Friday, October 29, 2010

Friday photo

Colter Bay, Jackson Lake. Grand Teton National Park, June 1998.

Colter Bay is, of course, named for the famous mountain man John Colter, who is suspected to be the first white man to visit Yellowstone. We're not sure -- it seems pretty certain that he traveled through Yellowstone, but there's every chance that some French or Spanish explorer might have been there shortly before him, without leaving a record.

Colter was on his way back to St. Louis with Lewis and Clark when he met up with a pair of trappers; with his commanders' permission, he left the expedition and went with his new partners. That venture didn't work out, but he met up with Manuel Lisa of the Missouri Fur Company and decided to try the trading business again. It was while employed by Lisa that Colter made his journey through the northern Rockies, locating native bands and trying to persuade them to conduct business with the Missouri Co. This was in the fall and winter of 1807-08.

A few years after this trek, Colter met up with William Clark again and the two discussed his travels. Almost all we know of Colter's route is all based on this notation in the map Clark was compiling of the West:

Remember that Clark and Lewis had taken careful observations of the route of the Missouri River; it's very accurate on the map, as are the locations of its major tributaries. Lisa's fort was at the mouth of the Bighorn River, near present-day Hardin, Montana, and Colter seems to have ascended the Bighorn, turned west at the Shoshone River, and probably reached present-day Cody. Clark's map indicated "Boiling Springs" there, and although the hot springs around Cody are no longer active, there are other contemporary accounts of them; in all probability, this was the site referred to as "Colter's Hell," a name that was later - and erroneously - applied to Yellowstone itself.

That much is pretty clear from Clark's map, but after that it gets murky. Clark was filling in areas based on verbal reports, without the benefit of systematic surveys, and the results are rather imprecise, to say the least. But his map does contain two lakes, which he named "Eustis" and "Biddle." And it just happens that this area, in reality, contains two of the most prominent lakes in the Northern Rockies: Lake Yellowstone and Jackson Lake. Anchoring a reconstruction around these two landmarks, it's possible to make a plausible guess where Colter went.*

It's been proposed that he crossed over Togwootee Pass into Jackson Hole, but the map shows him skirting well south of Jackson Lake; therefore, it seems more likely that he made the difficult passage over the Wind River Range via Union Pass, between present-day Dubois and Pinedale. If that's the case, then he probably followed the Hoback River up into the south end of Jackson Hole.

It's pretty well accepted that he crossed the Tetons, probably at Teton Pass between Wilson, WY, and Victor, ID, and went north through the flat valley west of the Teton Range. The approach to "Lake Biddle" from the northwest would suggest that he crossed the northern end of the Tetons and encountered Jackson Lake for the first time.

From there, he apparently went north and found Yellowstone Lake, although it seems odd that the Snake River should be shown so truncated - it would have been the logical route all the way up to Lewis Lake or beyond. Then along the western shore of Yellowstone Lake and up the Yellowstone River - except now there are a couple more problems. The major discrepancy is that the outlet to the lake is shown to the southeast, almost 180 degrees opposite of reality. It's hard to account for an error that large, since nothing about the geography would suggest that Yellowstone Lake drains from anywhere but its northern end. Perhaps Clark simply misunderstood what he was being told.

Second, it seems surprising that Colter traveled along the west side of Yellowstone Lake without noticing the West Thumb thermal area. It would also be weird if he saw them, but didn't find them as worthy of mention as the "Boiling Springs" near Cody. Of the two possibilities, the former seems more explicable to me.

For the rest of the route, Colter is presumed to have reached Soda Butte Creek via the Lamar River, and thence to Clark's Fork and back to the Yellowstone, perhaps near Laurel. Again, it's awfully hard to make sense of Clark's map on this point. He shows Colter descending the left bank of the Yellowstone, then crossing it and, instead of following a tributary (as the Lamar is), crossing a divide into a parallel river basin. But there's really no better way of getting from Yellowstone Lake to Pryor's Fork than that, and it's pretty solid that he did travel between those two places.

