Floating the Yellowstone:
Drifting Within the Land

John Holt

Running a fast line of current that slices along the north edge of this midstream island, the canoe slides easily over a two-foot standing wave formed by the river's channels merging in a raucous V at the gravelly downstream end of the land. Willow, cottonwood, aspen, alder and pine shoot by in a multi-shaded blur of warm green, white, buckskin and burgundy. The cedar strip craft rides up on the crest, gains its bearings from this mild increase in elevation, then shoots down onto smoother water with the aid of only a few directional strokes on my part. The sounds of rushing water fade behind us as my cruise down stream.
The canoe, called a White Guide by its maker Newfound Woodworks of New Hampshire, seems completely at ease, happy, in her new western surroundings -- the Adirondack waters of her youth turning swiftly into memories.

The Yellowstone is clear, cool aquamarine along this stretch a few miles below the ranching community of Big Timber. The river drifts west in a series of serpentine loops and bends punctuated with deep runs that are separated by wide, shallow riffles where the liquid sparkles and splashes over the streambed of salmon, bronze and ochre rock and stone. On outside bends, standing waves of a couple of feet roar and splash in a chaotic white froth. Long lines of foamy bubbles stretch out like phantom fingers beneath this faster water as it slows down entering the upper ends of the deeper, darker sections.
The July wind billows and gusts warmly from the southwest as it pours down off the high, ancient volcanic plateau that is Yellowstone National Park seventy miles away. Puffy cumulous clouds race off towards Billings. Large cottonwood shimmer in the day's glow, the millions of leaves whispering and laughing in the swirling air. A band of antelope works a nearby grass and sage bench -- black masks, dusty tans and browns of sides and backs, white rumps clearly visible. A golden eagle holds on a rotting fence post that drips rusting strands of barbed wire. The bird is motionless, stately. The Crazy Mountains rise fiercely above the northwest horizon, all but the highest peaks now barren, without snow.
I turn and check out the weather behind me.
Not so good. Slight understatement surfacing on the high plains.
A dense wall of deep purple, nearing black, clouds is rolling in. The entire system is anvil shaped with the mixture shooting billowing clouds tens of thousands of feet above the land. They appear illuminated from within as the sun's rays are refracted and reflected by the moisture creating the illusion of internal fires raging out of control as the layers of cloud constantly shift and turn in the wild updraft that varies the light's color and intensity. The cell expands rapidly and looms above everything, dwarfing even the Crazies. The dark mass appears to be walking towards the river on legs of lightning. There are perhaps fifteen, twenty minutes to find shelter or risk being knocked senseless by what will no doubt be enormous hailstones. After this indignity my unconscious body likely will be fricasseed by a relentless series of white-hot lightning bolts that ignite the canoe. Life is indeed good right now. The possibilities seem cheerful and limitless.
Perhaps a mile ahead a series of low hills with gentle notches in them created by centuries of erosion appears like a beacon to a desperate sailor. Ideal protection all things considered, including the lack of options way out here in the open landscape.
The wind is increasing steadily and growing cool. The air smells of rain with a delightful hint of ozone. One last look behind reveals that the entire storm is rotating very slowly in a counterclockwise direction. Forget the hail and the lightning. A tornado is going to do the job with a flurry of insanely punishing, wind-driven jagged sheets of demolished feed silos, doublewides, abandoned Buicks, and airborne derelict writers swept from the streets of Livingston by the maelstrom.
I close in on the perceived sanctuary as the thunderstorm-slash-tornado zooms in on the canoe. Lightning strikes nearby, the light flickering across the sage hills up ahead. Thunder booms with a clarity that indicates that my demise is at hand. Hard driven raindrops mixed with pea-sized bits of hail bang against my back and splatter and bounce in the canoe sounding like small marbles that have fallen mysteriously from the heavens. The bank passes by like a fast-forward, out-of-focus movie. I catch glimpses of lone cottonwoods, a Russian Olive with its branches of silver-green leaves bending in the gale as though in prayer, a herd of black Angus cattle munching bunch grass while clearly oblivious to their potential barbecue fate, a bunch of antelope running over a far hill.
The sound is deafening. Everything goes silent. Numb. Then a ringing in my ears, my head.
