Monday, January 25, 2010

Never a Dull Moment

A few thoughts and observations over the past week or so.

About guests:
- Tip.  Please, when in doubt: tip.  In fact, if you can afford to vacation in ritzy places you can afford to spare a few dollars for the underpaid waitress, bellhop, or driver
- Please, please pack light.  A 21 person ski club came and we couldn't figure out what on earth they brought.  But we dutifully stacked their luggage on top of the coach until the pile was as tall as I am.  Imagine a body-bag size duffle, smaller duffle, a cooler of alcohol, a pair of skiis, and a pair of snowshoes for each person.  I found out later they came to the lodge and went snowmobiling.  That's some kind of ski club.

About driving:
- There is no time to use the restroom when you're the driver.  When I drop off the guests to use the facilities I go get gas and by the time I'm back they are ready to go.  Probably wouldn't make much of a difference.  I'm amazed how long I can hold it when the temperature is -11.  I'd be worried that if I sat on that cold, cold toilet seat I might stick like a tongue to a flagpole.
- Speaking of gas, one day this week I drove 100 miles and put in 43 gallons of gas.  That means about 2.33 miles per gallon.
- My boss called me Carl on the radio.  Every driver in the park heard.  No wonder I never feel like a girl here.
- Meet "Turd Girl".  That's what 50 California retirees know me as.  We were wolf watching and I took the opportunity to show them what we can learn about wolves by looking at their scat.  So I picked up a frozen piece and they guests couldn't believe it.  Whenever I walked through the lobby in the days that followed they all cried out, "Hi Turd Girl!"  But at least they e-mailed me the picture.

About Life Here:
- I'm flattered, I heard through the grapevine that another Old Faithful employee said about me, "I'll marry her, she's got morals."  Until he found out that I am over 21.  I'm too old. 
- I asked a few coworkers about how they met their girlfriend or wife.  One met his 800 miles into hiking the Appalachian Trail.  The other met her when he tried to race her in their hometown in high school and she beat him off the line.  Then he took her on a shooting date and she showed him up at that.  They've been married for a long time and have grown kids.  Now they are both snowmobile guides. 
- This past week there was a swarm of earthquakes--over 900, but most couldn't be felt.  The strongest was about 3.8.  They are the first earthquakes I have ever felt.  My friend from California kept running to the doorway without even thinking while I was still laying bed trying to remember what one is supposed to do in an earthquake.  I vaguely remember something about crawling under your desk. 

Monday, January 18, 2010

Don't Quit Your Day Job.

Sometimes my life reminds me of stories of up-and-coming musicians--the ones that wait tables during the day to sing in jazz clubs at night.  I spend my days, as you know, driving mini-tanks over the river and through woods around Yellowstone.  The stars of the show are the buffalo, eagles, wolves, and elk.  But at night, when everyone returns to the lodge and relaxes in the lobby, all that changes.  My friend George is a retired vocal professor who is hired to play piano in the lobby in the evenings.  He owns an impressive collection of music and a couple of times a week I stand behind him at the piano to sing along.  Each night has a different musical theme: jazz, Gershwin, Broadway...Strangely, guests are usually more impressed with my ability to carry a tune than carry their luggage.  Obviously, they haven't carried their luggage recently.  Believe it or not, people ask questions like these: "Have you sung on Broadway?", "Are you going to be a Broadway star?", and  "Is she a professional nightclub singer?"  My fellow transportation workers have offered to turn the bellhop desk into a bar, let people smoke, and transform the lobby into a club.  Unfortunately, I didn't bring the slinky black dress to really bring it off.  Besides, the lighting really isn't right.

Usually I pick the music, but sometimes there are requests.  Last week a group of 50 retirees were visiting and we all sang "Red River Valley" and "Puff the Magic Dragon" together.  Tonight a woman stopped by to join in on "Summertime" and "Some Enchanted Evening".  My favourite was a girl, probably about 8 years old, who sang "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" with me tonight.

