Sunday, April 15, 2012

Yellowstone Report, Day 7

[This is the last installment of the Yellowstone Report, by guest author, Oliver Lignell.]

Day 7 – The last day: Carbon Totems and Car Trouble (6 miles)
After six days in the backcountry, breakfast and packing was efficient. No one lingered in their tents. While the hike out was short, less than six miles, a 10 hour drive home was still ahead. Not much conversation took place around the camp as we all were occupied with thoughts of our return – spouses, families, work, etc. However, at least for myself, this was not obsessive or depressing, but actually refreshing. It had been some time since thoughts from normal life had been considered and we were hiking through beautiful, treed trails under blue skies. The air was fresh and crisp.
After a mile, we started to climb to the top of a ridge where we saw the bigger picture for the day – and the bigger picture in Yellowstone, for the first time. Between dense woods, the Bechler River Canyon, and close, low hills we had never truly seen an unobstructed view of the greater Yellowstone landscape. But, from the ridge, we finally had a bigger view and saw snowcapped ranges to the west and to the north of us. It was a reminder of the non-Alpine nature of this shuttle trip. While we had all enjoyed the canyons, rivers, falls, geysers, and – of course, Mr. Bubbles – we had not touched on the high Alpine experience. And I, for one, vowed that next year would involve off trail and high altitude hiking.
(Author’s note: see the Popo Agie blog for details on how well we hit that mark)
The other observation was the change in the landscape due to the Yellowstone fire. We had not seen any signs of fire in our route so far, but the bulk of the trail ahead of us had been scarred by one of the 17 fires that blazed just over a decade before. This accounted for our ability to see to the mountain ranges more than 50 miles away. While there was a healthy and abundant growth of bushes and small trees, none of them topped more than 12 feet.  Also of interest were the burned trees that had not been consumed in the fire. Some lay on the ground, but there were occasional standing survivors bare and sere like lone sentinels over the new growing forest. I had dubbed similar trees in the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico Carbon Totems. I shared this with Kevin and Rick and they agreed it was descriptive.
A carbon totem stands tall.

We hiked quickly as we came down from the ridge and soon the trail widened in to two tracks. Within the hour we were at the Shoshone Lake trail head. But alas, there was no waiting car with the Dans. What had happened? Had our meticulous plan gone awry? With various attitudes of disgruntlement, we dropped our packs and snacked, read the trail signs, and considered jumping one of the few cars parked at the trailhead. However, our lack of patience was eventually rewarded. The car pulled up about 40 minutes after we had arrived.
After the necessary greetings, we got down to the details. What had happened? Well, this was a bit of a longer story as the two filled us in on their travails from the last two days. When the groups had split, both Dan S. and Dan T. knew that they had faced a really long day of hiking. What they did not realize was that the entire way would be hard scrabble hiking up and down interminable rolling landscape from hills surrounding northern shore of the lake.  They had both started out with foot challenges and, by the time they finished, those foot challenges had escalated to foot crises. Dan T. had blisters that had blisters. Huge bubbles, some bleeding. This explained why, despite his sunny disposition, he hobbled over to greet us.
While Dan T. hobbled, Dan S. limped. It turns out that his boots did not fit very well. As he grudgingly explained, he toes had been bumping up against the inside of his boots for days and the pounding of the last hike out was the last straw. Both big toes were quite bruised and he expected to lose the nails. But the look of chagrin on his face was more than just pain. As he explained, that was the least of the dilemma’s they had encountered the day before.
As planned, my car was at the trailhead waiting for them. They hobbled and limped over. Dan S. pulled out the electronic key and pressed unlock. No beep-beep. No nothing. He tried it multiple ways: over his head, resting on the door, pointing at the engine, between his legs. Nothing worked. Dan T. grabbed it and tried his techniques. No go. They scratched their heads and determined that the battery must have died and there was not enough charge remaining to unlock the doors. They found and slid out the emergency key, but it did not fit and they were unable to open the doors.
So, on to the backup plan. They did have a cell phone and were able to call Yellowstone village and have a tow truck come out. As they waited, they tried other approaches, but nothing worked. Finally, with no other options, they sat down and finally had some food. They hadn’t eaten for hours in their focus to hike out. After Dan S. finished his energy bar, he reached in his pocket for another one and found another key. Suddenly, it all came together. He pulled it out and pointed it at the car. He pressed the button. Beep-beep, the car unlocked.
As Dan later explained to us, he had first pulled out his car’s electronic key and tried to use it on my car. And it wouldn’t work. Go figure. Once he had some calories in his brain, as he put it, he realized he had two sets of keys and used the other key. The one I had given him. Then it worked. The car started right up and they threw there packs in. It was right about then that the tow truck pulled in.
Dan S. rushed out waving his arms. “We don’t need you now,“ he said. “We got it started. Thanks anyway.” Dan started to walk back to the car.
“Well, just a minute,” the mechanic said. “I drove 30 miles to get here and I’m glad you got it started, but whether I helped you or not, you still have to pay the service fee. That’s $139 and 52 cents.” He enunciated the amount with precision and satisfaction. Perhaps he had memorized it.
Dan S. was silent as his natural thrift, or as his friends would say – cheapness, struggled against his impulse to do the right and ethical thing. This took some time. Dan T, who witnessed this struggle, spoke up.
“You know, Dan”, he said. “I’m happy to help out with that if you want to, you know, maybe split the cost”. Dan T. is very generous at heart and meant every word. Or almost every word. Dan S. must have sensed that this was offer was over the top. Even he couldn’t make Dan help pay for his own bone-headed mistake.
“No”, Dan S. said. He sighed. “I’ll take care of it.” With that he gave the credit card to the mechanic, who had been whistling with some delight as he waited for the problem to be solved.
“Well”, he said, as he started up the tow truck again and started to pull out. “You all have a great day!” He tipped his hat. Dan S. grumbled. And, as he later related this story to Rick, Kevin, and I, he was still grumbling. And, if truth be told, at the time of this writing, Dan S. is still grumbling.
However, despite their pain that day; physical, financial and emotional, the two did reach their goals. They did see Old Faithful, they did spend the night in real beds, and they did have hot showers. This would explain why they looked a whole lot whiter than the rest of us. They also had retrieved Dan S’s car, so we were all ready to roll. We sorted out packs and equipment and began the long drive home broken up of course, as planned, with a stop at the Gannet Grill in Lander, where good burgers and fries were had by all – and beers by those not driving.
Another memorable MountainGuy adventure was complete. One more bucket list item was checked off. Our only regrets were not having John along and the lack of peaks. Well, we knew that we would remedy that in next year’s hike. It would have been even more memorable to have seen Grizzly bears, but we decided that was ok. As we drove back some of us were already thinking about where we would go the next year. And, to be completely honest, some of us were thinking about sore feet and whether they would go at all. For the record, that was not me. I still think about Mr. Bubbles.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Yellowstone Report, Day 6

