Big Trip, Ch. 6, Yellowstone

Yellowstone

14 June, the remainder of the day

The junction of dirt and pavement was welcome. The black top seemed to offer the smoothest ride I had experienced after the jarring travels since Monida, Montana. Eight miles west of Yellowstone National Park would be yet another crossing of the Continental Divide. My earlier crossing of Monida Pass placed me in the eastern watershed where the streams would make their final destination into the Gulf of Mexico. The crossing at Red Rock Pass put me back on the Pacific slope, and the crossing of 7,072 foot Targhee Pass placed once again on the eastern watershed.

In minutes, I was in West Yellowstone, a small but bustling resort town at 6667 feet elevation and just outside the west entrance of Yellowstone National Park. Today was the time for the flocking behavior of tourist. It was the thronging season, and the cars backed up for miles from the entrance station of one of the most visited of national parks. Four dark green uniformed rangers worked from their busy 12 X 12 foot building. They leaned out to hand drivers maps, and leaflet about the park in exchange for a $3.00 entrance fee.

Visitors were from every state and for probably as many reasons to come to Yellowstone. Mine was to see birds and the geology that makes the park so famous. There are many reasons to visit: history, all kinds of botanical and zoological reasons, camping, fishing, hiking photography, and more. Besides birds and geology, I was enjoying watching the people in the park.

My first night in Yellowstone was appropriately at the campground at Madison near the same location where a group of explorers talked about the personal gains possible in what Indians called Rock Yellow River. Those gains were not commercial. In 1870 General Henry Washburn, the surveyor-general of Montana, the Honorable Nathaniel P. Langford, and Lt. Gustavus C. Doane made a momentous decision. They decided, after experiencing the unique geology and beauty of the region, “to set apart” what they saw for the use and enjoyment of the people. A few years later, in 1872, Ulysses S. Grant signed the documents protecting what we now know as Yellowstone National Park. Almost every president since has set aside some public land although more acres would is welcome.

15 June

The campground at Madison was my second experience camping in a large public facility; my first, at Craters of the Moon National Monument a few days ago was fairly peaceful. Campers at Madison seemed almost anxious. After the jostle through the busy west entrance, Madison was perhaps their first campground in Yellowstone. That was enough to fray anyone’s nerves. There were fewer tents here compared to Craters of the Moon. There were people sleeping in their station wagons, tall and top-heavy pickup campers, and fancy tents as big as houses. My pup tent occupied one of the 16 campsites. Many people drug behind them trailers of varying sizes. After many a cold and sleepless night, the result of weather and bugs, a trailer did not seem like a bad idea.

Of course, tent camping lets one experience the elements. So it was, after meeting some of my neighbors. Most were friendly but anxious to head out to the next campground before the noonday sun. I had just finished breakfast cooked over the camp stove when I realized there was no sun shining and might not be by noon. Tiny hailstones began to pelt earthward. Dark clouds swirled overhead and the hailstones coming down were gradually becoming larger and larger. This was too much for my head and shoulders. It definitely was not weather for outdoor cooking. I turned off the gas burners and stuffed the hot stove under a picnic table. Because the area was moist from melted snow, I would not have to worry about starting a forest fire. I gathered the partially cooked food and myself into the protective shell of my car. The white round balls of ice continued to fall and the clouds darkened to a blackish gray-blue.

The trailer campers were probably enjoying their breakfast now. They probably were not hungry nor were their ears stinging from the bombardment of icy pellets. This was a good time to acquaint myself with the park, but the bold letters on a separate leaflet drew my attention. At the top of the leaflet was a picture of a bear, its mouth open, and teeth exposed, and front paws stretched wide from its body as if ready to attach. Underneath the picture was the warning that bears are dangerous, and that food should be stored in airtight containers and that any unwashed or greasy utensils should not be in the open.

