Musings From Yellowstone National Park

Lower Falls. Kurt Repanshek photo.

The view of the Yellowstone River's Lower Falls from the recently restored Artist Point is riveting. Kurt Repanshek photo.

Despite all the issues that constantly swirl around the National Park System -- funding constraints, staffing woes, rising fees -- there's still more to be proud about than disappointed.

For instance, after 136 years you can still find more than enough room in Yellowstone National Park that feels raw, wild, and untrampled by humans. True, the front country can feel over-run, particularly if you're there in July or August. But during my week-long trip earlier this month the crowds were not suffocating, the bison jams not too plentiful -- although, we did wonder about the folks parking partway on and off the road to view a single mule deer -- and the insects wonderfully vanquished by the frosty overnights.

While the bulk of my trip was spent paddling Yellowstone Lake with two buddies, we did spend a little time in Yellowstone's front country. And here are some of the things we saw (and occasionally wondered about):

* Despite all the talk about encouraging diversity in the national parks, Yellowstone's latest backcountry safety video is distressingly white -- a Caucasian female ranger explaining backcountry dos and don'ts with two Caucasian females and one Caucasian male serving as backcountry travelers. Even when the video takes you inside a backcountry office all the actors are white. And all the rangers we saw during our stay were Caucasian.

* The restoration of Artist Point was worth the year-long wait. Funded via contributions to the Yellowstone Park Foundation, the restoration was handsomely done and offers great views of the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River as well as down-river views of the sharply eroded and highly colorful canyon.

* Yellowstone's lodging options, which are managed by Xanterra Parks & Resorts, are, for the most part, nicely done. True, there are some rooms -- such as the antiquated Roughrider Cabins at Roosevelt and some of the Frontier Cabins at Old Faithful -- that either should be torn down or drastically renovated. But, for the most part, the accommodations are more than reasonable. We stayed at Grant Village, Canyon, and the Old Faithful Inn. The "hotel room with bath" ($143) at Grant Village was decidedly motelish in both building layout and room style, but it was more than comfortable, the log furnishings nicely done, and the hot water in the shower readily available. The Western Cabin ($149) at Canyon had an interior that might have been finished just last week. Character-rich beetle-killed pine was in heavy use throughout, from the bed frame to the desk, dresser, wainscoting and even the trim. The front-side room ($159-$228) at the Old Faithful Inn offered nice views of the geyser basin (though Old Faithful itself wasn't visible from this particular room), the furniture older but well-kept, beds comfortable, and bathroom facilities more than adequate and actually handsome, with a colorful tile pattern that carried a wildlife motif.

* Xanterra seems to be one of the more progressive concessionaires in its sustainability and "green" efforts, but sometimes those seem to work at odds. For instance, the company offers shampoos and moisturizers in tiny, 30-milliliter bottles made from "Plastarch Material," a corn-based, biodegradable material. That's good. However, the bottles are not easily squeezed, and so you have a devil of a time getting the shampoo or moisturizer out. I can't imagine these bottles ever being completely emptied, which makes me wonder how much shampoo/moisturizer goes to waste.

* Xanterra also has gotten creative with its bath soaps, offering -- in the name of minimizing waste -- soap bars in the form of oval donuts, with the middle missing. They're definitely novel and easy to hold, but you gotta wonder if, instead of a steadily shrinking bar of soap, you wind up with several smaller fragments as time goes on.

* Dining options abound in Yellowstone, and they differ quite a bit. Meals eaten at Grant Village, Canyon, and the Old Faithful Inn were fairly divergent in substance, presentation, and cost. That's not to say they didn't accomplish the task. But it's no small secret that the pork carnitas at Canyon, while tasty and filling, paled horribly to the tenderloin of boar at the inn. Of course, you also noticed the difference in price -- the carnitas were around $15 while the boar was $32.

* Americans seemingly are a minority in Yellowstone, at least in early fall. Not only were there a high number of eastern Europeans and Asians waiting and busing the tables in the restaurants, but the Germans, French, and Japanese were highly visible -- and audible -- in the front country. Two Japanese ladies we encountered at Old Faithful our last day in the park were particularly taken with our canoe and kayak and full of questions about where we went and how cold it got at night (cold enough to produce ice and cold enough to make me glad I brought a 15-degree sleeping bag if you're wondering).

* Old Faithful Ale, a wonderful pale ale courtesy of the Grand Teton Brewing Co., is hard to beat after a long day in the park. It's crisp, palette cleansing, and decidedly refreshing. The Bozone Amber Ale from the Bozeman Brewing Co., conversely, was heavier, chewier, and not as clean-finishing.

* Never underestimate a raven. In the parking lot at Norris some travelers in a Toyota Tacoma had left their soft-shell cooler in the bed of their truck. It didn't take long for a pair of ravens to find it, open it, and settle down to lunch. Even after someone placed a case of water bottles atop the cooler the birds found a way in. Note: Ravens don't like cold cuts; they pulled out and dropped to the side both ham and turkey.

* Some Americans can be truly baffling. One drove up to us in the Norris parking lot and asked whether there was anything interesting to see.