A bolt of electricity hotter than the sun's surface nails an elderly tree on the other side of the river. The top of the cottonwood disintegrates in a mad mixture of shattered, smoldering wood and leaves. The mayhem is right behind now -- lightning, thunder, hail, chaotic wind -- all of it beating down, around and through the land, me. At the first miniature valley, I turn the canoe abruptly and continue to push with violent strokes. It pounds up on the shore of mud, snake grass and sand. I leap out and pull it all the way up onto dry land, then flee for the shelter offered by the small depression that is rounded enough not to be a lightning magnet. I'm drenched, getting pelting with ever larger hail, and wired on an adrenalin rush spawned by stark, raving terror.
Not all that far above the storm is completely out of control, having its way with the landscape. Lightning sizzles in psychotic lines across the base of the tumult or arcs down into the ground, tops of trees, mountain peaks, all over the place. The pungent smell of ozone is now thick, choking. The detonations of thunder make any fireworks display I've ever witnessed seem pale, without force. The concussions compress and rock the air pushing in on my eardrums. Dark masses of cloud roll, spin and explode in enormous flowers of bubbling condensation, resembling mammatus.
I'm on the lee side of the valley and pretty much sheltered from the rain though the wind whips and back tracks, swatting us with cold drops of rain and rogue hailstones. The storm is moving off just as the mammatus were trying to tell me moments ago. The sky is growing lighter; an eerie yellow-green radiance works its way across the native grasses and clumps of sage that sparkle with the rain dripping from them. Even the reds, pinks and yellows of the surrounding bluffs are shaded by the green luminescence. The temperature has fallen into the upper sixties. I'm wet, chilled. These bursts of heavy weather are nearly clock-like in their predictability in the heat of summer that draws moisture rapidly and far up into the chilled atmosphere triggering the thunderstorms. Around two or three in the afternoon the cells burst forth and pound across the prairie.
The rain is almost over. Time to float onward.
Back on the river I push along, the storm is now long gone over the eastern horizon, disappearing in a diminishing cacophony of lightning-fueled thunder. A double rainbow with soft hints of an inner third one arcs across the sky from north to south. At its apex the colors are bright and clearly separated. It grows in luminosity showing no sign of dissipating.
Immediately below Sweet Grass Creek bubbling in from the north and Lower Doe Creek merging from the opposite direction, I begin to pass through the Greycliffs, a stretch of more than a mile of exposed, eroding Livingston formation that rises above the river for a couple of hundred feet. The wind has died and the sun is still high in the sky. The air becomes trapped, shiftless between the cliffs turning hot and close. Small stones and rivulets of dirt slide into the water, clattering down the rock face. The sound echoes within the confines of the cliffs.
Up ahead is what looks like an ideal spot to pitch camp. The current is moving at a good clip, but right before I need to beach a large eddy swirls ideally like a benign foaming galaxy offering shelter for the slightly weary. I drift below the landing spot, swing smartly around and ride the reverse current in natural parking valet style right up to the camp for this night or maybe the next two or three evenings. Who knows? I'm in no hurry to be anywhere. I ease the canoe to the sand, step out into the warm water along shore and unload the gear -- food, clothes, cook kit, cooler, camera and fishing bags before hauling the craft well up from the river and secure it to a cottonwood with a length of rope before turning the craft over bottom side up. Setting up the tent takes only a few minutes. I arrange it so that the main view is across the river to a barely visible Bridger Creek that cascades down a sedate fall of copper-colored rocks and farther over and well above the island stand the Beartooths. The highest peaks still have a covering of last year's snow. By the time I'm finished laying out the sleeping bag, gathering a modest pile of driftwood, and starting a fire that is crackling and shooting sparks, the sun has moved down towards the Crazy Mountains, now reduced to a low purple-blue rise in the west.
It's about 6 p.m. I lean back against a log and enjoy the view -- the gradual play of light and color across the land, the sound of murmuring water, the screech of a panicked Kildeer, Sandhills clacking out of sight across the river, breeze slipping through the leaves, rich smell of clean, fertile water, the booming of nighthawks already feeding on insects and the pleasure that a modest fire always gives to any camp.
The sky is clear.
The air is soft and warm enough.
Trout are rising along an easy glide not far from shore, the fish sipping in small mayflies, the circular rise forms vanishing downstream.
Two red-tailed hawks work a ridge not too far away.