By Jessica Hancock
Photos by Dylan Schneider
In honor of National Wildlife Photography Day, we get to take a look inside of one of the most iconic National Parks, Yellowstone. Dylan Schneider lives, works, and practices photography inside Yellowstone National Park. As one of the most popular of the national parks, Yellowstone saw roughly 4 million visitors last year alone. A look beyond the crowds and behind the scenes of this iconic park more than sparked my interest. Dylan shared with me the what it’s like “backstage” at the world’s first national park.
What is it like to live and work in a national park? What are some positives and negatives about that? How did living in the park become a choice?
I’ll start with the last question; living in the park was not much of a choice. Yellowstone is so large, depending where you are stationed, it would be a several-hour commute each way if you lived outside the park. Pair that with the fact that the gateway communities have a huge housing crunch with inflated prices, which meant that once I accepted my job to work in the park, the feasible choice is to live in the park housing. Don’t let that fool you, though; park housing is not ideal. In the summers when the influx of workers arrives, there is not enough in park housing, either. Much of the housing is in run-down trailers and people are packed in like sardines. But they put up with it to be surrounded by Yellowstone.
Walking around my housing area I have run into bears and cubs, wolves, elk, bison, foxes, and many other creatures, just steps from my door. I have been woken up from a bison banging its horn on my wall trying to eat the grass under the roof eve that kept the snow off it all winter. Sometimes the animals are between my door and my car, which can make getting somewhere on time rather difficult. Everyone has been in that situation, though, and it creates a rather laid-back relaxed atmosphere among the employees. People show up late for an event and all they have to say is “bison jam” and everyone understands. So all in all, living in the park is a special experience but it’s not all good; you have to put up with some bad in order to get the good. Surviving it all depends where your priorities lie.
Have you always been a nature lover?
Yes–I grew up in Pennsylvania playing outside all the time, hiking, etc. My mom tells a story from when I was very young and had just moved to Pennsylvania and the 17-year cicada hatch was happening, I would just stand outside and let them climb up me. I would also pull them off the trees and stick them on my clothes. This love for outdoors lead me to major in biology in college and go on to get a master’s degree in biology as well.
Have you always been a photographer or was that something that came while working in the park?
On one of our field classes, we went to Florida for about a week over spring break and experienced numerous ecosystems, and tried to find and identify as much plant and animal life as we could. I was using a disposable point-and-shoot camera and another student had a nice SLR camera. I could not get photos of anything I wanted to, but I was inspired, and when I got home from that trip I bought my first SLR, a Nikon n2000, a used film camera. My love of photography has followed my career as a biologist and I strive to explain the natural world in my photography, showing not just the beauty but all aspects of nature.
What stands out as a memorable experience at Yellowstone? Why?
I have gotten to see and do so much in the six years I have lived here. The numerous hiking and backpacking trips with friends, special things I’ve gotten to do for work like flying in a small plane 100 feet from thousand-foot cliffs, and being able to feel a bison when we have it immobilized to take samples and switch radio collars. To seeing wildlife that visitors never see or give much thought to, like the 10 species of bats in the park or catching the small mammals that run about.
I’d say the favorite thing I have done is confirm the presence of the plains spadefoot toad in the park. That, after 144 years of being a very studied park, a vertebrate species could have gone unnoticed, is pretty special. I feel like I have left a mark on the park.
Do you have a favorite place in the park?
In the back-country away from the crowds, just immersed in nature, having to take your life in your hands and feeling those heightened senses, is my favorite thing, especially if I’m standing on a mountain peak, skis on my feet, with a fresh coat of snow on the ground.
What would surprise us about Yellowstone?
I would say the lack of outright beauty. Even though the elevation of the park is rather high, averages to around 8,000 feet, it’s not mountainous like I expected. The mountains are kind of tucked away in the corners. The park doesn’t have the huge mountain views like Grand Tetons National Park or the Alaska parks. This is explained by the fact that the mountains that were here were destroyed when the volcano erupted, leveling them all.
You have to look closer to see the beauty of the place. The thermal activity from said volcano is why the park was established, and is one of the most dangerous parts of the park. It is always changing, and hiking around it’s something you always have to be on the lookout for. It kind of always has to be in the back of your mind that you might suddenly break through the ground and step into boiling water. It keeps things exciting.
How does Yellowstone change from season to season?
For me, the winter is the best season. The millions of visitors leave and the park returns to solitude. The visitors who do visit seem to be a different breed. Much more knowledgeable and self-sufficient. And they have to be—a winter storm could strand you for hours at a time, temperatures dip to -40 or more, and help is sometimes hours away. But the park has a personality and it grabs you and infects your soul, to the point you don’t want to leave.
What are some misconceptions people have about the parks or nature?
That it doesn’t follow man-made rules or boundaries. Just because we create a park doesn’t mean it is effective to help preserve nature. Animals don’t know where we draw the lines. We need to consider things like migrations and the fact that nature is not static; it’s always changing when we preserve areas and work to harmonize with nature instead of trying to bend it to our will.
Words of advice for first-time visitors?
The best thing you can do is do your research before you visit. Know what you want to see: animals, thermal features, waterfalls, etc. The park is huge, and driving from one end to the other, without stopping, can take four hours or more. So having a plan to see what you want to see is important, but be flexible because wildlife can and does show up everywhere. Be ready to deal with crowds, and remember this is a wild place where you have to take responsibility for your actions, because the animals and thermal features will easily hurt or kill you without a second thought.
And most importantly, how do you take your coffee?
Take your favorite coffee beans, set them to the side. Boil some water. When it’s boiling, pour it into a cup. Drop in a tea bag and a little sugar. Drink the tea.
I’d be a liar if I said that last answer didn’t break my heart just a little. For more information on how to Find Your Park and Free National Park Entrance Days, click on the links and go out and explore! — Jessica