Saturday, June 11, 2011

Yellowstone Lake: Beautiful yet Complex

What was once a frozen Arctic landscape is now a mixture of water and melting ice. Yellowstone Lake, the largest lake above 7000 ft in North America, is slowly melting. It changes by the minute; at times the newly exposed water saturates the ice giving it a crystal blue color, other times, in the early dawn, it looks like a frozen ice cap once again. These changes however are only a mere fraction of the changes that are occurring beneath the surface. As Spring slowly raises the water's temperature it causes the indigo waters of Yellowstone Lake to "turn over". Beyond the view of our eyes the water "flips", causing nutrient rich sediment from the bottom of the Lake to be brought towards the surface- a critical and  important cycle in this Lake's ecology. The churning waters provide rich nutrients for microbes and amphipods to feed upon which in turn provide food for larger critters. Eventually this cascading effect touches the lives of everything living in and around the Lake- including the humans!

For the residents of Grant Village, the Lake's ecological "turn over" process has the ability to deeply impact the survival of the human population within Grant Village. And no one has a more clear understanding of this than my husband Shane.While the Lake turn-over is a prolific, almost joyous time, for microbes and fish, it happens to be a rather unhappy time for the man who runs the Grant Village water treatment facility.

I received a call at 5pm on Wednesday from Shane telling me that he would be home late. By 8 pm he finally walked through the door after being at work since 7am. Over a quick dinner Shane explained that our drinking water in Grant Village comes from Yellowstone Lake, therefore what happens to the Lake greatly impacts our drinking water. It's Shane's job to make sure that the water which comes out of our faucets is ALWAYS in compliance. One aspect of "staying within compliance" is to make sure that the turbidity level of the water never exceeds 0.3ppm. I would soon discover that is not an easy task.

At 10pm Shane said he had to go back to the water plant for about 1 hour in order to make sure that our drinking water was being processed properly but two hours later I awoke to find that he had not returned. Remembering that I couldn't call him since his cell phone had recently died,  I decided that he was probably fine and just running late. But when I awoke at 1am to find that he had still not returned I began to get a little nervous. Tossing and turning I knew that I was not going to get any sleep until I knew he was safe. Throwing a jacket over my pajamas, I jumped into the truck and drove a short 1.5 miles to the water plant. In the cold of the night I knocked on the aluminum door and I was quickly relieved when I saw Shane's face opening the door. Entering the plant I looked around and realized that in nine months of living in Grant I had actually never seen the water plant.

 "Want a tour?" Shane asked. "Why not!" I said. And so at 1:30 am, in the still of the night, I was touring the Park's water treatment facility in my pajamas!

 By 2:00 am I was well versed in how the Lake's ecological processes cause the water's turbidity to increase thus putting our water treatment facility on the brink of being out of compliance. I watched as Shane pressed buttons, tested water and completed mathematical equations in his mini laboratory. He is the "guy behind the scenes" treating water for more than 5000 people a day who will brush their teeth at the lodge, cook their dinner at the campground, and fill up their water bottles at the visitor center. He is the park ranger who is seldom seen but who is entrusted with a great amount of power.

Thirty minutes later we both crawled into bed with the acceptance that tomorrow was going to be a long day. However, when the phone rang at 3:15am it became apparent that it was going to be a REALLY long day for Shane. The call was from the Park's Dispatch office, calling to inform Shane that the turbidity alarm was going off at the plant. It would be another 45 minutes before he crawled back into bed and when the sound of the alarm clock went off at 6:30am Shane was back in his uniform preparing for another day of "Shane versus Lake Yellowstone".

Day 2, did not prove to be much better at the water plant. With limited sleep, Shane somehow managed to work another long day totaling 16 hours. With over 8,000 years of experience, the Lake's natural Spring cycle was giving Shane's a run for his money! The water was turbid, and the only way to keep the drinking water in compliance with the limited technology at the water plant was to have someone managing it around the clock...which Shane did with success. By Day 3, Shane was gaining momentum, and when he arrived at home by 5:30pm I knew the battle had subsided. 

While driving to Fishing Bridge the next day the view of the Lake alternated from rippling open water to frozen stacked up blocks of ice. A family sat and ate their lunch on the shores near Pumice Point while the first fishing boat of the season launched from the marina. Whether we realize it or not, we are all are somehow connected to Yellowstone Lake's ecological cycles.  Water molecules everywhere circum-navigate the globe which means that the water in your community could one day end up swirling around in Yellowstone Lake.  However, I hope that you become connected to the Lake on a more personal level. I hope that one day, you might visit Yellowstone and spend an afternoon fishing for trout on the Lake. Or maybe you'll sit along the shoreline admiring a flock of ducks as they float on the surface.
Perhaps, one day you'll even be lucky enough to photograph an Eagle enviously watching a River Otter who dines on fresh fish. But even if you never visit Yellowstone, you are connected to this Lake in a metaphysical way, because your mind and heart know that somewhere beyond your community lies an enormous alpine lake which is being preserved to ecologically function the same way it has for over 8,000 years. And even if you never get to experience first-hand the beauty  and complexity of Yellowstone Lake perhaps, one day your children, or your children's children, will.  

We do not inherit the land, we borrow it from our children.
 ~ Native American Proverb


  1. Thank you for the education today about Yellowstone Lake and the role water temperature plays. Your husband is truly one of the background heroes working long hours to keep things running smoothly. Jo B.

  2. Thanks for your kind comment Jo!

  3. If not for your blog, I would have never known about this. Thank you for the education. When we visit Yellowstone Lake, I have a new perspective about it...