The New Eldorado. A Summer Journey to Alaska
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“What wonderful majesty and beauty are hidden here from an unconscious world,” said an experienced member of our little party whom chance had brought together at the brink of the gorge. “Everybody visits Niagara,” he continued, “but few, comparatively, participate in the glory and loveliness of this place, and yet how superior in attraction it is to those lines of summer travel, the Natural Bridge of Virginia, the Mammoth Cave of Kentucky, or even the justly famed Yosemite Valley;” – a sentiment which all heartily indorsed.
In these pages we pass rapidly from one great attraction to another, because we have only a limited space in which to speak of them, but the intelligent and appreciative visitor will be more leisurely in his examination. Hours may be profitably occupied in the careful observation and thorough enjoyment of each locality, the interest growing by what it feeds upon. One hardly realizes the passage of time when occupied in the contemplation of such strange and absorbing objects, and is apt to linger thoughtfully until he is warned by the business-like suggestion of the guide.
Another interesting spot which the stranger will hasten to visit is the Obsidian Cliffs, situated about a dozen miles from the hotel. These singular and, so far as we know, unique cliffs are formed of volcanic glass, and measure a thousand feet in length by nearly two hundred in height, recalling in general effect the Giant’s Causeway in the north of Ireland. They rise in almost vertical columns from the eastern shore of Beaver Lake. The color of the glass is dark green, like that of which cheap quart bottles are made, and though the glass glistens like jet it is opaque. A carriage road has been provided, – a glass road, – a quarter of a mile long, running by the base of the cliffs. To construct this road large fires were built upon the obsidian mass, which, when thoroughly heated, was dashed with cold water, causing it to crack and crumble to pieces. It was a tedious undertaking, but an available roadway was at last the result.
Close at hand is Beaver Lake, of artificial origin, having been created by the industrious animal after which it is named. A colony have here built a series of thirty dams, thus forming a sheet of water of considerable depth, half a mile in width, and two miles long, framed by tall, straight pines, and covered near the shore with aquatic flowers. As we passed the lake, in its shady corners were seen flocks of ducks in gaudy colors and of many different species, while on the far side representatives of the beaver tribe were kind enough to exhibit themselves for our amusement. The series of dams which these little creatures have constructed hereabouts have falls of from three to six feet each, extending for a distance of nearly two miles. The lily plants which bordered Beaver Lake were of a curious amber color, growing here and there in groups of great density. At a snap of the driver’s whip a bevy of wild ducks rose, but lazily settled again upon the water close at hand.“They have read the printed regulations of the Park,” said the driver, “and know that no one will attempt to shoot them.” Beyond the lake are broad patches of level meads, sprinkled with lovely wild flowers, in which yellow, purple, and white prevailed. The delicate little phlox, modestly clinging to the ground, was fragrant above all the rest. Occasional spots bordering the pine woods showed the exquisite enamel of the blue violets, which emitted their familiar and welcome fragrance. These were dominated by a tall, regal flower, clustering on one stem, whose name we know not, but which formed great masses of purple bloom.
Close to the curious and interesting Obsidian Cliffs is a pleasant resort called Willow Park, a cool, shady spot, where a clear stream of good water flows through a stretch of rich pasture land, forming a delightful rural picture, full of peaceful and poetic suggestiveness. This is a favorite camping ground for those who adapt that mode of visiting the several sections of the Park.
The stranger looks about him in silent amazement, wondering how long Nature has been displaying her erratic moods after the fashion exhibited here, now smiling with winning tenderness, and now frowning with implacable sternness. He sees everywhere evidences of great antiquity, and beholds objects which must date from time incalculably remote, but there is no recorded history extant of this strange region. The original Indian inhabitants of the Park were a very peculiar people, – a sort of gnome race, – a tribe individually of Liliputian size, who lived in natural caves, of which there are many in the hills, where rude and primitive implements of domestic use belonging to the aborigines have been found. They do not seem to have possessed even the customary legends of savage races concerning their surroundings and their origin. This tribe, the former dwellers here, were called the Sheep-eating Indians, because they lived almost solely upon the flesh, and clothed themselves in the skins, of the big-horn sheep of these mountains, – an animal which is found running wild in more or less abundance throughout the whole northern range of the Rocky Mountains, even where it reaches into Alaska. These natives are represented to have been a timid and harmless people, without iron tools or weapons of any sort, except bows and arrows, to which may be added hatchets and knives formed of the flint-like volcanic glass indigenous to the Park. They were an isolated people from the very nature of their country, which was nearly inaccessible at all seasons, and entirely so during the long and severe winters.
