The snow fell during the night, piling around the tents and covering the boats in a white shroud. I stuck my head out the door and recoiled from the cold. The thermometer read just 20 degrees. No wonder my feet were chilled. Burrowing deeper into my sleeping bag, I closed my eyes and waited for morning. Yellowstone Lake had thrown us another curve.
When our trip started a week earlier, it was late September, and we basked under a bright-blue, Indian-summer sky. Temperatures were in the 70s as we loaded our boats at the Sedge Bay Picnic Area, on the lake’s northeast side. Ahead lay a nine-day, semi-circumnavigation of Yellowstone Lake. Much of that time would be spent probing the basin’s southern arms—three remote inlets where motorboat use is restricted. We were headed for some of Yellowstone National Park’s finest backcountry, and getting there by paddle-power was the best way to explore it.
During the summer, Yellowstone Lake suffers from the same motorized overcrowding that plagues the surrounding national park. But in fall, when most stinkpotters call it quits for the year, this big high-country lake provides a haven for kayak tourers who are ready—or should be—for big water and just about any type of weather that comes their way.
At 20 miles long and 14 miles wide, and with 110 miles of convoluted shoreline, Yellowstone Lake is big enough to make its own weather. And because of its considerable altitude-7,773 feet-and northerly location, that weather is often severe, exhibiting its multifaceted personality every day. The surrounding mountains create sweeping downdrafts that frequently, and with little or no warning, blast across the lake, transforming a placid, mirror-like surface one minute to a seething tantrum of 3- to 5-foot waves the next.
Historically, the lake has taken more than a few lives. The largest section in Lee Whitlesey’s book Death in Yellowstone details boating accidents, many from wind-related capsizes. The drowning deaths of a pair of canoeists this summer on nearby Shoshone Lake were the first since 2005, though. The park has been urging paddlers to stick close to shore, get off the water when wind and storms hit, and do the bulk of their paddling early in the day before the winds pick up, and the educational effort has had an effect.
As if to prove a point, when we launched our boats late that afternoon, conditions were already changing. Wind-whipped clouds moved in from the north, and the building whitecaps ripped across the steel-colored waters. I hugged the shore while Jeff and Tom, both better kayakers than I, strayed into deeper water. Glancing their way, I saw two sleek boats moving through the choppy swells like porpoises, alternately rising above them and submerging. We dug deep with our paddles and dared not take a break for the next three hours. As in an airplane, take-offs and landings give the most trouble, and the waves crashing on shore convinced us to stay away.
Finally, we closed in on our destination, the first in a series of backcountry campsites reserved well in advance (as required by park regulations). Perched on a high beach, our site was surrounded by charred and fallen trees. This new Yellowstone landscape was going to take some getting used to. I had not been to the park since the devastating wildfires of 1988 burned nearly a third of Yellowstone’s 2.2 million acres. Instead of what once was an endless green forest, I now gazed over a landscape in which untold millions of lodgepole pines were blackened, forlorn skeletons, though the extent and severity of the massive conflagration was almost impossible to comprehend from lake level. New 19-year-old trees, some now eight feet tall or more, grew thickly, but the countryside still seemed as if it had been nuked.
Back-paddling a few yards offshore, we sized up the waves, then surfed one at a time onto the sloping pebble beach. Jeff and Tom timed their exits perfectly, managing to pull their boats up on shore without getting wet. I, on the other hand, hit a reflecting wave and yawed in broadside. A chest-high breaker curled over me as I stalled on the rocks. Only with some helping hands did I manage to miss the next drenching set. “Hey, don’t expect us to haul your sorry ass out every time,” Jeff said with a grin as I wobbled out of my kayak.
After dinner, cool mountain air began to settle over the basin. The lake lost its fury and settled down. Wildlife was always in evidence. We heard loons calling and elk bugling. Flocks of ducks and geese flew by in the lingering light, all heading for their evening roosts.
Jeff was starting to come unglued. He unholstered his shiny brand-new bear repellant spray, and re-read the instructions printed on the canister.
The next morning we rose early, and launched into placid waters before 8:30. With the stable weather continuing, we ate up the miles, paddling long into the afternoon. On our left were 1,000-foot hills–now mostly scorched–along with scattered open sagebrush areas and grassy benches. On our right was the flat, blue water of the wide-bodied lake.
At last, we entered the Southeast Arm, the largest of the lake’s branches. Seven miles long and one to four miles across, this secluded sound is by far the best place to view the snow-topped peaks of the Absaroka Range and peer into the broad Thoroughfare Valley. We were glad to be setting up a base camp for the next three nights close to the mouth of the Yellowstone River, which enters the lake from its headwaters deep in the Teton Wilderness. From here we could explore the surrounding terrain on foot and by boat.
