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The original and Northern most entrance to Yellowstone Park is located in Gardiner, Montana beside the Yellowstone River. Marking the entrance is a huge brown basalt stone arch standing like a gateway, minus the walls, to an ancient city of fortress. The corners of the gateway are made of large squared block (quoins) but all the infill blocks have points on them like dinosaur armor. As a stone mason, I noticed, but really didn’t understand this detail when we drove through the arch for the first time on our way to the hot springs ten minutes into the park where the Boiling River gushes up through a travertine tunnel and empties into the Gardner River.

Countless bathers have piled semi-circular terraces of rounded river rock in sequence down the Gardner River to make a series of pools that keep most of the heated water contained along the left bank of the Gardner while at the same time allowing mixing of the cool and hot waters of the two rivers near the center of the Gardner. We sat with proper bathing suits amidst about three dozen bathers and shifted upstream or downstream from pool to pool or simply slid to the right toward the Gardner to find a perfect temperature. The body likes to cook a bit and then cool off and then cook some more. Sliding to the right cooled me down. Sliding back to the left heated me back up. The rocks beneath my sandals and swimsuit were slippery. By sitting submerged with the upper part of my chest and head exposed, I could maintain my position, but the minute I leaned back my head or tried to lay down on my back, the current and my increased buoyancy took over and I would start to slide downstream.

In our masonry heater workshop in Gardiner, the town, I explained how the smoke (Mr. Smoke) moved through the channels and asked folks present to imagine the smoke as a liquid finding the easiest path out, but also being asked (in the contraflow design) to go down a channel when it really wanted (because of its relative buoyancy hot air is thinner than cool air and wants to rise) to go up. The dynamics of an established draft (like the river’s current) could overcome the smoke’s resistance to going downhill and the smoke would in fact travel great distances going downhill or horizontally before escaping up the chimney, all the while giving off heat to the mass and thence to the room. At the confluence of the Boiling River and the Gardner River, the cooler waters of the Gardner were absorbing the heat from the Boiling River as they mixed and the bathers, as well, were like the bricks in our heat exchange channels, raising our bodies’ thermal mass temperatures.

Back at the Boiling River, there is an ancient travertine blowhole like the blowhole of a whale which is empty and dry now. The Boiling River emerges several feet below this blowhole now and has carved through massive shelves of travertine. As the river cuts through and under the stone, it eventually falls in and is further broken down and carved into gravel and washed away. A series of travertine overhangs on the Gardner, formed by the Boiling River, were favorite bathing holes in the hot water, but the Park Authorities regarded them as unsafe so made a decision to dynamite them to make the bathing area safe. Some things are left to evolve at their own very natural pace, and other features of the landscape are redefined with force to make the space more human friendly.

On the quarter mile walk out from the hot springs at dusk along the riverbank we sighted a water ouzel also known as the dipper flying across the little river. Joel Adams, attending the workshop, pointed out to me that the dipper can land in the shallow water and walk under water upstream in its search for food. This was impressive, given my own recent inability to hold my position with hands and feet combined when I tried to go under the water. What a wonderful and amazing niche, skill, adaptation and ability the ouzel must have. I am reminded that in an unused chimney, chimney swifts will settle and build nests well down into the chimney cavity and unlike almost any other bird (one client found a dead duck at the bottom of his 36 foot chimney) have the ability to climb out of the chimney before flying off.

When you look out the South side of John Stacy and Shirl Ireland’s home, you see huge glass windows in a twelve-foot tall ceiling facing due South and looking at Yellowstone’s Northern mountains. Shirl was determined not to cut off the view of the tops of the mountains from any spot in the room as they designed their living space. John had to keep raising the stick on the side of the tall two by four until he reached twelve feet to insure that their spectacular view would be preserved. The beams John used in building this impressive space were salvaged and recycled from an old freight shed further North and down the Yellowstone River. John and Shirl built their last home in New York from a recycled barn and we built the core and bench layout together in that first and wonderful home several years ago. The chance to join them once again in a new location and a new building venture was a great treat.

