Artistry Forged by Fire and Ice ~ Yellowstone Forever Field Seminar Series, Part II

“There are two kinds of truths:  the truth that lights the way and the truth that warms the heart.  The first of these is science, and the second is art.  Neither is independent of the other or more important than the other….The truth of art keeps science from becoming inhuman, and the truth of science keeps art from becoming ridiculous.”  ~  Raymond Thornton Chandler

Day 2 of the Yellowstone Forever Field Seminar “Observing Thermal Biology and Geology” took us to Mammoth Hot Springs, where art and the world of science collide.  Brace yourself for another geology lesson. 🙂

The geology at Mammoth Hot Springs, aka Mammoth Terraces, is older than that at Norris Geyser Basin, and without the “rotten egg” smell of hydrogen sulfide found in many of the thermal features throughout the park. Non-existent at Norris, limestone, a soft sedimentary rock with a high calcite mineral content, is found in abundance near Mammoth Hot Springs.  It is soluble in water and weak acid solution, dissolving into calcium carbonate, also known as travertine.  And it is travertine that has molded Mammoth Hot Springs in a big way.

Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces

Travertine is deposited here at the Mammoth Terraces faster than anywhere else on earth, at a rate of 5 mm per day or 7 feet per year.  Mammoth Hot Springs today would have looked far different to those early visitors to the park who actually climbed onto the Terraces to soak in these waters, seeking relief for their physical ailments.  In fact, travertine is being deposited at such a rapid rate that unstable rock formations have been created that often collapse under their own weight.  It is not surprising that no one is allowed onto these Terraces anymore.

As our class stood looking out over Palette Springs, found at the Mammoth Terraces, we were asked to describe what we were looking at.  I couldn’t help but feel like I had stepped onto another planet.  Almost devoid of trees, except for those left standing as ancient silent sentinels, this sculpted, terraced alabaster mountain loomed over me, capped by a dazzling cerulean sky.  Water cascaded over the edges in rivulets, and a patchwork of orange, gold, and green graced the sides and base, thanks to the work of a myriad of microbes.

Palette Springs at Mammoth Terraces. The large egg-shaped boulder on the left is Devil’s Thumb.

As at Norris Geyser Basin, microbes have created these intriguing formations.  This is how cellular life began on our planet, with microbes swimming in hot spring environments.  I have read that roughly 60% of all life on our planet is microbial, most buried deep below the soil we walk on.

Bruce Fouke, geobiologist who recently authored the book “The Art of Yellowstone Science – Mammoth Hot Springs as a Window on the Universe”, along with the help of professional photographer Tom Murphy, believes that it takes the blending of art and science to unravel the mysteries of hydrothermal features such as Mammoth Hot Springs.

Canary Springs majestically stands above the Mammoth Upper Terraces.  The white and gray travertine are older deposits.

He has said that “the water temperature, chemistry and flow at Mammoth are similar to that found on the early Earth, and the hot springs still harbor microbial life that evolved billions of years ago.”  And he should know, as he has studied this park since 1996, doing research for NASA and now through his own foundation.  He had the good fortune to meet Tom Murphy in 2008, whose photographic passion since 1975 has been in telling Yellowstone’s story in breathtaking images.  And I was fortunate to meet Tom Murphy and attend a slideshow presentation of his work several years ago, as well as listen to Bruce Fouke speak this past summer on his studies at Mammoth Hot Springs.  As volunteers we were given a copy of his new book, which I am in the process of finishing…a fascinating read.

“Daily it is forced home on the mind of the geologist that nothing, not even the wind that blows, is so unstable as the level of the crust of this Earth.”  ~  Charles Darwin

There are several boardwalks surrounding both the upper and lower Terraces.  As we wandered those walkways during our class, Joshua broke down the creation of these terraces, what we were seeing above ground, and what was most likely occurring below the surface as well.  To say he bolstered the elasticity of my brain matter these two days was an understatement. 🙂

Our fearless leader Joshua challenged us to participate in active observation.

When we arrived at the Upper Terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs, our naturalist assignment was made clear to us – find a pattern in color or structure and attempt to determine the microorganism involved and why the area we selected looks unlike others around it.  Huh?

This is the pool I studied for my assignment. The milky substance that floats upon the surface, then later sinks, is calcite ice.

Armed with an infrared thermometer gun, pH strips, a book identifying the characteristics of specific microbes, and a journal, we went to work. Suffice to say, this assignment challenged me, but it was a great exercise in looking beyond the surface and making observations, something we often don’t take the time to do.  And, I passed the class!

If you love the national parks and would love to learn more, check out the Yellowstone Forever Field Seminar catalog. There is something for everyone who has a passion for the natural world.

Disclaimer:  The views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of Yellowstone Forever.  

“Humanity’s quest for a sustainable existence will define our present and future place in the universe.  The art and science of Mammoth Hot Springs provides an unexpectedly insightful vantage point from which to envision this future.”  ~ Bruce W. Fouke & Tom Murphy

















“Crown of the Continent” ~ Glacier National Park

“A man who keeps company with glaciers comes to feel tolerably insignificant by and by.”  ~  Mark Twain

Imagine what the early explorers must have felt as they pushed their way across the Great Plains and saw a wall of mountains far in the distance.  Imagine their amazement as they moved further west and those mountains loomed ever larger, peaks bathed in sunlight, surrounded by long finger-like lakes and rushing streams.  As they moved deeper into the mountains, most likely bighorn sheep and mountain goats dotted the hillsides, while osprey and eagle glided overhead.  Huge glaciers clung to the cliffs of the Continental Divide, instilling a sense of awe and wonder.  Except for the swiftly retreating glacial ice, Glacier National Park still embodies much of this same spectacular scenery.

