Most folks don’t know it, but a canoe trip along the southern shores of Yellowstone Lake would do them a world of good. Out there, in the most remote territory in the Lower 48, life is reduced to its basic rhythms. Paddling and camping along the vast, undeveloped lakeshore for a few days is a perfect escape for beleaguered members the rat race.
Simply put, it is a feast for the senses and a tonic to the soul.
A longtime friend and I were there recently, paddling by day and camping in comfort at night. It was the renewal of an old friendship and, looking back, that was the most satisfying part of our four-day adventure.
Over the years, Scott Close and I have done a lot together. We’ve climbed the Grand Teton, Devil’s Tower and Kings Peak in Utah. We’ve done some big backpacking trips, notably in the Sawtooth Mountains. But there’s one trip that really stands out: the weeklong canoe trip we did on Yellowstone Lake back in 1988.
It was around that time that geography and politics started getting in the way of our friendship. Scott moved from Bozeman to Colorado, and I made my way from Montana to southern Idaho and, ultimately, to Eastern Washington. Meanwhile, our ballots have canceled each other out for at least nine presidential elections.
Somehow, 22 years got behind us without a shared adventure.
So I reached out a few months ago, suggesting we reprise our voyage of ’88. The mechanics of the trip wouldn’t change much, but the objective was different. Instead of paddling around the south arm of Yellowstone Lake, we would aim for the southeast arm – the most remote area of a huge, high-stakes lake.
Big country, big water
As the world’s first national park, established 150 years ago, Yellowstone National Park is a land of superlatives. For starters, the park is enormous at 2.2 million acres. It is home to a breathtaking array of wildlife, up to and including grizzly bears. Most significantly, Yellowstone contains the largest collection of geysers, hot springs and thermal features on earth.
Its eponymous lake also holds several distinctions.
With a surface area of 132 square miles, Yellowstone Lake is intimidatingly large for paddlers in hand-propelled craft. At 7,733 feet above sea level, it is the biggest high elevation (over 7,000 feet) lake in North America. Because it is so high, it is bone chillingly cold. The average temperature is 41 degrees and, according to the National Park Service, survival time in water that cold is around 20 to 30 minutes.
In other words, if you wind up in the water with no immediate help at hand, you are probably going to die. One more thing: The wind can really howl, roaring in from the west or south, whipping up whitecapped waves in no time.
Add it all up and a canoe trip on Yellowstone Lake is a serious undertaking that demands a cold-eyed assessment of one’s skills and abilities. As they say in Colombia, “When you dance with the Devil, be sure you know the steps.”
Given the distances involved, there’s no easy way for hand-propelled craft to reach the south or southeast arms of Yellowstone Lake. Some intrepid souls launch at Grant Village, on the southern shore of the lake’s huge West Thumb, but it’s at least 15 miles to the tip of the peninsula that separates the south arm from the southeast arm.
That’s a long way to paddle on a lethally large, cold lake.
Leave the driving to us
Fortunately, the park’s private-sector concessionaire – Xanterra – has a shuttle boat that can haul canoes, kayaks, paddlers and their gear to any of five drop-off points on Yellowstone Lake’s southern shores. The shuttle boat can carry up to four canoes, six paddlers, and their gear. Unfortunately, the shuttle service isn’t cheap. Worse still, the shuttle is maddeningly difficult to arrange. (See sidebar)
The shuttle boat captain, “Mississippi” Johnny, met us on the morning of July 4 on the boat dock at Bridge Bay, on the lake’s northwest shore. With more than 40 years of experience on the lake, Johnny is a steady, assured skipper; everything he told us proved to be true.
It only took a few minutes to load our canoe and gear onto Johnny’s boat, then we were underway.
Even for veteran paddlers, the scale of Yellowstone Lake is staggering. It’s big water, and it is surrounded by big country, so there is plenty to keep the eye busy. On cool mornings, one of the first things to notice are plumes of steam rising from a thermal feature directly across the lake from Bridge Bay.
