Swedish version


Floating the Yellowstone
- Drifting Within the Land

By John Holt

  RUNNING A FAST LINE of current that slices along the north edge of this midstream island, the canoe slides easily over a two-foot standing wave formed by the river's channels merging in a raucous V at the gravelly downstream end of the land. Willow, cottonwood, aspen, alder and pine shoot by in a multi-shaded blur of warm green, white, buckskin and burgundy. The cedar strip craft rides up on the crest, gains its bearings from this mild increase in elevation, then shoots down onto smoother water with the aid of only a few directional strokes on my part. The sounds of rushing water fade behind us as my cruise down stream.

  The canoe, called a White Guide by its maker Newfound Woodworks of New Hampshire, seems completely at ease, happy, in her new western surroundings - the Adirondack waters of her youth turning swiftly into memories.

  Through the years I've owned a number of canoes from a 16-foot Mad River Explorer to a 12-foot Old Town Pack (I still have both of these) to heavy, unwieldy and noisy aluminum and fiberglass ones. Each had and has its own distinct and palpable personality that becomes apparent within minutes of setting out on a river or lake. The Explorer is a capable, sturdy yet sporting individual. The Pack is like a British sports car, say a 1971 Triumph Spitfire, full of spirit and out for a good time. The Explorer reminds me of that long-ago, fine machine, the BMW Bavaria - speed, power to spare, durability. This canoe is all of that and much more. At eighteen-feet-six-inches she radiates meticulous craftsmanship, beauty and the wilderness lineage that can only come from centuries of canoeing by explorers and trappers. Experiences that ultimately lead to her perfect design. This canoe tracks through rough water with surety and stability. The northern white cedar stripping, ash gunwales and cane seats, the perfect fit of all of this, her fine lines - I've never been in a canoe of this quality. I feel like I'm king of the river totally at ease, secure in my place as the two of us travel the river corridor at peace within the timelessness of a perfect setting that is beyond my imagination.

Big Timber area

  The Yellowstone is clear, cool aquamarine along this stretch a few miles below the ranching community of Big Timber. The river drifts west in a series of serpentine loops and bends punctuated with deep runs that are separated by wide, shallow riffles where the liquid sparkles and splashes over the streambed of salmon, bronze and ochre rock and stone. On outside bends standing waves of a couple of feet roar and splash in a chaotic white froth. Long lines of foamy bubbles stretch out like phantom fingers beneath this faster water as it slows down entering the upper ends of the deeper, darker sections.

  The wind billows and gusts warmly from the southwest as it pours down off the high, ancient volcanic plateau that is Yellowstone National Park seventy miles away. Puffy cumulous clouds race off towards Billings. Large cottonwood shimmer in the day's glow, the millions of leaves whispering and laughing in the swirling air. A band of antelope works a nearby grass and sage bench - black masks, dusty tans and browns of sides and backs, white rumps clearly visible. A golden eagle holds on a rotting fence post that drips rusting strands of barbed wire. The bird is motionless, stately. The Crazy Mountains rise fiercely above the northwest horizon, all but the highest peaks now barren, without snow.

  This is late July. Grasshopper time. The large, clumsy insects leap, clack and crash among the tall, already browning fields of grass that cover the banks that often rise more than ten feet above us. The wind blows many of the bugs out over, and eventually onto, the water's surface. The ungainly creatures smack into the water with audible "splats." These disturbances do not go unnoticed by the large rainbow and brown trout holding barely out from the shadowy shelter of the undercut banks. The fish are lined up like marauding wolf packs as far as my can see up and down the river. This is a period of gluttony for the browns, not only on the Yellowstone but along many other western rivers as well. The trout slash and rip through the insects trapped in the surface tension. The sound of tooth-filled mouths crunching down on the hoppers is steady, voracious. Sprays of water flashing prismatic variations of the sun's light explode in gem-like micro-bursts all along the river as the feeding frenzy grows in intensity.

Brown trout that took an Elk Hair Caddis

  I've tied on a tan Elk Hair caddis, a pattern that mimics many things, among them the grasshoppers. I work out sufficient line to both reach downstream ahead of us to avoid spooking the fish and also to cover the additional distance into the bank where the fish are feeding. Each puff of wind knocks bunches of the hoppers onto the water. Big trout, and little ones, too, go crazy as they charge down on the feebly struggling insects. If you're a lover of grasshoppers, the carnage is horrific. If you like to connect with big browns and rainbows, this is a magic time of the day and the year. Pure paradise. A quick backcast and a little line haul forward to help push through the breeze is all that's needed. The fly unfurls with a slap on the water. A pair of browns race towards it, backs and dorsal fins slicing the surface. The larger of the two engulfs the Elk Hair in a splashing swirl after only a few feet of drift. Pulling back on the rod slightly sets the hook. The brown turns and runs downstream for cover at the restraint of the alien pressure of the line. I gain line rapidly. The fish leaps once, twice, its tail standing on the river's surface. It sounds then releases its hold on the water down below and blasts out of the water in an arc of silvery spray, crashes back into the Yellowstone and sounds once more. The brown holds along the bottom for a minute. The vibrations of it shaking its head are clearly transmitted through the taught line. Suddenly the fish quits the fight, tired. I pull the fish to me. The trout's gold, rich brown, yellow, bronze, blood crimson, white, and jet black colorings flash and flicker beneath the sun. The brown is 18 inches, maybe a little more, thick, healthy. I reach down into the water and grab the hook. A quick twist sets the fish free. Before I am able to grab its tail to gently revive it, the fish shoots out to mid-stream and the shelter of deep water.

  Focus has been down river as I target prime spots to catch the trout. The sky is deep blue with rafts of fluffy clouds drifting towards North Dakota hundreds of miles distant.

  I turn and check out the weather behind me.

  Not so good. Slight understatement surfacing on the high plains.

  A dense wall of deep purple, nearing black, clouds is rolling in. The entire system is anvil shaped with the mixture shooting billowing clouds tens of thousands of feet above the land. They appear illuminated from within as the sun's rays are refracted and reflected by the moisture creating the illusion of internal fires raging out of control as the layers of cloud constantly shift and turn in the wild updraft that varies the light's color and intensity. The cell expands rapidly and looms above everything, dwarfing even the Crazies. The dark mass appears to be walking towards the river on legs of lightning. There are perhaps fifteen, twenty minutes to find shelter or risk being knocked senseless by what will no doubt be enormous hailstones. After this indignity my unconscious body likely will be fricasseed by a relentless series of white-hot lightning bolts that ignite the canoe. Life is indeed good right now. The possibilities seem cheerful and limitless.

Reedpoint from Indian Fort Access

  Perhaps a mile ahead a series of low hills with gentle notches in them created by centuries of erosion appears like a beacon to a desperate sailor. Ideal protection all things considered, including the lack of options way out here in the open landscape.

  The wind is increasing steadily and growing cool. The air smells of rain with a delightful hint of ozone. One last look behind reveals that the entire storm is rotating very slowly in a counterclockwise direction. Forget the hail and the lightning. A tornado is going to do the job with a flurry of insanely punishing, wind-driven jagged sheets of demolished feed silos, doublewides, abandoned Buicks, and airborne derelict writers swept from the streets of Livingston by the maelstrom.

  I close in on the perceived sanctuary as the thunderstorm/slash/tornado zooms in on the canoe. Lightning strikes nearby, the light flickering across the sage hills up ahead. Thunder booms with a clarity that indicates that my demise is at hand. Hard driven raindrops mixed with pea-sized bits of hail bang against my back and splatter and bounce in the canoe sounding like small marbles that have fallen mysteriously from the heavens. The bank passes by like a fast-forward, out-of-focus movie. I catch glimpses of lone cottonwoods, a Russian Olive with its branches of silver-green leaves bending in the gale as though in prayer, a herd of black Angus cattle munching bunch grass while clearly oblivious to their potential barbecue fate, a bunch of antelope running over a far hill.


  The sound is deafening. Everything goes silent. Numb. Then a ringing in my ears, my head.

  A bolt of electricity hotter than the sun's surface nails an elderly tree on the other side of the river. The top of the cottonwood disintegrates in a mad mixture of shattered, smoldering wood and leaves. The mayhem is right behind now - lightning, thunder, hail, chaotic wind - all of it beating down, around and through the land, me. At the first miniature valley, I turn the canoe abruptly and continue to push with violent strokes. It pounds up on the shore of mud, snake grass and sand. I leap out and pull it all the way up onto dry land, then flee for the shelter offered by the small depression that is rounded enough not to be a lightning magnet. I'm drenched, getting pelting with ever-larger hail, and wired on an adrenalin rush spawned by stark, raving terror.

  "That was close," I say to no one visible while sucking in air to catch my breath. "What is it with lightning? The stuff tracks me wherever I go - the Missouri Breaks, the Ram River in Alberta, even along the Olgilvie in the Yukon."

