I DO sleep in this morning and it feels great.
Around 9AM I find Doug in the lobby in a big old chair. Poor thing, he was awakened in the middle of the night by the fire alarm and an order to evacuate. It was all a mistake due to one tuna-brain who lit up a cigarette despite all the warnings. Doug tried but couldn't get back to sleep so he has been up since before 5AM. He did manage to get some interior shots of the Inn that he had been planning so the morning wasn't wasted. But I have a feeling he won't last long on the hike today.
I ask if he'd like to head over to the gift shop with me. I always bring back some goodies and I want to visit with Matthew a bit more. That suits him fine so off we go in the cold morning.
Matthew is his funny, cheery self and we joke around and share news. He's planning to spend November in Indiana with Julia, then they will both return to the Park in December. He is the manager of the Snow Lodge Gift Shop now. He has still never seen a wolf in the Park and has a running joke that their existence is all a big hoax. I promise I will let him know before I come out next time so we can plan to go wolf-watching together.
I stow my bag of gifts in F'Ugly and then head to the VC to meet the others.
Tonya is already inside with Doug when I come in. I am happy to see her again, even though she starts teasing me right off! And here comes Frank. He says Bozeman got socked by the snowstorm. I am happily surprised when I see the next Loons to arrive - TYT and Angela. They have driven in to join us on another Loon hike and are planning to spend the night in the Park. And then Frank introduces us to two brand new Loons, John O and Lynne from Alabama.
We watch the VC empty of its tourists as Old Faithful starts to blow. We have a perfect view through the picture window. It is lovely to see. Frank checks some prediction times and then we are off. It's about 10:20. It is cold today, and there is a steady breeze.
We walk past Old Faithful and then along the edge of the Lower Basin. Frank is leading is to Grand as its prediction time is between 11 and 2PM. Frank shows off his Geyser Gun, which displays the temperature of whatever you aim it toward. He shows us how it works and I smile to see how it intrigues our newest Loons. John O is a weatherman and Lynne has an online business. They tell me that their horseback ride was cancelled yesterday due to the snow and they are worried the same thing may happen with the fishing trip they planned for tomorrow. I worry that they might feel the cold a bit more than the rest of us do, being southerners and all.
Despite the enjoyable company and the fun of Frank's free interpretive guidance, we have a bit of bad geyser luck. We see quite a few eruptions from a distance, Daisy, Castle, Lion and the bizarre Sawmill. Beauty Pool is less colorful than last I saw it and Turban fills and overflows countless times yet the rest of the Grand sequence does not kick in. We sit and stand for a long, long while and Tonya eats all my animal crackers. I amuse myself by imitating the way ravens walk. I see a coyote far away through my binoculars and wonder if it might be the beggar I've heard about.
The wind shows no sign of abating and Grand is just not cooperating today. Doug, who has infinite patience, would have lasted and Tonya probably would have, too, but the rest of us begin to think of food and getting warm so I am delighted when Frank comes up with a bright idea.
He figures that traipsing along the boardwalk isn't going to keep us warm enough against this wind. What we need is to get out there and HIKE. So he proposes that we warm up with a hot lunch, then head to Fountain Flats to do some off-trail exploring of Pocket Basin. John and Lynne are the coldest and seem to be leaning toward backing out but we talk them into staying. I know Frank will make it worthwhile.
So off to lunch we go. Doug and Tonya opt for the Lower Ham store while the rest of us try the Geyser Grill. TYT and Angela swoop in and buy burgers for us all. Thanks you two! I love how Tom and Angela are so totally Loon-like right from the get-go and need no orientation.
After eating and talking and joking a bit we finally head in a caravan toward Fountain Flats. We nearly get stuck in a touristy elk jam at the end of the ramp leading to the loop road but we carefully manage to scoot around it.
