Tuesday, July 16, 2013

2013--Island Park, Idaho: Springs

Headwaters of Warm River

Normally, by this time of year, we would have made somewhere between three and five trips to Yellowstone.  This year, however, since I was acting in a play, we only made it up once, on Memorial Day weekend.  It was the only weekend day I was not involved in rehearsal.

Last Friday, the show ended and I had no obligations to be around on Saturday.  We had to wait for my son to get home from Treasure Mountain, Boy Scout Camp where he is a staff member this season.  He returned home at about three in the afternoon which meant a Yellowstone trip wasn't going to work.  We did, however decide to visit Island Park.

Island Park is a great vacationland on the Idaho side of Yellowstone National Park.  It is situated inside the crater of the largest volcanic caldera known to exist on the planet.  The community of Island Park boasts the longest main street anywhere in the world.  It is around 31 miles in length.

Island Park is truly a wonderland.  There is a movement among some groups to make Island Park into a National Monument which would essentially enlarge the borders of Yellowstone.  From the time you descend into the caldera until you reach the town of West Yellowstone, you are in a beautiful lodgepole pine forest with rivers, lakes, ponds and springs.  There is Harriman State Park, Henry's Lake, a migratory bird refuge, big game animals and several small communities of vacation homes all along highway 20.  It is idyllic.  Yellowstone gets all the press, but Island Park has plenty to offer.

We decided to visit a couple of the springs in Island Park for our short trip on Saturday.

We took the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway from Ashton, Idaho up through Bear Gulch and past Mesa Falls.  One of my neighbors had told me about Warm River Spring which gushes out of the side of the cliff about forty to fifty feet up and cascades down the side of the mountain.  We needed to see that one.  I wanted to show my boys where rivers come from.

Warm River Spring issues about 200 cubic feet per second of water, and the temperature is a constant 50 degrees all year long.  Some rivers will freeze over, but not Warm River.  Even when it gets to sub-zero temperatures it doesn't freeze.  It's because the water is heated underground from the residual effects of the last volcanic eruption.

In the 1930's, the CCC (Civil Conservation Corps) built a fish hatchery and cabin at the site of Warm River Spring.  The hatchery is long gone, but cabin is still there and is available to be rented.  The CCC tapped the spring during the great depression and some of the water still pours out of pipes that were put in place at that time. 

As I walked past the cabin, I smelled the unmistakable scent of Yarrow.  There were hundreds of mature Yarrow plants in the "lawn" in front of the cabin.  I like Yarrow a great deal and I don't know if it's a real thing or if it's my imagination, but when I'm hiking and my muscles get fatigued, I crush up some fronds of Yarrow and hold it to my nose and inhale it.  It seems to make me have more energy and my muscles to lose some of that tension.

When I was a boy in scout camp, one of the merit badge counselors told me that the Native Americans used to chew on Yarrow for relief of toothaches.  It apparently has mild analgesic properties.

Yarrow flowers

Yarrow fronds

The cabin at Warm River Spring

The headwaters of Warm River.  Note the two pipes at the top of the spring.  Those were installed by the CCC

The water comes out quite rapidly

Drinking from some of the purest water on earth

Apparently it meets the standard.  It did seem a little warmish though, but without the sulphur aftertaste you might get in Yellowstone. 

The family at the spring so you can see how large it is

The family at the spring

From Warm River Spring, we went to a place called Big Springs, which is near the hamlet of Macks Inn.  Big Springs is a different kind of spring than Warm River Spring.  Big Springs bubbles up from the ground while Warm River Spring erupts from the cliff face.

On our way over, we stopped for a couple of pictures.  One was of an osprey in a nest and the other was of the Tetons.

Osprey on nest

The Teton Range from Island Park

Back in the early part of the twentieth century, a German immigrant named Johnny Sak moved to Island Park and built a cabin at Big Springs.  He was only 4'-11" tall.  He met a girl in Ashton that he loved and she loved him, so he went to Big Springs and built a cabin for her.  It took him more than two years to complete it, and when he went to get her, he found she had gotten married.  He lived in the cabin as a hermit for the rest of his life.  He made his living by making beautiful, hand crafted furniture from Douglas Fir.  He would bury a tree for a year, allow the worms to eat trails through the bark and then he'd dig it up and shave the bark down to the worm burrows and make his furniture from that wood.  On another excursion, I'll take photos inside the Sak cabin.  By the time we arrived on Saturday the cabin was closed.  The workmanship inside is very beautiful.

Johnny Sak cabin

Big Springs is the headwaters of the Henry's Fork of the Snake River.  One of the big attractions here is that fish from the hatchery in Ashton migrate up the river and find sanctuary under the bridge.  Fishing is illegal at Big Springs and so the trout grow to enormous proportions.  There is a machine that dispenses a handful of Purina Trout Chow (yes there is such a thing) for a quarter and you can feed the fish.  Seagulls and ducks have found that handouts are a cheap way to get a meal here, and I have in the past seen muskrats.

Sadly, some rotten people came in on snowmachines last winter and killed the fish.  I don't know if they were hunting trophies or were eating them or were just rotten people.  The fish haven't recovered yet and we only saw a few of them and they were normal size.

Big Springs has a temperature of 52 degrees year round and is not subject to freezing either, the same as Warm River.  The water percolates through glacial sediments and volcanic debris.  Geologists believe it is water that originates as snowfall and rainfall and absorbs into the ground all over the area and expresses itself at Big Springs. 

It is about six miles off the main road, so it never seems to be crowded.  My parents used to take us there when we were little kids.  I have made sure to take my kids there as well.

The headwaters of the Henry's Fork of the Snake River, Big Springs

Me being bald

The hot chick and I at the headwaters of the Henry's Fork

Spider making a living at Big Springs

Beautiful view along the trail

Random boulder.  I like rocks, so it was a natural shot for me to take

The pumphouse that Johnny Sak built

Seagull far from home

And his brother

I was trying to take a picture of the fish in the river and what I ended up taking was a picture that looks like a watercolor.  My personal favorite picture of the day.  Totally serendipitous.

View of the spring from the bridge

It was a very nice half day trip.  One that I'd like to make again.  There are a few trails at both Warm River Spring and Big Springs.  We didn't take them this time for lack of time and the fact that I injured my ankle awhile ago and it hasn't healed all the way.  We will take the trails in the future though.  We truly live in a magnificent part of the world.

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