Here are a few rough-draft excerpts from the someday-to-be-published book about my favorite place on earth.
......Moving through this moderately dense island of trees, we began to exit into a much smaller open meadow about 40 yards across that included a slight incline ahead of us. As we emerged into this meadow, directly in front of us on the trail about 30 yards up, I saw a second bison, facing us, grazing passively, head down. In my mind, I was not really concerned much, but began to mentally plan a route to circumnavigate the animal so as to keep a safe distance and not bother his grazing. You just never know with lone, bull bison.
I was just about to suggest to my hiking partners that we leave the trail to the right, when the bison lifted its head to see who was coming. The world in my brain stopped!! My soul froze. Like a scene from a horror movie where time slows down and the periphery of the scene begins to widen out while the center zooms up on the life-threatening situation. The bison’s head was too small!!! That’s the first thing my mind processed in the initial milliseconds of this encounter. Next came a flood of adrenaline. Grizzly Bear!!! Not just any grizzly bear, but a bison sized grizzly bear. (we’ll get to that later). Without a word being said, all three of us stopped.
The animal did not react like I had come to expect during a normal grizzly bear encounter. In the vast majority of grizzly confrontations at this distance the bear will back down. It will walk or run away, especially where groups of people are involved. We had three of us and had been making a considerable amount of noise all the way up to the encounter. This massive animal knew we were coming and did not care. But this bear, a most unusual bear, simply lowered its head slightly and gave us what I can only describe as a death stare.....
One of the most satisfying things about western lore to me is that even to this day there are still many mysteries hidden in the American western wilderness. Who was where? When? Who were the discoverers of certain places? Where does buried treasure or native American ruins lay? But one of my favorites has always been a sound that has been reported at various locations throughout the Pacific Northwest and to a lesser degree in the Northern Rockies. I call it simply; “The Scream.” .........
.........It was a cool evening but comfortable, probably around 7:00 PM. I don’t recall the specific circumstances, but I do remember that our group was not being noisy in any way. I was simply relaxing listening to nothing when out of the deep woods to our east came the most terrifying guttural sound I have ever heard in the wilderness. It literally sounded like someone was being killed. The most primal blood curdling scream. What struck me immediately is that this was no ordinary animal. It was either something in distress or a species of unknown origin. What struck me most is that I could tell by the way the sound echoed, it was being emitted from an extreme distance; many miles away.
Upon arriving in Yellowstone National Park in 1989, I was immediately fascinated by those areas that were little explored and yet had scenery as beautiful and rare as the frontcountry. To my surprise, I could find little in print or media, that gave any detailed information about what was "out there" beyond the park's main roads. The more I searched, the more frustrated I became. Aside from a few trail guides, there seemed to be no good data or photographs to be found. This eventually caused me to take matters into my own hands.
For several years after that initial season, I began to plan the shooting of the Yellowstone's first thorough backcountry video, complete with its best thermal areas, lakes, landforms, archeological sites, and waterfalls. But after confronting the enormous expense of such a venture and without an official sponsor, I resigned myself to simply collecting and storing what pictorial and video material I could film with my own crude equipment. It was this relentless hiking and documenting of whatever I happened to see in the park's backcountry that eventually evolved into a quest to photograph and map as many of the park's waterfalls and cascades as possible.....
In June of 1990, while working my second season in Yellowstone National Park, I happened by chance to learn of a rarely seen, unmapped, 100-foot waterfall located in the park’s distant Mirror Plateau region. An area comprised of high rolling meadows, rugged, twisting river valleys, and vast tracts of nearly impenetrable forest; this 400 square mile section of Yellowstone’s massive interior is explored as rarely today as it was two hundred years ago. Its seemingly limitless terrain contains no roads, and although one lone trail does skirt the plateau’s southwestern edge, only a handful of wanderers even venture as far as the boundaries of this most mysterious and disorienting stretch of land. Bordered on the west by the imposing Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and on the east by the formidable 11,000 foot Absaroka Range, the Mirror Plateau is as it has always been; a true wilderness, perfectly preserved.
From my first months in the park, I had been curiously drawn to this area. For me, it was a mesmerizing patchwork of spiraling topo lines that I had spent countless hours studying on my Yellowstone 15 minute maps; and yet whenever I asked any park authority for specific details about the region, I received the same response: “I don’t know, no one goes there!” Still, I was sure that with its numerous rivers, canyons, and hot springs, there had to be some beautiful and surprising places hidden in the plateau’s core. The discovery of any waterfall there was very intriguing because my roommate at the time, Mike Stevens, and I had become almost fanatical about trying to see and photograph all of the park’s backcountry waterfalls. Learning of this new falls was especially exciting because it was a considerably large one, was not mentioned in any park literature, and had never been shown on any Yellowstone map. Armed with the new knowledge that such a big waterfall was indeed tucked away in the plateau’s innermost reaches, Mike and I dreamed that perhaps a day would come when we’d see it ourselves.
Two and a half years later, while on a winter vacation to the park, we were having breakfast with the man who first told us of the falls, Yellowstone park ranger Lee Whittlesey. Mike made it clear to him that we were quite serious about trying to someday film and photograph this special sight and would appreciate as much information as possible. To our surprise he remarked, “Come on up to my office today, I have some pictures of it from my recent trip there.” Trip there? I knew he’d first learned of the distant falls through an aerial survey, but pictures? He’d actually been there? Later that afternoon in Lee’s office we saw our first glimpses of what had been unofficially named Golden Fleece Falls. I was delighted. Now I had something to go on. As I studied several angles of its curving cascades my sense of adventure was ignited. I wanted to see it too. So impressive was its size, that without a wide-angle lens, Lee had needed three separate pictures just to capture the entire length of its drop. One by one I continued to slowly flip my way through the snapshots of this wondrous sight when suddenly, without warning, I stopped cold! It was a moment frozen in time that I will never forget. “Oh my god,” I exclaimed! “What on earth is this? Lee, what are these?” I was staring at an image I could not make sense out of. It appeared to be some kind of bizarre rock formation. Its shape similar to that of Stonehenge. But as I looked closer at the next several photos I realized they weren’t rocks at all. They were thermal. Thermal? Impossible! They were too large and too numerous. But what then? No, they were definitely thermal! I glanced up at Lee who until now had said nothing. “Is this in Yellowstone?,” I asked with astonishment. “Yes it is,” he replied softly.
I don’t know if I was ever supposed to see those strange photographs, or if it was just a quirk of fate, but surely on that cold, snowy December afternoon in Lee’s busy little office, my life was changed forever. With some trepidation he spent the next hour describing a journey whose end result was nothing less than fantastic. An outcome I couldn’t believe was still possible in this day and age. Within the boundaries of America’s first National Park, an entirely new type of natural feature had been discovered. In the immediate vicinity of our now seemingly insignificant waterfall was perhaps the greatest secret of all; an unknown and virtually unseen thermal hot spring basin, unlike any other in the world. He explained in some detail that the alien looking area consisted of dozens of tall, narrow, hot spring cones packed into a space the size of a football field. The entire basin was set deep in a remote, narrow canyon and was situated directly at the confluence of two major creeks. Seen by no more than ten people at the time and without an official designation, he had named it simply, “Fairyland.”
What if I told you that the greatest mystery in all of Yellowstone’s backcountry lore is detailed in the rarest Yellowstone book in existence that I know of. The virtually unknown story was published in 1902 by a 65 year old woman. It is the oral history of a Canadian fur-trapper's western journey in the year 1830. He told this woman his story first-hand when he was 65 years old and she was in her 20’s. So moved was she by his amazing adventure that she made an oath to herself to someday publish his story for the world to hear. She did not accomplish this for another 40 years. I know of only six copies of this book still in existence.
The story I am about to tell you will sound incredible. Unbelieveable is more like it. Why it hasn’t become more famous is a puzzling question. I owe it to the fact that this is what is known as a twice-told tale. We are taking the word of a woman who heard the detailed story 40 years prior. We are trusting her memory and possible embellishments by both the teller of the original tale as well as the author’s recollection of said tale. Still if even one tenth of this story is true and the essence is correct (never mind the details) it would make for one of the greatest wilderness stories of any I have ever heard.
If I was pitching this as a movie, it would be The Revenant meets the Donner Party meets the California Gold Rush meets the Alamo. Sounds ridiculous right? Not so fast. I have studied this book extensively for several years; page by page, line by line and word by word. There are certainly scenes that stretch the truth, but I believe that much of the original story is absolutely true!