About the time of reading the last word of the leaflet, I looked up at my camp stove. Accompanying my camp stove was a bear. Actually, the hungry looking black bear was sniffing my stove. I wondered what I should do. The most sensible tact would be to remain a respectful spectator, and hope the camp stove survived in one piece. Evidently, the stove did not appeal to the bruin. It glanced toward me before ambling to the back of the car. Perhaps it thought food was stored there instead of the rear engine. I remained quiet and still. The hailstones had continued to fall and were by now about a quarter-inch in diameter. Either the noise of the hailstones tapping on the car or their size may have sent the bear back into the nearby trees. Something sent it scurrying. That I had given the stove a thorough cleaning just before today’s meal may explain why the bear did not tear it to pieces.

The hailstones size reached one-half inch diameter before the storm abated. After eating, I drove north for 14 miles to Norris. I had never been to Norris. My only visit to Yellowstone was in 1955 when my parents veered off the beaten path to my grandparent’s house. I don’t recall much about our visit except that is was less than two hours, part of which was milling around with 100s of other visitors waiting for Old Faithful to erupt. In 1955, I had vowed to revisit Yellowstone to see more of the park. Then, I thought spending a week would do justice to this land. I hope that the week I now will spend in Yellowstone will be enough time for birds and geysers.

The hailstorm, with its penetrating cold, apparently passed the Norris Geyser Basin. The hot springs and cold air produced a fog of steam. I missed seeing the eruption of the world’s tallest active geyser, Steamboat. It can erupt to more than 300 feet, and shower unsuspecting viewers with its mineral-rich waters. Steamboat thunders with powerful jets of steam for hours following its major eruption. Full eruptions are entirely unpredictable, and may not occur for months or years. I had only time for part of the basin and hurried down the boardwalks and paths, stopping only for pictures. There were no birds, seen or heard. Where was Steamboats eruption and montane birds when I needed them? Time still passed rapidly and five o’clock soon rolled. I was hungry most of the time, and became even hungrier at my usual meal times. The sulfurous fumes that floated all around in an airborne cloak also started to gnaw at my stomach.

Back in the car and out of the fumes, I drove north a few miles, stopped several times, and still could not find any birds. I turned around and stopped to look over the trailhead at the Norris Geyser Basin. A big black limousine pulled up beside the little VW, two men jumped out, one in a top hat, and began taking movies. Apparently satisfied, they jumped into their chauffeured car and lurched northward. I became interested and followed them. For the next few miles the limo stopped, the same two men would leap hurriedly out of their car, expose a few feet of film, and jump back in the limo. They then were chauffeured to the next site where they repeated, top hat and all, their previous documentation of their trip to Yellowstone. Finally, tiring of my game of people watching, I again turned south to my new campground at Old Faithful Village.

My arrival to possibly one of the most famous locations on earth was not too late to see the big eruption. The area around the mouth of Old Faithful teemed with people, most of them waiting for the next eruption. This symbol of the park erupts about every 65 minutes. Durations between eruptions have been recorded as short as 33 minutes and late as 95 minutes. Today the timing was average but the sight and sound of Old Faithful was far from average. Just before the supposed time of the eruption, a sudden hush rushed through the hundreds of people waiting, cocking cameras and vying for the best viewing. Then, only a weak spurt shoots upward. The spurt grows in magnitude. Suddenly the heated water gushes high over the white encrusted mound of the geyser. The power of the water forcing its way through the small throat in the rocks, and water falling from the 300-foot crest of escaping splashing on the rock below overcome the humans gasping in awe, clicking and winding their cameras. The eruption lasted about two minutes. The water spilling from the geyser’s cone shaped opening ran and soaked into the mineralized crust, and a cloud of steam puffed the last signal before the next eruption.

What a sight. I walked to my campsite.

15 June

Although the nights are cold, and an early morning hailstorm sent people scurrying, my ice chest was too warm for food. I found a vending machine for ice but the smallest amount I could purchase was about 10 pounds, much more than I needed. I was in luck. I saw man trying his best to stuff his newly purchased bag of ice into a too small bucket of fish. I offered to relieve him of his excess ice for a fair price. He declined but only my money, and helped me load up what ice I needed. We were both happy.

The next eruption of Old Faithful would be a while. A visit to a small general store seemed in order. The place was crowded with milling tourist and jingling sounds of busy cash registers ringing up inflated prices. Hurrying to a quiet corner next to a stack of canned beans, I tried to visualize the condition of my provisions. Think, think. I had stocked up in Idaho, but I could use the pre-cooked apple pie waiting for me to buy.

