Backcountry memoir

by Laura Paskus

Yellowstone Has Teeth
Marjane Ambler
223 pages,
$16.95.
Riverbend Publishing, 2013.

Cindy Mernin puts it bluntly: "Paradise isn't for sissies!" she says, recalling the 14 years she spent as a ranger's wife at Yellowstone National Park. In particular, as she tells author Marjane Ambler, the winters weren't for sissies. The couple had moved there in the early 1970s, before the roads to Lake Village, Wyoming, were groomed during winter. Mernin, who grew up in the suburbs of Baltimore, learned to fix Ski-Doos and survive "brutal" winters in the park with a handful of rangers, workers and their families, who had to fend for themselves from fall through spring. But it wasn't easy. "I wasn't chained down," she told Ambler. "But at the same time, I was just as confined."

Ambler herself spent nine winters at Lake Village when the park hired her husband, Terry Wehrman, as a snow groomer in 1984. (If Ambler's name seems familiar, it's because she worked as an editor at High Country News from 1974 to 1980, when HCN was based in Lander, Wyoming.) In her memoir, Yellowstone Has Teeth, Ambler doesn't romanticize the isolation of Yellowstone's backcountry in winter. At that time, Lake's winter population consisted of 12 employees and their spouses. With travel by snowmobile the only way in or out of the village – on a route that required crossing avalanche-prone Sylvan Pass – there was plenty of "forced togetherness" and little privacy. The friendships forged in such intimate and interdependent conditions, however, have survived for decades.

Ambler, the kind of third-generation Colorado native who was always handier with a chainsaw than a curling iron, finds herself content on the "fringe of civilization." And unlike the folks she interviews who wintered in the park during earlier decades – before electricity or Ski-Doos – she and Terry had a full-sized refrigerator. With the help of an antenna and booster, they could even listen to NPR.

As much as anything, Yellowstone Has Teeth is a story of beauty – of solo ski treks beneath crystalline skies and the "deep moan" of lake ice freezing. Ambler has consciously penned an ode to those Yellowstone winters now passed. But between the lines, she also shares a love story –– of a husband and wife who weathered adventures together and built a life based not only on affection, but also on real trust.

© High Country News