Powder River - Sussex to I-90
The well-known floatable rivers in Wyoming are the North Platte, Big Horn, Green and the Snake, all of which have storage reservoirs which support higher than natural stream flows during the summer. Indeed, these four rivers would otherwise flood for a few weeks in late spring and early summer and then become small shallow streams for the rest of the year. As it is, they sustain fairly constant flows through the summer and into fall, making them dependable paddling rivers. The remaining free-flowing rivers of Wyoming are smaller to begin with and can be totally dry or nearly so for the rest of the year.
The longest, largest, and possibly most remote of these "temporary rivers" is the Powder River of northeast Wyoming, which we plan to float in the spring/summer of 2016.
Through its many forks and tributaries the Powder River drains most of its water from the east slope of the Bighorn Mountains and the prairie highlands to the immediate south -- with a basin of almost 22,000 square miles, or an area the size of New Jersey. The contributing snowmelt originates from as high 13,000' in the central Bighorn Mountains to as low as 5,500' in the prairie highlands farther south, and even lower elsewhere in the Powder River Basin, whether east or west of the main stem.
The southernmost reaches on the prairie have the lowest flows in late summer between thunderstorms, and flow generally increases going northward, with inflows from both Crazy Woman and Clear Creeks in Wyoming, and Mizpeh Creek in Montana. The riverbanks are generally private, with most federal (BLM) tracts barely touching the river valley and even more rarely the River itself. There are, however, some state-owned 640-acre sections that solidly straddle the River and are available for pedestrian day use, but camping only with the leaseholder's permission.
Since the active channel of the River continuously shifts, it's recommended to color-in the land ownership on full size (1:24000) USGS topographic map strips and figure your exact location by triangulating on permanent geographical features on higher ground. Last year's camping spot on public land may be left high and dry by a channel shift during spring floods although once the floods subside there are plenty of sand bars to camp with landowner permission or wherever there's public access.
Free-standing tents are almost a necessity to pitch on the fine quartz silt that gives the Powder River its name. The following river gauge data at Arvada, Wyoming shows a typical range of flows during the best floating season, but keep in mind that these are average flows, & a large, long-lived summer thunderstorm on any of its forks can fill the River bank-to-bank with a muddy flood at any time!
May: Average high flow 650 CFS | Average low flow 175 CFS
June: Average high flow 900 CFS | Average low flow 125 CFS
Although the higher ground is desert-like with a few scattered pine trees on the north-facing slopes of the eroded "breaks", there are views of the distant snow-capped Bighorn Mountains to the northwest, and a continuous riparian forest of cottonwoods, willows, and non-native Russian Olives at & above the flood line.
All the maps indicate numerous wells on both banks, likely drilled for livestock watering, and if you don't use these then water must be carried with you, or obtained from the River itself, probably after settling the suspended clay with alum in a bucket before boiling, treating, or filtering.
The river is navigable by paddlecraft from Kaycee, WY and below, but is a narrow, winding Class I-II, with car-body rip-rap and the occasional cottonwood/Russian olive strainer unless a recent flash flood has "cleaned house" down to the South Fork Confluence. At this point the River spreads out and becomes solidly Class I water, although the winding, narrow river still retains an intimate relationship with the land.
The main challenge here is to pick a time when flows are sufficient to keep from "grounding out" on the sand bottom, and with good timing it's possible to paddle all the way to the Yellowstone River in eastern Montana - a distance of 330 miles from Kaycee and 290 miles from the Sussex Launch.
The wildest, most pristine section suitable for canoe camping lies between the Sussex and I-90 Launches, a distance of around 70 river miles of Class I water with a 4 feet per mile gradient. This will take two to three days to traverse depending on flow and how strenuously one paddles. As you will likely be the only boat on the River for the duration of your journey, some scouting might be desirable using the north-south Upper Powder River / Lower Sussex Roads, taking lateral roads east to scout the river where possible.
