The Boiling River

Yellowstone National Park is a natural marvel.  Ray and I were there for 24 hours back in 2011, and knew instantly then that we would return.  Many MANY times.  24 hours didn’t even begin to scratch the surface.  What it did mean was running up and down as many boardwalks and trails as we could muster, snapping pictures of everything (and praying to remember what it was that I was looking at), staring at bison (literally staring), and watching of course watching Old Faithful do it’s thing – all without pausing to pick up our jaws of the floor.  So this time we knew we wanted to stay longer – and decided on 3 whole nights.  With our friend Meg – the geologist of the crew – we really wanted to take in the sites and learn everything we could about the geysers, mud volcanos, steam vents and hot springs of Yellowstone. The great thing about returning to a place you’ve already had a glimpse of is that you have a frame work of how to approach it.  What to see.  Where to drive.  How long things take.  You also know what you loved, and what you missed.  And of course, you now know it will take more than 24 hours.  Don’t get me wrong though – I wouldn’t claim 3 days even begins to cover it either.  We are perpetually talking about our next trip there, and think maybe a week would be more adequate for the third trip.  We just keep falling a little deeper in love with it every time we go. We decided to enter the park from the North entrance, so that we could drive through the famous Roosevelt Arch.  The arch was constructed as part of Fort Yellowstone in 1903, under the supervision of the US Army.  The first brick was laid by Teddy Roosevelt – and inscribed with the words “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People.”  Yellowstone being the United States first national park, established by Ulysses S. Grant in 1872, (and according to the shirt I bought, the WORLD’S first national park) there is something really “official” about driving through the arch and entering the park this way.

It doesn’t take but 5 minutes of driving before the “entering Wyoming sign” appears and Montana is left behind.  But right at this boundary you will find a parking lot.  A parking lot for the trail to the boiling river.  I had never heard of the boiling river before the age of Pinterest.  But a while back, before this trip was even in development, I stumped across a photo of people sitting in a steaming river.  Hot springs are not uncommon, here at home (Harrison) or elsewhere in North America and the world.  But this isn’t a hot spring.  It’s a glacier fed river.  A FREEZING COLD glacier fed river (in case you didn’t follow what the word “glacier” implied).  But there is one spot along this river where a 100+ degree boiling steaming hydrothermally heated river of water enters into the glacial Gardner river.  So we parked on the Montana/Wyoming border and walked south on the 0.75 mile trail that runs along the west bank of the river.  At the trails end you’ll find a place where people are wading into this confluence of rivers.  Strangely enough, this event happens almost exactly on the 45th parallel – exactly half way between the equator and north pole.

As I frequently am, I was stuck between wanting to hop right in the river, and wanting to take pictures of the experience – and couldn’t do both at once.  So I stayed ashore as Meg and Ray waded out into the current (and I waited my turn).  If you step too far into the main river, you will find it quickly numbs the legs, but if you make the mistake of going too far towards the shore, you will find yourself scalded – like hospital level burns if you get too close for too long.  BUT, if you play your cards right, and wade very careful, you can find a bank of stones to sit on, where you both half scalded and half freezing – a sensation that I can not adequately describe.  The location is easy to find as previous tourists and/or park rangers have built up a bank of rocks marking this boundary (and in turn, also protecting you from the stronger current towards the centre of the river), and of course many others are there to join you.  Adjusting the temperature is a process of shifting and inch to the left or right, which, if you are not careful, can bring your from freezing to scalding and back rather quickly.  While your body isn’t sure whether to love or hate it, persistence can pay off – eventually finding a nice relaxing spot to take in the day.

Some advice if you are going to go:  The river bed is very rocky, and sandals were necessary.  And as I learned – it would be better to have picked a water shoe or a sandal that straps to my feet, as found myself fighting with the current to keep my flip flops on my feet.  In fact, sometimes the fight was just to stay standing.  Be careful if you take children – the current is strong and while there were many kids there, it was harder for them to handle the current and the extreme temperatures.  It seemed to be more adult dominated than kid-friendly.  Also, as the signs will warn you – don’t put your head under the water.  No food, drinks, shampoo, soap, pets or bikes allows down on the trail or in the river.  The trail is well packed with less than 50 feet elevation change – so we walked in flip flops.  We bought towels, but didn’t really need them.  The hot sun and the walk back dried us off quickly.

Have I sold it to you yet?  Do it!!  The waters of Yellowstone are hot or cold and most signs advise you not to touch the water for fear or injury or death.  So this was our one chance to get IN the water – and it couldn’t be missed.  Bring good water shoes, wear sunscreen, and pick a hot day because you’ll send more time in the cold than the warm.  And then appreciate the fact that the ground is steaming.  There is scalding hot water being heated by a super volcano right below you.  You are 5000 feet up, the land is dry, there could be a grizzly bear right around the corner, and you are alive and well and fully living your life.  Sold now? After our time in the river we walked the 0.75 miles back down the well worn and mostly level trail back to the car.  I could feel the 5000 feet – it happens when you live at sea level. Dehydration and head aches are common when adjusting to a higher altitude – so walk slowly, drink lots of water (you won’t feel like you need it, but you do) and take it easy.

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