The Life of a Yellowstone Winterkeeper

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They’re diligent in keeping the park’s buildings free of snow

Posted by: Yellowstone National Park on March 6, 2019

“Summer can be stressful. Winter is decompression time,” says Bill Keys. “We work the summer to have the winter.”

As one of a handful of Yellowstone National Park’s winterkeepers, Bill Keys occupies a solitary, frozen — and captivating — landscape.

His primary task from December to March: clearing snow from rooftops of lodges and cabins to prevent damage from the weight of Yellowstone’s prodigious snowfalls.

Two park hotels, the Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, welcome guests for winter discovery from late December to early March. But other visitor facilities are shuttered from mid-October to late April.

That’s where Keys and his fellow winter caretakers come in.

Now in his fourth winter season, the 30-year-old from Pennsylvania is a relative newbie to the ranks of winterkeepers, a tradition that dates to the park’s late 19th-century origins. His seasonal home is a cabin near Lake Yellowstone, where among other structures, he clears snow from Lake Hotel. The waterfront Colonial Revival beauty is one of the park’s most iconic lodgings.

Lake Yellowstone Hotel

And yes, his work there elicits quips about the horror movie The Shining. But Keys says his world is really more akin to Disney’s Frozen.

“This morning it was 22 below zero. When it’s that cold, you don’t move snow. Snow in Yellowstone is dry and fluffy. You can’t make a snowball with it. But it hardens when it’s really, really cold. So you wait until it sets up and you can cut it.”

Tools of the trade include a crosscut saw to cut the ice blocks, and a flat coal shovel to push them off the rooftops. In a region where annual snowfall can measure from 10 to 20 feet, those ice blocks can be six or seven feet tall in areas where the snow has drifted, he says.

Other winterkeeper duties include maintaining trails and keeping an eye on cabins, employee dorms, and other structures.

“You have to move snow, but the job is also about just being here,” Keys says. “Classically, the winterkeeper just made sure things didn’t get destroyed.”

Yellowstone’s early winterkeepers were generally regarded as hermits and eccentrics. The life remains a solitary one, but with the advent of snowmobiles, it’s considerably less isolated. Cell phone service is fairly reliable. Keys even has a satellite dish.

His circa 1940s cabin is propane-heated and has a fireplace. At the start of the season, he makes a couple of Costco runs to stock up on food and other necessities. And two or three times during winter, he makes the 70-mile trip via snowmobile into the town of West Yellowstone, Mont., for fresh fruit, vegetables and milk.

“It’s amazing what biting into an apple will do for you when you haven’t had anything fresh for months,” he says.

The best thing about this job? The solitude. Clearing snow has a Zen-like quality. It’s manual, but it’s not mindless, Keys says.

“I like being self-reliant and living in a place where everything requires more thought. Are the roads closed? Is a storm moving in? Is there going to be drifting snow?”

Buffalo

And the worst thing about the job?

“Solitude is good, but the separation (from family and friends) can get to you,” he says.

When Keys first arrived in Yellowstone his intent was to stay a single summer. That was six years ago. Still, he’s got nothing on two fellow winterkeepers, Steven Fuller and Dale Fowler, who have maintained their posts for 46 and 44 years respectively.

What the future holds for Keys is unknown. But for now, Yellowstone’s magical winters suit him just fine.

“Summer can be stressful [when he serves as maintenance supervisor]. Winter is decompression time,” he says. “We work the summer to have the winter.”

How to Explore

With nine unique lodging options, including the renowned historic Lake Yellowstone Hotel, Yellowstone National Park Lodges allows you to have the ultimate park experience. Staying in the park is the best way for visitors to experience all it has to offer, including the exciting wildlife watching. Once the day-visitors leave, Yellowstone remains for the in-park overnight guests alone. Yellowstone National Park Lodges offer tours and activities guided by Certified Interpretive Guides that help create memorable experiences. For more information on lodging, tours, and vacation packages visit, yellowstonenationalparklodges.com or call 307-344-7311.

For a multi-day visit of Yellowstone, consider the six-day guided walking tour from Country Walkers, “Montana & Wyoming: Yellowstone,” or the six-day walking tour from VBT, “Yellowstone & Grand Teton: Walking America’s First National Park.”

For more than 39 years, Country Walkers has provided active and immersive travel experiences on five continents. They offer two distinct ways to explore: scheduled, small-group Guided Walking Adventures and independent Self-Guided Walking Adventures. On tour, guests enjoy superb local cuisine, first-class guides, fine accommodations, and authentic cultural and natural encounters. Visit countrywalkers.com or call 800-234-6900 for more information.

VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations is the value leader in active biking vacations and has been rated among the “World’s Best Tour Operators” by the readers of Travel + Leisure for six years. VBT offers more than 55 deluxe, small-group bicycling, walking, and barge & sail vacations in 27 different countries and 10 U.S. states. Unlike other companies, VBT also includes round-trip international airfare from more than 30 U.S. cities and select Canadian cities for all overseas vacations. Visit VBT.com or call 800-245-3868 for more information.

For more travel experiences to Beautiful Places on Earth™ available from Xanterra Parks & Resorts and its affiliated properties, visit xanterra.com/stories.


Written by: Jayne Clark

Washington, DC-based freelance travel writer Jayne Clark has been a travel reporter at USA TODAY and several other daily newspapers.

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