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Planning: There is one guide book for Yellowstone Lake, a Falcon Guide by Don Nelson, Paddling Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. The NPS Yellowstone Web site has much information, including weather, fees, regulations, the Backcountry Trip Planner )http://www.nps.gov/yell/publications/pdfs/backcountry/), and the Backcountry Campsite Reservation form, (http://www.nps.gov/yell/publications/pdfs/backcountry/adressit.pdf).
Campsite reservations may be mailed after January 1st. The reservation requests are opened in a random fashion on April 1st and processed. You may also register for campsites in person. We were awarded the campsites and dates we had requested as our first choices.
Fees: The Park entrance fee per car is $20 for 7 days, $40 for a year, or $50 for a National Parks permit. Campsite reservations are $20. Boat registration fee is $10 per boat.
The Paddle: The paddlers included two fairly experienced sea kayakers who usually paddle Lake Superior, one paddler who has taken a NOLS sea kayaking course, and one paddler who has taken a 3-day whitewater course. The less experienced paddlers had the advantage of being young athletes. We decided to go in 2 tandems, a Seaward Passat and a Formula Temiskawa, and restrict our paddling to 10 – 15 miles per day. This would also allow us to take a wind day or two, if needed. We planned to investigate the whole lake, and hike, swim, animal-watch, and read in the afternoons. I couldn’t find descriptions for all the campsites, so I chose them by their mileage from last site rather than descriptive information. (I’ve attached a table with information on most of the campsites. We were unable to visit 4 of them.) We decided to put in at the Grant Village boat launch, on the Lake’s West Thumb, and take-out at Sedge Bay, a parking lot and kayak launch, on the east side of the lake; a paddle of about 75 miles. This takes in all but the Lake’s north shore, which is parallel to a highway. We would paddle the Lake’s three thumbs; accessible only by boat or foot. The thumbs are popular fishing destinations. Boat traffic is restricted to five miles per hour in the upper portion of two thumbs, and to hand-propelled craft at the lower end of all three thumbs.
When we arrived in Yellowstone, August 1st, we were surprised at the traffic and noise in the park. It was the weekend before the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, and this increased the visitor traffic plus added the noise of Harley’s roaring through the park. Before we put in we needed to pick up our Backcountry Use Permit, buy our $10 boat permits, and watch a 20-minute orientation video at the back country office in Grant Village. By the time we accomplished this, packed the boats, and completed the 2-hour shuttle, we got on the water at 1 pm.
We had planned to paddle in wet suits, because the Park Service kayaking information strongly warned of cold lake temperatures in Yellowstone. However, the air temperature was close to 90 degrees when we left Grant Village, and the water temperature was somewhere in the 60 degree range, so we stowed the wet suits in bags in front of our foot pegs, where they stayed for the duration of the trip, and we paddled in shorts and t-shirts. We seemed more likely to experience heat stroke than hypothermia. Of course, our wet suits would be available to us should we need them for a difficult crossing or bad weather.
We headed straight for Breeze point, rounded the point and stopped at 7L1 for a break. We proceeded on to 7L2, our campsite for the first night. Each campsite is equipped with a fire ring and a food hanging pole resembling a goal post, and a few sites have pit toilets. Fires were prohibited during our stay due to the dry weather. The area between Grant Village and the east side of Flat Mountain Arm was burned in the 1988 fire, as were many other areas around the Lake. Various forms of vegetation cover the formerly burned-over areas. Where trees have re-grown they are 4 – 6 feet high. What I had not anticipated were the many standing and fallen dead trees. Campsite 7L1 is situated in a stand of dead tree trunks. Site 7L2 is more attractive. It’s located in a small group of trees that survived the fire, next to a meadow of flowers, surrounded by a forest of 4-6 foot tall pines. Hiking into the woods is virtually impossible due to the fallen trees. To walk inland from the campsites, you need to pick your way over piles of dead tree trunks. We were amazed at the amount of dead wood that will be fuel for the next forest fire. Between fire-damage and pine bark beetle disease, there are many dead standing and partially fallen trees in the campsites. Chose your tent site carefully. We fell asleep that night listening to the sound of the traffic traveling the East Entrance Road 20 miles to the north.
The next day we paddled to 7L9 on the southeast side of Flat Mountain Arm. All the sites we passed along the way were in the burned area, so it was a pleasure to cross over to the east side of the arm and be amongst mature live trees again. Our site, 7L9, was in a small bay near the end of the arm in the woods. We paddled to the farthest reaches of the arm’s end in the evening, hoping to see a bear or moose in the twilight, but were rewarded instead with geese, Sandhill Cranes and various species of ducks.
Monday we awoke to heavy cloud cover and intermittent rain. We finally left camp at 3 pm during a “sucker hole” break in the weather and paddled as far as 7M3 before we had to leave the water due to heavy rain and lightning. We crouched under some low, thick pines for cover, and left as soon as the lightening storm ended. The weather was threatening so we paddled quickly around the point into the South Arm. The sun came out and we stopped at a long sandbar near campsite 7M4 and took off our raincoats. As we paddled south along the shore, the sky clouded up again and the wind picked up. We passed three other kayakers paddling north, the only others we saw on the trip. We paddled by a campsite of canoeists and one with sail boaters on our way to 7M9, our stop for the night. 7M9 is in a burned area, which afforded us a beautiful meadow for tent sites and an expansive view of the opposite arm and mountains in the distance. A resident deer kept us company all evening.