In fair weather, the shuttle boat takes 30 to 40 minutes to reach the tip of the peninsula – known as the promontory – that separates the south arm from the southeast arm. As we neared the gravel beach, Johnny lowered the bow ramp and, with a little imagination, one could almost picture a WWII landing craft hitting the beach at Normandy.
In our case, the only creatures awaiting our arrival were a raft of ducks and a few ragged seagulls.
Very, very quiet
The scale of our surroundings began to sink in as the exhaust noise from Johnny’s engines faded in the distance. Overhead, fluffy white clouds drifted through an achingly blue sky. At water’s edge, thick green forests marched away over low, indistinct hills. Then there was the lake itself, limpid blue, ruffled by a gentle breeze and shimmering like a sexy sequin dress.
The silence was profound. No airplanes, no traffic sounds and no voices. The loudest noise was small waves lapping at the shore.
Eager to make time while calm conditions held, we loaded our gear into the 16-foot canoe and began paddling into the southeast arm of Yellowstone Lake.
Back in ’88, we confined ourselves to the smaller, south arm. At one point on that trip, we hiked across the base of the promontory and caught our only glimpse of the southeast arm. The memory of that reconnaissance – with a long, greedy gaze at the inlet of the Yellowstone River and the wild Thorofare region beyond – has lingered in my mind’s eye ever since.
This time, the southeast arm was the major attraction – not just a sideshow. Eager to get moving, Scott and I put muscle to paddle and reached our first campsite, about a third of the way down the southeast arm, in a little less than an hour.
Mosquitoes, by the millions
Life is full of trade-offs, and an extended paddle tour of Yellowstone Lake is no exception. In May, the lake is covered in ice. In June, the ice breaks up. In July, the bugs are bad. In August, the smoke from nearby forest fires is bad. In September, the days are getting colder. In October, the days are definitely short and cold.
So the long, warm days of early July were plagued by clouds of bloodthirsty mosquitoes. The only good news for grizzled old dudes in their 60s is that mosquito bites don’t sting much, the sting doesn’t last long, and the urge to scratch is usually overridden by a tolerance for minor irritation. In other words, a lifetime of abusing one’s skin finally begins to pay dividends.
Other airborne visitors included pelicans, which touched down in the water like lumbering jumbo jets. Ducks also came and went, and we occasionally heard the bizarre cawing of a sandhill crane.
Our first camp was situated next to a field of dazzling lupine, interspersed with mountain bluebells. The colors were stunning, and their backcountry perfume hung thick in the air.
I’d reserved the campsite weeks in advance, but our backcountry permit – issued that day – tersely noted, “Pit toilet unusable.” Fortunately, the steel bear box for food storage was in good working order, so we didn’t need to hoist our food and cooking equipment into a bear hang that night.
Discovering that our toilet was offline was a minor annoyance, but the backcountry permit had even worse news about our next camp – in the farthest corner of the southeast arm. Though there were no restrictions when I booked the site, our backcountry permit stated bluntly: “No travel from campsite 5/15-7/14.”
That discovery changed everything, because the southeast arm is more than 7 miles long and 3 miles wide at its base. It would be a long, hard slog to reach that next campsite and being confined there, presumably because of bear activity, didn’t sound like fun.
So our six-day trip morphed into a four-day trip, and the days ran together and thickened in a collage of images and observations.
There was plenty of time to inspect cloud formations, which ranged from light and whimsical to dark and ominous. Now and then, the smell of sulfur from a dead thermal feature wafted over from the east shore of the lake.
Spring arrives late at 7,700 feet, so the Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir were releasing thick clouds of pollen. After a gusty night, windward shores of the lake were hemmed with lurid bands of floating yellow pollen – nature’s own bathtub ring.
In shallow water, shimmering ripples of sunlight danced across the bottom like spectral waves across an oscilloscope. At night, zillions of stars twinkled and shone in the dark sky.
Given the distances involved, powerboats rarely venture into the arms of Yellowstone Lake, so the solitude is deep and constant.
Finally, there is the lake itself – with virtually no human development on its 141 miles of shoreline. It’s a view of America as it used to be, and how often does anyone get to see that?
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