[This is a continuation of the Yellowstone Report, by guest author, Oliver Lignell.]
Day 6 – Almost blown away (11 miles)
The next morning was bright and sunny. The MountainGuys were all business as we organized to move quickly in our different directions:  packs down, food made, and then the more time-consuming activity of foot preparation and gear re-organization. These later activities took substantially more time than it should have. I believe I was all packed except for food while Dan T. was only on the third protective layer on his right foot. However, this did provide an opportunity to confirm who was going to take what and the routes we would take. For instance, the overnight crew would take food that needed to be cooked, and the hiking out group would take the trash. My headlamp had died and Dan S.’s was something just short of a lighthouse – in size and brightness. We traded, that was worth carrying for one night, at least.
I studied the map with the primary goal of confirming our plans for the Shoshone Geyser Basin, but I was also curious about the route that the Dans wanted to take. I scratched my head.
“Ahh, Dan?” I asked Dan S. “ Do you realize that you guys are hiking out 14 miles following the North Shore in one day while we are taking two days to go 17 miles in two days going via the Basin? I don’t want to be critical, but why would you do that all at once?”
Dan took immediate affront to this innocent question. “I told you”, he said with some aggravation. “It’s because our feet hurt.” As if this was obvious and made total sense.
“Well”, I said reasonably. “It seems to me that your plan might actually be a little harder on your feet. But,” I added, “I’m ok with your rationale. Even if it makes no sense to me.” I thought this was very generous.
“Oh, thanks for your permission, your highness!” said Dan derisively. “As if I cared with what you thought anyway. I’m going that way and you can’t stop me.”
Dan T. was looking as if he suddenly developed doubts about 14 miles with a grumpy MountainGuy. I, on the other hand, felt as if a couple of days with a smaller group sounded like a great idea. We finished packing in silence. However, with the natural resilience and optimism that are such hallmarks of the true MountainGuy, we were all in great moods and raring to head out just a minutes later. We hiked together as a group back up from the lake to the Shoshone Lake trail and said our good byes. The Dan team headed toward the northern shore and the rest of us headed to the southern shore and the geyser basin.
(Author’s note: there is no written record to document the escapades of the Dan team, so the reader will need to reference the secondary source material gathered and reported by the Author when the team re-united.)
The hike back down the lovely Aspen- and Ash-shaded trail was fast and easy. The 3 miles back to where we first reached the lake was completed in less than an hour. Ten minutes past that junction, the thermal features began to surface - literally. There was so much to see the next two miles took us several hours to navigate. Our first sights were steaming hillsides and vales. These looked as I imagined the surface of Venus would look: weird and twisted landscape, grey lifeless rock and gravel, with steam rising from numerous vents and fumaroles.  And, two major bonuses: first, we saw no one else – we were completely on our own. Second, unlike the publicly accessible thermal features of Yellowstone, there were no barriers, no signs, and no controlled areas. We could go wherever we liked. If we wanted to fall into boiling water and stew, we could. The freedom was great. We wandered across the landscape.
As we hiked deeper in to the area, the terrain flattened out in to a gravelly baked plain with a stream running through it. While we did not spot any large animals, we did find mighty evidence of mighty bison. This led us to believe that the Buffaloes enjoyed the warm water and air around the hot spots. As we followed the trail closer to the stream, we actually saw a hole in the bank of the stream constantly spurting shots of water in to the stream. Right past this, we dropped our packs so we could pursue extended exploration. My goal was clear – hot pools! Kevin, on the other hand, pulled out his camera and cruised for photo opportunities. Rick wandered through the site looking everywhere as he munched a trail bar.
Despite serious looking, I was disappointed in my search for a hot pool. My technique was scientific and extensive. I got in the stream with my Crocs and cruised up and down the stream, splashing closer to hot springs and spouts pouring water in to the stream. But none were big enough or hot enough to create any opportunities. I hauled myself out a bit downstream from our packs on to the grey hard pack of a flattened geyser dome. About twenty yards away, a large spout hole loomed. Nearly 4 feet tall and about 10 feet across, is looked like an immense melted candle. I approached cautiously and peered inside. Except for a little steam and bubbling sounds, it was quiescent. It’s twisted and tortured interior was fascinating, but did not require more than a few minutes of sightseeing. Being a little cool at this point, I returned to the packs to put on more clothes. Kevin and Rick wandered over to check it out too. Suddenly, I heard a shout.
“It’s gonna blow!” Shouted Kevin. He was running wildly back towards the packs, yelling about increasing noise from the spout. Rick hustled away in the other direction, maintaining a dignified air but moving quickly. Less than a second later, the geyser exploded, shooting a boiling jet of water close to 50 feet in the air. I was so glad this had not happened two minutes earlier when I had been looking down in to its guts. I would have had a fresh body and a cooked head – not an enviable situation, even for someone as burly as a MountainGuy. I was tough, but not that tough. Fortunately, Kevin’s lightning reflexes paid off. For keeping us from being blown away, Kevin earned the rarely earned Geothermal Sensitivity Badge.

