Squawking Raven News
Steven Fuller, Yellowstone Winterkeeper and Photographer Extraordinaire
wildlife and landscape of Yellowstone are extraordinary in their scope, beauty, and documentary importance.
I met Steve in 1978 during my first year of employment in Yellowstone. Years later, I left the Park and moved to Gardiner at the North Entrance and in 1983, established the Yellowstone Gallery. I was thrilled to include Steve’s remarkable photography in the Gallery’s first (and current) exhibits.
I recently came upon an excellent article about Steve written by Kristy Gray that appeared in the Casper Star Tribune on 03/05/07. It is reprinted here in its entirety with permission by the writer who gives an insight into the man and his unique place in Yellowstone’s winter landscape. And though this story focuses on winter in Yellowstone, Steve’s most cherished season, rest assured Mr. Fuller is a man for ALL seasons. So please read on to discover the magic and awesome beauty of Yellowstone through the eyes of Steven Fuller. And now, in the words of Kristy Gray…
Lord of the snow
By KRISTY GRAY
Star-Tribune staff writer
An icy morning dawns over the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River. An overcast sky merges with cotton-ball hills. If not for the pine trees, the horizon would be almost indistinguishable -- just different shades of white. People who don't live within this landscape, who can't feel it coursing through their every ounce, often assume snow is white. Not so, the man will say. Each flake is a light-catching prism. A trillion reflect a whole spectrum of color, especially at dawn or dusk when deep blue shadows drape the hills. During winter in Yellowstone National Park, water is trapped in the snow, in the dagger-like icicles and in the boiling, untouchable springs that spot the back-country. The man sees all the colors in this great albino desert. He sees them because they are his.
For 34 years, this man has lived in the heart of one of the most breathtaking places on Earth. He lives here through the summer when visitors clamor over the roadways like spawning salmon swimming against the river. And he lives here through the winter when the park empties of people, when the snow muffles even the sound of the wind and the colors become his once again.
Meet Steve Fuller: Yellowstone's winterkeeper. Snow and miles isolate Fuller in the heart of Yellowstone. From Mammoth Hot Springs, it is a three-hour ride by snow coach to Canyon Village 33 miles away. It is another mile or so by snowmobile to Fuller's home. The sign by his driveway reads, "Service Road. Do not Enter." A quarter-mile up are Fuller's house, his small garage and the tool shed where he made his daughters' Christmas presents by hand. Two years ago, a pine tree fell on the shed. It is on the roof still, covered in a foot of snow. Fuller likes the look of it, so he leaves it be. On paper, the buildings belong to the U.S. Forest Service. But for three decades they have been Fuller's. As head maintenance man for Canyon Village, he is not the only winterkeeper in the park. And a couple of hundred employees work through the winter to serve the snowsuited tourists. But he is Yellowstone's longest year-round resident.
Inside, he has made the house his own. Every corner, every inch of wall is decorated with
postcards, pictures of African children and bare-chested African women, birthday cards, newspaper clippings and souvenirs. He is a traveler; his walls are testament to it.
Photographs that he has taken in this landscape line his walls: His daughters ice skating on a frozen lake or soaking in a thermal spring. A moose, shrouded in mist and the pale orange light of evening. Many of them have been published in National Geographic, whole 10- to 20-page spreads.
Fuller came to the house on Oct. 1, 1973, with his wife, Angela, and their year-old daughter, Emma. His boss said he didn't want to see their smiling faces until the plows came in the middle of April to dig them out. His job was to clear the roofs in Canyon Village of the 250 inches of snowfall that can fall in one winter. Using a six-foot snow saw, he cut refrigerator-sized blocks of snow, each weighing several hundred pounds. He popped them loose with a snow shovel, then pushed them off the roof. He loved being alone so high with nothing but the thoughts in his head, the cawing of the ravens and a panorama of mountain peaks around him. His second daughter, Skye, was born Dec. 23, 1974, during the family's second winter. Emma and Skye learned to ski almost immediately after learning to walk. Those were idyllic years for Fuller. The nearest neighbors lived 20 miles away -- a two-day trip by skis. Mail came once a month. They picked up one television station, sometimes.
