FEATURE: Da Bomb Moves On

By on January 13, 2015
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Photo: Tim Gage

Vintage snowcoaches to make last rounds in Yellowstone

Jackson Hole, Wyoming – When the summer season winds down in Yellowstone, guests ask with increasing frequency about winter in the park. What do the animals do? Can you drive in the park? What is the weather like?

As a summer tour guide, I am always sad, and more than a little embarrassed to say, “I honestly don’t know.” Although I could piece together what the experience might be like from books, articles, and photographs, I had not visited Yellowstone in the winter. So I talked my husband and another couple into an overnight visit in the dead of winter. At the time I didn’t know we would be riding in the historic Bombardier snowcoaches, slated for decommission next year.

“What is that?” I exclaimed as we pulled into Flagg Ranch, just south of the South Gate of Yellowstone. It was January 2, and we had just arrived to meet our winter transportation into the national park. So here we were, arriving for our big Winter Wonderland adventure, when a small, car-sized yellow vehicle, vaguely shaped like an elongated Volkswagen Bug, appeared in front of us, laboriously maneuvering in the road ahead. It sported skis for front wheels, and what I learned are called “mat tracks” for back wheels, much like a snowmobile. Two exhaust stacks brought up the rear and a large tarp on top served as storage. We watched in stunned amazement and sporting appreciation as the driver used her whole upper body strength, and verily her whole body weight, rising clear out of her seat to turn the wheel.

“Are we riding in that thing?” Rebecca excitedly wondered aloud. Indeed we were.

Story of da Bomb

A far cry from the snow-adapted passenger van I had imagined when booking our trip, “that thing” turned out to be a 1965 Bombardier Snowcoach. Joseph Bombardier built the Bombardier, or “Bomb” for short, in Québec, Canada, in 1937 for use as a utility vehicle. A born tinkerer, Bombardier’s father gave him what he thought was a non-functional car, “to get him to stop taking apart the family car,” explained Leslie Quinn, interpretive specialist at Xanterra.

A few weeks later, Bombardier and his brother Leopold came storming out of the barn with the vehicle frame mounted on skis and fitted with a propeller, Leopold standing on the back just feet from the rotating blades. “Their father made them dismantle it immediately,” Quinn said. “He was afraid they’d kill themselves, and it scared the livestock.”

Unfazed, Bombardier went on to make over-snow vehicles his lifelong business. He envisioned a personal vehicle that could replace the dogsleds required for transportation in Canada for many months of the year. For this reason, Bombardier wanted to call his new passenger sled a “Ski Dog,” but due to a typo we now know them as “Ski Doos.” Over the years, the Bombardier snowcoach has been adapted for many uses, including ambulances and winter school buses.

Winter touring of Yellowstone was not originally what Bombardier had in mind for these vehicles, but Walt Stuart, born and raised in West Yellowstone, was on the inaugural winter tour in 1950 after receiving permission from the Park Service to operate commercial tours inside the park. The first tour was in a snow plane, sans wings. The snowcoaches were introduced a few years later, and Xanterra currently owns a fleet of 21 1965-1978 Bombardiers, of which about 12 are in service.

Quinn fondly remembers his time driving Bombardiers with Stuart in the early 1980s. “That was probably the highlight of my career,” he said. In particular, Stuart was known for never wearing a coat. Only once, Quinn recalled, “he had a rain slicker, you know, without any insulation, draped over the back of his seat. It was negative 37 [degrees] out, so he thought he should bring one along.” Stuart’s hardy presence lives on in the snowcoach staff today, as I observed no coats worn among the snowcoach drivers during our visit.

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Photo: Xanterra Parks & Resorts® in Yellowstone

Winter wheels

Coats or not, our drivers all relished in operating the Bombardiers. Each Bomb has its own personality, so to speak, and drivers address their vehicle individually by number – our guide, William, drives Seven-Twenty-One. Thousands of visitors have hitched a ride, just like we were, into the interior of a winter landscape seen by few. Intended to carry 14 passengers, we thankfully were only 11 that day. Bench seats run along the sides and curve along the rear in a “U” that creates an intimate environment to share the experience with fellow passengers. Windows all around afford every passenger a view on our five-hour ride and tour to Old Faithful.

We made an obligatory stop at the Yellowstone sign to take group photos, and another at the frozen Moose Falls where Bombardier drivers maintain the path down to the view point shoveled and accessible all winter long for their passengers. The drive along Lewis Canyon elicited some gasps from the group. The guardrails are buried deep beneath the snow, making the precipitous drop into the canyon seem more dangerous than ever.

