From the beginning, I knew this trip was going to be the most challenging I had ever run. Past trips to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming had always involved six to eight days of trekking over broken terrain in the relatively untouched back country of the park. This time, we were heading for Thorofare ranger station, the most remote building in the lower 48 states.
The expedition would take us 35 miles by canoe and a further 35 miles on foot to get to the station and then around a mountain loop back to our canoes and back to civilisation.
The day before the expedition began, everyone took twenty minutes paddling around in their canoes in calm water, just to get used to the equipment. This proved nowhere near enough. During our last night in the lodge, the winds changed and the weather turned foul. We had been expecting winds to come in from the west, but as we got to the lake we found them blowing in from the north.
Wind direction mattered. We were beginning our travels from the western thumb of Lake Yellowstone and paddling for the first two days along the southern edge of the lake. Winds from the west would have blown along the lake and created large waves far from us on the eastern shore. Instead, we had winds blowing along the lake and creating large waves right where we ended up paddling.
For a group of expert paddlers, the situation would not have been that bad, but for most members of our group paddling was a new experience and the waves proved daunting. We stopped many times more than expected on the first day and got to our campsite in twilight. Morale was pretty low after being battered for hours on the lake but it quickly rose as sausages and mashed potatoes were prepared over the open fire.
Crossing Flat Mountain Arm
We awoke the following morning to blue skies and a remarkably still lake. This was good news. Only a few miles from our camp we would reach Flat Mountain Arm, a section of water that sticks out from the lake several miles. The arm forces paddlers to decide between adding seven miles on to their journey by paddling along its edge or risk a mile of open water paddling on an extremely unpredictable lake. With the calm conditions, I made the decision to have us paddle hard across the arm. Luckily, the water remained glassy the entire way. The rest of the day the lake would not be so forgiving.
Our course required us to paddle a few miles along the southern edge of the lake and then cut south down South Arm, an enormous body of water sticking southward out of Yellowstone Lake. The winds were blasting out of the south and throwing waves straight at us. We had no choice but to paddle as far south as possible.
As the sun started to set, we had a minor mutiny in the group. Two group members pulled their canoe to the side of the lake at a campsite and declared that they would paddle no further. We were four miles short of our final destination, but given the howling winds, stopping for the day seemed sensible, so we did.
The following morning conditions were good and we paddled to the very bottom of South Arm where we stowed the canoes and prepared to travel deep into the wilderness. Packs were heavy and temperatures were high, but we made good time and arrived at Southeast Arm, another arm of Lake Yellowstone, for lunch. Bald eagles were a common sight in the trees in the area but they paled in comparison to the otters that came to visit us during our lunch break. Rolling and tumbling in the water they stayed near shore for around ten minutes before swimming off.
In the afternoon we forded the Yellowstone River, which while deep, was not fast flowing. In cooler temperatures the crossing would have been unpleasant, but in such hot conditions it proved rather refreshing. A few miles further on we arrived at one of the more unpleasant campsites I have been to.
The site had no nearby fresh water and the ground had been baked solid. It proved impossible to dig a latrine. In order to collect water for dinner, a few group members wandered up to a semi-stagnant pond and collected water in a drybag. They then brought the bag back to camp and pumped it with a water purifier. The process didn’t do much for the functionality of the water purifier, but it did supply everyone with clean water for the night.
In the morning we set off for Thorofare. The conditions moved from hot to scorching. The trail was exceedingly dry and dust clouds were common. By late afternoon morale was low and group members were constantly seeking out any shade that they could find in the open plain. The overall pace slowed in the heat and only served to draw out the experience of being baked alive.
We eventually made it to Thorofare and set up camp in a densely wooded area near a branch of the Yellowstone River. Once the tents were up, everyone promptly collapsed and started nursing their wounds. Infected cuts on the hands were common from paddling and blisters had developed on many feet from the extreme heat. A blister on one person’s foot ran from the centre of the base of the foot, through the gap between the toes to the top of the foot. This was not easy to treat, but with a fair bit of cutting and cleaning, it was possible.
