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Norris Geyser Basin and a Wolf Serenade

October 11, 2006
Pine Edge Cabins
Silver Gate, Montana

We were in the park early again this morning. The ride down was more like the one we’re used to – minus the ghostly look of the snow, which has melted for the most part from yesterday.

The Lamar was silent, buffalo the only herd animals in sight. We stopped at Slough Creek and drove north down the road toward the campgrounds near where we left last night. There are a host of Wolf Watchers set up here. Rick McIntyre’s telemetry says the Slough wolves are out there. They are howling up a storm. But like last night at sunset, nobody can find them.

I feel a bit like those ivory-billed woodpecker folks who spend hours and hours in swampy, water-moccasin-infested water looking for something, anything. Everything I spot in my scope, upon closer inspection, turns into a rock or a bison.

This goes on for about a half hour. Nobody else can find them, either. Finally, Deirdre motions us over to the scope, and there they are under a stand of dead aspen. At first I see three, then three blacks and the grey, but after awhile all eight are in various states of lounging. Seven females and the alpha male Number 490. The Slough Creek pack that we watched yesterday. We get a half hour of wolf stuff. Lying down and raising their heads to look at each other. Urinating. Stretching.

Someone says there is a kill about a half mile away down by Slough Creek. Perhaps they are resting and howling after last night’s gorging.

A bunch of coyotes shriek back, but the wolves’ long, more mournful howls and harmonies dominate the airspace. The grey gets up and walks down a swale, sitting down maybe 30 yards away before walking back up and joining the rest again for another round of howling.

When they got up and started moving uphill, you could see the individual wolves, especially after a friendly older fellow brought out a Questar telescope. In the telescope, you could see expression and color in the wolves’ faces more than a half mile away. Soon they out of sight heading north over the hill.

Our reverie is disturbed by a shout from the woman with the beatific smile who we met yesterday. She has scoped a grizzly bear walking along a high ridge far above us south of the road. It’s the same ridge where we saw the Slough wolves running as we left yesterday. This one looks pretty large, especially the hump, but it’s hard to tell much from this distance. He finally disappears into the timber stage left.

About ten minutes later, following exactly the same trail, moving a little more quickly, is another grizzly. A little later, someone picks them up on an even higher ridge following each other over the pass into the Lamar Valley.

We are moving on to the Norris Geyser Basin today, which one website describes as perhaps “the hottest geyser area in Yellowstone.” In 1929, it says, an oil rig sustained damage trying to determine subsurface temperatures that rose to 401 degrees.

The barren, sulphrous environment at Norris is a result of the extreme acidity that makes it difficult for vegetation to grow and easy for algae and bacteria to thrive. We read that the sulphur, which has a smell that most people find unpleasant but that I have grown to like as a part of the hot-water experience, is pretty toxic stuff.

Steamboat Geyser, though less-known and less-active than Old Faithful, is actually the world’s largest geyser. Today, like all days we have been here, it is gurgling and spitting erratically out of the rock, almost ominously. The eruptions measure from two to perhaps ten feet, like a cauldron waiting for its chance to blow. When it really explodes, water cascades up to 300 feet. Steamboat exploded in 2000, in 2002, and twice in 2003, on March 26 and April 27. Below, about thirty feet from the hole, a steam vent loudly exhales like a locomotive in an old cartoon.

The Norris landscape is ever in turmoil and change. Leo Whittlesey notes in Death in Yellowstone: “An 1883 park employee, George Thomas, cautioned travelers that walking at Norris had to be ‘slow and careful’ because of the danger of ‘dropping into a hole and being scalded to death.’ Five years later, a warning sign was posted: ‘Visitors ought not to cross this basin without a competent guide, and then it is at the risk of their lives.’

Photos show that by 1905 wooden planks were being built (and rebuilt) to allow people safer access. Whittlesey can find no actual deaths at Norris, although that doesn’t mean early travelers might not have met their end by falling through into some remote hot pool.

The chaos continues. In March 2003, about the same time Steamboat Geyser blew twice in a month, a new thermal feature appeared west of Nymph Lake. Porkchop Geyser, a familiar landmark since its appearance in 1971, erupted and left the temperature of the water in the pool significantly hotter, which closed the area for awhile and necessitated the moving of the trail away from it. Porkchop is more active than the last time I was here.

By the time we got back to Silver Gate, the clouds overhead are moving west and south, and at ground level, the wind is keeping the Montana flag down at the general store almost prone in the opposite direction. Such is climate in Silver Gate. We’ll be home tomorrow.


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