The South and Southeast Arms are popular areas for fishing. Outfitters ferry fisherman, their canoes and gear, into the arms for the excellent Cutthroat trout fishing. Yellowstone Lake is more popular as a fishing destination than as a recreational paddling destination. The Park ranger housed at the Southeast Arm said there were fewer fishermen than usual this summer because the unauthorized introduction of Lake trout has reduced the numbers of Cutthroat.
Tuesday was a beautiful sunny day and we were able to paddle to the far reaches of the South Arm and paddle around Peale Island. We were delighted to see two young wolves playing along the shore. When they became aware that we were watching them through binoculars, they jumped onto a log and watched us. The shallow, sandy, end of the bay was filled with hundreds of pelicans. Site 7N4, tucked into the end of a smaller bay, is in a prime setting, but possibly not accessible in low water. Peale Island is a great place for a lunch or rest stop, but is not an overnight camping site. We stopped for lunch at 5L3, in an unburned area on the east side of the Arm, and ate our cheese, sausage, and gorp looking out across the bay and Peale Island. We proceeded on to 5L5, about 4 miles to the north. What a great site - located high on a point with expansive views of the bay and the open Lake to the north. The weather remained fine and we enjoyed a refreshing afternoon swim. There was bear scat in the site, a reminder to remain vigilant. We carried bear spray at all times.
Wednesday the weather was warm and sunny as we headed around the point to our next stop, 6A1 near the end of the Southeast Arm. We stopped at site 5L8 at the end of the promontory to stretch our legs. We decided that this was by far our favorite spot on the lake and we walked around deciding where we would pitch our tents if we ever camped there. The site rises 25 feet above the water, is heavily wooded, has a wave-worn shoreline of volcanic rock, and a tremendous view. As we paddled the remaining 6 miles to our site for the night, a pretty stiff breeze picked up reminding us of the numerous Park Service warnings of dangerous Lake conditions due to wind, high waves and cold water. An experienced sea kayaker will be prepared for these weather conditions and only find the wind an inconvenience. However, I wouldn’t go out in a canoe in this wind.
Site 6A1 was marked incorrectly on the map we had, and we would have paddled by it were it not for the sharp eye of our companions. It is located in a small bay north of the point indicated. We set up camp and waited for the wind to die down to explore the end of the Southeast Arm. The wind grew stronger so we paddled to the other side of our small bay, because it looked like a better place for a swim than the side we were on. It wasn’t. The entire bay had a mostly mud bottom. We spent the afternoon walking the beach and looking for interesting pieces of petrified wood.
We awoke Thursday morning to the rhythmic sound of the waves pounding the shoreline. We ate our oatmeal and watched the white caps in the open lake beyond our little bay. We decided to paddle directly across the Southeast Arm and head north to our next campsite, and explore the lower Arm later if the wind died down. The wind continued unabated all day and into the evening, so we were disappointed in missing a paddle of the shoreline at the lower end of the Arm.
Our site for the night, 5E4, about midway up the east side of the Southeast Arm, was filled with dead trees leaning at precarious angles, and recently fallen trees, victims of fire and the pine bark beetle. The tree supporting the bear pole was uprooted. Luckily, one of us was young and fearless and offered to climb a dead tree caught at a 45 degree angle in the crotch of another tree to hang a rope for our food cache. All the spots cleared for tents had overhanging dead trees. Taking the strong winds into consideration, we decided to pitch our tents on the gravel beach. The Thorofare backpacking trail was just east of our site, so we set off on a hike in search of Brimstone Basin. We hiked to a dry river bed filled with sulfur-covered rocks that led to the basin. Signs were posted prohibiting hiking off trail. Not wanting to go to Park Jail, we headed back to 5E4 for a swim.
Friday was our last day on the Lake. It was a beautiful, sunny morning and the lake had calmed overnight. We paddled the 12 miles to the take-out, unloaded an amusingly large pile of gear from the kayaks and managed to put it all in one vehicle with the four of us for a shuttle back to the put-in. We picked up the second vehicle, and turned around and headed back toward the East entrance. As we drove along the West Thumb, a sudden thunderstorm ripped over the Lake’s East end and we saw a huge bolt of lightning hit Frank Island. We were glad we weren’t on the water. We pulled off along East Entrance Road and watched the fire blazing on the Island. We learned later that this lightning storm started numerous fires in the Park, and the Frank Island fire had consumed the entire forest on the Island.
I would do this trip again. We had a blast. The weather was good, the scenery was tremendous, and our kayaking partners were the best ever, even though they dubbed us “team geezer.” I would, however, go earlier or later in the season, possibly May or September, when the park crowds are thinner. The Park would be quieter “off-season” and I believe we would see more wildlife then.
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