Yellowstone River Canoe Trip

Words by Alan Kesselheim
first appeared in Canoe & Kayak December, 2007

When Sawyer was born, late one March night in our bedroom, he was not ready. His face was red, his fists clenched. His body language screamed “NOT YET!” For the first three days of life, he wouldn’t open his eyes.

He wasn’t an easy infant, either. He needed a lot of soothing, a lot of walking and comforting. He was one of those babies that required a two-person team to change a diaper. He seemed to have an unaccountable level of frustration pent up. He’d periodically fall prey to alarming bouts of inconsolability—like he was in the grasp of some sort of anguish and had no way to cope.
By the same token, he has possessed, from birth, an uncommon awareness of the larger world. Even as a baby, people would look at him and say, “That kid looks wise.” Every year, his teachers comment on his perceptiveness. Who knows, perhaps overcoming whatever angst possessed him as a toddler has helped shape the sensitive, humorous, likeable kid he’s become.

Here, on this August day, he is 13, with the lean build and stamina of a cross-country runner. He is leading the family up the trail to Marston Pass, deep in the Washakie Wilderness of northern Wyoming. It is mid-morning on day three of our hike. For the second summer running, we are returning to one of the kid’s “birth rivers,” the flows we paddled when we were pregnant with them. Last year it was Eli’s turn, on the Kazan in the barrenland heart of northern Canada. This summer it is Sawyer. The river is the Yellowstone.

We have already toiled up more than 20 miles of trail on the way to the alpine headwaters of Sawyer’s river. The trail switchbacks uphill, leaving trees behind. I’m bringing up the rear. Marypat, the three kids, and the dog, Beans, string out ahead. Alpine valleys, green as velvet, glimmer far below.
At the crest of trail, where the weathered sign confirms the pass elevation of 10,300 feet, the Absaroka Mountains surround us. The Tetons float in the distance. Verdant tundra rolls in every direction. The headwaters of the Yellowstone River are close by—over a ridge and around a corner, somewhere in the airy, bear-thick wilderness near 11,000 feet.

This hike is a pilgrimage. River headwaters are like that—inaccessible by definition, indistinct, elusive, mysterious. There is something primordial about the source of a drainage, and it exerts an irresistible magnetism. I think of all the expeditions mounted to locate headwaters—the Amazon, the Nile, the Congo, the Mississippi, the Yukon—the fortunes squandered, the people who died trying, the national pride at stake. Our quest is not on the same scale, but it is no less momentous in the fabric of our family history.

During the summer of 1992, Marypat and I paddled the entire Yellowstone with Sawyer’s older brother, Eli, in the bow. Eli was eight months old, just thinking about walking, doing some serious teething, and going through diapers at an impressive clip. Sawyer was along for the ride too, as a fetal bud. He was feeling that jostling current under our red canoe, getting vicarious doses of adrenaline and whatever else pulsed his way through Marypat.

Our hike is Part II of his coming-of-age quest, an added feature to the repeat descent of the Yellowstone, which was Part I, played out a month earlier. All of it addresses Sawyer’s passage to adulthood, the transition our culture is so lame about.

Sawyer barely crests 100 pounds, but he’s comfortable in class 3 water and already has a trip resume many adults will never achieve.

The Yellowstone is coy to the end. It isn’t until we round a final slope that the snowfield nestled above the thin, clear trickle comes into view. Ruby beelines to the river’s edge. The rest of us follow. It is narrow enough to step across.

We spontaneously drop to our bellies, side by side, and sink our faces into the icy, newborn river. We all drink deep. The liquid burns going down, sits cold in our bellies, seeps across our cell walls, becomes us.

Our hands are still callused from paddling. Our faces and arms are tanned from weeks under the sun, crossing Montana in 25-mile daily chunks. In all likelihood, we still have grains of river sand in our clothes and shoes, even in the roots of our hair. The river we drink from, 10 paces from the melting snow that creates it, is embedded in our memories, stamped on our synapses, rooted deep in our imaginations. Like the water we drink, it has become us.

In late June, when we put onto the Yellowstone at the border of Yellowstone National Park, just upstream from the bridge in Gardiner, Montana, the mountains were still cloaked under deep snows. The river was running high, thick with sediment, roaring along, pure and untamed.

We launched with a send-off delegation in a bevy of inflatable craft—a couple of rafts, several inflatable canoes, some kayaks. The first day on the Yellowstone is the best whitewater on the entire river, starting with the Gardiner Town Stretch, full of wave trains and loud holes, and ending with Yankee Jim Canyon, with three emphatic rapids, each with boat-eating potential.