Undoubtedly, the ride was noisy, only those lucky enough to be in the front seats could hear the driver while in transit, and he even offered ear plugs for those who wanted them. A smoother ride than the jumping steering wheel would suggest, several of us nodded off in the warmth and gentle jostling motion between stops.

William told us the Bombardiers are great for driving in powdery snow, and can drive up and over drifts. The weather during our excursion did not require such maneuvering from the vehicles and their fearless drivers, but it felt like an adventure nonetheless. The drivers also acted as interpretive guides when we stopped at West Thumb Geyser Basin for a walk around the thermal features. We learned about thermophiles and park history, geology and ecology all on a short one-mile walk through the wonders of Yellowstone. After each excursion, my enthusiasm remained undiminished when we climbed back into the charismatic Bombardiers and rode off to the next stop.

Photos courtesy of Xanterra Parks & Resorts® in Yellowstone

Photo: Aaron Epstein

Bye, bye, Bombardiers

Just like old and classic vehicles, the Bombs’ quirks and character win over their passengers and drivers, despite shortcomings in efficiency and creature comforts. Since the park began regulating over-snow vehicles and OSV travel in the early 2000s, the push and pull of the winter transportation debate has been brewing in Yellowstone. The battle over winter use and transportation is many -faceted, but basically falls into two camps – those who believe the landscape in Yellowstone to be a sacred space, and desire it to be untouched by human presence; and those who believe in personal liberty, and enjoy the access winter transportation affords them and others who would otherwise be unable to visit during the unforgiving winter months.

“From the beginning our mission has been to find a way to accommodate visitors and address concerns about resource impacts, including sound levels and air quality,” explained Yellowstone spokesperson Al Nash. “For some years now snowmobiles have had standards to meet. We felt it was appropriate to set similar standards for snowcoaches.”

In a landscape where winter is a life and death experience for wild inhabitants, the smallest management decisions can tip the balance. As beautiful as the waterfalls and thermal features were along the way, the lack of roadside wildlife was apparent. The Bombardier drivers admitted that they rarely see wildlife on their route from the South Gate to Old Faithful. Do vehicles like the Bombardier, loudly making its way through a landscape that can be as quiet as an abandoned recording studio, make life for Yellowstone’s wild inhabitants unbearable, and even deadly? Expending energy to avoid disturbances from vehicles can decidedly spell disaster for wildlife scraping by in lean winter months. But visitors who’ve ridden in the Bombardier would probably argue that it adds to the charm and rustic feel of a winter visit to America’s first national park.

Several assessments, many years of court battles, and thousands of public comments later, the park service’s solution is a new winter use plan, to be phased in over two winters starting this year. Among other things, the new plan calls for using the “best available technology” when it comes to OSV. The new guidelines specifically aim to provide “a high quality visitor experience while protecting the very thing [visitors] come to see,” Nash explained.

Indeed, the new four-stroke snowmobiles announced themselves with little more than a hum as they entered single-file into Flagg Ranch alongside us. The Big Foot-tire-equipped passenger vans, able to drive over groomed, snow-covered roads, snuck in quietly behind us at West Thumb Geyser Basin.

Charming and quaint as they are, the rumbling, sputtering Bombardiers are far from considered “best available technology.” It would be a costly endeavor to retrofit the fleet to meet the new regulations. Instead, according to Bombardier driver Ruth, this will be the last season the Bombs will be picking up passengers from the South Gate.

“It’s the end of an era,” Ruth said of the decommissioning. During the winter 2015-16 season they will do some interior park tours, and pick up passengers from the North Gate. They will be retired at the end of the winter 2015-16 season.

Is there any room for history when considering which vehicles to use in the park? Is there space in a national park for sentimentality? Ruth suspects either Xanterra or the Park Service will hold onto the decommissioned vehicles. The last time they decommissioned and sold an outdated vehicle, the canvas-topped yellow tour buses, they eventually bought them back due to popular demand. These buses are now fitted with an updated engine and chassis but retain their exterior charm and carry visitors throughout the park in the summer. Does the future hold a similar fate for the Bombardiers?

“They spent around $250,000 per vehicle to bring back those buses,” Quinn noted. “For a [Bombardier] that is used for three months out of the year, it would be hard to swallow that cost.”

Seeing how much we admired the Bombardier, William suggested that we visit the gift shop at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge. Another Bomb driver has a company called Heartfelt Felties and has handcrafted ornaments for sale throughout the park and also on Etsy.com. Before loading up for our final Bombardier ride home, I sought out the tiny ornaments. A little yellow felt Bombardier, complete with tiny front skis and the spare wheel mounted on the front will now hang on our Christmas tree. It will be a reminder of a bygone time, when Bombardiers rumbled their way through a wintry Yellowstone landscape.

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