Rachel Cudmore loves her job in Yellowstone National Park, but every December she loves it just a little bit more.
On Christmas Eve, Cudmore dresses up in a festive elf costume and escorts Santa to all the remote interior park locations where, with the exception of Old Faithful, which bustles with overnight guest lodging and other amenities, small crews of National Park Service employees spend the winter months.
“It’s one of the highlights of winter,” Cudmore said in a phone interview from her office at park headquarters, Mammoth Hot Springs.
Yellowstone’s interior is closed to wheeled vehicles in the winter, so any transportation has to happen on a snowmobile, in a snowcoach, or vans and small buses outfitted with oversized, low-pressure tires designed to work in the snow.
Santa stops at all the locations where employees live—Norris, Canyon, Lake, West Thumb, Old Faithful and Madison—and at locations where park employees have children, he greets each child by name and distributes special gifts. It’s a treat for families who may not be able to get out of the park and see Santa at a mall, Cudmore said.
This year there’s just one child in the park interior, a little girl of five or six at Old Faithful. Cudmore said the child saw Santa for the first time about three years ago.
“She screamed ‘Santa!’ ran to him down the snowy road,” Cudmore said.
Last year, the little girl was the eldest of two or three other children and she took them under her wing and explained how the whole Santa thing would play out.
And the kids had made a special treat for Santa to share with his reindeer—little bags of oatmeal with glitter sprinkled in.
Santa brings each child a special treat, thanks to a little conspiring with parents in advance. The parents buy a gift, wrap it up, and sneak it into Santa’s hands when the kids aren’t looking. They sometimes hand the gift off the week before, so when Santa shows up, it will appear that the gift came straight from the North Pole.
One year a child at Canyon Village received a set of juggling bean bags. Santa, it turned out, just happened to be an expert juggler, and amazed the children with juggling feats, Cudmore laughed.
Cudmore, a National Park Service employee, is the park’s Commercial Film Permits Coordinator, and in the winter, has additional duties as the winter courier. She’s been Santa’s driver since 2009. Twice a week it’s her job to deliver the mail to NPS employees who work at remote locations inside the park. The mail comes to Yellowstone’s main post office, located at Mammoth Hot Springs.
Cudmore said the locations, with the exception of Old Faithful, have about 20 or so people, including employees and family members. Near Christmas, Cudmore decorates her vehicle—perhaps with a bright red bow on the front—and she and Santa head out early for their roughly 150-mile round trip. She also delivers homemade cookies.
Santa’s red suit and boots have been filled the past few years by Cudmore’s beau, Doug Kraus who works in the summer season as in the Yellowstone Wildland Fire Helitack program.
At 6 feet tall and a slim build, Cudmore jokes that Kraus doesn’t fit the profile of the typical Santa.
“I had to make him a pillow shirt so his pillow wouldn’t fall out,” she laughed.
Cudmore and Kraus make a public appearance at Old Faithful, where they’ll mingle with visitors on the boardwalk while they wait for Old Faithful go off.
Visitors take photos of Santa or pose with him.
“Everyone is super excited,” Cudmore said.
Santa’s visits to the park interior started about 25 years ago, explained Tammy Wert, Yellowstone’s Fee & Film Program Manager. In those days, Santa drove a snowmobile, pulling a trailer with gifts and packages.
Santa doesn’t go out every year because some years, there aren’t any employees with children in the park. The numbers are never very high because employees with children tend to move to less remote jobs, especially when the kids reach school age, Wert said. The jobs mostly involve maintenance and law enforcement.
Cudmore, who majored in photography at Montana State University, enjoys driving around the park in winter. She sees “tons” of wildlife—including bison, elk, otter and wolves. She doesn’t have much time for taking photos, but sometimes she’ll take a break and have a snack if there’s something interesting going on. Just the other day she saw something moving near the road—a tiny black dot. It was an ermine, white against the snow, except for its nose and the tip of its tail.
“It was so cute when it hopped up into the snow,” Cudmore said. “I love seeing ermine.”
Cudmore said she’s usually alone on the regular mail run, and she has to pay close attention to driving to keep on the groomed, hard-packed road. The sides of the road are not hardpacked, so it’s easy to stray too close to the edge and end up with a vehicle stuck in deep, deep snow.
Paying attention to driving makes it hard to keep an eye out for wildlife, too. But earlier in the week before Christmas, Cudmore spied a large group of trumpeter swans and cygnets on the Yellowstone River in Hayden Valley, between Lake and Canyon.
“I stopped my car for a minute and listened,” Cudmore said. “They were making a ton of noise.”
Santa and his elf are headed out to do their Christmas magic on Dec. 23 this year. Cudmore was busy in the evenings before, baking Christmas cookies to distribute around the park and to the one little girl at Old Faithful.
“It’s a chance to bring a little bit of magic while they still believe,” Cudmore said.
Cudmore has a job most of us dream about—driving through Yellowstone in the winter. She’s usually by herself, but she carries a radio so someone always knows where she is. And she loves seeing the wildlife in quieter circumstances without the sometimes hundreds of other people who might be near an animal sighting in the summer.
In one of her first winters, she and Santa saw a lone wolf in Hayden Valley. It was pretty far away, but close enough to see with the naked eye. They stopped to watch it. It watched them for a few minutes, then turned and walked away.
“The best part of the job is having those more intimate experience with wildlife you typically don’t have in the summer,” Cudmore said.