Winter Wonderland

Many people would agree that Yellowstone is at its best in the winter. With a blanket of fluffy white snow draped over lodgepoles, ice appearing and disappearing in the creeks and otherworldly geysers shooting steam and water straight into the cold, blue sky—it’s a place totally different than the summer Yellowstone of tourists and bear jams.

The heart of Yellowstone is hard to access in the winter, since all the roads—save the route from Mammoth to Cooke City—are closed to cars. The only way in is by snowmobile, snowcoach or a very long ski. But there are a lucky few that get to spend November through March living at Old Faithful, fifty miles from the nearest enclave of civilization.

Those lucky few are the people that keep the Park running through long, crystalline winters. And some would say the luckiest of those folks are the snowcoach drivers, because despite dealing with breakdowns, bitter cold and the occasional grumpy tourist, snowcoach drivers get to see the Park everyday in a way that no one else does.

Woody Gallaway, a dispatcher at Old Faithful and snowcoach driver for six years says, “There are so many fleeting moments and you get to catch these special moments because you’re here.”

Moments like the sun filtering through the trees at West Thumb on a really cold morning or the way the waterfalls change from day to day—sometimes totally icing up and other times dropping big chunks of ice over their precipice. While visitors to Yellowstone will catch an odd or spectacular site, it’s the day-to-day changes that coach drivers really appreciate.

Mariann Van Den Elzen is spending her first winter as a coach driver and while she has taken numerous trips into the Park before, living there and being out everyday has given her a new admiration for the Park.

“It’s always sort of unexpected,” she says. “The other day a couple river otters were playing on the bank, then one disappeared under the water and the other got really worried.” After calling for his friend, the first otter showed up and “much hugging and kissing ensued.”

A few days before that, Van Den Elzen and her guests watched a coyote chomping on a trumpeter swan on the edge of the Madison River. And with daily temperature changes she might see snow ghosts one day and bare trees the next. “You get to notice the subtle differences,” she notes.

“My favorite thing (about driving a snowcoach) is the teamwork,” says Gallaway. “I love the camaraderie; it makes it more of an adventure and so much more fun.” Snow coach drivers share what they see everyday and help each other out should they have any trouble. They also join in activities with other winter employees like polka night at the pub and the Old Faithful Winter Games.

But it’s not all pretty sites, National Geographic moments and backslapping in Wonderland. The snowcoaches are actually a fleet of eighteen Bombardier half-track tanks, and they’re old. In 1937, Joseph-Armand Bombardier built the B-7, an enclosed half-track machine with a caterpillar track and sprocket assembly in the back and skis in the front that carried seven people across the snow. A few years later he designed a similar machine that could hold twelve people.

It’s the twelve-person model that Xanterra—the Park concessionaire—uses, although they only carry eight people on interpretive tours. The oldest coaches were built in the 60s and the newest models rolled off the assembly line in the early 80s.

Sometimes these machines breakdown, usually when the weather is at its coldest. “You have to learn little tricks to get you back home,” says Steve Blakeley. Blakeley has lived in the Park since 1977 and spent ten winters driving snowcoaches. “There’s always a chance you could breakdown and feel helpless,” he adds.

But Blakely waxes philosophical, “Yellowstone travel has always been an been an adventure.” From the days the army would ski across the park with twenty-foot planks tied to each foot, to the days of thousands of snowmobiles, it’s never been easy to access our nation’s first national park.

“I drove during the era of 2000 plus snowmobiles a day. It was unbelievable; it was the worst thing. Besides the nature of the snowmobile, the roads were like the most mogulled ski run you’ve ever seen, we had to drive 5 mph,” recalls Blakely.

Life is better these days for snowcoach drivers. With groomed roads and a maximum of 700 snowmobiles a day allowed in the Park, snowcoaches face fewer breakdowns. Plus, with required snowmobile guides there is a lot less, “passing on the right, speeding, side-hilling,” and general recklessness according to Blakeley.

The lack of snowmobiles doesn’t guarantee that a coach won’t get stuck, though. “I’ve been stuck. People will give you so much *#@& for getting stuck, but sometimes it just happens,” laughs Gallaway (who hasn’t been stuck in years).

He does recall his second winter, however, when another driver got caught in the snow. Coach drivers stay on the far right of the road and are trained to hit the gas and turn the wheel to the left, should they begin to slip off the road.

“Apparently, she forgot to crank the wheel to the left,” says Gallaway, instead gunning her coach out into the Hayden Valley. Of course, someone took pictures. With a perfectly clear bluebird sky overhead, “it looks like she’s trying to take the trail to Mary’s Mountain,” Gallaway says.

Another time in the Hayden Valley—known for its high winds and blizzardy conditions—Blakely get caught in a whiteout. To keep the road in site he had to get out of his coach, carry a bright orange toolbox ten feet ahead and then drive to it. Then he repeated the procedure over and over until he got back into the trees. It was the only way to stay on the hard packed road.

“It’s the most fun job I’ve ever had,” says Gallaway, “but it takes a lot to make sure the guests have a quality experience.” Coach drivers work 8-13 hours a day, continually getting in and out of their machines, occasionally doing repairs, and all the while entertaining and educating their guests.

A snowcoach trip isn’t just transportation from point A to point B (or from Old Faithful to Canyon) it’s an interpretive experience. Coach drivers have both an intrinsic love for—and curiosity about—Yellowstone, and training in the natural and cultural history of the Park. “We get to share all these great places with the guests and share unique experiences with them,” say Van Den Elzen.

That interpretive experience is one of the things guests love about a snowcoach tour. “I appreciate the touch of history the snowcoaches lend,” says recent passenger and Bozeman resident Greg Smith, “and the drivers have a lot to share about the Park.”

“The winter visitor is so much different than the summer visitor,” says Blakely. “The summer visitor is on their way to Aunt Betty’s in Oregon, but in winter, you are coming here because you really want to be in Yellowstone.”

Gallaway concurs, “It’s my favorite time of year to be here. Everyone who is here wants to be here.” And that includes the snowcoach drivers, who, despite the cold, cold weather, blizzards that cause the road to disappear, pieces of suspension systems that get caught in Bombardier tracks and machines that breakdown at the worst possible time, wouldn’t give it up for the world.

Because while the rest of the country huddles in their houses, snowcoach drivers are watching geysers erupting like wildfires, bison covered in thick snow and wolf tracks just off the boardwalk at Old Faithful. Van Den Elzen says smiling, “I’m in my own little fantasy world. I’m living in a snow globe—that’s what it feels like.”

Carve
February 24, 2007

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *