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Yellowstone River in Montana

A self-supported trip created by guest-paddler

Trip Overview

Down The Yellowstone (May 2006)
A canoeing adventure

By Harlan E. Finnemore

Probably the following trip began two hundred years ago when Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark decided to split their expedition of discovery into two groups when they returned east of the divide. Captain Lewis and several of the men were to proceed back along the Missouri to do some additional exploring while Captain Clark would take the remaining men and explore the Yellowstone River. This latter trail would take the group from the Beaverhead/Gallatin/Madison Valley through the present Bozeman area and up a narrow defile into the Yellowstone country near present day Livingston, Montana.

While I have never had any intention of canoeing all of the rivers of the Lewis & Clark route, I did think it would be an enjoyable experience to do the Yellowstone portion of the trip during the bi-centennial year of Clarks return. Initially I had thought to do nearly all the Montana portion of the river starting at the first portion suitable for running in an open canoe. This meant launching at Carbella access just downstream of Yankee Jim Canyon and continuing from there a distance of over 525 miles to the headwaters of Lake Sakakawea. This would have included about an additional 40 miles of the river south of the Corps return route.

The return of the Corps of Discovery over the mountains of Idaho had been delayed several weeks due to the unusually heavy accumulation of winter snow. Even though I could not remember having seen a description of water levels of the Yellowstone in any portion of the journals I had read, it is almost certain the river was at or beyond flood stage during Captain Clarks transit in 1806. This is to say that the river must have been extremely dangerous even without consideration of other dangers faced by the expedition.

In 2005, before firming up my plans to run the river, I had ruptured a disc in my back, eliminating any physical activity for me for several weeks. As a result my wife began to oppose my plans to make the trip solo. Fortunately a friend of longstanding phoned me in March of 2006 and asked if I needed a canoeing partner. This took care of my wifes concerns and allowed me to enjoy the trip without creating any unnecessary worry on her behalf.

My canoeing companion would be Harry Campbell with whom I went on a self guided Canadian moose hunt in 1972. It involved two weeks of canoeing and hunting from Ontarios Missinaibi River south of route #11. It was Harrys first major canoeing expedition and there were only the two of us on the journey. We got along well and had a successful trip despite not bagging a moose and have since enjoyed several more trips together. For Harry, however, our 2006 trip would harbor some special dangers. This, due to the fact he has had a quadruple by-pass operation, is on medication, and the shock of getting dumped into cold turbulent waters carried extraordinary risks for him.

After talking with Harry in March, I started making plans for a vehicle shuttle. I made a call to another old friend who lives in the Billings area to see if he could drive us to the starting point on the river and then keep my truck in his driveway until the end of our canoe trip back to the Billings area. My friend, Lorin Finnicum, is a retired employee of Montana Power and is a man with whom I had worked over a period of nearly 15 years. We had fished and boated together several times and he was only too happy to participate in our plans.

Arrangements finally came together and Lorin asked me to drive out Friday, May 5th, and stay overnight at their home so we could catch up on old times. He and his wife, Naomi, and I went out to dinner and enjoyed a pleasant evening of conversation before the two of us picked Harry up at the Billings airport around eleven A.M next morning.

After leaving the airport we drove directly to Livingston where Harry and I bought our fishing licenses at Dan Baileys then all ate lunch in a small restaurant at the rear of a candy shop near the interstate. Harry was very hungry in light of the fact it was nearly 2:00 P.M. and with the airlines pretty much out of the food business he hadnt eaten since leaving home over eight hours previously.

A continuation of our drive to a point on the river about forty miles south of Livingston brought us to our launch site (Point of Rocks) where we unloaded a truck full of gear into a mere 18 foot Grumman canoe. Even after more than forty years of canoeing, I am constantly amazed by the carrying capacity of an 18 canoe. Lorin watched in apparent amazement as we were loading and waited to see us off. I am sure, seeing our load and knowing the Yellowstone, that he was also a bit apprehensive for our welfare. He made certain we had his home number just in case anything went wrong.

As the canoe swung gracefully into the swift current we all waved a final farewell and I could feel the comforting acceleration as the canoe surged downstream. The first few miles went by quickly with no thought of fishing even though we were on the blue ribbon section of the river. We were almost immediately surrounded by wildlife; geese, ducks, and great quantities of hatching caddis flies. There was even an eagle that allowed us to drift right under his perch in a tree without flying off.