  Not all that far above the storm is completely out of control, having its way with the landscape. Lightning sizzles in psychotic lines across the base of the tumult or arcs down into the ground, tops of trees, mountain peaks, all over the place. The pungent smell of ozone is now thick, choking. I expect to begin catching the aroma of torched cow any minute. There's a bottle of Open Pit or Bulls Eye sauce in the cooler in case this spontaneous steer fry should manifest itself nearby. The detonations of thunder make any fireworks display I've ever witnessed seem pale, without force. The concussions compress and rock the air pushing in on my eardrums. Dark masses of cloud roll, spin and explode in enormous flowers of bubbling condensation resembling mammatus. These normally form in sinking air while most clouds form in rising air. Although mammatus most frequently appear on the underside of a cumulonimbus, they can develop underneath cirrocumulus. Sometimes very ominous in appearance, they are harmless, victims of ugly and unfounded rumor, and seeing these does not mean that a tornado is about to form, a commonly held misconception. They are usually visible after the worst of a thunderstorm has passed. For a mammatus to take shape, the sinking air must be cooler than the air around it and have high liquid water or ice content. They derive their name from their appearance. The baglike sacs that hang beneath the cloud resemble cow's udders.

  Why I know all of this is not much of a mystery. I spend a great deal of time out in wild, remote country and am frequently hammered by weather like this dandy little storm dancing just above the river. The research and resulting information helps me to understand the possible means of my death.

  I'm on the lee side of the valley and pretty much sheltered from the rain though the wind whips and back tracks, swatting us with cold drops of rain and rogue hailstones. The storm is moving off just as the mammatus were trying to tell me moments ago. The sky is growing lighter, an eerie yellow-green radiance works its way across the native grasses and clumps of sage that sparkle with the rain dripping from them. Even the reds, pinks and yellows of the surrounding bluffs are shaded by the green luminescence. The temperature has fallen into the upper sixties. I'm wet, chilled. I shiver and anticipate the warmth of the late-afternoon sun that will appear shortly. These bursts of heavy weather are nearly clock-like in their predictability in the heat of summer that draws moisture rapidly and far up into the chilled atmosphere triggering the thunderstorms. Around two or three in the afternoon the cells burst forth and pound across the prairie. Normally I'm prepared for this, but the lunatic hoppers and attendant carefree trout feeding like there was no tomorrow diverted me.

  The rain is almost over. Time to float onward.

  Looking uphill I see an open cut of greenish rock studded with dark chunks of another mineral. This is a slice of the Livingston formation, a thick accumulation of late Cretaceous sediments that is mostly volcanic debris. The grayish chunks are pieces of andesite, a rock common to large volcanoes. I still have difficulty imaging this entire region as a hot bed of ancient volcanic activity despite the awareness that Yellowstone Park is perched on top of an ancient crater that will one day erupt again with a force and magnitude that will render existence as far away as Minnesota something of a moot point. Seismic activity has increased slightly in the area and hot water jets are appearing an increasing rate through cracks on the floor beneath Yellowstone Lake. The volcano has erupted several times over the eons in a path that seems to be gradually moving mainly east and slightly north. Look out Glendive. An earthquake rocked me in my bed in Livingston a few weeks ago. Small but slightly ominous.

  Back on the river I push along, the storm is now long gone over the eastern horizon, disappearing in a diminishing cacophony of lightning-fueled thunder. A double rainbow with soft hints of an inner third one arcs across the sky from north to south. At its apex the colors are bright and clearly separated. It grows in luminosity showing no sign of dissipating. I watch for a couple of casual river miles, then surprise a pair of mallards who break from the water and flee downstream in a flurry of quacks and beating wings. A whitetail deer stands in the tall grass looking down from the cutbank, its tail flicking nervously back and forth. The paddling is easy in the smooth water. The canoe makes good time, maybe six miles-per-hour. According to the river maps I've brought along, and a corresponding topographic map that I've loaded into a GPS I can sometimes use with at least a suggestion of accuracy, a series of islands ranging in size from about two acres all the way to thirty or forty acres lies just above where Bridger Creek. The stream, that heads in the Absaroka Mountains, enters the Yellowstone about nine river miles away. I'm hoping for an open campsite near the water so I can hear the current gliding along throughout the night. And a location that looks out and up to both the Beartooth and Absaroka mountain ranges on the southern horizon would be good. It's now 4 p.m., so with a bit of luck and due diligence I should make camp on one of these within ninety minutes or so. The river flows silently and swiftly with regular stretches of broken water that would be classified at most as vigorous Class II rapids. The canoe rides over and through the inside, calmer seams of this with little effort.

