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Paradox in paradise: One local's experience working in Yellowstone as the park shuts down due to flooding

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San Luis Obispo-raised backpacker Cody Stapley's love for the backcountry made sure he was sufficiently equipped when historic floods slammed Yellowstone National Park in mid-June.

"I'm used to being in the woods and mountains for days at a time. I had all my gear. I was perfectly warm when the heaters went out and it was snowing. I was fine. They had food and stuff for us. But if they didn't, I had a week's supply of food on my own," he said.

EMPTY AND WILD One week into his time working at Yellowstone National Park, San Luis Obispo-native Cody Stapley experienced a rare occurrence—a national park devoid of visitors due to the catastrophic floods that closed it. - PHOTO COURTESY OF CODY STAPLEY
  • Photo Courtesy Of Cody Stapley
  • EMPTY AND WILD One week into his time working at Yellowstone National Park, San Luis Obispo-native Cody Stapley experienced a rare occurrence—a national park devoid of visitors due to the catastrophic floods that closed it.

Looking for a change of scene, 31-year-old Stapley left the homegrown comforts of SLO on May 25, stopped to hike the Sierra Nevada mountains in between, and finally reached the national park on June 2 to start working at the gift shop by Yellowstone Lake.

A little more than a week into his new job, Stapley and his coworkers were living in a Yellowstone devoid of visitors, thanks to what officials are calling a "thousand-year event" that may have forever altered the park's landscape.

Following several days of rain from an atmospheric river—long and narrow corridors of water vapor—that floated over the Pacific Northwest, the snowmelt and ensuing runoff caused the Yellowstone River and its tributaries to overflow. The result: catastrophic floods that rocked areas like Gardiner and Cooke City, Montana, taking out roads, bridges, and houses along the way.

On June 13, Yellowstone officials decided to evacuate any remaining visitors and close the 2.2 million-acre park.

Stapley noticed that things were askew a day before the closure. Lack of cell service and internet made it tough to gauge the extent of the disaster.

"I was the opening shift. Five to 10 minutes in, the phone rang. It was a lady who works up in Gardiner, Montana—one of the towns that got hit the hardest. It got hit real hard; they're still struggling with stuff. She called us because she said no trucks and stuff were going to get to us [that day]. Then she told us that they had no power, no water. At that point I was like, 'Something's going on,'" Stapley said. "Throughout the day, you heard rumors and you start hearing people coming in and saying they were getting evacuated from their hotel rooms. It was a snowball effect from there."

In a June 14 press conference, Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly detailed the damage and subsequent evacuation procedure. Severe damage, he said, occurred along the road corridor between Mammoth and Cooke City. Mammoth Hot Springs is one stopping point along Yellowstone's northern loop, which also takes visitors to Roosevelt, Tower Fall, Canyon Village, and Norris. The 5-mile stretch of road between Mammoth Hot Springs and Gardiner was the most affected.

"This is just one section. It's not going to be an easy rebuild. The things we're going to need to do to stabilize once the water comes down, assess what the full damage is along the length of that corridor. Also, with the right people, assess whether it makes sense to build here in the future," Sholly said at the conference.

FLOODED OUT as Yellowstone National Park Kicked Off The Summer Season, Storms And Flooding Took Out Roads, Bridges, And Buildings, Closing The Park And Changing One Slo Local's Summer Plans. - COVER PHOTO COURTESY OF YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK
  • Cover Photo Courtesy Of Yellowstone National Park
  • FLOODED OUT as Yellowstone National Park Kicked Off The Summer Season, Storms And Flooding Took Out Roads, Bridges, And Buildings, Closing The Park And Changing One Slo Local's Summer Plans.

Sholly added that once visitors were evacuated from the northern loop, park officials evaluated the damage to the southern loop, closer to where Stapley was. The damage there wasn't as intense. Stapley told New Times that while it was storming for a few days, the area surrounding him didn't flood.

"Your first instinct is to have empathy and fear for the people up in Gardiner and Cooke City who were really locked in. It's scary, you know. Next, you learn that everybody is leaving and you're not. So, all of a sudden, this entire national park is empty, and it's just wild," he said.

Stormy weather led to snowfall, and the temperature dipped to 28 degrees at one point. But Stapley found solace in his warm layers, and a sleeping quilt that could be comfortably used to zero degrees, among other equipment. He also made sure he had 15 liters of water on hand.

"I don't regularly carry that much. I just brought all my backpacking gear and between reservoirs, a gravity filtration system, a filter bottle, and a few reusable Nalgene water bottles," Stapley said, "I have a 15-liter capacity, and I filled all of them and kept them in my room in case something happened to our water because water up north was affected. Nothing happened to our water."

Stapley and his coworkers continued living in the dorm rooms meant for employees. The park's kitchen staff served them food, and they were even allowed to leave once it was determined safe to do so. So Stapley left to try and climb Cloud Peak, the highest mountain in Wyoming's Bighorn National Forest. But a lightning storm made him return within a day, and he found himself back at Yellowstone.

Although he wasn't allowed to hit as many trails as he wanted, an evacuated Yellowstone still left Stapley marveling. According to National Park Service statistics, Yellowstone welcomed roughly 4.8 million visitors in 2021. Stapley added that officials were expecting 5.5 million travelers in 2022.

The floods ensured visitors were kept out altogether. The southern loop reopened on June 22, and the usual 50 to 100 people Stapley's gift shop catered to every hour winnowed to roughly 20. With that reopening also came traffic control measures.

"Peak season hasn't happened yet. Yellowstone is doing a new entrance program called the ALPS program—the alternate license plate system. On an even day of the week, if you don't have reservations, you can only get into the park if the last number of your license plate is even. They're cutting down traffic on purpose because half the park is closed," he said.

But Stapley doesn't mind the relative quiet. A longtime nature lover, he found peaceful solitude in Yellowstone once the storm settled.

"A big part of me was pretty thankful for the experience because it's a really unreal scenario to be in. To be in a popular national park with nobody there. There's a silence that I didn't know existed. I feel very deeply for the outside, for mountains and forests," he said. "It was cool to see nature blossoming without humans around, there were no fumes from cars in the air. You could see the Tetons from here, which is a rare occurrence.

A big part of that time was just appreciating that the Native Americans who were here first and the people who took it away from them—the ones that established Yellowstone—were the only ones who saw [it] in the wild. It wasn't exactly like that because there still are cars and power, and all that. It was a throwback to what a national park used to be. I'm glad that people are back," he added. "But it was a neat experience for somebody who connects with nature on an empathetic level." Δ

Reach Staff Writer Bulbul Rajagopal at [email protected].

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