We passed some anglers in drift boats and finally stopped at a couple of different spots to do a little fishing without success. In fact the only signs of fish we saw occurred where trout were rising in slow water right tight to the banks at several points. Feeding activity was only sporadic and really was not enticing us to present our feathered imitations at the compromise of miles this early in our journey so even when we did stop to fish we did so in a casual fashion.

As evening approached we started looking for a suitable campsite. There are frequent public camping facilities along this stretch of the river, but Harry and I wanted to enjoy the privacy of a wilderness camp. We are fortunate that Montana allows public use of land areas below the high water mark for this purpose and found a lovely peaceful camping spot on an island just downstream of the Mallards Rest public camping area.

A note of caution should be inserted at this point: Should anyone consider duplicating our trip they should plan on taking all garbage all the way to the end of the trip as there are no garbage receptacles available. Harry and I have always practiced zero impact leave no trace camping, so this was not an unexpected burden for us.

No effort was made to break camp early on Sunday as Saturday had been a very long day, especially for Harry. (One can well imagine catching an early morning flight, traveling by car, plane, truck and then about 20 miles by canoe then having to set up camp and cook dinner before finding your sleeping bag around 10:00 P.M..) We were awakened by the sounds of Canada geese trying to claim our island as their sanctuary, but it was nearly 11:00 before we finally yielded the island to them and were on our way.

Again, we saw little sign of trout feeding activity so did little fishing before arriving in Livingston. I thought Harry was joking when he suggested we eat a quick McDonalds lunch and almost continued down the river before he asked, Just where the heck are you going to land this canoe?. We quickly directed the canoe into a powerful eddy behind a lumber yard close to the I-90 off ramp.

Harry stayed with our gear while I walked to Micky Dees to pick up our lunch. Upon my return Harry had caught a nice rainbow about 13 or 14 long. He had not removed the hook, but kept the fish tethered and resting in the river on the fly. After a quick picture the fish was successfully released little worse for the wear.

We were soon on our way and in a few minutes passed beneath the I-90 bridge. In the book FLOATING AND RECREATION ON MONTANA RIVERS by Curt Thompson, we were warned of high winds in the Livingston area and about possible debris hazards at the 9th street bridge. We found the wind as predicted, but no danger appeared beneath the bridge as there was no accumulation of debris on the pillars when we passed beneath the structure. We were also warned of a short class 2 rapid not far downstream of this structure. I would mention that our trip to this point involved fast water, heavily conflicting cross currents, and numerous minor rapids with waves which were insufficient to intrude into our loaded canoe unless we had made a mistake.

There was no avoiding the class 2 hazard here, however, unless we lined or portaged. At this point Harry heard the first of what was to prove many repetitions of the phrase, I think we will be all right. The rapid ahead stretched entirely across the river where the water apparently dropped over a ledge. The result was two or three large standing waves which subsequently managed to nearly swamp our heavily laden canoe. We struggled to shore however without sinking and bailed our craft dry before proceeding once more, expecting we had now according to our information passed the worst the river had to offer. Wrong!

I dont know at what level Mr. Thompson had run the river, but we had probably gone less than a mile when we passed a longer rapid than the first with some very impressive waves. While we were able to avoid the largest of the waves in the rapid we still took on perhaps 3 of water and were again almost out of stability. This obviously made it necessary once more to get to shore for bailing. At this point we started looking for a suitable campsite for the night.

Shortly we found a good camping area at the south end of an island. The day had been spent in the company of a few eagles, ospreys and many waterfowl and bird species including, fish eating pelicans, cormorants, and mergansers. Now we were to be urged by the resident beaver to leave his home area. We dubbed this campsite Beaver House as a result of the constant tail slapping.

The winds had proven troublesome during the latter part of the day. Even though it blew favorably from behind us, it was strong enough to complicate control of our craft. Now even though we selected a relatively sheltered site, it buffeted our tent and the canoe we had overturned as shelter for our gear. Because we did not wish to lose either tent or canoe, both were staked down securely. Even so, one of the stakes securing our tent fly pulled partially free and the rope loosened. The flapping canvass awaked me in the middle of the night. An unscheduled walk in the darkness was required to take care of the fly and make certain the canoe was still secure.

Next morning there were a few snow flakes in the air and the wind continued blowing unabated. We again got a relatively late start, but there was after all no urgency as we had a total of seven days to travel approximately 175 miles of river. We had at this point already covered about 53 miles and had a strong current and tail wind to help us along. We therefore decided to paddle just a few miles and search for another good campsite.

