PARK MYTHS: TALES OF IMAGINATION

This week we highlight a few of the myths and legends about Yellowstone that have accumulated in the past 125 years. As with most myths, many of these stories have a grain of truth to them.For example, Yellowstone National Park has been referred to as “Colter’s Hell” since the early 1800s. While John Colter probably was the first EuroAmerican to enter what is today the park, his “Colter’s Hell” is not Yellowstone National Park. Colter was an early fur trapper who accompanied Lewis and Clark on their famous 1804-06 expedition to the Pacific northwest and then remained in this area. It is known that Colter made a U-shaped journey through the region during the winter of 1807-08. He started at the lower Yellowstone River near the mouth of the Bighorn River (east of Billings, Montana) and traveled south to the Absaroka Mountains, Jackson Hole, Pierre’s Hole (east of the Teton Mountains in Idaho), north past Yellowstone Lake (probably), and back to the Bighorn River. However, through careful research, we now know that the colorful name, “Colter’s Hell,” refers to DeMaris Springs near present-day Cody, Wyoming.

Another story that has “become fact” through the retelling is that the idea for making the Yellowstone area a national park came from the Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition. This expedition spent a number of months exploring the Yellowstone region in the summer of 1870. As the story goes, the members of the expedition were sitting around their final campfire at today’s Madison Junction on the evening of September 19, 1870, discussing the wonders they had seen. As related by expedition member (and first park superintendent) Nathaniel Pitt Langford in 1895, most of the expedition members thought they should each file claims on the land around the most extraordinary areas in Yellowstone. Then expedition member Cornelius Hedges finally spoke. In Langford’s account: “Mr. Hedges then said that he did not approve of any of these plans and that there ought to be no private ownership of any portion of that region, but that the whole of it ought to be set apart as a great National Park, and that each one of us ought to make an
effort to have this accomplished.”

For decades after the publication of this account, the story was accepted as the truth about the birth of the national park idea. However, the truth is that this campfire discussion may never have happened at all. More than a dozen members of the Washburn-Langford-Doane party kept journals about their travels in the area, and not one of these journals mentions any such discussion taking place. In reality, Mr. Langford’s account may simply have been an exaggeration of many different general conversations about Yellowstone that occurred before, during, and after the expedition. One needs to remember that for most of the first two decades of the park’s existence, hotels were not available for visitors to stay in, the roads were deplorable at best, poaching was rampant, and generally the national park idea was a failure. During this time, few people wanted to take credit for the park’s creation. However, once the U.S. Army arrived to administer and protect the park and hotels were available for visitors, Yellowstone became a popular
destination, and early promoters of the park and the national park idea–of whom Mr. Langford is one of the most famous–were proud to boast about their part in setting aside the nation’s first national park.

Now for the Yellowstone story that everyone “knows” is true. Every day at Old Faithful, Yellowstone staff must explain to visitors that Old Faithful Geyser does not (nor did it ever) erupt every hour on the hour! This myth probably came about because prior to the 1959 Hebgen Lake earthquake, the average interval between Old Faithful eruptions ranged between 62 and 64 minutes. This number was close enough to an hour to propagate the erroneous idea that Old Faithful erupts like clockwork every hour. It is true that the
geyser has always erupted in a regular pattern (generally between 1 and 5 minutes in length), and it has always shown a pattern of taking longer to “recharge” after a longer eruption than after a shorter one. It is also true that Old Faithful Geyser’s eruptions used to happen more frequently, but the geyser has changed over time due to earthquakes in the region. While Old Faithful today generally has more longer eruptions (and hence a longer average interval between eruptions), its predictability is still among the best of all
geysers worldwide. For example, if Old Faithful erupts for 1 minute, you can add 51 minutes to the start time of the eruption to determine when the next eruption will occur (plus or minus 10 minutes). If the geyser erupts for 5 minutes, you need to add 95 minutes to the start time in order to determine the next eruption. So, Old Faithful is faithful, but in its own way.

Lastly, one of the myths that applies to more than just Yellowstone is that places we love will always be as we remember. Part of the public’s distress with the 1988 Yellowstone fires stemmed from the fact that people want to remember Yellowstone as it was when they first visited. Many who visited after the fires saw a very different landscape than that which they remembered. But, Yellowstone is not a static wilderness. We know now that Yellowstone experiences major cataclysmic forest fires every 200-400 years, and while fires change the view we have of the landscape, fires are an integral part of a healthy
ecosystem. As scientists study the ways ecosystems function, they have come to understand that wilderness ecosystems are chaotic places, and, if we want to preserve Yellowstone, what we must preserve first and foremost are the chaotic processes that have shaped it for millennia and go on shaping it today. We have come to realize that in many ways it is precisely because we do not understand these

processes that we call them wild, and it is because we are yet ignorant of how Yellowstone works that we call it wilderness. One of the many truths about Yellowstone is that by preserving this special place, we preserve much more than we understand today. Hopefully, one day we will understand.

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