Other native tribes were debarred from this region through superstitious fear, induced by the incomprehensible demonstrations of Nature exhibited in boiling springs, spouting geysers, and the trembling earth, accompanied by subterranean explosions. This seemed to them to be evidence of the wrath of the Great Spirit, angered, perhaps, by their unwelcome presence. The Sheep-eaters, born among these scenes, gave no special heed to them, and rather fostered an idea which prevented others from interfering with the surrounding game, and which also gave them immunity from the otherwise inevitable oppression of a stronger and more aggressive people than themselves. As civilization advanced westward, or rather as the white man found his way thither, this Yellowstone tribe gradually dwindled away or became united with the Shoshones of Iowa. Their individuality seems now to have been entirely lost, not a trace of them, even, being discernible, according to more than one intelligent writer upon the subject.
No Indians of any tribe are now permitted in the reservation, otherwise, lazy as these aborigines are, they would soon make reckless havoc among the fine collection of wild animals which is gathered here. The Indians are all in the annual receipt of money and ample food supplies from the government; and the killing of extra game and selling the hides would furnish them with only so many more dollars to be expended for whiskey and tobacco. These tribes have no idea of economy, or care for the future. The reliance they place upon government supplies promotes a spirit of recklessness and extravagance. If their potato crop fails, or partial famine sets in from some extraordinary cause, it finds them utterly unprepared to meet the exigency. Oftentimes it is found that the government rations and supplies have been sold, and the money received therefor lavishly squandered.
A pleasant drive of twenty miles in a southerly direction from the Hot Springs Hotel, through the wildest sort of scenery, over mountain roads and beside gorgeous ca?ons, will take the visitor to the Norris Geyser Basin, a spot which promptly recalled to the writer somewhat similar scenes witnessed at the aboriginal town of Ohinemutu, in the northern part of New Zealand. Clouds of sulphurous vapor constantly hang alike over both places, produced by a similar cause, though the scene here is far more vivid and demonstrative. This whole basin is dotted by hot water springs and fumaroles, which maintain an incessant hissing, spluttering, and bubbling, night and day, through the twelve months of the year. The water which issues from these sources is of various colors, according to the impregnating principle which prevails, the yellow sulphur vats being especially conspicuous to the sight and offensive to the smell. What a strange, weird place it is! No art could successfully imitate these extravagances of Nature. Some of the rills are cool, others are boiling hot; some are white, some pink or red, and one large basin, fifty feet across, is called the Emerald Pool, because of its intensely green color; yet it appears to be quite pure and transparent when a sample is taken out and examined. Each spring seems to be entirely independent of the rest, though all are situated so near to each other. An almost constant tremor of the earth is realized throughout this immediate region, as though only a thin crust separated the visitor from an active volcano beneath his feet; and, notwithstanding the various scientific theories, who can say that such is not actually the case?
“I know all about the idea that these eruptions of boiling water, steam, and sulphurous gases are produced by chemical action,” said our guide. “I’ve heard lots of scientific men talk about the subject, but I don’t believe nothing of the sort.”
“And why not?” we asked.
“Do you believe,” he said, “that chemical action in the earth could create power enough, first to bring water to 212° of heat, and then force it two hundred feet into the air a number of times every day in a column four or five feet in diameter, and keep it up for quarter of an hour at a time?”
“Well, it does seem somewhat problematical,” we were forced to answer.
“After living here summer and winter for six years,” he said, “I have seen enough to satisfy me that there is a great sulphurous fire far down in the earth below us, which, if the steam and power it accumulates did not find vent through the hundreds of surface outlets distributed all over the Park, would seek one by a grand volcanic outburst.”
“Put your hand on the ground just here,” he continued, as we walked over a certain spot where our footfall caused a reverberation and trembling of the soil.
“It is almost too hot for the flesh to bear,” we said, quickly withdrawing our hand.
“Too hot! I should say so. Now I don’t believe anything but a burning fire can produce such heat as that,” he added, with an expression of the face which seemed to imply, “I don’t believe you do either.”
“The original volcanic condition of this whole region seems also to argue in favor of your deductions,” we replied.
“That’s just what I tell ’em,” continued the guide. “Them big fires that first did the business for this neighborhood are still smouldering down below. You may bet your life on that.”