The house is nearly 100 years old. After so many Yellowstone winters, it has no square corners or plumb walls or level ceilings. Fuller thinks of it as an Elizabethan cottage that has settled into its place. At night, with the lights on, the Fuller family's home was a beacon for stranded snowmobilers or skiers. Once, the porch light rescued two snowmobilers. They had run out of gas and came knocking at midnight. Another time, it was a group of cross-country skiers. One had fallen in a river. It protected Fuller's family, too, against Yellowstone at its wildest. He always thought of the house as a wooden ship, with the bough facing the prevailing weather, which brought 10-foot snowdrifts, wrapping around the house like a great set of horns. Of course, the more it snowed, the warmer it felt. Inside, the children invented elaborate games that would last days at a time. Mom taught them ballet. To pass the time, Fuller sculpted a chess set out of clay. Later, he bronzed the pieces in a homemade foundry.
At first, Fuller thought the winters would last forever. Soon, they didn't last long enough. He bemoaned the sound of the snowplows, interrupting his family's isolation. "When the snow melts, the first time I see a family of hikers on the meadow in front of my window, it stirs something in me," he said. Even today, the snowplows mark an unwelcome end to Fuller's winter. His children are grown. He and his wife have divorced, leaving only Fuller and his cat, Siegfried, in the house. He talks to Siegfried, even when he has company. He spends most of his time in the kitchen. It can take up to three hours for Fuller to cook for guests – to knead and then bake the bread, to spice the curry and to chop the meat into interesting forms. (He doesn't like it to look like it came from a chopper.) Stories often get in the way. He sits on a stool under the kitchen window, talking about lions roaring outside his tent in Africa, about eating roasted termites with his friends, or about the grizzly bear that busted through the window behind him. His family had been eating dinner on the kitchen table, a pot of stew warming on the stove. An outside noise prompted Angela to get up and close the window. Moments later, the grizzly burst through. Angela and the children ran. Fuller tried to scare the bear away, but it kept coming. Fuller ran, too. By the time it was safe to return, the stew was gone. Fuller found the pot a few days later, outside the house. Licked clean.
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is often considered the soul of the park. Fuller imagines it as a gigantic bowl, bisected by the river and sided by two great waterfalls -- the Lower Falls dropping water 300 feet and the Upper Falls, 100 feet. His house was built on the bowl's rim. Looking out from his sun room, the crystalline valley stretches eight miles wide, glistening under a winter sun. Pine forests poke through the snow all across to the Hayden Valley to the south. The Absaroka Mountains rise beyond. Plumes of steam billow upward from the valley backlighted by the morning sun. The meadows in this valley are home to thousands of buffalo, hundreds of elk, wolves, grizzly bears, moose, coyotes. "I always say there is a bull elk that comes and sees his reflection right outside my bedroom window and spends the night bugling at himself." The peace of winter here, its unfathomable silence, masks the wildness of this place. It is easy to forget that Yellowstone can bite those who take her for granted. Fuller can point to 10 places outside this window where people have died. One was a wildlife photographer searching for his first picture of a grizzly bear. Rangers found his legs several days after the man failed to show up for work. The bear was eating them. Fuller found the man's jawbone. It had been stripped completely clean -- first by the bear, perhaps coyotes next and, finally, the birds. The victim had great dental work, Fuller noted.
From the window, Fuller can point to blackened matchstick poles rising out of the snow just yards away. They burned in the fire of 1988 and for 10 days threatened to carry the flames to Fuller's home. The fires started in June and burned until fall. Toward the end, the sky turned dark by noon. He rigged a device to shoot foam around his house. Finally, one September morning, Fuller went to the fire camp near his home. He ate oatmeal as flecks fell into it from the sky. He thought they were the same ashes that had fallen into his oatmeal every morning at the camp. But on that morning, they weren't ashes. They were snow.
