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Carolyn Aaronson, Webcam Operator
Carolyn Aaronson, Webcam Operator

The Faces Behind The Old Faithful Webcam

Do you ever look at the Old Faithful Geyser webcam?

It’s a 24/7 channel that livestreams video from Yellowstone National Park’s most iconic location, Old Faithful, and takes in some of the Upper Geyser Basins lesser-known—but much-loved—geysers.

A team of eight volunteers “drive”  the webcam during daylight hours from off-site locations around the United States. They zoom in not only on Old Faithful eruptions—their main task—but other geysers, along with wildlife and even human antics, explained Carolyn Aaronson, the lead cam operator.

The webcam went live about 10 years ago, said Aaronson, who lives in Wethersfield, Connecticut. She stumbled into the position when she was helping transcribe some ranger programs for the park website.

She and the other seven take it in shifts to watch the webcam and, as needed, direct it to different features in the geyser basin. In the wide-angle mode, the view extends outward to Geyser Hill and to partially obstructed views of Castle and Grand geysers.

The camera is mounted high in a lodgepole pine tree between the Old Faithful Lodge and the Visitor Center, Aaronson said.

working-at-computer

Their main priority is keeping the camera on Old Faithful Geyser eruptions, but armed with the National Park Service geyser predictions, they will zoom on other  geysers within their prediction windows, Victoria Weaver, a cam operator who lives in Billings, Montana said.

They also train the camera on wildlife as well as humans.

“We’ve caught quite a few cone walkers,” Aaronson said.

Cone walker is a Yellowstone term for people who venture—illegally—off the boardwalk and approach the cone of Old Faithful Geyser. Cam operators all have phone numbers for park law enforcement, and when they see cone walking or other illegal activity, they call it in right away.

Cone walking is dangerous, Weaver pointed out.

“The potential for damage to the feature is really, really high and they don’t really understand the potential danger to themselves,” she said.

Not only can near-boiling water splash out or steam burst out of even a dormant-seeming geyser, but the thin crust could break, potentially plunging a visitor into scalding hot water.

The cam operators don’t zoom in on humans out of a sense of not invading anyone’s privacy, Weaver said, but one perhaps odd thing they all mentioned was seeing a wedding and a woman in a wedding dress on the boardwalk around Old Faithful.

Some webcam scenes have made it onto Youtube, Aaronson said, and they’re pretty easy to find.

setting-screen

Weaver puts in 12-15 hours a week on the cam, which is directed by software.  She is retired and partially disabled, so she sometimes put in extra hours for other volunteers who need time off from their schedules.  She’s been an operator since 2009, and was brought on by Aaronson.

Weaver’s disability makes it more difficult these days to make a trip to Yellowstone, so the webcam is a lifeline to the area she loves so much.

“I’m up close and personal to somewhere I couldn’t otherwise be,” she said.

The camera is staffed every day from about 7 a.m. until dark, Aaronson said, but in the summer, daylight stretches from about 5:30 a.m. to almost 10 p.m.

But David Monteith, in Kent, Washington, said it’s often possible to see an Old Faithful eruption in the dark during the summer months because visitors often turn their flashlights toward the geyser when it erupts at night. In fact, Monteith was watching Old Faithful erupt when we spoke on a recent evening. The prediction was dead on, with the eruption starting at 7:25 p.m. local time.

And in the winter, with snow on much of the ground and under a full moon, it’s possible to see Old Faithful on the cam some nights, he said.

Monteith came to the webcam gig through geyser gazing. He’s a member of GOSA, the Geyser Observation and Study Association. He estimates he’s logged about 3,000 hours on the webcam in the two years he’s been a volunteer.

Webcam operators all said they have favorite geysers. Aaronson and Monteith both said Beehive is their favorite, but Weaver said she likes Grand Geyser.

“I’ve seen every variation of Beehive, but I haven’t seen every variation of Grand,” Weaver said.

And they’ve eruptions of the rarer geysers, like Giantess.  Weaver said she’s traveled from her home in Billings when a Giantess eruption has begun. She said she can get to Old Faithful in four to six hours. Prior Giantess eruptions have lasted anywhere from 24 to 48 hours.

“I used to keep a park bag in the trunk of my car. It had record-keeping material, water, a change of underwear and a bag of trail mix,” for a quick getaway, she laughed, “What more do you need?”

bison-on-cam

They also see wildlife on the cam, including elk, bison, grizzly bears, moose, marmots and coyotes.

There used to be a coyote they saw often at about the same time of day.

“We called him the 4 o’clock coyote,” Aaronson said.

Monteith is pretty sure he saw a wolf once. And a badger.

And one time in the spring he saw a grizzly bear come charging up towards Old Faithful chasing some elk. The bear ran toward the benches on the boardwalk that surround the famous geyser. The rangers had a time trying to protect people while also trying to get the bear re-directed.

Animals are more rare in the busy summer months, but the cam operators keep an eye out for visitors getting too close to bison, which frequent the Upper Geyser Basin to some extent year-round. And if they see people getting too close to animals, they pick up the phone call the Old Faithful Visitor Center staff, who can alert a ranger.

Shifts vary, but Weaver said the morning shift runs roughly from 7 a.m. or earlier in the summer to about 10:30 a.m. Then the mid-day shift is from 10:30 to about 3:30 p.m., and then the evening shift starts around 3:30 p.m. and goes until dark.

Shifts can be busy and require a certain level of attention. Monteith said sometimes he can do other activities on his computer while keeping an eye on the cam, but he doesn’t do things that might overly distract him from his main duty.

Weaver agreed that a shift can be busy, but there are known opportunities for short breaks.

“We all go to the bathroom when Old Faithful erupts,” Weaver laughed.

The eight operators are all over the U.S., but they used to have a a volunteer in England, who had never been to Yellowstone. They email one another messages and some talk on the phone, some were acquainted in real life before becoming cam operators, as Aaronson and Weaver were, but not everyone has met.

“We could pass each other on the street and not know each other, but we’re part of this very small fraternity,” Weaver said.

There’s more information about other Yellowstone area webcams online at https://www.nps.gov/yell/learn/photosmultimedia/webcams.htm along with links to the cameras.

About Liz Kearney

Liz Kearney is a former Yellowstone tour guide and snowcoach driver. She lives in Livingston, Montana, where she covers the park and other news for the daily newspaper, the Livingston Enterprise.

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