Our first full day in the arm dawned brilliantly clear, cold, and flat calm. Frost clung to the tents and ice skimmed our water bottles. A hot breakfast of raisin- and walnut-laced oatmeal and mugs of steaming coffee worked to get us moving, and soon we were kayaking into the Yellowstone River’s wide delta.
There was so much wildlife in this two-mile-long shoreline we never felt the urge to go farther. It was a veritable kingdom of birds. As we paddled to the river mouth, through shallow water, thousands of ducks and geese, and even a few trumpeter swans, moved around us. The waterfowl dabbled among the floating aquatics, while ospreys, bald eagles, and cormorants (to name a few) perched on tree snags or soared overhead. Bigger critters also made a showing. Floating silently offshore in our kayaks, we counted three moose loafing belly-deep in the weed beds or browsing the heavy willows closer to shore. Even elk ventured in the lake. Several bulls dipped their heads underwater and came up with clumps of plants dangling from their mouths and multi-tined antlers.
Yellowstone National Park is the centerpiece of the 20 million-acre Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, a region that also includes Grand Teton National Park and acreage from several other national forests, creating the world’s largest intact ecosystem in the northern temperate zone. The result is a virtual boreal Serengeti and an amazing concentration of wildlife that includes bison, wolves, and, of course bear–whose presence hit home, literally, when we returned to camp. On the soft sand beach, only a short distance from our tents, were the fresh and unmistakable paw prints belonging to a grizzly.
“This ain’t good,” Jeff muttered, nervously examining the sharply defined indentations that were considerably larger than his size 12 boots. “And neither is this,” echoed Tom, pointing to the ground. Several soft, squishy mounds lay at his feet.
A tall, tough outdoorsman who does it all-from snowboarding and whitewater kayaking to mountain biking and ice hockey-Jeff was starting to come unglued. He unholstered his shiny brand-new bear repellant spray, and re-read the instructions printed on the canister. “This product may be used only to deter bears which are attacking or appear likely to attack humans-may not be effective in all situations or prevent injurie- this product has a range of 15-20 feet,” he read. “Well, that makes me feel a whole lot better. If a grizzly gets that close, I’ll probably die of a heart attack before I can spray it.”
We were just finishing dinner (while constantly scanning the neighboring ridges and meadows for bears) when a flash pierced the sky, followed a few seconds later by rumbling thunder. Dark, ominous clouds raced our way from over the water. We hastily hung our food bags from the nearest “bear pole”—the stout wooden posts at most designated campsites which are lashed in the trees above even the reach of a big Griz–and made a dash for the tents, barely beating the rain that came lashing down. Huddling inside our respective nylon shelters, we watched the unfolding action. A rising wind whipped the lake into a maelstrom of heaving waves and water-spumes.
Amazingly, however, the black clouds scudded east as quickly as they’d come. In their place was a blood red sky that boded well for the morning.
As predicted, there was a perfectly clear, star-filled ceiling when we crawled out of the tents at 5:30 the next morning. We were up early to make the 16-mile round trip to the top of 10,683-foot Colter Peak. For the first two miles or so we followed a maintained hiking trail, but then veered off into the fire-singed forest, working toward a GPS waypoint due east. Bushwhacking one moment, treading along an elk path the next, we scrambled over logs, across gullies, and thrashed up and down loose scree slopes. After six hours we finally were on the peak, savoring the spectacular, hard-won view.
To the south of our eagle’s perch were the looping channels of the Yellowstone River and the broad Thoroughfare Valley through which it flows. Earning its name from early trappers and explorers, the Thoroughfare was a convenient natural passageway from Yellowstone Lake to Jackson Hole. Now this southeast corner of Yellowstone is the least-visited section of the park. Looking east, the Absaroka Range, rough and jagged as a row of bayonets, stretched far into the horizon, while the spectacular ice- and snow-covered Grand Teton spires glistened 45 miles to the southwest. And, of course, the sprawling blue expanse of Yellowstone Lake dominated all to the northwest. The lake’s arms, fingers, and thumbs were clearly defined, almost as if we were gazing down on a colossal relief map. It was an unspoiled view not so different from what the peak’s namesake, the Lewis and Clark expedition’s scout John Colter, would have seen if he’d scrambled up the peak 200 years earlier.
The following day our destination was the South Arm, the next inlet to the west, separated from the Southeast Arm by a ridge of land called The Promontory. Our next campsite was a push–14 miles away by boat, but only if we made the direct, shorter crossing of the Southeast Arm’s four-mile base, a risky proposition given the turbulent weather. Fortunately, mild conditions held while we made the big passage and before long, paddling like fiends, we were cruising past Promontory Point’s pebble-and-rock beach. Around noon, we were rewarded for our efforts when we slipped into the South Arm. Eight miles long and three wide, the arm is big enough to be a large lake on its own. It was time to pull in our paddles and relax.
