Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Yellowstone Adventure, Day 3

Day 3  - More Falls and into the Caldera
The morning was a bit warmer than the last few days, in the low 40’s. Not bad for the third week of September in Northern Wyoming. With the sun shining down, we followed the typical morning routine. Packs and food were lowered, water was heated on the stove, and the guys queued up for hot coffee and oatmeal with an assortment of dried fruits. Then, tents down and pack reorganization.  As is often the case, I am done packing first. This is not due to any superior organization or brain power, but more a statement on single-minded focus. Unfortunately, being first does not lead to any real benefit. In fact, it’s detrimental. All I do is wait with increasing irritation for everyone else to finish. Invariably, this leads to me breathing down Kevin’s neck as he wipes off and polishes each item before carefully packing it away according to precise routines. Ah well, he took it with good grace and we left camp before 9:30.  
We hiked on the south side of the canyon, with the river to our left, as we would for our entire time in the canyon. We had hiked a couple of miles and were on our way up a hill when we heard a rumble. As we reached the top of the hill we had our first view of Colonnade falls. This was the finest double waterfall I had ever seen. The view from the trail was somewhat obscured and we immediately headed down a well-trod side path that led to a perch directly in front of the lower falls. We had to shout to here each other over the thunder of the falls. We were all excited and in awe. This was Yellowstone! The two falls totaled a drop of more than 300 feet.

Awesome Colonnade Falls. (Photo KR)

We continued hiking and came to a second awesome waterfall – Cascade Falls. There was, of course, a viewing perch near the top of the falls. More sight-seeing was called for and Kevin took another dozen pictures. Inspired, the rest of us goofed around until he finally took a picture of us.  Fortunately the Dan’s cooperated with dance moves and Rick demonstrated his latent desire to push them off the cliff and in to the water.
Four MountainGuys goofing around at Cascade Falls. (Photo KR)

 From here, the trail climbed more steeply while the river bounded down to the falls in a long series of cataracts that inspired me to envision inflatable skis that one could use to slalom down the river. Alas, I did not have the materials to construct them. And, it was a good thing, since I would have missed the change to Yellowstone’s thermal features.

