Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas in Yellowstone... Better than the PBS Special

Merry Christmas!
Thought I'd share a few photos from my day.

Sunrise over Grant on my morning ski.

Haze over the Red Mountains on the snowmobile ride to Lake.

Christmas Breakfast for the Wolves. I passed this carcass near Arnica Bay on my way to Lake. The bison was taken down by wolves sometime during the night (based on the tracks, after the groomer passed through, so likely early morning.)
Santa's new transport: Snowcoach.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


I am prepared to argue that I have the greatest commute in the world. Okay, perhaps there is someone out there commuting between tropical islands on a sailboat, basking in sunbeams while dolphins frolic over the hull, but I’m certain I have the continent locked up. Driving a snowmobile along the shores of Yellowstone Lake, watching the sun rise over the Absaroka Mountains, and dodging the occasional herd of bison—aside from slightly nippy temperatures (though it doesn’t feel THAT much colder than a sedan with the A/C on full blast in July), I couldn’t ask for 20 miles of more scenic and lively highway to drive every day on my way to work.
Packing West Thumb Geyser Basin
In order to provide more of a community for the interpretive staff this year, we are all living in the Grant area (at the bottom of the figure-eight), and taking turns driving to Fishing Bridge to staff the warming hut. Today was my “Monday,” the first day of my work week, and as usual it took a few extra minutes to put on all my layers and gather my gear for the ride. After checking over my snowmobile and fueling it up, I pulled out onto smooth roads. The groomer had neatly packed down yesterday’s snowstorm, and I was stopping by West Thumb Geyser Basin to do the same with snowshoes on the boardwalk. The thermal area was fogged in, cooler temperatures trapping the steam from the geysers close to the ground. Though the sun was trying to peek through, the air temperature hovered around freezing, and the basin was steamy and mysterious. The West Thumb of the lake is almost completely frozen, now, and the stillness of the ice only added to the eeriness of the fog. It seems more familiar to snowmobile along the frozen lake, however, and I have been caught by surprise a couple times over the past week to find myself snowmobiling alongside open water. (Even more disturbing, a colleague reminded me that I could still be kayaking on the lake today. Brrrr….)

Otters at Pumice Point
 Ten miles up the road, the sun was finally breaking through the fog and I pulled over at Pumice Point to look over the lake. At this promontory where the Thumb meets the main part of the lake, the sheer layer of ice gave way to open water, though the shores were stacked with blocks of ice pushed up by the waves and the expanding flows. As I was admiring the force evidenced in these ridges, I saw two dark shapes slip out of the water onto the ice. The river otters had discovered the boundary of their habitat, too, and seemed to be out testing both the ice and the sunshine.
Though I was the only snowmobile on the road that morning, it wouldn’t be a true commute without a little traffic jam. Three groups of bison stood today on the road to Fishing Bridge. The first group seemed startled to see the first snowmobile of the day, and quickly moved to the side of the road. Three miles north, I encountered a second group, just three cows and their calves. I pulled close to the animals and waited for them to move to the side of the road, but they hardly seemed to notice I was there—or at least they didn’t care that I was there. It was breakfast time (or perhaps time for a mid-morning snack), and for the next ten minutes I watched these three mamas nurse their calves. My thoughts on this public display:  first, OUCH! Though I can’t speak to it firsthand, I’ve heard that breastfeeding can be somewhat painful. Apparently it’s even worse when it’s three degrees outside. This was not the tender, nurturing experience we claim in our culture. Second, watching these cows stand in the middle of the road giving food to their offspring, when there was absolutely nothing around for them to eat themselves, I was impressed by the sacrifice of their own calories on behalf of the next generation.
Ever the impatient commuter, at one point I boldly tried to slip between the trio, only to come far too close to an awkward dance between a cow bison and a calf clinging to her teats with its mouth. I pulled back, hoping the loud beep of the reverse signal wouldn’t further aggravate the animals, and waited. Eventually, snack time ended and the group started walking, allowing me to zip by on one side of the road. The third group of bison were walking head-to-heel, just like they describe in the textbooks, and I was halfway around the group before I realized we were side by side on the bridge over Bridge Bay. I punched the gas and prayed the bison wouldn’t have the same compulsion my brothers do to throw random objects into any body of water, just to watch it splash and sink.