If this reconstruction is accurate, this would be the approximate route that Colter took:

View Colter's route? in a larger map

*My description is largely based on the description in Mattes, Merrill J. "Behind the Legend of Colter's Hell: The Early Exploration of Yellowstone National Park," The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Sep., 1949), p. 254.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Larison on historic causality

This post by Daniel Larison is worth reading, primarily for this paragraph:

A less obvious, but no less important reason I am discussing this at length is that I have no patience with historical arguments that stress broad, sweeping cultural and/or religious factors at the expense of discernible, specific causes. That partly informs my impatience with claims that jihadists attack Western governments because of “who we are” rather than what those governments do. When we want to avoid understanding the realities of terrorism, we simply say, “Their god compels them,” and leave it at that. What is most bothersome about this is that it doesn’t actually take cultural and religious factors seriously at all. On the contrary, it ignores the actual significance of cultural and religious factors by distorting them beyond recognition and using them as the framing for essentialist arguments that are designed to perpetuate conflict and facilitate vilification of other peoples. Such arguments pretend to pay attention to deeper causes, but in the end provide the most superficial analysis dressed up in condescending rhetoric. Instead of explaining a phenomenon, they are intended to explain it away. [Emphasis added]

One of the more important books I ever read - and I didn't appreciate that fact until some time had passed - was James P. Ronda's Lewis and Clark Among the Indians. If you haven't read it, do. Ronda traces the Corps of Discovery's famous trip from St. Louis to the mouth of the Columbia and back by recounting their encounters with the natives, explaining how Lewis and Clark misunderstood the Indians at every step of the way. That might sound like a writer scoring cheap and easy points off the stupid white guys, but it's a more subtle book than that.

Lewis and Clark - Lewis, especially - are considered pretty good ethnographers for their day, taking careful notes on the people they met, generally with more description than moralizing. As with their natural science notes, they are valuable records to this day. But everything they saw was filtered through their own agenda, which was to get all of the Plains tribes to quit fighting each other and direct all their trade to the Americans. The Indians, surprisingly enough, had their own agendas and explaining these, with the benefit of an extra 180 years of scholarship, is what Ronda is about.

And what emerges is not a race of people who fail to measure up to Americans, nor a race of noble savages who stand as a rebuke to the benighted white men, nor self-contained cultures that are forever inexplicable to outsiders. You get people, people who may have different beliefs and customs, but are not really as different as they seem at first. You have Arikaras reeling from a smallpox holocaust, with the survivors trying to recreate a viable community from the remnants of rival groups; Lakota men using a confrontation with the Corps of Discovery to posture for status in front of their peers; Shoshones who were willing to help the Americans, but didn't believe they could afford to give as much as was being asked; savvy Chinooks and Clatsops who had long experience trading with British ships and turned the tables on the Americans by driving hard bargains for food and boats.

Even the stranger cultural practices come to make sense. Lewis and Clark had no idea why Mandan men were so generous in giving their wives to the Americans for one night stands, to the delight of enlisted men. What they didn't realize was that Mandans believed skills and powers could be transferred through shared sexual partners; when they saw fifty Americans, with their boats full of guns and trade goods, they assumed "These guys sure have some powers. Maybe we can get some of that to rub off on us." A strange belief, to us, but a perfectly rational action for such believers to take.

In a similar vein, it's really not so hard to understand why someone might decided to wage war on a rich, arrogant, and overbearing country, especially if they have soldiers occupying your country. What's hard to understand is why anyone finds this hard to understand.

Red in tooth and claw

This scary photo of a grizzly bear chasing down a badly-mauled bison was taken early last April in Yellowstone:

This probably wouldn't happen at any other time of the year. April is a nasty month for herbivores, when the grass is barely starting to reappear and they're at the end of the fat reserves they piled on the summer before. A bison at full strength is too dangerous for even a grizzly bear to want to tackle, but this cow looks pretty thin. Even at that, it's uncommon for the bear to want to take down a large live animal - there's normally a good amount of winterkill lying about that he could have scavenged much easier.