At the Picnic area we find Doug and Tonya waiting for us. Doug is grinning. "What did you see?" I ask. "Ohhh, just Grand erupting!" Tonya pretends to be mad because she just missed it! Doug is still grinning. "And what else?" I say. "Ohhh, just some great close shots of two bull elk fighting!" He is beaming now. Wow! Congratulations! He got the shot that he has been trying to get all week! Hooray. Now I understand why all those cars were stopped back there on the ramp. It was the remnants of a Doug-jam!
We start our hike at the end of the Fountain Flats road. Doug begs off, needing both sleep and to download all his filled up cards. I tell him I'll see him at dawn in Lamar and off he goes.
Our first stop is at Ojo Caliente, a large hot spring right alongside the Firehole River. I don't remember what the read-out was but I know it was HOT! Frank explains a lot about this formation and gives us the basics of geyser geology. Then we head across the road to a faint trail that leads along the river. I start along the trail but Frank calls me back. We gather around him and he gives us a stern warning.
We are instructed to follow him, and to step where he steps. There is danger here he says. People have died here. I am very thankful Frank is as consciencious as he is. It might sound at first like he is putting a damper on the fun but I don't want to think what might have happened had he not done this. I began this hike with a cocky attitude because I have visited the area once before with Tim and Betsy. I very nearly made a mess for myself as you'll see later and I know I have Frank to thank.
We walk in single file and then gather behind Frank at the first feature, a good-sized mud pot. I don't like the smell of the steam and the wind seems to blow it right at me! The Geyser Gun shows the mud pot to be dangerously hot.
We move on and then hop across a run-off stream cutting its way down the hillside to the river. We stop on the other side as Frank discovers an unexpected obstacle. A bison herd has moved in to the area, taking advantage of the thermal warmth on this first cold day of the season. There are about 20 animals scattered over the next section and it looks like a few are right on the trail. If I were alone I would simply abandon this hike and go elsewhere. But Frank is both more determined and more experienced. He can see that the bison are not blocking the area he most wants to visit so he figures we can make a wide circle around them and get back to the river beyond them.
I wish I had his confidence! I am more concerned with getting stuck in mud or trapped between a hot spring and a bison but Frank knows this area. He leads us away from the river and the resting herd into the meadow. He takes his time and carefully picks his footing. There are three hazards to watch out for: thermals, standing water and mud.
Due to the presence of one or the other of these three we are forced to go further afield and to backtrack in several spots. Once while we stop and wait for him to find a safe way Tonya announces that a cow bison is up on her feet. There is a tense moment and we all look back. If more of the bison get up they may start to move and that may put us in a vulnerable position. Then the cow lies back down.
I am greatly relieved! Frank finds a way through the soggy spot and we head for higher ground. I am amazed when we begin to head back toward the river that we have succeeded in skirting the herd. I get a little giddy and forget myself. I glance back at the still resting bison as I walk and suddenly my left leg crumples. In an instant I find myself on my knees, my left foot lower than my right. I get up quickly and look down at my left boot. It's covered with sinter-mud. I don't know what just happened but either I just stepped in a hole or the ground gave way beneath me. It is a real shock. I am not hurt at all, just startled at how quickly it happened. I broke the cardinal rule and wasn't looking where I was going. The particular hole my boot found was not, thankfully, full of scalding water but it could have been! I know I got lucky and I feel quite stupid.
I get no sympathy from Frank, nor do I expect any, although I am sure he's glad I wasn't hurt. I am humbled and rattled. For the rest of the hike I take myself down a few notches and pay more attention.
We move closer to the river and get another lesson. Frank explains how crests form and how so many hot pools form undercuts. This is how most animals die in thermal areas, by walking onto a normal-looking shelf that has been undercut and the weight of the animal causes it to collapse. Only luck and lightning-fast reflexes will save it from a scalding. He shows us some excellent examples of undercuts - from a distance - and I find them un-nerving!
Then he points out several features on the Firehole river, some favorite soaking pools both cool and hot. The rocks here receive a steady flow of runnoff and the varying temperatures have created a rainbow of thermal bacterial colors: bright orange and canary yellow, brown, white and pink.