Pumice Point at Sunset

On the return trip, I now faced the bison head on, and this time the lead animal was the meanest looking bull I have ever seen. Not particularly large in size, this creature had the same look in his eye as those bulls they cinch up at the rodeo. His horns were literally askew, the left one curving gracefully upward, while the right horn pointed directly out from the skull, then bent ninety degrees at the very tip, pointing exactly at the eye-level of a 5’7” human straddling a snowmobile. Perhaps because of the skull injury, the animal’s fur grew forward on the right side, dropping into his eyes and giving him a one-eyed, crooked-horned look which was probably as neutral as any bison stare, but registered in my mind as “I want to beat my head against something… right now!” I drove a little faster, just in case.

Avalanche Peak

Now, I am a tremendous fan of the Winter Solstice, mostly because it marks the moment when the days will finally start lengthening again. One great thing about commuting on the shortest day of the year, though, is that the sun begins to set just about the time I head south. The mountains were glowing pink, doubly so because of their reflection in the lake. I watched a coyote testing the new ice floes, taking a shortcut across the neck of the lake. To round off my second “Three Dog Day” of the season, a fox scampered down the road for twenty feet before bounding easily over a four-foot snow bank. I pulled up to the garage just before night set in, and was home strapping on my skis as the nearly-full moon was rising, calling me out for an evening ski.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Stories of Winter in Yellowstone

By the fire at Fishing Bridge
For the record, I am ideologically opposed to blogging. I simply do not believe that anything I have to say is of such great importance that I need to fling it into the world, unedited and unfiltered, for the enlightenment of the masses. However, let it be noted that I am currently living 84 miles from a movie theater, restaurant, library, or shopping center—of which 23 miles must be traveled by snowmobile—and that it gets dark at 5:00, leaving me to spend my evenings snowed into an apartment, talking to myself and the mice. Because my personal life already runs like a blog—endless ramblings muttered at the walls and occasional bursts of human interaction, so infrequent that the sound of another voice or the telephone ringing is always startling—I figure a virtual life could only improve my isolated existence. Let it also be noted that I have burdened your email accounts many times over the past few years with tales of bison encounters and pee-cicles, and that many of you have actually requested more stories of my quirky life in Yellowstone.
Thus, before heading north for my fourth winter in Yellowstone, I decided to join the digitized masses and “blog it.” (No, this does not mean I’m joining Facebook—not until I’m post-dissertation, as promised.) I have no expectations of a dedicated fan base, but I’m interested to see what will happen if I try to write a little more frequently about life in the Interior. And, of course, I welcome comments from any living thing, helping me feel more like a socialized human being. Fortunately for you, it looks like my season will be truncated this year, so you don’t have to commit to following my wintertime musings for more than a month. So, without further ado, I invite you to “The Warming Hut.”

The Welcoming Party

So, I get that it’s hard to find a warm place to snuggle up for the winter in Yellowstone, and that I have plenty of room in my spacious one-bedroom apartment this season, but I’ve decided to modify my “all visitors welcome” policy to disinvite anyone who scurries under my bed and poops on my counter. Long ago I owned up to my irrational fear of mice, and though I reasonably understand that I could squash a mouse with my boot, that they are more afraid of me, and that they aren’t actually going to bite off my nose in my sleep, when I see a mouse I become that 1950s cartoon housewife, standing on a chair, shrieking, and swatting wildly with a broom (and that is only a slight exaggeration.)