Below their home the Yellowstone River is about 50-75 feet down. They are perched right on the top of the riverbank. Between the main house and the gallery (the gallery and studio were completed first) is a wooden connector linking the two buildings. At the basement level, however, hand formed concrete stairs allow the huge black culvert pipes from the street to drain off the volumes of infrequent rainwater across heavy rip rap and down to the Yellowstone. On the opposite side of the home, facing the North and the road into Gardiner, there are almost no windows, except for a small kitchen window overlooking the entry door and a large display window and entry in the gallery. Step outside and you are on the main road into Gardiner. Beyond the road everything rises steeply a few hundred feet to the cliffs of gravel topped with a layer of ancient travertine. The Yellowstone River has been carving its way through all of this rock mass for a long, long time. Shops, motels, and houses sit on what little flat terraces there are and beyond the very limited development, the vertical but wide open spaces begin again.

From their house and gallery (Elk River Art) to the school across the bridge is a one mile walk. In the micro-climate of Gardiner, there is almost no snow, so summer and winter, John and Shirl and the kids and two dogs on leashes make the morning walk to the school at 7:30 a.m. and one or both parents pick up the kids at the end of the day on foot or by car. I joined them for the first school walk and found myself a little dizzy on the bridge of the Yellowstone below. I think the high altitude was partly to cause. Years ago we built a heater in the Sangre de Christo Mountains in Crestone, Colorado and our clients there said that they could not get on a roof for a few days whenever they returned to their home because of the altitude adjustments. The Rocky Mountain big horn sheep are oblivious to the challenges of these heights but I understand their numbers dropped somewhat in recent years when a domestic sheep disease infected them and made them lose their balance as well and many could not negotiate the steep cliffs which are their normal habitat and playground.

I drove up on evening with Joel Adams and Clint Dodge to the old travertine quarry on the North ridge above the main road and there got my first look at the astounding basalt formations from which the gateway was built. I began to see that these tightly joined stacked columns of brown basalt, piled like beautiful organic building blocks, were in fact hexagonal in shape. In our rush to get to the travertine quarry in the dwindling light we did not stop to study the basalt columns in any detail, but the basalt infection had clearly started. The basalt columns are twenty or thirty feet high. Each block is a foot or two high and weighs several hundred pounds. Removed one by one they are ready without future work to be placed in a structure like the entry gate.

Why are the pieces six sided? Why the crystalline shape? How did this wonder occur? Google Yellowstone Basalt Formations and you will get the story of the Yellowstone caldera (about 1000 square miles) that was formed in a massive volcanic event about 600,000 years ago. Mountains blew away. Ash filled the sky for a long time. Magma flowed to the surface. Some of this magma is basalt. In addition to the basalt cliffs and columns on the hill above John and Shirl’s home, there are more of these amazing columnar formations in the park. In one gorgeous river canyon, the fenced lookout path on one side of the river looks across a gorge a couple hundred feet or more deep to two massive columnar layers of basalt separated by 50-75 vertical feet of gravel.

One layer is near the top of the gorge, so near that John and Shirl once saw adult and young big horn sheep hopping up and down the stepping stones of the columns with a sheer drop to the river below. Because of their vertical separation, the two distinct layers may represent two different volcanic events. Not knowing the definitive answer to the question does not take away from the wonder of what you see and the puzzle of everything unfolding before you. As old as all of this is, you have a crystal clear sense that you are also in a nursery with things being formed as well as being broken down right in front of you. Great rocks fall off the columns into the river and are washed down and crushed and swept away. A few miles away, new different rock is constantly being formed where the hot springs emerge from the ground land making travertine. Old tumble down cliffs of travertine now broken up into huge craggy boulders, some as big as a large cabin, litter an area on both sides of the road in one area of the park. Seeing the difference between the dead and dying and the birthing and living begins to be become very fuzzy.

In one shallow riverbed in the Lamar Valley we see pieces of petrified wood two or three inches long laying on the beach. Giant petrified trees millions of years old, further up in the mountains have been found. One is twenty-six feet in diameter and we are picking up little petrified wood chips to look at just a tiny fraction of that size. A cataclysmic event trapped the living trees in ash or some substance which allowed their entire structure to be preserved as stone, but even as stone, time wears away at the stone and the tiny slivers that we see will soon be turned to grains of sand, not in my lifetime perhaps, but in the lifetime of the plant. One ancient red wood stone stump has been mapped and fenced off. You can see it but not touch it. Earlier visitors chipped away every bit of two other adjacent red wood stone stumps until only this protected stump still stands.