Then Frank leads us back to a spot I remember from my first time here: Cavern Springs, where Sara Hulpers died. Frank relates the story of that tragic night and how carefree fun turned to horror. It has an effect on us all. I remember that we saw footprints in the sediment when Tim and Betsy and I were here. And I remember a little make-shift memorial to Sara of pebbles and feathers left by well-meaning folks. That is gone now, too.
Shortly after this Frank leads us upriver again and then turns away from the bank to begin our mud-pot tour. Frank says this area contains the most extensive and varied collection of mud pots he's every seen and that furthermore, the area seems to undergo constant change. He says it has looked different one way or another every time he's been here.
I certainly gain a new appreciation for them. I have to agree: the variations here are enormous. The first feature we reach a single mud pot, with thick, grey liquid that plops about noisily. The texture is thick like putty, but the Gun says it's HOT! We then come upon a veritable field of mud pots. There are multiple varieties of cone size, color and texture, bubble size, color and rate and there are as many "dormant" ones as "live" ones.
We all have our favorites. I especially like one that I name Champagne Spouter for its hundreds of tiny bubbles. There are noisy ones, stinky ones, deep ones, shallow ones, watery ones and thick ones. Some have high, developed cones and some are just openings in the ground. Between the features there is usually a good deal of "normal" ground to walk on, sometimes in trees, sometimes in grass and sometimes in sage. We continue to find shed antlers and in one wet spot we find a perfect wolf print, as large as my hand. The air remains cold and there is a steady wind but the walking keeps us warm. I know we are all enjoying this far more than tramping along the boardwalks.
There are way too many features for me to record here and my notes and photos don't do them justice. So I will just touch on the ones that impressed me most.
The first is Baked Alaska. Frank says he's never seen anything like it. It's located in a mud-pot field, consisting of maybe six or seven dull-white cones about 2-3 feet high. Several are "dormant" and dried up but others have steam rising from them like mini volcanos. When I say dried up I mean baked and cracked and crumbling dried up. One feature stands out, though, a dull white pyramid-shaped cone that has very recently oozed from its top what looks like melted vanilla ice-cream in three wide streams down its sides. The mud flows are bright white and super-smooth; they have a "just-gelled" look to them. I guarantee you, you have never seen mud this color before. Frank thinks it is totally unique.
Behind the cone of Baked Alaska is what looks like a now-dormant mini-caldera, its top blown off at some former stage of its life like a mini-Mt. St. Helens. The mini-caldera and the mini-pyramid are in the same scale and together they make me think of something built for a movie-set. You could place little Fisher-Price toy people around them and shoot a really wierd volcano movie, uh, that is, if it were legal and safe to do so, which it surely isn't!
We move on and I discover some other favorites: There is Double White Chocolate and Fudge Swirl which is a very large mudpot with two sections inside, each with its own mud spout. The spouts seem to be competing to burp up the fattest dollop of mud or to produce the widest overflow ring. I watch the mud rings expand and contract in an unpredictable sequence. Every once in a while they burp simultaneously at which point the mud in their outer rings touch and combine, the way one folds batter. When this happens, the predominant white color of the mud picks up a streak of darker mud and it gets swirled around like...Fudge Swirl!
There is another great big one I call Eight Is Enough that has multiple mud spouts inside a really wide cone. I count eight and some of them are mini-spouts within large spouts. And finally Moist Sugar Mountain, which I think is the biggest one of all. It has an oblong-shaped cone and has built up a thick white dike all around it, made of what appears to me to be the consistency of damp sugar. I am afraid to get too close to this one as it hisses and steams as well as plops. I am dismayed to see human footprints on one steep side, nearly up to the top.
Now we have reached the end of the mud features and we have only to get back to the cars. Frank warns us that we might find the quickest route there blocked by bison. He points to a ridge off to the right, across a meadow. That way lies the wide expanse of Fountain Flats and the road beyond it. If there are bison in our way, that will serve as our alternate route.
