The New Eldorado. A Summer Journey to Alaska
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Let us not forget to mention, in this connection, one of the hugest fountains of the Firehole Basin, namely, the Grand Geyser, which is placed next to the Excelsior in size and performance. This fountain has no raised cone, and operates once in about thirty-six hours. Of course the visitor is not able to see each and all of these strange fountains in operation. He might remain a month upon the ground and not do so; consequently, he is obliged to take some of the dimensions and performances on trust; but most of the statements which are made to him can easily be verified.
When this Grand Geyser is about to burst forth, the deep basin, which is twenty feet and more across, first gradually fills with furiously boiling water until it overflows the brim; then it becomes shrouded by heavy volumes of steam, out of which come several loud reports, like the discharge of a small cannon, when suddenly the whole body of water is lifted, and a column ten or twelve feet in diameter rises to a height of ninety feet, from the apex of which a lesser stream mounts many feet higher, until the earth trembles with the force of the discharge and falling water as it rushes towards the river. This strange exhibition lasts for eight or ten minutes, then the fountain slowly subsides, with hoarse mutterings, like some retreating and overmastered wild beast, growling sullenly as it disappears.
It will thus be seen that these geysers vary greatly in their action, in the duration of their eruptions, and in the intervals which elapse between the performances. Some of them labor as though the water was slowly pumped up from vast depths, some burst forth with full vigor to their highest point at once, while others become exhausted with a brief effort. There are a few that subside only to again commence spouting, being thus virtually continuous; but these are not of such power as to throw their streams to a great height. One group of this sort is called the Minute Men, some of which spout sixty times within the hour; others eject small streams incessantly.
This immediate valley is very irregular in surface and thickly wooded in parts, showing also the ruins of many extinct geysers. It is a dozen miles long and between two and three wide, literally crowded with wonders from end to end. It contains a collection of boiling and spouting springs on a scale which would belittle all similar phenomena of the rest of the known world, could they be brought together.
As the reader will have understood, the period of activity with all the geysers is more or less irregular, except in the instance of Old Faithful. We have no knowledge of a simultaneous eruption having ever taken place. Many of these active springs which now exist will, doubtless, sooner or later subside and new ones will form to take their places, a process which has been going on, no one can even guess for how many ages.
In the southern section of the Yellowstone Park, near its longitudinal centre, is one of the most beautiful yet lonely lakes imaginable, framed in a margin of sparkling sands, and surrounded by Alpine heights.One stretch of the shore about five miles long is called Diamond Beach; the volcanic material of which it is formed, being entirely obsidian, reflects the sun’s rays like brilliant gems, while the beach is caressed by wavelets scarcely less bright. Surrounded by many wonders, the lake is itself a great surprise, lying in the bosom of rock-ribbed mountains at an elevation of nearly eight thousand feet above the sea. We know of but one other large body of water on the globe at any such height, namely, Lake Titicaca, in South America, famous in Peruvian history. The Yellowstone Lake is always of crystal clearness, and is fed from the eternal snow that piles itself up on the lofty peaks which surround it, and which are sharply outlined in all directions against the blue of the sky. The outlet of the lake is the Yellowstone River, which issues from the northern end, while the Upper Yellowstone runs into it on the opposite side. The lake is twenty-two miles long by fifteen in width, and has an area of a hundred and fifty square miles. Its greatest depth is three hundred feet, and it is overstocked with trout, many of which, unfortunately, are infested by a parasitic worm which renders them unfit for food; but this is not the case with all the fish; a large portion are good and wholesome. Geologists find sufficient evidence to satisfy them that this lake, now narrowed to the dimensions just given, in ancient times covered two thirds of the present Park. Aquatic birds abound upon its broad surface, and build their myriad nests on its green islands. They are of many species, comprising geese, cranes, swans, snipe, mallards, teal, curlew, plover, and ducks of various sorts. Pelicans swim about in long white lines; herons, in their delicate ash-colored plumage, stand idly on the shore, while ermine-feathered gulls fill the air with their loud and tuneless serenade. Hawks, kingfishers, and ravens also abound on the shore, the first-named watching other birds as they rise from the water with fish, which they make it their business, freebooter-like, to rob them of. The lake has many thickly-wooded islands, and there are several long, pine-covered promontories which stretch out in a graceful manner from the mainland, the whole forming a grand primeval solitude. Now and again a solitary eagle, on broad-spread pinions, sails away from the top of some lofty pine on the mountain side to the deep green seclusion of the nearest island. Even the presence of this proud and austere bird only serves to emphasize the grave and solemn loneliness which rests upon the locality.
