Yellowstone Has One Problem

Yellowstone National Park is pretty great. We saw tons of amazing animals, tons of geysers (which were much more impressive than the ones in Iceland we saw two years ago, honestly), great hiking, and we even got to go swimming. There is one problem though for a guy like me. I really like whitewater kayaking. I have been boating for 9 years and have been an instructor for 3 years. I’ve paddled rivers all the way up to class V all around the country. Kayaking is such a part of my life that I brought three different kayaks with me on this RV trip. The problem with Yellowstone National Park is the Yellowstone Boating Ban.

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The Gardner River about three miles from the North Entrance to the park. Above here are miles of class II/III and below it is roadside class III+ (with a very pretty and clean IV+) all the way to the park border.
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Another view of the Gardner River farther upstream. A beautiful class II float.
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Just looking the other direction from the bridge. You can see the confluence with Lava Creek just before it goes around the bend.

Basically in the 1950’s, the park was facing an over-fishing problem, and one of the solutions that was presented was to prohibit boating on almost all of the the rivers in order to limit fishing of native fish species. At the time not many people really wanted to canoe down class II, let alone attempt the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone so no one put up much of a fuss.

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The Yellowstone River near Tower Falls. Class I/II big water.

The problem is that the Yellowstone boating ban has continued to this day when every other national park in the country allows it to some extent on whitewater rivers. This includes the Merced River in Yosemite and Great Falls in Virginia. Currently boating is only allowed inside Yellowstone on a couple lakes and on one flat water section of the Lewis River between two of those lakes.

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The ban is most sad here in my opinion. The Madison River is class I/II for MILES. It has some great fishing, you can find bison and elk along the river in the evenings, the vast majority is roadside and it would be one of the best canoe floats I’ve seen. Also not allowed inside the park. Lame.

Don’t get me wrong, there are a few perfectly reasonable reasons for restrictions on whitewater boating. However, most of the negative impacts can be managed effectively and there are many examples of effective management around the country.

  1. Boaters can make difficult whitewater sections in popular areas of the park seem safer than they are, leading to other visitors getting closer than they should to the river or attempting to run dangerous rapids in unsafe craft (like single chamber inner tubes). Great Falls in Virginia has this problem all the time and asks boaters to go early in the morning or late at night to minimize other visitors getting any ideas. Restrictions on boating through the most popular sections of the park like the Firehole River near most of the geyser basins and the Lamar River through the Lamar valley (while sad) would be understandable.

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    The Firehole River upstream. I will agree that managing boating on this river would be near impossible as if flows next to the largest and most popular geyser basins in the park and has some pretty nasty bacteria growing in it. But imagine how cool a float trip here would be 🙂
  2. Boaters can cause bank erosion at put-ins and take-outs. Despite our best efforts, we will still create “trails” down to river level where we put our boats in the water and where we take out. In the most popular areas, construction is often necessary to add stairs down to river level or add “put in eddies” where it is safe to enter the river. This can be managed  through the National Park policy of “concentrated impact.” A great example of concentrated impact are park loop roads. Most national parks have one or two roads where 90% of visitors see the park. The rest of the park area is remote and relatively difficult to access compared to by car. The same policy could be used with regard to river sections. Build up some of the most popular areas and leave the rest alone and more difficult to access. Boaters also don’t have any more impact than fishermen in this respect and fishing is allowed on almost all rivers in the park.

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    This is the Ice Box Canyon on Soda Butte Creek. Class III moves through this ridiculously cool canyon. The canyon is about a mile long with 30 foot walls on either side that would be impossible to climb out of without help from above. So cool!
  3. Boaters can get themselves into trouble. People do die in this sport. They also get injured, or lose/damage gear and need evacuation. This is usually managed similarly to backcountry camping/hiking permits. Backcountry campers and hikers can sometimes need rescue and a permit system allows park managers to know where people are and where they are supposed to be. Issuing permits for boating would work exactly the same way. Park managers would know where people were and where they should be headed for rescue efforts. There is already a permit process in place for canoeists who do backcountry canoe trips on the lakes, a river permit process would work the same way.