The steeper climb was taking us up and over the rim of the Yellowstone Caldera. Not everyone knows, but most of the Park sits within the remains of a massive volcano that blew up umpteen millions of years ago. The hot pots, geysers, hot springs, and mud boils are all left over and still active signs of the immense magma bubble that still bubbles below Yellowstone. Almost as soon as the trail leveled out and the river became placid again, we began seeing hot pools with weird algae-covered rocks as well as spots of unnatural colors staining the rocks around them.  According to the map we were within a mile of the campsite and a hot pool we could bathe in. Yahoo!
It seemed only moments before we came to camp 9DI, Ferris Fork. Ferris, I assume, for ferrous. Meaning, iron related. Fork, as in split in the river. In fact, the dividing and merging of rivers at this fork still remains a mystery, despite the map. It was a minor Devil’s triangle. We never seemed to cross a river, yet somehow we were in between branches of it and then alongside a single river only a few steps later. It turned out this was only the first, and lesser of the mysteries we uncovered at Ferris Fork.
After only a little to-ing and fro-ing, we pin-pointed our site and began to set up out tents. I was in a particular frenzy so that I could find and try the hot spring said to be close to the camp. This was, of course, quite believable since there was a large puffing jet of steam less shooting out of a mound less than 30 yards up the creek on the far bank. It had orange and white stripes running down its side into the river.
I’d like to believe it was my eagle eyes that spied the hot pool but, in all likelihood it was Dan T., who was at least as interested in dipping as yours truly. Once it was pointed out, it was obvious. Right across the river from the camp was a spot where a circle of stones had been built up against the bank. We sped over and dropped ourselves in to the water. The temperature was great. Close up we could see that a hot spring mixed with river water upstream from the circle of stones and then flowed in to the pool.
However, the sad truth was that only 2 of us could fit in at once, and that was when we contorted. The deepest section was perhaps 2 feet deep. Well, so what, it was hot and felt great. We all took turns and felt clean and relaxed afterwards.  I tried not to be disappointed at the rather limited nature of the hot pool.
As the rest of us hung out at camp and began to prepare for dinner, Kevin took off to explore up the trail. Having already experienced the joys of the hot pool, no one was too game to join him. Later, as I prepared for dinner, Kevin returned. He interrupted our desultory conversation.
“Hey guys, I found something really cool. I think you should really come check it out”. Kevin’s eyes gleamed. There was a palpable silence around the campfire.
Now, you have to understand, this nearly doubled the number of words that Kevin had said the entire day. Into the shocked silence, there was only one thing I could say:
“Kevin, if you say we’ve got to see it then I believe we must.”  The rest of the group nodded their heads solemnly. It was the closest thing to wisdom I said that day.
Since dinner was just being started, and in high demand, we agreed that we’d go afterwards. Dinner that night was Bangers and Mash. It was quite good, but we ate with speed as we all wondered what Kevin had found. He refused to say, but his enthusiasm was infectious.
So, a highly unusual after-dinner hike ensued. Dusk was falling and we could see storm clouds off to the east. We hustled up the trail for about 10 minutes until we came to another smaller trail heading off across a field and out in to a wooded valley. As we gazed over, wondering what they hid, the wind picked up and we heard a rumble of thunder coming from a distant dark cloud bank that was illuminated in the fading sunlight as dusk approached.
Kevin, took the side trail without hesitation. Dan T., Rick, and I hustled forward without hesitation. Dan S. followed with some reluctance.
 “Hey”, he said with a tone of foreboding. “Do you guys see any lightening?” He paused, “Maybe this isn’t such a good idea”. When he saw none of us slowing down, he sped up and followed, though he continued to mutter under his breath.
As we headed down an incline and in to a small valley, we could see two puffy columns of steam rising from the trees down below. We sped up, excited to see what they harbored. Adding speed to our heels was the now clear crackle and flash of lightning coming from the clouds, now maybe less than 5 miles away.
The path came down to a stream and followed it. Soon we came to the source of the first column of steam. It was on the other side and was the most magnificent volcanic pool of boiling water and colored stone that any of us had seen. It must have been named already, but since we did not know the name I gave it one: Jupiter’s bowls.  Perhaps 15 feet above the surface of the stream and just a few feet back from it stood a boiling spouting pool of electric blue water.  That was the main “bowl”. It poured over and down to the river on two sides over ochre and green bulbous “arms”. In the center, the water flowed down to a secondary bowl. The sides of this smaller pool were pure white and cobbled, like cauliflower. It was amazing, but I was worried – as beautiful as it was, the temperature must have exceeded 500 degrees and there was no way we were jumping in there.
Jupiter's Bowl. (Photo KR)

Jupiter's Arms, the lower second bowl, and Ferris Creek. (Photo KR)

Close up of Jupiter's second bowl. (Photo KR)

