Chapter 2: Mammoth Hot Springs

Places of Power (c) 1991 by Kathleen Kemsley

Sometime between midterms and final exams during my first quarter of college in San Diego, the mental picture of the dorm behind the Wawona Hotel in Yosemite returned to me.  With no plans for the following summer, and little enthusiasm about the prospect of spending those three months in Los Angeles at my parents’ house, I began taking steps to find out how I could get a summer job in a national park. 

I wrote to the National Park Service headquarters in Washington, D.C., to obtain a pamphlet listing addresses of concessionaires who hired summer help in the parks.  Once I received the list, I chose 15 parks which looked intriguing and sent to them for more information.  By return mail I received piles of application forms.  Every one of the forms I filled out by hand.  I sent them in, then settled back to await the results. 

By April I had received three job offers, from Sequoia, Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone National Parks.  I decided to take the position in Yellowstone. 

“Why Yellowstone?” my roommate asked when I told her my plans.

“Simple,” I said, laughing.  “It’s the farthest away from southern California.  I’ve never been to Wyoming.  Don’t you think it sounds exciting?”

Apparently, I was the only one of my college friends to think it sounded exciting.  Though I tried to entice some of them into applying for park jobs, none were interested.  So I went by myself, eager to get away from the stuffy atmosphere of college and the fog-shrouded coast of California. 

I traveled to Yellowstone in the company of my boyfriend, Randy, his sister Julie, and my brother John.  In Randy’s parents’ camper, we drove through Utah’s canyon country and the benign pastures of southeast Idaho for a week on the way to Yellowstone. 

We arrived at Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park, at noon.  Randy and the others helped me offload two boxes full of clothes and camping gear, and soon after that they left.  I stood by the hotel watching the camper until it disappeared around the curve of the park road, heading south.  I was alone in Yellowstone.  Turning my back on the road, I walked into the hotel and approached the front desk clerk. 

“I’m here,” I said. 

*****

Mammoth Hot Springs was situated at the far northern end of Yellowstone National Park, just five miles from the park entrance and the Montana state line.  It was off the beaten track in comparison to the more famous features of Yellowstone such as Old Faithful and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River.  Many tourists making the quick loop through the park missed Mammoth completely.  Those travelers arriving from Glacier Park to the north, and those who had allotted two or more days to see Yellowstone, were the ones who stopped in Mammoth Hot Springs. 

The main thermal attraction in my area was a series of travertine limestone ledges bubbling and steaming with hot water which flowed from the depths of the earth.  During my first week in Mammoth, I walked up to the terraces half a mile from the hotel to give myself a self-guided tour.  I picked up a pamphlet at the parking lot which described each spring and interpreted for novice geologists the highlights of the terraces. 

A plank trail led from the parking lot across the fragile calcium deposits, carefully marking the route so that tourist feet could not impact the delicate ecosystem of water and bright algae and slippery folds of lime. 

I learned from the pamphlet that, while the amount of water or steam being emitted from any one part of the terrace area could vary hourly, the total volume of water expended by the hot springs remained constant.  The booklet also told me that all the colors brightening the hot pools in each spring indicated the presence of different species of algae.  Various types of the algae grew in each spring depending on its temperature, so that by looking at the color of any given hot pool, I could tell approximately how warm it was. 

Just as interesting to me as the natural features of the hot spring terrace was the parade of people I saw on my tour.  I peered with great humor from behind my sunglasses at “Mabel and George,” the hundreds of tourists who tramped through, took pictures of each other, and hurried away to their next destination. 

I paused on my walk to sit on a bench strategically located to overlook the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel.  Beyond the bright colors of the hot spring terraces, the hotel rested in the middle of a huge, freshly mowed lawn.  It looked like it had been planted there at the beginning of time and had just grown along with the trees to a mellow maturity.  The hotel was neither obnoxiously fancy nor sadly neglected.  The adjective which came to mind was “grand.”  It was a hotel built in an era that had passed; when it was new, people arrived at Yellowstone in Model A’s, wore bobbed hair and still talked about the World War, unaware that there would one day be a need to number the world wars.  The Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel had aged gracefully, appearing just as comfortable and unobtrusive as it must have looked sixty years before. 

I turned my attention to the procession of people passing by.  A man with a big belly waddled by, dressed in an orange tie-dyed sleeveless vest and a pair of those polyester pants branded with a permanent crease. He was talking to an invisible buddy on a walkie-talkie.  The absent man’s voice sailed over the airwaves as Orange Vest moved past me: “Say Joe, did you hear the one about the Montana bull shipper?” 

Next came two thirtyish women who herded five children between them.  One woman was reading from the pamphlet: “’The raw material here is limestone.  Over 4,000 pounds of material is produced by the springs each day.  Some of the terraces grow as much as two feet each year.’ Are you listening to me, kids?” She lined them all up for a photo, and several kids made faces at the camera.  The other mother spoke sharply to a little girl who was leaning over the edge of the plank trail, trying to touch the boiling water of a hot pool. 

I thought, as the two women hustled their brood along down the path, that I bet this trip had sounded like a good idea when the women had talked about it over coffee in their kitchen in Ohio.  But they were certainly having second thoughts about it now. 

Two older ladies walked past me going the other way.  I overheard a snatch of their conversation:

“Ooooh,” one complained, “my legs still hurt.”

“That’s what happens when you carouse around all day, acting so frisky.  At your age!” 

The people moved past and disappeared around a curve in the trail.  And the hot springs paid them no heed.  In a quiet lull between the clumps of tourists, the water bubbled and flowed over the terraces.  Steam rose silently into the sky and disappeared.  It delighted me to know that the steam kept rising, whether anyone was there to make comments about it or not. 

Wandering by foot around the Mammoth Hot Springs area, I discovered other places, not public like the terraces, where I could go to be alone with the open expansive land of the Yellowstone region.  One such place was a small hill directly north of the Mammoth complex.  A twenty-minute hike took me to the apex of the hill.  From there I could look one way and see the settlement built around the hot spring terraces; turning my back on that, I could gaze over an endless series of hills and valleys, through which the Yellowstone River flowed north into Montana and ultimately into the Missouri River, the Mississippi River, and the Louisiana Delta.

Once when I was up there, I discovered a couple of grave markers.  One was etched with the name of a man who died in 1886 at the age of 25.  The other bore the name of a woman who passed away three years earlier, when she was 35.  The graves were still distinguishable from the rolling hills and long grasses, for the perimeter had been marked off from the wilderness by white rocks. 

I spent a few hours in my first few weeks at Mammoth perched on top of that minor unnamed mountain north of the hotel in the company of the two departed pioneers.  Sitting on a rock in the wind, I found some of the serenity which I can come all the way from southern California to seek. 

The moments of solitude and peace, however, became scarcer as the summer progressed.  For, after the first few weeks of memorizing names and learning my job, I became a participant.  I joined forces with the locals and became immersed in the Parkie culture that existed at Mammoth Hot Springs.  It was everything I had imagined it would be when I had stared at employees lounging on the dorm porch behind the Wawona Hotel years earlier.  It was more than I had imagined.  The Parkies and the tourists and the spectacular scenery eased their way into my heart.  And once lodged there, the elements of the Yellowstone experience never loosened their grip.  I surrendered to the power of the place. 

The hot springs never commented.  Their steam just rose into the clear air and disappeared, as it had for thousands of years before I, and everyone else, ever arrived on the scene. 

*****

On a day off, during the early weeks of my sojourn in Mammoth Hot Springs, I went hiking on the six mile Beaver Pond Trail.  The route started at the fringe of the Mammoth hotel complex and wound back through the woods to the northwest, following the contours of the land.

I had made some friends already among the Parkie people with whom I worked, but that day, craving the solitude offered by the Yellowstone wilderness, I went alone on the hike, carrying water, lunch, a camera and notebook, and bear bells.  When I had sat through the orientation program presented by Park Service interpreters the day I arrived, they put on a little skit about bears.  Beyond the silliness of their routine (“This is what you do when a bear chases you….Eeeeek!”), the message came through that the best way to avoid a confrontation with a bear in the wild was to warn it of your approach and let it identify, through your sounds, what and where you were. 