The geyser that almost blew our heads off.

After the brush with being parboiled, we exercised greater caution as we explored the remaining thermal area. Many more sights awaited us:  geysers, fumaroles, and even a double spouted fumarole that not only looked like a dragon’s snout emerging from the ground, but sounded like the snores of a giant with a congested sinus. But, even better: I achieved my goal. I had not given up on the hot pool and had kept my eyes peeled on every twist and turn of the creek flowing through the area. And, it paid off.
Not far from a cluster of thermal features,  I found a bend in the creek where previous visitors had lined up stones to retain the hot water trickling from a boiling hot pool less than a dozen feet from the creek. I was in my birthday clothes and in the water within about 30 seconds. Ahhh. Perfect. I relaxed for about 15 minutes before the other guys even noticed I was gone. However, even when the saw it, they weren’t that interested. I don’t know if it was the sight of me spread out in the pool or if they had become jaded after Mr. Bubbles , but whatever the reason was, I enjoyed a peaceful soak.
Oliver's solo hot pool
All good things must come to an end though and with 8 miles more to go before we reached our final camp for the trip, we had to move on. We took a final look at the last wild thermal area features and found one sunken pit where are tree had fallen in. It was impossible to tell how long it had been there, but it had a curious feature. The majority of the tree, below the surface of the water seemed perfectly preserved, while the trunk above the water was a riot of color. Just how the chemical treatment did this was not known, but we agreed it was pretty cool.
Pretty cool tree in sunken pool.
Leaving the geyser basin behind, we began a long hike around the southern edge of the lake and then north on the east side of Shoshone Lake until we reached the outlet and crossed it to our last night in Yellowstone. The terrain we followed was rolling hills broken by tantalizing glimpses of the lake. Before we left the shores of lake though, we saw a surprising sight. The southern shallow edges of the lake were covered in large mats of lily pads. For guys who primarily hiked in the mountainous western US, lily pads were more identified with southern latitudes and not lakes in Northern Wyoming. Again, we had no firm facts to guide our speculation as to cause, but that did not stop serious thinkers like us. We came to the conclusion, pending actual facts, that warmer waters from the Geyser basin and a shallow depth were enough, over the centuries, to encourage large expanses of lily pads.