[Update: I've learned that this photo was a winner in the Co-op Recreation photo contest this year, and was taken by an employee at the Old Faithful Post Office].

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


I'm convinced: I don't want Obama beans up my nose!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Big claims

A funny little incident occurred this week when the organization that manages English historic sites claimed copyright over every image ever taken of Stonehenge. According to the blog of the image library fotoLibra, the organization English Heritage sent them the following message:

We are sending you an email regarding images of Stonehenge in your fotoLibra website. Please be aware that any images of Stonehenge can not be used for any commercial interest, all commercial interest to sell images must be directed to English Heritage.

As of Friday, the English Heritage site has posted a disavowal:
English Heritage looks after Stonehenge on behalf of the nation. But we do not control the copyright of all images of Stonehenge. And we have never tried to do so. We have no problem with photographers sharing images of Stonehenge on Flickr and similar not-for-profit image websites. We encourage visitors to the monument to take their own photographs.

If a commercial photographer enters the land within our care with the intention of taking a photograph of the monument for financial gain, we ask that they pay a fee and abide by certain conditions. English Heritage is a non-profit making organisation and this fee helps preserve and protect Stonehenge for the benefit of future generations. The majority of commercial photographers respect this position and normally request permission in advance of visiting. We regret the confusion caused by a recent email sent to a picture library.

Which doesn't quite explain why the original email went out in the first place. I wonder if some mid-level executive has been reading about expansive copyright claims and just assumed he had the law on his side?

Stumbled upon

Friday, October 22, 2010

Friday photo

Inspiration Point, Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah. September 1993.

Okay, so everyplace has to have an "Inspiration Point," surely the least inspired place name in the English-speaking world next to "Main Street." It's still worth taking a look at Bryce Canyon. The Paiutes were purportedly inspired to imagine a bunch of people turned to stone; the Mormon settler Ebenezer Bryce was inspired to the hilariously prosaic, "It's a hell of a place to lose a cow."

Bryce Canyon isn't really a canyon -- it's the side of a cliff being eroded away. You might think - it being in the middle of a desert and all - that the hoodoos are created by wind erosion rather than water. This turns out to be wrong; it's all about water. Not a single stream, as canyons are generally carved, but innumerable rivulets formed from a bit of rain and melting snow, with the extra power of an almost year-round freezing and thawing.* On the top of each spire -- or hoodoo -- is a layer of relatively hard rock that doesn't erode away too easily. But once the water works its way through some cracks and reaches the softer rock underneath, it begins to carry away the soft stuff while leaving the hard rock behind. Since the wind isn't doing much of the work at Bryce, all the erosive action is at ground level -- which is why the upper parts of the hoodoos stay put, while the spaces between them just get deeper and deeper.

Utah is full of weird scenery, so weird that it inspired the alien scenery of Calvin & Hobbes. Here's how Bill Watterson described his Spaceman Spiff stories:
The Spiff strips are limited in narrative potential, but I keep doing them because they're so much fun to draw. The planets and monsters offer great visual possibilities, especially in the Sunday strips. Most of the alien landscapes come from the canyons and deserts of southern Utah, a place more weird and spectacular than anything I'd previously been able to make up. The landscapes have become a significant part of the Spaceman Spiff sequences, and I often write the strip around the topography I feel like drawing.**
But even by Utah standards, Bryce is one weird-looking place.

* Being at high altitude, but mid-latitude, the sun will easily melt much of the snow in the winter, while the temperature also dips below freezing on most summer nights.

** Watterson, The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book, 1995.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

San Francisco, 1906

If you didn't catch 60 Minutes Sunday night, you should definitely check out this story on a mysterious film of San Francisco, taken from a cable car moving down Market Street, near the turn of the century. It's an intriguing film in itself, catching a (mostly) candid view of the city in a past era. But it grows even more meaningful when an archivist's careful research discovers it was taken on the eve of the disastrous 1906 earthquake.

