A Morning with Jeff Henry
By: Ricky Harney
Blog Post #5
Figure 1 Jeff Henry moving snow in Canyon Village
This morning I woke to a crisp 36-degrees in Gallatin National Forest just outside of Paradise Valley at Mill Creek. I could hardly wait to start my day since I would be interviewing Jeff Henry. In short, Jeff is a Yellowstone icon. May 25th marked Jeff’s 40th year in the park. He is a photographer, writer, and winterkeeper. The first time I met Jeff, he gave a slide show presentation to the winter guides. With 40 years in the park, you could imagine the opportunities that he must have had, and he did. He captivated a room of eager guides for an hour. His photography was only matched by his soft-spoken, perfectly placed words.
I remember seeing Jeff on a roof in Canyon Village cutting refrigerator size blocks of compacted snow and effortlessly guiding them over the edge. Thousands of blocks, one after the other piled on the ground beneath him. He uses an old-fashioned cross cut saw attached to a short-handled shovel handle to cut his perfect pattern. Each stroke of his saw was calculated and precise. A wonderfully perfect checkerboard pattern would begin to take shape as Jeff carved his way towards the ridge of the roof, almost a shame he had to finish, leaving the roof barren of snow only to be cleared later in the season or the following winter. Seeing Jeff winterkeep was often the highlight of my tour. My guests would stand in awe of the daunting task that laid in front of this mountain man on the roof. Jeff always made time to talk to my group and me. He would share his love of Yellowstone in the winter, sharing experiences that others could only imagine.
I arrived a Jeff’s house just after 9:00am. He greeted me with a firm handshake and a hot cup of coffee. He helped me store most of my belongings while I am on the road photographing Wyoming. I got a tour of his house that was layered with Yellowstone history. The lodgepoles that made up his beautiful log home were reclaimed from a construction project in Yellowstone. His wood burning kitchen cooktop/oven once took residence in the Old Faithful Inn. It can generate enough heat to keep his home warm most winter nights. One thing after another was a piece of Yellowstone history. I could feel the soul of the park living in this riverfront cabin that anyone would love to call home. My guess is that Jeff may spend some time there, but Yellowstone is what he considers his true home.
After the tour, we sat down and I asked him a few questions:
Me: “What experiences in Yellowstone stand out as the most memorable?”
Jeff: “On September 7th, 1988 the Old Faithful area was nearly consumed by wildfire. Old Faithful is a special place. No matter how many times I see it go off, I mist up. I probably have seen Old Faithful erupt more than any other living person. The first time I heard wolves howling around Nez Perce Creek was another experience I will never forget. In the spring of 1981, the ice began to thaw on Yellowstone Lake and broke into half mile size plates. The ice migrated ashore and pushed the earth up 25 feet high. Once, I took an open boat across the lake at night, using only the Lake Hotel as navigation. I would love this area regardless if it was a national park or not. The headwaters, the high elevation, the thermals all come together to make a world I want to be a part of. Yellowstone is my special place, then I realized, it doesn’t get much better than this.”
Jeff has dozens of stories about Yellowstone. I wish we had more time to talk. I would most certainly like to follow up with a more in-depth interview in the future. Jeff had company coming over in the afternoon, so I didn’t want to take too much of his time. Before I left, I had a couple of more questions for him.
Me: “What made you want to become a winterkeeper?”
Jeff: “I just love being outside. I always liked being tough enough to do it. I find peace when I am up there. I love to cut each block perfectly. Perfection comes with time and with the help of others. I turned to the other winterkeepers to learn the craft. The wildlife, the solitude, just the chance to get away from today’s noise and confusion was enough for me. I visited Yellowstone as a child. Even then, I would study maps of the area, I was in awe of the place. Yellowstone is where rivers are born, rich with history, where man can be truly tested. Perhaps it was my destiny. I am removed from technology when I am moving snow. I don’t feel a need to be connected 24 hours a day. The world wants me to be connected, I just don’t see the need. I love to conceptualize it, to see my path before I begin. I feel free enjoying the silence. It is also great exercise.” Jeff went on to share one of his favorite quotes, “Removed, I think my own thoughts. The freedom to do things without being interrupted.”
-Beulah Brown, My Winter in Geyserland
Me: “When your time is up, how do you want to be remembered?”
Jeff: “I want to be remembered as a Yellowstone winterkeeper, as a photographer that inspired other photographers, as an author who increased other people’s appreciation of the area, of each other. I am touched that so many people helped me when I needed it. At one point, 78 people helped to winterkeep when I was unable to at the time. So, every chance I have to help others, I do. I learned a lot about Yellowstone, I just want to pass that knowledge on.”
There were a few times the two of us were tearing up. Jeff opened his heart to me, and it was like a tidal wave of passion for Yellowstone hit me head on. He was also kind enough to give me a copy of two of his books, Snowshoes, Coaches, and Cross County Skis and Yellowstone Winterscapes. I often speak of my connection with nature. To see a man with over 40 years of connection with Yellowstone was overwhelming. Jeff’s roots run as deep as the canyon itself. I am a better man for knowing Jeff Henry.
|Wonderful story. Yellowstone has true heart, not only in its natural beauty, but also in the individuals who keep it running.
I have a special place in my heart for one of them!?
|Wonderful. It will take a lot more coffee to listen to 40 years of Jeff’s life…Or I think you just sold me a book…lol !!!!!|