More than 4 million people visit Yellowstone National Park every year, but relatively few find their way into the park’s 2-million-acre backcountry.
Maybe that’s just as well.
Out there, far from Facebook and electronic “friends,” the true soul of Yellowstone is laid bare: vast tracts of green forest, burbling geysers, and wildlife that’s never been spooked by a gun. Freshwater otters frolic in the rivers, gravel-voiced kingfishers flit from tree to tree, and the haunting call of loons pierce the still morning air.
It’s a place for vigilance, lest you become part of the food chain, but it’s also a place for renewal. Wrapped in nature’s embrace, visitors catch a glimpse of the world as it used to be.
Some friends and I were there recently, paddling our canoes to Shoshone Lake — recognized as the largest backcountry lake in the Lower 48 — then visiting a wild and relatively untrammeled geyser basin at the far end of the lake. It was a tonic to the soul, and by the time our sojourn was over, we had a new appreciation for the world’s oldest national park.
Across the lake, up the river
Any boat trip to Shoshone Lake begins on Lewis Lake, in the southern reaches of Yellowstone Park. A paved road runs alongside Lewis Lake, and there’s a boat ramp and floating dock near the lake’s southern end.
Savvy paddlers get started as early in the day as possible, hoping to avoid the mid-day and afternoon winds that reliably roil the waters. At nearly 7,800 feet in elevation, both Lewis and Shoshone lakes are cold and forbidding; swamping a boat can easily be punished by drowning.
A pair of strong paddlers in a loaded canoe can put Lewis Lake behind them in about an hour. Then, at the northern end of the lake, paddlers enter the Lewis River channel and begin moving upstream, against the current. (Note: powerboats are allowed on Lewis Lake, but they are not permitted on the Lewis River or Shoshone Lake. Given this, it is common to see outboard motors chained to trees on shore where the hand-propelled zone begins.)
More than three miles long, the Lewis River channel is one of the highlights of any voyage to Shoshone Lake. Canoeists and kayakers can paddle about halfway up the channel before the gradient steepens and the river becomes too shallow to make further progress.
At that point, paddlers must alight from their boats and begin wading upstream, towing their craft behind them.
Dragging a boat up the Lewis River is an exercise in humility, especially for owners of $2,000 and $3,000 canoes, but it’s an unavoidable part of the journey. By mid-July, the river is fairly low, the water temperature is bearable, and the slog is simply a rite of passage.
Just below the surface of the river, raspy-looking rocks are daubed with a full palette of hull colors, ranging from reds and yellows, to blues and greens, to silver from aluminum boats.
Take heart! Others have been here before you!
Long after the novelty of the drag wears off, the view begins to open up and it’s apparent that something big — a lake, maybe? — lies just ahead.
The biggest backcountry lake
Like an hourglass laid on its side, Shoshone Lake consists of two bulbous ends with a deep pinch in the middle. More than six miles long, with nearly 13 square miles of surface area, the lake looks even bigger because no manmade structures are visible on its shores. A couple of patrol cabins for backcountry rangers are tucked into the surrounding lodgepole pine forest, but it takes a keen eye to spot them.
At Shoshone Lake, the ingredients are 100% natural: water, trees, and sky. There is nothing manmade.
Paddlers enter the lake at its southeastern tip, then typically work their way along the southern shore toward the middle. Most visitors camp on the south side of the lake, sparing themselves a second major open-water crossing in one day.
Those with campsite reservations on the north shore typically cross at The Narrows, the aptly-named spot where the lake necks down in the middle. Given its east-west orientation, Shoshone Lake often is raked by powerful winds from the west. By crossing at the Narrows, paddlers must turn their boats broadside to the wind and waves – never a good thing – but they also minimize exposure to the elements, which is always a good thing.
Paddling up the east side of the lake is a bad idea because it is a windward shore, so it’s difficult to keep canoes and kayaks off the rocks.
Time to relax
There are 23 campsites strewn along Shoshone Lake’s 22 miles of shoreline. Most are on the southern shore and, as the numbers suggest, all are private and secluded.
Some of the campsites have pit toilets, and all are equipped with high, horizontal poles for storing food, garbage, and other attractants beyond the reach of curious quadrupeds.
Grizzly bears are infrequent visitors in this part of the park, but there is a smaller, far more annoying member of the animal kingdom that’s sure to be on hand: the lowly mosquito. Bring head nets. Bring bug dope. And bring mosquito coils.
Bring anything that might be useful in keeping the little bloodsuckers at bay.
Once your camp is up, and the mosquito rebellion has been put down, there is time to savor the succoring beauty of wild country. Now and then, you’ll spot other boats making their way along the craggy shoreline, but most of the time the view is just vast sweeps of water, trees, and sky.
The overriding sensations are stillness, solitude, and serenity – qualities which are in perilously short supply these days.
Like America itself, Yellowstone Park can be a hectic, hustle-bustle place near the roads and major attractions, but there are still pockets of wild country where man is a visitor who cannot remain.
Shoshone Lake is such a place.
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