DAY 3 — Are we there yet?
We’re in Yellowstone National Park and with 2.2 million acres to cover, parents often hear that question as they drive the park’s winding roads often clogged when traffic stops to view bison, elk, moose or bears.
But we’re not driving. Along with our stellar Austin Lehman Adventures guides Matty Kirkland and Katie Gugliotta. We’re paddling in kayaks on Yellowstone Lake to a wilderness camp called 7M7. There are hundreds of campsites like this along the huge lake—it stretches 20 miles north to south and 14 miles east to west with 141 miles of shore line– and they are all numbered.
First we took an hour-long boat ride from Bridge Bay, where many people go out in fishing boats on the lake to Plover Point. There we got a kayaking 101 lesson from the camp crew who met us there with the kayaks and a pontoon boat to haul our gear. My cousins Jayme and Mike Sitzman and their kids, nine year old Ethan and Six year old Hannah, had never kayaked before but we’re not worried because our guides are experienced kayakers.
Certainly we could tour Yellowstone on our own but Austin Lehman has been guiding families in the vast park for 25 years and this is an opportunity to get away from the hordes of tourists (up more than 10 per cent last year from 2009 with 3.6 million visitors) and experience the park with those who know it well. Sadly, the majority of visitors don’t get more than a quarter of a mile from the road when there are thousands of hiking trails in the park. Only three per cent of the park is reachable by road. We’re also getting the chance for some unique adventures—like wilderness camping on Lake Yellowstone that requires a five-mile paddle to get to our campsite.
Five miles– just us and the wilderness in the largest lake at high elevation in North America. We pass a deer staring complacently at us. “Is he alive?” Ethan wants to know. We see a mama Osprey in her nest in the top of the trees. It’s windy.
Sure it’s memorable but still the kids ask “How much longer!” Adults too.
After all we’d had a day full of firsts—not the least of which was seeing Old Faithful go off, spewing water some 130 feet in the area. Yellowstone, the nation’s first national park, has 1000 thermal features and 300 geysers.
There is a terrific new discovery center for kids at the Old Faithful Visitor Center where parents and kids are spread out with their Junior Ranger activity books. You could examine elk teeth with a magnifying glass to see how the silica in the geyser basin destroys their teeth, a geyser and fun facts.
Is it true Yellowstone is a giant volcano…Yes!
Is Old Faithful as it used to be? No the time between eruptions is longer, we learn (typically 93 minutes, give or take 10 minutes.)
Yellowstone, I think, is s truly a natural amusement park for kids—animals (67 species of mammals, 322 species of birds, 16 species of fish and 6 of reptiles). Our first morning, we see elk, bison and a bison carcass which Ethan — who with Hannah has been naming every new animal we see, promptly dubs — Marcus Carcass.
At the Lower Geyser Basin (a geyser basin is a geographically distinct area that contains a cluster of different hydrothermal features), we stopped at my favorite thermal feature – the bubbling mud pots that make the funniest sounds: bloop…bloop…bloop. And the springs—orange, blue, brown—the colors are telling us how hot they are.
If water bubbles to the surface, we learn, it’s a hot spring It goes through porous rock it’s a bubbling mud pot and if just steam makes it to the surface, it’s a fumarole.
The temperature in the bright blue springs is over 200 degrees!
But seeing them isn’t the highlight of our morning. Our guide Matty K leads us on a hike not in the guide books up a 600-foot incline to a spectacular overview of the Grand Prismatic— the third largest hot spring in the world– shimmering turquoise, orange and green. When we get to the overlook, our guide Matty pulled out homemade ice cream made along the way with an REI gadget designed for campers, cones and even sprinkles.
“I’ve been on this hike as lot of times and never seen anyone have ice cream cones up here,” another hiking guide said. We just smiled—and licked our cones.
After we arrive at our camp after a two hour paddle, we settle into our two-person tents complete with cots. After unrolling our sleeping bags, it’s martini time. Yes, the guides have brought the fixings. Dinner is salmon followed by pound cake with blueberries and lemon sauce.
We practically roll to our tents.
Next: Fishes and frogs – a day on Lake Yellowstone