Fuller ventures out to survey his winter landscape. This afternoon, he is looking for good light -- a photographer's quest. Fuller hikes in the footsteps of buffalo. They show the way through this labyrinth of boiling water, fallen trees and boulders. A green stream, colored by the minerals in a nearby thermal spring, snakes its way down an incline, carving a winding line through
the snow. Fuller passes one steaming thermal pool just to approach another. Three bison watch him. Their coats are thick and long, dirt and ice matted into strands that dangle almost to the ground. He is close enough to hear their feet on the ground. Fuller picks his steps deliberately now. He doesn't tiptoe, but he treads softly on this place. The billowing steam swirls around the spring like a gray curtain blowing in the wind. At times, you can peek underneath to see the hill beyond. Three more buffalo are standing there. The curtain blows again, revealing the entire herd, about 16 bison. They watch Fuller, and Fuller watches back. He pulls up his camera with its long lens and clicks a few pictures. Eventually, as the buffalo move on, so does Fuller. He comes to an alien landscape seemingly straight from the pages of science fiction. Snow does not accumulate here. Grass does not grow. It is bare, brown land cratered with miniature volcanoes. Water boils inside all of them. Some chortle with a thick, throaty glip, glub. Some roll and smoke like a brew inside a witch's cauldron. The biggest is called Mud Volcano. Fuller climbs to the rim and looks over the edge. It smells like rotten eggs. It sounds like an angry sea smashing against a rocky cliff. Inside, it looks like boiling paint, thick and shiny-- high-gloss enamel in a sickly brownish gray.
Fuller no longer clears the roofs at Canyon Village. The concession company Fuller now works for, Xanterra, decided it was better to lose a roof than risk losing a man's life. Instead, Fuller checks on the buildings that have been shuttered for the winter, sheets thrown over the furniture, the water and heat turned off. He grooms ski trails, pulling an aging contraption behind his snowmobile. Yellowstone and his life on this landscape are changing in other ways. Nine of his 10 favored secret, sacred, places are part of a commercial tour. He says you can tell how many unguided snowmobiles are in the park by the amount of yellow snow dotting the trails. He is most protective of the snow. He doesn't allow visitors to walk, ski or snowshoe outside his front window -- or anywhere around his house if it can be helped. He sticks to the trails, and he'd like others to also. He calls himself a virgin powder snob. "There is just something so extraordinary about the winter. It is so clean. It is so pristine. Every step seems like a crime against perfection because everywhere you step is beautiful and you break things every place you go," he said. "It just looks as perfect as the first day of creation." In spring, as the snow melts, 64,000 gallons of water per minute will flow over the Lower Falls near Fuller's home. He sleeps with the window open. He feels the rhythmic quiver of the water in his bed springs.
As summer advances, so does the sound of the highway a quarter-mile away. The falls grow quieter as the snow melt disappears. By July, the highway noise eclipses the waterfall completely. Then, motorcycles on their way to Sturgis tear past. A Yellowstone summer is a hard place for a man like Fuller. He is surrounded by crowded campgrounds, piles of garbage, traffic, congestion, unending road work. He calls it Yellowstone City, population 3.3 million. But summer is short. August comes, then goes. People return to work and school. Gradually, Fuller can hear the beat of the waterfall once again. Finally, the snow falls. In every way, a Yellowstone winter is a cliche – fire and ice, hot and cold. Blazing forest fires cooled by falling snow. Fallen snow melted by blazing fires underground. When Old Faithful erupts on a day that is 45 degrees below zero, it looks like a stalk of cauliflower caught in the air. The steam and vapor look so solid, it seems you could cut it with a knife. Fuller loves most this juxtaposition. "There are places that are as cold, but there are very few places in the world that are as cold as Yellowstone is with this active mass of steam and boiling water. In winter, it's like walking into a crucible or a geode of extraordinary crystals and transformations."
Someday, Fuller will have to turn over his house to the next winterkeeper. He's not sure when, but the question is coming up more and more these days. His children are grown. His park is changing. He won't give his age, but he says he is ancient. "Where do you go from living in the heart of a place like Yellowstone? ... When one can no longer ski, go horseback riding, go mountain climbing, all things I love to do?" he said. "Maybe you just find a small garden to cultivate. Maybe a little Zen garden. I don't know." But on this evening, with the sun falling lower behind the clouds, this great albino desert is his.
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