It is a charming feature of this placid lake which causes it to gather into its bosom a picture of all things far and near: the clouds, “those playful fancies of the mighty sky,” seem to float upon its surface; the blue of the heavens is reflected there; the tall peaks and wooded slopes mirror themselves in its depths. As we look upon the lake through the purple haze of sunset, a picture is presented of surpassing loveliness, tinted with blue and golden hues, which creep lovingly closer and closer about the quiet isles; while there come from out the forest resinous pine odors, delightfully soothing to the senses, accompanied by the soft music of swaying branches, and the low drone of insect life.
To linger over such a scene is a joy and an inspiration to the experienced traveler, who, in wandering hither and thither upon the globe, places an occasional white stone at certain points to which memory turns with never-failing pleasure. Thus he recalls a sunrise over the silvery peaks of the grand Himalayan range; a thrilling view from the Mosque of Mahomet Ali at Cairo, localizing Biblical story; or a summer sunset-glow on the glassy mirror of the Yellowstone Lake.
Along the mountain side, east of the lake, are ancient terraces, indented shorelines, and other evidences which clearly prove that, at no very remote geological period, the surface of this grand sheet of water was at least five or six hundred feet higher than it is at the present time. Nearly two hundred square miles of the Park are still covered by lakes.
As to the flora of the Yellowstone Park, seventy-five per cent. of the whole area seems to be covered by dense forests, the black fir being the most plentiful, often growing to three or four feet in diameter and a hundred and fifty feet in height. The white pine is the most graceful among the indigenous trees, and is always remarkable for its stately symmetrical beauty. The thick groves of balsam fir are particularly fine and fragrant, while the dwarf maples and willows are charming features as they mingle abundantly with larger and more pretentious trees. Wild flowers, Nature’s bright mosaics, are found in great variety during the summer, though there is rarely a night in this neighborhood without frost, while the winters are truly arctic in temperature. The larkspur, columbine, harebell, lupin, and primrose abound, with occasional daisies and other blossoms. Yellow water-lilies, anchored by their fragile stems, profusely sprinkle and beautify the surface of the shady pools. Exquisite ferns, lichens, and velvety mosses delight the appreciative eye in many a sylvan nook which is only invaded by squirrels and song-birds.
Here, as in the valley of the Yosemite, it is melancholy to see the track of devastating fires caused by the half-extinguished blaze left by careless camping parties. It is difficult to realize how intelligent people can be so wickedly reckless as to cause such destruction. Many a forest monarch stands bereft of every limb by the devouring flames, and large areas are entirely denuded of growth other than the shrubbery which springs up quickly after a sweeping fire in the woods, as though Nature desired to cover from sight the devastating footsteps of the Fire King. The grasses grow luxuriantly, especially alpine, timothy, and Kentucky blue grass.
There are many wild animals in the Park, such as elk, deer, antelope, big-horn sheep, foxes, buffalo, and what is called the California lion, a small but rather dangerous animal for the hunter to encounter. The buffalo is rarely seen in the West, and it is said is now only to be found wild in this Park. The streams and creeks also swarm with otter, beaver, and mink. These animals are all protected by law, visitors being only permitted to shoot such birds as they can cook and eat in their camps, together with any species of bear they may chance to fall in with; and there are several kinds of the latter animal to be found in the hills. At least this has been the case until lately; but stricter rules have been found necessary, and no visitors are now permitted to take firearms with them while remaining in the Park. The purpose of the government is to strictly preserve the game, the effect of which has already been to render the animals gathered here less shy of human approach, and to greatly increase their number.