I bought some bear bells at the convenience store immediately.  Though I did not take them when hiking with others, figuring that our voices would provide a satisfactory warning, I did tie them onto my day pack when I went solo hiking.  In addition, I sang as loudly as I could, in rhythm to my steps, to ensure that I would scare any bears away.  I was not a gifted singer, but I belted out tunes like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Country Roads Take Me Home” with gusto, all the same, so that any bears would know I was moving in their direction. 

I was especially wary of bears on the hike to the Beaver Ponds that day because the word had spread around the park that, a couple weeks earlier, a man had been mauled by a bear.  He was a biologist who had been studying bear behavior.  If anyone should have known how to avoid bear attacks, he should have.  He was alone, hiking in the middle of the day, when he surprised a sow with three cubs.  She attacked him savagely.  He was airlifted to a hospital in Salt Lake City and was said to be in critical condition. 

With the thought of the biologist lurking in the back of my mind, my mood was guarded for the first couple miles of the trail.  Gradually, the serenity of the woods soothed me and my fears dissipated like the steam of the hot springs into the clear summer air. 

I paused at one of the beaver ponds along the route to eat lunch.  The sun was shining and a warm breeze slid through the tall grass.  Leaves of aspen shimmered green and whispered against a perfect sky.  Hours earlier I had left behind the last painted sign, “Do Not Step Off The Marked Paths.”  I stepped, and basked in the swatches of sunshine and wind. 

Emerging from a reverie, I sensed movement on the far side of the beaver pond.  Frozen in place, I stared at the tall grass and presently saw a black shape moving slowly through it. 

My heart pounded.  A bear!  It was a lone black bear, no larger than those I had seen in Yosemite, perhaps 200 pounds.  The bear did not appear to be aware of my presence, so I remained very still and watched it. 

Thoughts flew through my mind like swallows.  I recalled the instructions given during the orientation skit about shouting and waving at a bear.  “Hey bear, how’s it going?”  I nearly laughed aloud at the thought of this ludicrous one-sided conversation.  Then I considered taking pictures, but quickly ditched that idea.  I had heard too many stories about people found dead after being attacked by a bear, while in their cameras were photos of the bear approaching closer and closer. 

After watching it move among the grasses for a few minutes, I began to enjoy spying on the bear in spite of my fear.  The creature moved with surprising agility for its size.  Somehow, I had held onto a mental image of bears as lumbering, heavy footed, clumsy animals.  But the one I was watching appeared comfortable and graceful as it rambled through the woods near the pond, searching for an afternoon snack.  The breeze combed through the bear’s coat like fingers.  It looked to be completely at ease in its home territory with neither fences nor civilization to restrict its movements. 

Presently, the bear wandered out of my field of vision, toward a stand of aspen beyond the lake.  I understood that was my cue to make an exit from the bear’s domain.  Rather than continue along the trail, I decided to retrace the route along which I had come.  At the moment, it made sense to me that, since I had not seen any bears on the hike in, I would most likely avoid them by going out the same way. 

Once out of earshot of the black bear, I resumed the off-key singing and watched more closely for telltale signs of bears on the trail.  I saw no steaming scat piles nor any four-inch-wide paw prints, and the walk back to Mammoth was uneventful as far as bear sightings were concerned. 

My thoughts after that day were filled with bears.  It used to be that bears and Yellowstone were synonymous.  As recently as ten years before I had arrived in Yellowstone, bears were a common sight along the park roads.  Park Service workers, as yet unenlightened about bear management, had condoned the dumping of garbage in open pits.  They had even set up bleachers at a garbage dump, to provide tourists with a comfortable vantage point from which to view the feeding bears.  As visitation to the park increased, so did the incidents of “bear jams” – places along the roads where tourists parked four deep to feed the animals which shamelessly approached their vehicles begging for food. 

In that zoo-like atmosphere, the frequency of maulings and bear vandalism increased.  The bears of Yellowstone learned that humans equaled food handouts, and the tantrums they threw when they didn’t get their expected meal were devastating.  Tents and trailers were destroyed and several people were attacked by bears that did not understand the word “no.” 

