Popular Science Monthly/Volume 40/February 1892/The Story of a Strange Land

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"In one strange land,
 And a long way from home,
 I heard a mighty rumbling, and I couldn't tell where." 

Negro Melody.

IT happened a long time ago, it may be fifty thousand years in round numbers, or it may have been twice as many, that a strange thing took place in the heart of the Great Mountains. It was in the middle of the Pliocene epoch, a long, dull time that seemed as if it would never come to an end. There was then on the east side of the Great Divide a deep, rocky basin surrounded by high walls of granite gashed to the base by the wash of many streams. In this basin, we know not how—for the records all are burned or buried—the crust of the earth was broken, and a great outflow of melted lava surged up from below. This was no ordinary eruption, but a mighty outbreak of the earth's imprisoned forces. The steady stream of lava filled the whole mountain basin and ran out over its sides, covering the country all around so deeply that it has never been seen since. More than four thousand square miles of land lay buried under melted rock. No one can tell how deep the lava is, for no one has ever seen the bottom. Within its bed are deep clefts whose ragged walls descend to the depth of twelve hundred feet, and yet give no glimpse of the granite below, while at their side are mountains of lava whose crags tower a mile above the bottom of the ravines.

At last, after many years or centuries—time does not count for much in these Tertiary days—the flow of melted lava ceased. Its surface cooled, leaving a high, uneven plain, black and desolate, a hard, cold crust over a fiery and smoldering interior. About the crater lay great ropes and rolls of the slowly hardening lava, looking like knots and tangles of gigantic reptiles of some horrible extinct sort. There was neither grass nor trees, no life of any sort. Nothing could grow in the coarse, black stone. The rivers and brooks had long since vanished in steam, the fishes were all dead, and the birds had flown away. The whole region wore the desolation of death.

But to let land go to waste is no part of Mother Nature's plan. So even this far-off corner of her domain was made ready for settlement. In the winter she sifted snow on the cold black plain, and in the summer the snow melted into a multitude of brooks and springs. The brooks gradually wore paths and furrows down the large bed, and the sands which they washed from one place they piled up in another. The winds blew the seeds of grasses about, and willows and aspens crept up the mountain-sides. Then came the squirrels, scattering the nuts of the pine. Other seeds came, too, in other ways, till at last the barren hillside was no longer barren.

The brooks ran over the surface of the crust undisturbed by the fires within, and were clear and cold as mountain brooks should be; but the rain and melted snow will never all remain on the surface. Some of it falls into cracks or joints or porous places in the rock, and from this come underground streams or springs. But in this region a stream could not run long underground without coming in contact with the old still-burning fires. When a crust is formed over the lava, it cools very slowly. When the crust is a rod or two deep, the lava within is almost as well protected as if it were at the center of the earth.

Whenever the water came down into the fire, the hot rocks would be furious with indignation, and tearing the water to atoms they would throw it back to the surface as steam. Then the explosive force of the steam would in turn tear up the rocks, making still larger the hole through which the water came. When the rocks were very hot, a little water upon them would make a terrible commotion like the shock of an earthquake. When much water came down, it would hiss and boil high in the air, as it tried to break the cushion of steam which came between it and the lava.

And all this went on in hundreds of places and maybe for thousands of years. The hot rocks glowed and sweltered in the ground, and the cold snow-water crept after them closer and closer, while more and more vigorously the rocks resented the intrusion. Sometimes the water would go down in a mass through a cleft, when it would be hurled back bodily the very way it came. At other times the water came down little by little, insinuating itself into many places at once. Then the hot rocks threw it back in many little honeycomb channels, and by the spreading of these channels the rocks were at last crumbled to pieces. The hard black lava or the glass-like obsidian were changed to white kaolin as soft and powdery as chalk. And as the water fought its way, gaining a little every year, steadily working between the joints in the enemy's armor and as surely being thrown back with violence if it penetrated too far, the animals and the plants followed in the wake of the water, and took possession of the territory as fast as it was won.

At last the Pliocene times were over, for all times come to an end. The one sure thing on the earth is the certainty of change. With the change of time came on the earth's great winter. The snow-drifts on the lava were piled up mountain-high. Snow is
PSM V40 D467 Lower or great falls of the yellowstone river.jpg

Lower or Great Falls of the Yellowstone River.[1]

but ice gathered in little fragments which will grow solid under pressure. As the snow accumulated it began to move, forming great rivers of ice which ran down the courses of the streams. And as these slowly moving, gigantic ice-rivers tore away huge blocks of lava and pushed them down the mountain-sides, where the rocks had been softened by the action of steam, the ice wore out deep valleys, and everything that it touched was smoothed and polished. The winter of the great Ice age lasted a very longtime, many thousands of years; but, long as it was and long ago, it came at last to an end—not to a full stop, of course, for even now some of its snow still lingers on the highest peaks that surround the lava-beds.

Then the winters grew shorter and the summers longer. The south winds blew and the ice melted away, first from the plain and then from the mountains. The water ran down the sides of the lava-bed, cutting deep gorges or canons, so deep that the sun can hardly see the bottom. And into the joints and clefts of the rocks more and more water went, to be hurled back with greater and greater violence, for all the waters of all the snow can not put out a mile deep of fire.

In the old depressions where the ice had chiseled away the softer rocks there were formed lakes of the standing water, and one of these was more than thirty miles long, winding in and out among the mountain-ridges. In the lake bottom the water soaked through down to the hot lava below, from which it was thrown boiling back to the surface again, fountains of scalding water in the icy lake.

The cold Ice age had killed all the plants in the region; it had driven off the animals that could be driven, and had then buried the rest. But when the snow was gone the creatures all came back again. Grass and meadow-flowers of a hundred kinds came up from the valleys below. The willow and the aspen took their place again by the brookside, and the red fir and the mountain pine covered the hills with their somber green. The birds came back. The wild goose swam and screamed, and the winter wren caroled his bright song—loudest when there seemed least cause for rejoicing. The beaver cut his timber and patiently worked at his dams. The thriftless porcupine destroyed a tree for every morning meal. The gray jay, the "camp-robber," followed the Indians about in hope that some forgotten piece of meat or of boiled root might fall to his share; while the buffalo, the bear, and the elk each carried on his affairs in his own way, as did a host of lesser animals, all of whom rejoiced when this snow-bound region was at last opened for settlement. Time went on. The water and the fire were every day in mortal struggle, and always when the water was thrown back repulsed, it renewed the contest as
PSM V40 D469 Tower falls of tower creek.jpg

Tower Falls of Tower Creek.

PSM V40 D470 Undine falls of lava creek.jpg

Undine Falls of Lava Creek.

vigorously as before. The fire retreated, leaving great stretches of land to its enemy, that it might concentrate its strength where its strength was greatest. And the water steadily gained, for the great ocean ever lay behind it. So for century after century they wrestled with each other, the water, the fire, the snow, the animals, and the plants. But the fishes who had once lived in the mountain torrents were no longer there. They had been boiled and frozen, and in one way or another destroyed or driven away. Now they could not get back. Every stream had its cañon, and in each cañon was a waterfall so high that no trout could leap up. Although they used to try it every day, not one ever succeeded.

So it went on. A great many things happened in other parts of the world. America had been discovered and the colonies were feeling their way toward the Pacific Ocean. And in the vanguard was the famous expedition of Lewis and Clarke, which went overland to the mouth of the river Columbia. John Colter was a hunter in this expedition, and by some chance he went across the mountains on the old trail of the Nez Percés Indians which leads across the Divide from the Missouri waters to those of the Columbia. When he came back from the Nez Percés trail he told most wonderful tales of what he had seen at the head of the Missouri. There were cataracts of scalding water which shot straight up into the air; there were blue ponds hot enough to boil fish; there were springs that came up snorting and steaming, and which would turn trees into stone; the woods were full of holes from which issued streams of sulphur; there were cañons of untold depth with walls of ashes full of holes which let off steam like a locomotive, and there were springs which looked peaceful enough, but which at times would burst like a bomb.

In short, every one laughed at Colter and his yarns, and this place where all lies were true was familiarly known as "Colter's Hell." But for once John Colter told the truth, and the truth could not easily be exaggerated. But no one believed him. When others who afterward followed him over the Nez Percés trail told the same stories, people said they had been up to "Colter's Hell " and had learned to lie.

But, as time passed, other men told what they had seen, until, in 1870, a sort of official survey was made under the lead of Washburne and Doane. This party got the general bearings of the region, named many of the mountains, and found so much of interest that the next year Dr. Hayden, the United States Geologist, sent out a party for systematic exploration. The Hayden party came up from Colorado on horseback, through dense and tangled forests, across mountain torrents, and over craggy peaks. The story of this expedition has been most charmingly told by its youngest member, another John Coulter. Prof. Coulter was the botanist
PSM V40 D472 Osprey falls of gardiner river.jpg

Osprey Falls of Gardiner River.

of the survey, and he won the first of his many laurels on this expedition. In 1873, acting on Hayden's report. Congress took the matter in hand and set apart this whole region as a "public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people," and such it remains to this day.

But, while only of late this region has had a public history, the long-forgotten years between the Glacial period and the expedition of Lewis and Clarke were not without interest in the history of the trout. For all these years the fishes have been trying to mount the waterfalls in order to ascend to the plateau above.

