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Summary: We survived wind and rain in a four day trip to Shoshone Lake in Yellowstone.
I was the trip leader, solo in a 16 foot Old Town Camper. The other boat was a 16 foot Coleman, with an experienced outdoorsman on the stern, and a 17 year old with no camping experience in the bow. I was the only person with much canoeing experience. The trip plan was 5 days, four nights, with the first and last night near the Lewis River, and the middle two nights at the other end of Shoshone Lake, near the geyser basin. The trip started August 22nd, 2004. We had booked our backcountry campsites months in advance.
The first day was stormy, windy, and rainy. We set off during a calm spell, but were soon bucking headwinds and waves on Lewis Lake. After hard work, we turned the corner and headed up the Lewis river channel. The last mile or so was shallow, so we put on our waders and lined the boats upstream, as recommended. The campsite separated the cooking and tenting areas by about 100 yards, to reduce bear problems. It rained a lot that night.
At 6 AM the second day it was raining and windy, so we did not pack up to leave. The foot of my sleeping bag had gotten pretty wet overnight, along with some of my clothes. Apparently the floor of my old tent is pretty porous. Later in the day, I hung up gear to dry, and watched water drip from my sleeping bag, a new experience. From the water in the canoes, we figure more than half an inch of rain fell overnight. We elected to stay put that day and hope for better weather tomorrow. We fished a little that evening, and each caught a big trout.
At 6 AM the third day, the weather was favorable, and we were on the water before 8 AM. A ranger paddled out in his canoe to talk to us and tell us the weather forecast for the next two days was bad. His canoe was full of construction material, including a 5 gallon can of roofing cement. He was using his canoe as barge/freighter, like in the 1800s.
The wind was around 20 mph at the narrows, but after some discussion, we decided to cross anyway. As a solo paddler, I made only very slow progress against the west wind, so I was happy to stop at the other side and hike to the geyser basin from there, around 3 miles each way. The geyser basin was impressive, especially the geyser that erupted every 90 seconds or so, fun to watch. We saw a Pine Marten on the walk back, a first for us.
Crossing the narrows to return in the afternoon was somewhat tense, although I shortly got comfortable once I realized that the waves were not going to break over the bow. I relaxed and just set my canoe at 45 degrees to the waves and gradually “ferried” to the other side. The other boat kept working upwind, they were afraid to get too far away from straight into the waves. They were a bit shook up after the crossing, but we headed to camp. It started to rain about when we finished dinner.
The fourth morning we woke up to more rain, and decided to cut the trip short a day and head back to the car. The paddling to the outlet of Shoshone Lake was easy, and the river was an easy float. Lewis Lake was not bad when we first got on it, but the wind and rain shortly started to build, pushing us towards the shore. Again, I set my boat at a 45 degree angle to the waves, and worked over towards the road. They went in to shore first, I stayed out longer, but then headed into the beach.
What I learned:
It is better to launch at the boat ramp at Lewis Lake, since one can hug the west side of Lewis Lake and avoid the potentially big waves there. There was a sign in the backcountry office to that effect, but we did not see it until we came back. We started at the northeast corner of the lake, but do not recommend it.
I would have been happier poling my canoe upstream rather than wear waders and line my canoe upstream. There were so many downed trees that one could rarely line from the shore. The water was generally about knee deep, ideal for poling. I felt a little foolish that I did not figure this out in advance, but none of the write-ups mentioned poling, probably because poling is kind of a lost art. Also, sometimes the water level is extremely low, so poling would probably not work in that case.
I have a lot more respect now for the Narrows on Shoshone Lake, and also for waves on larger lakes. A more prudent strategy would probably have been to wait as long as it took for the wind to die down, usually at sunrise and sunset, or just said that we were not going to cross the narrows at all.
I solo canoe is not good for bucking headwinds, a big disadvantage compared to a tandem in those conditions. I already knew this to some degree, but this trip impressed it into my brain.
Would I go back? Sure, but I probably would arrange my trip such that I would not plan to cross the Narrows at all. I would focus the next trip on fishing rather than racking up miles.
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