Dont think it cant happen to you!
Im not writing this to tell paddlers about what a great place this is and about a wonderful paddle/camping trip it was. You can read elsewhere for stories like that. I wrote this as a reminder to all that we sometimes make decisions in haste, may not fully consider the abilities and personalities of those in our group and that each of us should express any valid concerns and worries we have.
Bluff Top, camp site #8R2. Up to now, our third day, we had enjoyed wonderful weather with little or no wind. Todays paddle was to take us from Bluff Top, on the northwest side of the lake, on an open water crossing across the shoreline points known as the narrows to the South Narrows Point campsite (8Q1) on the south side which wed reserved for the evenings camp. This would be our last campsite before heading back to Lewis Lake and our vehicle.
It was another beautiful morning and we enjoyed a wonderful leisurely breakfast. I wasnt in any hurry to pack and leave camp because the campsites werent far apart and wouldnt take more than 30 minutes of leisurely paddling to cross over to. As the leader, that was mistake#1.
Just as we began packing, at around 9:30, winds in the treetops became audible and a lot of chop was forming on the lake surface. Wave action along the shore was increasing. We hurried and as I went up and down the bluffs path to our camp to pack the boats, I revised our crossing route. Heres another observation to note. I had quite a bit of gear and had a reasonably high pile strapped over my rear hatch; a factor that contributed to the problems I was about to experience.
Originally, Id planned to follow our shoreline on the north side, eastward to the narrows and then make the right angle turn and head south, straight across to our campsite, South Narrows Point 8Q1. The crossing at the narrows is about a half to no more than a mile in width and isnt normally a problem.
Now, however, I noted that the winds and waves were greater and at an angle abeam to my intended route. My friend was not as experienced and I felt the need to reconsider my crossing. The shoreline on our side that wed have to follow had cliffs with large rocks & boulders. Wed have to get far enough out into the lake to be able to pass the Narrows point and not be blown into the rocks. One option, the one I shouldve taken, would have been to head west, along the north shore back towards the west end of the lake and follow it southward for a short distance, then along the south shore going east. That would have made the distance and time required to make camp considerably longer.
Another route, the one I took (mistake #2), was to head off on an open water crossing at an SE angle from our beach towards the opposite shore, turn east at a point west of the narrows point/campsite, and get the wind and waves at our stern for the short remaining distance. Seemed like a good idea at the time because the conditions, while deteriorating, seemed doable enough for the distance required.
We launched through the surf and headed out. Shortly afterwards, it became evident that conditions had gotten worse; this route and crossing wasnt going to be easy. Still, it just wasnt that far. I didnt have any concerns about my boats seaworthiness, but Id loaned my partner my spare boat and it wasnt as capable for these conditions.
I reminded him to keep an eye out to his beam for the occasional waves that are quite a bit larger than the rest. I kept a sweepers position in case my partner got into trouble. I saw a large wave coming, yelled to my friend to turn downwind, which he did, and I attempted to do the same. Panic overcame me when my boat, with full rudder and much effort with my paddle, failed to turn. I now realized that the pile of gear on my rear deck (mistake #3) was acting like a sail and the wind was pushing my stern downwind preventing it from responding.
The wave crashed, right to left, across my boat. I remember two distinct things. One, my fully loaded boat was tilted 90 degrees on its right side with my hand and elbow in the water and secondly, that my late attempt to brace wasnt going to save my sorry ass. Next thing I knew, I was upright. Hallelujah!! I dont recall what the hell I did, but I got my boat turned downwind. I screamed directions to my partner to give up the crossing, make way for passing the narrows point up ahead and beach our boats at the second campground, North Narrows #8S7.
Whew. Glad thats over. Now all we have to do is make it past the Narrows point without getting pushed onto the rocks, beach our boats and wait for conditions to settle down. That should be fairly easy to do now. Usually, these mountain storms dont last long and this front should quickly pass.
The distance between us was greater than I preferred and I observed he seemed to have problems maintaining a straight course. He was zigzagging back and forth a lot. I closed the distance and noted that the following waves were now greater in amplitude. Communication was difficult due to the noise generated from the wind, wind in the treetops, waves, waves hitting the beach and rocks. We were intensely concentrating on avoiding trouble.
I was maintaining a straight course that should take me just far enough outside the point to allow for my right to left drift and avoid becoming grounded on the rocks. My friend and I were about even with each other with him being further out to my right and slightly ahead. He made a small turn to his left towards my position.
A large following wave got to me first, lifted up my stern and pivoted my boat a little to my right. The same wave lifted up the stern of my friend, who was already heading left towards me, and pivoted his boat slightly left toward me. We both began our slides down the wave, with him traveling faster and across my bow.