Lily pad mat on southern Shoshone Lake

However, after leaving the shore, our glimpses of the lake diminished and we entered the slog-zone. Our bodies were hiking machines, grinding up the hills and cruising down the switch backs.  Dense pines restricted our vision to the path, tree trunks, and a narrow ribbon of blue sky. This focus served us well as we encountered our second fleeting evidence of large mammals in the park. The savvy reader will recall that large buffalo pies were spotted near the Shoshone Geyser basin. That evidence was easier to analyze. Our next encounter was tougher. Literally.
I believe I was in the lead at this point in the afternoon. I stopped when I encountered a large sign of animal activity approximately 7 inches in length and 1-2 inches in diameter. I was puzzling over this as Rick, and then Kevin arrived and stopped.
“What’s up?” Asked Rick.
“Animal sign”, I said, scratching my chin with the abstracted air of the experienced MountainGuy cogitating. “I don’t think it’s bear. There’s no sign of berries. In fact, “ I poked it with a twig, “that looks like fur in there. So, my guess is a carnivore of some kind.”
Rick nodded his head. “Yep, probably coyote”.
At this point, Kevin snorted. “Don’t you guys ever get tired of guessing?” He sounded exasperated. “We need facts. This is science!” With that remark he dropped his pack on the ground and started rooting in deep in the interior, muttering under his breath.
Rick and I looked at each other and shrugged. We knew this was not the time to harass Kevin. This was serious business. We soon found out exactly how serious.
“Aha!” Kevin exclaimed. He pulled out a magnifying glass from his pack and laid it on the bandana he had spread out. “Yes!”. He pulled out a small manual. “Gotcha now”, he exclaimed, and pulled out a caliper.
Before our amazed eyes, he began examining the scat through the lens and measuring the width down to the fraction of the millimeter. Then he opened his book and began flipping through pages.  I bent down to look at the cover. It read, “Scat Identification: Mammals of the rocky mountain west”.  I couldn’t stop myself.
“You carried a book on shit for the last 6 days?” I burst out.  Rick snorted. I think it was something between a laugh and a choke since he had been scarfing a power bar with a fair bit of energy when I spoke. I started laughing.
“Hey!” Kevin had a very serious look on his face. “This is a very useful book. See, we needed it now. And I have it,” he said triumphantly. “And”, he slapped the book on his hand several times. “This proves it.”
“Proves what?” said Rick, reasonably.
“It was a wolf,” said Kevin. Folding his arms and looking righteous.
I grabbed his book. “Let me look at that.” I looked at the pictures and the identification description. “Well, by god, you’re right!” I was now a believer. I turned to Rick, as if he had been the doubter.
“You see?” I told him. “ It was a wolf. It’s right here,” I slapped the book for emphasis. “Good work, Kevin, “ I concluded.
Both Kevin and Rick looked at me with some suspicion. I don’t know why. It was obviously a wolf, after all. For his scientific approach, instrumentation, and readiness to analyze, Kevin was awarded the CSI Scat Badge.
After this high point, the rest of the hike went quickly, with only a final challenge of crossing the outlet for the Shoshone River. This was about sixty feet wide and about 2-3 deep. We could see evidence that it ran at least a couple of feet higher earlier in the summer. As before, Crocs™ proved the crossing a minor event. However, Kevin and Rick opted to avoid wet shoes and choose to go bare foot. I did not know this at first as I was already back in boots and looking for the trail to the campsite by then. However, when I began to hear curses and shouts I ran back to the outlet and observed first Kevin’s and then Rick’s herky jerky dance across the river bed’s sharp rocks with packs swinging wildly as they shouted. For the record, it was only Rick that cursed. I started laughing, but quietly. It was clearly one of those moments and I did not want to be killed on our last evening in the wilderness.
Despite this last challenge, we were at our campsite in another 10 minutes. Finding our tent spots, organizing food and gathering water was the next activity. As usual, the last dinner was a conglomeration of nearly every remaining food item. This time we called it Paella. There was rice with saffron, salmon, chicken spiced with a hot and sour soup mix. Add fried onion and viola, it was complete. Weird and unusual as that sounds, we all actually enjoyed it and there was more than enough for all.  Topped off with freeze-dried Raspberry Crumble for desert and we were set. The sun went down over the west side of the lake as we finished up. Another excellent day filled with exploration and hard work. Fun, but tinged with some sadness as we contemplated our return to our quotidian lives.