It is snowing
again as we approach Yellowstone Canyon, but there is no wind and the sky is
soft and white. We walk through pine grottoes and across the plain, following
as closely as possible the gravel roar of the Lower Falls, and emerge from the
trees on the north rim of the chasm. At this point the plateau drops abruptly
1,500 feet into the foaming Yellowstone River. The colorful canyon walls are
lined with massive spines of volcanic rock, and here and there a puff of steam
and a dot of green against the snow will mark the location of a belching
fumarole. At the head of the canyon a mile to the south the Yellowstone River
plunges 309 feet into the snow-filled gorge. We cannot see the base of the
falls because a wall of ice, maybe 90 feet thick, rises out of the river to
half the height of the cascade. Enormous icicles hang from the cliff beside the
falls, and it is difficult to determine from our distant vantage point where
the ice ends and the falls begin. The torrent seems stationary, frozen in
space, with only the terrible thunder to suggest differently.
On a very narrow
pinnacle of rock that extends farther than the others from the canyon rim, we
dig a snow cave. We could, should, travel on and try to make up lost time, but
there is something powerfully attractive about this place, something almost
supernatural. When night comes we build a fire on the edge and watch enraptured
as the glowing red embers curl off our tower on a quarter-mile free fall into
the abyss. It is an odd, not entirely pleasant, sensation to stare down into
space, more so here than anyplace I've ever known. The Indians believed this
exotic labyrinth was inhabited by animistic spirits, and I don't doubt it. I
feel drawn to the center of the earth, beckoned by sirens, taunted by
waterfalls. We throw the last of our wood on the fire, and when it is burning
brightly kick the flaming brands over the brink...flashes of red on the canyon
walls, the silver snow and for one instant the sparkle of the river. An
We follow the
river above the falls where it winds through the hills to Hayden Valley. In the
meadows that are open for a long way to the west the snow is packed hard by the
wind, and the walking is easy if we stay on the crests of the drifts. The
discomfort of our abundant injuries is serious, but not intolerable as long as
our movements are simple and regular. Consequently, we are making an inspired
effort to keep them simple and regular.
The valley that
we enter is a wide, rolling plain open to the horizons except for a few
scattered stands of pine. A large herd of buffalo, perhaps a hundred animals,
grazes in a tight formation near the river. Another, smaller, herd is plowing
four abreast over a hillock on the south shore of Alum Creek; the lead bulls
are buried to their throats in snow. We see one other mammal, an enormous
otter, dragging a spirited trout out of the river onto a snowbank. A moment
later there is only a tiny scarlet splotch where both had been.
Waterfowl are the
most numerous living things in the valley. We round a bend in the river and are
blitzed by a quacking, flapping explosion of geese, ducks and swans, thousands
of birds. They struggle frantically for altitude, make one wide swooping
parabola and land once more on the same stretch of water they occupied before
our intrusion. Birdcalls replace the wind as our companion noise; I could
follow the river blindfolded.
In the afternoon
the wind rips holes in the clouds, admitting ribbons of yellow light that float
across the valley floor, illuminating patches of frozen marsh. A bald eagle
soars against the sky, then banks with a flash into a column of sunlight and
out again. He is a rebel; all of his kin migrated months ago, and his
aerobatics don't resemble any hunting maneuvers that I've ever seen. It looks
as if he's flying for fun.
rises out of the timber south of the valley, cresting in the bitter air to form
a dome of ice crystals that hovers mirage-like above the tallest trees. The
pungent odor of hydrogen sulfide drifts through the air. As we move closer we
wade through an eerie ground fog that floats in the forest, hiding the source
of uncountable subterranean explosions. We camp on warm and barren ground near
a lake of boiling mud, a thermal feature typical of the area. At our camp the
temperature six inches off the ground is 35�. Fifty feet away the snow is five
feet deep and the temperature is 5� below zero.
In this bubble of
warmth formed by the boiling pools and fumaroles are swarms of flies and gnats
and green plants growing in profusion. Algae stain the hot pools with vibrant
colors, reds, blues and oranges, that contrast sharply with the snow, and
ghostly frost-covered trees ring the mud volcanoes like pieces of sculpture.
The earth rumbles, gasps. Tongues of sulfur explode into the air. This is a
weird, unnatural place, gruesome in the half-light of winter. Walking here, you
have the feeling that you are witnessing the formation of the earth.
It takes another
full day to walk the seven miles to Yellowstone Lake. Warm chinooks blowing
down the eastern slope of the Continental Divide have made the surface snow wet
and sticky. It grips our webs tenaciously, forcing a painful, jerking stride.
Our injured bodies perform with reluctance.
mountain lake is not frozen, as we had hoped; we could have shortened our route
by 20 miles by crossing the ice. We have arrived a few weeks too soon, and are
greeted by choppy gray surf. With Jackson still 90 miles away, we must begin
exercising a degree of economy in preparing meals. We are almost a week behind
our projected schedule, and have full rations for only three more days.