To the Wild End by Canoe

canoeing, Yellowstone, boating, lake

To the Wild End by Canoe

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Phil Knight

Paddling Yellowstone Lake.

Looking for a big-time paddling adventure close to home? Want a flat-water canoe or kayak trip that will test your skills and your endurance? Try Yellowstone Lake, the largest lake above 7,000 feet on the continent, home to grizzly bears, cutthroat trout, breeding white pelicans, river otters, and water rats of the two-legged kind. This lake makes an ideal destination for well-equipped, experienced big-water boaters. Suitable for canoes or sea kayaks, Yellowstone Lake offers over 100 miles of shoreline, fantastic camping and fishing, and an incredible array of wildlife.

This is a very strange and fascinating place. Under its 400-foot-deep waters are geothermal vents, "smoking" columns similar to those found on the mid-Atlantic Ridge, and much of the biggest volcanic explosion crater in North America.

However, this lake is not for neophyte boaters—it's so big and cold it makes its own weather, especially high winds, which can whip up waves five feet high. Tip your boat any distance from shore and you’re history, as the water is so cold (about 45 degrees) that hypothermia will set in quickly. If you stick close to shore, however, and get off the water when wind and storms hit, Yellowstone Lake is relatively safe, and the adventure is well worth the risk. Given their distance from shore, most of the lake’s islands are inaccessible to canoes and kayaks. Yellowstone Lake is open to powerboats, but for a true wilderness trip I recommend self-powered craft (plus power boats are banned from the southern end of the lake).

In late summer my wife and I set out to canoe the roadless southern shore of the lake. We arranged for the concessionaire at Bridge Bay marina to pick us up via boat the following weekend so we would not have to canoe all the way back. (See sidebar for details.)

We launched at West Thumb, planning to canoe through Flat Mountain Arm, the South Arm, and the Southeast Arm. We'd reserved all our campsites, for six nights, with the Park Service. Leaving Bozeman in the wee hours, by late morning we were paddling away from Grant Village, the boat loaded with a week’s worth of gear in drybags and our food stuffed in a cooler. It was fantastic to be out on the water, which was so clear we could see 30 feet down. We could also see smoke columns rising to the north, where forest fires were starting.

West Thumb—a huge bay that’s an old