Thursday, December 30, 2010

Smooth Roads and Sunshine

Today, I am thankful for smooth roads and sunshine. Snowmobiling aficionados affectionately call Yellowstone’s groomed roads the Autobahn of the over-snow world—it doesn’t take much skill or machine to maneuver on a twenty-foot wide, packed trail. However, for three days we've had constant snowfall and warm temperatures, and the roads have been chomped to pieces by dozens of coaches and hundreds of ‘biles. I felt like I was swimming the breaststroke yesterday as I drove to Fishing Bridge, for as I gassed my sled through the night’s eight-inch snowfall, I splayed waves of sticky powder up and over my windscreen. I had to stand up on the running boards every few minutes to catch my breath through the snow which poured over my helmet. As I trenched through the new powder, I left a tunnel which was followed by the sleds behind me and the coaches behind them. By the end of the day, the road was sliced in every direction by skids and tracks, and the trip home had me gripping the steering column for dear life while my sled bounced into, over, and through the foot-deep ruts carved into the day's snowfall. On one guided tour, eight out of nine snowmobiles overturned in the afternoon, because after a day of mid-20s temperatures and a few busloads of visitors shuttled into the Snow Lodge, the road is plowed out like a potato field and snowmobilers who are just minutes away from a hot shower and dinner in front of the fireplace too easily give in to the tossing and turning of the machine.
Thus, when I set out this morning on a smooth, packed surface, watching the sun push through the clouds over Yellowstone Lake, I gratefully settled in for a smooth drive to Fishing Bridge. (As a bonus, for the first time this week I wouldn’t have a foot of snow to shovel once I got here, either, which would cheer up anyone on a cloudy day.)

The back-up Bombardier
For those who haven’t driven the Yellowstone Superhighway, perhaps I can explain the operation a bit. Every afternoon, as the temperatures begin to drop, the road crew pulls out huge Bombardier tractors for the night’s grooming. The front of the “Bomb” is just wider than a lane of traffic, scooping all the snow into the jaws of the machine where it is pounded and compacted into a solid surface. If conditions allow, the Bombardier can tow behind it a large weighted attachment which will smooth the packed snow into a flat surface, like the metal edge of a spatula spreading icing over a cake. Crawling down the road at about four miles per hour, the groomers work late into the night to tear down the day's ruts and re-build the road surface.
The key, I’ve been told, is cold temperatures. If the mercury drops deep overnight, then that smooth road firms up and is able to withstand a beating the next day; if the temps stay high, however, the road is smooth but not solid, and the first traffic on it in the morning sinks in, rutting the road all over again. While one year a Hummer drove all the way to Old Faithful on a cold night, during last night’s warm-ish temperatures an Explorer attempted to drive the road and dug in deep just a few yards in. The rangers at the South gate spent much of their morning working on that extraction. (The Hummer story, by the way, is fantastic: a couple international visitors rented the car in Jackson, drove around the Road Closed signs, and headed straight to Old Faithful. They pulled into the Snow Lodge at 2 a.m. and asked the night clerk for a room. Without pausing to consider how they got there, the clerk checked them in, and when they asked where they should park, gave directions to park around the side of the building. When they moved their vehicle into the softer snow around back, at last their vehicle sunk in and after driving 33 miles of snow-covered roads, they were finally stuck. And the fine for driving a vehicle into the park, illegally, while the roads are closed? Nothing. You just have to wait until the snow melts and remove your own vehicle. In the meantime, that’s one huge rental car bill!)
They say that plowing the roads in the wintertime would be more cost efficient than grooming them, and I believe it. When it snows, the groomers go out; when it warms up, the groomers go out; when the wind blows, the groomers make extra runs to knock out the drifts that drown out the previous night's grooming. They attend to these roads diligently, working with or against the weather to open the park for the tourists. These folks are technicians and artists, specially trained to run the machines and skilled enough to tackle the worst conditions, which means that when the road needs attention, night or day, they get called in for the extra work.
The bison love the groomed roads, of course, saving thousands of calories by trodding trails packed by machine instead of their own hooves. I've heard tale of snowstorms so deep that the bison who bed down on the road during the night end up expiring in the storm. Then, along comes the groomer, packing the snow right over the top of them, preserving their bodies in the snow until the spring plowing returns them violently and bloodily to the surface. Try not to think about what's caught below that glassy, smooth surface!
And so, while we snuggle up at night in our cozy beds, the groomers are out on the roads getting the park ready for another day of tourists. It takes a full shift to drive to the South Entrance and back… fifty miles in just under six hours. The operators sit in their cabs, blasting the radio, crawling along and cleaning up the mess we left during the day, only to have us tear it up again while they sleep away the day. And yet their work is what sets the tone for the entire day. When the roads are bad, that’s all I hear about from guides and visitors alike. Everyone has something to say about a bad road—and we don’t spend enough time thinking about the good roads. So, today I am grateful for a GREAT road!

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