This rather startling idea is emphasized by a smoking vent close at hand, which is also constantly sending forth superheated steam and sulphurous gases, like the extinct volcano of Solfatara, near Naples. Sulphur crystals strew the ground, and are heaped up in small yellow mounds. Not far away an intermittent geyser bursts forth every sixty seconds from a deep hole in the rock-bed of the basin, showing a stream of water six inches in diameter, and sending the same skyward thirty or forty feet. Here also is a powerful geyser called the Monarch, which leaps into action with great regularity once in twenty-four hours, throwing a triple stream to the height of a hundred and thirty feet, and continuing to do so for the space of fifteen or twenty minutes. Beneath the sun’s rays all the colors of the prism are reflected in this vertical column of water, and not infrequently the distinct arch of a rainbow is suspended like a halo about its crown. Nature, even in her most fantastic caprice, is always beautiful.
There are several other high-reaching and powerful geysers in this vicinity, but we will not weary the reader by pausing to describe them.
Gibbon Paint Pot Basin is next visited, being a most curious area, measuring some twenty acres, more or less, situated in a heavily-wooded district, not far from Gibbon Ca?on. Here is a most strange collection of over five hundred springs of boiling, splashing, exploding mud, exhibiting many distinct colors, which gives rise to the name it bears. One pot is of an emerald green, another is as blue as turquoise, a third is as red as blood, a fourth is of orange yellow, another is of a rich cream color and consistency. The visitor is struck by the singularity of this hot-spring system, which produces from vents so close together colors diametrically opposite. The earth is piled up about the seething pools, making small mounds all over the basin, and forming a series of pots of clay and silicious compounds. Near the entrance of Gibbon Ca?on is a remarkable collection of extinct geysers; the tall, slim, crystallized structures, originating like the Liberty Cap already described, look like genii totem poles, corrugated by the finger of time, and forming significant monuments of bygone eruptions, while the surrounding volcanoes were slowly exhausting their fury. Even about these long-extinct geysers there is an atmosphere indicating their former intensity, though it is quite possible they may have been sleeping for ten centuries.
The locality known as the Lower Geyser Basin is filled with striking and somewhat similar volcanic exhibitions, though there are more hot springs here than other phenomena, the aggregate number being a trifle less than seven hundred, including seventeen active geysers. In some respects this spot exceeds in interest those previously visited, being more readily surveyed as a whole. The variety of form and the large number of these springs are remarkable. As a rule they are less sulphurous and more silicious than those already spoken of. Here, as at the terraces near the hotel, the last touch of beauty is imparted by the sun’s rays forcing themselves through the white vapory clouds which are thrown off by the mysteriously heated waters. One of the large basins, measuring forty by sixty feet, is filled with a sort of porcelain slime, notable for its soft rose tints and delicate yellow hues, which are brought out with magic effect under a cloudless sky. This basin has an elevation of over seven thousand feet above the level of the sea, and is surrounded by heavily-timbered hills which are four and five hundred feet higher. Numerous as these springs and geysers are, each one is strongly individualized by some special feature which marks it as distinctive from the rest, and renders it recognizable by the residents of the Park, but which, however interesting to the observing visitor, would only prove to be tedious if here described in detail.
While sitting at twilight on the piazza of the rude little inn where we passed the night in this basin, there came out from the edge of the wood on to a broad green plateau a couple of long tailed mountain lions. They were not quite full grown, and were of a tawny color. These creatures, savage and dangerous enough under some circumstances, seemed half tame and entirely fearless, playfully romping with each other, and exhibiting catlike agility. The proprietor of the inn told us that not long since, upon a dark night, they came to the house and attacked his favorite dog, killing and eating him, leaving only the bones to explain his disappearance in the morning. They, too, must have read the regulations, “No firearms permitted in the Park.”
The Midway Geyser Basin is situated a few miles directly south of that just spoken of, and contains an extraordinary group of hot springs, among which is the marvelous Excelsior Geyser, largest in the known world. It bursts forth from a pit two hundred and fifty feet in diameter, worn in the solid rock, and which is at all times nearly full of boiling water, above which there is constantly floating a dense column of steam, which rising slowly is borne away and absorbed by the atmosphere. The water which flows so continuously over the brim has formed a series of terraces beaming with beautiful tints. This stupendous fountain is intermittent, giving an exhibition of its startling powers at very irregular periods, when it is said to send up a column of water sixty feet in diameter to a height of from fifty to one hundred feet! So great is the sudden flood thus produced in the Firehole River, which is here between seventy-five and a hundred yards broad, that it is turned for the time being into a furious torrent of steaming, half-boiling water. The Excelsior has also a disagreeable and dangerous habit of throwing up hundred-pound stones and metallic d?bris with this great volume of water, while the surrounding earth vibrates in sympathy with the hidden power which operates so mysteriously. Visitors naturally hasten to a safe distance during these moments of extraordinary activity.