Oh boy, another thrilling moment to ponder. My course was going to set my bow down on his boat just behind his cockpit. Panic time! Back-paddling slowed my boat down and I was able to spin my boat further to the right. As my bow came down, it gently grazed his rudder, slightly rocking his boat. He was clueless. I yelled out something to the tune of quit zigzagging, dont get any closer to shore and avoid the shallow area of the point weve got to pass around.
He took the first available landing spot and I beached about 50 yards further down the shore. It was 11:00. We had inspected this site, North Narrows #8S7, and others the previous day. We unloaded a few items to use and keep us warm while waiting out the winds. I noticed a beached 17 Coleman, in lovely T.Pink, about another 100 yards down the shore and inspected it. Empty with only its paddles.
We waited and watched two kayakers through our binoculars beat their way westward. Crawling along the opposite southern shore, they were struggling and hardly making headway. It took them a long time to disappear from our vantage point. They must have the arms of a gorilla. It was early afternoon and there had been no discernable change in conditions. Our current position was almost exactly opposite the shore and campsite that was reserved for us.
I pondered trying to talk my partner into launching and ferrying across to our site. That shouldnt be too difficult as long as he didnt get much broached to the wind and waves. A ferry wouldnt have taken more than 15 minutes and the current wind and wave angles were perfect for that. He wasnt comfortable with that idea and I knew if he wasnt comfortable with it, I shouldnt press him. We Napped.
Id rather stay at our reserved campsite because wed already be on the side of the lake wed want to be on for our final launch the next morning. I didnt want to be stuck on the current side we were on if the conditions were like this the next morning. I calculated times required to cross, set up camp and cook before it would become too dark and gave my partner a go-no go time of 7:00. That was mistake #4. Considering the conditions, I didnt allow any time for recoveries or rescue if one of us had trouble during the crossing.
Around 5:00, a couple strolls through our camp. Theyre the canoeist further down the beach from us. They had started off the same morning, earlier than us, for a day paddle and hiking at the west end to explore the geyser area. They had to bail out and beached their canoe after the seas turned heavy. They didnt have much of anything other than what theyd brought for a simple day hike. A point all of us should remember when we take off on a simple adventure. All their food and water was consumed and they had no clothing other than hiking shorts and short sleeve shirts. Small world; they were staying at South Narrows Point 8Q1, the campsite reserved for us!!
Having limited canoe experience, I marvel at the skills and talent of many that Ive watched. Like, watching a solo canoeist handle WW and do amazing maneuvers not much different than a WW kayaker. I assumed our new friends were up to the task ahead if they were going to head back to our camp. The husband is an engineer in a small town in upper middle Wyoming; the wife is a nurse at their local clinic and the author of a few childrens books. Wonderful people. Warm, friendly, intelligent and they had a great sense of humor. Theyre going to need it.
We joked around and listened to each others story about being out on the lake earlier, bailing out and our go-no go time for a crossing decision. Gee, wasnt the crossing exciting? Sure it was, now that were not out in it and the blood has returned to my knuckles. It was during this time that Id come to the conclusion that the canoeist would choose to leave and follow us because wed naturally be, in a sense, their lifeline. I turned this thought over many times in my head.
After all, the seas were rough and I had a hard time imagining the wife handling the bow position with any great aplomb. But hey, the hubby wasnt saying anything and didnt seem very concerned. Still, I had this incredible sense of foreboding. I sure as hell wouldnt take a Coleman canoe out in this crap, but then again, I dont know diddly about handling a canoe.
Eventually, our go-no go time arrives but my friend says nothing. I know hes aware of the time and can see the wheels turning inside his head. At 7:10, he announces that we should head out. At that point, I knew we shouldnt. The foreboding I was feeling was overwhelming. But, what with all the sitting around for so long (since 11:00), plus I knew that my partner and I shouldnt have any problem; I kept my mouth shut. Mistake #5. By then, I was certain that the wife didnt have the skills required to handle the bow and I had begun to think that the husband wasnt all that experienced either. Plus, Ive got the same canoe at home and while its a great station wagon, its a barge in these conditions.
As the leader of the kayaks, and a member in our predicament, I shouldve had the guts and courage to bring up my concerns and clear the air on the potential dangers for all. But I didnt get any sense of concern or feelings of doom from anyone else. Surely, Im just being overly pessimistic. The canoeist took off down the beach, my partner up the beach and we began to repack.
Although I didnt have much to repack, I was slow and careful in stowing some of my weather gear back into its bag I store behind my seat and tidying up the deck. Before I completed my tasks, I heard some yelling coming from upwind in the direction of my partner. He was difficult to understand due to all the noise from the wind, waves and distance between us. He was pointing out into the lake. I looked out in the direction I thought he was pointing and it looked like conditions had improved slightly. I waved, nodded my head and went back to my tasks.
