Larry Rice (L), Cliff Jacobson (R). Northstar Phoenix canoes (IXP layup)
Some of the "smaller" waves on the Yellowstone River
Each September, friends and I do one last canoe trip before the snow flies. Our requirements for the route are simple, but at this time of year, elusive. We love rapids, so with rare exception, lake routes are out. We choose to paddle lightweight solo cruising canoes, which are a handful in rapids much above Class II. Water levels are dicey in September: enough water is needed for a clean run, but not so much that it will swamp our “little boats”. Remember, these are lightweight solo cruisers, not pure-bred whitewater canoes.
Past solo canoe routes have included the Green and San Juan Rivers (Utah), the upper Missouri (Montana), Little Missouri (North Dakota), Buffalo (Arkansas), Jacks Fork and Current (Missouri), a dash across the Everglades (yeah, it’s flat water) and the Rio Grande (Texas)—our favorite. Indeed, we love the RioG so much that we’ve done it three times and are keyed to do it again in November, 2019. Regrettably, the Texas heat and questionable water levels make the Rio Grande unsuitable in the summer.
For many years, we’ve eyed the Yellowstone River in Montana as a possible solo run. But a four lane highway and train track parallels the river nearly all the way—reason enough to avoid it. But the YS is a prized trout stream: the water is swift and its quality is excellent. Camping is allowed pretty much anywhere below the high water mark. In September, the river is usually low and high camping spots abound. And the current is fast, averaging nearly five miles per hour. Twenty-five miles a day is easily doable. The route from Livingston, MT to Billings, is well documented: exposed rocks and downed trees are rare; the primary obstacles are said to be “easily avoidable large waves”. Surprisingly, neither of the two BLM “Floater’s Guide” maps (Springdale-Park City / Park City-Pompey’s Pillar) indicate any rapids at all. Not one hash mark appears on either map, which suggested to us that there were no serious rapids at all. Government publications don’t lie, do they?
As a check, I ordered the topographic maps of the river from our put-in at the Paradise Valley KOA (located ten miles below Livingston), to our take-out at Coulson Park in Billings—150 miles total. Nope, no rapids shown on any of these maps. Alan Kesselheim, a freelance writer and highly experienced paddler, canoed the Yellowstone with his family decades ago. He reported that except for occasional big waves it was a relatively easy run.
Okay, it was a go!
Larry Rice, Dick Pula and I paddled 14.5 foot Northstar Phoenix solo canoes (IXP layup-- Northstar’s replacement for Royalex). Dan Cooke (aka Cooke Custom Sewing), piloted an old but well-kept 14-foot Bell Wildfire. Ken Metzger chose a 15 foot Royalex Dagger Reflection; Marc McCord (alias “Canoeman") relied on his venerable 16 foot SOAR (best inflatable canoe you can buy!). The Phoenix and Wildfire canoes were equipped with two piece spray covers, though frankly, we didn’t think we’d need them.
Within minutes after starting out, we encountered our first rapid—an easy Class II. Our spray covers* were attached but the cockpits were open. We all took some splash, a precursor to what would lie ahead. Seconds later, we saw big rooster tails so we closed our cockpits and traded our bent-shaft paddles for whitewater straights. We powered to the inside bend to avoid the largest waves which were about three feet tall. Though we were right where we needed to be, water poured over our boats. Our spray covers saved the day! After this, we always kept our cockpit skirts sealed tight.
This big wave scenario repeated itself over and over for the next 130 miles, with little down time between drops. A huge rapid at every bend, some with hard-to-avoid holes below. Several channels ahead; which one to choose? Power to the inside curve to avoid the biggest waves, but stay alert for rocky shallows. Run the wave train edge then dash full speed across the current to miss the next big drop. It just went on and on like this mile after mile, day after day. These rapids were the biggest and most continuous of any we had done in our solo canoes. But our boats rose brilliantly to every occasion. Time and again, one of us—all of us—would screw up and be swept into giant waves. Dick plunged squarely into a deep hole but he was able to power out. Just behind him, I avoided the worst but spit forward into a four foot curler. The bow climbed high and my paddle pushed air. Still, I felt no loss of control even as the nose-dived and water poured over the deck. Later that day I successfully ran an even bigger drop.
Amazingly, through all this, no one capsized.
Larry Rice, an accomplished writer and Class III-lV boater judged our biggest drops to be Class II+ or III- Add in the loaded boat factor and they earn an honest III. Before this trip I doubted that my Phoenix could safely run class III, especially with a nine day load aboard. But it did. And elegantly. Dan Cooke deserves special accolades; that he did so well in his smaller Wildfire is testimony to his paddling skill.
We were hoodwinked on this river. Not a single rapid was indicated on our BLM or USGS topo maps. Nor were any listed in the “Paddling Montana Rivers” guide book. Why? Perhaps because canoes are an oddity on the Yellowstone; huge waves pose no obstacle to the big drift boats (dories) that regularly ply the river. Guess I’m just used to those wonderful Canadian topos’ that show hash marks for all but the smallest drops.
So what did we think of the Yellowstone River? Well…we loved the river. The river! The almost continuous rapids were a blast and a terrific test of our canoes. But it ends there: The highway noise wasn’t a huge problem, but the train sure was. About every 15 minutes a train, with a minimum of 100 cars (I counted them!) would screech by, loudly blowing its whistle. This went on day and night, day after day, night after night. We never got a full night’s sleep. Then there were the mediocre camp spots and the many houses and factories that dotted the shoreline. There wasn’t a single campsite where we didn’t see houses, cars, trains or people. It was not a “wilderness” experience.
Are we glad we did this river? Absolutely! Would we do it again? No way! Still, the paddling experience rates two thumbs up. This river was a “rush.”
Suggested experience level: Guidebooks suggest that advanced beginners can competently canoe this river. We doubt it. Best be capable in Class II-III (in loaded boats!) unless you plan to swim. The river is very fast and rescuing capsized canoes won’t be easy.
Photos? Sorry, we were too consumed in the rapids to get good shots.
*Detailed plans for making your own spray cover are in my flagship book, CANOEING WILD RIVERS, 5th Edition. All the spray covers on this trip were made by Cooke Custom Sewing.
NOTE: If you canoe rapids, you'll want thick, closed-cell-foam, glued-in knee-pads. Best ones I've found are available from Northstar Canoe Co. Details on my web-site under NEWS.