Slowin’ it down: Mammoth to Mammoth
Monday June 10, 2013
The sun is just peeking over the Huckleberry Ridge Tuff of Mt Everts, across the valley from the campground, as I climb out of the tent this morning. It is cool now but should make it into the middle to upper 80s today. Let’s go have a look at the hot springs before the hordes of tourists finish breakfast and get out on the road.
Yesterday, when sailing down the final hill to the Gardner River gorge, the massive white slopes of Mammoth Hot Springs stood out like a scaly, bulging, amorphous skin tumour against the green trees and mountain slopes behind. Steam rose in long drifts of vapor above. It was a striking sight.
Today, the steam drifts more slowly upward in the calm of morning. There are only a couple people on the boardwalks. We each nod in silence to each other in recognition of our desire to appreciate this landscape without screaming children, young women posing for photos in front of each formation while flashing the peace sign, families arguing over what to do for lunch, and individuals so disconnected from the landscape that they talk on their mobile phones the entire time they traverse the boardwalks (this is one of few places in the park with phone reception). For many, it seems Yellowstone is a place to ‘see’ stuff, but not really ‘think’ about that stuff. It’s nice to have a look with the thinkers, and without everyone else, this morning.
Mammoth Hot Springs are enormous terraces of travertine. This is the same type of formation we saw deposited at the springs in Thermopolis. The process of deposition and hot spring development is the same here as it was there. Snow and rain water seep deep into the Earth’s crust and are heated by volcanic rock. As the water has travelled through porous rock, it has encountered limestone and picked up the calcium carbonate. As the hot water rises to the surface along faults, the drop in pressure and temperature allows carbon dioxide to escape from the water, and in the process, precipitate the calcium carbonate. All of the bubbling you see at Mammoth is the escape of carbon dioxide. Though the water is hot enough to scald you here, the bubbling water is not boiling, as commonly thought.
The boardwalks here take you up and onto the travertine deposits. It is an interesting mix of bright white and freshly deposited travertine, grey and chalky older travertine, pools of colour, and stripes of yellows, oranges, browns and greens. The colours indicate heat-loving bacteria and algae known as thermophiles. The differences in colour arise from different kinds of thermophiles and different responses to sunlight.
Some people lament that the hot springs here look ‘dead’ compared to the past. Perhaps the colouring and flow of water is not as awe-inspiring as the photos on display at the visitor centre, but to me, it is just an excellent example of dynamism. So often in geology, you are looking back at events that happened millions or billions of years ago. Here is something that is happening right now, with changes that have happened in my life-time! It is active and changeable and unpredictable. I love the thought that it could look totally different here if I were to come 25 years from now. The dead trees, and the loop of paved pathway at the bottom of the deposits that is now closed because it is covered by travertine, are just testaments to the unpredictable and changeable nature of this formation.
I take some time to think about this unique landscape as I walk the upper loop (you can drive or ride this, but I walked). The travertine is deposited at an incredible rate – on average, 8 inches per year. It is incredibly thick – one hole drilled here showed travertine 253 feet deep. Finally, given the enormous amount of geothermal activity in Yellowstone, this is the only place where travertine is deposited. Deposition at Norris and the other geyser basins are sinter (silica-rich instead of calcium).
I head back to my campsite in the afternoon and hang out in the shade – catching up the journal and getting postcards written. Even in a digital age, everybody back home thinks post cards are so much fun to receive. I also talk to my mom, confirming that I’m on track to meet her in just a few days. I won’t have phone reception until I get to the location we’re supposed to meet, so it’s good to reconfirm things now.
Later in the afternoon, I have a nice conversation with the man who is tent-camping up the hill from me. I immediately like him – there is a kindness that exudes from him and his smile. He’s had to have had some tough times – he breathes through a trach tube in his neck – but not a negative word passes through his lips. He moved out to Montana from Vermont when he retired. He feels a connection to Yellowstone and comes to camp at Mammoth twice a year. He goes out to look for wildlife each morning and eve and has never had a bad time coming down here.
Some time later a woman comes down to my site and says, “It’s gotten really warm today! We’ve been so hot in the trailer this afternoon (no electric sites here) that we’re going to head out in the truck just to drive around and turn the AC on. I saw you sitting there and thought you might like a cold drink and the leftover pasta salad that I’d made for lunch.”
I accept her offer and thank her profusely. I tell her that I very much appreciate her thoughtfulness and wish them well finding some wildlife to make the drive worth it.
Awww, how kind. The cold drink is powder-mix Country Time lemonade in a Solo cup with big ice cubes. I immediately feel like I’m 10-years-old and visiting a city park with my grandparents. The pasta salad is penne pasta with a can of pea/carrot mix and bottled Italian dressing. I really don’t care for cooked peas or carrots, particularly out of a can, but I can eat anything, and routinely do, when I’m cycle touring. It’s the best cheap-o pasta salad I’ve ever had.
I walk down for “drinks with David” that evening. He is a very interesting fellow. Again, we wish each other well and say what a pleasure it’s been to chat with one another. But this time, there’s no chance of meeting up again. Our paths diverge here and have no chance of crossing again.
Just after dark, a cyclist rolls in. He’s on a Surly with minimal panniers. He’s heading to Billings. He’s the first touring cyclist I’ve seen in 2000 miles, if you don’t count the Swedish guy I saw catching a lift up Powder River Pass. We chat for a few minutes, then he talks on the phone for a couple hours to his girlfriend. I’m not sure if the relationship is in trouble or what, but I’m sure all the other people nearby in the full campground weren’t too happy to hear his booming voice talking to sweet-ums well past 10pm.