Most people don’t know this, but a canoe trip along the southern shores of Yellowstone Lake would do them a world of good.
There, in the most remote territory of Bas 48, life is reduced to its basic rhythms. Paddling and camping along the vast, undeveloped shore of the lake for a few days is a perfect escape for beleaguered members of the rush.
Simply put, it’s a feast for the senses and a tonic for the soul.
A longtime friend and I were there recently, paddling by day and comfortably camping by night. It was the renewal of an old friendship and, looking back, it 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 Grand Teton, Devil’s Tower and Kings Peak in Utah. We did some big backpacking trips, especially in the Sawtooth Mountains. But there is one trip that really stands out: the week-long canoe trip we took on Yellowstone Lake in 1988.
It was around this time that geography and politics began to get in the way of our friendship. Scott moved from Bozeman to Colorado, and I made my way from Montana to southern Idaho and eventually east to Washington. Meanwhile, our ballots have been voided for at least nine presidential elections.
Somewhere, 22 years have passed without a common adventure.
So I reached out a few months ago, suggesting that we retake our trip from 1988. The mechanics of the trip wouldn’t change much, but the purpose was different. Instead of paddling around the South Arm of Yellowstone Lake, we aim for the Southeast Arm – the furthest area of a huge, high-stakes lake.
As the world’s first national park, established 150 years ago, Yellowstone is a land of superlatives. For starters, the park is huge at 2.2 million acres. It is home to breathtaking wildlife, including grizzly bears. More importantly, Yellowstone contains the largest collection of geysers, hot springs, and thermal features on earth.
Its eponymous lake also holds several distinctions.
At 132 square miles, Yellowstone Lake is dauntingly large for paddlers in hand-propelled watercraft. At 7,733 feet above sea level, it is the largest high-altitude lake (over 7,000 feet) in North America. Because it’s so high, it’s freezing cold. The average temperature is 41 degrees, and according to the National Park Service, survival time in such cold water is around 20 to 30 minutes.
In other words, if you find yourself in the water without immediate help, you are likely to die. One more thing: the wind can really howl, roaring from the west or south, kicking up white waves in no time.
Add it all up and a canoe trip on Yellowstone Lake is a serious undertaking that demands a cold assessment of one’s skills and abilities. As they say in Colombia, “When you’re dancing with the devil, make sure you know the steps.”
Given the distances involved, there is 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 massive West Thumb, but it’s at least 15 miles to the tip of the peninsula that separates the South Arm from the Southeast Arm.
It’s a long way to paddle on a deadly big and cold lake.
Fortunately, the park’s private sector concessionaire – Xanterra – has a shuttle boat that can transport canoes, kayaks, paddlers and their gear to any of five drop-off points on the southern shores of Yellowstone Lake. The shuttle boat can carry up to four canoes, six paddlers and their equipment. Unfortunately, the service is not cheap. Worse still, the shuttle is extremely difficult to organize. (See box)
The shuttle captain, “Mississippi Johnny”, met us at the dock in Bridge Bay, on the northwest shore of the lake. With over 40 years of experience on the lake, Johnny is a regular and assured skipper; everything he told us turned out to be true.
It only took a few minutes to load our canoe and gear onto Johnny’s boat; so we were on our way.
Even for seasoned paddlers, the scale of Yellowstone Lake is staggering. It’s big water and it’s surrounded by big country, so there’s plenty to keep your eye busy. On cool mornings, one of the first things to notice are plumes of steam rising from a thermal element directly across the lake from Bridge Bay.
In good weather, the shuttle boat takes 30 to 40 minutes to reach the tip of the peninsula – known as “Le Promontoire” – which separates the south arm from the south-east arm. As we approached the gravel beach, Johnny lowered the front ramp and, with a little imagination, you could almost imagine a WWII landing craft hitting the Normandy beach.
In our case, the only creatures waiting for our arrival were a raft of ducks and a few tattered seagulls.
The scale of our surroundings began to sink as the sound of exhaust from Johnny’s engines faded into the distance. Above our heads, fluffy white clouds drifted through a painfully blue sky. Along the water’s edge, thick green forests paraded over low, indistinct hills. Then there was the lake itself, crystal clear blue, ruffled by a gentle breeze and shimmering like a sexy sequin dress.
The silence was deep. No planes, no traffic noises and no voices. The loudest sound was small waves lapping on the shore.
Eager to save time as the calm continued, we loaded our gear into the 16-foot canoe and began paddling the Southeast Arm of Yellowstone Lake.
In ’88 we confined ourselves to the smaller southern arm. At some point on this trip, we crossed the base of the promontory and saw our only glimpse of the southeast arm. The memory of that recon—with a long, eager look at the entrance to the Yellowstone River and the Thorofare wilderness beyond—has been etched in my memory ever since.
This time the southeast arm was the main attraction – not just a sideshow. Eager to get moving, Scott and I put on some muscle to paddle and reached our first campsite, about a third of the way down the southeast arm, in just under an hour.
Mosquitoes, by the millions
Life is full of compromises, and a long paddle trip on Yellowstone Lake is no exception. In May, the lake is covered with ice. In June, the ice breaks up. In July, the insects are bad. In August, smoke from nearby wildfires is bad. In September, the days get colder. In October, the days are decidedly short and cold.
Thus, the long, hot days of July were plagued by swarms of bloodthirsty mosquitoes. The only good news for grizzled old dudes in their 60s is that mosquito bites don’t sting much, the bite doesn’t last long, and the urge to scratch is usually supplanted by a tolerance for minor irritations. In other words, a lifetime of abusing your skin is finally starting to pay off.
Other airborne visitors included pelicans, which landed in the water like jumbo jets. The ducks came and went too, and we occasionally heard the weird croaking of a sandhill crane.
Our first camp was located beside a field of dazzling lupines, dotted with mountain bluebells. The colors were stunning and their hinterland scent wafted through the air.
I had booked the campsite weeks in advance, but our backcountry permit – issued that day – stated laconically: “Outhouse unusable”. Luckily the steel bear box for food storage was in good working order so we didn’t have to hoist our food and cooking gear into a bear shed that night.
Finding out our toilets were offline was a minor annoyance, but the backcountry permit had even worse news about our next camp – in the far corner of the southeast arm. Although there were no restrictions when I booked the site, our backcountry permit stated bluntly: “No travel from campsite 15/05 – 14/07”.
This discovery changed everything, as the southeast arm is over seven miles long and three miles wide at its base. It would be a long and difficult task to reach that next campsite and being confined there, probably due to bear activity, didn’t seem like fun.
So our six-day trip turned into a four-day trip, and the days rolled on and thickened into a collage of images and sightings.
There was plenty of time to inspect the cloud formations, which ranged from light and whimsical to dark and ominous. From time to time, the smell of sulfur from a dead thermal element wafted over the eastern shore of the lake.
Spring comes late at 7,700 feet, so Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir release thick clouds of pollen. After a night of gusts, the windward shores of the lake were hemmed with eerie bands of fluttering yellow pollen – nature’s own bathtub ring.
In the shallows, shimmering ripples of sunlight danced across the bottom like spectral waves on an oscilloscope. At night, millions of stars twinkled and shone in the dark sky.
Given the distances involved, motorboats rarely venture into the arms of Yellowstone Lake, so the solitude is deep and constant.
Finally, there’s the lake itself – with virtually no human development on its 141 miles of shoreline. It’s a vision of America as it was, and how often does anyone see that?
Brock is an avid paddler and occasional writer who lives in Pullman.