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An Interview With Yellowstone Winterkeeper Steve Fuller
December 22, 2022
An Interview With Yellowstone Winterkeeper Steve Fuller
When the snow piles up and the remote interior of Yellowstone is buffeted with minus 50 windchills, Fuller says it's his favorite time to dwell in wonderland
Not your average snowmobile attire yet fashionable for the time: winterkeeper Steve Fuller looks more like a WWII bomber pilot or Arctic explorer. Never without a camera, here he makes a pit stop at Roaring Mountain on his way back to Canyon from Mammoth Hot Springs via snowmobile in January 1989. The lodgepole pine forest behind him had burned only a few months earlier during the historic 1988 Yellowstone fires. The ambient temperature on that day was minus 25 degrees F. Photo by Todd Wilkinson
EDITOR'S NOTE: While the weather outside has been frightfully cold, windy and snowy to begin the winter of 2022-2023, Steven Fuller, the legendary "winterkeeper" of Yellowstone and a Mountain Journal columnist, is in his element moving through the frozen maw of our oldest national park. MoJo founder Todd Wilkinson had a conversation with him. Enjoy it below. Also read MoJo's profile of Fuller, which has been read around the world and appears in the 2022 book Ripple Effects: How to Save Yellowstone and America's Most Iconic Wildlife Ecosystem.
TODD WILKINSON: To the uninitiated coming into this chat 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 under the weight of the winters’ accumulation of snow. Keepers have wintered in Yellowstone since the 1880s.
TW: 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.
TW: Are winterkeepers an imperiled profession in this age of climate change which, according to meteorological and field data, is evident in trendlines showing warmer winters over the last few decades?
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.
TW: 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 thermal 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.
Top: Yellowstone's icy maw; just above: a lone bison trudges across the windswept snowdunee in Hayden Valley. Photos courtesy Steven Fuller
TW: 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?”
TW: You are the longest-serving winterkeeper in history—no small feat given the cast of characters who came before you. 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 40s and early 50s 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.
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.
TW: 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.
TW: In many ways, with the recovery of the grizzly bear population, the reintroduction of wolves and rise in bison numbers, Yellowstone is more of a refugia for wildlife today than it was when you started. The camera has been your journal for interpreting solitude and the shifts in Yellowstone always underway.
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.
A view painted by Thomas Moran more than 150 years ago, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is captured here in winter by Steve Fuller. The Canyon rim is only a short walk from his winterkeeper's residence. Note how the mighty Lower Falls, three times taller than Niagara, is sheathed in ice. Photo courtesy Steven Fuller
TW: Yellowstone: does it feel 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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