Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Bison Jam

If you have seen any photos of Yellowstone at all, it is likely that you have seen photos of either Grand Prismatic Spring or Old Faithful Geyser. We decided to visit these attractions at the very beginning of our second full day at Yellowstone. After our over-ambitious plan of going out before sunrise to see animals fell flat, that is.

The plan we made was like this: have breakfast with stuff we had with us in our room. Then visit Grand Prismatic Spring, followed by Old Faithful. Then, we come back to Grant Village to have lunch at the Lake Restaurant (we weren't going back into the Grant Village Restaurant after the previous night's fiasco). Then we cross Hayden Valley, viewing animals, and reach Lamar Valley, to see more animals. Finally, we have dinner at Roosevelt Lodge Restaurant and drive back to our hotel.

We didn't consider that this plan involved a 200 mile drive. We didn't consider that restaurants closed after the peak lunch hour. We didn't consider that even when open, they have waiting times.

And we didn't consider the bison jam.

So we started with the Grand Prismatic Spring which is in the Midway Geyser Basin. This place contains several brilliantly coloured (and I mean surrealistically brilliant) hot pools whose smoking mineral-laden waters flow into the Firehole river. The place was already crowded when we got there. We crossed a small bridge over the river on foot and reached the pools. The first one is the Excelsior Geyser crater. This used to be a proper geyser until one fine day when it blew itself apart. Now it is a hot spring which constantly pours boiling water into the river. It serves as a constant reminder that this landscape is as volatile today as it was millions of years ago.

Firehole River

Grand Prismatic Spring

Opal Pool
Then the boardwalk goes round past another hot spring whose name I have forgotten, to Grand Prismatic. Grand Prismatic is so colourful that even the steam rising from that pool seems coloured. True to its name, the spring shows a whole spectrum of colours, from intense blue-green to bright orange-red. We saw the pool edge-on, of course, so it wasn't possible to see the whole thing at once. We could see a viewing platform on a distant hillside that must have offered a breathtaking view of the whole basin, but it was quite far away and high up. So we didn't try to hike there. The narrow winding boardwalk passes two other hot springs- the Opal Pool and the Turquoise Pool. When we came out beside the Firehole River again, we found the crowd had increased even more. We took a few more pictures beside the river, and then left for Old Faithful.
Old Faithful Lodge (B&W film)
Old Faithful Geyser is a fountain-type geyser, and it is one of the six geysers in Yellowstone National Park that can be predicted. It lies in its own village, with a huge new visitor center and a lodge that is the largest log structure in the world. The geyser itself lies at the middle of a barren roughly circular area about 200 yards across. A wooden boardwalk with benches forms a large amphitheatre-like viewing area where a crowd was beginning to gather when we arrived. It was about 1:30 p.m., and the geyser, which erupts every 90 minutes, was predicted to erupt at 2:10, plus or minus 10 minutes. We took some front-row seats and sat down to watch, while a ranger arrived and started explaining facts about Yellowstone and the Old Faithful Geyser. The geyser is similar to a pressure cooker in some ways. There's a constricted plumbing system below the geyser which prevents water and steam from escaping unless it reaches a critical pressure. When that critical pressure is reached, the superheated steam escapes with the plug of water above it. Old Faithful can erupt to a height of 185 feet, and eruptions typically last 3-5 minutes.
Waiting for Old Faithful
Since the time we had arrived, Old Faithful was visible as a wisp of steam coming out of the ground. Exactly at five minutes past two, we saw the first spurt of water from the geyser. This was not the real eruption - the ranger had told us that this was the "pre-play", which is a series of short eruptions that occur before the true eruption. We got ready with our devices - I with my digital and film SLR cameras and Poulami with the video camera of her smartphone. After a few false alarms, and loud assertions from a child behind me that "It's already over," Old Faithful did finally erupt. What a sight it was! Snow white water and steam rising up in front of the brilliant blue sky. After the first minute or so, it seemed the steam from the geyser rose up to meet the clouds overhead. Then after a few minutes, though I'm not sure how many, the height of the water gradually decreased until it was just a wisp of smoke once gain. I looked at my watch: it was exactly 2:20 p.m.

