OLD FAITHFUL, YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, WYOMING — It was good to get out into the park Sunday.
National Park, that is.
It had been over five months since those of us who live near Yellowstone National Park had to say goodbye to our favorite interior park roads after they closed to wheeled vehicles in early November. Some of the major park roads opened Friday. Through the North and West Entrances, visitors could drive to Old Faithful and Canyon.
Sunday’s weather was sunny and bright, but cool, only hitting the mid-40s Fahrenheit at Old Faithful. We call these crystal-clear sunny days “bluebird days.” Not just because we’ll often see the flashy azure of a male mountain bluebird as it streaks across the Upper Geyser Basin, but Yellowstone’s skies on a sunny day are bluebird blue.
These early season days before the crowds of July and August are special to area and regional residents. Jean Besmehn, who lives in Paradise Valley north of Gardiner, says she runs into people — especially between Mammoth and Cooke City, before the interior roads open — that she only sees on the park roads, usually pulled over to watch wildlife, at this time of year.
“I call them pullout pals,” Besmehn said.
On Sunday, I got a late start out of Livingston, meeting my friend Debbie at Mammoth Hot Springs around noon.
There was snow on Swan Lake Flats, a little less than normal, but not so little as to be freakish. The streamflow forecasts for our part of the West are right around normal right now, thanks to some March snowstorms and seasonal temperatures helping maintain the snowpack at higher elevations.
We headed straight for Old Faithful, anxious to spot “charismatic megafauna” on the 50-mile stretch of road.
Grizzly bears and wolves are always at the top of the wish list, but in mid-April, we lust in our hearts for only one critter — baby bison. “Squeeeee, they’re so cute!” can be heard at every pullout when the tiny calves start appearing.
Bison calves, with their tiny humps, gangly legs and Irish Setter-colored coats, will be forever known as “red dogs” to the locals.
Yellowstone lore has it that a ranger was once asked by a spring visitor, who was looking at a herd of bison with many new calves, “What are all those red dogs doing out there with the bison?”
Since then, “red dogs” has stuck.
At Mammoth about two weeks ago, I was actually confounded for a moment by a park resident’s golden retriever running around with its owner near Officer’s Row. “Look, an actual red dog!”
We saw one — just one — tiny calf in a small herd of bison along the Gibbon River south of Gibbon Falls. The herd was below the road grade on a narrow strip of grass between the road and river.
At Old Faithful, we parked in a nearly empty lot in front of the Old Faithful Inn. We walked up to the Visitor Center to catch up on some geyser predictions. Then, we walked toward Castle Geyser.
The National Park Service boardwalk crew is doing a complete do-over of about 600 feet of walkway from Castle, past Crested Pool, down to a crossing of the Firehole River and then back up to Geyser Hill.
The work started April 11 and is slated to take about six weeks, park spokeswoman Amy Bartlett said last week. A few thermal features will be inaccessible, but the Upper Geyser Basin will still be accessible by other routes unaffected by the construction work.
The new wood was stacked near Castle and the old wood that had been removed was also stacked nearby. The old wood was bleached and faded, covered with a light rime of sinter from decades of geyser splash.
The fact that there is a waist-high wooden railing surrounding Crested Pool dates back to a tragedy that occurred at the spring in 1970.
According to Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park by Lee H. Whittlesey, on the afternoon of June 28 of that year, 9-year-old Andy Hecht, of Williamsville, New York, either through running or tripping or losing track of where he was in a sudden burst of steam from a hot spring, fell into superheated water of Crested Pool. Scalded to death, his body sank and wasn’t retrieved until the following day, Whittlesey writes.
Andy’s parents, James and Amy, launched a campaign to secure more funding for safety in national parks after their son’s death, which resulted in more railings being erected around hot springs. They filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Park Service for $1 million, which was eventually settled for $20,000, Whittlesey wrote. The National Park Service still issues an annual safety award, named the Andrew Clark Hecht Memorial Public Safety Achievement Award.
More park roads will open as the season progresses. The East Entrance from Cody is scheduled to open to Lake and Canyon May 6. The South Entrance to Old Faithful and to Lake is slated to open May 13. Early-season dates are always subject to temporary closure if a spring snowstorm makes park roads unsafe.