Imagine as a child, your dad coming home from work one day with a huge barrel of rusty metal in the back of his truck. You ask him what it is after he unloads it with a big blue tractor with the forks on it. He says that the barrel is full of huge rusty nuts that the railroad yard was going to throw out, so your dad brought it home. You, of course, want to play with the whole mess and ask your dad if you can and he, being a believer in learn from play, says, yes you can help yourself. In an hour or two you have made a bunch of random piles, but then you discover that you can stack the large rusty nuts pretty much like coins. Not only can you stack them, but unlike coins or gambling chips, the stacks fit together snugly. The old rusty nuts are six-sided. When your dad comes back to check on you, there is the whole barrel laid out in rusty columns a foot or so tall and three feet wide and a foot deep. You have made your own miniature basalt columnar cliff. The Yellowstone basalt columns have neither threads nor holes in their centers and what is more, they are irregular hexagonal shapes, but each piece in each column fits each adjoining piece and pieces, perfectly on all six sides. How and why? One wonderful basalt deposit that we could drive and walk to in the park was called the Sheep Eater Cliffs, named after the members of the Shoshoni peoples, who for hundreds or thousands of years inhabited the high country of the Yellowstone area and included large quantities of the big horn sheep in their diet. They also made extraordinary garments from their thick whooly hides. In addition, they figured out a way of soaking the big sheep horns in the hot springs, to make the horns workable enough to make extremely powerful hunting bows which were said to the finest bows of any ever made in the region.

A single natural segment of a single basalt column probably weighs 300-500 pounds. Such stones, could not, and likely were not, carried by any means or used for construction until the modern era (not forgetting the amazing fitted stone walls and temples of places like Machu Pichu in Peru and the giant stones of the pyramids in Egypt or Central America). Their singular beauty and their magical crystalline storybook forms had to have deeply moved the first Yellowstone inhabitants as indeed it does to visitors now. I climbed on the tumbledown pile of basalt boulders at the foot of the Sheep Eater Cliffs and took several photos. An ancient city of slowly crumbling temples could have stood there. The official geological survey of the area says that the columns were formed not as the lava flowed but as it cooled and contracted. Some of the sources say that water played a role in the rapid cooling and spectacular geometric cracking creating a literal stone honeycomb. An interesting Creationist Web site attributes the rapid cooling to Noah’s flood. What we see today is what remains after the river has carved through the columnar layer formed 600,000 years ago. The basalt cliffs above John and Shirl’s house are but a tiny remnant of a vast sheet of basalt that was once there.

Interestingly, we take our early evening hot springs and travertine and basalt field trips and then come back the next day to work on our masonry heater project. The core has nearly 300 firebrick in it. All were made from ferrous free clays fired at high temperatures. Just as primal fire from the earth’s molten core makes the steaming water of the Boiling River and the basaltic lava flows, our little heater will also hold fire and store heat and warm the home and hearth of those within. The fire in John and Shirl’s heater will also heat a custom made domestic hot water manifold on top of the inner capping slabs twinned to the solar hot water collectors also being installed.

Just as the magma layer of the earth creeps up through the volcanic fissures beneath Yellowstone and encounters massive amounts of ground water which it turns to steam or very hot water, so too will our heater give off its fair share of heat to a much more modest network of pipes laid on top of the heater in a waterproof tray and this heated water will be added to the hot water sources working elsewhere in the house.

When we finish the inner doll we lay on strips of mineral wool gasket. (I often ask people to visualize our contraflow heaters as three nesting carved and painted Russian wooden dolls. The inner doll is the core. The next doll is the heat exchanger and third and outer doll is the veneer. Each doll is free to move within the next larger doll. So too with our core). Once we finish the core, we use sheets of ¼ thick mineral wool which has been fabricated for us in Maine and shipped with the other exotic materials to Montana. We separate each doll from the next with strips or sheets of this ¼ thick mineral wool. The blocks of wool made somewhere in Canada are cut down to our thin sheets with a band saw by our fabricator. To make mineral wool, someone takes a certain kind of rock, crushes it and then heats it to extremely high temperatures and then blows air through to create a kind of wool, sometimes with a consistency like cotton candy, which we use in thin layers as a gasket and in thicker layers of a couple inches or more of insulation. The stone from which the rock wool is typically made is Basalt.