Friday, January 7, 2011

Human Thermometer

When the temperature drops below -20F in Yellowstone, all non-essential NPS employees are ordered not to report to work until the mercury rises. Unfortunately, I don’t have a thermometer outside my house, so every morning I step outside and gauge the air temperature using the following remarkably accurate guide:

You know it’s 30 degrees outside when…
You step outside and think, “Ah, what a pleasant day,” and then look down and realize you’re   wearing just the T-shirt you slept in the night before.

It’s about 20 degrees outside when…
The sky is cloudy and grey, so you pile on an extra fleece, and then five steps outside the door you start clawing frantically at your zippers trying to escape from the extra clothing before your flesh starts to melt inside.

You know it’s 10 degrees when…
You see it’s sunny and lovely outside, so you leave that extra fleece at home, and for the entire forty-minute snowmobile ride to Fishing Bridge you grit your teeth against the wisps of cold air which creep in through your zipper and settle into the space beneath your coat where that fleece should have been. (To fight the chill, you are desperate enough to turn on the seat warmer, which you don’t think is working until you take off your snowmobile bibs at the warming hut and realize you were sweating so much that your fleece pants need to be wrung out.)

You know the thermometer’s sitting around zero when…
You return from a ski to find that the ends of your hair which were poking out from under your beanie are frosted white with the frozen droplets of your own breath.

You know it’s -10 degrees outside when…
You step out in the morning and inhale deeply of that fresh Yellowstone air, and your nostrils pinch together, and then freeze that way. As the cold air rushes through your nose, it freezes each little nose-hair and binds them together, causing your flesh to twinge as a million little nerve endings are tweaked by the icy tug of frozen follicles. Ahhh… breathe deeply.

And, finally, you know it’s 20 below when you drive three miles on a snowmobile and when you stop to wipe away the ice which has completely frozen over your visor, but when you remove your helmet you realize that your mask isn’t frosted so much as your eyeballs have iced over. Miniature icicles dangle from your eye lashes, and when you go to wipe them away, you cause your eyes to water and freeze shut. You’d dab your eyes with your balaclava, only the condensation of your breath has soaked the fabric and then frozen solid, right over your mouth and nose. What can you do, but bat your frosted eyelashes until the icicles tingle, turn the seat-warmer to high… and then boogie home to bed to wait for the temperature to rise.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


Every once in a while I get the crazy notion that I want to buy my own snowmobile. Perhaps I want to minimize the odds that I'll smash another government rig into a herd of bison, or so people who come to visit have a sled to ride, or just so I can come and go as I please without worrying about whether a "pool" sled is available. My dreams of free-heeling independence are typically short-lived, however, because every year, just two weeks into snowmobiling season, we enter a period of total equipment failure. They say the four-stroke snowmobiles required in the park are more reliable than your typical snowmobile, which makes me wonder how two-stroke sleds ever manage to leave the parking lot. Drive any stretch of road in the park today and you'll pass three or four snowmobiles, pulled to the side, hoods up, waiting for the mechanics to come tow them out of the park. Guides regularly arrive at the warming hut with passengers riding on the back of their sleds, indicating that they've lost a snowmobile along the way. On a cold morning last week one group started with nine snowmobiles, and by the time they reached Lewis Falls, ten miles into the park, five of their sleds had seized up and stalled on the side of the road. The guide had to borrow a snowmobile from another company in order to continue his trip that day.


My first winter, we lost a snowmobile before the park even opened, when the dipstick in the oil pan (I mean that literally) rattled loose and released the oil reserve, leaving my supervisor stranded on his way to pre-season guide training at Old Faithful. Two weeks later I lost a bogie wheel on the way back from West Yellowstone, and when I pulled into the garage to show a mechanic, he told me that someone had put the entire track on backwards. Ten days after that, I picked up a friend whose machine started spouting coolant from under the hood, spraying him from helmet to pac boot with a solution that looked like frozen lime Slushee, taking down yet another snowmobile.


Lucky for me, I wasn't the one driving our snowmobile last week when it came down with the early symptoms of 'Mobilitis.  My supervisor was driving to Fishing Bridge and was waiting to pass some bison when the sled overheated. After navigating through the herd, she pulled over to check her coolant levels. When she opened the cap, however, a thick glob the color of a chocolate milkshake welled up inside, suggesting something much more seriously wrong than low antifreeze. She radioed for a ride home, and once again, two weeks into the season, we were down to one snowmobile.


