Friday, March 18, 2011
The beautiful Yellowstone River moves gently down from its slow, meandering sojourn through the Hayden Valley. All is calm as night falls, and has been ever since leaving Yellowstone Lake some twelve or thirteen miles ago. Oh, a few small rapids here and there, but otherwise as placid as you could ever hope for a mountain river to be.
What awaits it in just a couple of miles is something entirely different: two large waterfalls and a deep, narrow canyon that will change its character from gentle serenity to murderous, frothing fury in just a few hundred yards. The first fall is 109 feet; the second is 308*. During the spring runoff, that can be some 50,000 gallons of water racing over the edge every second. And if you can't imagine what it's like to be a river pulled off the edge of a cliff, you can park your car and walk down to the brink of either one of these falls and get a strong sense of its power - deafening and vertigo-inducing.
There's another significant waterfall before the river leaves park, Knowles Fall in the Black Canyon, a mere 15-footer that still manages to impress. More rapids and canyons. But no dams, none at all until after it has joined the Missouri and surrendered its name. The Yellowstone has the eminent distinction of being the longest free-flowing river remaining in the lower 48 states today, at almost 700 miles without a dam. It arises just outside the southeast boundary of the Park, in the Thorofare Region that is reputed to be the most remote place in America, outside Alaska -- you could find yourself as much as thirty miles from any excuse for a road. And between its headwaters and the falls, it becomes Yellowstone Lake, the largest freshwater lake in North America at greater than 7000 feet of elevation. It is indeed a river of superlatives.
This is the river that gave Yellowstone National Park its name. My one and only contribution to Wikipedia was to correct the mistaken notion that the park was named for the color of the rocks in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (just below the aforementioned falls). Not so. The river was already known to American fur trappers as the Yellowstone when Lewis and Clark came through in 1804-05, a name the English had translated from the French, which the French had probably picked up from the Minnetaree.
Who knows how far back the name goes? A good bet is that the Indians named the river for the yellowish rock you can find downstream in the general vicinity of modern-day Billings. And so, even without much knowledge of the Canyon area and its impressive colors, it was natural that the Park would carry the river's name. In the late 1860's people knew only two things about the region: some mountain men's very tall tales came out of that area, and so did the Yellowstone River.
* The Lower Falls is commonly described as "twice the height of Niagara," but it's really about 25 feet short of the mark it would need to make that accurate. But close enough that you should be suitably impressed.
Labels: Yellowstone By Scott Hanley