October 04, 2001 11:00 pm
Bison roam freely into parking lot, between the photographer and his car. ().
Bison roam freely into parking lot, between the photographer and his car. ().

I didnt know what to expect when I entered Yellowstone National Park the week of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, but there was no sign of anything unusual at the west entrance.

Newspapers warned there might be increased security, and even inspections of vehicles or luggage, but the ranger took my $20, handed me a map and wished me a nice day.

Id come to Yellowstone to transport my son and his belongings back to college, but he wasnt due to complete his final shift at the Yellowstone Lake employee dining room until that evening.

I had all day to drive the 65 miles through the geyser basins to Lake Village. Thats a two-hour drive in the best conditions, stopping for nothing.

I planned to stop at everything, so I really needed two days just to see the southwest corner of the park.

For the first time in many days, I seldom thought about the World Trade Center, except to note how much bigger, stronger and older Yellowstone was.

The collapse of the twin towers wouldnt have caused much of a stir if theyd gone down in Yellowstone, and the park is only a tiny corner of the mighty Rocky Mountains, themselves a narrow band across a vast continent.

I wondered if the terrorists had any idea of the scale and power of the country they were fooling with. Then I put it out of my mind for a few days.

What always dominates my mind in Yellowstone is the past. This is the one place in America that hunters from 10,000 years ago would recognize.

Yellowstone is also part of my distant past. My earliest memories are of a trip to Yellowstone and Glacier parks that my family made in 1956.

What I remember most is the dozens of bears that used to line the road at the west and east entrances.

Wild black bears would sit like trained circus animals while tourists rolled their windows down an inch and tossed out anything from bread or carmel corn to cigarette butts.

In the vast back seats of befinned land yachts, children would squeal in terror and delight.

The bears became too dependent on human food, however, and when it wasnt forthcoming, they would attack cabins or campsites to get it. Humans would then demand the rangers kill those bears they no longer found entertaining.

Rangers eventually grew tired of playing the middlemen and set about separating humans and bears.

Virtually every trash bin is now bear proof. It is illegal to feed or even approach wildlife in the park. Campers must take every precaution to keep food away from bears.

As a result, bears are rarely seen by humans now. When they are sighted, they appear as magnificent lords of the wilderness, not pathetic circus beggars.

I didnt see any bears on this trip, but that made me feel safe, not disappointed.

My first contact with wildlife took place a few miles up the Madison River with a trumpeter swan.

Trumpeters are the largest waterfowl in North America, but they have low reproduction rates and their nesting activities are easily disturbed by humans.

Park regulations forbid humans from coming within 25 yards of a trumpeter swan. The one floating on the river was about that far from me.

Unfortunately, the swan was spotted by a vanload of tourists first. It was preening its feathers and didnt have its neck up in the proper fashion for tourist photos.

The tourists shouted at the swan and beeped the vans horn to try to make it pose for their cameras. To my delight, the swan paid them no attention.

My next encounter, a few miles down the road, was with a herd of about 20 bison. I whipped into a nearby parking lot and set my camera on maximum telephoto.

I was soon reversing the zoom lens, however, because the lead bison kept overfilling my viewfinder.

When I looked up, he was maybe 10 yards away. I moved to the side of the herd and got some great shots before I realized the bison were now in the parking lot, pretty much surrounding my car.

I wondered if they were the same herd that I nearly ran into on a dark night in May, the ones I foolishly challenged to an ill-advised drag race.

I realized I was cut off from my only safe haven, and began to wonder if bison have good memories.

I didnt need to worry. They crossed the parking lot and headed off across the highway. Thats when some dimwit in a late 1970s Ford wagon came blasting down the road at about twice the 45 mph speed limit.

I tried to warn him there was a herd of bison just around the curve, but my waving only served to take his attention off the road.

He skidded sideways to a halt just short of the herd. I was only a few miles inside the park, but Id left all human intelligence far behind.

I stopped at the small visitors center where the Gibbon and Firehole rivers meet to form the Madison River.

The Madison later meets the Gallatin and Jefferson rivers in Montana to form the mighty Missouri, which flows into the Mississippi. Thats how the waters of Old Faithful reach the Gulf of Mexico.

What really makes the confluence of the Gibbon and Firehole rivers special, however, is that it is the exact spot where the Washburn Expedition camped in 1870 and decided to try to convince Congress to make Yellowstone a national park.

The story may be a legend, but the fact remains that the worldwide national park movement started here. The flat ridge above the confluence was named National Park Mountain in honor of that.

I was now on the Grand Loop road, heading south to the geyser basins. The majority of thermal features on earth are in the 16 miles between Madison Junction and Old Faithful.

Most of them flow into the Firehole River, and a short loop-road paralleling the main road runs through the Firehole Canyon.

It offers great views of Firehole Falls and Firehole Cascades. There is even a designated swimming area where the river spreads out in a pool.

Each geyser can pump thousands of gallons of boiling water into the Firehole every hour.

The river itself is not boiling, but in contrast to the icy streams everywhere else in the park, the Firehole felt a bit warmer than the Chetco at Loeb State Park.

Once back on the main road, it was a short drive south to the Lower Geyser Basin, home of the Fountain Paint Pot, the parks most famous mudpot.

Actually, mudpots arent all that interesting. Once the novelty wears off, its a lot like watching pea soup boil.

Tourists in the late 1800s described vivid greens, pinks and yellows in the Fountain Paint Pot, but today the mud looks rusty-tan. Maybe weve been spoiled by color television.

I was far more impressed with the geysers, and got to see four of them erupt at once. Fountain Geyser put on a great show, intermittently sending sprays of water up to 30 feet high.

While that was going on for nearly an hour, little Jet Geyser went through a complete cycle of overflowing, erupting, steaming and draining about twice a minute.

On my left side, Clepsydra Geyser was in its steam phase, puffing like a locomotive. Even better, the stubborn morning fog had finally burned off. I basked in the sun and geyser spray for about 45 minutes.

My other great memory of this geyser basin was my first encounter with one of Yellowstones huge ravens.

Just as I pulled into a parking space, the raven plopped down on my cars hood and stared through the windshield at me like I was something spectacular.

A crowd of Japanese tourists immediately gathered around my car and started pointing as if I was doing something truly magical. I should have taken a bow.

It was not to be my last encounter with what are believed to be the worlds smartest birds. The day was still young.