Friday, November 14, 2008

Winter and Its Malcontents

Today’s New York Times included an editorial about snowmobiles in Yellowstone, a situation that, over the years, has devolved from a clash of interests into a cloud of exhaust. And yet, despite the years of wrangling (some legal, some illegitimate), Yellowstone remains one of the most beautiful and complicated places in the world. Here’s what I wrote about it in 2005 (originally published in Carve magazine, a supplement to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle).

A Quiet Weekend in Yellowstone: Old Faithful Without Snowmobiles

If I’d known that the shutter was frozen, then I wouldn’t have bothered with the camera. But there was my 7-year-old daughter, Marina, in a bright pink parka, skiing beneath a brilliant blue sky, while Old Faithful boiled and billowed, white steam over white snow. And I wouldn’t have bothered occluding my eyes with any sort of lens—telephoto or not—as two gray wolves sidestepped a shaggy herd of bison, moving with an uncanny blend of speed, grace, and nonchalance.

But I didn’t know, so I kept framing and focusing and shooting. Pictures—or, at least, what I thought then were pictures—of my wife Sarah gliding through a forest of lodgepole pines, the powder breaking around her knees. Of my son Dave watching a pair of elk feed along the Little Firehole River, the water gone gold in the dusk. Of a flock of Canada geese silhouetted against a geyser plume. Of a svelte coyote sitting expectantly before our cabin, attracted by the aroma of leftover prime rib.

I have visited Old Faithful, the ersatz metropolis of Yellowstone National Park, many dozens of times over the past four decades—but never in winter, when the venerable Inn is silent and shuttered, the asphalt parking lots shrouded in snow. And though I generally dislike cameras, everything looked so different on this occasion that I didn’t resent the strap around my neck. Too bad I was still using film.

Twenty-five years ago—back when electronic cameras stored their images on floppy disks—you might have found Sarah and me strolling the boardwalks under an August moon, sharing champagne from a bottle. In these more sober times, you’d be more likely to spot us escorting nieces and nephews from the soda fountain to the now-faded Morning Glory Pool, our smiles wilting under the August heat and the relentless crush of vacationers. We are still having fun, still in awe of the geysers’ gush and rumble, but it’s a sweltering sort of pleasure.

On an average summer day, Old Faithful plays host to 20,000 people, qualifying it as the fourth-largest city in the state of Wyoming. In winter, that daily average plummets to a small fraction of the fair-weather horde. There are, after all, only 100 rooms and 34 cabins at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, the only available accommodations. And since the roads are closed to ordinary vehicles, every other would-be geyser gazer must arrive by snowcoach—think of a passenger van with tank treads—or by snowmobile.

During our visit, a few days before Christmas, the number of snowmobiles entering the park was far below the current season’s daily limit of 720. We had heard horror stories of smog and bedlam from past winters, but saw little evidence of either. (We did, however, overhear a hotel employee delivering a stern admonishment to one wayward rider: “Excuse me, sir. Nearly flipping your machine is not funny.”)

The conventional wisdom contends that uncertainty keeps many would-be sled-jockeys away. One federal judge banned unguided snowmobiles, while another overturned the ban. Since a new (and temporary) winter-use plan is the target of at least two competing lawsuits, uncertainty is likely to dominate this season as well.

For skiers like us, any decline in the swarm of snowmobiles is an unmitigated blessing. Dave and Marina skied from our cabin—the one farthest from the main lodge—to breakfast. They skied from breakfast to Geyser Hill. And on our most ambitious day, they skied from the Divide trailhead, along Spring Creek, to the Lone Star Geyser Trail, past the Kepler Cascades, and back to the lodge—more than 8 miles—all without the background roar of internal combustion engines.

Of course, we would have done this trip anyway, even without a judge’s ruling. I understand the appeal and the utility of both two- and four-stroke motors. And I have no illusions of Old Faithful as wilderness, unsullied by human presence. That coyote, for example, pleading for prime rib, did not perfect its shtick in solitude. Since feeding park animals is expressly banned, it had help from a parade of innocents and scofflaws. (The next day, another guest observed the beast astride a snowmobile’s luggage rack, tearing into a lunch cooler.)

For me, the astounding thing about Yellowstone—summer or winter—is the relatively easygoing interplay between the human and the wild. On Geyser Hill, four bison graze within a ski-pole’s length of the boardwalk. Our children watch respectfully, then remove their skis to cross a stretch of bare pavement. Safely past, Marina races from one thermal feature to the next, renaming them with her own fancies—Elephant Head Pool, Bubblegum Creek, Little Frodo Geyser. Just in front of the General Store, closed until June, we spy a wolf track, the paw bigger than my palm.

Back in the cozy lobby of the Snow Lodge, we drink hot chocolate, write postcards, play rummy and cribbage, knowing that the elk and bison and wolves are still out there, that the hot springs continue to bubble and boil. It’s a comfort to know that all of these wonders are just a short ski from our upholstered chairs, that we can enjoy them any time we want, without crowds or congestion.

A few days later, after receiving the condolences of our local photo processor—two full rolls of Fuji Velvia, completely blank—we all agree that winter is the best time to visit Old Faithful. And that we would like to repeat the experience, to begin stockpiling the same store of memories that we have for other seasons in Yellowstone. And that, maybe, just maybe, we might try to capture some of those images—but not on film. In this new year, I resolve to go digital at last.

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