A Volunteer's Impressions
by John Reynolds
My introduction to the field of archeology was fortuitous for me and came late in my life. The field of archeology was essentially unknown to me when I applied to become a volunteer for the National Park Service (NPS). I had applied to increase my knowledge of NPS operations in order to become an advocate for the park system in my retirement.
The NPS developed a Volunteers-in-Parks (VIP) program to supplement the pursuit of its mission. Each park has its own program, and I applied to Yellowstone National Park (YNP) largely because of its natural beauty and abundant wildlife. In my application, I noted that I had few marketable skills, could work 3 months or so, and promised to work hard and follow instructions.
Through great good fortune, the efforts of the VIP Coordinator at Yellowstone, and the willingness of Park Archeologist Dr. Ann Johnson to take a chance on an unknown quantity, I was allowed to volunteer for her program. My plan was to work for the summer (1999) and move on to my next experience. I had no idea what I was getting into, but will be eternally grateful to Ann and all the other wonderful folks who showed more patience than judgment by allowing me to work for 16 summers.
Early in my first summer, a gentleman stopped in the lab looking for Ann. As I accompanied him over to her office, he said to me, “Don’t catch it.” I clearly did not understand. He smiled and said, “Yellowstone Fever, don’t catch it.” He was a physician in his seventies, had worked in the park the summer before he started college, and had returned nearly every year since then. While I did not realize it, I already had caught Yellowstone Fever.
The Basic Work
My first year, and many of the years that followed, I worked with a crew of professional archeologists from Canada. They were substantively expert, all with graduate training, and were experienced at the sometimes very physically demanding field work. They prepared detailed scientific reports for each project, which are not available to the general public in order to protect the location of the sites and prevent looting. The team, however, did publish several articles in Yellowstone Science which provided useful insights while protecting the locations.
With the team, our field time was devoted to surveys or excavations. Surveys consisted of forming a line and walking across a specific area simply looking at the surface of the ground for items of interest. In YNP most of the ground is acidic, so nearly all our finds were stone. I was totally lost as to what was important, but our team was very forgiving and brought me along slowly.
I thought any rock with a point on it was collectible. Soon I learned that only obsidian or chert was of interest. Of those materials, most of what was found were “flakes,” chips removed from a larger piece in the process of toolmaking. We found thousands of flakes and only a small number of tools, such as projectile points, knives, awls, and scrapers.
The first summer we began by surveying along the road west of the Madison Campground. We worked both sides of the highway from Seven Mile Bridge to West Yellowstone, much of it along the Madison River. This area was chosen at that time because we had Federal Highway money to support the work. Because of the proximity to the river, it was also likely habitat for early peoples.
When surface surveys identified significant concentrations and resources were available, sites could be selected for excavation. My part of excavating was not one requiring special skills. The choice of sites and the delineating of individual units within the sites was done meticulously. As soil was removed from each unit, it was placed in a bucket and then dumped into a screen suspended by a tripod. The screen was shaken vigorously to force the soil through, leaving items too large to pass through the screen. That was my job; and on windy days, such as at one site near Yellowstone Lake, I ate a great deal of dirt at my station. The residue was examined to see if any of it merited collection. The collected items were almost exclusively flakes; only in rare instances did a tool escape the critical review of the excavator.
All the items collected were brought to the lab to record where they were collected. Precise physical descriptions were added, and then the artifacts were labeled. All this was entered into a central database. The final step was transferring the prepared artifacts and the complete documentation to the museum for storage and subsequent research. Much of this work was done in the winter when field work was not possible. As the years passed, and with less funding for field work, more time was spent in the lab. One summer I developed the information and created forms required to document some 1,800 artifacts, and then entered the information into our database.
When I began volunteering, Ann’s office and the lab were located in Mammoth. The long-planned Heritage and Research Center (HRC) in Gardiner was completed in 2004. At that time, all archeology activities shifted to our new quarters in that building. It was a significant upgrade with enough space to meet all our needs. The first summer after the move, I spent most of my time helping with the final stages of the move, unpacking boxes of finished reports, setting up a large library of archeology texts, and establishing files for over 1,200 site reports.
