LAKES OF YELLOWSTONE: WATER GOES TO BOTH COASTS
November 29, 2001 11:00 pm
Geothermal pools can be found near Yellowstone Lake?s shore. ().
Geothermal pools can be found near Yellowstone Lake?s shore. ().

The winter season will be opening in about a month at Yellowstone National Park, with snowmobile, cross-country skiing, snowshoe and snowcoach packages.

My appetite for the white stuff in our nations first national park was whetted during a rather snowy spring visit in early May.

When I received my winter brochure for the park, however, my thoughts returned to my fall trip, when I picked up my son from his summer job there to return him to college.

That was the week of the terrorist attacks, when bin Ladens men were blowing up our buildings, instead of the other way around.

I had one long day in the park before retrieving my son, and found it a welcome refuge from the uncertainty gripping the nation.

My thunderstorm-plagued tour of the geyser basins has been amply described in previous articles, but Yellowstone is far more than Old Faithful and thermal features.

My next stop was Lake Village, where my son worked in the employee dining room on the shore of Yellowstone Lake, the largest high-elevation lake in North America.

Most of Yellowstone Park is high, in the 7,000 to 8,000 foot elevation range, but the road between Old Faithful and Yellowstone Lake rises to cross the continental divide twice.

Isa Lake sits atop the first pass. Its really more of a pond, and many visitors drive right by without realizing they are missing a unique feature.

Isa Lake has two outlets. The stream flowing west reaches the Firehole, Madison, Missouri and Mississippi rivers until its waters flow into the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean.

The stream flowing out the east end defies logic by reaching the Pacific Ocean via several creeks, and the Lewis, Snake and Columbia rivers. Isa Lake is also famous for its golden water lilies, which bloom in August.

There were several trailheads and viewpoints to small lakes and thermal features before the road reached Yellowstone Lake, but I was caught up in a wickedly black thunderstorm and didnt stop.

The sun found its way through the clouds as I approached the lake. Parts of the sky were luminous gold against a bruise-like background of black and blue.

As I looked across to the distant shore I was thinking the lake was larger than I remembered.

Then the clouds pulled back and revealed two peninsulas that didnt quite close off the lake completely.

I realized that I wasnt even looking at the lake proper, but a large inlet called West Thumb.

The actual lake covers 139 square miles at an average depth of 139 feet, though parts are almost 400 feet deep.

West Thumb, however, is one of the most interesting areas because of shoreline thermal features that extend out into the lake.

The rims of several hot pools extend into the lake waters, or rise above them. The magma chamber under West Thumb is as close to the surface as anywhere in the park.

Just before the dinner hour, I reached my destination at Lake Village. It consists of Yellowstone Lake Hotel, Lake Lodge, several classes of cabins, a store, hospital, ranger station and post office.

The Yellowstone Lake Hotel is the oldest hotel in the park, dating back to 1891, but it doesnt look it.

Where many of the relatively newer structures, including the nearby Lake Lodge, look like old-time log cabins, the Lake Hotel was remodeled in the 1920s in an art deco motif. After falling into disrepair, it was restored to that theme in the 1980s.

I, of course, stayed in a little clapboard cabin out back. It was also one of the only duplex cabins, so I had neighbors.

I never saw those folks, but I could hear them speaking plainly in a Middle-Eastern language.

In the summer, one can hear just about any language spoken by visitors to Yellowstone.

In fact, many of the employees were from Eastern Europe and I heard more visitors speaking German than English.

This was three days after the terrorist attacks, however, and I had seen no one in the park that looked remotely Middle Eastern.

Im a writer, so naturally my imagination ran wild. I figured it was my luck to be put in the same cabin as the only terrorists in Yellowstone National Park.

Then I heard a woman, and children that sounded like they were about 3-years old, the same age I was on our first trip to Yellowstone.

I realized they were probably talking about geysers and mountains and maybe cowboys and Indians.

As far as I could tell, the family laid low, went to bed early and checked out by 5 a.m.

They probably planned their vacation for years, and had the misfortune to take it at the one time that many Americans would view them with fear or suspicion.

I hoped they had a good time anyway, and I hoped that the seeds of mistrust sown by the terrorists would never mature.

Id planned to join my son for dinner, but the sign on his dorm room door told me hed be working one last late shift.

The Yellowstone Lake Hotel Dining Room is elegant, but rather expensive and slow. I headed for the Lake Lodge cafeteria, which offers a nice variety of good food at a moderate price with practically no wait.

Whenever there, I like to dine on trout almandine made from fresh lake trout, a non-native species illegally introduced to the lake by overzealous fishermen.

Lake trout are wiping out the population of native cutthroat trout, so I was happy to do my part for the environment by eating one.

I also polished off a piece of non-native triple-chocolate cake, though it seemed to be threatening no native Yellowstone species.

I had a window seat for the sunset over the lake and the Absaroka Mountains. The previously black thunderheads were now billowing columns of gold. Not bad for an $8 dinner.

When I caught up with my son at 9 p.m., however, he thought we were still on for the Yellowstone Lake Hotel Dining Room.

I was stuffed, but I didnt mind taking him out for a good meal. The lobby and dining room are quite elegant, with polished wood flooring.

Even with reservations at 9 p.m., we had to wait for a table. We spent the time talking with one of my sons friends, a security guard.

He said he didnt expect anything unusual in the park after the terrorist attacks, but he was eyeing people pretty carefully.

My son hoped the terrorists didnt know his friend was one of the only security people young enough and thin enough to get out of a chair.

Returning to my cabin, I wondered why such a small space needed two wall heaters.

I soon found out. By midnight, the temperature had plummeted so fast that my teeth were chattering with both heaters on.

My son laughed when I told him the next morning. He said it hadnt even frozen. Believe me, it was colder than it ever gets in Brookings, much less in September.

We were about to begin our return to Oregon. Next stop: the Grand Tetons.