There is no warm-up. As soon as you put paddle to water the rodeo starts. Sawyer straps into a solo inflatable kayak, snaps on a helmet, and pushes off, aiming for a mid-river set of four-foot waves. He has grown up on rivers—the Salmon, the Snake, the Gallatin, the Green, the Rio Grande, the Yukon, the Churchill. He barely crests 100 pounds, but he’s comfortable in Class III water and already has a trip resume many adults will never achieve. He’s the kid his siblings coax to try things first. “Sawyer, you go,” they’ll say. And he will, which accounts for his history of teeth knocked out, stitches, and puncture wounds.

I watch him pop over the first waves, a red dot in a sea of silty froth, then I scramble into an inflatable canoe and chase after him.
The day goes like that. People swim. There are a good many whoops and yells. We stop for a picnic lunch where Ruby finds an arrowhead. Yankee Jim Canyon punctuates the afternoon. At the end, all the kids jump into a deep hole off of a bridge.

There we reorganize, switching to two open canoes, one folding and one hard-shell, along with a solo inflatable kayak. We load up expedition style with three-weeks of food, 5-gallon jugs of drinking water, spray decks, the gear that will sustain and shelter and feed us all the way to North Dakota. We hug our friends and drift off to our first gravel bar camp as the sunlight goes orange. It feels suddenly subdued, quiet and auspicious, straddling the threshold of the trip.

At the end of the third river day, camped on a gravel bar and feeling the new embrace of clockless rhythm, we hold Sawyer’s coming-of-age ceremony. It is a symbolic ritual. The real thing is made up of thousands of paddle strokes, bends of current, pestering headwinds, repetitive camp chores, swimming wave trains, absorbing the lessons that come day-by-day cruising downstream.

We aren’t churchgoers. More accurately, we feel the most in church on trips like this one. Drinking from the first trickle of the Yellowstone, for example, with Montana and Wyoming spilling away at our feet. Or in the grasp of roiling whitewater. Or at dawn, with mist melting into the day and a great-blue heron stalking the shallows. That’s our version of things holy.

We circle up under the late-day sun with the river rolling past. Because we have no prescribed ceremony for this, we make it up. Sawyer stands in the center. Each of us takes a compass direction. We hold symbols of the elements: earth, fire, water, air. We speak to Sawyer, pay tribute to the earth, and to the web of mystery we are all caught in. We collapse towards him, embrace his lean, strong body. The moment feels awkward and sacred, both, like the moment I first caught him, slipping from Marypat’s womb.

When we’re done, we walk back toward camp. Just then, a shadow goes over. We look up. A mature bald eagle coasts directly overhead, not ten feet up. Its head is cocked, fixing us with a yellow-eyed gaze.

We all stop, watch the big bird sail upriver. “Hmmm. That was cool,” I say. “I guess that was for you, Sawyer.”

You can make too much of a thing like that, a blessing that feels more than coincidence, but then, you could not make enough of it, too. The fact is, Sawyer has a history as a “bird whisperer.” When he was four, he once walked into the yard and picked up a pigeon that was feeding there. Again, one time on a family trip to Mexico, when Sawyer was five or six, he disappeared behind a row of market stalls and then emerged, clutching a wild turkey to his chest. The bird barely struggled.

Our paddles strike the water in tandem. The boat sings along so that it feels like flying. The bow wake purls towards the Missouri.

Day on day the Yellowstone uncoils. We ride its back to the next camp, through rapids, around diversion dams, past cottonwood bottoms. Our time has the feel of Huck Finn on a homemade raft. Civilization lurks on the fringes. We glimpse the interstate highway. Coal trains rumble past. Our boats ghost past the outskirts of towns. We never once cook on stoves, use a firepan and driftwood instead.

The moon waxes towards full. White pelicans fish along the downstream ends of gravel bars, deer bound away into the willows, a rattlesnake swims the river near Miles City. It’s a toss-up whether we swim or paddle more of the river. Every day the kids are in the current as much as in the boats.

At some point around day 16 or 17, I sense the sand trickling away in the hour-glass. The days become more precious with that awareness. We drift for long stretches, gravity takes us, lazy but insistent.

Then, abruptly, it is the last morning. I am paddling with Sawyer. He has a natural stroke with real power. It’s the kind of stroke you get when you’ve been paddling since you could walk—unconscious, unpretentious, supple and efficient. I drop into his cadence. It is a sweet spot, there. Our paddles strike the water in tandem. The boat sings along so that it feels like flying. The bow wake purls towards the Missouri.

Too soon, around a bend, there it is. We stop and coast toward this storied confluence. Sawyer stands up, strips off his shirt and shorts. That’s my son, I think, looking at him. Not my baby, not my boy. There’s my son.

Without a word he slips, naked, over the side. I stand up and follow his lead. Everyone does. All five of us bob naked in the river next to our boats. The river accepts us, as it has all the way down. We ride together into the mingling with the Missouri, a visceral participation in the river union.

A few of the water molecules caressing us, perhaps, began in a drop of melt falling from the snout of a snowfield near 11,000 feet, almost 700 miles upstream. A spot where, in a few weeks, we will all lie in a row on our bellies and drink deeply.

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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