Thursday, September 11, 2008

Yellowstone Country

As we left David Jackson’s Hole and John Colter’s Bay and moved north into the Yellowstone Country. We felt the same awe that must have struck Jackson, Colter, Bill Sublette, Jed Smith, Jim Bridger, Kit Carson and so many other early explorers who stood in the shadows of the Tetons not so long ago. This valley completely surrounded by mountains is perhaps the most beautiful in the West. Yellowstone has been described in so many ways I think it is enough to say it offers a sense of identity with America. It is a wilderness showcase where people from all over the world come to experience the out-of-doors. The pressure of so many visitors on such a fragile ecosystem has taken its toll over the years, but Yellowstone is still a well-managed tribute to the Park Service.

Bill and Diana Plyley, who we met up with in the Tetons, like to sleep late and drive fast. We like to get up with the sun and travel with the turtles. So we never caravaned together. We would just pick a camping area and meet up with them when it happened. We would always leave long before them and get in long after them. Bill and I wanted to do some backcountry canoeing, so we met up in Grant Village campground and left the next day early for Shoshone Lake.

Bill was camped two sites behind me. When I arrived at his trailer at 5 A.M. he was still sleeping. So I sat on his picnic table very quietly, drinking my coffee and listening to the birds. Someone had let a black lab out to run the field which was against park rules, but this is just one example of the pressure on the parks I was referring to earlier. As I sat there the park was coming alive. A lady who had come in during the night climbed out of her station wagon and walked back to her canvas-covered utility trailer. She stuck her head under the canvas and began rooting around for cooking gear. About the same time, the black lab came up from behind and goosed her. She dove right under the canvas and into the trailer. When she peeked out she saw a black lab wagging his whole hind quarters and wanting to play and me rolling on the ground trying to control my laughter. She said to the dog, "Boy, am I glad to see you! " Her first thought was bear—which is much more uncommon now than it once was.

Bill finally rolled out and we packed our gear and drove to Lewis Lake where we put in. It was a short paddle across the lake and then a power portage up the spillway into Shoshone Lake. I call it a power portage because we found it easier to leave our gear in the canoe and pull it upstream which often meant we were in the ice cold water right up to the threshold of stream scream.

Shoshone Lake is about 6 miles long and can become very dangerous very fast. The wind had created too much of a chop to cross the lake so we started along the shoreline. We set up camp between the river and the first point of land. We thought this area would create a windbreak and allow us to do a little fishing. As we set up camp a group of seven kayaks came out of the river and started across the lake for the point. It was obvious the last kayak was in trouble. Through the binoculars it looked as though his craft were built from duct tape. He was taking on water and sinking. The wind was so bad we kept hoping his group would be going back for him—not only for his sake but also for ours—we knew if they didn’t we would.

We watched in horror as he finally came out of his kayak which was being blown across the lake with just the front end exposed, bobbing straight up out of the water. We knew he would not make it in the cold water very long so out we went with no plan of how to get him in the canoe in this chop.

Luckily, at the same time another canoe had come up the river and had been watching the kayak struggle. We all reached him at the same time and were able to get him aboard. He was in the first stages of hypothermia and it took a good fire before he was even able to say thank you.

I never thought too much about this incident until many years later in Reader’s Digest I read the story of a group of scouts who had drowned in this same area under very similar circumstances just one year after our little excursion. Respect is probably the most valuable thing you can take with you into the wilderness—not only for the sake of the wilderness, but also for your own.

While we were still in the park we heard about a French couple trying to have their picture taken with the bison. She stood near the animals as her husband recorded the event. Then they switched. But he was not satisfied with la bison lounging. He thought it would make a much more impressive picture if la bison would stand. So he kicked the animal in the hind end and his wife recorded his goring. I say respect is valuable but that does not mean you leave intelligence at home.
Park Service records are full of reports describing irresponsible behavior acted out by people who are under the misconception they are at a theme park.
--Keep Smilin', Dick E. Bird

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