Drifting in the translucent water, we admired the mosaic of boulders on the sloping lake bottom. We tossed a weighted line overboard and measured visibility at 35 feet or more. This was one of those special days that make humans heap praise on the lake’s special nature. In 1871, F.V. Hayden, leader of expeditions to Yellowstone in the late 1800s, described the lake as “a vast sheet of quiet water, of a most delicate ultramarine hue, one of the most beautiful scenes I have ever beheld. Such a vision is worth a lifetime.”
Studies indicate that Yellowstone Lake’s water is still nearly as pristine as when Hayden visited 135 years ago. But pure as the lake’s water may be, the ecosystem has undergone changes. Roads were built in the early 1900s along the North and West Thumb shores and two lakeside lodges and mini-tourist communities sprung up, gobbling up prime wildlife habitat. Even fishing had its effect.
In 1994 non-native lake trout were discovered in Yellowstone Lake, evidently released there by anglers eager to have a new quarry. The problem is that the lake trout prey on native cutthroat trout-to the tune of 40 or 50 of the smaller fish per year. Cutthroat populations have plummeted. At one counting station, cutthroat numbers dropped from 2,300 in 1999 to zero in 2005. On the eastern shore, where 70,000 spawning cutthroat were counted in the late 1970s, only 917 were spotted in 2006, the lowest number since record keeping began in 1945. The Park Service’s solution? There is, of course, no limit on the number of lake trout anglers can take home, but the park has also been gill netting the invaders—killing over 200,000 of the fish since 1998.
Above the surface, motorboats are a problem-at least to silence-loving paddlers. Motors are allowed on 95 percent of the lake. The use of motorized craft seemed an incongruity in a world-class national park supposed to “maintain its wilderness integrity.” Later in the season, however (after Labor Day weekend), motorboat use drops off significantly and paddlers are almost assured greater solitude. Thus far we had seen only a half-dozen stinkpots, and those were mostly from afar.
After a night spent partway down the South Arm, we paddled into its southernmost reaches. At this point the nearest road lay 16 miles away, separated by Chicken Ridge and some distant mountains. We pitched tents on the Arm’s east side, near the mouth of Chipmunk Creek. An evening of wildlife watching began with a herd of 23 elk and a solitary, humpbacked bison coming into view across the stream. Our viewing time was cut short, though, as the wind began to rustle, gust, then turn into a full-blown gale. The lake, serene a few minutes ago, churned into whitecaps and swells.
By mid-morning, temps were 45 degrees and dropping. We forced ourselves out of the tents and into the boats. The 12-mile paddle to Flat Mountain Arm became an exhilarating ride with the wind at our backs. We found ourselves surfing the lake’s infamous waves, our heavily loaded kayaks riding high and proud. Our campsite was well-protected in the green, unburned forest. We had our gear unloaded in record time and hot water boiling for freeze-dried dinners. As we ate, the clouds settled and began spitting light snow.
When we peered out of our tents the next morning, five inches of the white stuff had accumulated. Bundling up in every piece of clothing we had, we made the unanimous decision to break camp and leave Flat Mountain Arm a day early and make our way back towards the trip’s end-still a two-day paddle away. Knocking the snow off our boats, we slipped them into the water. The heavy mist on the lake basin was lifting in patches, revealing evidence of the recent storm. Long, drooping icicles hung like crystal chandeliers from the shoreline driftwood. Beams of sunlight punched through holes in the ragged clouds, spotlighting the splendor of this fall-colored wilderness suddenly turned white.
If You Go:
Weather is always an issue in Prince William Sound, so be prepared for the worst (the Glacier Ranger District maintains six public use cabins in the western Sound, four of which are saltwater accessible). No registration or permits are required, with most private parties heading to Harriman Fjord, Barry Arm, and Blackstone Bay out of Whittier from mid-May to mid-September (fs.fed.us/r10/chugach/glacier/kayak/). Epic Charters (epicchartersalaska.com, 888-472-3742) can take you from Whittier anywhere in the Sound for $7.50/mile for up to six passengers (it also offers rental kayaks). To go guided, try Vision Quest Adventures (alaskavisionquest.com). To get involved in preserving the Sound, visit PWSoundkeeper.org, a member of the National Waterkeeper Alliance.
LARRY RICE is a contributing editor for Canoe & Kayak. He has toured by kayak in such faraway locales as Greenland, Patagonia, and the Antarctic Peninsula, as well as places closer to his home base in Buena Vista, Colorado.