My fear was born in government housing, during my first season in a creaky trailer which was so twisted on its foundation that a beaver could have snuck in through the cracks in the wall. I awoke one night with an itch on my head, and when I reached back to scratch it, I palmed a furry creature in my braid. Out came the mouse traps and every night I’d count, “One… two… three… four… five” until all the traps were sprung and I knew my morning’s work was set. The next day, I’d shake the carcasses from the traps, building a mousey mound in the backyard for the neighborhood coyotes, who didn’t seem too interested in leftovers, for the pile built up until it was nearly a foot deep. For more than a month, visions of mice permeated every conscious and unconscious moment of my life. Every shadow seemed to be a rodent scurrying behind the couch, every crumb on the counter looked like a pellet of mouse scat, and every time the wind blew I heard tiny feet scampering up and down the hallway. My sleep was already troubled, but the night I opened my eyes to see two mice nibbling on the cord of my bedside lamp, I became convinced that the mice had banded together to eliminate the human who was killing their tribesmen and interfering with their plans to capture and claim Trailer 117 for rodents everywhere.

For whatever reason, they let me live, and I’ve held an unsteady truce for many seasons with Yellowstone’s rodents. For three years at Norris, we welcomed the “squirrel on crack” who ran zig-zags through our attic at two o’clock every morning. (For the record, squirrels are FAR more tolerable in my eyes than mice. Don’t make me rationalize the irrational!) I discovered one mouse while I was cleaning my Canyon apartment the night before moving out, forfeiting just one night of sleep before I turned the place over to the rodents for the shoulder season. I danced around shriveled carcasses and piles of poop every time I went into the Fishing Bridge Visitor Center last winter, and tried not to remember the scene of carnage left by the Mouse vs. Pine Marten War of 2010 while I was working there this summer. I knew it was time to leave Yellowstone this past fall, when I was working late at the office and a mouse crawled under the desk and up my pant leg—and then got kicked across the room and chased down the hallway by a crazy ranger yelling, waving her arms, and stomping her boots in an awkward mouse-scaring dance. Just last month, I cowered in my rooms while Carolyn boldly dealt with the mice who had found their way into the kitchen through the stove pipes. I know how to handle a mouse problem; it just takes most of my energy to suppress the desire to hop on a chair and tremble when I glimpse a legless fur ball scampering under my bed.

Which is exactly what I saw my first night in Yellowstone this winter. I’d just settled into my lovely new apartment (which has four whole rooms, a separate bedroom and kitchen, a wood stove, and a covered porch!) and after a day of hauling and unpacking boxes, not to mention driving 900 miles and snowmobiling over an ungroomed road, I was finally ready to drop into bed. I was literally reaching over to flip off the lights, when I saw an unmistakable critter dart between my bed and nightstand. Predictably, I screamed and banged on the walls and table, first for the mouse and then in frustration because I was so exhausted and desperately needed a good night’s sleep before work the next day. In resignation, I pulled on my slippers and went to search for a mousetrap.

I found two traps in the laundry room, which I baited with carrots and honey (I hadn’t brought mouse-bait into the park with me and was woefully low on peanut butter and caramels.) I had barely turned off the lights again when I heard the trap snap. Content that I’d captured the intruder, I slept soundly.

The next morning, Monday, we learned that the road from Norris to Mammoth would be closed for a couple days while they finished converting plowed roads into packed roads for snowmobile travel. Since we had to be to training in Mammoth on Tuesday afternoon, my co-workers and I realized we would have to drive 300 miles around the park in order to get there, and that we’d better start that journey as soon as possible. I ran home to toss a few supplies back into my newly-unpacked bags, melted a quesadilla, and reset the mousetraps… just in case my unlucky visitor the night before had not been travelling alone.

