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The Winterkeeper's Great Chasm—As You've Never Known It Before

Besides being jaw dropping, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone has geysers, hidden spectacles and a mountain of volcanic rhyolite

February 11, 2018—Plunging Into The Abyss

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, a wonder of the world and not well understood even by those who visit America's first national park often. One of the most widely photographed scenes in Yellowstone, Fuller strives to avoid cliches with his interpretation of the Lower Falls. Photo by Steven Fuller
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, a wonder of the world and not well understood even by those who visit America's first national park often. One of the most widely photographed scenes in Yellowstone, Fuller strives to avoid cliches with his interpretation of the Lower Falls. Photo by Steven Fuller
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is a geyser basin like none other in the park. Yes, geyser basin. On cool mornings plumes of steam from geysers, hot springs, and fumaroles rise from the canyon walls and along the river’s edge a 10,000 feet below.

Its edge begins a little more than a quarter of a mile away from where I am writing these words.

The canyon is a river-eroded transected geyser basin and cut into a mountain of volcanic ash leftover from Supervolcano. The rocks at the head of the canyon down river from the Lower Falls have long been and continue to be hydrothermally altered by hot acidic water that rises through the networks of fractures that reach down to the volcanic magma mass that underlies central Yellowstone.  

This corrosive chemistry has weakened and degraded the rhyolite lava bed rock so that it is more easily eroded by the river than the harder unaltered rock at the Lower Falls, the upriver boundary of the geyser basin.  

In addition, the extreme hydrothermal chemistry acts as a catalyst that alters the elemental components of nature’s pallet of pigments, or more simply said, this is why the canyon is so spectacularly colorful. The canyon continues today to be an alchemical crucible of chromatic chemistry in action.

Mechanically, the Kodachrome canyon gash we adore is the child of the raging melt water born of the very rapid final wasting of the ice of the last glaciation that occurred about 12,500 years ago that flushed the debris from the ancestral canyon and rapidly deepened the canyon we know today.

In some places the upper end of the canyon is almost as deep as it is wide, and since the rims are heavily timbered the forest conceals the chasm until you come right up on it. 
The photo here was taken from behind Fuller's cabin. "In the background,  a plume of steam, water vapor, rises up and out of the canyon," he writes. "This ephemeral jewel of a light catcher is generated by the fall of the Yellowstone River over the 308 foot cliff at the head of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone."
The photo here was taken from behind Fuller's cabin. "In the background, a plume of steam, water vapor, rises up and out of the canyon," he writes. "This ephemeral jewel of a light catcher is generated by the fall of the Yellowstone River over the 308 foot cliff at the head of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone."
A member of an early scientific expedition in 1869 turned in his saddle to sort out some pack animals while his horse continued on the way as a trusted horse would, when the animal suddenly stopped.  He turned back around to see that the horse had halted on the very rim of the abyss.

A threesome of waterfalls is closely associated with the Canyon: first the post card famous Lower Falls at the head of the canyon.  Second, a half mile up river, the109-feet-high Upper Falls. 
"On a subzero morning shortly after sunrise floating frost crystals born of hot springs deep in the Canyon fill the air," Fuller writes. "There are two shapes of crystals.  One acts as a prisim that separates white light into the spectrum of colors visible to us and a second form that reflects white light like a mirror.  A photo cannot convey this nuance, but if you have the good fortune to see this in the real world, and take the time to look deeply, you can see the  light show of both crystals dancing."
"On a subzero morning shortly after sunrise floating frost crystals born of hot springs deep in the Canyon fill the air," Fuller writes. "There are two shapes of crystals. One acts as a prisim that separates white light into the spectrum of colors visible to us and a second form that reflects white light like a mirror. A photo cannot convey this nuance, but if you have the good fortune to see this in the real world, and take the time to look deeply, you can see the light show of both crystals dancing."
Between the two the river follows a sweeping “J” (“hockey stick”) course where, midway the parent creek of the close-by Crystal Falls, a 129 feet high triple cascade, joins the river. Isolated from these three a fourth, Silver Cord Cascade, descends 1200 feet down a vertical wall on the south side of the Canyon three miles downriver from the Lower Falls. 

