Braving 42 winters in Yellowstone

Braving 42 winters in Yellowstone

On 1 October, 1973, Steven Fuller, his wife Angela and their infant daughter settled into their new house in Yellowstone National Park, just as the first flurries of the season were beginning to fall.

Yellowstone – est 1872

Wyoming, Montana, Idaho

Braving 42 winters in Yellowstone

Stephen Fuller, winterkeeper

Read more about BBC Travel’s celebration of the US National Park Service’s 100th Anniversary.

Snow would soon dust the entire valley: the trees, the canyon walls and the spaces between the plumes of steam that rose from the hot springs, fumaroles and geysers. The changing season also would lead to a changing soundscape: the roar of summer’s tourist traffic would be reduced to a trickle, barely audible beneath the crashing waterfalls of the Yellowstone River.

By the middle of November, the first blizzard would happen, covering the roads so thoroughly that the Fuller family would be all but locked within the park until spring – at least 16 miles away from their nearest neighbours. Fuller would then start the job that had brought them there. As Yellowstone’s Canyon Village winterkeeper, he was responsible for looking after the facilities and buildings over the cold season to ensure they would be in good shape come spring and summer.


Braving 42 winters in Yellowstone
View image of By December, the snow in Yellowstone is very thick (Credit: Credit: Steven Fuller)

Forty-two years later, now in his early 70s, Fuller is still on the job, and is one of the few year-round residents of the park, which was established 44 years before the National Park Service came into existence in 1916. “One of my pet theories is that we are born to bond – to be imprinted – by a landscape,” Fuller explained. That first winter, Yellowstone certainly did imprint upon him; it became the place where he would raise his family, and the place he would make the focal point of his life’s work.

I’m not a misanthrope in any way; I’d hate for people to think that.

Today, Fuller oversees the maintenance staff at Canyon Village year-round. But when he first began working in the park, he had one primary duty: to clear the snow from the roofs of Canyon Village’s hundred or so summer cabins. Armed with a shovel and a seven-foot saw, he would cut through and push off as much as eight feet of snow that had accumulated into blocks, each one weighing several 100lbs. It was solitary, onerous labour.


Braving 42 winters in Yellowstone
View image of Snow falls between the plumes of steam arising from the hot springs (Credit: Credit: Steven Fuller)

“It was a chance to empty your mind… maybe tussle with a question or a problem,” Fuller recalled. “But mostly just to be alone, to be physical – you’re on a high roof, beneath a big sky, and the only company is ravens circling around calling to each other.”

By December, the snow in Yellowstone is so thick that you need skis or snowshoes to set foot outside. But that usually doesn’t keep Fuller. When his daughters were young (he and Angela had a second child in the middle of their second Yellowstone winter), the Fuller family would take cross-country ski adventures to examine the landscapes caught between hot and cold: the tall clumps of frost crystals that form near Yellowstone’s famous geothermal pools, the knobs of ice that form on the ground where a geyser’s spray falls.


Braving 42 winters in Yellowstone
View image of Snow would dust the entire park (Credit: Credit: Steven Fuller)

They would ice skate on Yellowstone Lake and stand on its banks, listening to the phenomenon known as the “music of the lake”.  When it gets cold enough, -20 to -30F,  the water freezes and expands, causing the pressure to build until the ice begins to break. “You can hear hundreds of cracks running for miles across the ice,” Fuller said. “They make an indescribable sound, like an incredible ping you hear run across the lake.”

With his daughters now grown and he and his wife having separated, Fuller now sometimes goes as long as two winter weeks without seeing anyone else. But it doesn’t bother him. “I’m not a misanthrope in any way; I’d hate for people to think that,” he said. Fuller revels in winter’s relative peace, and the balance it brings to Yellowstone’s hectic summer season. “I think solitude – or quietude – is an increasingly rare commodity.”

In fact, when the outside world reaches Canyon Village via snowplough in March, to Fuller it feels all too soon. Perhaps that’s because the solitude provides Fuller the chance to strengthen his relationship with the place that surrounds him. “Just being connected with the season, and with the weather, and with the animals, and with the rhythms and cycles of the plant world,” Fuller trails off. “It just – it feels like home.”

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