Columns

2017.06.14 Yellowstone vacation? Don’t trash geysers

By RICH FOLEY

I always thought it might be interesting to someday visit Yellowstone National Park. I get emails from the park almost weekly and some of them are pretty enticing, especially the ones featuring bears.

 Visitors are required to keep a fairly long distance between themselves and any bears they encounter. It’s a good policy for both man and beast and helps to deter any cartoon bruins looking for picnic baskets.

 I’ve added the park to my imaginary bucket list of places to eventually see, along with Alaska and the Crazy Horse Memorial in South Dakota. Then there’s a goal of traveling the length of Route 66, all the way from Chicago to Los Angeles.

Any of these choices would be quite time consuming. I’d need close to two weeks or more to go by car. I could, however, visit the Crazy Horse Memorial on the way to Yellowstone instead of making a separate trip. That’s assuming tourists haven’t destroyed the famous Yellowstone geysers before I can make the journey.

According to a recent post on the park website, tourists, explorers and soldiers have long contributed to filling the geysers with assorted junk. As long ago as the late 1800’s, soldiers stationed nearby used the geysers as their own personal laundromat, although I don’t think the laundromat concept yet existed.

Reports from that time say soldiers put their dirty clothes in the famous Old Faithful geyser while it was at rest and waited for it to erupt. Reportedly, the hot water and explosive eruption of the geyser were enough to expel the clothing in both a warm and clean condition. Dry, probably not. You might think the soldiers would also have tossed some soap in there to help the cleaning process along, but soap had a different use back in those days.

Park officials and even scientists studying the geysers would hurl soap and lye into them in an attempt to hasten an eruption. In fact, the practice happened so often in the 1880’s that nearby hotels and gift shops had a hard time keeping adequate quantities of soap on hand.

The Morning Glory Pool is now known as “Fading Glory” or even “Garbage Can” due to the damage done by objects thrown into it over the years. At one point, even a couch was said to have been heaved into the geyser.

When water was siphoned from the pool back in 1950, the process caused it to erupt. Thousands of objects were ejected, including 8,672 pennies and $8.10 in other coins. Among 112 different types of items found were handkerchiefs, assorted bath towels and socks, some of which may have dated from the previous century. 

That episode would almost be humorous, except that the junk has caused drastic changes in the pool’s appearance. Once a beautiful baby blue, it is now discolored with ugly yellow and orange rings as vents in the geyser have been partially blocked by accumulated trash. 

Clogged vents reduce pool circulation and alter the makeup of microorganisms contained within, resulting in changes in the ecosystem. Those shifts include the different hues now seen in addition to the original blue.

Other geysers have also seen drastic transformations due to human intervention. A geyser known as Minute Geyser because it used to erupt every 60 seconds no longer does so. Its larger vent was clogged by rocks thrown in by visitors. A smaller vent sometimes still erupts, but on no predictable schedule. Other geysers contain bottles, horseshoes and even logs.

Items unknown back in the 19th century are now finding their way into geysers. In August of 2014, a drone crashed into the Grand Prismatic Spring. The 121-foot-deep spring is the third largest hot spring in the world and is well known for its brilliant colors, a product of the minerals and bacteria in the water.

There was concern that the drone might affect the colors, so an attempt was made to remove it. Since the water can reach 250 degrees because of its mineral content, the park has a mechanical arm it uses to retrieve objects from geysers.

The search for the drone was unsuccessful. I’m thinking park officials should add a few things to the warning signs at Yellowstone. Maybe change them to read “Don’t feed the bears. No drones allowed. And leave all your cell phones, Frisbees and fidget spinners in your vehicle.” Do you think that would help?