Paddling a Sleeping Volcano By Jett Conner

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    Paddling a Sleeping Volcano by Jett Conner

    Paddling a Sleeping Volcano by Jett Conner

    One glimpse of the lake and we know we’ve got a good weather window in Yellowstone. Fluffy cumulous clouds floating aimlessly in their own sky-blue sea high above the water are reflected on a lightly rippled surface. It's early September, a great time to be in the national park. My wife Rosie and I have trailered our oversized canoe to Yellowstone Lake from Colorado. The lake has two boat ramps, one at Bridge Bay Marina and the other at Grant Village, both located on the shores of the West Thumb Bay area. The next morning after arriving, we head to Grant Village, pick up a required boat permit at the backcountry permit office and drive to the launch area.

    We're not planning to camp cruise the lake, though that is certainly possible with a permit. Instead, we're here to lazily paddle along shorelines and view geothermal activity and wildlife from the water's point of view. Though it's getting late in the tourist season, the park is still very busy; we’re lucky to have secured lodging reservations with only a few days' notice. Several campgrounds are already closed.

    At 7,732 feet in elevation, Yellowstone Lake is the largest high altitude, fresh water lake in North America. It also lies directly over a portion of the park’s large caldera, a huge volcano that is considered active. Unknown to those who created the nation's first national park, much of Yellowstone is situated over a hot spot in the upper mantle of the earth, which explains the numerous geysers, hot springs, mud pots, and fumaroles that penetrate the crust in this northwest corner of Wyoming. Some of the activity happens right at the lake's edge, some under it. The West Thumb area of the lake was formed by a more recent volcanic explosion than those that created Yellowstone: a caldera within a caldera. West Thumb Bay is about the same size as another famous lake caldera, Crater Lake in Oregon.

    This place is jumping, at least by geological measures. Fairly recently, park scientists noticed that land north of the lake was beginning to rise and tilt in a southerly direction, forming new beaches in the north and flooding shorelines in the southern areas of the lake. Then the swelling subsided. Perhaps the ancient volcano just sighed. One of these days though, much of this park may yet again explode as it has several times in the past, with catastrophic results. Scientists continue to monitor lakebed temperatures and elevations.

    Our 1970s era 15' Grumman Sportboat, a square back canoe originally designed to motor, row and sail, is still produced, now by Marathon Boats in New York. It no longer is offered with a sail rig though. The late boat designer Robb White thought highly of the model and built a modified version in wood. Though we've rigged our canoe to do all it was designed to do, for this trip we've brought only a small outboard and paddles.

    Launching at Grant Village is a breeze, especially since there isn't any. The small harbor has a protected boat ramp and dock, which is a good thing because the wind can blow substantial waves directly into shore here. Several kayakers returning from a morning paddle greet us as we motor out and turn north toward the shoreline thermal areas. After about two miles of dawdling along and taking in the wonderful scenery, we arrive at our destination and shut off the motor. Rosie is sight-seeing today, so I paddle, which is easy given the Sportboat's tumblehome stern, slight rocker and full length keel. Park rules prohibit beaching at thermal areas, but we're only interested in paddling nearby anyway while watching for any geyser eruptions and photographing the colorful shoreline. We're also required to stay a respectable distance off shore. Still, the perspective is cool, especially when combined with the one we gain the next day after walking the boardwalks of the West Thumb Geyser Basin. That walk reveals what's causing all the steam puffs onshore. One small geyser, Fisherman's Cone, emerges just off shore when the lake level drops in late summer. Fishermen used to cook their catch right in the cone, which must have imparted some interesting flavors to the meal.

    We continue to drift along the shore for about a half mile until we run out of thermal activity, then after a quick picnic aboard decide to head back to the southern shoreline of West Thumb Bay to watch for wildlife, stopping back at the launch site for a brief break while on our way. For covering distance our small 2 1/2 horsepower outboard comes in handy. In my 70s I motor more often now, using the engine as a means to get somewhere that might otherwise take a long while, then paddle around or drift in silence while watching birds and/or dragging a bubble and fly off the stern rail, just in case. The technique works surprisingly well for trout, though we’re not fishing on this trip.

    Arriving at the shoreline after crossing about a mile of open water that still is barely showing a whitecap here and there, we get back to drifting and looking at the scenery. Here we're paddling in one of the areas where forest fires reached the water. We’re impressed by the new growth of lodgepole pines crowding each other for sunlight and reaching fifteen to twenty feet in height only a decade or so after a fire. In Colorado, aspens often replace pines that have burned in a forest fire, but here the lodge poles reseed themselves so quickly and successfully, it only takes a short time before it begins to look like a regular forest again.

    Rosie spots a large animal entering the water ahead, then two more follow. Soon we see they are elk coming in for a late afternoon dip (Rosie says for a bath). Keeping our distance as we approach, the elk - two cows and a youngster - seem to be playing in the water. As we drift by they pause from their aquatics and turn their attention toward us. We all eye each other with mutual amusement.

    Slowly drifting back to the boat ramp, we watch for sticks lying on the bottom that appear to wiggle like snakes as seen through the crystal clear water and small undulating waves rolling over the surface. Boat loaded, we walk down to a lakeside restaurant overlooking the harbor to enjoy a dinner of bison and salmon burgers. A bunch of ducks, probably Goldeneyes, parade back and forth and bob and preen in the water for our entertainment. The next day there are cirrus clouds and building whitecaps, a good day to stay ashore for us.

    Sleeping volcanot

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