15 Miles From Civilization, Someone Removed Yellowstone Snowmobiler’s Ignition Key

It could been a dire situation for Yellowstone snowmobiler Chris Brookhart as someone removed the ignition key from his snowmobile 15 miles from civilization on Tuesday. It turns out someone hid the key on purpose.

Mark Heinz

January 13, 20235 min read

Stranded snowmobilers 2 1 12 23
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Snowmobilers Chris and Tanya Brookhart found themselves in a dicey situation deep in Yellowstone National Park on Tuesday because somebody tampered with one of their machines. 

“I’m not saying we were freaking out, but it was getting cold and it was getting dark, so we were trying to figure out a backup plan,” Chris told Cowboy State Daily. 

The couple was alone and about 15 miles from their lodging in West Yellowstone, Montana, and they couldn’t get his Ski-Doo to start. 

“It became fairly obvious that somebody had tampered with the ignition system,” he said. 

Luckily, they still had Tanya’s snowmobile, as well as ample food and cold-weather gear. But the gravity of such an act that far back in the wilderness wasn’t lost on them, Chris said.. 

“This could have gone really badly for somebody,” he said. “There’s no cell service back there.”

It All Started With A Bobcat

The couple lives in Emigrant, Montana, not far from Yellowstone’s north entrance. Chris said they have a “non-commercial snowmobile permit” and frequently explore the park on their Ski-Doos. 

While chatting with a park ranger, they learned that there was “a bobcat on a deer carcass” in a remote spot along the Firehole River, about a two-hour ride away, Chris said. So, they headed that way, hoping for a look at the elusive feline. 

Chris said as he understands the rules, traffic along the narrow road they were traveling was to go one direction during the first half of the day, and the opposite way for the rest. That’s to prevent traffic jams. 

And he thought they were headed in the proper direction.

Chris and Tanya Brookhart. (Courtesy Photo, Chris Brookhart)

‘You Can’t Be Here’

When they arrived, there were three snow coaches “completely blocking the road” and numerous people milling about watching the bobcat across the river, Chris said. 

He said one of the snow coach drivers almost immediately became agitated with him.

“He said, ‘You can’t be here,’” and I said, ‘What do you mean I can’t be here?’” Chris said. 

He said the driver told him the road was meant only for snow coaches, not snowmobiles, during that time of day. But that didn’t jibe with what Chris said he understood about the travel rules for that road. 

“I told him, ‘I’m sorry, I made a mistake,’” Chris said. “He kept saying, ‘You need to get out of here.’ He was very emphatic about getting us out of there.” 

Chris decided to stay and get some photos of the bobcat. He said that he and Tanya noticed some of the snow coach passengers “whispering” among themselves and making snide remarks toward he and Tanya. 

Hidden Key

By the time the couple was ready to leave, the snow coachers were gone, Chris said. After trying to get Chris’ machine to start, they noticed that the ignition key was missing. 

The key for that model Ski-Doo is a round cover that fits over the ignition knob, he said. 

“There’s only one key per machine for those things,” he said. “It’s not like you can just go and get another one.”

They finally found the key hidden under the front section of the track on Chris’s snowmobile. 

“We had been thinking about towing my machine out with Tanya’s,” He said. “But that would have taken hours, going just 5 mph, and as soon as my Ski-Doo had started moving the track would have crushed the key and ruined another two days of snowmobiling for us.”

‘Malicious Act’

Chris said he thinks tampering with his key was a “malicious act” that could have put somebody in serious jeopardy, but also not typical of their experiences in Yellowstone. 

He posted about the incident on Facebook, but said he took the post down because he was getting too many negative comments from people who thought he and Tanya were in the wrong for traveling the road at the wrong time. 

Even so, he doesn’t see how that justifies somebody tampering with his machine, potentially stranding someone in the cold without a way to get out.

“I made a mistake, and I fully own that part,” he said. 

Chris said they’ve reported the incident to Park Service law enforcement and it’s under investigation.

“Since we didn’t vacate that location quickly enough for whoever felt we needed to, they felt the need to drive the point home,” Chris said.

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Mark Heinz

Outdoors Reporter