SI Vault
Beau Westover
January 29, 1973
After John Colter left the Lewis and Clark expedition he headed north into Crow country, looking for good trapping areas. It is said he began his journey in November of 1807, and in the wintry months that followed discovered the vast and mysterious wilderness of Yellowstone. The author and a friend are probably the first white men to make a similar trip (they chose to hike north to south) in midwinter. For 17 days in subzero temperatures they snowshoed through blizzards, clambered across mountains and elbowed through herds of elk in the valleys. They took with them only sleeping bags and packs, no tents.
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January 29, 1973

Walk On The Wild Side

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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 offering.

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.

Billowing steam 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.

This huge 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.

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