* "Where do we store this stuff?" For a crew at Norris wondering where to stash a pile of 4-by-4 timbers for use in boardwalk construction, the sad answer was just about a dozen feet off the boardwalk atop the crust that signs warn you to stay off of.

* Perhaps after finding a more suitable place to store the timbers, the aforementioned crew could spend just a little time walking the boardwalks in all areas of Yellowstone to pound down nails that are easing their way back out and posing a tripping hazard, and replacing broken boards.

* While much has been made -- on the Traveler and elsewhere -- about the killing of Yellowstone bison that exhibit the ingrained migratory nerve to try to leave the park in winter, there remain a highly visible number of bison in the park. We encountered them along the road to Artist Point, at Old Faithful, in the Hayden Valley, and south of Norris.

* Rangers are visible in Yellowstone. Not overly visible, mind you, but it was nice to see a ranger offering interpretive programs for all-comers at Artist Point, as well as the two rangers who were leading a youthful group of students on a science-related trek through the Norris geyser basin. While we did see backcountry rangers zipping here and there on Yellowstone Lake in their powerful little motor boat, they never found the time to check on us, which was OK, but it's always nice to chat with rangers.


Comments

All of our beloved National Parks have more than their share of problems, as does all of America. That said, Yellowstone is a very majestic and magical place !

In my opinion, they are doing a much better job (ranger & concessioner wise) than several other large parks. Now if we can just work things out so the wildlife can migrate in late winter to find food and survive !

"Distressingly White", excuse me but what is your problem. We have been going to Yellowstone every year for the last fifteen years and if you spent your time noticing how "distressingly white" the backcountry video and rangers were then I feel sorry for you. I truly hope you don't ever need help from any of those "Caucasian" rangers that you saw everywhere since it would be truly "distressing".

As for the roughrider cabins at Roosevelt, well from someone who has stayed in them, with our six kids I might add, we loved everything about them, from the cracks in the walls that let the cold night air in all the way to the wood burning stove that some brave person would have to get up and start in the morning. Instead you seem to be more attracted to the more modern amenities. But some of us enjoy the more rustic aspects of the park. Why is it that someone always seems to be determined to fix something that doesn't need fixing.

But one thing that you didn't comment on is the way that the gift shops have changed since Xanterra took over. Would you like to try and find a gift, except for the Huckleberry Jam, that isn't "Made in China", well if you do please let me know. It is absolutely disgraceful that in our national parks we can't have more gift items from local AMERICAN artists that are "Made in America".

And lastly, to many of us who enjoy the park every year, we don't concentrate on the negative but instead notice that it is the most amazing and beautiful place God ever created.

Ginger,

My comments about diversity were not intended to put down active rangers, but to highlight a problem that the leadership of the National Park Service itself recognizes: There simply is not enough diversity in the agency.

More diversity is needed not just to more accurately reflect America's population, but also to encourage more minorities to both discover the national parks and see the career possibilities within the National Park Service. Without such diversity, when "white America" becomes a minority itself in the not-too-distant future there's a very real concern that there won't be enough interest in the parks to support and advocate for them.

As for the Roughrider cabins, you're absolutely right that there's a certain romance to them. That said, I've brushed enough cobwebs out of the corners and dirt off the floors to know that most park visitors don't want that type of experience. I do see the value in these cabins, but believe a little more attention to maintaining them would make them an even better value while still holding on to the romance you cite.

As for the gift shops, I also didn't mention that, while the bulk of Yellowstone lies within Wyoming, there's an astonishing lack of items from Wyoming artisans.

I agree whole heartily with Ginger on the “Distressingly White" comment. Why is it that some people cannot do anything these days without bringing race into it. Yellowstone is a beautiful, magical place and should not be a forum for race discussions. We go there as often as possible; our last trip was in August of 2007. I am an avid reader of the National Parks Traveler and held them in high regard until now. Please limit your articles to the majesty of Yellowstone. This might be the time but it certainly is not the place for that type of discussion.

Uh oh ... here we go again.

Kurt, I appreciated the entire post. I know that perhaps you love Yellowstone more because you dare to understand and appreciate and contemplate Yellowstone as richly as possible. Yellowstone the land cannot be improved, but we can always learn to improve our relationship with the place and love it more. Noticing the ways we as a society are falling short is part of that experience. You cannot separate the two. And, yes the magic of Yellowstone is always more profound then all that isn't going right on our end of the stick. Often, when we look at the contrast, that in spite of the ways that we might be better in Yellowstone, the place never lets us forget how beautiful it is. That only drives us to love the place all that much more.

Thank you,

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

Yes, interesting word choice, "distressingly white". Way to put the "race" in "race consciousness". I'm truly surprised that people go around looking to make sure there that everything, every location has a "proper" balance of races.

Kurt, you comment a lot about the concessions (it almost seems like an advertisement for Xanterra) and their facilities, but what did you notice about NPS facilities, particularly bathrooms? Did they have soap? Were they clean? I think many Americans feel it is the primary responsibility for the NPS to maintain parks, not maintain some sort of nonsensical employee ratio system of "whites" to non-whites to avoid "distressing" race-conscious individuals.