The other Art of the Possible

xkcd offers another way to spot BS:

Friday, October 15, 2010

Friday photo

Palmer Commons, University of Michigan. Ann Arbor, October 2010.

Nothing much to say, other than that I like reflections.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Making a flat earth rugged

I'm trying to figure out how long this feature has been a part of Google Earth: when you pan a mountainous scene back and forth, you can see it in three dimensions. I'm pretty sure it wasn't always there, but I've been mostly working in the relatively flat Midwest and didn't notice it until now.

You can see it for yourself by zooming in on any mountainous area, or you can download this file and open it directly in Google Earth to find the location seen here:

What you're looking at is Dome Mountain, a prominent peak at the exit to Yankee Jim Canyon, north of Yellowstone National Park. If you use the right and left arrow keys to pan back and forth, you'll suddenly start seeing the landscape in three dimensions. As soon as you stop, it's flat again.

To do this, Google Earth has to continuously distort the image as you pan. The parts of the image that represent the highest elevation are stretched farther toward the edges of the screen, while the lower elevations stay relatively still. As you'll immediately recognize, this is how you experience the real world: when you move, objects that are close to you seem to change position much more than do those farther away.

I underestimated the amount of distortion, until I compared snapshots of the mountain at the extreme sides of the screen. Here I've placed identical circles at the same point in each one, to make for easier comparison. When the mountain is moved to the left (as if you were viewing slightly from the east), see how much more area the east side of the slope seems to take up. In the image to the right (corresponding to a vantage point slightly more to the west) it's the western side that seems very wide and the eastern slope that is narrowed. Notice the treeless, gullied area on the western slope, which is rendered perhaps twice as wide in the right hand shot as it is on the left.

Keep in mind that Google doesn't have multiple views available. It's all the same flat, 2-dimensional image that is being manipulated in just the right manner to mimic what you'd see if it really were 3-D. Through long experience with the real world, your visual system has learned that close things shift position more noticeably than distant things do, so it can be tricked into thinking you're seeing depth, even when you aren't. Google falsifies the image so that your brain falsely interprets what's really in front of your eyes - all to give you a truer impression of what you'd see if you really were floating above the mountain. Cute trick.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Barack X?

Here is why Poe's Law is true. A blogger calls for testing Obama's DNA and one of the commenters is insisting that the President is the secret love child of Malcolm X. Because someone that evil couldn't be the spawn of just anyone, could he?

Friday, October 8, 2010

Friday photo

American Black Bear. Yellowstone National Park, June 2004.

Here's a little black bear that I found browsing the road side near Abiathar Peak one day. Although I kept all the commotion out of the photograph, the bear was nearly surrounded by a crowd of tourists and parked cars. However, he paid them no mind and I almost have to admire how well he maintained his concentration with all the ruckus going on. A true Zen master.

How different his behavior would have been fifty years ago! Bears didn't ignore cars then; they sought them out, like a child chasing an ice cream truck. Cars meant handouts of food and the best thing to do with one was to stand up and stick your nose through the window. If there was anything in Yellowstone more iconic than Old Faithful, it was the begging bears along the roads.

By the time the National Park Service arrived in Yellowstone (in 1916) to take over management, there was a long history of feeding bears to provide entertainment to tourists. Fenced-in feeding areas, some of them even equipped with grandstands, were common in the campgrounds, and shows were scheduled every evening. Tourists could check out the schedule; the bears had it memorized.

The new NPS regime didn't change anything right away. Horace Albright, the Superintendent through the 1920's, had been one of the principle men fighting to establish the Park Service and had long experience in defending the national parks from ranchers, miners, loggers, and their allies in Congress (mostly scrupulous, although not entirely, Albright was undoubtedly one of the great bureaucratic operatives of his day).