Seasonal training blended into a trip back to Albuquerque to teach my last class, and it was a full week before I returned to my housing. Walking through the door, it was apparent that good times had been had in my apartment during my absence. Fresh piles of scat marked every corner, and though both traps were sprung, those quick little buggers had darted away before the metal bar clamped down, allowing them to feast on the bait at leisure. Worst of all, in my hurry to pack I’d left my new, faux-fur-lined slippers sitting beside my bed, a cozy little mouse-house which was now filled with specks of scat, like chocolate sprinkles on a vanilla cupcake. I also found a curious scat of a different variety, sitting ironically on top of my binder of job applications. I had moved some papers from atop the binder, and saw a tell-tale speck of mouse scat, but right next to it was a larger, lighter colored scat which I couldn’t identify. It was about the size of a marble, rough around the edges, and honey-colored rather than the color of dark chocolate. Too big for a mouse, too round for a squirrel, too hairless for a carnivore… I was stumped. Clearly, something else had been here, though, because that was like no mouse scat I’d ever seen.

Determined to overcome my fears, I reset the traps with the proper, tooth-sinking caramel I’d picked up in town, put in my ear-plugs and went to bed. Next morning, I’d caught one more… but the other trap was sprung and empty. Had the mouse in my hands escaped the first metal jaws, but fallen victim to the second? Was there another mouse on the loose? Or, had the trap been sprung by a larger creature which was leaving Captain Crunch sized turds on my end table? For much of the day, I pondered the mystery scat, consulting my coworkers, my biologist friends, and the Guide to Scats of the Rocky Mountains, but nothing seemed to fit.

Another morning, another dead mouse—the fattest mouse I’d ever seen. This morning, as I was putting my boots on to head to work, my foot jammed against something in my shoe. I overturned the boot and dozens of scat poured out, rolling over the kitchen floor like honey-colored marbles. Rationally, I admitted that my boot was not the preferred toilet for a well-fed chinchilla, but a convenient stash for a years’ supply of vitamin enriched dog food, which was likely being collected by the common deer mice which were clearly still living in my house. I consulted my neighbors, neither of whom has dogs, so the source of the dog food was still a mystery. I baited the traps again, and caught three more mice over the next few days. And, then, blessedly, the night came when no traps were sprung and no mice were caught. Had I finally stopped the infestation?

While my mental state dramatically improved after three days which did not begin with the handling of dead rodents, I noticed that the smell in my kitchen was not improving at the same rate. I emptied the garbage, sterilized the mouse traps, and did my dishes, but the scent of dead rodent lingered. I’d seen no sign of mice in days, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that they were just regrouping, gathering forces for another invasion. Finally, boldly, I decided to look again to see if I could find the hole they might be using to enter the apartment. On my hands and knees with a flashlight, I poked around in the closet, behind, my bed, under the bathroom sink, behind the heater and the wood stove, in the kitchen cabinets, and in the pantry. I’d long suspected the stove, both because of the large scat piles nearby and because of our experiences this fall in Albuquerque, but I don’t have the strength to move the appliance without tearing up the linoleum floor. So, I shone the beam underneath the stove, which was clean, and then the refrigerator, which most definitely was not. Beady eyes stared back at me, frozen momentarily by the light, before dashing into the corner. I could see two rotting carcasses, and then what seemed to be dozens (and was realistically only a baker’s dozen) of pinkies huddling in the most disgusting nest of rodent and faux-fur and dog food I’d ever seen.

And here we discover the limits of any tough-girl image I may have built up during the ages. I will gladly snowmobile thirty miles in -20 degree weather, and when that snowmobile gets buried in a six-foot snow drift, I will shovel for hours until I can drive it out myself. I will drag a bloody bison carcass off the road with my bare hands (well, my brand-new OR overmitts). And I can force myself to pick up a creepy little mouse which is oozing blood because a wire has snapped its neck, step out into a howling blizzard, and bury the stiffened carcass in an icy tomb so it will someday nourish a starving coyote, but I cannot, will not, shall not clean a nest of dead and dying rodents in the kitchen where I eat my Cheerios every day.

I called our burly, manly maintenance crew so fast you’d think women’s liberation never happened. I may not be standing on a chair and shrieking, but in my head I am, and I dedicate every night’s sleep to the kind crew who took care of the problem while I was out, removing the rodents, cleaning out the nest, and sealing up the holes so I can sleep in peace. Welcome home to Yellowstone.