It’s Me Again,
“The water is left running to avoid frozen pipes. Nights at Morris dip below freezing even in the summer. Thank you”. This is the sign displayed in the campground’s bathroom and you know what? They weren’t kidding! I don’t know how cold it actually got, but last night I froze my buttocks off. I had to get up in the middle of the night to go fetch my sleeping bag, the “real” one, from the carrier (Thanks again Paul), ‘cause the blankets just weren’t doing the trick. It had to have gotten down to near freezing because when I finally rousted my chilled bones from the tent at about 9:30 it was only 39 degrees, with the sun shining strong! Brrrrrrrrr! I had to jump in the truck and fire up the heater to warm up (yeah, I know, “What a wus!”).
Oh. By the way. Norris Campground is in Yellowstone NP - that’s where I am! I arrived after an easy day of driving down from Kalispell. From Kalispell I took the scenic way down to I-90. It was scenic, but nothing special; nice. It might have been better if it hadn’t been cloudy and sprinkley. The last part before the interstate I ended up going through Helmville where they were having a Labor Day, I guess, rodeo. I almost stopped, but… It had all cleared up by the time I hit the freeway; finally! I flew along it all the way to US 89 where I turned off to end up at the entrance about 60 miles later. The rest of the trip was mundane; I got into the park about 6:30 so I wasn’t about to do any sightseeing that day. After a quick stop at the visitor center I headed for the aforementioned campground to bed down for the night. As I drove though I was almost immediately cognizant of the effects of the fires that raged through the Yellowstone area in 1988 (I think). There were dead and blackened trees everywhere it seemed. How terrible that time must have been here!
If God were going for majesty and grandeur in Glacier, I’d have to say he must have been in a more whimsical mood when thinking up Yellowstone as I think the experience is more inclined towards the fantastic, incredible; terrifying even. The scale is different here too. In Glacier, generally, things are of a grand scale. In Yellowstone however, while it too has views and features that are large, it is more likely to be experienced on a smaller, more intimate scale. (“Warning! Sensory limitations will soon be reached!”)
After warming my cold carcass up I headed out for the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. There are numerous vantage points to view this truly awesome feature and I hit them all. Each gave a different perspective on a most extraordinary sight, from both sides of the river too. The lower falls plunge a spectacular 308 feet. Due to the geothermal activity in the canyon its walls are colored with various shades of white, yellow, and orange. The canyon walls almost shine; in the sunlight they almost seem to glow. How brightly the walls have been “painted”! The Yellowstone River roars over the falls to end up in a tumble of churning water, spray and mist at the bottom. The mist is so heavy that it is nigh impossible to see the actual bottom of the falls.
By the time I got to the “Brink of the Lower Falls” I and all the other spectators were rewarded with the sight of two rainbows curving languidly away from the tumult at the bottom. (“Warning! Sensory overload is imminent! Please reduce sensory input to within designated safe parameters!”) Looking down the canyon I could see the walls fairly glowing as the blue-green waters of the river rushed down it, ever so slowly increasing its already prodigious depth (max of 1200 feet). Looking upstream (after going back up the trail a bit) I could see the upper falls (109 feet) as they added to the delicious roar of falling water. Before this point I was blessed with the sight of two ospreys calling to each other as they perched at the very top of their respective trees. I then crossed to the other side and drove to Artist Point... and I was awestruck (“Warning! Sensory limitations have been exceeded! Sensory Input Processors Shutdown Procedure has been activated! After the recovery interval has been met, sensory input processors will be reset! Please be more careful next time!!”) The view back up the canyon, with the glowing canyon walls, the frothy, white sheen of the falls themselves, the deep-blue sky, and the scattering of fluffy clouds all contributed to a heart-stopping sight; one I can only hope I captured on film as I know that I cannot adequately describe it. It was obvious why the place was called Artist Point! One final vantage point was down the 384 stairs of Uncle Tom’s Cabin that puts you 2/3 of the way down and a few hundred yards in front of the falls. It was here that I noticed near the top a jade-colored patch of water in the otherwise solid white color of the falls. Wow!
