August in Wonderland

Yellowstone National Park, established in 1872, became famous for its supernatural landscapes of geysers, boiling mud, brilliant-colored hot springs, and amazing geological formations. Journalists as far away as New York talked of America’s Wonderland and every sort of person, rich or those of modest means, from America to Europe, became interested in one of America’s most spectacular places.

The Northern Pacific Railroad, looking to expand their tourism trade, began service to Yellowstone in 1883. In their effort to entice people to the park, they produced two brochures called Alice’s Adventures in the New Wonderland. Written as if by a grown-up Alice to her friend, Edith, she explains the marvelous sights, a bit of history, and beautiful scenery as she travels by railroad from Chicago to Yellowstone.

Today we are still awed by the beauty of this wild Wonderland, but in August we have a different kind of wild experience: Fires and Smoke.

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Entering the park through the North Entrance in Gardiner, Montana, the haze is thick and we smell the smoke. The view above is of the terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs (right) through the smoke. Being an Easterner, I can’t remember a single day I thought about wildfires unless we saw reports on TV, but in the west it is summer reality–every summer.

It’s the end of August now and the first fire began July 17. There are four significant fires in the park, all started by lightning. I’m taking two seminars at the Lamar Buffalo Ranch beginning the last Thursday in August, returning home the following Tuesday. Six days in the park and lots of great plans, always an exciting adventure. Had hoped for some rain, but the forecast is for bright sun and temperatures in the 80s and 90s. Well, if the wind changes, the smoke may blow elsewhere–fingers crossed.

I’m taking the scenic route to Lamar which means over Mount Washburn. Although the biggest fire, the Maple Fire, is to the west as we travel down toward Norris Junction, there is no smoke here and it is just a beautiful drive.

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Since they rebuilt the road and moved it up the mountainside, we can see Nymph Lake and the steam vents in the hillside that brings thermal runoff into the lake.

Let’s go have lunch at the Nez Perce picnic area along a side channel of the Yellowstone River. The ravens always come in close hoping for a handout–nope.

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I’ve never seen the rivers and lakes this low, but it has been very hot this year. At least we aren’t smelling smoke anymore. Let’s head up the mountain.

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Walking away from the parking area at the end of Chittenden Road on Mount Washburn, at about 9,000 feet, we can see the fires to the east–exactly where we are headed. Well, before we drive down, let’s enjoy the view and the fresh air a bit longer.

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From the trail, we can see the final destination of this route, the fire tower at 10,243 feet. It is a steady climb as you can see, but the views will be spectacular. A trip for another day. Let’s drive to Lamar and get settled for our four days of seminars.

Driving passed Slough Creek we see the Buffalo Fire, named after Buffalo Plateau where it started. It is not only burning, but growing, forcing closure of some trails and backcountry campsites. The fire is on the other side of the creek so we are in no danger. After getting settled at the Buffalo Ranch, it’s time to sit on the porch of my cabin and watch the fire by Slough Creek through my binocs. It is about six miles away and heading down the hills to the creek. I can’t see flames, only smoke. There are large sagebrush meadows between smaller stands of Lodgepole Pines. Suddenly, across a large expanse from where the smoke was, the tree tops light up like flaming candles–amazing! Scary!

After dinner, heading back to the cabin as the sun sets, the view became vivid.

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Fast forward to Monday: The seminars were wonderful, but the smoke has become so thick I feel like I’m living on aspirin and eye drops. The air quality is bordering on unhealthy creating burning eyes and nostrils, sinus issues, scratchy throat, and headaches. It was hard to sleep last night too. Smelling smoke with the windows open or being too hot with the windows closed. I think the smartest thing to do is leave a day early and get out of this unhealthy environment. Leave a day early–can’t believe I’m even saying this.

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As we drive by Slough Creek heading home, we clearly see the area we watched burn the other evening. The notch between the mountains to the right is Slough Creek campground area. The fire is intensifying back there. Clouds of smoke look pinkish from the color of the huge flames tinting the smoke. You can almost make out parts of the hills to the left blackened from the sagebrush being burned. Next year, two years from now for sure, there will be TONS of lupine and sunflowers all over those burned areas and it will be beautiful!

Fires create a mosaic of burned, partially burned, and unburned areas. This allows for healthy biodiversity of plant communities in different growth stages as well as returning nutrients to the soil. I realize the importance of fire for a healthy ecosystem, but for now I’m putting on the car’s air conditioning with inside circulation only and heading home.

Until next time  . . . choke, gasp . . . and clearer skies . . .

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