WEEK THREE: THE BOILING POINT
The confrontation was inevitable.
Throughout the Rockies, snowmelt had been trickling down into meadows and marshes for weeks, creating the perfect breeding ground for mosquito larvae. Now the larvae were old enough to hatch into their winged forms and start venturing forth from the waters in search of their first meals. For males, that meant nectar from flowers. For females, that meant people like me who dared to think they could walk into the wilderness without attracting the insects’ bloodthirsty attentions. I should have known better. In the month of June, the mosquitoes always win.
Granted, in Yellowstone National Park I should have had a lot of other competition as a blood donor, what with all the bison, wolves, elk and grizzles wandering about. There were very few humans, however… none in fact, after I hiked three miles down the trail towards Shoshone Lake. Back at the ranger station, I had wondered why I’d managed to acquire camping permits on such short notice, especially for a popular lakeside campsite in a park that gets over four million visitors a year. The lake even had its own geyser basin containing one of the highest geyser concentrations in the world.
Halfway down the trail, I began to understand why I’d such good luck with permits. For one, the mosquitoes were atrocious, and my “natural ingredient” bug spray only seemed to tickle their antennae for a few minutes before they regained their composure and renewed their attacks. Secondly, the trail was still encumbered by snowdrifts - guests from the long Wyoming winter who had overstayed their welcome. The snowy barriers gave Shoshone Lake a feeling of great remoteness, even if it lay only nine miles from the trailhead.
I found my campsite, pitched my tent in the trees and fled down to the lake where the mosquitoes weren’t quite so persistent. After wading out into the shallows and washing off multiple layers of bug spray, I decided to relocate my tent to a gravelly terrace by the shore. But the meager wind died, and the mosquitoes found me there, too. I had to start up dinner on my camp stove and flee to the safety of the tent.
The transparent mesh of the tent fabric provided only a dim view of my surroundings, so the soundscape of Shoshone Lake became the focus of my senses. There was the drone of hovering mosquitoes as they probed tirelessly for weaknesses in the tent lining. Elsewhere, a beaver made sneezing sounds, clearing its nose while it paddled across the lake. The noise from a bubbling hot spring cauldron drifted across the bay, remarkably similar in nature to the rice simmering in my cookpot. And the honking of geese echoed fourfold as it bounced from lakeshore to lakeshore, occasionally rising to a cacophony as the birds struggled against their squabbling natures to get along.
The next morning, I decided that despite my two-night permit, I didn’t really need an extra day at Shoshone after all, even if it was the largest lake in the lower 48 states inaccessible by road. The mosquitoes had convinced me that I’d seen enough. I packed my gear and made a beeline for the Shoshone Geyser Basin, which lay behind a hill on the western shore.
To have a geyser basin all to oneself at Yellowstone National Park was like stepping back in time. No crowds, no boardwalks, no guardrails, no informational pamphlets… this was a chance to study bubbling hot pools and geysers closer than ever before. I still had to be extremely careful to stay on the crumbly, white sinter, and not just for my own sake. I didn’t wish to disturb the rust-colored ribbons of bacteria that flourished in the thin sheets of water that ran from the hot springs down to Shoshone Creek.
I stepped lightly as possible around the turquoise pools and steaming fumaroles, knowing that a man had been boiled alive here in 1988 after falling into one of the hydrothermal features. In some places, the ground simply hissed at me, though I could detect no heat or steam arising. I still felt the same tension as being around an angry rattlesnake.
Other elements of the basin were more visually dramatic, none so much as Minute Man Geyser, which unleashed a twenty-foot jet of superheated steam every sixty seconds, more or less. It certainly stole attention away from the other pools on the hillsides, though Union Geyser had a louder plumbing system. The ground around Union vibrated ominously with a low-frequency rumble, like the sound of a distant jet plane.
It was hard to fathom what could be transpiring in underground passages beneath the spring, but geologists have a pretty solid theory that starts with water percolating down towards Yellowstone’s great magma chamber, five miles below the surface. The immense pressure at those depths keeps the superheated water from boiling, though periodically the water will rise and start to depressurize, forming bubbles of steam. These expanding bubbles fight to escape upwards through constrictions in the passages, surging so violently that the water above them is ejected from the earth. The internal pressure then decreases and the clock is reset until the next geyser eruption.
As safe as I tried to be around the fragile crusts, I was forced to take some unexpected risks when I encountered a strange species of bee in the basin. These insects with black bodies, yellow legs and green eyes were swarming in great numbers across patches of grass, holding low flight patterns and circling around each other at great speeds. They had perforated the ground, including parts of the footpath, with small holes, which they occasionally entered for unknown purposes. Not knowing what behavior would set them against me, I had to detour from safer terrain into the danger zone, closer to the geysers than would be normally prudent.
As the sulfuric mists washed over me, I noticed one side effect: no mosquitoes! In fact, I’d scarcely been bothered since I entered the geyser basin. Sulfur must be the bloodsuckers’ kryptonite. If someone put that stuff in an aerosol can, I’d bet they could make a fortune.
I let the vapors infuse my clothes before departing the region and decided that if it weren’t illegal, I’d camp right next to Minute Man Geyser next time, bees or no bees. My food might taste faintly like poisonous chemicals, but at least I’d be able to eat in peace.