Saw and photographed a coyote loping along the edge of the road leading from Old Faithful. According to the literature the ranger handed me at West Yellowstone, coyotes are becoming bold as the bears, and are commonly seen near Mammoth in the northern part of the park. I never saw another coyote but I did find a few stale tracks and half-dried scat. Buffalo were grazing in the meadows. My search for moose was unsuccessful. I missed elk and happily, missed grizzly bears. Few things scare me in nature. Grizzly bear and poisonous snakes are worth avoiding.

Enjoyed a strawberry milkshake, worked on my notes, lamented about the bad birding, visited with a couple of my camping neighbors, cleaned, cooked, cleaned some more (don’t want trouble from bears). By sundown, I was in zipped in my cozy sleeping bag. After nearby campers stopped stumbling over exposed tree roots and each other I feel into a deep sleep.

16 June

Today was a busy day. After breakfast, I walked down to watch Old Faithful. No pictures were taken this time; I needed to save the film for snap-shots of other geysers seen on a naturalist tour. The walk started with a small gathering of people setting on a log that faced Old Faithful. A naturalist that was to lead our group of about thirty stood watching the last smatterings of the eruption. When all the steam disappeared, he turned to address his audience and gave us a brief summary of Yellowstone, with emphasis on Old Faithful. The naturalist also gave us warnings that the areas’ yellow crust was not be walked on. He emphasized the point with a few gruesome examples of people being half boiled alive or even dying from a foolhardy step from the safety of the boardwalks.

Our group stopped at almost every geyser along our route, and somehow, each geyser was different from the others. This could get expensive I thought as I tried to budget film exposing. My budget was straining from the cost of film and developing. There were six major geysers along the walk near Old Faithful and each one begged to have its picture taken. The adept naturalist pointed out the differences in each of the major geysers. Some of the differences were visible such as Beehive Geyser and Giantess because of their shape and size. Other differences were the result of the amount of water and steam emitted, which in turn was related to the size of the opening of the geyser.

Like many geysers, Giantess was affected by the earthquake of 17 August 1959 than centered in Alaska. The power of Giantess exceeds that of Old Faithful, although its eruptions are comparatively not predictable and are more infrequent. The earthquake caused Giantess to have an eruption that lasted over 100 hours. Our naturalist pointed out that other changes occurred because of the earthquake. Dormant Geyser Cone, lying to our right on a hillside overlooking our loop-shaped route, was put in action for the first time since the discovery of the park. Further along on the walk, we were told that another inactive mound named Aurum Geyser was also put into renewed activity. An entirely new geyser was born near Arrowhead Springs not far from Old Faithful. On the night of the quake the ground opened, spewed rocks called geyserite and clouds of steam, only to become inactive several weeks later. At Beehive, near the end of our steamy walk, the naturalist explained that the cyclic behavior was disrupted by the earthquake, and now the geyser only erupts about two to five times a week.

One of the most interesting features of the naturalist tour was found directly behind Old Faithful, the geyser. A small steam vent mildly exhaled its gases into the crisp air. The vent perched at the towering shoulder of Old Faithful. The thirty or so members of the tour stared at the little puffs of steam and wondered what was unusual about such a small steam vent. Our guide didn’t keep us in suspense too long. He explained that each time Old Faithful, or any geyser, erupts; the mineral laden water from the eruption leaves a thin coat of deposited solid particles on the lining of the vent or inside the throat of the geyser. Each time an eruption occurs the opening may become smaller and smaller until the opening is closed. Our naturalist emphasized that this phenomena is happening to Old Faithful. He added that in hundreds or thousands of years Old Faithful will not be erupting from its present vent, and that it might be erupting from the little vent on the side of the geyser’s mound. Time will tell.

After the naturalist talk, I headed east and over the Continental Divide at Craig Pass and Isa Lake. At 8,262 feet, or about 1,000 feet higher than Old Faithful, I found some banks of snow to use for my ice-chest. Nearby Isa Lake presents a unique situation. During spring runoff, the lake drains into both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans at the same time! (And backwards, too!) The west side of Isa Lake flows into the Firehole drainage (Old Faithful region) and, eventually, the Atlantic throughout the year. The east side the lake, during spring, flows to the Snake River drainage and the Pacific Ocean. Putting a note in a bottle in Lake Isa could end up either shore.

The cold air was quiet except for the wind sighing in the lush conifers. Not even a bird murmured. Suddenly a car broke the near silence with its engine straining as it pulled up the last few yards to the summit of Craig Pass. The car eased on down the slope toward West Thumb and Yellowstone Lake. I hurried with my choir of collecting snow and also began the descent to West Thumb. After some time of negotiating curves I crossed the Continental Divide a second time at an unnamed 8,391 feet pass just about 100 feet higher than Craig Pass less than 10 miles behind me. I soon reached West Thumb, a western portion of Yellowstone Lake. The lake is the largest natural freshwater lake in the United States that is above 7,000 feet. It is actually 7,733 feet above sea level, covers 136 square miles, is 20 miles long by 14 miles wide, and is at least 320 feet deep, which happens to be in the West Thumb region. Probably every 110 miles of shoreline had been fished for the lakes famous trout. The average temperature of Yellowstone Lake is 41°F. It is not a lake to fall in.

West Thumb Campground was crowded. Of the few people, I saw at their camp sites were those polishing their fishing gear or cleaning and cooking fish. I managed to locate an unoccupied camping site. It was small and rocky but I made it work for me. About three hours of day light was all the horizon would allow so I hurriedly unpacked my equipment and put up the tent. My rod and reel were still in fine shape (this was my first time fishing on the trip). The hard bumps of Red Rock Pass Road had managed to scramble the contents of my tackle box, but I managed to untangle most of the important pieces.

Years have gone by since I last had the excitement of a fish pulling at a bent rod. I used to go fishing every chance I had; birding was only slightly interesting at ages 12 to 14. During those days, something happened. At the edge of a reasonably good trout stream in southwestern Oregon, I happen to look away from the water and my fishing line to see a flycatcher. The bird dove out from some unnoticed overhanging branch. It was after some doomed insect, and momentarily I forgot all about the trout that I might catch from the stream below. My next fishing trip included a pair of binoculars handily draped around my neck. That day, as I recall, time spent birding and fishing was pretty much a 50:50 situation. I continued to go fishing but the more fishing trips I made the more time I spent birding. Finally, fishing became as uninteresting to me as once was birding. Now, on this June day in 1962, I found myself gripped with renewed vigor to go fishing. The fishing fever was short-lived and I soon found myself not fishing, not even birding as there didn’t seem to be any birds around, and with no more ambition than to lie in the warm sun and listen to the small waves lap on the shore.

After returning, empty-handed, to camp, a new neighbor in a pickup camper was arriving. Two passengers got out and began turning a crank at one corner of the camper. Soon the camper began to telescope upward. A few other campers had taken notice of the newcomers and their unique camper. I turned to the domestic matter of what I would eat for dinner. A glance into the trusty ice-chest told me that I was again to eat the tired menu of hamburger and some sort of canned green vegetable. By the time the cooking utensils were unpacked and a descent fire was ready the odor of frying fish drifted by. What an appetite stimuli. Now even the hamburger became mouth-watering. I ate every bite and even dipped into the next day’s rations, but at least hunger no longer existed. Just as I was stuffing in the last bite, the two guys in the telescoped camper jumped out, walked my way, and introduced themselves. They led me to the camper where they showed me a freshly caught and freshly cooked trout. They asked if I would please take it. After my hamburger/green bean eating frenzy, not to mention eating some of tomorrow’s food, I was in no position to eat. They insisted that I take the fish, that they couldn’t eat another bite, and that they had no way to keep it overnight. If I didn’t take the trout, they would have put it in the garbage. Throwing away perfectly good food went against my grain.

Somehow, I downed the fish; I guess I wasn’t so full of hamburger and canned vegetables after all. At least that fish tasted as I if I had not eaten the tired hamburger. Being well over nourished helped bring sleep so deep that the rocks under my sleeping bag disappeared.

17 June

Most of the people in the campground were gone by the time I managed to unzip my sleeping bag and crawl out of the stubby put tent. Once upright, I staggered up the important path, the path to the rest room, to relieve myself of the night’s accumulation of body wastes. A stone poking out of the path caught my right foot, and almost mooted my mission. On the way from resting, I discovered a Ruby-crowned Kinglet flipping its wings nervously. It and two more were feeding in a nearby tree. As with most observations of Ruby-crowns, their fiery red crowns were not to be seen. Maybe all three birds were females but the name characterizing these kinglets is hard to see and rarely seen.

Following a breakfast, really brunch by now, I headed south, exited the park and after about eight miles through national forest land entered Teton National Park. The Teton Mountains are perhaps the most spectacularly beautiful range in the United States, especially when view from their east slope. I soon arrived in Jackson Hole, the name of the 13 miles wide valley running for 55 miles east of the range. This valley, with about 50 miles of the Snake River draining down its middle average elevation at 6,800 feet, and slopes gently to the southern boundary of the park. Grand Teton, at 13,770 feet towers abruptly above Jackson Hole. There are twelve peaks over 12,000 ft. in elevation. The blue-gray granite peaks are along a fault lines and rose partly in response to volcanic activities in Yellowstone. Through the combinations of geologic forces, Jackson Hole sunk, and concurrently, the region west of the valley rose in a gigantic fault block. Erosion, weathering, and glaciation attached the young mountains to wear the surfaces to pointed spires, with rough upsweeping contours, and steep and deep valleys. The fiercely steep etched peaks reaching skyward from the peaceful green forest and placid lakes was beyond grand.

The road from the northern boundary skirts along the east side of Jackson Lake for about 20 miles. The Tetons, although not particularly high in elevation compared to other peaks in the Rocky Mountains, especially in Colorado, seem formidably tall. Viewed from Jackson Lake, at 6700 some feet above sea level, the peaks are erect, and reach about another 6000 feet higher than the lake. The Teton Range, on their east side, has no foothills. A few gorgeous miles southwest was Jenny Lake, a location at the very base of the uplifted granite block forming the Tetons. The lakeshore was complete with a campground and it is where climbers converged for equipment and guides. I had the foolish notion that perhaps I could climb one of the peaks, preferably Grand Teton, the tallest of in the range. Reaching its 13,766 foot summit when, at that elevation, spring was yet to come, with equipment I would have to rent and learn to use, made the idea of a climb unreachable. Because of my lack of experience, I would need a day at the mountaineering school and would have to hire a guide, which would have cost at least $30.00. Once again, I needed to stay with the budget. Somewhat disappointed, I found consolation in blaming the adverse season, and diversion by poking around in the nearby museum at Jenny Lake. The museum housed the complete mountaineering history of the range with exhibits of some of the equipment used by the early alpinists.

The museum faced westward. From the commanding view, Mt. Teewinot’s 12,000 ft. summit blocked Grand Teton. Actually, Grand Teton was three miles from the museum; Mt. Teewinot was closer, its bare shoulders spilling into the frigid water of Jenny Lake. The closeness of the mountains made me sigh. Except for the sheerest slopes, snow managed to cling to the hard gray rocky mountains from their summits downward to about 2500 feet above the lake. The line of demarcation between snow and no snow was the line between spring and winter. Somehow, even if I couldn’t climb a Teton, I must find a way to touch one.

The park map showed a trail around Jenny Lake that would take me to the base of Tewwinoot. That would have to do, so I began the trek. Just a few yards from the trailhead, I found a male Yellow Warbler pulling at a long strip of bark from a tree aspen. The bird lost its grip on the bark strip momentarily. It then grabbed the strip again, tugged and tugged, and suddenly flew from the tree. Behind the bird streamed the prize of a foot long strip of bark, so to be added to a hidden nest. Near the northern shore of the lake, the trail began to bend away from the shore. Always ready to take a short cut, I opted to leave the trail and follow the shoreline. The further I traveled the more difficult travel became. Soon the gentle lapping of Jenny Lake was drowned by the roaring sound of the rushing white water Cottonwood Creek. The creek connects several lakes, called string lakes, along the fault line before emptying into the Snake River. The creek was much too wide to jump. The high mountains, with their horizon so close, shadowed the sun. It was late so I returned to the campground.