About midway between Firehole and the Upper Geyser Basin is a strange, unearthly, vaporous piece of low land, which is endowed with a name more expressive than elegant, being called “Hell’s Half Acre.” Here again it seems as if this spot is separated from the raging fires below by only the thinnest crust of earth, through which numerous boiling springs find riotous vent. The soil in many parts is burning hot, and echoes to the tread as though liable to open at any moment and swallow the venturesome stranger. During the season of 1888, a lady visitor who stepped upon a thin place sank nearly out of sight, and though instantly rescued by her friends, she was so severely scalded as to be confined to her bed for a month and more at the Mammoth Springs Hotel. The air is filled with fumes of sulphur, and the place would seem to be appropriately named. There are forty springs in this “Half Acre,” which, by the way, occupies ten times the space which the name indicates, where the seething and bubbling noise is like the agonized wailing of lost spirits. The place has another, and perhaps better, designation besides this satanic title, namely, Egeria Springs. Great is the contrast between the heavens above and the direful suggestions of the earth below, as we behold it under the serene beauty of the blue sky which prevails here in the summer months, and which renders camping out in the Park delightful. “You should come here during a thunder-storm,” said our companion, who is a dweller in this region. “I have done so twice,” he continued, “simply to witness the fitness of the association: rolling thunder overhead and flashes of lightning in the atmosphere, through which the boiling vats, hissing pools, and steaming fissures are seen in full operation, as though they were a part and parcel of the electric turmoil agitating the sky.”
It is impossible to appreciate these various phenomena in a single hurried visit. Like the Falls of Niagara, or the Pyramids of Gizeh, they must become in some degree familiar to the observer before he will be able to form a complete, intelligent, and satisfactory impression which will remain with him. One cannot grasp the full significance of such accumulated wonders at sight. We look about us among the green trees that border the open areas, surprised to behold the calm sunshine, the tuneful birds, and the chattering squirrels, moved by their normal instincts, utterly regardless of these myriad surrounding marvels.
The grandest spouting springs are to be found in Upper Geyser Basin, where there are twenty-five active fountains of this character. Here is situated the famous “Old Faithful,” which, from a mound rising gradually about six or eight feet above the surrounding level, emits a huge column of boiling water for five or six minutes in each hour with never-failing regularity, while it gives forth at all times clouds of steam and heated air. The height reached by the waters of this thermal fountain varies from eighty to one hundred and twenty feet, and it has earned its expressive name by never failing to be on time. It seemed, somehow, to be a more satisfactory representative of the spouting spring phenomenon than any other in the entire Park, though it would be difficult to say exactly why. Its prominent position, dominating the rest of the geysers of the basin, gives it special effect. Irrespective of all other similar exhibitions, the stately column of “Old Faithful” rises heavenward with splendid effect in the broad light of day, or in the still hours of the night, once in every sixty minutes, as uniformly as the rotation of the second-hand of a watch. The effect was ghostly at midnight under the sheen of the moon and the contrasting shadows of the woods near at hand, while not far away, across the Firehole River, the lesser geysers were exhibiting their erratic performances, casting up occasional crystal columns, which glistened in the silvery light like pendulous glass. There is quite a large group of geysers in this immediate vicinity, which perform with notable regularity at stated periods. There is one called the Beehive, because of its vent, which has a resemblance to an old-fashioned straw article of the sort, the crater being about three feet in height. The author saw this spring throw up a stream three feet in diameter nearly or quite two hundred vertical feet for eight or ten minutes, when it gradually subsided. There are over four hundred geysers and boiling springs in this basin. Among them is the Giantess, situated four hundred feet from the Beehive, which does not display its powers oftener than once in ten or twelve days; but when the eruption does take place, it is said to exceed all the rest in the height which it attains and the length of time during which it operates. It has no raised crater, but comes forth from a vent even with the surface of the ground, thirty-four feet in length and twenty-four in width. When it is in action, so great is the force expended that miniature earthquakes are felt throughout the immediate neighborhood. There are seen, not far away, the Lion, Lioness, Young Faithful, the Grotto, the Splendid, etc., each one more or less operative. We have by no means enumerated all the active fountains in this basin, seeking only to designate their general character. However well prepared for the outburst, one cannot but feel startled when a geyser suddenly rises, mysteriously and ghost-like, close at hand, from out the deep bowels of the earth, its white form growing taller and taller, while the spray expands like weird and shrouded arms. To heighten this sepulchral effect the atmosphere is full of sulphurous vapors, while strange noises fall upon the ear like subterranean thunder. What puzzling mysteries Nature holds concealed in her dark, earthy bosom!
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