“Yellowstone has teeth,” Park Service employee Grace Nutting told her friend, author Marjane Ambler, years ago as the two women and their husbands were having coffee at Pahaska Tepee Resort.
Nutting did not suppose she would feel those fangs herself until her husband, East Entrance Head Ranger Bob Mahn, died while on duty snowmobiling up Sylvan Pass during a blizzard Jan. 17, 1994. He was making sure no members of the public nor Yellowstone staff had been trapped by the raging storm.
Ambler borrowed Nutting’s once casually made observation as the title of her new book, “Yellowstone Has Teeth,” which came out this summer.
The author knows a bit about the park’s “teeth” from her own experiences as the wife of a Park Service staffer, Terry Wehrman. The two lived at Lake in Yellowstone year-round 1984-93.
While there Ambler – a journalist since 1968 and former associate editor of High Country News – captured stories of their Yellowstone neighbors and acquaintances as well as those of some retired park employees.
The couple were able to live in Yellowstone because Terry was an NPS heavy equipment operator who groomed the road during the winter and served as the Lake District road foreman during the summer.
For four summers (1990-93), Marjane herself served as a seasonal interpretative ranger for the Park Service. One of her programs, drawing on information she had gathered from many interviews, told the stories of people who had lived in the park during the 1930s through the 1970s. The interviews also formed the basis of “Yellowstone Has Teeth.”
Now both retired, Ambler and her husband divide their time between Atlantic City, near Lander, and Lake Havasu, Ariz.
When he was hired as Yellowstone’s Lake District winter road groomer, Terry was tasked with grooming Sylvan Pass for public snowmobiling as well as maintaining roads in the Lake District year-round. In the course of doing his job he saw Yellowstone bare its sharpest “teeth” many times, as Ambler describes in her book.
She describes, vividly, experiences she and Terry had through about a decade of living year-round in Yellowstone, and also delves into the histories of some near-pioneers of the Park Service. Some were critical of the park administration, though Ambler largely minimizes this and takes a journalist’s view – even of the fires of 1988, which at the time drew strong public criticism because of the park’s “let burn” policy.
In her time living in Yellowstone year-round, Ambler’s thoughts (and fears) often were dominated by the difficulties of traveling over snow for both necessities and social occasions.
But she also recalled the summer wildfires of 1988 as well as the winds that frequently whipped Yellowstone Lake into an ocean-like frenzy of whitecaps, and her multiple encounters with animals ranging from bears, bison and elk to coyotes, birds and smaller creatures that stuck in her mind.
What makes Ambler’s writing especially significant to northwest Wyoming people is the many interviews she conducted with people well-known in Cody Country, starting with Bob Mahn.
In a way the book, though officially dedicated to former Yellowstone ranger Jerry Mernin and his wife Cindy, also functions as a paean to Mahn, who served the public well with his huge physique, hearty appetite and gentle but attention-getting, law enforcer’s voice. He was a favorite of North Fork and Cody area people.
Ambler also talked with former Yellowstone rangers and workers who experienced life in what amounted to an inland frontier, remote because of its high elevations and harsh winter weather despite being surrounded by cities and towns in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.
It often was a case of “you can’t get there from here” during winter when weather called the shots and humans had a love-hate relationship with the undependable snowmobiles they needed to go “out” (of the park) for groceries, cultural events and just an escape from cabin fever.
The author describes the park in the same way Alaskan residents tell about their homes, mentioning going “out” to mean leaving isolated Alaska to access the lower 48 states and back “in” to a closed environment where nature rules and every human is its subject. In both locations, nature calls the shots, and anyone who ignores that fact does so at his peril.
Ambler tells about her first meeting with Mahn, which took place the first day she arrived at the East Entrance to visit Terry, who was at the time her fiance.
The meeting was unceremonious: Ambler, who was bundled up “like the Michelin Man,” the bulgy cartoon spokesman advertising tires, fell off the back of a snowmobile, landing at Mahn’s feet and looking up, embarrassed, at the east gate’s giant but benevolent leader.
“Snowmobiling was not my idea of fun,” Ambler wrote. But she was happy to visit Terry and resigned to traveling over Sylvan Pass by snowmobile, dressed heavily and carrying her belongings in a weighty backpack.
“By the time we had traveled the first two miles from Pahaska to the park entrance, my arm muscles cramped from fighting gravity,” Ambler wrote. “As the snowmobile pulled up the slight incline at the east gate, I rolled off the back and into the road at the feet of two rangers and lay there, squirming in the snow, a turtle on its shell.”
She says the two rangers, Mahn and Tim Blank, “graciously turned their backs and pretended to ignore the scene,” and she knew her fiance was tempted to laugh until he saw her cheeks burning with embarrassment.
That first excursion across Sylvan would have frightened Ambler, but she was even more distracted by a huge orange sign on the pass road cautioning that they were entering an avalanche zone where no stopping was allowed and 100 yards must be maintained between sleds – which she correctly figured was meant to prevent everyone in a party from being swept off the cliff at the same time.
Once Ambler became Terry’s wife and partner and moved to the park full time, she gradually grew accustomed to the pass, but never forgot the power it wielded. How could she, when her husband’s winter work included grooming it?
“Yellowstone Has Teeth” provides a special, insiders’ glimpse of the nation’s first national park in ways few people ever have the opportunity to see. It also harks back to earlier days when even fewer saw it in winter.
Concluding her book, Ambler writes that she and her park friends “all recognized that Yellowstone is not for sissies. It has teeth, and many of us narrowly averted the bite.”
But she adds that “after a few decades, the shadows faded, and sunshine tinted out memories.
“Our years in Yellowstone were indeed the good old days,” Ambler adds.
Book signing Saturday, talk Sunday
•Marjane Ambler will sign copies of her book, “Yellowstone Has Teeth,” 10:30 a.m.-noon Saturday, Oct. 5, at The Thistle. Refreshments will be served.
•Ambler will talk and read from her book 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 6, in Grizzly Hall at Park County Public Library.