In 1896 the famous lecturer, film maker and writer, Burton Holmes, visited Yellowstone Park. Holmes, who coined the word “travelogues” wrote about his Yellowstone trip in Volume 6 of his ten-volume series by that name.
After describing the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone from several vantage points on the north rim, Holmes told this story about crossing the Yellowstone River on a crude raft made of logs to see the lower fall from “Artist Point.”
Most travelers are content to view the canyon from the points to which I have already led you. Others remain unsatisfied until they have looked into the great chasm from “Artists’ Point,” the one perfect point of view, which is unfortunately on the other bank, and in 1896 was well nigh inaccessible.
There was no bridge; the crossing of the river below the falls was utterly out of the question; but there remained the possibility of crossing far above the upper gorge, where the waters, although swift-flowing, present a level, navigable surface. But there has not been a boat upon the river since the last one, very fortunately empty, was swept away and dashed to pieces by the cataracts. No boat! No bridge!
The river being now too deep and swift to ford, I turn in my difficulty to the gallant soldiers of Uncle Sam, who are stationed at the canyon. The sergeant in command at the little military camp enthusiastically comes to my assistance, and at sunrise next morning I find him a little way above the rapids, slowly poling upstream a raft, which he has built expressly for our excursion.
At last, we reach a point from which he deems it safe to put out into the current, where the waters, swift as those of a millrace, are gliding on in their eagerness to plunge into the yawning canyon, just one mile beyond. There was, of course, no actual danger, yet the thought was ever present that our raft, if left to its own devices, would at once follow unresistingly that treacherous flood, bound through the rapids and plunge over the first fall, then dash through the upper canyon, and finally meet annihilation in the whirlpools at the bottom of the great cataract.
In safety, however, we arrive on the farther shore. Then we skirt the right bank through a thick growth of pine, and while we are walking through the forest, thundershowers come and go with great frequency and fury. We are soon drenched to the skin, but pressing on we reach the edge of the forest; the earth appears to open at our feet, and the canyon yawns before us, deep and mysterious. Vapors are surging upward from its depths, but fortunately, the sun is beginning to break through the clouds above.
A shaft of sunshine touches a portion of the opposing wall, and another brilliantly illuminates the pinnacles of white and gold, while others chase the vapors rapidly away. The fears that rain and fog will render our excursion fruitless are dispelled, as, reaching another point of view, we exchange salutes with friends on the other rim.
We shout to them, they shout to us; but the sounds meet only halfway and then fall into the depths between. We cannot hear, nor are we ourselves heard. The river’s rumbling mocks our puny efforts to span the deep chasm with a bridge of vocal sound. We must attempt to span it with our gaze.
Few of the great sights of this world have power to thrill us more than this vista of the canyon of the Yellowstone. We are unable to tell what most impresses us: the immensity of the great gulf, the infinite glory of its colored walls, the struggling river far below, the stately army of tall pines massed on the brink and pressing forward, apparently as eager as we to drink in all the splendor of the scene.
All these things go to compose the scene, to form that indefinable majesty that inspires us—to hold our peace. Silence is the only eloquence that can avail us here. No man has yet found language to express the majesty of this abyss of color. But, we ask, will no voice ever perfectly express in words what we all feel but dare not, cannot speak? Will no great poet of the new world, inspired by these grandeurs, ever utter the immortal song in which our vaguest thoughts shall find interpretation? Great, great indeed must be the soul of him who would give adequate expression to the reverential awe inspired by a scene like this.
But what is man that he should strive to utter the unutterable? The emotions that overwhelm us here can be expressed only in one language, and that is not a mortal language; it is the language of those to whom all mysteries have been revealed—the great eternal, wordless language of the soul: a language that we may not understand until the gates of death have closed behind us.
— From Burton Holmes Travelogues, Volume 6, The McClure Company: New York, 1905. (Pages 104-112)
— Artist Point Postcard by F.J. Haynes. Coppermine Photo Gallery.
— Photos of rafting across the Yellowstone River by Burton Holmes, Travelogues, Volume 6.
— You might also enjoy:
- “A Near Tragedy on Uncle Tom’s Trail” by Louis E. Downing.
- “To the Base of the Lower Fall” by F. Dumont Smith.