Tonight is also significant because it marks the first time that I've ever been paid to sing.  A little girl gave George and I $1 each.  The funny part, is that this happened while I was singing songs from Beauty and the Beast.  So I guess doing that play has finally "paid" off.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

A Lesson in Ecology

Lately, I've been thinking about the first law of ecology which states: everything is connected to everything else. Last week I stood in the Hayden Valley watching the Canyon wolf pack feed on a carcass. They had pulled a piece of winter-killed bison calf (winter kill is when an animal succumbs to some other ailment such as hunger, weakness, or injury and dies on its own) aside and the alpha female and male were eating while the big, black alpha male slept in the sun nearby. As soon as the two wolves moved off to nap the ravens descended. Later, when the wolves moved further away I'm sure the coyotes in the valley came to scavenge as well. Eagles and magpies may join them. Not mention a host of beetles and bugs that will finish the process. All the result of one bison calf dying—and that's only the beginning.

In the years since the 1995 wolf reintroduction there have been a number of ecological changes in Yellowstone that scientists are studying to determine the relationship between the changes and the wolves. Having wolves as predators appears to change where elk graze. Now elk stay out of streambeds because they are vulnerable to attack there. Willows are recovering in Yellowstone. With the growth of willows there has been an increase in beaver (who have been at low numbers). Because of the dams beavers build wet, riparian areas are increasing. With more marshy areas the moose population may rise, not to mention amphibians and song birds. The wolf return means fewer coyotes. Fewer coyotes likely result in more fox, more rodents, and more pronghorn antelope fawns survival. More rodents mean more owls, hawks, and eagles.

Sometimes the interrelationships tell a sad story. Trumpeter swans are recovering from near extinction in the middle of the past century. Hundreds of swans migrate from Canada to winter in and around Yellowstone. They come because thermal runoff into rivers keeps the water from freezing. Swans used to fly further south, but they have lost wetlands along the way. They migrate by memory and now that no swans know the way the restoration of wetlands will not restore their previous migration. Should Yellowstone have a hard, cold winter many will starve to death and threaten the existence of the year-round swan population in the area. I wonder how they lost their wetlands. Was it in the building of houses, suburbs, and cities? I like to believe that if a few ponds and marshes were preserved along the way that human society would reap as many benefits from them as the swans would. I believe that unintended consequences matter. Sometimes they matter most.

Garrett Hardin expressed the first law of ecology in these words, "We can never merely do one thing." Although humans have a tendency to view themselves as separate from nature, this first law applies just as it does to wolves, ravens, and swans. Each choice and decision has multiple effects, many of which are unexpected.

Sometimes, the end of a long day finds me driving through the woods watching the last rays of sun filter through the trees casting long shadows on the snow. I think about relationships. I chose to come to Yellowstone to guide and drive. I knew I would learn some mechanical skills and facts about the Park. I didn't fully realize the way the friends I make here would change my perspective. Or that being here would clarify my expectations of work that I would like to pursue. I value relationships with friends and family so much more.  Priorities are different.  I hadn't expected to learn about faith, trust, and patience. I am learning a bit more about prayer and to search and work for answers.  As the sun slips behind the horizon I conclude that human life is as complexly woven as the natural environment that surrounds me.

All things by immortal power.
Near of far, to each other linked are,
that thou canst not stir a flower
without troubling of a star.
- Francis Thompson (English poet 1859-1907)

Sources: Decade of the Wolf by Douglas W. Smith & Gary Ferguson,

Thursday, January 7, 2010

"I love all trees, but I am in love with pines." Aldo Leopold

Between every two pines
is a doorway to a new world.
-John Muir

I never saw a discontented tree.
They grip the ground as though they liked it..."
-John Muir

The tree is more than first a seed, then a stem,
then a living trunk, and then dead timber.
The tree is a slow, enduring force
straining to win the sky.
-Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The true meaning of life is to plant trees,
under whose shade you do not expect to sit.
-Nelson Henderson

If I knew I should die tomorrow,
I would plant a tree today.
-Stephen Girard

Monday, January 4, 2010

"Stick shifts and safety belts, bucket seats have all got to go."