PSM V40 D473 Beaver lake showing beaver dams.jpg

Beaver Lake; showing Beaver Dams.

Year after year, as the spawning-time came on, they leaped against the falls of the Gardiner, the Gibbon, and the Firehole Rivers, but only to fall back impotent in the pools at their bases. But the mightiest cataract of all, the great falls of the Yellowstone, they finally conquered, and in this way it was done: not by the trout of the Yellowstone River, but by their brothers on the other side of the Divide. These followed up the Columbia to the headwaters of the Snake River, its great tributary, past the beautiful Heart Lake, and then on to the stream now called Pacific Creek, which rises on the very crest of the Divide. In the space between this stream which flows west to help form the Snake River, and a smaller stream now called Atlantic Creek, flowing down the
PSM V40 D474 Virginia cascade of gibbon river.jpg

Virginia Cascade of Gibbon River.

east slope of the Divide, the great chain of the Rocky Mountains shrinks to a narrow plateau of damp meadow, not a fourth of a mile in width; and some years, when the snows are heavy and melt late in the spring, this whole region is covered with standing water. The trout had bided their time until they found it so, and now they were ready for action. Before the water was drained they had crossed the Divide and were descending on the Atlantic side toward the Yellowstone Lake. As the days went by, this colony of bold trout spirits grew and multiplied and filled the waters of the great clear lake, where their descendants remain to this day. And no other fishes—not the chub, nor the
PSM V40 D475 Keppler's cascade of firehole river.jpg

Keppler's Cascade of Firehole River.

sucker, nor the white-fish, nor the minnow, nor the blob—had ever climbed Pacific Creek. None of them were able to follow where the trout had gone, and none of them have ever been seen in the Yellowstone Lake. What the trout had done in this lake—their victories and defeats, their struggles with the bears and pelicans, and with the terrible worm, joint enemy of trout and pelicans alike—must be left for another story.

So the trout climbed the Yellowstone Falls by way of the back staircase. For all we know, they have gone down it on the other side. And in a similar way, by stealing over from Black-tail Deer Creek, they overcame the Undine Falls in Lava Creek and passed its steep obsidian walls, which not all the fishes in the world could climb.

In the Gibbon River the cataracts have proved to the trout an impassable barrier; but, strangely enough, its despised associate, the sluggish, chunky blob, a little soft-bodied, smooth, black, tad-pole-like fellow, with twinkling eyes and a voracious appetite—a fish who can not leap at all—has crossed this barrier. Hundreds of blob live under the stones in the upper reaches of the stream, the only fish in the Gibbon waters. There he is, and it is a standing puzzle even to himself to know how he got there. We might imagine, perhaps, that some far-off ancestor, some ancient Queen of the Blobs, was seized by an osprey and carried away in the air. Perhaps an eagle was watching and forced the osprey to give up its prey. Perhaps in the struggle the blob escaped, falling into the river above the falls, to form the beginning of the future colony. At any rate, there is the great impassable waterfall, the blob above it and below. The osprey has its nest on a broken pine tree above the cataract, and its tyrant master, the bald eagle, watches it from some still higher crag whenever it goes fishing.

Two years ago the Hon. Marshall McDonald, whose duty as United States Fish Commissioner it is to look after the fishes wherever they may be, sent me to this country to see what could be done for his wards. It was a proud day when I set out from Mammoth Hot Springs astride a black cayuse, or Indian pony, which answered to the name of Jump, followed by a long train of sixteen other cayuses of every variety of color and character, the most notable of all being a white pony called Tinker. At some remote and unidentified period of her life she had bucked and killed a tradesman who bestrode her against her will, and thereby, as in the old Norse legends, she had inherited his strength, his wickedness, and his name. And when, after many adventures, I came back from this strange land and told the story of its fishes, other men were sent out from Washington with nets and buckets. They gathered up the trout and carried them to the rivers above the falls, and now all the brooks and pools of the old lava-bed, the fairest streams in the world, are full of their natural inhabitants.

Mentioning some peculiarities in the distribution of plants in Great Britain—that it has a southern flora opposite France, a Germanic flora on the east coast, a Lusitanian flora in the southwest, and on the extreme west two American plants unknown elsewhere in Europe—Mr. Clement Reid expresses the belief that in the Britain of the present day we may study the repeopling of a country over which everything has been exterminated, and, until we have fuller direct evidence of the stages of the process, we may safely accept Greenland and Britain as illustrating the way in which Nature works to fill gaps in the fauna and flora, whether these are caused by changes of climate, by volcanic agency, or by the submergence and reappearance of islands.

  1. We are indebted for the illustrations in this article to the kindness of Hon. Marshall McDonald, of the United States Fish Commission.