By Ruffin Prevost
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — Yellowstone Lake and the rugged backcountry that surrounds it is a place where millions go seeking solitude and silence. Yet it in a well-documented but rarely discussed phenomenon, some visitors to the Lake area have experienced remarkable celestial sounds of unknown and unexplained origin.
“They resemble the ringing of telegraph wires or the humming of a swarm of bees, beginning softly in the distance, growing rapidly plainer until directly overhead, and then fading as rapidly in the opposite direction,” wrote Hiram M. Chittenden in 1895 in his book, “The Yellowstone National Park.”
Chittenden’s description is one of several in the historical record — as well as many more from popular anecdotal accounts — of strange sounds or “lake music” coming from the skies around Yellowstone Lake and Shoshone lake.
Chittenden was an accomplished engineer with rigorous scientific discipline who built roads and bridges in the park, as well as locks in Seattle’s Lake Washington Ship Canal. He was not given to idle speculation or unsubstantiated gossip about seemingly magical events.
But he is hardly the only — or even the first — prominent Yellowstone National Park visitor to write about the strange and unexplained lake sounds.
Edwin Linton, a professor of biology at Washington and Jefferson College and a specialist in marine parasites was working in Yellowstone in the summer of 1890 as part of a project for the U.S. Fish Commission. Linton, his colleagues and his guides heard the mysterious sounds more than once during that trip, and he drew from his own diary entries when he wrote an account of the odd experience for the Nov. 3, 1893 edition of the prestigious journal Science.
“On the following morning, we heard the sound very plainly,” Linton wrote. “It appeared to begin directly overhead and to pass off across the sky, growing fainter and fainter towards the southwest. It appeared to be a rather indefinite, reverberating sound, characterized by a slight metallic resonance.”
Linton and others have described the sounds as “harp-like” or similar to human voices or the sound of metal cables crashing against each other, but no satisfactory explanation has yet been offered for their origin.
Lee Whittlesey, historian at Yellowstone Park and a longtime resident of the region, said that the Yellowstone Lake sounds aren’t often discussed by park insiders.
“You have to have a real interest in Yellowstone history to even be familiar with it,” said Whittlesey, who has written several books and articles about Yellowstone history.
“There are a number of pieces written about it, but it’s often deeply buried in the literature,” he said.
Despite how far-fetched the phenomenon sounds, Whittlesey said he’s confident the sounds have existed and the historical accounts about them are credible.
“It has been reported by too many people for it to be any kind of Bigfoot thing or something like that,” he said.
Respected scientists and prominent park figures have reported hearing the sounds, and accounts have appeared in books, journals and newspapers, Whittlesey said, although the last new written report may have been as far back as the 1930s.
Yellowstone Lake phenomenon
Typically, accounts of the sounds state that they take place at or near Yellowstone Lake or Shoshone Lake on a clear day when there is little or no wind and the waters are still, usually in the morning.
Geologist Frank H. Bradley explored and documented Yellowstone’s natural wonders as a member of the Hayden Expeditions, and wrote in 1873 about hearing odd sounds along the shore of Yellowstone Lake.
“While getting breakfast, we heard every few moments a curious sound, between a whistle and a hoarse whine, whose locality and character we could not at first determine, though we were inclined to refer it to water-fowl on the other side of the lake,” Bradley wrote in his account of the geologic survey of the area.
“I have listened for it because I found it so interesting,” said Whittlesey, who has lived and worked around Yellowstone for more than 35 years.
“I first learned of it in the early 70s, and over the years kept running into references to it here and there,” he said. “So I listened for it any time I was camped in the backcountry anywhere near Yellowstone Lake or Shoshone Lake, and I never have heard it.”
Terry Dolan, a tour guide based in Cody, Wyo, said he has not only never heard the sounds, but was not familiar with details of the historical accounts of them.
There have been various explanations proposed for the sounds, ranging from fanciful speculation to educated guesses, often centered around the park’s unique geology.
An August 1930 article in Popular Science magazine cited “mild earthquakes, their sounds possibly magnified in underground caverns like sound boxes” as one potential explanation.
The article also referenced a theory put forward by F. C. Marvin, chief of the U.S. Weather Bureau, who based his ideas on observations by Glen Jefferson, a Yellowstone meteorologist.
Marvin noted that temperature inversions are not uncommon above Yellowstone Lake, where warmer air above the lake sits atop cooler air near the water’s surface.
He posited that such inversions “may alter the normal way that the air conducts sound,” the article states. “It might produce sound mirages, in which distant noises of geysers, birds or steamboats might appear to come from near at hand.”
Other theories are referenced dismissively by Stephen Forbes, of the Illinois State Natural History Survey, who wrote about hearing the lake sounds while on the same expedition as Linton.
“No scientific explanation of this really bewitching phenomenon has ever been published, although it has been several times referred to by travelers, who have ventured various crude guesses at its cause, varying from that commonest catch-all of the ignorant, ‘electricity,’ to the whistling of the wings of ducks and the noise of Steamboat Geyser,” Forbes wrote. “It seems to me to belong to the class of aerial echoes, but even on that supposition I cannot account for the origin of the sound.”
If the sounds are related to the park’s geology, they come and go along with thermal features like geysers or hot springs, which wax and wane over years or even decades depending on a complex set of natural factors.
It’s possible that some people in recent years have heard the sound but kept mum about it for fear of sounding foolish or being ridiculed, Whittlesey said, but for whatever reason, the lake sounds are not a topic most guides discuss with visitors.
“I was a tour guide and a ranger naturalist, and I don’t remember ever using it in a program,” Whittlesey said. “It’s just not something that is well known among Yellowstone interpreters or Yellowstone tour guides.”
Despite the lack of any recently documented lake sounds and the lack of a solid explanation for them, Whittlesey is sure the sounds existed as described.
“I feel quite certain these people all heard what they wrote about,” he said.
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or firstname.lastname@example.org.