Horror stories circulated in the park about tourists who failed to grasp that the bears were not tame.  The one told most often, because it was so outrageous, was about a woman who had smeared honey on her three-year-old daughter’s face and then took pictures as a bear licked it off. 

Finally, beginning in the late 1960s, park management adopted a different philosophy toward bears.  The creatures were wild animals, so rangers decided that they should be placed back in the wild.  One by one, the bears which hung around near dumps and campgrounds were sedated and moved to more remote areas of the park.

Unfortunately, no one told the bears that they needed to change their foraging habits.  Many a bear, transferred to Hayden Valley or Republic Pass, found its way back to the lucrative feeding grounds near concentrated human populations.  The rule followed by park officials was that a “problem” bear, that is, one that could not read its script from the bear management plan, had three chances.  If it was shipped out to the back woods and returned to civilization three times, it would be destroyed. 

The Park Service public relations people stated that problem bears were sent to a zoo.  That was what we were supposed to tell the Yellowstone tourists.  But in reality, the expense of shipping a live bear to a zoo – let alone finding a zoo willing to take yet another bear – was prohibitive.  So most of the time, these bears which has been taught by their mothers and grandmothers that humans represented a free meal were punished with the death penalty. 

I had the opportunity to see one of the so-called problem bears close up.  Early one morning the head cook, arriving to open the restaurant kitchen, discovered that the back door had been forced open and the kitchen torn apart by a bear.  His first reaction was to accuse wayward employees of having thrown a party in the kitchen the night before, because the pots and pans were knocked over, cans were off the shelves, and furniture had been overturned.  But teeth marks in the sides of cans in the pantry quickly revealed the true identity of the kitchen intruder.

Park Service biologists arrived the next evening and set up a bear trap outside the kitchen door.  The cylindrical metal contraption resembled a couple of 50-gallon drums which had been welded together.  A steak was placed in the trap as bait. 

Darkness fell.  About midnight, a loud metallic clang, like a jail door being slammed, was heard all over the employee dorm complex.  I joined several others on the porch of the girl’s dorm with a flashlight, to see if the bear had been caught. 

Cautiously, someone walked up to the trap and shined a light inside.  Looking out of the cylinder was a very irate black bear.  The flashlight in its eyes fueled its fury.  It went into a rage, roaring and leaping at the cage door with remarkable strength.  But the cage was built stoutly and the bear was unable to make a jailbreak. 

Presently, Park Service people arrived and took the cylinder and bear away.  I later learned that the bear they caught behind the Mammoth kitchen had committed strike two by breaking into the restaurant.  It had been tagged and transported to a remote area of the park near Madison, with the stipulation that if it returned once more it would not be given another chance to rehabilitate.  But nobody read that contract to the bear. 

I did not find out if that particular bear ever did return to civilization, but I hoped it would stay gone long enough to forget its association between people and food.  I understood what the park people were trying to do.  Truly I valued the glimpse of a bear in the wild far more highly than a full view of it propped up on hind legs outside my car window.  But the mistake had been made by unenlightened park managers, and the present generation of bears was paying for the mistake with their lives. 

Even more than the scapegoat role assigned by the Park Service to Yellowstone bears, I resented the ignorance of tourists who, even in 1977, were genuinely disappointed that they could not see bears along the road.  Many of this variety of park visitor had little or no experience in the wilderness.  Their comments about Yogi and Boo-Boo infuriated me.  Over and over I tried to educate them – “Bears are wild animals, ma’am” – but the faces kept changing daily and the attitudes stayed the same.  Finally I began to make sarcastic jokes about bears, suggesting to the most obnoxious that they leave their coolers open and line their sleeping bags with fresh fish. 

Maulings were still common enough that a statement such as that brought most of them to their senses.  A few, however, disappeared into the park, driving south from Mammoth, with the same cartoon-inspired ideas with which they had arrived.  Unable to change their perceptions, all I could do was shake my head at them and sigh. 

The woman who smeared honey on her child’s face, I was certain, must have been one of these. 

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