Large predators are almost non-existent this far from the mountains, and the while the usual rattlesnake/scorpion combo is uncommon on the sandbars along the River, a flash camera with a motion sensor will almost certainly get you a great picture of your tent being nocturnally-visited by coyotes, raccoons, or skunks! Badgers, ground squirrels and prairie dogs round out the small mammals, but deer, antelope, and even elk can be seen as well. Bald & golden eagles, vultures, red-tailed hawks, crows, herons, & wild turkeys represent the larger birds. Since the River in summer gets low & very warm, game fish like catfish & goldeye are very rare, mostly occurring in the Montana reaches, leaving the most common fish in the river as the inedible Sand Shiner, rarely over 3 inches long.
The River passes by historic frontier Fort Reno with a large stone monument and interpretive sign, the Fort McKinney site (9th Cavalry Afro-American "buffalo" soldiers), and the famous Hoe Ranch, employees of which participated in the famous Johnson County War in 1892.
You can fish, walk around, or even have a cooking fire on state land, but unlike BLM land, the state surface lessee's permission is required to camp overnight. Using a firepan and throwing the ashes in the River or burying them might help landowner/leaseholder relations on all types of lands, as would following the BLM's 200'-from-the-river buried disposal rule for human waste. Most private landowners and state land leaseholders are not experienced with floaters but they can be located by checking the records of the Johnson and Campbell County Clerks offices, which may even be on-line. Even on private lands, fences across the water are widely-spaced as periodic flooding makes them difficult to maintain and the ranches are large anyway.
Using prior-recorded GPS landings may not be useful as the river channel shifts continuously, so coloring-in land ownership on your Topo map and taking bearings from permanent features may be a better way to locate access points. It's unknown whether the BLM has set ownership boundary signs on this River. (blue = public , reverse side red = private)
There are no facilities at the Sussex Launch -- this land was formerly used by the Sussex Womens' Club, which may be defunct, although the yellow club house still stands on the north bank east of the Sussex Bridge. This is a non-secured area to spot a car overnight, although you might be able to make arrangements to park at the nearby ranch.
While there should be reasonable security in spotting a vehicle at the I-90 Rest Area Launch, it might be a good idea to mention your plans to the resident state caretaker. There are picnic tables, vending machines and restrooms here, and while the adjacent Powder River Travel Plaza, with its gas station and commercial campground seems to have gone out of business in 2012, some of its facilities may still be available under new ownership.
Other paddling attractions in northeast Wyoming are Keyhole Reservoir, Lake DeSmet, Linstead Flats Reservoir, Tongue River, the North Platte River, and, of course, the rest of the Powder River from the Town of Kaycee, Wyoming to the Yellowstone River confluence in eastern Montana.
Primitive camping along the river (70 miles)
Free camping in Kaycee City Park, other commercial campgrounds nearby
Motels in the communities of Kaycee, Buffalo, and Gilette, Wyoming
Directions to Sussex Launch:
Drive 20 miles east, then south, from Kaycee, Wyoming on WY 192. Turn left (east) just before crossing the bridge and park at the Sussex Womens Club House by the River.
Directions to I-90 Rest Area Launch:
Drive approximately 28 miles east on Interstate 90 from the Interstate 25 junction near Buffalo, WY. Exit right onto the Upper Powder River Road and turn left under the Interstate to the Rest Area, located west of the River.
Kaycee, Wyoming Visitor Center: 1-307-738-2444
Gilette, Wyoming Visitor Center : 1-800-544-6136
Buffalo, Wyoming Visitor Center: 1-307 684-5544
U.S. Bureau of land Management (BLM) Sheridan or Buffalo Offices
BLM 1:100,000 Surface Use Maps for Sussex Bridge to Interstate 90 are: "Kaycee" & "Buffalo"
Topographic Maps for Sussex to I-90 Rest Stop Launches (In Order of Occurrence):
USGS 1:24,000 Scale:
"Sussex", "House Creek", "Soldier Creek", "Fort Reno", "Hoe Ranch", "Bowman Flat", & "Juniper Draw"
- Sport/Activity: Kayaking, Canoeing
- Water Type: River/Creek (Up to Class II)