Again, I heard some yelling and it was my friend jumping up and down and pointing out into the lake again. This time I turned and looked downwind, out into the lake, back behind me. The canoeist had already launched, capsized, were hanging onto their canoe and frantically waving their arms. They were 200 yards from shore. The winds and waves were pushing them towards a stretch of beach with cliffs and boulders all along the shoreline.
Ive got gear scattered, hatches open, and a partner jumping up and down like a kangaroo and screaming whatll we do? I scream back that we have to rescue them before theyre pushed onto the rocks and boulders. I waved back to them. I knew they couldnt hear anything but the wind and waves but might appreciate us acknowledging their predicament.
I took a couple of deep slow breaths. Think this through boy. I knew it would be best for all if each of us could somehow remain calm. I deliberately did not look up at them anymore and forced myself to go slowly and concentrate on the chore before us. I pulled a few things out of the open hatches and left them on the beach. I attached my carabineer/tow rope to the rear handle, bundled up the rest and stowed it under the deck rigging. There was a sharp drop-off along this section of the beach. I tried to keep my boat into the wind while I got in but this was difficult and I was taking in water.
I had a concern that once I reached them that their concern for safety, combined with panicking might capsize my boat. Repeated attempts to get my damn skirt (tight fit and fingers/hands a little cold) on seemed fruitless and the clock was running. Now Im feeling stressed and panic is setting in. Time matters. I launched without my skirt.
It didnt take me long to get to them and I was extremely relieved to discover that they were quite calm and collected. I handed the carabineer/rope to the wife and told her to attach the carabineer to the canoe handle. Even though her hands were cold she did so without trouble. By then, my partner arrived but in the panic, hadnt thought of getting his tow rope out. I sent him out to see if he could locate any of their stuff, such as it was.
I took off for the shore at an angle that I hoped would keep as much water out of my cockpit as possible while keeping the necessary angle to avoid a certain stretch of the shoreline/beach that would be dangerous. A canoe full of water and two cold/stiff adults hanging onto it. My god, it felt like I was trying to pull a locomotive. I had to reposition my hands on the paddle to keep the paddle from becoming bent or breaking. I took short hard strokes. By the time we got close enough to the shore that they could touch bottom, I was toast. I wouldnt have lasted another 3 minutes of effort.
They quickly climbed onto shore, pulled out the canoe, disconnected the rope and headed back towards the campsite wed all been sitting around earlier. My partner found the wifes walking sticks. He and I went out again to search for gear but by now, we couldnt see well enough. Their paddles and all other items were lost.
We headed back to the campsite. Fortunately, the canoeists had the sense to gather up as much wood as possible to make a fire (not legal, but hey) and were fully stripped and trying to get a fire going by the time we beached again. Modesty went out the window. Wet lighters dont work.
Events from this point on happened quickly and efficiently. I pulled out every stitch of clothing, fire starter and useful gear I had. I had plenty of extra clothing, an extra solo tent that wed used to stow gear during the day/night, extra food and water. My friend had the camp stove going and the husband had the beginnings of a fire.
While they were drying out and trying on whatever clothes would fit, I set up the solo tent, lined it with all the PFDs and left extra water bottles inside the tent. By now, theyd found suitable clothes, the fire was going well and dinner would soon be ready. I felt that all of us could use a warm drink or two. I returned to my boat, picked up our gear, began pitching our tent and setting up our camp for the night. Several shots of firewater before dinner were very satisfying.
We rose early and at 6 am the lake was as smooth as glass. We packed up and by 7:00 my partner and I were towing the canoeist across the Narrows to their camp. They provided us with a hearty breakfast. Shortly after breakfast, I was able to paddle out and get the attention of a large group of canoeist who were heading back out to Lewis Lake.
The people Ive met on this lake have always been so laid back and nice. Each canoe had extra paddles. This entire group changed their course, beached at our stranded friends camp, provided them with paddles and waited for them to join their group for the return to Lewis Lake. Our new friends had left their outboard motor at the Lewis Lake inlet.
With lots of hugs and well wishing, my partner and I departed while they broke camp. A week later, my partner and I both received packages from our canoe friends. Enclosed in each were a wonderful letter of appreciation and the wifes last copies of her latest book. Well always remember each other. Ill always be a little smarter in choosing my routes. I wont be as concerned over extra time and mileage required due to bad conditions and Ill be more vocal in expressing my concerns. As for how I packed and distributed the gear on my boat, Im still working on that. Its hard to give up creature comforts. If Im going to be the leader, it would do me and others well to act more like it. I made far too many errors.
Plastic Perception 17'2" Eclipse and 14'7" Carolina.
If reserving a campsite: $25
22 miles south of Grant Village/Yellowstone Lake by the South entrance of Yellowstone Nat'l Park.
The Yellowstone Backcountry Trip Planner: