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Saturday, May 2, 2009

Yellow Yellow Smelly Fellow

Yellowstone is HUGE - as in 8,987 square kilometres HUGE, which is bigger than the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined. For the folks at home, Singapore is about 700 square kilometres, which means you can fit almost 13 Singapores within Yellowstone.

Yellowstone STINKS. It really does smell like fart. Well, not the entire park, but the most exciting parts which house hundreds of geysers, hot springs, fumaroles and mudpots. And there lies the uniqueness and charm of Yellowstone. (Random fact: the mud in the mudpots is so highly acidic that it can burn flesh cleanly off the bone. Eeee yerrrrrrr.)

Yellowstone is ALIVE. This bubbling cauldron of volcanic activity is what makes the park feel alive. Everywhere you go, it seems to be speaking through violent hisses, steamy whispers, loud burps, popping bubbles, low rumbles, constant grumbles, light pops, rude spurts, hearty gushes... You just have to be still and listen.

Yellowstone plays with your SENSES. The colourful terraces, hot springs and mudpots delight with their rainbow palettes and earn these spots imaginative names like "Fountain Paintpot", "Artists Paintpots" and "Mud Volcano". The steamy sulphuric vapour wafts over you like a light cloud - choking you, warming you and as it passes, leaves a film of moisture on your skin. And the conversations of the geysers provide an enchanting background music and a rhythmic tempo as you move around the park.

As far back as 2 million years ago, repeated large-scale volcanic eruptions caused the central portion of park to collapse, forming a 30 by 45 mile caldera. That's about 3,456 square kilometres. The heat from the magma which powered those eruptions are still the force behind the constant geyser activity ongoing in the park today. So basically, people from all over the world come to drive, hike and camp within this massive volcanic basin.

So what was bubbling in the pot on the day that we visited Yellowstone?

The coloured terraces of the Mammoth Hot Springs were the cover girl for the park brochure, donning warm hues of rust, orange, peach and cream. On the brochure, it looked as if the sun had descended and set on massive steps leading down to earth and washed the ground in its blazing rays.

That was the picture on the brochure.

This was reality:

Hey, step up on the colours, man!

Not to say that the park brochure was lying. It's just that it was snowing fiercely the night before (and still snowing the next morning, no less fiercely) and the terraces were decked in plain vanilla white. I would have thought that these being the terraces of hot springs, the snow would have melted fast enough for the colours to come through. It was an interesting observation of a battle between heat and cold. After attempting a couple of trails, in hope that different routes would yield different results (other than white), I grudingly accepted that I would be going home with pictures of plain ol' brown terraces.

This other couple was still valiently trying to photograph some terraces further up the trail:

That snow's not going anywhere

We came across Berryl Spring, a hot spring that made us crave for a dip in a hot jacuzzi. But that's not allowed in the park. Visitors used to be able to fish in the rivers and cook their freshly-caught trout in the hot springs! The colourful soft-looking stuff around the waters edge are heat-loving lichen.

Bubble bubble boil and trouble

Yellowstone has its fair share of waterfalls too and even it's own version of the Grand Canyon. This is Gibbon Falls, heavily pregnant with meltwater every spring, frothing furiously over the rocks down the Gibbon river.

Someone tell me what's the rush here?

The Norris Geyser Basin, a collection of thermal features, is the hottest area in the park. I thought these fumaroles, partially encased in a thick layer of ice, were most amazing. How can something so hot - so hot that the vapour alone can scald your skin - still be trapped in winter's icy stronghold?

Blowing hot and cold

This thick arm of ice seems to be relaxing and slouching comfortably around the steam vent, holding it in a protective embrace, without fear of getting burnt.

Not too hot for comfort

Some of the hot springs were located quite a distance from the broadwalk - like the baby blue pool shown below. There are dozens of signs throughout the trail warning visitors not to step off the broadwalk and onto the ground... cos you could unwitting trod onto an erupting geyser and go up in flames. Well, not really, but people have been burnt to death by the steam and hot water. Still, a flaming human being is the exaggerated picture that forms in my mind.

You don't want to get too steamy with that

The floor of the Norris basin varies greatly - although I'm not sure why. Probably caused by the different speeds of heating and cooling processes throughout the basin. This part was quite interesting - like a mosaic of metallic shards.

Mirror mirror on the wall... guess I wasn't the fairest of them all

Then there are all these beautiful patterns, like ribbons of coloured oil running into one another. Believe it or not, the brilliant hues are due to micro-organisms, like bacteria, who love the heat of the springs!

Nature's oil painting

Dan said this one looked like "fatt choy" or nostok

Jade and gold - these were my school colours. Or the more unglam version - green and yellow

Rust and jade - an interesting pairing termed "The Whirligig"

A river of algae - amazing how something so slimy can be so pretty too

The source of inspiration for the title of this post...

A visit to one of Yellowstone's key resident was on the cards for sure. Old Faithful! The geyser with the most predictable eruptions - at 90 minute intervals, with each eruption lasting from 1.5 to 5 minutes. The visitors centre provides the estimated time for each eruption, plus minus 10 minutes. We were lucky enough to have timed our visit perfectly, arriving at 1.20pm for a display scheduled at 2.02pm. This gave us enough time to watch a video on bubblings and boilings of Yellowstone and mosy over to the viewing area. The ideal timing was all thanks to Dan, who had to find a loo so urgently that we had to skip all the scenic spots leading to the Old Faithful visitors centre (and restrooms.) If we had stopped to gawk at more geysers along the way, we would have arrived just after 2pm and would have had to hang around for an hour and a half for the next eruption.

Old Faithful "at rest", slowly building up for the eruption

On your mark... get set....

GO! At approx 1.55pm

The highly-anticipated display didn't go very high nor last very long. Such factors vary from eruption to eruption, so I guess we weren't lucky enough to catch the old geyser at its best. Plus, I spent a good part of the show twiddling with my camera settings, trying my darndest to capture white spray emerging from white ground against a white background of falling snow and clouds.

Next stop: Black Sand Basin - another mixed bowl of thermal features.

New Zealand and Iceland aren't the only lands of ice and fire

Project Runway

A smattering of colour on the banks of this spring

The latest eyeshadow palette?

Hot, cold, harsh, acidic... and amazing fertile land

A face-off between ice and fire. Boundaries drawn, but merging.

It was seriously tempting to follow the yellow brick road

I wonder whether this is good or bad bacteria.

Intricate braiding

If it wasn't for the stink, this deliciously blue pool looked seriously inviting

And that, was an experience that really truly stank. In a good way.


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