Kevin looked at us with a triumphant smile and said, “but wait, there’s more!”
We could hardly believe Jupiter’s Bowls could be topped, but still hurried after Kevin. And then we saw it, through the trees just below the trail. It was a large pool, almost perfectly circular, perhaps 40 feet in circumference. The trail went right down to it. As we came close we had to step over two steaming trails of boiling water that bubbled from above the trail and trickled down to the pool. A broad semi-grassed area filled a small spot between the pool and the creek the flowed right next to it.
Before you could say, “Bob’s your uncle”, Dan T., Rick and I had shucked off half our clothes. I touched the water to make sure we were not about to make MountainGuy stew. The water was hot and well below MountainGuy cooking temperature.
As I stood to remove the last of my clothes, I noticed that Dan S. was not with us. He was still on the trail above and he was pointing over our shoulders.
“Ah, guys”, he said. A few more spatters of rain hit us with a gust of wind. “Did you happen to notice the lightening about a mile over there?”
We looked. He was right. The bank of dark clouds now covered about half of the eastern horizon. It glowed an ominous purple along the edges and jagged bolts of lightning flashed regularly within it.
I looked again at the pool and noticed bubbles coming up from the center. And then it hit me, THIS is Mr. Bubbles. I must have said this out loud since Kevin was nodding his head and smiling.
“Yes, that’s what the lady said who pointed me down the trail,” he said smugly.
I whipped off the rest of my clothes and waded in. Perfect! About 3-4 feet deep. Rick, Kevin, and Dan T. were right behind me. I looked up again. Dan S. was waving his arms wildly.
“Don’t do it! You guys are going to get electrocuted!” He was literally jumping up and down. He seemed to reach a decision. “Not me, I’m out of here!” The last phrase trailed off in a screech as Dan S. tore back up the trail for the presumed safety of the tall trees and metal tent poles surrounding his sleeping bag. Go figure.
The rest of us hunkered down so that only our heads were above the water and luxuriated in what was surely the best hot pool in North America. Did I mention the bubbles? Not only did big ones stream up to the surface in the middle of the pool, but the soft flat ground underneath actually trembled underfoot. Quite often little bubbles would pop up under your toes and trickle up your body. While this initially caused some concerns regarding imminent explosions, it soon became clear this was how it worked and we were not at risk – at least from getting boiled. So, we settled down as the chill rain began to whip against our heads from the rising wind and the lighting flashed closer. This was the conversation, best as I can recall.
Rick said, “What was up with Dan S.? He seemed pretty freaked out.” Rick’s voice was measured and puzzled.
Dan T. grinned, “Maybe it had something to do with our impending electrocution.”
We all oriented ourselves to face the storm and watch the lightning braiding across the sky. We dipped down closer to the surface.
“Well”, I said, “we are in a low spot. That should be good.” I thought for a moment. “I can’t remember. Are we safer in the water or at greater risk for immolation?” A gust of wind whipped away my last words.
Kevin said, “I’m pretty sure we are not safe”.
“Well”, I said, cheerfully. “If this is how it all ends, I say: ‘What a way to go!’” I shouted my last sentence to be heard over a blast of lightning that incinerated a tree less than 200 yards away.
Yips, yells, and shouts of glee were the only response I heard as we basked in the glow from the flaming tree. At this point we all settled down even further until only our noses and eyes were above the water line. If we had Japanese breathing straws, we would have deployed them. The rain hammered down and the flashes of lightning and thunder were continuous. We were in a maelstrom, squeezed between the shaking of Mr. Bubbles below and the howling sky above. It rose to a crescendo.
Then, the storm front passed. The rain died down. The tree smoked. The wind stopped. In moments, the storm had passed over the ridge of the little valley and the sound and light faded. The sky was velvety black, sprinkled with stars as bright and hard as diamonds. We all breathed again.
Dan T., “Sweeeet.”
Rick, “Oh, yah. Wow.”
Kevin, “Awesome!” His smile glowed in the darkness.
Me: “Right ON!” A moment of silence as we all basked in the moment.
A voice spoke up, in the darkness it was impossible to say who it was. “Dan S. sure fucked up”.
“Yep, “ came a chorus of voices.  We all laughed.
For bravery in a hot pool in the face of near certain electrocution, the bathers were given the Raw Naked Courage Badge with the Fig Leaf cluster.
Finally, we reluctantly left Mr. Bubbles. Our wrinkled skins made us look like shriveled aliens. We were so relaxed that even putting on our boots seemed to take 5 minutes. We floated slowly back to the camp. What an incredible day. What an amazing hot pool.  We all agreed. We had to go back to Mr. Bubbles in the morning and Dan S. surely deserved some lightning-free pool time.
The amazing Mr. Bubbles--with bubbles (Photo KR)

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