Not so restful rest day
The next day was a designated rest day. Everyone assumed this meant there would be nothing to do, but they quickly found that scouting the next section of our trail, fixing equipment, treating wounds, cleaning clothes and cooking would keep them busy most of the day. Once chores were done, I hiked over to the Thorofare Ranger Station with a couple others to say hello, but nobody was in. In the late afternoon, many of us took the little free time that we had to bathe in the river. While getting clean was a welcome relief, the icy water forced us to keep cleaning time brief. With that said, some relished the experience of bathing in the middle of nowhere more so than others.
We awoke to wretched weather the following morning which was a pity since we would have to cross the Yellowstone River again. The river was shallow enough at our crossing point but crossing any river in pouring rain is no fun. Later, we started our ascent into the mountains.
Pines dominated the landscape more and more as we climbed with occasional meadows full of blossoming alpine flowers. The weather became erratic as the day wore on, shifting between clear skies and thundery storm clouds. In spite of the considerable climb, everyone kept up a good pace and we made it to our camping location an hour or so before sunset. When we arrived, our camp was already occupied by a mother grizzly and her cubs. Upon sighting us, they quickly fled into the hills.
The next day remained grey and wet. We followed the Snake River down into a wide valley south of Heart Lake. Along the way, we saw numerous elk in the hills and then stumbled upon a couple of bear cubs near the edge of the trail. At first, there was much enthusiasm, but this was followed by a sense of fear at the realisation that mother was nowhere to be found and that accidentally standing between a sow and her cubs could prove lethal. We made as much noise as possible, singing Mary Poppins of all things, and made haste out of the area.
From summer to winter in 24 hours
Rain turned to snow as we descended into the valley and set up camp. The evening proved cold, but everyone was prepared and spent the evening warming up by the fire with hot chocolate and tea.
In the morning, we packed up snow and ice covered tents and made our way across numerous small rivers before climbing up and over a set of hills on our way back to Lake Yellowstone. The trail vanished on several occasions but we managed to stay on course and kept a good pace. The view that we had of the green valleys and snow covered hills was simply astounding.
By early evening, we were back at the canoes and paddling part way up a long spit of land called The Promontory that stands between South Arm and Southeast Arm. We made camp and roasted marshmallows over an open fire as the howls of wolves started to echo through the area.
The Promontory was of great concern to all. Sticking out ten miles into Lake Yellowstone, it would force us during the course of a single day to be exposed to winds from all directions as we paddled north, east, and then south again to get around it. Many have tried to bypass the south-eastern arm of Lake Yellowstone and thereby avoid having to paddle up and around The Promontory, but unlike Flat Mountain Arm which only has a mile of open water to cross, Southeast Arm presents three miles of open water and a great deal of exposure to wind. I had made up my mind that we would hug the shore of The Promontory all day before we ever set out on the still waters that morning. Even so, when the opportunity to cross Southeast Arm presented itself, I cannot deny that I found myself tempted. I could easily understand why so many had tried the crossing before.
We got lucky. Winds stayed calm all day and we made record time, reaching camp around midday. By early afternoon there was a slight drizzle, but nobody cared. Tents were up, a fire was lit, and life was good. As the evening came, we marvelled at the wildflowers and the views across the water. It was one of the most spectacular camps I’ve ever stayed at.
Winds were rough the next morning and paddling was not easy. We did not have to go too far, but even so, everyone was tired and the winds blasted us head on for much of the day. In the late afternoon, when we were just a couple of miles from our designated camp, we hit powerful winds that made the paddling truly gruelling. Just before turning a corner and pushing on into the worst of these conditions, we took a “power break” and loaded up on as many raisins and seeds as we could manage. Some took this as a moment to demonstrate just how dead they were by throwing themselves prostrate on the beach.
That evening, our last in the wilderness, we watched the sun bleed down over the horizon. A deep chill was in the air making it clear that summer in Yellowstone was over. A light rain came down as we settled into our tents for the night and during the evening the water froze to everything it had fallen upon, including our bags which we regularly hung high in the trees to prevent them being opened by bears.
In the morning we stowed our canoes, shouldered our packs, and made our way out of the wilderness. It had been twelve long days, but they had been full of adventure and would never be forgotten.