Big water boaters in southern Montana and northern Wyoming were either licking their chops or hiding their boating gear in fear on June 13 when rivers such as the Yellowstone, Gallatin, Rock Creek, Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone and more experienced record flooding the week of June 13, forcing the closing of Yellowstone National Park and evacuation orders in effected communities. While the floods garnered the attention of media across the country, they also grabbed the attention of kayakers who frequent many of the runs at normal levels. With several day-trip Class V sections in its upper reaches and its heralded Class V-VI multi-day Box Canyon run below, the Clarks Fork would have been as hideous as explosive as rivers get anywhere.
Near the park’s north entrance in Gardiner, the Yellowstone River crested at just over 49,000 cfs at Corwin Springs in the upper Paradise Valley on Monday, shattering its previous records of 32,200 set in June 1996 and matched a year later. In the park, the Lamar peaked at 16.7 feet Monday, breaking its 1996 record by more than four feet and rising two feet.
Those who have kayaked the coveted (and illegal) Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone can only offer statements of awe at what the flooding spectacle might have looked and felt like within the canyon walls.
“The flooding was insane and very sad—record flows smashed by a huge amount,” says Aaron Pruzan of Jackson, Wyo.’s Rendezvous River Sports, who has paddled the Clarks Form numerous times. “There was close to 24,000 cfs coming down the Box on the Clarks Fork and 50,000 on the main Yellowstone. Those are huge volumes. We’re definitely expecting changes to the whitewater on both rivers, particularly the Clarks Fork. We will see when we go in next month.”
Adds kayaker Pete Foster, who notched the Class V run a few times in his glory days: “The Clarks Fork would have been absolutely terrifying at that level; I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near it.”
In Red Lodge, Mont., Rock Creek, normally a 10-mile-long Class II-IV kayaking section (as rated by American Whitewater) also jumped its banks in a raging torrent, dumping cobble and driftwood in the street, washing away homes, destroying bridges, forcing mandatory evacuation orders and more.
But the media focused most of its attention on Yellowstone National Park and its gateway towns, which were cut off without power and drinkable water Tuesday, forcing the closure of the national park just to the south and Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte to declare a statewide disaster. The Montana National Guard said it had evacuated 12 people stranded in the towns of Roscoe and Cooke City—where the Clarks Fork was flooding— and was assisting with search and rescue in the area of East Rosebud Lake. Thankfully, there were no immediate reports of injuries.
For more coverage, visit the Billings Gazette
A Kayaker’s Perspective: Doug Ammons
“Yellowstone has some special circumstances that led to the flooding this year – it’s a 50×50-mile plateau that’s 3,000-4,000 feet higher than surrounding land, it had a good snowpack, kept most of the snow later than usual because we had a cold spring that added more than usual snow, then had a hot spike together with a lot of warm rain,” says longtime northern Rockies kayaker and pioneer Doug Ammons. “That makes for a 50-100 year flood.”
“The entire Yellowstone Plateau fed the floods, a lot of it going out to North entrance and down the Gardner river and out of the central watershed of the Yellowstone,” he adds. “The Tom Minor steel girder bridge tumble away downstream in the maelstrom, houses were quickly undercut and swept into the river, floating away before lodging and ground up in some mega log jam. You can’t help but be mesmerized by the writhing power and speed of the river.”
Of particular interest to local paddlers was the flood on the Gardiner, located inside the park boundaries and thus illegal to paddle anytime. But helicopter shots showed an overview of the flooding river and its steep and narrow canyon. “Every paddler who’s driven along that has looked closely at the rapids,” says Ammons. “At reasonable flows the problem is that it’s illegal and you’d get nabbed by a ranger swat team. Usually there’s not that much water in it and it looks bony, but the chopper video showed a gigantic exploding liquid saw ripping the road off the side of the canyon. Every single one of those big boulders was a shuddering fire hose spray, ragged erupting rapids blasting from side to side. It’d be great to be able to scout that, even if just to bear witness to the power. I’m sure part of it is runnable, but impossible shit starts looking better when you’re 500 feet above it. It doesn’t look quite so big if you get up high enough, but then you get back to earth and realize, no, no, this is insane. Especially that gigantic hole that was formed by the concrete bridge about halfway down.”
Ammons pines equally to be able to see the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone at such a flood. “I would love to see the 300-foot lower Falls and the 1,500-foot-deep main canyon below the falls—they’re all constricted areas that must’ve had 20-30 foot higher water than usual spring flows, funneling into insane features. And the 40-50 foot waterfalls below the lower Falls must’ve been just gigantic cataracts, or maybe gigantic 30 or 40 foot deep holes.”
“As for the east side of the park and the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone, he adds that would have been equally catastrophic. “Even in the normal course of a good snowpack year flow levels get up to 10,000 or more and it’s almost like a glacial lake outflow event—an exploding cascade of solid white and ridiculous holes, river wide rooms of doom. Nobody thinks seriously about jumping on because it’s unknown, a quantum level beyond anything anyone’s ever done. Not the least of that is it running over that ugly 40-50 foot waterfall then disappearing into the earth, before it comes out again. But portaging this would just be one of many problems and the Pandora’s Box putting on above the main canyon.
“I’m not saying it or parts of it can’t be run someday, but it would require some big changes in attitude, skill, gear, and knowledge,” he adds. “But I’ve looked down into the Clarks Fork at super high flow, in a few places. You can’t really see how bad it is because of the light and looking from straight above with no perspective. It’s not inviting.”
“In such a flood, I’d expect the levels to be 20 feet higher at least. Standard portages all have high gradients and jumbles of giant boulders and flakes. These aren’t going to become roller coaster wave trains. Classic technical rapids like Deliberation Corner would probably have two riverwide rooms of doom with huge compressional geysers in the sides. I guess the fortunate thing would be all those sieves would be buried under 20-30 feet of water. It’d be a kayaker’s nightmare.”
“I was asked in the early ’90s by a production company to create what they called “my extreme dream”, so I sent them a proposal about doing the Clarks Fork at high flow. I was thinking 4,000, 5,000, maybe 6,000, not floodstage. We had it all worked out but they dropped the program and who knows? I probably lived an extra 30 years because of that.”