My house sits about two New York city blocks distant from but directly overlooking the Lower Falls which is hidden from view situated as it is deep in the narrow chasm at the head of the canyon. The Lower Falls’ location is usually obvious because of the plume of water vapor that rises from it for hundreds or even for a thousand feet or more into the sky.
Often overshadowed by its more prominent sibling, the Lower Falls, the Upper Falls is one of three waterfalls located near the head of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.  Here, Fuller pays homage to one of the shorter cascades in the trinity, resplendent unto itself.  Photo by Steven Fuller
Often overshadowed by its more prominent sibling, the Lower Falls, the Upper Falls is one of three waterfalls located near the head of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Here, Fuller pays homage to one of the shorter cascades in the trinity, resplendent unto itself. Photo by Steven Fuller
I wish I could appropriate the African name for Victoria Falls, which would be as appropriate here as it is there: “the smoke that thunders.” 

The house faces south south-east so the plume is backlighted at sunrise and whenever a cold clear night is coincident with the rise of a full moon the plume appears luminescent, as magical as a towering genie.  

In the spring, at the end of hot sunny days when rapid snow melt has swollen the river, the roar of the falls fills the night.  Surprisingly the noise doesn’t come from the Lower Falls directly below me where the river crashes over a 300 feet high cliff but from the Upper Falls, almost exactly twice as far, .08 of a mile away.

The reason is obvious when you stand at the brink of the Upper Falls looking down river where the spreading canyon walls form a megaphone that points directly at the house. 
"Beautiful and seductive, the Canyon is a widow maker. The Canyon is hungry, its hydrothermally degraded walls are often crumby or clay slicked.  I have thought of the canyon as an ambush predator, like the sand trap of a giant ant lion."
When low clouds hang over the Upper Falls and the acoustics are just so I can hear the sounds of the riffles in the river below the falls…some evening I expect to hear the song of a water ouzel (American Dipper)—“the bird that flies underwater,” splashing around down there, almost a mile away.

Beautiful and seductive, the Canyon is a widow maker. The Canyon is hungry, its hydrothermally degraded walls are often crumby or clay slicked.  I have thought of the canyon as an ambush predator, like the sand trap of a giant ant lion, where the unstable materials around its’ perimeter invite a fatal fall into its maw.  
"A winter snowstorm embellishes this old pine snag that has extended a formidable root in an attempt to belay the itself from being drawn into the maw of the canyon," Fuller notes. "Think of clawing your fingernails in slow motion into the top edge of a cliff with a 1,200-foot exposure. Eventually the pull of gravity over-whelmes the life force in all of us." Photo by Steven Fuller
"A winter snowstorm embellishes this old pine snag that has extended a formidable root in an attempt to belay the itself from being drawn into the maw of the canyon," Fuller notes. "Think of clawing your fingernails in slow motion into the top edge of a cliff with a 1,200-foot exposure. Eventually the pull of gravity over-whelmes the life force in all of us." Photo by Steven Fuller
People do fall into the canyon.  A motorist backed his car off the north rim until gravity irresistibly captured them, killing him and his wife.  A sundry have slipped to their deaths.  Others have been killed by rocks falling or thrown into the canyon. 

One young man committed suicide with a spectacularly romantic leap onto the brink edge of the lower falls. The father of a longtime Yellowstone friend of mine recalled the time he encountered the corpse of a female, “her buttocks partially emergent, white as ivory” at rest in a favorite fly fishing hole where she had washed down from the upper Yellowstone.

Two men died when climbing the 1,000-foot Silver Cord stalactite of ice attached, until they descended it, to the south wall of the canyon late in May. In the early 1950’s several visitors reported witnessing a bear fall fatally into the canyon, so it is not just us tourists that mis-step.