This was our first visit to Glacier and our 29th national park to add to our slow-growing list.  We have so much more to see!  This trip was long overdue, as two previously planned visits were thwarted due to family emergencies.  Our timing certainly wasn’t the best, this being the centennial – 100 years since President Woodrow Wilson signed legislation creating the new National Park Service.  Record numbers of tourists are descending upon the parks this year and Glacier was no exception. But neither the hordes nor the rainy weather dampened our spirits.

While perusing displays in a visitor center, we stumbled across some interesting and alarming statistics about the glaciers in this beautiful park.  In 1850 there were 150 glaciers; in 2010 only 25 remained. One placard we read claimed, “Current climate models suggest that all the glaciers in Glacier National Park will be gone by 2030.”  This is a powerful example of what will be lost without global action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“Changing Balance/Balancing Change” dancer superimposed on Sperry Glacier – photo credit

Terry reminded me as I remarked about the high treelines on the mountains that this is yet another example of global warming.  As the treelines continue to rise, alpine areas will disappear. If this occurs, what will happen to the species that depend on them?  Certainly something to ponder.

One of the highlights of a visit to Glacier is traveling the Going-to-the-Sun Road, a 50-mile meandering road that combines both history and breathtaking scenery.  Many national parks we’ve visited have similar roads spanning their length and, while we have found all to be beautiful and unique, Glacier may take the top prize for those parks visited to date.

Plenty of time is needed to do this road justice, as the sights seem almost endless and the photo ops many.  The lush Garden Wall section will slow you down, as often there are vertical rock faces that jut out into the winding roadway, but it is a magnificent stretch of road, not to be missed.

Our top 3 picks of the park are shown below.  Granted, we didn’t see all this impressive national park has to offer, but everything we saw spoke to us.  What better way to describe such beauty than through photos.

1)  Going-to-the-Sun Road

Just a few magical moments found while “going to the sun”.

2)  Many Glacier

Situated in the northeastern corner of the park, it is often called the heart of Glacier.  It was our favorite and certainly touched our hearts.

3)  Hiking

More than 700 miles of trails meander through alpine meadows and creep up mountain passes.  Iceberg Lake Trail and Ptarmigan Tunnel were given high marks by friends.  Because both originated from the same trailhead and we had some gas left in our tanks after going to Iceberg Lake, we decided to trek to Ptarmigan Tunnel.  And boy, was it a trek!  This 15-mile combo trail, with about 3000 feet of elevation gain is a not-to-be-missed hike.  Be forewarned that once you get to Ptarmigan Lake, there is a series of long, steep switchbacks to trek before you arrive at the tunnel, but it would be a sin to stop at the lake.

We had also planned to hike to Grinnell Glacier, which has significantly retreated in recent decades, but time escaped us.  The wheels are already in motion for another Glacier visit. 🙂

Next Up:  Oh Canada, here we come!

Like Going Home ~ Bozeman, MT

“Going to the mountains is going home”. ~ John Muir

View from our friends’ deck.

We all have that sense of going home when we revisit a place, either physically or in our daydreams, that strikes a chord in our soul.  The greater Yellowstone ecosystem, of which Bozeman is a part, is reminiscent  of home to us.

Rosie admiring Grotto Falls in Hyalite Canyon

So many memories swirled around me as we drove across Montana – the smell of rain on a warm summer day, pine needles wafting up from a trail crushed by our footsteps, the sight of billowy clouds hugging the limestone-crested mountaintops, the squawking of magpies as they hop across a golden meadow.

Jim, Rosie, me, & Terry enjoying the views on Triple Tree Trail
Jim, Rosie, me, & Terry enjoying the views on Triple Tree Trail

Yep, we are having that déjà vu feeling of going home as we scan the 360º mountain range view and those big Montana skies.  We spent two years in Yellowstone after escaping the corporate life and fell in love with the west in a much deeper, soul-healing way.  The beauty and serenity of the wild surrounds us here, creating a perfect flow.  This is our “true west”.

Storm approaching at sunset
Storm approaching at sunset

Bozeman has been discovered since we last visited.  It is tough to see land being chewed up by plot after plot of subdivisions, but it was bound to happen.  Bozeman now boasts 8 breweries, a great farmers’ market, a vibrant downtown lined with boutique shops, and is on the cusp of being a “foodie town”.

Bartender, where's my beer?
Bartender, where’s my beer?

Leaving the downtown area you are immediately enveloped in uninterrupted vistas.   The breathtaking beauty of six mountain ranges that almost completely surround Bozeman beckon to outdoor enthusiasts year-round, and the many ranches dotting the landscape speak to the strong conservationist spirit here.

We’ve spent sunny days hiking in the Bridger Mountains, playing pickleball at the local tennis club, reconnecting with Yellowstone friends, enjoying great meals prepared by our friend Jim, and hop-scotching across the city taste-testing microbrews.

This is a place that welcomes you, a place where you begin to wonder if you could lay down more permanent roots.  It has been a perfect place to spend a couple of weeks, thanks to our gracious host and hostess Jim and Rosie. We can’t thank them enough for welcoming us into their beautiful home, filling our days and evenings with fun activities and lots of laughter, watching stunning sunsets and storm clouds build while relaxing on their deck.

One final adventure before saying our goodbyes, and it was quite a send-off, was a magical day at the Montana Folk Festival in Butte.  One of the Northwest’s largest free outdoor music festivals, the Montana Folk Festival featured multiple stages with 20+ continuous international musical performances throughout the day and into the evening.  This festival rivals the national event we had been to several years earlier, also in Butte, and has continued for the past six years through the generous donations of its visitors and local sponsors.

Our trek north continues, as we make our way to Glacier National Park.

So, where is it that home calls out to you?