With that kind of experience, Albright was keen to make the parks as visitor-friendly as he could, albeit without compromising their natural values. He would have nixed carnival rides, but he saw nothing wrong with allowing, or encouraging, the animals to entertain the tourists. In fact, he was known to stage buffalo stampedes for VIP's. Oh, that's him on the left, smiling as the bears crawl over his table and eat off the plates.

By the time Albright left the Park Service in 1933, attitudes were changing about what was "natural" or appropriate in a national park. Younger wildlife managers wanted to see more natural behavior, more natural processes, to rewild the parks which -- wild as they appeared to a city slicker -- seemed uncomfortably carnival-like to the younger mindset.

Rewilding the bears took years - decades, even. The campground feeding shows ended after 1942, but the bears were still everywhere. They didn't fear the humans, nor did the humans fear them(keep in mind, we're talking about black bears, not grizzlies). One elderly former "savage,"* a waitress at Old Faithful Lodge in 1950, told me there were bears all over Old Faithful in her day and insisted, "I was never afraid." She even swore to me that she once stepped on a bear while sneaking out the window of her dorm room one night to go drinking in West Yellowstone.

Nothing like that happens today. In six seasons at Old Faithful, I never saw a black bear strolling through the basin during the tourist season, not even on burger day in the EDR, when the aroma must have been detectable for miles. Intensive behavioral modification techniques -- mostly on the bears, but somewhat for the visitors, too (referred to, variously, as education or citations) -- brought an end to the era of begging bears. The bears of old would have been astonished at the young cub near Abiathar Peak, who had an entire line of cars all to himself and no idea what to do with them. Albright might have been reassured that tourists would still love his national parks, even without the beggars by the road.

* Park employees were known as savages, a term that came into use sometime before 1900 and persisted until about 1980. An entire Park vocabulary, often quite colorful, has regrettably disappeared. I may have to do a post on that someday, but in the meantime I'll leave you to puzzle out what stuffing dudes referred to.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Ptolemy's map of Germany

An interesting article from Der Spiegel, the popular German news magazine. Go ahead, follow the link - this is the English language version.

It seems that a team of researchers has solved a long-standing puzzle: locating the settlements that Ptolemy, working around 150 C.E., listed with his map of Germany. Unfortunately, the article isn't terribly clear about it, but it appears that he drew rivers and mountains on his map, but listed the settlements separately in a table, with an idiosyncratic way of designating latitude and longitude. If I understand it correctly, it's this system that has resisted deciphering in the present day. However, the group of scholars has decoded Ptolemy's system in a way that matches up not only with many existing cities, but with known archaeological sites as well. If they're right, it would appear that Germany during the Roman Empire was a more heavily populated and cultured place than the Romans reported.

Strange job description

From the Bozeman Daily Chronicle:

"High-raking park official to take Yellowstone reins in 2011"

Which is peculiar, because most of the trees in Yellowstone -- especially at the higher elevations -- are lodgepole pine, which don't drop leaves.

[Update 10/7: the typo has been fixed. Where's the fun in that?]

Reading topo maps

If you, or anyone you know, have trouble reading topographic maps, if you just can't make sense of those contour lines and marvel that anyone could read the shape of the land based on all those squiggles -- here's a fine exercise for you.

Check out the New Zealand Topographic Maps, an excellent interface featuring topographic maps overlaid on a Google Maps base. If you select the "Terrain" option, the underlying map will switch to shaded relief, a portrayal that's less precise than contour lines, but gives an easy-to-interpret sense of the shape of the landscape. By moving the slider back and forth, you can adjust the transparency of the overlying topo map and switch seamlessly between the shaded relief and the contour lines. Try it out!

(Also, zoom in on some of those coast lines and note how accurately the topo maps fit with the satellite image. I was impressed.)

Where baseball comes from?

Here's an interesting post at Got Medieval about an early -- early early early -- version of baseball.

If you read to the end, you'll be rewarded with monkeys.

Monday, October 4, 2010

You want to go where?

Tourist site for Quebec City.

If you were pitching your city on the basis of "unparalleled romance," would you at the same time list HP Lovecraft as a reference?