Ann, with one notable exception, was a one-person department. The exception was Elaine Hale, who worked full time on archeology-related duties associated with the Federal Highway projects in YNP. Elaine was invaluable in that role and an integral part of the overall success of the archeology program.
Because Ann’s many and varied responsibilities often included activities outside YNP, at times she called on me to substitute for her. This fell under “other duties as assigned.” I did not feel that I was competent to speak for Ann or, at times, for YNP; but she was always more than willing to pass some things to me. A few of these “opportunities” were particularly memorable to me.
One year in mid-September, Ann was out of the park, so I was sent down to Yellowstone Lake where the board of the Yellowstone Park Foundation (now known as Yellowstone Forever) was having its annual meeting. Some of the meetings were for the entire board, but a few presentations on specific topics were made available for anyone who was interested. My assignment was to give a 20-minute overview of archeology in the park and then take anyone interested on a walk along the lakeshore to demonstrate how a field survey worked. Needless to say, I approached this with great trepidation, but I drew a group of about 8-10 very pleasant folks who were extremely polite and asked good questions. By the time I offered the walk on the beach, the weather had turned a little raw—late in the day, getting chilly, drizzling, and the wind picking up. Except for one couple worried about travelling in possible snow, the remainder of the group was up for the walk and participated gamely. One of the ladies even spotted a scraper on the beach which I dutifully collected, recording its location with my GPS device. I turned it over to Ann later, who added it to the collection, and sent our newest volunteer a nice letter congratulating her on her good work.
In another instance, I wasn’t sure how my comments were taken. This involved a congressman who was in the park with his family but wanted to be briefed in depth on some of the work. He chaired a House Subcommittee that dealt with the NPS budget; therefore, we wanted to make a good impression. He was to visit the library, the curator’s office for a look at the museum, and the archeology lab, all on a tight schedule. In addition, I was to provide a 30-minute overview of our work at the end of his visit. By the time the congressman reached the lab, he was running way behind schedule. I asked how much time he had; the answer was about 10 minutes. I did my part quickly, covering the size of the park, the number of sites, and the complexity of the research. Then I put a 9,500-year-old Cody knife in his hand, telling him its significance. All in less than 10 minutes. Then I asked if I could make an additional point. He said, of course. I noted he had just spoken to the library staff, who were employed by the then-named Yellowstone Association; to a part-time seasonal in the museum; and to me, a volunteer, on his tour of the HRC. I went on to say that none of us were NPS staff and that for the “Crown Jewel of the National Park System,” that was embarrassing. He hung his head, said he knew, apologized, and added that he was trying to add funds. I am not sure the visit accomplished much, but I felt better for having said my piece.
My last anecdote about speaking for Ann was less dramatic but a bunch of fun. I spoke to a good portion of the students at the elementary school in Mammoth. The school, provided for the children of NPS employees, has since been closed due to the shrinking enrollment; all the youngsters are now bussed to Gardiner, Montana. It was great fun talking to this group; however, I learned to stay on message when talking to children of that age. September in YNP is the time when elk are in the rut and the bulls make a tremendous racket with continuous bugling. Some of that happened while I was speaking, but kids were ignoring it because they were used to it. When I complained about the competition I was getting from the elk, all the students leapt from their seats and ran to the window. Their teacher herded them back to their chairs so I could continue, and gave me a look indicating her displeasure. Each child wrote me a touching note, thanking me for my presentation and offering some pithy comments. I kept every note, but made a copy of the package and filed it in the lab with all the other scientific records.
I Encountered Superb People
Over the years I worked with many exceptional people. Every one of them worked very hard, made me feel welcome, and were always supportive, especially when I lagged behind their normal hiking speed. Also in the field were a number of other people who also volunteered, mostly for a few days but a couple for a few summers. The ones who returned for more than one year were the best.