So abundant are the evidences of grand volcanic action throughout the lake basin that it has been looked upon by scientists as the remains or centre of one enormous crater forty miles across! Dr. Hayden, the profound geologist, who was sent professionally by the government to report upon the Park, declares it to have been the former scene of volcanic activity as great as that of any part of this planet, a conclusion which the observer of to-day is quite ready to admit, inasmuch as the subsidence has yet left enough of the original forces to demonstrate the sleeping power which still lurks restlessly beneath the soil. We wonder, standing amid such remarkable surroundings, how many centuries have passed since the valley assumed its present shape. Everything is indicative of high antiquity, and it is probably rather thousands than hundreds of years since this volcanic centre was at its maximum power and activity. The valley has been partly excavated out of ancient crystalline rocks, partly out of later stratified formations, and partly from masses of lava that were poured forth during a succession of ages which make up the different epochs of the earth’s long history.
The lowest level of the Park is about six thousand feet above the sea, and the average elevation, independent of mountains, is much over this estimate. It is very properly designated as the summit of the continent, and gives rise to three of the largest rivers in North America, namely: on the north side are the sources of the Yellowstone; on the west, three of the forks of the Missouri; and on the southwest are the sources of the Snake River, which flows into the Columbia, and thence to the distant Pacific Ocean.
If possible, before leaving the neighborhood, the visitor should ascend Mount Washburn, the highest point of observation within the great reservation, a feat easily accomplished on horseback. Such an excursion is particularly desirable since all the scenery of the Park is circumscribed while we are at the level of its springs, geysers, and lakes. The grand view from this elevation will repay all the time and effort expended in its accomplishment. Its height above the base is five thousand feet, its height above the sea five thousand more. A clear day is absolutely necessary for the proper enjoyment of such an excursion, in order to bring out fairly the panorama of forests, lakes, prairies, and mountains, decked by the golden glory of the sunshine. In some directions the vision reaches a hundred and fifty miles through space. Here, on the summit of Mount Washburn, we virtually stand upon the apex of the North American continent, if we except one or two of the sky-reaching peaks of the Territory of Alaska.
As we face the north, just before us lies the valley of the Yellowstone, and in the distance, looming far above its surroundings, is the tall Emigrant Peak. To the eastward Index and Pilot peaks pierce the clouds, beyond which stretches away the Big Horn Range. In the west the summits of the Gallatin Mountains follow one another northward, while trending in the same direction, but farther towards the horizon, is the lofty Madison Range. We gaze until bewildered by peak after peak, mountain beyond mountain, range upon range, mingling with each other, all combining to form a glorious view embodying the indescribably grand characteristics of the Rocky Mountain system, the equal of which we may never again behold.
The tall range of mountains which girdle the Park are snow-covered all the year round, frigid, giant sentinels, which long proved a complete barrier to organized exploration, forming an amphitheatre of sublime and lonely scenery. The story of the discovery of this Wonderland is briefly told as follows: It seems that a gold-seeking prospector named Coulter made his way with infinite perseverance into the region in 1807, and after many hair-breadth escapes from Indians, wild beasts, poisonous waters, and starvation, finally succeeded in rejoining his comrades, whom he entertained with stories of what he had seen, which seemed to them so incredible that they believed him to be crazy. Afterwards, first one and then another adventurer found his way hither, and though each of them corroborated Coulter’s story, they were by no means fully credited. But public attention and curiosity were thus aroused, leading the government to send Professor Hayden and a small exploring party to carefully examine the region. This enterprise not only corroborated the stories already made public, but greatly added to their volume and amazing detail.
It was found that the representations of Coulter and those who followed him, so far from exaggerating the wonders of the Yellowstone, in reality fell far below the truth.
During the year 1870 Governor Washburn, accompanied by a small body of United States cavalry, entered the Park by the valley of the Yellowstone, and thoroughly explored the ca?ons, the shores of the great lake, and the geyser region of Firehole River, together with the various interesting localities of which we have spoken. On returning he declared that the party had seen the greatest marvels to be found upon this continent, and that there was no other spot on the globe where there were crowded together so many natural wonders, combined with so much beauty and grandeur.
Finally Congress, foreseeing that the greed of speculators would lead them to monopolize this Wonderland for mercenary purposes, promptly took action in the matter, setting the region aside as a National Park and Reservation, for the benefit of the people at large forever, retaining the fee and control of the same in the name of the government.
Not many persons have ever attempted to traverse the Park in the winter season, but it has been done by a few hardy and adventurous people, who nearly perished in the attempt. Such individuals have reported that the raging snow-storms and blizzards which they encountered were on a scale quite equal to the other demonstrations and natural curiosities of the place. The trees in their neighborhood were beautifully gemmed with the frozen vapor of the geysers, and the heated springs seemed doubly active by the contrast between their temperature and that of the freezing atmosphere. It was only by camping at night upon the very brink of these boiling waters that life could be sustained, with the atmosphere at forty degrees below zero.
One who comes hither with preconceived ideas of the peculiar sights to be met with is sure to be disappointed, not in their want of strangeness, for the Park is overstocked with curiosities having no counterpart elsewhere, but the features are so thoroughly unique that his anticipations are transcended both in the quality and the quantity of the food for wonder which is spread out before him on every side.
After a delightful, though brief, sojourn of ten days in the Yellowstone Park, realizing that twice that length of time might be profitably spent therein, we returned to Livingston, where the Northern Pacific Railroad was once more reached, and the westward journey promptly resumed. The Belt Range of mountains is soon crossed, at an elevation of over five thousand five hundred feet. A remarkable tunnel is also passed through, three thousand six hundred feet in length, from which the train emerges into a grand ca?on, and soon arrives at the city of Bozeman. This place has a thrifty and intelligent population of over five thousand, and is notable for its rural and picturesque surroundings, in the fertile Gallatin Valley, which is encircled by majestic ranges of mountains, shrouded in “white, cold, virgin snow.” Having passed the point where the Madison and Jefferson rivers unite to form the headwaters of that great river, the Missouri, whence it starts upon its long and winding course of over four thousand miles towards the Mexican Gulf, we arrive presently at Helena, the interesting capital of Montana. This is called the “Queen City of the Mountains,” and is famous as a great and successful mining centre, the present population of which is about twenty thousand. It is said to be the richest city of its size in the United States, an assertion which we have good reasons for believing to be correct. The vast mineral region surrounding Helena is unsurpassed anywhere for the number and richness of its gold and silver-bearing lodes, having within an area of twenty-five miles over three thousand such natural deposits, the ownership of which is duly recorded, and many of which are being profitably worked. The city is lighted by a system of electric lamps, and has an excellent water-supply from inexhaustible mountain streams.
We were told an authentic story illustrating the richness of the soil in and about Helena, as a gold-bearing earth, which we repeat in brief.
It seems that a resident was digging a cellar on which to place a foundation for a new dwelling house, when a passing stranger asked permission to remove the pile of earth that was being thrown out of the excavation, agreeing to return one half of whatever value he could get from the same, after washing and submitting it to the usual treatment by which gold is extracted. Permission was granted, and the earth was soon removed. The citizen thought no more about the matter. After a couple of weeks, however, the stranger returned and handed the proprietor of the ground thirteen hundred dollars as his half of the proceeds realized from the dirt casually thrown out upon the roadway in digging his cellar.
Between Helena and Garrison the main range of the Rocky Mountains is crossed, and at an elevation of five thousand five hundred and forty feet the cars enter what is called the Mullan Tunnel. This dismal and remarkable excavation is nearly four thousand feet long. From it the western-bound traveler finally emerges on the Pacific slope, passing through the beautiful valley of the Little Blackfoot.
The region through which we were traveling stretches from Lake Superior to Puget Sound, on the Pacific coast, and spreads out for many miles on either side of the Northern Pacific Railroad, known as the “Northern Pacific Country.” No portion of the United Sates offers more favorable opportunities for settlement, and in no other section is there as much desirable government land still open to pre?mption, presenting such a variety of surface, richness of soil, and wealth of natural productions. Intelligent emigrants are rapidly appropriating the land of this very attractive region, but there is still enough and to spare. Europe may continue to send us her surplus population for fifty years to come at the same rate she has done for the past half century, and there will still be room enough in the great West and Northwest to accommodate them.
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