A moon-just-past-full cast silver edges on clouds slung across the east, and long hoary shadows worked through a small strip of lodgepole pine nestled between a willow-filled marsh and the sandy southern shore of Shoshone Lake.

The muscles of my shoulders, arms and stomach were sore. We arrived in this remote corner of Yellowstone National Park between the Pitchstone and Madison plateaus by kayak, and our day was filled with tens of thousands of paddle strokes, first three miles across the turquoise waters of Lewis Lake, then three more up the gentle currents of the Lewis River and, finally, a couple miles along the southern shore of Shoshone Lake, a body of water cradled by the Continental Divide to the north and east and the lodgepole-coated undulations of the Madison Plateau to the west. At 8,000 feet, we were at the icy headwaters of the fabled Snake River, a slithering course that works 1,040 miles from the mountains of Wyoming across Southern Idaho’s Snake River Plain, north through the deepest canyon in North America and then west through Washington state’s palouse hills before melding with the roiling expanse of the Columbia River.

Afternoon thunderstorms had marched across the Yellowstone sky, and their remnants were still scattered across the stars, the clouds nearest the eastern horizon shimmering all cool in the silver glow of the moon. With cookware washed and belly full, I reclined in the dirt with two friends, and our conversation meandered as the pressures of daily life slowly slipped from consciousness and into the stunning silence, the deep and varied solitude.

As we enjoyed the heart-warming trickle from nips at a small, plastic bottle of whiskey, the silence was faintly broken. The howl from a lone wolf emerged from a ridge to the southeast, a mile or so away. A little later, a spate of scattered raindrops began to fall. Everyone scrambled for the cover of the tent. I stayed out and put the hood of my parka over my head. From another ridge to the southwest came that clear, spine-chilling, silence-splitting bugle of a bull elk in rutt. Then, from the other ridge to the southeast, the wolf again howled. Call and response, a nighttime duet that lasted fifteen or more minutes.

Mother Nature’s auditory wizardry at work.

The Park

Congress set Yellowstone National Park aside on March 1, 1872 as the nation’s and world’s first national park. Travelers the world wide flock to Yellowstone’s renowned geothermal features: geysers, springs and mudpots, but also the world’s largest high-elevation lake, Yellowstone Lake, high plateau forests, the headwaters of several major rivers and inspiring waterfalls. It is also one of the world’s foremost wildlife sanctuaries, one of the last strongholds of the grizzly bear but also home to major populations of elk, bighorn sheep, antelope, bison and moose.

Yellowstone encompasses more than 2.2 million acres, mostly in Wyoming, but it is part of a much larger ecosystem that encompasses some 13 million acres of mostly federally-owned land. This vast region stretches from the Wind River Mountains and the headwaters of the Green River in the south to the Beartooth Mountains in the north. The greater Yellowstone ecosystem includes towns like Jackson, Wyoming; West Yellowstone, Montana; and Bozeman, Montana.

The Yellowstone Park Act of 1872 declared the park proper “hereby reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or sale under the laws of the United States, and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people…”

And pleasure them it does, by the millions. Twenty-five percent of all Americans will visit Old Faithful, the park’s signature geyser, which shoots boiling water 180 feet into the air, at least once in their lifetimes. Three million people visit the park each year.

Shoshone Geyser Basin

The Shoshone Geyser Basin contains 110 geothermal features, including a half-dozen geysers and numerous boiling springs and mudpots. Photo © Greg Stahl.

Geology tells stories, and Yellowstone National Park has a story to tell.

After rising late to a denim-blue sky and drinking lazy cups of coffee by the lake, we broke camp, packed boats and then fought a headwind five miles to the west end of Shoshone Lake, where boiling water splashed from small vents on the lakeshore. The two main vents spit bubbles and puffs of steam in the air, splashing boiling water on the rocks. We climbed out of our boats and began to walk into the Shoshone Geyser Basin, one of the park’s truly pristine geothermal hot spots.

The southwest corner of Yellowstone is not mountainous country, but it is rugged and remote. Shoshone and Lewis lakes are near the southern boundary of the Yellowstone Caldera, which encircles the park’s geothermal and volcanic activity.

Shoshone Geyser Basin has not been transformed into a board-walked tourist spectacle like many that are on-the-beaten-path. It contains 110 thermal features, Union Geser the most famous among them, though it’s been dormant since the mid-1970s. There are a half-dozen additional geysers, and numerous bubbling springs and mudpots.

Walking beside a basin full of bubbling mud and watching wisps of steam rise from the hillside, I began to hear my footsteps resonate beneath my weight, and I paused. The earth was hollow in that place, and I remembered stories of backcountry hikers killed from falls into boiling pools of water or mud. I backtracked my steps and considered Yellowstone’s fascinating geology as I retreated.

Beginning in eastern Oregon and northern Nevada 16.1 million years ago, the geologic hot spotthat is now beneath Yellowstone first percolated onto the earth’s surface and created the Owyhee Mountains and surrounding basalt canyon country. As the North American plate drifted to the southwest at a rate of about two centimeters per year, the molten hot spot moved beneath the surface of the landscape, resulting in southern Idaho’s vast sweeps of basalt and rhyolite lava fields, canyons and mountains, features like the Bruneau and Owyhee canyons, Jarbidge Mountains, Craters of the Moon National Monument and, of course, Yellowstone.

No one has ever seen eruptions on the scale of the Yellowstone eruptions, which threw flame, lava and ash into the alpine air three times between 600,000 and 2 million years ago. According to park literature, Yellowstone’s most recent lava flows occurred merely 70,000 years ago, “yesterday in geologic time.”[1]

And that begs the question: Is Yellowstone still erupting? Recent earthquakes suggest this is a strong possibility. As of this writing on Sept. 10, 2009, seven earthquakes of a magnitude of 3 or less trembled Yellowstone’s graceful lodgepole ridges and deep river canyons in the preceding week, according to the University of Utah Seismograph Center. And last winter, a mere nine months ago, the second largest spate of earthquakes ever to be recorded in Yellowstone was logged in a two-week period. [2]

The majority of scientist agree. It’s not a matter of if, but when, even if indications are that it probably won’t been soon. Not in people time. Geologic time, however, is another matter.

Black Beaches

The afternoon wind gusted from the south, and we fought white-capped cross-currents east, where black basalt beaches stood in contrast to Shoshone Lake’s turquoise waters. We passed a tree where a bald eagle was unconcerned with our intrusion, simply cocking its head to monitor our progress.

After rounding a cape, we found our campsite in a thick stand of timber near a coal-black beach and set up for the night, enjoying a six-pack and finishing our meager whiskey provisions. Then the sunset and silence and darkness reigned.

Once again relaxing into the silence of a Yellowstone evening, the eerie bugle of a horny bull elk rose from the timber behind camp, and I felt a tingle crawl up my spine. Then it bugled again, before another from across the lake joined with his solemn, piercing call for a mate.

We hung our provisions from a bear-pole high in the trees, and then I climbed my paddle-weary body into the tent where I nestled into a sleeping bag with thoughts of silence and remoteness and wildness drifting to and fro. It’s not every day you get to sleep in a place where you’re part of the food chain, where the value of wildness and remoteness are so tangible.

It’s not every day you find a place to get lost in.

It’s not every day you find a place to find yourself in.

Darkness. Silence. Sleep. Deep, easy sleep.

© Greg Stahl