Yellowstone's 'geyser guy' was one of the park's best friends

  • Rick Hutchinson talks with artist Robert Dell

    Michael Milstein
  • Rick Hutchinson and partner lower a video probe into Old Faithful

    Michael Milstein

In the spray of Old Faithful, in the shimmer of heat within Yellowstone's turquoise pools, in the steam rolling through the pines, Rick Hutchinson looks back at us.

Rick was Yellowstone's geyser guy, a geologist who was the foremost authority on the world's foremost collection of geysers and hot springs. I say "was." But I imagine he always will be.

And more than that, he may have been the best friend Yellowstone's thermal wonders ever had.

He talked about the cross-country skiing trip he and Diane Dustman, a visiting geologist from Boston, were going to take early in March, the trip from which they never returned. They were beginning a park-wide inventory of hot springs. On that trip, an avalanche claimed both of them as permanent parts of Yellowstone.

They had skied into Heart Lake, the home of one of Yellowstone's two backcountry geyser basins. Rick had been heartbroken several years ago when vandals tossed junk into some geysers there, plugging them up. Every hot spring seemed to talk to him, to tell him a different story, and he cared about each one.

It was from Rick that I picked up the annoying habit of collecting stray trash while walking through the geyser basins. Annoying not because I didn't like doing it, but because it always reminded me how much Rick cared for Yellowstone and how much a few others did not.

Not that he would fault them for it. He was proud of every person who came to Yellowstone to absorb its geological melody.

With his calm curiosity and wild beard, Rick tracked the geysers the way biologists track grizzly bears. He wanted to figure out their quirks, their habits, and he wondered what those said about the subterranean furnaces that power Yellowstone from below. It is, he once said, a mystery novel without an end.

A few years ago, he happened onto the birth of a new mud volcano in the park backcountry. He considered himself lucky to be there, to watch the widening abyss swallow trees like swizzle sticks and blow bubbles the size of small cabins.

Rick was 49 when he died and had figured, he said, that he might think about retiring when he turned 75. I suspect they would have had to drag him away.

He had been fascinated with the thermal systems ever since he came to Yellowstone in 1970 as a 23-year-old naturalist, leading walks through Norris Geyser Basin. Norris is Yellowstone's hottest and most dynamic geyser basin. Each day there is different from the one before.

Rick once showed me a new spring that had simply opened up in Norris one day.

I asked him what had caused it. He supposed a bit, and then he did something that too few government employees seem to do. He asked me what I thought.

Rick believed that anyone who took the time to admire Yellowstone's geothermal treasures had just as much right to interpret their behavior as he did, and he fiercely defended their right.

I remember sitting with him on a bench near Grand Prismatic Spring, the huge expanse that from the air looks like a pinwheel of color as steam streams off it. A television crew was filming a scientist kneeling at the edge of the spring, describing bacterial mats that had been fossilized by minerals and time.

Right then, a family came walking by, the children smiling, pointing and exclaiming. One of the TV crew said to no one in particular, but loud enough for the family to hear, "We can't do this with all that noise!'

"Then wait," Rick said, just loud enough for the crew to hear.

It was the only time I heard an edge to his voice.

In 1976, Yellowstone Park's bosses wised up and hired Rick as a permanent research geologist. He advanced our knowledge of the park and its geological tics more than anyone. He figured out a way to make use of devices designed to monitor temperatures inside refrigerated trucks to track geyser runoff. The results revealed connections between geysers no one had noticed before.

It is little known that Rick in 1990 noticed changes in the eruption pattern of Old Faithful and predicted an earthquake that measured 3.8 on the Richter Scale.

Often, he just watched. He realized that Monarch Geyser, a long-dormant pothole at Norris, had reawakened, when he saw that its belches had pushed pine needles out of its mouth.

He would embark on trips of several weeks to backcountry thermal regions with canned goods and plenty of Idaho Spud candy bars.

He took note of simple things. The first ruddy bison calf of spring. The comet that he got up at five in the morning to see. The chowder his wife, Jennifer, (always his "counterpart" or "partner') had brewed up.

He once told me of a hammy old movie musical set in Yellowstone and imitated the movie's singing rangers while we were standing near Old Faithful.

A word about Old Faithful. Rick loved it as much as any other corner of Yellowstone, but puzzled over the park visitors who would watch Old Faithful but nothing else. Old Faithful is faithful, he would concede. But it's not the biggest, loudest, longest, highest or grandest.

If Rick were here, he'd probably remind us that every geyser, at its peak, was the grandest. And he would be happy to know that he opened our eyes enough to see that.

You cannot work around scalding water or, as Rick did, float on boiling springs in a specially built boat and not think about injury or death. Boating on boiling water, he would say, is no time to worry about life preservers. He knew full well that his house near Old Faithful is in the middle of a dormant volcano and, I think, he relished it. He would speculate on the chances the volcano would decide to erupt in his lifetime and, if it did, all the paperwork that would ensue. The chances were slim, but Rick was so amazed by the earth that I think he secretly hoped it might happen when he was still around to see it.

Rick would no doubt disapprove of this sort of gushy tribute. He'd probably say something like, "Turn your computer off, go outside, and find something that's really interesting."

The last time we talked, he was planning a two-week hike this summer south of Yellowstone Lake to visit a remote network of hot springs. He always seemed to be seeing some facet of Yellowstone for the first time, and it was what he loved about the place.

Or, I should say, "what he loves about the place." Because I know Rick is still out there, and always will be, laughing and marveling at nature's show.

Michael Milstein lives in Cody, Wyoming, and works for the Billings Gazette.

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