Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Geyser Country: Where the Buffalo Roam, and Sometimes Fall In

"The Park is just a howling wilderness of three thousand square miles, full of all imaginable freaks of a fiery nature."
--Rudyard Kipling

"The hidden pool is nice and cool."

We fell asleep in the tiny burg of West Yellowstone to the sound of wolves plaintively crooning in a nearby sanctuary. The next day, a little pressed for time, we raced to our morning "ranger walk" near Castle Geyser, in the vicinity of Old Faithful.

You really shouldn't rush Yellowstone. If the wondrous sites of wildlife ambling on the sides of the roads aren't enough to drive that point home, the park offers subtle reminders, such as the collection of signs that trail, Burma-Shave like, from the southern entrance of the park:

You saw wildlife
From afar
Until they crashed
Into Your Car
Slow down!

We arrived, a little breathless, just as our ranger was describing how geysers worked. I wish I could tell you I retained the information, but all I seem to remember is that it has something to do with a giant underground volcano. One day, sometime before the Earth is swallowed up by the Sun or 1,000 years from now -- whichever comes first -- the volcano is going to erupt and all hell's gonna break lose. There was also something about plate tectonics and a bit about seismic activity.

For those of you looking for something authoritative, let me refer, once again, to the Rough Guide: The magma created by the volcano boils water deep underground. Sometimes, the water flows unrestricted, cooling off before it reaches the surface. This creates hot springs. But geysers are formed when there's a constriction in the underground plumbing that prevents the water from reaching the surface to cool. The geysers erupt when the groundwater, held down by fissures and narrow channels, forms bubbles that literally blow the water through vents at the top.

And....they're really cool...if you can call anything that reaches temperatures of several hundred degrees, causing instant destruction, cool.

This was the first of three free ranger walks we engaged in, and it was a wonderful introduction to the landscape. Our guide, who reminded me very much of Rick Moranis from "Ghostbusters," got wonderfully geeked out on the subject, peppering his talk with cautionary tales of hapless humans and other creatures that were unlucky enough to fall in these fiery furnaces. Those that plunged to their deaths included bison, a dog, even a Belgian. The rangers gave these geysers playful nicknames like "Bison Stew" and "Hot Dog." (Tastefully, they refrained from naming the pit where the Belgian met his untimely end "Belgian Waffle.")

This brings me to an important point about Yellowstone. There is a fine line, and perhaps a slippery slope, between getting blissed out about the park and immersing yourself in its many mysteries, and being a Complete and Utter Boob. For example, when my girlfriend visited Yellowstone, a tourist dipped his hand in one of the geysers to test the temperature of the water. If you follow the links on YouTube from my bear video, you will find an unintentionally hilarious clip of a family that taunted a black bear until it charged their car and began pawing at the window and chewing on the side mirror; of course, they laughed hysterically the whole time as if they were on some neat ride at Busch Gardens. I tried to exercise good judgment -- I don't think I behaved like a Total Jackass -- but it wasn't until after I shot about 200 photos of a bison herd near the Tetons that I closely read the caveats about how they sometimes charge without warning, 2,000 pounds of horned beast hurtling at you at speeds of up to 40 miles an hour.

This will all become important later in the story.

Back to the ranger walk, where our guide was telling us, "If you're not careful, you might be unlucky enough to have a geyser named after you."

Once again, we were blessed with uncanny luck. As we arrived for the walk, the colossal Grand Geyser began spouting in a series of powerful bursts of water and steam for about 20 minutes. Grand only spouts twice a day, and people are known to wait hours for it to work its magic. Nearby Castle Geyser also went off, blowing silica from a large fortress-like cauldron into a pool streaked in orange, black and yellow flames. In a three-hour period, the predictable but less interesting Old Faithful did her stuff. And just as we were about to leave, I overheard a ranger in the Visitor's Center mention in hushed tones that Beehive, an unpredictable geyser and the one our guide called his favorite, was about to go off in a matter of minutes.

We raced there just in time: Beehive doesn't look like much when inactive, but due to its tight cone and powerful plumbing, it is able to force a narrow spray as high as 200 feet with a noise that sounds like the roaring of a jet engine.

From Old Faithful country, we took a slight detour. Devoted readers of this blog (all five of you) will know that I'm a fan of the water, the more exotic the better. There are two places in and around the park where you can swim in rivers warmed by nearby thermal springs -- both named, somewhat misleadingly, Boiling River.

With good reason, there are rare opportunities for full immersion in this wild park, and I longed to, literally, dive right in.