By the way, race is a bogus, non-scientific concept, but this post proves that some will not refuse to allow such a bogus concept to permeate their thinking, not even when in a beautiful setting like Yellowstone.

Frank,

You, not I, inserted "race" into the equation. I merely made an observation to diversity, with the unstated but understood (at least to me) implication of "cultural" diversity.

I don't think there's any argument that Yellowstone is a beautiful setting. But who will protect that setting years down the road when Caucasians are a minority and few head to the parks? If Yellowstone and the other national parks are to be protected, shouldn't it be by a unified effort with input from all Americans, regardless of their color, creed, or culture, and not from one declining segment of that population?

You seem to consider soap in bathrooms a higher priority than a broader cultural network in the parks, whether that be reflected in the NPS staffing, concessionaire hiring, or visitation. While cleanliness shouldn't be overlooked (and no, there was no soap in the NPS outhouses), nor should role models, and those I think should come from all cultures.

My attention was caught by your comment about the two guys who drove up in the Norris parking lot and "asked whether there was anything interesting to see."

Long-time Yosemite naturalist Carl Sharsmith is quoted as giving the following response when he was asked what he would do if he only had a day to see Yosemite. "Madam," he replied, "I'd sit by the Merced River and cry."

I can only hope there are more Carl Sharsmith's in the world today than are apparent to the casual observer.

Thanks for taking the time - and effort - to get out into the backcountry in Yellowstone.

Kurt,

I'm glad to read your article on Yellowstone; I enjoy learning more about parks, and your writing usually informs as well as entertains. However, I think you might be turning readers off by making comments like "distressingly white". From Wikipedia: "Rather than a straightforward description of skin color, the term white functions as a color terminology for race." So using "distressingly white" was interjecting race into the discussion of Yellowstone. This was not a reference to "cultural diversity" (unless that is a new code word for "race") as it is impossible to identify someone's culture just by looking at her skin color.

As for who will pay for the parks in the future, let us now embark on an experiment to make parks more self-supporting as the NPS founders intended.

I rarely comment on any posts, but I feel I must this time. Kurt made a statement. A mere observation. An observation of fact. Nothing more, nothing less. And now he is called out for his statement. Why? Is it because he said, "The King isn't wearing any clothes."? A fact is a fact. Instead of condemning his statement, why not find out what the federal goverment/NPS has to say about it. Where are the minority rangers? Aside from a few women, I can't ever recall seeing one. The federal government loves to tell every agency, state, county and local, what ratio of minorities they must have or face the consequences. This appears to be a case of "Do as I say, not as I do." What's next, is the anti-alcohol crowd going to get upset over the review of the beer?

I'm done...

I'll go out on a limb and propose that non-white people (as opposed to the "white" people Kurt speaks of) don't have a cultural interest in conservation or nature like many segments of the white community do. Maybe this is an artifact of the way minorities have gravitated to urban areas - not because they love the city, but because the city loved them. Regardless the reasons, it seems to me if you look at the naturalists with conservation societies, the students in environmental programs at universities, the employees that go on the company canoe trip where I work, and yes, the rangers in the National Parks, you see white people. Does this mean non-whites are excluded? More likely it means they have little interest in these things. So we should force them to like it, right? We should spend a lot of money making sure we have some non-white rangers in high profile positions so little non-white kids can become more "white" and learn to love nature?

Saying we need more non-white rangers so we'll get more non-white park-lovers sounds like a desire for homogenization of cultures and of races. Let's quit trying to make everyone like the things white people like.

Propping up manufactured role models is not - and never has been - the answer to anything. Picture two rangers: Ranger A is a white woman who grew up hiking in the woods and has a life-long love affair with nature and conservation. Ranger B is a African American woman who became a ranger because it was a good, secure government job and a diversity program existed to make it easier for her to get the job, and her career counselors highly recommended it. Now, a group of young minority children from the city go on a tour to the park. Do you want Ranger A or Ranger B to talk to them? I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts the kids come out more enthusiastic from Ranger A's tour. And if they don't, then they don't because the subject doesn't appeal to them, not because the ranger was pasty white. Cultural differences, tastes, and traditions will continue to make the world go round.

-Kirby.....Lansing, MI

The issue of race in the national parks is not a new subject on Traveler. As a point of reference, please see this link and the ensuing discussion that Wayne Hare touched off. Look closely at the links to the research done by Dr. Nina Roberts on this issue (listen to this audio piece at http://www.wildebeat.net/index.cgi/2007/01/25#E073 and read this pdf report at http://nature.nps.gov/helpyourparks/diversity/pdf/RMNP_FinalTechnicalRpt_Dec04.pdf.)

This is a very important issue that needs more attention; however, if we are going to do so, it would be helpful if we look back at what has already been said here about it.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

I want to see more "white" rangers at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta. I visited this NPS unit recently and there was nary a honky on the staff to be found. Doesn't diversity cut both ways?