Most days begin and end with two similarities: it's dark and it's cold.  I usually have to be at work by 6 am which means the alarm goes off at about 5:45.  First, I offer a very heartfelt prayer that I won't break down that day.  That leaves just enough time to put on boots, socks, toe warmers, long johns, insulated pants, thermal top, turtleneck, fleece vest, coat, beanie, work, gloves, brush my teeth and walk to dispatch while pulling on my headlamp.  I begin the day as a fledgling mechanic checking the Bombardier ("bomb") over and coaxing it to start.  She's no more excited than I am about waking up in the cold and dark.  These coaches are at least 40-50 years old. 

Once the coaches are running, we take a break for breakfast, and then it is time to play bellhop and load luggage.  So I stand on top of the coach and another driver passes luggage up in the "cage" where I play tetris to try to make it all fit.  I have no idea what people bring here that is so heavy.  But I can do anything with bungee cords--secure skiis, poles, or crates of alcoholic beverages.  Forget diamonds, bungees are a girl's best friend.  Once luggage is loaded I switch to taxi driver and guide, put in my ear plugs, and get rolling.  There are, luckily, rare moments of glamour to the job.  Most of these moments come from these awesome amber-coloured sunglasses I have that not only really help on flat light days, they also make me feel pretty cool.  Case in point:

Some questions about the coach and the ride:  Will my makeup freeze up on top?  I reply, "I can't promise you that your makeup won't freeze.  Yes, of course you can carry it on your lap if you would like."  Is there power steering?  This question usually comes as I throw my body weight into cranking the wheel and try to quiet my panting after a three, four, or five point turn.  "Yes," I respond as I flex my arm, "The power steering is right here."  Is there wi-fi in the coach?  "Umm, no."  Is there any other way to get there?  "Umm, no again."  Good news, the bombs are loud enough that I can hum to myself the whole way and no one ever hears.  As long as my lips don't move they have no idea that I'm being my own radio.

Any number of adventures can occur throughout the day.  For example, this week my throttle cable froze as I tried to turn a corner in West Yellowstone.  The bomb doesn't steer well in West anyway because the streets are too slick and there's nothing to grip, but in this case because the cable froze the gas pedal was literally frozen halfway down to the floor.  I had a coach full of passengers I'd just met and we were suddenly gunning it across the intersection at an alarming rate, not turning at all, and headed directly for a gas pump.  I flicked the power switch and we sat blocking the intersection while I made a few radio calls and pretended to act calm.  I decided to not mention in the call the fact that I was blocking the intersection--no need to announce that to my boss, all the other drivers, and every ranger in the Park.  Got the cable thawed, did a three point turn, and got out of there as fast as possible.  Just act natural. 

On another day, I stood with guests and watched 15 wolves cross the Hayden Valley, sneak up on some bison, and chase them for a bit.  The bison then decided they'd had enough of that running thing and turned on the wolves.  So much for dinner for the wolf pack.  I watched an otter swim in the thermally-thawed edges of Yellowstone Lake.  Plus, of course, the usual assortment of elk, bison, trumpeter swans, and bald eagles.  In addition, there's always a nice walk around a geyser basin in the fog that frosts everyone so we all age to about 70 years old by the time the walk is over.  Fabulous sunrises and sunsets.

The days end as an evening glacial technician.  In other words, it is now dark and I'm lying under my coach beating all the ice and snow build-up off with a hammer.  After 30 minutes (give or take) of this I fill it up with gas (don't get too close to the fumes, they give you zits), park it, and plug in the block heater.  I am not good at parking a regular vehicle and I'm even worse at a snow coach. 

I did get a great compliment this week.  One fellow who also drives remarked, "Girls who drive snow coach are tough chics."  Normally I don't like being called a "chic" but in this case I couldn't agree more.  Besides, it was the closest I'd gotten to feeling like a girl in a month.