Swedish version


Cruising Along The Lower Yellowstone
by John Holt

  The Yellowstone has many moods - sophisticated facets of an elaborate personality that flickers regally down through time influenced by fluctuations of the changing seasons and vagaries of shifting landscape. Within autumn working this placid reach of the river, out here alone, just the two of us, all of it combines to form an atmosphere of total aloneness. This is not a mood of loneliness or a desire to seek out the comradeship of our fellow humans. Nothing that drastic or even morose. Only the feeling of being totally by ourselves on one last float before the severe weather clamps down on the land, with no one else around or even to consider for these few days of dwindling brilliance. A casual run from just below Amelia Island near Hysham down to the Highway 12 Bridge above the dangerous Cartersville Diversion Dam at Forsyth.

  We work our way along the river past open prairie, corn fields and sage flats. Yellow and tan bluffs rise in the distance against a cloudless horizon. Canada geese by the thousands honk and frantically flap their wings as they reach for the sky at our approach. Feathers shed during this frantic exit float down to the water. Mule deer, whitetails, ravens, crows, a pair of Great Grey owls, bald and golden eagles, Great blue herons, grebes, and coyotes on the prowl are common, wonderful sights. Fish jump. Smallmouth bass, catfish, saugeye (sauger-walleye hybrid) goldeye, minnows on the run from these bigger species. Life is everywhere. Abundant. Energetic. Brilliant.

  I rig my fly rod with a small woolly bugger and take one silvery fish after another. Eager goldeyes. They fight well. Their thin shapes slice and plane through the water with silvery splashings. I release them. They vanish in bursts of silver. In the riffles I catch some smallmouths of a pound or so. Ginny maintains course up front while I cast to the fish in back like a carefree little kid, which I truly am at this moment. I keep three of them for dinner tonight. They will go well with baked beans, rice, canned peaches and coffee.

  Up ahead I see the gravel and stone beach of the island where we’ll spend the night. On the north side of the river sheer cliffs of yellow and soft orange stone rise 100 feet or more above us. Way out here like maybe it was two-hundred years ago. Tired from the long day of paddling, a warm meal, some relaxing around a small fire and then sleep sounds condign and reasonable. The colors of the day shift and deepen as sunset approaches. Yellows become deep orange. Reds turn crimson. The sky deepens towards deep purple. The river flows with a burbling voice so soft it borders on subliminal as the flow winds its way towards its confluence with the Missouri a couple of hundred miles away at Fort Burford, North Dakota. The water swirls in large foam-flecked eddies. Twigs, leaves and dead or dying grasshoppers, legs pushing futilely, are caught on the surface. Pheasants call back and forth in fields bordering the southern bank. A beaver swims up, inspects our activities, smacks his tail on the water’s surface and is gone. Strings of geese honk their way to evening nesting grounds. After eating the fried smallmouth we watch as stars, planets and galaxies wink on in the eternal blackness. The fire crackles and spouts miniature clouds of sparks that rise and die out quickly. The smell of smoke reminds us of countless camps we’ve made over the years.

  We make an early morning start from our island camp. The rock cliffs guarding the north bank of the river glow saffron in the new day’s growing light. The air smells of dead leaves, frost and the richness of the river. All through the rapidly warming day we spot wildlife on the river, along shore, working the prairies or soaring above us. During our lunch break on an island by Arnells Creek we look for agates. The light is intense and we find several of them, stones that betray their presence with a subtle peach internal fire and potato-like surface. Looking down for the agates for an hour makes all rocks resemble what we’re seeking. Time to return to the canoe.

  The lower river from several miles below Billings all the way North Dakota is largely an easier time, a more genteel cruise, when compared with the free-form, chaotic, whitewater staircase tumble of the upper river from Yankee Jim Canyon in the Paradise Valley down through the standing-wave insanity below Columbus and on to Riverside Park in Laurel. A friend of mine told me of when his father gave him his twenty-foot Old Town canoe it came with the following advice – "The Yellowstone is an eight-mile-per-hour river. The Missouri is four. Stick to the Missouri. You’re not good enough to weather the Yellowstone." This is excellent river wisdom. There are a couple of guide books out that say that an "advanced beginner" can do the upper river easily. Clearly the two guys who wrote these compendiums of misinformation have never paddled down the upper Yellowstone. An advanced beginner putting in at Mayor’s Landing here in town would be dead before he passed beneath the Hwy 89 bridge a few miles downriver. Below Columbus to Laurel the river is brutal, and I feel fortunate and very lucky to have survived this stretch when I did it alone.

  The part of the Yellowstone that we’re on now, with few obvious and clearly visible exceptions, is a casual float where the main obstacle is bucking an afternoon, upstream wind. No big deal. Too strong a blow leads to an early camp on the nearest island. Soon we are drifting lazily along broad, smooth stretches of water that glides beneath sere badland shapes of cones, pyramids, buttes and deep ravines layered in the colors salmon, ochre, soft grey, charcoal black, faded green and other earthly shades not named by humans. Our paddles dip into the lazy current and provide a slight boost in our speed as we skim over the mirrored surface of the river that reflects the blue sky, white cumulous clouds and the tan-yellow bluffs in colors gentled by their contact with the dark water. We spot more mule deer, white tails, cranes and golden eagles. We also far above soaring on gyrating thermals vultures. Along some muddy banks there are beaver. Western meadowlarks are everywhere thick in numbers. This an abundance of wildlife is unknown to the more obviously spectacular mountain ranges far to the west.

  The temperature rises into the upper seventies and we are down to t-shirts as we push hard through the seams of fast current and work hard to fight the upstream head wind on the slower flats. We are weary as we always are near the end of a trip on a river and wonder where the bridge at Forsyth is. How much farther is it? Then rounding a left-to-right bend we see the structure rising above the river. The take-out is a quarter-mile away.

  Unloading the canoe, we pack our Suburban that Joe Wilson, owner of a motel in Forsyth that frequent when in town, graciously shuttled for us a few days earlier. Joe is an agate collector, a rock hound who showed us many of his stones including some reddish jasper.

And the morning we launched he filled us on what to expect from the stretch of the river we’ve just completed. During our conversation sheriff Jay Paff comes in with a younger man in tow who is here to pick up a Western Union money order for $300 from his family so he can return to wherever home is. Joe and Jay discussed where they thought the best put in would be for our float. Amelia Island won out in a close battle with a spot on a rancher’s place along Sarpy Creek.

  "If you have any trouble, I’ll be the one in the boat to help you out," said Joe as he gave Ginny his phone number. The utility of a her cell phone vaguely surfacing with uncommon servitude on that bright morning.

  Good people as everyone we met in Forsyth was from Dave who worked for Joe and exclaimed "You two are a couple of old hippies", while giving us each bear hugs Actually we’re crazed hipsters, but why argue? Who cares? We dine graciously and inexpensively at The Hong Kong restaurant uptown later that evening, The frosty green bottles of Chinese beer are excellent. The river has calmed us. All seems good and sensible.

  When we head out well-rested the next sky blue morning we realize that we could live here with all of the great, open country, decent people and the great Yellowstone coursing nearby. One more home on the road. We can never have too many.


Article by John Holt © 2008
Photo by Ginny Holt © 2008

John Holt lives with his wife, photographer Ginny Holt, 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, Montana Magazine, California Literary Review, Counterpunch.org, The Denver Post, Fly Rod & Reel, Briarpatch, American Cowboy, E – The Environmental Magazine and The Art of Angling Journal. Ginny has collaborated with him on articles for the above publications as well as with him on Yellowstone Drift, Coyote Nowhere and Arctic Aurora.




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