Above Greycliffs

  Immediately below Sweet Grass Creek bubbling in from the north and Lower Doe Creek merging from the opposite direction, I begin to pass through the Greycliffs, a stretch of more than a mile of exposed, eroding Livingston formation that rises above the river for a couple of hundred feet. The river angles steadily downward in a long run of broken fast water. The cliffs rush by. The late Gary LaFontaine along with partners Stan and Glenda Bradshaw published a couple of my books years ago under imprint Greycliff Publishing, named after the geologic feature I'm observing now. The wind has died and the sun is still high in the sky. The air becomes trapped, shiftless between the cliffs turning hot and close. Small stones and rivulets of dirt slide into the water, clattering down the rock face. The sound echoes within the confines of the cliffs. Interstate 90 follows the course of the Yellowstone and in this lassitude I hear the growl of semis and the whooshing of tires along the highways hot pavement. Anomalous sensations of contemporary freneticism out on the river.

  In another hour the islands appear, ragged side channels splitting off into several directions. The first three are small and not suitable for camping, consisting of jumbled piles of rock and scraggly trees. I decide to risk finding a good spot on the last one, that also is the largest and sits in the middle of the river directly across from Bridger Creek entering from the south. Perhaps some fishing will make an appearance there goes my predictable thinking. I stay between the islands and the southern bank of the river. From upstream a clearing in the cottonwoods and aspen and pine midway down this last island is visible.

Crazies fading from view  The current is moving at a good clip, but right before I need to beach a large eddy swirls ideally like a benign foaming galaxy offering shelter for the slightly weary. I drift below the landing spot, swing smartly around and ride the reverse current in natural parking valet style right up to the camp for this night or maybe the next two or three evenings. Who knows? I'm in no hurry to be anywhere. The shore is largely tan-gray sand mixed with rounded stones of muted jade, rust, orange, charcoal, brown ranging in size from three inches to a foot in diameter. There is plenty of dry, weathered driftwood scattered about, a level spot for the tent that is also open to the breezes on two sides to help mitigate the minor mosquito factor. An old, small fire ring is nearby. Grass is growing from the middle the pit. Tall stalks rise from the stones.

  I ease the canoe to the sand, step out into the warm water along shore and unload the gear - food, clothes, cook kit, cooler, camera and fishing bags before hauling the craft well up from the river and secure it to a cottonwood with a length of rope before turning the craft over bottom side up. Setting up the tent takes only a few minutes. I arrange it so that the main view is across the river to a barely-visible Bridger Creek that cascades down a sedate fall of copper-colored rocks and farther over and well above the island stand the Beartooths. The highest peaks still have a covering of last year's snow. By the time I'm finished laying out the sleeping bag, gathering a modest pile of driftwood, starting a fire that is crackling and shooting sparks, and purifying a couple of quarts of water, the sun has moved down towards the Crazies now reduced to a low purple-blue rise in the west.

  It's about 6 p.m. I guess. I build a drink of vodka, ice and cranberry juice in large blue enamel cup. I lean back against a log and enjoy the view - the gradual play of light and color across the land, the sound of murmuring water, the screech of a panicked Kildeer, Sandhills clacking out of sight across the river, breeze slipping through the leaves, rich smell of clean, fertile water, the booming of nighthawks already feeding on insects and the pleasure that a modest fire always gives to any camp.

  The sky is clear.

  The air is soft and warm enough

  Trout are rising along an easy glide not far from shore, the fish sipping in small mayflies, the circular rise forms vanishing downstream.

  Two red-tailed hawks work a ridge not too far away.

  Not a bad place to spend the next day or two.

(This was an excerpt from a work in progress called Yellowstone Drift - Floating the Past In Real Time that is about me floating the length of the Yellowstone River in Montana from the upper Paradise Valley down to its confluence with the Missouri River in North Dakota this year - 540 miles.)

By John Holt 2005 ©

John Holt lives in Livingston, Montana. He’s the author of 14 published books including Montana Fly-Fishing Guides – East and West, Arctic Aurora – Canada’s Yukon and Northwest Territories, Coyote Nowhere – In Search of America’s Last Frontier and Hunted: A Novel. AK Press will publish Yellowstone Drift – Floating the Past in Real Time in February 2009. His work has appeared in publications including Men’s Journal, The Denver Post, Fly Rod & Reel, Fly Fisherman, Outside, American Cowboy, E – The Environmental Magazine and The Art of Angling Journal. His wife, Ginny Holt, has collaborated with me on articles for the above publications as well as with me on Yellowstone Drift, Coyote Nowhere and Arctic Aurora.


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