevation valleys until the snows recede in May, when I can bring them back up to my home on the Yellowstone Plateau. 

For now the snow is too deep for me to walk in or to ride through and too shallow to ski on. On cold mornings along the Yellowstone river complex static layers of mist intermingle three dimensionally with plumes of steam that rise from hot springs creating an ephemeral aerial architecture that veils while revealing evoking the landscape. 
As the rising sun warms and stirs the air curious clusters of “mist devils”, long vertical intestine like columns of mist swirl upward their lower ends still connected to the surface of the river. Trumpeter swans, particularly the wintering transients in pairs and accompanied by their cygnets, proliferate along slow moving portions of the middle Yellowstone River where they feed mostly on aquatic vegetation. As the season progresses they swim easily amid slow moving frazil ice, but its coalescence into pancake ice that aggregates in growing mantles along the shores of the river is a warning . Most leave when the river largely ices over in early winter. 

Yellowstone Lake, famously “the largest high elevation lake in North America,” is cold at the warmest time of the year but still takes months to cool enough to freeze, usually in late December, when the days are the shortest of the year and the temperatures is generally well below 0 degrees F. Biting cold windy days create alternating chains of slush cones and headlands along the shore of windward beaches. 

These seasonally ephemeral beach icescapes alternate between headlands and fjords. Wind driven frazil slush ice nourish the growth of outwardly jutting headlands into the wind while piles of splashed frazil build cones that grow at the dead end of the fjord. On the contrary, calm cold windless nights create glassy expanses of clear ice that thickens as it proliferates across the surface. 
When winds rise out of the southwest they sometimes catch the front edge of the ice out on the water and push the sheet shoreward where the leading edge of the ice grounds on the beach pushing up a moraine of sand with a cacophony of racket as the stressed ice sheet shatters and piles up on the beach sometimes six or eight feet high. After the winds calm, out in the bay where the winds broke up the ice but didn’t push it up onto the land, the floating broken panes of ice freeze weld together looking like the floor of a library after an earthquake. 
As the lake surface finally freezes solid for the winter the ice expands and stress cracks shoot across the sheet for miles, sometimes many simultaneously, creating a euphony of running unworldly groans and pings traditionally and inadequately called “the music of the Lake”. Occasionally winter freeze-up is perfect. 

Once the ice is reliably safely thick, confirmed with an axe, and when the weather stays clear and the ice is snow free for a few days, which is rare, the skating is incomparable. The ice is thick but clear as glass revealing all manner of junk on the lake floor, a toothbrush, then a truck tire, and if you are quiet you can see fish swimming about below. Ice skating the glass so clear above tens of feet of deep water sometimes triggers mild acrophobia. Some winters when the sky is clear and the cold deep the Yellowstone Lake ice is covered with frost flowers that stretch beyond sight. They grow more elaborate and complex each night nourished in part by the warm moisture that rise out of clusters of open water circles in the ice sheet where hot water rises up from hot springs on the lake bottom. 

On shore, along stretches of geothermally warmed beach, there is an odd narrow corridor, an interface between lake ice and land snow where the beach sand steams and intricate forms of frost and ice proliferate. Tracks provide evidence where coyotes utilize the ice free corridor. Otters are drawn to places where geothermally warmed waters keep the ice at bay. Their fishy scats accumulate on rocky outcrops and their U-shaped slides are common on nearby snow fields. The very brink of the hundred foot high upper falls of the Yellowstone River is a winter long favorite hang-out for a family bevy of otter whose exuberant romps, when not seen, are written in the snow. Lake Yellowstone goes quiet in late December, the ice thickens through and any sounds are muted by the deepening accumulation of snow. In winter the high Yellowstone plateau resembles a crystalline desert, the lake a vast flat white pan surrounded by fields of albino dunes. 
In any season but especially in winter it is a quiet, beautiful, harsh, sometimes unforgiving place that naps atop the most recent but not the last child of a monumental volcano. Welcome back to my world, MoJo reader friends. Will this winter resemble those of our past or hint stronger at what we don’t want to hear—the change that is coming? Will it further undermine denial.? Will it confirm our fears? For now there is escape from worry, whenever the snow flies.
Steven Fuller
About Steven Fuller

Steven Fuller has been the "winterkeeper" at Canyon Village deep in the heart of Yellowstone National Park for 48 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 available through Fuller directly. This profile photo taken by Neal Herbert/NPS
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