The National Park Services no longer owns snowmobiles, but contracts with a company to provide sleds for the winter operations. The lease company supplies us with new and new-ish machines and also takes on the care and upkeep responsibilities. Thus, when a snowmobile breaks down—even two miles from the Lake Garage—our mechanics aren't even allowed to look at it, but we must get the machine to West Yellowstone where the contractor can do the repairs. Which was my task yesterday.


Towing a snowmobile is straightforward enough that the guides can rig a tow strap with a couple yards of webbing and haul a broken machine out of the park without missing a beat on their tour. While a 700-pound snowmobile doesn't have enough "umph" to comfortably tow another sled, pulling one snowmobile with another will really just slow you down a little bit. I used a tow bar designed by one of our local mechanics to keep the machine a bit more secure than a rope would, and crept over the pass to West Yellowstone.


I believe that West Yellowstone, Montana, must rank as one of the country's quirkiest towns, particularly in the winter. In the summer tourist season, more people enter the park through "West" than the rest of the gates combined, meaning that the town with a few hundred residents accommodates thousands of people every night as they stream back from Old Faithful hungry for dinner and ready for sleep. In the winter, however, most of those beds sit empty as park visitation drops. Most hotels don't even open for the winter season, and the ones which brave the slow season boast five or six cars in the lot at night. With so much unoccupied space, the town seems vacant even on the busiest nights, and though the abandonment is temporary, boarded up hotels and restaurants borrow still evoke slasher movies, particularly when drifted in with snow.


Indeed, the second quirk about West Yellowstone comes from the problem of snow. Here in the park where we pack down and drive over the snow, we really have no sense of what it means to have five feet of snow on the ground. But when you try to move snow around so you can drive a vehicle to work in the morning, suddenly even a foot of snow seems huge. In order to keep the roads clear and provide access to the few businesses which remain open, the plows pile snow down the middle of the road instead of pushing it to the side. Thus, most roads in town are divided highways—divided by an eight-foot mound of snow. During the day, large yellow front loaders work their way down each of the two-dozen streets, scooping snow and ice from the sides of the road, and piling it into massive medians right down the yellow line. When these piles become too tall (really, how safe can it be to drive through a tunnel of snow where you can't see oncoming or cross traffic?) they actually truck the snow outside of town where they build a course for the annual late-winter snowmobile X-games. When I was in West yesterday, though it hasn't snowed for four or five days, the tractors were hard at work moving snow from one place to another. Not only was I amazed that they were still cleaning up from the last storm, but I was impressed by the magnitude of such a thankless job—an entire winter spent rearranging piles of snow, only to watch it melt away all on its own come summertime.


Fortunately, when those winter storms do hit, you don't have to shovel your car out of the driveway. No, in West Yellowstone you can just crank up your snowmobile and drive right on down to work. During winter, the town's vacant motels echo the whine of snowmobiles from sunup to last call. The main highway through town is marked "No Snowmobiles" (probably to ease the tourists into the quirky traffic patterns), but every other street is open to any vehicle you fancy to drive on it. The roads are "high bladed" by the plows, who set their attachments an inch higher than street level, scraping off the new powder while leaving a layer of packed ice and snow on the pavement. Thus, cars and snowmobiles can share the road, a situation which is moderately unnerving to anyone who took a driver's test outside Gallatin County. While the snowy roads create a sense of anticipation for automobiles every time the driver touches the brakes (I wonder if I'll stop this time…), the snowmobiles dart wildly around town, seemingly fearless of the wheeled vehicles steered by panicked out-of-town drivers. Snowmobiles rule West in winter: they're in the parking lots, on the side-roads, and occasionally on the sidewalks, too.


Perhaps it is that hint of danger from sharing icy roads with several tons of steel on wheels which gives me the tiniest little thrill whenever I drive my snowmobile through West Yellowstone. After dropping the broken sled at the Arctic Cat dealer (and spending a good hour trying to fix a helmet before we declared it officially unfixable), I hopped on my snowmobile to take care of the "Things to Pick Up Next Time I'm in One of those Villages Where They Exchange Cash for Goods" List. I rode down to the hardware store, stopped in for a couple groceries, and was sorely tempted by the drive-thru at the bank before I stopped by the visitor center to pack my treasures for the return trip. I carried a grocery bag on my lap, slowed way down at every cross street, dodged the front loaders, and imagined a world where snowmobiles and streetcars could peacefully coexist.




It's almost enough to convince me to move to a town where everyone drives a (quiet, four-stroke) snowmobile all the time. But then I'd have to buy one, and we'd be right back where we started, towing a snowmobile to West.