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    Three miles of beautiful roadside class V (with one portage) on the Firehole River.
  4. Boaters can influence wildlife. There are some habitats for endangered species which should be protected from humans. For instance, some species of duck only nest in a handful of places inside Yellowstone and get skittish around humans and won’t mate when disturbed. These restrictions for wildlife should definitely apply to some areas of the park, but certainly not all of the thousands of miles of rivers in the parks.

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    A terrible cellphone picture but this is the Yellowstone River flowing through the Narrows. Class III through 300 foot tall, vertical walls on each side.
  5. Boaters (as well as fishermen) can carry invasive species on their boats or on their gear. When boaters (or fishermen) travel with water in their boats or on their gear, they can inadvertently transport different non-native species of bacteria, mussels, snails, fungus, or even fish to new rivers. Many states have Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) inspection checkpoints to be sure that boaters have drained all water from their boats and thoroughly dried all of their gear. These efforts and educational signs at put-ins and takeouts are often paid for with AIS stickers for boats (like in Wyoming and Idaho) or through boating permits and fishing licenses. Yellowstone already has to deal with this issue for the canoes which come to boat on the lakes and with fishermen and their waders.

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    Just below the Narrows looking down from an overlook.

So while there are legitimate reasons to restrict boating in some places inside of Yellowstone, there is no reason for a blanket ban across the board.

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This is Bear Creek. This part is class II/III and it has a V+ section upstream and is technically outside the park, but floating it drops you into the Yellowstone River within the park boundaries so unless you want to climb 950 feet out of the canyon, it’s also a no-go.

For a decent summary of the issues and a possible legislative solution currently in front of congress, check out Canoe and Kayak Magazine’s article.

The map below shows a whole bunch of rivers within Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park that could be paddled but currently aren’t allowed. If current legislation before congress passes, the Park Superintendent would need to assess whether and how to allow boating on these sections.

https://mappingsupport.com/p/gmap4.php?ll=44.527657,-110.424165&z=8&t=t1&q=https://sites.google.com/site/americanpackraftingassociation/ygtnp/kmz/YGTNP_River_Inventory_Traces_For_Study.kmz
Open this map full screen.

What can you do? If you’re a whitewater boater, join American Whitewater. They are the paddling lobbying group and have been fighting this ban for over 20 years. The American Packrafting Association has also been fighting the ban for as long as they have been an organization. You can also call your representatives and voice your support for the Yellowstone and Grand Teton Paddling Act HR 974. Shoot me and email or leave a comment below if you have any questions about the ban.

3 thoughts on “Yellowstone Has One Problem

  1. Nik,
    As a local boater I can attest that Yellowstone’s one problem is boneheads. Just look at this summer’s news articles on deaths and the really stupid things people do in the park. There are boating deaths on a regular basis on the flat stuff. The search efforts for people who simply fall in can be quite extensive with bodies recovered months and miles away from the incedent. Montana has unlimited river usage. You can kayak anywhere you want. Yankee Jim Canyon, ten miles north of the park can be quite exciting. Try the Boulder River, the Gallatin past House Rock and the Mad Mile or the Madison below Ennis Dam. We have so much great whitewater so close that although we would love to do the park why put more burden on already overworked park staff. If the park is opened to whitewater crafts there will be deaths and lawbreakers – in my opinion.
    I love the park year round have no problem leaving my drone, my large caliber pistol, mountain bike or whitewater kayak at home.
    I hope you get to play in Montana. Our spring runoff was over early and it looks like summer is here. Better get out there.

    Conrad

    Like

  2. Hi there! Offbeat Home sent me your way and I’m very pleased. This is a dream my husband and I are hoping to undertake in a few years, so I’m going to keep an eye on your adventures. Good luck!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you found us! Happy to have you follow along. Good luck with your preparations and drop us a line if you have any questions!

      Like

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