Also during my time, Stanford University initiated a program to expose a select number of its students to YNP and the research work undertaken by the park. Over the years I worked with several of these young people who were always bright, energetic, and creative. I have stayed in touch with two or three of them and count my time with this group as one of the highlights of my time in YNP.
Ann Johnson was unfailingly upbeat, supportive, and incredibly dedicated to her chosen profession and the program she directed. She had many notable qualities. One I particularly prized was that she was direct. Early in my first summer, I hinted I would be happy to have an opportunity to return for another summer. She was noncommittal so I repeated my thought. At that point, she said, “Well, John, we are happy you are here now, but if you screw up we will send you home.” I did not broach the subject again until the last week of my tour. A week before I left, I told Ann that I would like to volunteer again and asked if I should contact the VIP Coordinator. She simply said, “No, you should call me.” The fact that I did call her each year for roughly a decade was testimony to my admiration for her professionalism, technical expertise, and skill at working with a disparate group of contractors, volunteers, and NPS personnel. Over time I was a witness to the tremendous growth of the program she created, as noted in a Yellowstone Science article published at the time of her retirement. I highly recommend reading it (Yellowstone Science 11:4. 2003).
During the last few years of Ann’s tenure, I was most fortunate to work with one of the more talented individuals I encountered in my federal service. One summer we were joined by a young lady from Canada, Robin Szamuhel (now Park), who quickly became invaluable in the field and in the lab. In no time, she mastered every aspect of our work in the field and the lab. Becoming my partner in revisiting sites for many days, she could out hike me and had sharper eyes. After one summer as a volunteer, Robin announced her intention to go to graduate school and seek a Master’s degree in archeology. She did exactly that, obtaining her MS in archeology from the University of Saskatchewan (Canada) while continuing to work summers in Yellowstone. After completing her degree, she came back to the park and worked as a contractor as Ann neared retirement.
YNP was indeed fortunate that Robin was willing to take over the work of the department in Gardiner upon Ann’s retirement and to remain until Ann’s replacement was named nearly two years later. During the interim, Robin and I worked on the backlog that had accumulated during the years when Ann was so shorthanded. It was to Robin’s credit much progress was made. When the new archeologist, Dr. Staffan Peterson, was appointed, he quickly became a key asset in completing the elimination of the backlog. Staffan brought a wealth of archeological knowledge and skills and an exceptional understanding of the application of IT tools to archeology. By developing new techniques, he made the large and growing body of data more accessible and, therefore, more useful to everyone doing research in the field.
By definition, volunteers do not earn a salary; however, money could never have adequately compensated me for the experiences I had in YNP. I was able to participate in important work that expanded the understanding of archeology in the park and added to the general study of archeology in the Mountain West. Neither could money ever match what I gained from working with such outstanding people. They became and remain my Yellowstone family.
I had the opportunity to travel to parts of the park very few visitors ever see and to stay in backcountry cabins which had neither power nor water. We hiked for miles to reach some of them and canoed a few miles to another one. I spent nights looking at a sky that could only be seen in these remote areas. We saw wildlife in their natural state, varied our travel on foot a few times to accommodate a bear or two, and were able to see wolves that had been returned to where they had lived for millennia before being eradicated in the early 20th century.
A few weeks after arriving in YNP for my first summer, 1999, the crew and I were joined by Ann for a day of surveying. We hiked along a difficult trail for the better part of a mile next to a river, then climbed up to a ridge and through about 100 yards of regrowth from the fires of 1988. This led into an open meadow maybe a mile long and half a mile wide. Snow-covered mountains were to the west in the distance; to the east, hundreds of yards away, was a herd of scores of bison. I was stunned. When I recovered the ability to speak, I turned to Ann and said, “There are several billion people in the world; how many of them will see this today?” She shrugged and said, “Probably just us.”
I had lots of days like that. At home I have many photos and souvenirs to document the glorious days and nights I spent in paradise. They all pale when compared to the vivid images I will carry forever in my mind.
Last updated: April 10, 2019