In 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt invited John Burroughs to join him on a two-week trip to Yellowstone National Park. At the time, Burroughs was a very popular writer whose nature essays were compared to those of Henry David Thoreau.
Roosevelt and Burroughs had built a long-term friendship on their mutual respect and love of the nature. They corresponded regularly, mostly about natural history. For some reason the president called Burroughs “Oom John.”
The pair crossed the country in Roosevelt’s private Pullman car stopping at cities and towns where the president met local dignitaries and gave speeches. Between cities the president reminisced about his life as a rancher and sportsman.
When they reached the entrance of the park at Gardiner, the Roosevelt left reporters and his secret service guards behind and went through the park accompanied only by Burroughs, Park Superintendent John Pitcher and a small entourage.
The 65-year-old Burroughs was afraid he wouldn’t be able the keep up with the 44-year-old president who had a larger-than-life reputation for physical stamina. Here’s Burroughs’ description of what happened when the pair went skiing.
At the Canyon Hotel the snow was very deep, and had become so soft from the warmth of the earth beneath, as well as from the sun above, that we could only reach the brink of the Canyon on skis. The President and Major Pitcher had used skis before, but I had not, and, starting out without the customary pole, I soon came to grief. The snow gave way beneath me, and I was soon in an awkward predicament. The more I struggled, the lower my head and shoulders went, till only my heels, strapped to those long timbers, protruded above the snow. To reverse my position was impossible till some one came, and reached me the end of a pole, and pulled me upright. But I very soon got the hang of the things, and the President and I quickly left the superintendent behind. I think I could have passed the President, but my manners forbade. He was heavier than I was, and broke in more. When one of his feet would go down half a yard or more, I noted with admiration the skilled diplomacy he displayed in extricating it. The tendency of my skis was all the time to diverge, and each to go off at an acute angle to my main course, and I had constantly to be on the alert to check this tendency.
Paths had been shoveled for us along the brink of the Canyon, so that we got the usual views from the different points. The Canyon was nearly free from snow, and was a grand spectacle, by far the grandest to be seen in the Park. The President told us that once, when pressed for meat, while returning through here from one of his hunting trips, he had made his way down to the river that we saw rushing along beneath us, and had caught some trout for dinner. Necessity alone could induce him to fish.
Across the head of the Falls there was a bridge of snow and ice, upon which we were told that the coyotes passed. As the season progressed, there would come a day when the bridge would not be safe. It would be interesting to know if the coyotes knew when this time arrived.
The only live thing we saw in the Canyon was an osprey perched upon a rock opposite us.
Near the falls of the Yellowstone, as at other places we had visited, a squad of soldiers had their winter quarters. The President always called on them, looked over the books they had to read, examined their housekeeping arrangements, and conversed freely with them.
In front of the hotel were some low hills separated by gentle valleys. At the President’s suggestion, he and I raced on our skis down those inclines. We had only to stand up straight, and let gravity do the rest. As we were going swiftly down the side of one of the hills, I saw out of the corner of my eye the President taking a header into the snow. The snow had given way beneath him, and nothing could save him from taking the plunge. I don’t know whether I called out, or only thought, something about the downfall of the administration. At any rate, the administration was down, and pretty well buried, but it was quickly on its feet again, shaking off the snow with a boy’s laughter. I kept straight on, and very soon the laugh was on me, for the treacherous snow sank beneath me, and I took a header, too.
“Who is laughing now, Oom John?” called out the President.
The spirit of the boy was in the air that day about the Canyon of the Yellowstone, and the biggest boy of us all was President Roosevelt.
— You also might enjoy “The Army Protects Theodore Roosevelt from Snooping Reporter in Yellowstone Park.”
— Excerpt from “Camping with the President” by John Burroughs,” Saturday Evening Post, May, 1906.
— Yellowstone Digital Slide File Photo.