You truly meet some of the most interesting people in a National Park. The staff, both paid and unpaid, reign from all over yet are all united from the love they share for a place like Yellowstone.
Today my orientation to the Grant district of Yellowstone found me with Ralph Taylor a retired engineer and a volunteer in Yellowstone National Park for over 20 years. Each summer Ralph comes to Yellowstone and monitors the thermal features in various geyser basins. Sounds easy right? Think again!
As we pulled up to Potts Basin Ralph gave me his standard safety speech:
"We will follow a game trail down to the basin and then we will find the safest route in and around the features. You need to stay with me at all times and in some cases I will ask you to follow EXACTLY in my footsteps. Pay close attention where you put your feet and never step backwards...always forward."
As we passed the wooden fencing and the "do not enter/danger" signs Ralph and I found ourselves discussing those who have injured themselves in thermal basins and in some cases those who have died a gruesome death from falling into a thermal feature. By far, in my opinion, the worst way one can die. Needless to say as I followed Ralph I developed my own safety strategy: Follow exactly in his footsteps ALL THE TIME but not too closely...that way if he broke through the crust I would have a chance to jump backwards. Now I know that sounds selfish but even Ralph himself told me "If I fall in just push me back in; I would rather die suddenly than be pulled out and die in 12 hours in the hospital". Gruesome but realistic! The first thing you are taught when you become a Park Ranger is to ensure your safety FIRST before helping anyone else. I take this rule VERY seriously in thermal basins!
As I turned around, the road- my safety zone was over 100 yards away. "No going back now", I thought to myself. Suddenly, I found myself questioning Ralph's skills. Poor Ralph, I bombarded him with diplomatically phrased questions to figure out if he was indeed qualified to escort me through Potts Basin!
" How did you become a volunteer? Do you have any geology background? How do you know where to walk? But if there was an earthquake last night couldn't things change dramatically? How hot are some of these features? If I were out here alone would that grassy hill over there be safe? "
Ralph politely answered all my questions sensing my innate fear of Potts Basin! He assured me that in over 20 years of studying this particular Basin he had become extremely familiar with the land and had never lost anyone! Now that may relieve some people but my analytical and realistic mind was not going to accept that! Afterall, the law of averages would indicate that if he hadn't lost anyone yet...well... time's a tickin'!
Three hours later we were still alive and exploring the basin. I watched Ralph as he changed the batteries in his monitoring equipment, downloaded recent information on his computer and logged the changes in the features in his well kept yellow journal. He clearly explained everything he did and gave me ample time to marvel at the features that only a few people get to see. Mudpots, Geysers, Fumeroles and Hot Springs galore! All around me were tie-dye arrangements of colors; sizzles, pops and gurgles; and the faint smell of sulphur. The colorful mats of heat loving bacteria ran off into the cold deep waters of Lake Yellowstone whilst the Lake itself was surrounded by the beautiful snow covered peaks of the Absaroka Mountains.
I realized in that moment that fear is not always a bad emotion. Fear is what makes you marvel at the power of a supervolcano and makes you wonder what lies beneath the frigid cold of Lake Yellowstone. Fear is what evokes in us a sense of respect towards things greater than us. And with respect comes the idea that we must protect these things that are so grand. The idea of conservation and preservation. The National Park Idea.