So far, Yellowstone National Park had lived up to its reputation for wonder, as well as crowds. We had watched Old Faithful with the rest of the camera-clickers. We had joined the parade around a boardwalk, reading the interpretive signs about fountain pots that bubble like a witch’s brew. We had gawked at traffic-jam bears and elbowed our way through gift shops. We had gotten the last tent pad at Madison Campground.
“The great thing about Yellowstone is you get to meet people from all over the world,” a fellow camper told me.
But now it was time to ditch humanity by heading into the backcountry, a surprisingly easy task with Shoshone Lake as our destination. To get there, we would cross Lewis Lake, then paddle and pull three miles up the Lewis River Channel, to the largest lake in the lower 48 that can’t be reached by road. We would catch fish, watch flocks of white pelicans, and maybe even see an otter up close. There might be moose at the inlet meadows or black bears at water’s edge. There might be elk in the swaths of lodgepole pine forest that burned during the inferno of 1988.
Why Shoshone? Or, rather, why not nearby Yellowstone Lake, where paddlers can put 10 miles of wilderness between themselves and the nearest Winnebago?
Because Shoshone is a far more manageable trip for a father traveling alone with an eight-year-old daughter. From backcountry geysers to fishing that can be scandalously easy, the trip offers plenty of adventure on a scale that’s not quite as daunting as the broad expanses of the bigger lake. In just two days, paddlers can penetrate the wilderness and come back to pavement. In four days, they can have a thorough look. Yellowstone Lake should be on any paddler’s life list. But it’s 10 times larger than Shoshone; doing it justice means setting aside a week of vacation.
All of which makes Shoshone Lake the most popular backcountry destination in the park, for both hikers and paddlers. Of course “popular” is relative. In a park where less than 3 percent of the visitors get beyond the smell of exhaust, no backcountry destination receives as many visitors in a year as Old Faithful sees in a single day. Shoshone Lake’s 20 designated campsites are scattered, and long stretches of the shoreline are inaccessible by trail. The most popular trails start near Old Faithful and lead to the Shoshone Geyser Basin, on the lake’s western shore. Boaters come from the opposite direction, the southeast.
The boat trip starts at the Lewis Lake boat launch, about 10 miles inside the park’s south entrance. Lewis Lake is an easily accessible gem that’s open to powerboats and attracts mostly local fishermen. Its 85-site campground often has spaces available when others are full.
Paddlers should follow the lake’s western shoreline, where the hills provide a screen from winds that kick up most days. Hot springs trickle into Lewis Lake from the west, and visitors can soak where the scalding and frigid waters mix. (It’s illegal, not to mention foolhardy, to try to soak in the hot springs themselves or the steaming streams flowing from them. The same rules apply at the Shoshone Geyser Basin, where at least one hiker has died after falling into a hot spring.)
It’s a three-mile crossing from the boat launch to the mouth of the Lewis River Channel, the only stretch of flowing water anywhere in the park where boating is allowed. Motorized craft are banned from this point on; canoeists who make the Lewis Lake crossing under power often chain their outboards to trees at the river’s mouth.
The channel is the highlight of the trip for wildlife watchers. Pelicans are a common sight, and uncommonly lovely, flying stark white against the blue sky. This is where the otters hang out, too, particularly in the lower reaches, where the channel is broad and sluggish.