The first Boiling River is just up from a huge waterfall beneath Firehole Canyon Drive. When I say the name is misleading, that is because the water is initially quite freezing. It takes a few steps before you feel the warmth of the current -- and even that is more like your average swimming pool than a jacuzzi. The current is also not what it appears to be. It looks quite tame until the moment you're in it, and then you're holding on to jagged rocks for dear life for fear of being carried down the river...well, faster than you'd like to be. I was very grateful for my new sandals, and was quickly able to find a quiet place just out of the river's pull. My dad decided to sit this one out. In fact, there were very few people there at all -- a facet of the trip that surprised me pretty consistently.

I took some time to soak it all up, not just the river, but the beauty of this place, the clear water, the sound of the nearby falls, and the mountains rising in the distance amid the faint smell of pine. There are scant moments in life when we sense the compression of time, of life shrinking to a moment and being aware of only that moment, like children at play. It felt, to borrow a line from one of my favorite movies, like I had dipped my head in magic waters.

But there was more to see, from the gurgling mud of Fountain Paint Pots to streams that hissed and flowed orange like some tributary in the depths of hell. I loved the cobalt blue of Sapphire Pool. It had the look of some forbidden destination out of Greek mythology, with its disarmingly benign color masking its deadly power. I wondered if anyone had fallen in, mesmerized by its beauty.

We spent the night at the nondescript Grant Village. The next morning, we headed for the fertile Hayden Valley and another early morning ranger walk. As the sun was rising, we stopped to see (and listen to) a grunting pack of bison, the first of many encounters with the plentiful herds in this area.

Some of the best moments of the day occurred on the drive over. There was a mischievous caravan of bison, evenly spaced on the road from Fishing Bridge to Hayden like they were in some kind of military formation. And there was the breathtaking sight of a solitary male bison bathing in a river beneath shady trees and leaping onto land.

Our walk taught us some interesting facts about the mating practices of the elk and bison in the area. Bison, for example, will often fight over a single female. The male travels alone, we were told; a bison traveling alone will almost never be female. The females stay with the herd, caring for the young and the less mature males. The male elk, by contrast, enjoy something like a harem, traveling and mating with many females at once. I suppose it's low-hanging fruit to note, at this point, that while I retained next to nothing on the mechanics of geysers, I absorbed plentiful detail on the mating habits of Yellowstone's wildlife. Talk amongst yourselves.

This was fascinating, but very quickly preempted by a newsflash: We were informed that less than a mile to the south, a grizzly was laying on top of a fresh bison kill just across the river from the main road. The ranger told us we were free to leave the walk and come back later if we wished. A good many of us, including my father and I, took him up on it.

From a distance of about 300 yards, it was difficult to see. My trusty camera has many virtues, but a powerful telephoto capability is not one of them. My dad brought binoculars, and the bear was clearly visible, but difficult to see because of a)the distance b)the tall grass and c)the fact that it was not moving.

When we rejoined the walk, the ranger told us this was common behavior for the grizzly. After killing the bison, it will lay on top of it to protect the kill from scavengers like wolves and competing predators like other grizzlies. With 2,000 pounds of meat underneath it, a grizzly could feed contentedly for several days, leaving only for the occasional pit stop and to fend off the competition.

As we made our way to lunch at the lodge on Lake Yellowstone, we were halted for about 20 minutes by a bison that evidently confused itself with a pace car, or was merely toying with us. For many miles, it stayed in the right lane without veering, trotting nobly and indifferently ahead of the traffic.

At one stop, I saw what would have been a fantastic photo opportunity which I, with great restraint, decided not to pursue because it probably would have ended with me getting gored by a bison. I spotted about a dozen buffalo laying in and around a circular hot spring. There was something very humorous about this lazy picture. The bison looked like they could have been in Boca Raton talking about Mahjong.

But there was a whole herd separating me from that vision, and I had to let it go.

More to come.


Donna Migliaccio said...

So glad you got to see Grand Geyser in action, although it sounds like Beehive might have been even better.

All this is making me ache for another trip to Wyoming...

Mr. Odney said...

I liked them both quite a bit. Grand just kept on going, it seemed like, forever. And Beehive was just so dramatic.

We never got close enough to any of them to get sprayed -- I dunno if that's good or bad.

Brian said...

Kudos to avoiding the obvious sexual innuendo when it came to describing geyser eruptions.

Mr. Odney said...

You said came.

Alyson said...

"I suppose it's low-hanging fruit to note, at this point, that while I retained next to nothing on the mechanics of geysers, I absorbed plentiful detail on the mating habits of Yellowstone's wildlife. Talk amongst yourselves."

This sounds completely normal.

Mr. Odney said...

You're just enabling me right now.

Alyson said...

Hey, I still giggle at fart jokes and bathroom humor.