After about another ten miles just east of Springdale, we found a lovely campsite on another island which we felt would provide adequate shelter from the wind. We subsequently dubbed this High Wind Camp. Ultimately we had to double stake the tent and put up our extra nylon fly to provide protection from the wind while we cooked our dinner. As I had brought along several from our home freezer, it was to be Steaks tonight. We had already eaten the hamburger I had brought along as it was more prone to spoilage than heavier cuts of meat. We now also cooked up some stew meat to avert any problems with that. It would be added to our dehydrated beef stroganoff next day.

By way of general information, we brought dehydrated food for most of our meals. This was supplemented with various fresh meats and eggs during the first portion of the trip to help alleviate the boredom we would have experienced had we relied entirely upon the dehydrated products. Even though the present dehydrated foods are much better than they were ten or twenty years ago, they can prove tiresome on a long trip. My wife Karyl had also baked up two varieties of cookies and some Chinese Chews; something she had also done for us when Harry and I went on our moose hunt in 1972.

While we prepared dinner we saw a canoe and kayak approaching down the river. It was the first humanity we had actually seen using the river since we had passed the drift boats during our first afternoon on the water. We stood and watched the craft go by us. To our amazement the canoe had two kayaks tied across the gunwales and a third passenger amidships. We had a difficult time imagining the circumstances which would have precipitated this unusual paddling arrangement.

The island had considerable devastation wrought by the beavers. We had also seen much of this upstream and were to find the damage prevalent along the entire river all the way to Billings. In many cases the cottonwoods looked like they had been struck by a hurricane with more trees lying on the ground than standing. I am sure the Clark portion of the expedition saw much the same phenomenon when they traversed the area 200 years ago. Indeed most of the river would probably have been familiar to them because there has been relatively little human encroachment on the river banks. In traveling on the river one does see homes and ranches, but most structures are well away from the Yellowstones shores. There is, therefore, a remarkable wilderness character to the river considering 200 years have elapsed since the Corps of Discovery passed this way.

Next day we again decided to travel less and fish more. We stopped several miles west of the 191 bridge at Big Timber at a point where we had a relatively large section of water available to fish. I should explain that because of the strong currents at the existing water level, much of the river was virtually un-fishable using normal fly fishing gear. We camped where the river was slowed by two islands which left a sheltered area below where we could cast and wade.

We fished hard for three or four hours with little success. We tried spoons, spinners, and various flies which the fish had no trouble ignoring. Harry had a couple of strikes while I had only two hits and briefly had a large rainbow on the line. I estimated the fish to be at least 20 long, perhaps more. There would be no fresh trout for dinner this night however. We did enjoy watching a couple of marmots cavorting near the top of the steep north bank. One chased the other up the bole of a leaning tree and at first we thought it was a fight for territory. Later we saw them both together standing on their hind feet almost touching each other. In the evening we were entertained by another beaver contesting our presence in his territory.

Next day we knew we would have to cover more miles if we were to avoid an endurance race near the end of our trip. We still had to travel about 100 miles in four days of paddling to reach our destination on Saturday. We had less wind to help us now, but the river continued at good velocity with no pools. In fact we were almost constantly in sight of whitecaps the entire trip. While in almost all circumstances the river provided us relatively safe alternatives to running dangerous water, the choices were not necessarily obvious. There were many cases where a wrong decision could have spelled disaster and where action had to be taken at a considerable distance from the hazard. This is a very large stream with many islands. Flows are powerful and some of the swirling currents produce hazardous conditions even in the absence of big waves.

We also frequently found ourselves being tossed about by large rolling waves that proved much larger once we were in them than they had appeared from upstream. Fortunately, the spacing of many of these corresponded closely to the length of our canoe. These created an exhilarating ride without filling our canoe with water. The currents adjacent to the heavier portions of the rapids could also be very treacherous not only at the seams, but as the result of large waves being formed at 90 degrees to those in the main portion of the rapid.

On this Wednesday we got started by 9:30 A.M. and traveled down river past Big Timber, where we stopped briefly to fish at the confluence of the Boulder River where we caught and released two small rainbows. We later stopped briefly near a large rapid where I caught and kept a rainbow of about 14. We then proceeded past Gray Cliff, continuing below about another ten miles. While looking for a suitable campsite we stopped at the downstream end of an island which proved to be a cormorant and great blue heron rookery. These usually shy birds watched us from the tree tops and were not about to abandon their nests as a result of our presence. It appeared from the matted grass at our feet that others had visited this site before us so the birds were probably habituated to humans at this location..