In winter the Lower Falls is mostly sheathed in ice while a pile of snow and ice accumulates at its’ foot which in some years is massive. The top of the mass may reach near to the brink of the falls, other years it assumes the form of an asymmetrical, but pleasing cone, or it may evolve as a low slung ridge of ice. 
“Tom Thumb,” a small geyser near the foot of the Lower Falls was historically accessible at the terminus of Uncle Tom’s Trail near the base of the cataract. Tom, an early private tourism purveyor,  created the trail in the decades after Yellowstone was created. Subsequently, much having to do with resource protection and liability reasons, the National Park Service shortened and reconfigured the primitive trail as an iron stairway that no longer terminated at the river level. A new trail will make its debut in 2018. Photo by Steven Fuller
“Tom Thumb,” a small geyser near the foot of the Lower Falls was historically accessible at the terminus of Uncle Tom’s Trail near the base of the cataract. Tom, an early private tourism purveyor, created the trail in the decades after Yellowstone was created. Subsequently, much having to do with resource protection and liability reasons, the National Park Service shortened and reconfigured the primitive trail as an iron stairway that no longer terminated at the river level. A new trail will make its debut in 2018. Photo by Steven Fuller
Every winter its form is different, reflecting variables in temperature, wind, precipitation, water flow, and other less obvious mysteries of the morphology of ice cone formation. Then, some warm mid-March day or night, the whole mass collapses, an event I have never witnessed. Yesterday it was there, this morning it is gone.

In any season the canyon and falls are an irresistible attraction for the aerially empowered. Every few years several jet fighters do a couple of low wide turns around the falls overwhelming everything else with their mega- thunder, vastly louder than the falls can muster even at spring tide. The whop-whop of a single helicopter indicates a rescue or recovery operation or sometimes an inspection by a politician, or a film crew capturing a view unprecedented until now, late in the Anthropocene. One afternoon a half dozen Hueys in formation paid an aerial visit, ‘twere Ride of the Valkyries redux.

The canyon and lower falls are a spectacle immortalized for more than a century on countless millions of postcards, mega miles of film, petabytes of digital memory rendering most of us numb to the reality of what an extraordinary space this place is.  Most of us are more focused on bagging it than absorbing it. Check it off the bucket list and hurry on to Old Faithful, the Tetons, or back to wherever.

I have lived closely proximate to this canyon and its’ trinity of waterfalls for many years but it remains an elusive icon, like meeting a movie star in the flesh, how do you connect with the person behind the famous mask, how do you see into a landscape become a national cliché?
"On a sub zero morning, 'snow pillows' sit atop hoodoo rocks on the rim of the canyon and frame an ephemeral sun pillar," Fuller writes. Photo by Steven Fuller
"On a sub zero morning, 'snow pillows' sit atop hoodoo rocks on the rim of the canyon and frame an ephemeral sun pillar," Fuller writes. Photo by Steven Fuller
In one of various intimate forays with this place I once attempted to walk at river level from Seven Mile hole (7 miles below the Lower Falls) to Tower Junction, a further fifteen miles downstream.  Along the way trout were abundant and naïve and easily caught in the deep clear pools.  On the sylvan bench of a side canyon I found the undisturbed bones of a venerable bull bison and a cast iron griddle and a rusted out frying pan. Who, why, and when remained unanswered.

With increasing frequency sheer cliffs reached down into the river forcing me to climb high in order to by-pass them. Game trails, mostly mule deer, showed the best routes, though in places were so precipitous I wondered if there were goats locally resident.

Once past the cliff I dropped back down to the river until around the next bend I encountered the next cliff and again and again the whole strenuous process was repeated. The trout weren’t the only naif in the canyon, call me Candide.

Having budgeted only three days for the jaunt I climbed out of the canyon on the third day and proceeded along the rim trail the rest of the way to Tower and my pick-up at the appointed time. Pleased, I had experienced a bit of the canyon seldom seen.

Undoubtedly the most successful visionary of the Canyon was the great American painter Thomas Moran. During two of the forty days he first spent in Yellowstone in 1871, in company with the Hayden Geological Survey, he sketched many details of the canyon and falls which, upon his return to his studio, he incorporated into his 7 X 14-foot opus, “The Grand Canon of the Yellowstone 1872."  (See at bottom.) This magnificent work was instrumental in inducing Congress to create Yellowstone as a national park.

The canvas is not a literal portrays of the Canyon, rather it is a faithful composite of the whole, a montage of elements based on the details sketches he made on site. As I walk or ski the canyon I sometimes experience a mild epiphany when I recognize some of those details that he rearranged and incorporated in a true rendering of a sense of this place that transcends the photographic.

The painting is a movable feast of saturated colors and shifting illuminating light cast on the canyon walls via drifting mottled translucent clouds after a summer rain. His rendering of this synergy is one I attempt to re-experience each summer when, on rare occasions, all of the right conditions harmonize and confirm the palette of canyon colors and the play of light Moran faithfully portrayed in this wonderful work.