But we are lucky and the bison have moved away. So we leave the mystery and danger of the thermal area and hike across normal, solid ground. We remain wary of the herd on our left and in no time we find ourselves on the last little hill above the cars.
Frank suggests a further adventure in Sentinel Meadows but it is nearly 5PM and most of us (including him!) have long drives ahead, so we agree to save that for another day. Everyone has loved this hike and we thank Frank profusely. We take group shots and then bid goodbye to our Southern Loons, John and Lynne.
The rest of us move down to the picnic area on Frank's advice to rinse off the sinter from our boots in Nez Perce Creek. He says some of the chemicals and bacteria tend to have a corrosive effect on footwear. I thought I did a good job rinsing my boots but when I look at them now I see some white sinter still remains. It kind of looks like a scar, and I figure that will be a good reminder of my mistake.
Frank, Tonya and I are all heading to Gardiner and dinner at the Grill. So we say goodby to Tom and Angela. I hope our paths will cross again soon. I wish them good luck in finding a suitable home in Bozeman and I'm sure they will.
Tonya takes the lead. We have two animal incidents on the way back - the first is an elk jam just past Madison Junction. There are about a dozen cows in a small meadow to the right and a big gorgeous bull elk, missing one whole antler, standing smack in the middle of the road. He takes up both lanes. There are cars pulled over on both sides of him and people out of their cars with cameras. Tonya stops well back from the action, assessing her choices. The bull looks a bit agitated, though whether it is due to the cows or the people I'll never know. He turns left and moves a few paces, sending the camera-pointers scurrying behind their cars. Then he reverses course and moves right. Same thing. Then he gets a bead on the cow closest to him. He lowers his one-antlered head and rushes into the meadow. The cows scatter. Tonya makes the most of this opportunity and drives through the suddenly clear road. Frank follows and then I try to make it. As I pass, a cow turns toward the road. In my rear-view mirror I see her reach the pavement and then the bull coming after her. I keep going, hoping that the people will have the sense to keep their distance from that crazy bull.
Later at Elk Park we come upon a small herd of bison to the right of the road. Tonya moves into the empty left lane to pass them but as I come up several bison move back on the road. I have to stop as they look like they might want to cross. But instead they move into the meadow again and I go on my way.
After Norris we begin to see heavy snow again. Great wet clumps of it drop from fir branches into the road. One hits the hood of my car with a squish and makes me laugh. I see some gorgeous glimpses of the snow-covered Gallatins ahead and I notice that I just feel better as I return to this end of the Park.
We make it back to Mammoth much more quickly that I thought we would and I find another treat. For the very first time I behold the beauty of Gardiner Canyon in he magic hour of evening light. I have never enjoyed this drive as much as I do tonight. The sage hills seems to hold a tinge of green which makes me think of spring. I begin to wonder if the snow has awakened the grass? When I mention this to Tonya and Frank they scoff at the green part but they agree about its beauty.
Doug comes up to join us and we have a great dinner. We tell him about our hike and all the weird features we saw. He seems especially intrigued by Baked Alaska so I try to draw it for him. He says he thinks it sounds good enough to photograph. Frank warns him that the features change constantly and he can't predict what it might look like when they go out next, but that he'd be happy to lead Doug there.
Note: As it turned out, they made the trip the very next week and amazingly, the bright white ice cream of Baked Alaska had already changed completely! Frank was blown away.
We gab about the Park. Frank and Tonya are going to Lake tomorrow to see that area before it closes for the season. Doug says he'll head to Lamar with me in the morning. I can't say enough about the food here. You MUST have dinner at the Park Street if you get a chance.
Well, the goodbye part has come and I don't like it anymore tonight than I do any other night. Frank has given me a packet which contains his Cut Off Mountain Trip Report to read on the plane which is very thoughtful. I bid him farewell and head to my room.
I am in bed by 9:30 and out like a light!
Today I saw: bison, a coyote, elk, ravens and 7 Loons