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September 23, 2014
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The Reality of Wild

Ten days of paddling on Yellowstone Lake can stretch the imagination.

(page 1 of 5)

We knew we were in grizzly bear country as soon as we disembarked from our motorboat shuttle on the wilderness east shore of Yellowstone Lake. Here, at a campsite called Columbine, we would launch our canoe for a multi-day fall wilderness paddle. Meantime, the shuttle captain would take two backpackers we saw on the shore back across ten miles of open water to his snug harbor at Bridge Bay. At the end of their hike through a wilderness where you can get farther from a road than anywhere else in the Lower 48, they were breathless with adventure.

Indeed, a bear had circled their tent—right there—on the last night out. It came within yards, they insisted, pawing and grunting for an entire half hour. No, they didn’t stick their heads out, but they’d had their bear spray ready. The grizzly made a sound “like this,” one said, emitting a low, drawn-out groan.

My paddling partner, trained wildlife biologist Leine Stikkel, grinned and gave me a wink. She knew the habits and the moan of a moose, even when described by a European, which one of the backpackers was. But she didn’t spoil their thrill as they helped haul ashore our boat full of waterproof bags containing warm clothes and camping and cooking gear.

And with that, the captain eased his craft off the pebbled beach, taking the hikers back toward civilization. It was one of his last trips of the season. A clear, late-September crispness marked the air as the sound of the boat faded across the water. Our plan was to paddle back to the “civilized” west shore through the lake’s two southern arms. A trip of sixty-five shore miles, we planned to finish it in nine days. We would hug the shore most of the way, camping in a tent, under a tarp, or even exposed to the stars. We would cook by Dutch oven over fires in designated pits. All of it in nearly total solitude.

Yellowstone Lake, at 7,732 feet above sea level, is the largest freshwater lake in North America higher than 7,000 feet. Twenty miles long, fifteen miles wide, and more than 390 feet deep, it marks the center of the Yellowstone Caldera, the collapsed cone of an ancient supervolcano. The southeast and south arms of Yellowstone Lake have roadless shores, and the trails accessing them begin dozens of miles away. Motorboats are restricted to five miles per hour, but are prohibited at the very southern tips; just the final mile or so is reserved for human-power travel only. (Although recommended as a wilderness area where motors would be prohibited, Yellowstone managers haven’t found the gumption to follow their own advice and ban motorboating in this wild, remote waterworld.)

 

 

And wild it is. In late September, the paw prints of grizzlies and wolves mix with the marks of Vibram soles on the dusty trails. Elk bugle in their mating rut, unmolested by hunters, and deer chomp purposefully in anticipation of winter’s approaching grip. The ecology is a cross section of what makes the world’s first national park famous. Big male grizzlies dominate this faraway place, sometimes swimming miles to reach remote islands. Spawning cutthroat trout wiggle their way up tributaries in the spring to be clawed ashore by the bruins. Bald eagles nest and fish along the lake’s 110-mile shoreline. And wolves, transplanted from Canada to Yellowstone in 1995 to restore the predator-prey balance, have established packs and territories among the meadows, peaks, and forests.

 

All that was left for us to do was load the good canoe Exuberance with our gear bags. The mammoth cargo included everything from elk steaks to fresh eggs and vegetables, from single malt to cabernet. We would enjoy wilderness gourmet.

The captain had wagged his head in disbelief at our bundles, remarking how meticulous sea kayakers must be on such excursions given their limited stowage. Even at 18½ feet, the canoe was taxed with our load. We got the mound within a reasonable distance of the gunwales as a wee chop began to build against our leeward shore. We noted the time, donned our life vests, put the Exuberance to sea and our backs to the paddles, and struck out toward the heart of nowhere.

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