Thursday, December 9, 2010

Out West, Part 4: Yellowstone Lake

In late September and early October of 2004, I traveled to Washington state to visit my daughter Beth attending Whitman College in Walla Walla and my son Will attending the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma.  Wishing to see the country and visit old friends along the way, I drove my car and brought my kayak.  I followed I-80 from Iowa to Utah, stopping for a short outing on the Great Salt Lake, then continued to Washington on I-84.  In Walla Walla, Beth suggested that I visit the Palouse River Canyon  When I reached Tacoma via I-84 and I-5 several days later, I spent a day kayaking on Puget Sound with a former coworker who had moved to Olympia.  When I left Tacoma, I headed east on I-90 into Montana and south to Cody, Wyoming, where I visited Kent Houston, a longtime friend from my college days who now works as a soil scientist for the Shoshone National Forest.  For my final adventure of my "Out West" tour, we spent a day in Yellowstone National Park and kayaked on the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake.  These is the account of my outing there...


Vapor drifts eerily westward through a ghost forest of fire-killed pines while sheets of scalding water run eastward from hot springs and flow across travertine terraces.  The water trickles quietly into the cold lake where the slope is gentle and splashes over waterfalls where waves have eroded sea-caves into the geyserite shoreline.  Far across the lake loom the rugged crests of the Absaroka Mountains, bright with new snow.  A few hours ago, Kent and I drove through those mountains from Cody and wound our way along the north and west shores of Yellowstone Lake to Grant Village.  After registering at the National Park Service ranger station, we launched our kayaks and paddled northward along the coast.  We are now passing the West Thumb geyser basin, dramatically located on the shoreline of the giant lake.  The water is calm, the air is cold, and the sky is patchy with clouds and sunshine on this first day of October.

“We’re on camera”, Kent calls softly, nodding toward the wooden boardwalks that wind through the geyser basin and along this part of the shoreline.  Dozens of tourists ambling on the walkway have trained their video cameras on the two crazy kayakers just offshore and track us as we paddle past.  Several wave to us and we wave back by bobbing our heads and raising our paddle blades high on the return stroke without breaking stride.  Spying us, parents suddenly kneel down to their children, wrap one arm around their shoulders, and point to us with the other.  As she focuses her gaze on us, a little girl widens her eyes and opens her mouth in amazement, then waves; I stop paddling to wave and smile directly back at her.  She turns excitedly to her mother and points.  An old man standing alone at an overlook watches us quietly and nods his head slowly in approval; his eyes follow us as we cross his field of vision into the ambient scenery.  Our eyes meet for a moment and I feel a breeze brush my face.  He wishes he was here, I realize.  I am suddenly grateful, deeply grateful, to be pursuing my dream of exploring wild, beautiful places.  To be in the postcard, in the wilderness, in the grip of beauty.


We round a point and are suddenly paddling past a tall, green stand of unburned forest.  Missed by the big fires of 1988, this patch of mature pine, spruce, and fir is lush compared to the recovering firescape - occupied by legions of 15-year old  “Christmas trees” growing under the bleaching skeletons of their fire-killed predecessors - that we have passed so far.  It surrounds a second geyser basin, this one devoid of boardwalks and tourists, that presents a surreal landscape.  Bubbling, gurgling, and hissing sounds reach us from the vapor-shrouded land.  White sand weathered from gray geyserite forms a barren beach.  Hot, steaming water extends several meters into the lake.  We drift cautiously past the basin and pull ashore between jagged slabs of broken travertine for a brief rest.

Blue-bottomed storm clouds creep across the sky and blot out the sun as we begin our return journey.  There is thunder, then rain and hail.  Thousands of tiny water fountains erupt where hailstones strike the smooth surface of the lake.  Staccatos of stones bounce noisily off the plastic deck of my kayak.  Iceballs glance off my nylon jacket with soft, scratchy tappings.  Hunching over as I paddle, I call out to Kent to see how he is faring.  A longtime outdoorsman, he is unfazed.  “Builds character!” he quips across the squall.  The storm ends a few seconds later.  We reach the take-out point and drive a scenic loop back to Cody past Old Faithful, Yellowstone Falls, and a buffalo jam.


I headed home to Iowa the next day, leaving behind mountain waters, seacoasts, river canyons and salt lakes, but buoyed by memories of places, friends and family.  Although not featured in these kayaking narratives, I did indeed visit my daughter Beth and my son Will (the original objective of my trip out west).  I got to visit their homes, meet their friends, see their campuses, and experience a bit of their newly independent lives. I am doubly enriched: first by their welcoming of my presence in their lives and again by their supportiveness of my absences when I am out and about exploring nature.