We moved on down stream and beyond the Braaten Public Access, before finding a suitable campsite on an island which was covered with mature cottonwoods. We dubbed this Cottonwood Camp. After dinner we cooked and ate the only trout we would keep during the trip. A deer trail ran right through where we had set up the tent and in the morning four deer nearly wandered into camp before they discovered our presence. This was another pristine campsite and like the rest, was left with only matted grass as evidence of our visit. We do not even leave a fire ring as it might encourage continued use of the site by others who follow.

On Thursday we were on the river by ten A.M. and found the wind had changed to the east, but had moderated to a mild breeze. We paddled into the wind past Reedpoint, the I-90 bridge continuing to Columbus. Here we crossed a powerful current seam and pulled into an eddy right behind Montana Silversmiths a maker of fine silver buckles and jewelry. The supply of pure water we had brought with us was almost exhausted and we had no wish to drink treated water as long as a potable supply was available.

Harry went to the local grocery where he picked up two gallons of water plus some fresh lunch supplies. When we re-launched we came as close to capsizing as at any point on our journey. When we crossed from the eddy into the powerful main current we misjudged how quickly the bow would swing and how much of a downstream brace would be required. It nearly jerked the canoe out from under Harry and every effort possible was required on my part to keep the upstream gunwale from being pulled under water.

Immediately below our entry into the current there was a vicious rapid. In my opinion it is highly doubtful it could have been run by open canoe even without a load and with the paddlers crunched to the center of the canoe. After recovering from our near upset, considerable effort was required to cross the powerful current before being forced into the large haystacks below. We looked the waves over as we passed close on their right and both agreed we had been lucky indeed. Again we wondered what water level Mr. Thompson had enjoyed when he described the river as a class #1.

We stopped about five miles below Columbus for lunch then continued downriver until we felt we were half way between Columbus and Park City where we found another island camp site which we dubbed Cliff Camp. This island had been particularly hard hit by beavers. We set up across the river from a steep cliff where the river eddied to create a lovely fishing spot. We fished as usual, and as usual, did not do well, catching only one trout which was immediately released. We were also entertained at this site by another beaver protesting our presence.

The highlight of the following day was a near disaster resulting from my misreading the river. While entering a heavy rapid it appeared to me there was a narrow gate between two large boulders. In fact it proved to be a single boulder with insufficient water depth in the center to permit the canoe to pass. Harry spotted the danger an instant before I did and gave a strong draw stroke left in time for the bow to nearly clear, but the canoe rammed the boulder. I had to jam my paddle under the stern and heave with all my strength to bring the stern far enough left to permit the canoe to pivot downstream of the boulder safely. It was our last close call of the trip.

We camped on another island Friday just east of where the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone entered the main river. We had only about 16 miles remaining in our journey down the Yellowstone. As it turned out we set our tent close to a deer bedding area with a deer trail passing close to the tent site. The grass in this location was quite high and our tent was visited by three ticks (that we found). Lorin had warned us to stay out of the brush because of the tick hazard at this time of year.

Next morning we watched an Osprey fishing in an eddy below camp then a bald eagle flew by on its way upstream. The osprey immediately gave chase. This made eagle sightings 100% for each day of our journey down river. As we were breaking camp, two men in a plastic canoe came down past our campsite. They looked none too skilled and I expressed the hope they were not planning on traveling far. As it turned out the river held as many difficulties during our last day as it had given us every day of the trip. Even during the last mile we encountered heavy rapids and tricky currents.

We had been in constant contact with the regions wildlife all the way down the river. We had seen: mule and white tail deer, antelope, beavers, mink, and marmots in addition to all the various waterfowl. Other than those already mentioned, we also saw Sandhill cranes, a trumpeter swan, a feral white goose as part of a Canada goose flock, avocets, grebes, and curlews; plus scores of smaller bird species. The only other people we saw were an occasional fisherman or two plying the river from the shore; plus those previously mentioned who were floating the river, so it can be seen we enjoyed considerable solitude during our trip.

About 1:30 P.M. we finally pulled in at the public access below the route 87 bridge; our longest canoe trip and a great river trip behind us. While we landed a grandfather, son and three year old grandson were exercising a pair of Labrador retrievers. As I prepared to change my shoes for the five mile walk to Lorin Finnicums house to retrieve my truck, these gentlemen volunteered to give me a ride. With gas at nearly $3.00 a gallon I asked if I could pay them but they refused to accept any compensation. Despite our need for solitude on a journey such as this, meeting nice people is always a pleasure and a fitting end for a wonderful trip.

Trip Details

  • Trip Duration: Extended Trip
  • Sport/Activity: Canoeing
  • Skill Level: Intermediate
  • Water Type: River/Creek (Up to Class II)

Trip Location