*****

In the fall of 1996 Linda and I entered Teton National Park at Moran Junction, a little over 7 miles east of Jackson Lake. We splurged for a honeymoon night at the lodge just feet away from the lakeshore. The coming and going of boats and people did not detract from our stay. The next morning, but too early, we traveled the John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Memorial Parkway that borders Teton and Yellowstone. The 24,000-acre parkway, dedicated in 1972, offers protection to the ecosystems shared by the two parks. In 1962, the region between the parks was national forests, which are subject to hunting and logging. On our way to Old Faithful, the Rockefeller Parkway offered up my first moose.

18 June

Last night I attended a naturalist talk that was on the wildlife of Teton National Park. Following the talk, the naturalist revealed where I might find a Great Gray Owl. As the early morning sun bombarded the mountains with a flood of light, I drove north to Signal Mountain and the owl quarry that has so many times eluded me. Signal Mountain, unlike the Tetons, is east of the fault, and even east of Jackson Lake. A five-mile narrow and winding road with its collection of several switchbacks brought me to the 7,730-foot summit of Signal Mountain. Compared to the Tetons, Signal Mountain did appear to offer habitat for a Great Gray Owl but, but, once again, scanning for a roosting bird, spicing to possibly create enough excitement that an individual might move, walking quietly through the woods, and walking noisily through the woods failed to reveal a Great Gray Owl. After the failed search, I entertained myself taking more pictures of the Tetons looming across the lake. Somehow, the trip up Signal Mountain was well worth the time.

Before leaving the summit of Signal Mountain, I gazed down at Jackson Lake and northward toward Yellowstone National Park. Soon my route would cross the Snake River for the fifth time, beginning with the crossing at the Oregon and Idaho border only nine days ago. This would be the last crossing of the winding river. A few miles up the road, I would pass West Thumb on my way to Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. I gazed down. Eight hundred feet below were mountain roads to travel and complete the second half of the trip, act like a tourist, and maybe see a new trip bird or two.

*****

Camping in Yellowstone has changed since 1962 when a campsite was free and reservations were not necessary. In 2003 a campsite need to be reserved and cost $17.00 per night. Camping is no longer permitted at Old Faithful, which probably helped take some of the human pressure from the region. West Thumb is now closed to camping; the nearest camping is at nearby Grant Village. Linda and I visited Yellowstone in 1996, and found Old Faithful a hub of activity that surpassed any of our previous visits. I had considered Old Faithful overrun by humans in 1962. The scene in 1996 was beyond being overrun. This time people were taking video not movies of their trip. In a few years, I would replace my 35mm camera with a digital one. Technology and human population continue to grow.

Short-term geological changes have occurred in Yellowstone since 1962. Beehive, in 2004, reportedly erupts twice a day, with hot plumes of water from 130 to 190 feet high for of 4 to 5 minutes. It only erupted a few times a week in 1962. Who said geologic events take a long time?

In 1996, when Linda and I visited Yellowstone we had to use one of the park’s “rest” rooms. It was hot that September day. Thousands of people were either on the roads and had used the very same “rest” room we found ourselves forced to use. My early morning visit to the two-holler on that cool June morning was nothing compared to the superheated offal inside our September “rest” room. We were both grateful and nauseous for the facility. We observed others exiting, their faces squenched and blue, bolting out the door on oxygen starved legs. Exchanged glances acknowledged a kind of commodore borne from running the gauntlet of the fetid “rest“ room.

The disappointingly high cost of climbing Grand Teton in 1962 pales to the 2004 price of $275. A few years later, I would learn some climbing techniques from a Crater Lake National Park ranger during employment there. I would also learn the power of wind and lightening on rocky spires, and the suddenness and bleakness of a whiteout on Mt. Shasta in California. Grand Teton never was checked on my life list of mountains. Today, I am happy to view it from below where birds sing.

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