Old Faithful erupts (B&W film)

We should have eaten lunch at this point, but we thought since the place was crowded, we would rather go and eat lunch at the Lake Restaurant at Grant Village. By the time we reached the Lake Restaurant, we found it closed. We had to be satisfied with just a photo of Yellowstone Lake.
Yellowstone Lake
This was a setback to our plan - we were hungry now and without a place to eat, but we decided we could still recover. We ate whatever we could find in our car (when your car is your home for half a month, it is surprising what you can find in there) - cereal bars, soda, even mangoes - and decided to push on towards Roosevelt Lodge. We would have to cross Hayden Valley on the way there where we hoped to see bison. "The bison herd at Hayden Valley has 1500 animals," the ranger had told us the previous day, "And the bison herd at Lamar Valley has 4000 animals," she had added.
The forest of dead trees

Our first bison at Yellowstone
We drove through the forest, scanning the road and the trees for any signs of animals. We even drove through a forest of dead trees. We have no idea whether these trees died of disease, of beetle infestation, or forest fires, or the ground just turned toxic, like other places in Yellowstone. Just before reaching Hayden Valley, we stopped our car at the side of the road because there were a lot of cars parked there and there was obviously some animal nearby. On crossing the road and peeking into the forest, we saw a bison standing close to us. The bison was huge - much larger than I had thought it would be, and  almost too close for comfort. He completely ignored the crowd and sat down on the ground. We also left, and immediately came upon a large meadow down below the right side of the road. This was Hayden Valley. We parked our car again and walked to the edge and looked down. The plain below was full of grazing bison.

Grazing bison at Hayden Valley

After a few minutes we started again, but the traffic crawled to a stop soon. Initially the reason for the stop was not evident, but then we started seeing bison by the side of the road on both sides and realized the animals must be crossing the road occasionally. At places, they were within 20 feet of us. I am no stranger to cattle stopping traffic, having grown up in North India, and the female bison and the calves look somewhat like our buffaloes back home, so the bison jam was making me nostalgic. Even with our windows closed we could catch the smell outside which was a mix of rotten eggs and bison dung, vaguely reminiscent of Allahabad. But one look at the male bison assured us that these were not our domestic buffalo. They were massive hairy beasts and it was obvious that they could be violent and dangerous at close quarters.

The bison jam
Young bison
The bison jam delayed us considerably and now we were doubtful about the feasibility of our entire plan. Also, we had not had any proper meals the whole day and needed an early dinner. The next place to have dinner along the road was Canyon Village, but we were not sure if they had started serving dinner there, so we decided to drive to Roosevelt Lodge anyway. Besides, the area around Roosevelt Lodge was popular with bears, and we wanted to try our luck.

It seems our luck was out that day, because we didn't see any bears. The road around Roosevelt is hilly and full of hairpin bends (switchbacks in American English) and it wasn't exactly easy to look out for bears while driving. Finally, when we reached Roosevelt Lodge and tried to get dinner, we were told there was a 30-40 minute wait time and were given a pager. Hungry as we were, we had no option other than waiting for the pager to ring. Luckily, some of the rocking chairs on the porch were empty and we were able to sit down and scan the hillside opposite with binoculars. We were finally called in after 45 minutes. We were starving by this time and we ordered grilled trout once again. This time there was no doubt about the fish being trout and the rice being pilaf. We were happy with our food.

When we came out of the restaurant, it was 8:00 p.m. and the sun had set behind the hills. We still had to drive to our lodge about sixty miles away. So we had to scrap the plan for Lamar Valley, which meant our trip to Roosevelt was not very useful today. But as we started of our return trip, we had to stop and make way for horse-drawn tourist coaches that were returning from their trips and we had to wait for about ten minutes on the road until the last of these had crossed the road.

Horse-drawn tourist coaches

The only other thing worth mentioning that we saw before darkness was couple of women changing the diaper on a baby. They had stopped their SUV at a pullout by the roadside on the mountain, and had spread out their things on the ground next to the car. The baby was lying on the ground and the women were sitting next to it. We thought it was an extremely poor decision to change a baby at a bear-infested area of the park at dusk, but we didn't stop to tell them what we thought.

After darkness fell, driving was more stressful. I had to stick to the speed limit and watch out for any animals that might come out on the road from the surrounding woods, but we didn't see anything other than a few deer. When we reached Hayden Valley, the bison jam had grown to double the size of what we saw earlier. We realized this was because the bison were now leaving the valley on our left one by one, crossing the road, and climbing the wooded hill on our right. Since they were in no hurry to make this crossing, the traffic had to stand and wait whenever an animal was visible close to the road. A frightened coyote was running to and fro on the road in the headlight of all the idling vehicles, but for some reason, it was not going away. This time, we spent a much longer time at Lamar Valley due to the bison, though we didn't actually see the animals in the dark. Finally, we reached our lodge at around ten in the night.

The next day was going to be our last day in Yellowstone, and we would need to leave the hotel early to make the most of it.

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