The details:  within the canyon the perfect sweep of a mount Fuji curve (very Hokusai) that defines the mound in the middle distance, the scattering of pines throughout the canyon that have pioneered the unlikely but live-able niches on the canyon walls (“bloom where you are planted”), the desiccated twisted snags, those tortured skeletal Yellowstone bonsai.

On the wall of the canyon he portrays the familiar creep of a dark vegetative mat below a hot spring, in another the multi colored aqueous abstract patterns that recall the ancient art of marbled paper

And the peripheral details, small, but they convey the landscape context in which the Canyon exists. The speck of an eagle high in the sky, small plumes of steam that mark hot springs on the walls of the canyon.  In the far middle distance he acknowledges Hayden Valley. And, most appropriately, the plumes of hot springs and mud pots at Mud Volcano eight miles to the south.
Every February for a short time in Yosemite National Park, sunshine strikes Horsetail Falls and creates a visual effect that resembles a waterfall on fire. Similar kinds of phenomena happen in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone depending upon the seasonal arc of the sun, weather and steam pouring out of the ground.  "What marvelous hot springs lies hidden in this canyon cliff cleft revealed on this cool morning by an ephemeral tease of steam," Fuller writes of this image. " Photo by Steven Fuller
Every February for a short time in Yosemite National Park, sunshine strikes Horsetail Falls and creates a visual effect that resembles a waterfall on fire. Similar kinds of phenomena happen in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone depending upon the seasonal arc of the sun, weather and steam pouring out of the ground. "What marvelous hot springs lies hidden in this canyon cliff cleft revealed on this cool morning by an ephemeral tease of steam," Fuller writes of this image. " Photo by Steven Fuller
On the far southern rim of the Yellowstone plateau, way beyond the canyon focus of the work, he portrays a suggestion of snowy mountains, or be they clouds?...or both? Ambiguity is rampant up here on the Yellowstone Plateau, one of its’ many charms.  

The painting is “psychedelic” in the sense that it “creates an elevated sense of awareness” of the wondrous nature of this “scenic climax”, a term in the lexicon of the modern scientific formulaic criteria used to quantify the aesthetic values of scenery, usually as a means to monetize the place. Master artists, conflicted poets, and the simple minded recognize the canyon’s numinous nature on first sight, no spreadsheet required.

Moran was first a master of observation, seeing the whole in the mélange of the details, then on the canvas he was a master colorist with the technical skills to convey his poet’s minds’ eye.

Osborne Russell, the first and the last of the literate mountain men who knew Yellowstone in the late 1830s, put it well, “For my own part I almost wished I could spend the remainder of my days in a place like this where happiness and contentment seemed to sing in wild romantic splendor”.  Moran said something similar and so do I.

Of course, it was viewed for the first time by humans long, long before that. Native people frequented the interior of the park since at least 9,000 years ago, though I am not aware that any evidence as old as that has been found in the canyon area.

The first evidence of a person with European ancestry visiting the Canyon were the initials “J.O.R. and the date “Aug 19, 1819” near the Upper Falls. The graffiti was last reported in the 1890s when it had naturally grown over and was nearly indecipherable. Thereafter it was lost.

In the 1890s there was a serious proposal to build an elevator to the base of the lower falls, an amenity attractive to the less robust amongst the visitors of the time and a revenue generator for the more entrepreneurial/savvy among us. Opponents of the idea were disparaged as elitists. Such thinking more broadly about nature still echoes today.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Click here to read all of Steven Fuller's journal entries for "A Life In Wonderland" and this Mountain Journal profile of Fuller, "Twilight of the Winterkeepers".  Enjoy Thomas Moran's painting, below. 
Thomas Moran's "Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone" unveiled before Congress in 1872.
Thomas Moran's "Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone" unveiled before Congress in 1872.

Steven Fuller
About Steven Fuller

Steven Fuller has been the "winterkeeper" at Canyon Village deep in the heart of Yellowstone National Park for 45 years.  Well traveled on several continents, he is also an award-winning nature photographer.  Follow him at A Life In Wonderland appearing exclusively at Mountain Journal.  His collectible photography is also available through Yellowstone Gallery.  Steven Fuller profile photo by Neal Herbert/NPS
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