I decide to not wrestle with the cold and the bear restrictions so I booked a room for the next two nights in West Yellowstone. After breaking camp (man… what a pain) I drove down to the Norris Geyser Basin. The basin encompasses an area of several hundred acres and has a series of boardwalks and dirt paths which enables you to get about to view the many geothermal features found within it, safely. I started down one path and immediately I was surrounded by the sounds of venting steam, gurgling water, bubbling mud, geyser-generated splashes, and more. My nose quite readily detected the sulfuric aroma to be found throughout the basin - not too strong fortunately, but ever present.
I soon came upon Echinus Geyser which according the signs placed around it was soon to erupt. So I waited as did about a dozen others. After about 15 minutes I thought I detected a subtle change in the sound of the steaming streams of water running off from the pool. I wasn’t sure; I figured it was wishful thinking. So I waited some more, but, you know… it did sound louder, didn’t it? I tried to see if I could see a commensurate increase in the runoff volume. Yeah right! Then all of a sudden I said, “That is definitely louder, dagnabbit (or equivalent)!” Then I could actually see that there was a lot more water running off so I got my camera ready, and sure enough that puppy started geysing (?). But then I was shrouded in the steam coming off the runoff stream, so I moved… and moved again…. and moved again. Was it following me on purpose? What could that mean? Anyway, there were quite a few jets of water and steam thrown out, none as high as the sign said was possible (40-60 ft), but nevertheless a pretty cool sight. After a few minutes it all subsided and the wait began for the next event - not by me though that’s for sure.
I continued on the boardwalk, passing shallow, bubbling pools, a vent splattering mud all about, steaming pools encrusted with colored deposits, quiescent geysers biding their time until their next eruption, various geysers throwing water a few feet into the air at a time, hissing steam vents. Pretty neato-keen! Scattered about the basin one could see many dead trees, their sometimes gnarled trunks bleached almost white. Here the trees were not felled by fire, but rather had their life force choked out of them by the inexorable shroud of sulfurous steam. As I took all this in I could hear elk off in the distance calling to one another. Was it one bull challenging another as the rutting season starts? Or was it saying, “Where you at Baby? Get your butt home and fix my dinner now!”? I’m not a naturalist; I couldn’t tell!
I soon circumnavigated the basin and as the sun was about to set over the range of mountains to the east I decided to head for the nice, cozy motel room I had booked earlier - time to be comfortable. I headed south towards Madison Junction, for a while paralleling the Gibson River, where upstream earlier I had viewed the Virginia Cascades to start my day. It seemed, initially at least, that around every twist and turn of the road there was a steaming vent or other geothermal feature. At one point the road was almost shrouded in steam blowing across it from a neighboring thermal pool - in the waning twilight it was almost eerie looking.
I soon reached Madison Junction and turned west towards West Yellowstone and recovery from a long, weary, sight-filled day. It not yet being dark I was struck by how nearly total the devastation wreaked by the fire was in this area. All I could see were stark trunk after stark trunk, many fallen to the ground or leaning haphazardly against their brethren still reaching towards the sky, gaining succor from the sun no more. I looked to the right at one point with only the glow of the now set sun visible in the west and saw a ridge topped by a multitude of bare tree trunks, like so many bristles on a brush. It struck me too as I neared the West Entrance, and a close to my day, how close the fire had come to the town of West Yellowstone itself.
Coming back the same way the next day the scene took on a very different light. Yes, there was still the near total devastation 11 years ago, but it was quite evident that Mother Nature was well onto the path of recovery and renewal. There were so many young trees that had taken seed and started to generate a replacement forest that it looked as if everywhere had been carpeted in green pile. The road from the West Entrance follows the Madison River and at various times I saw ducks floating placidly on by, small birds skimming the surface of the blue waters, and an osprey - I think - sitting patiently on a half-submerged log, waiting for it’s next meal perhaps? Life goes on, nature recovers, beauty takes on many forms. On to Mammoth Hot Springs!