Hussh | The eyes of Yellowstone, an enduring legacy in a warming wilderness

The eyes of Yellowstone, an enduring legacy in a warming wilderness

Situated in Canyon Village near the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone National Park, Steven Fuller holds a unique position. Known as the “winterkeeper,” he oversees the maintenance of this critical area through the bustling summer months and the solitude of winter.

During these long, cold months, Fuller embarks on solitary ski journeys into the heart of the park, traversing the Hayden Valley and beyond, immersing himself in an environment that few have the privilege to know so intimately.

Fuller’s existence within the wilderness of Yellowstone is a narrative woven with the threads of nature’s untamed beauty and the stark realities of a changing climate.

His journey, starting in 1973, spans nearly five decades, a period that has seen him become an intrinsic part of the park’s living tapestry. His life is a story not just of survival and solitude in America’s first national park, but a chronicle of witnessing and adapting to the profound environmental transformations occurring within this iconic landscape.

Subscribe to the hussh newsletter

The role of winterkeeper is, unsurprisingly, an increasingly rare occupation in our rapidly warming world. Fuller’s experiences during the frosty season are marked by moments of profound solitude and contemplation, set against the backdrop of the park’s dramatic geothermal features and diverse wildlife. These solitary ventures are not just for pleasure; they are a commitment to understanding and documenting the park’s natural rhythms and changes.

Through decades of living and understanding the very essence of his natural home, Fuller has also become a full-time chronicler of Yellowstone’s intrinsic inner workings, extending his role beyond purely a physical presence in the park. He captures the beauty of this wilderness through his camera lens and words, sharing his insights and experiences with the world, offering readers a unique glimpse into the heart of Yellowstone—a place he describes with a poetic vernacular born from decades of deep observation and reflection.

Fuller’s personal journey leading the life he has built in Yellowstone is a narrative rich in diversity and experience. Raised in the Mojave Desert by a National Park Service ranger father, he developed an early appreciation for the natural world. His academic pursuits in history were complemented by travels across Europe, Africa, and Asia—experiences that shaped his worldview and eventually led him to the remote wilderness for which he is now a lonely custodian.

His tenure in the park has seen him bear witness to significant ecological changes: the reintroduction of wolves and the recovery of grizzly populations have altered much of the area’s ecological dynamics; aspects Fuller has observed firsthand.

However, more profound and concerning are the changes brought about by climate change. Yellowstone, like many natural ecosystems, is experiencing shifts as temperature warm, impacting everything from animal behaviour to geothermal activity.

These varied effects have come with generally warmer winters and a decrease in the extended deep-freeze conditions that were once commonplace. Such changes are not just anecdotal; scientific data confirms that the northeast corner of Yellowstone now experiences significantly more days above freezing compared to the 1960s—shifts which are having far-reaching implications for the park’s ecosystems, wildlife, and overall health.

The solitude and isolation has arguably brought Fuller into a deeper connection with his environment, offering him a unique perspective on the changes he has seen. He observes the subtle shifts in wildlife patterns, the changes in vegetation, and the impact of warmer temperatures on the park’s famous geothermal features.

His insights too, are providing a valuable contribution to our understanding of how climate change is affecting other of America’s most beloved national parks.

From his formative days working in a camera shop, Fuller has a personal fascination of capturing his world on film. His photographic work has documented Yellowstone in all its glory and vulnerability over the years, with images that have gained national attention providing a living testament to the park’s dynamic nature and the delicate balance of its ecosystems.

Fuller is a master at blending artistry with environmental consciousness. His approach to photography is reminiscent of the luminist painters of the 19th century, who sought to capture the sublime beauty of natural landscapes. His images, however, are also imbued with a sense of urgency and a call to action. They remind us of the fragility of our natural world and the need to protect and preserve it for future generations.

As with the natural cycle of the surroundings he has given his life to, Fuller has more recently begun to turn his attention to his own future in Yellowstone. When he signed up for the role, he was blissfully unaware of how becoming a winterkeeper would shape him as a person—offering him more than a job opportunity, but entrusting him as a guardian of one of America’s most precious natural treasures.

His legacy, therefore, is not just in the images and words he leaves behind, but in the example he sets for future generations of conservationists and nature enthusiasts. With global temperatures expecting to continue to rise for some years to come, the role he has played will no doubt shift to minimising the impact of man-made climate change on the surrounding environment and protecting as much as possible to prevent the eradication of many species dependent on the unique environment.

“If there’s one thing I know,” he recently told The Guardian in a short documentary, “It’s that the Yellowstone I have witnessed over the past 5 decades won’t be the same one my children or grandchildren will experience in years to come.”