The Duckling that Came in From the Rain
A Yellowstone Lake odyssey. Aug 2009 By Kyle Williams
You can set your watch by the winds on Yellowstone Lake. Every day in the late summer, about 8:00 AM, the all-night east breeze gives way to a morning Northerly wind, 10 knots or so. At noon the winds start gyrating madly, Elvis-hips-ishly, and all points of the compass are thoroughly represented. By 1:00 they settle into the afternoon southwest wind, up to about 20 knots, and at 4:00, the thunderstorms arrive with rain, hail, lightning, thunder, and 40+ gale winds. In 1838, Francis Beaufort, trying to define the wind, would have called it Force 8 conditions. The surface of the lake is instantly whipped to a froth, with streamers spraying off the 3 foot wave crests. All is a maelstrom. By 7:00, it quickly settles back down and is mill-pond calm for the rest of the evening.
Sailing a small 15 foot boat in these conditions would be terrifying if it weren’t for the predictability. Like your crazy uncle at Thanksgiving dinner, you know what to expect and can plan accordingly. We only goofed once. The second day out, the storm caught us out on the water and we didn’t make it into our little harbor until 4:30. We pulled in white-knuckled, breathing hard, and thoroughly chastened for our ignorance. Lesson learned, not to be repeated. Sirocco is a stable little boat, with a sloop rig, steel centerboard, and a tiny cabin only big enough for gear storage. She handled all these conditions very well.
My neighbor Steve Townsend and I were out there for 8 days. Loaded with camping gear and an inflatable kayak up under the bow, we launched Sirocco at Grant Village in the West Thumb, and sailed for 2 days east and south across the lake, and down to the tip of the Southeast arm. This is one of the most remote corners of Yellowstone Park, (and maybe even the nation…) where motorboats are not allowed and true wilderness is near total. We were camping on shore, moving every day or 2.
We had moored Sirocco in a protected bay and paddled our kayak across 3 miles to a trail access point. We saw a family of otters sleekly swimming along in front of us, and lost count of the bald eagles we saw, and as we pulled into that bay we saw an osprey on a snag looking intently at the water below. In a moment, she hopped up off the branch, hovered for a moment and dive-bombed into the water, came up with a cutthroat trout in her talons, and flew directly over us to perch back on the snag for dinner. Under bluebird skies we hiked to South Arm, and as we entered a vast meadow we saw a pack of wolves trotting across and out of site. 4 blacks and 1 gray, absolutely breathtaking in their strength and beauty. As we hiked back to the kayak to paddle back to camp, we stopped to visit John and Alf, who we has bumped into back in Salt Lake City and knew were going to be camped somewhere near here. It was 3:00 PM and we knew we couldn’t count on being across the water to our camp before the 4:00 storm so we hunkered down and waited. Black clouds were building and we didn’t have to wait long. The afternoon light show fired up right on schedule and we had a ringside seat on the bluff above the lake. We had foul weather gear with us but the rain was more ferocious than normal, pounding the ground around us, and wild winds ripping, so John pitched a tarp for us all to hunker down under and drink hot soup he so graciously offered. The rain was blowing horizontal so the tarp lean-to was perfect protection. That is, until the wind shifted 180 degrees and we had to hustle to rig another tarp in the mirror image of the first, making a fine-looking nylon yurt. As we sat there enjoying the storm in all its wonder, a baby duckling suddenly appeared under the corner of the tarp. Apparently lost, looking for momma, and as grateful as we were to be out of the storm. No country for old men, or cold ducks. He was shivering. I didn’t know ducks ever got cold! For heaven sakes, they swim around in water surrounded by ice, seemingly immune to the cold, but this little guy didn’t look comfy at all. I tried to catch him to tuck him into a warm cap, but he scampered off and disappeared into the brush. After a few hours the storm softened just a bit and we got out to stretch our legs. Just then we saw the duck swimming out the narrow mouth of the bay, out into lake, which surely meant certain death for him, either from the still-raging waters, or from the eagles that cruise over-head with a sharp lookout for such a morsel. The circle of life. He was duck-paddling strong and squalling loud to attract momma when we lost sight of him for the last time. Fair thee well, my fine feathered friend! By 8:00 the wind and waves had subsided enough to allow us back on the water safely and we paddled into our camp long after dark, ready for a long rest and warm bed, grateful for the kind hospitality of our new friends.
The week passed quickly, with days filled with sailing, paddling and hiking. We paddled up the Yellowstone river delta, surprising a huge bull moose browsing on the shore-side willows, and checked out a 10 foot high beaver lodge. I’ll bet it was more luxurious inside than our tents! We saw many bear tracks in the mud on the shore, but I didn’t see a bear all week. One day in camp I was off on a hike (looking for bears) and as I came back Steve asked, “Did you see it?” “ See what” “A grizzer bear walked right past our camp, drank from the lake and walked right on back into the trees.” I’m still not sure I believe him, he can be a bit of a joker sometimes, but he sure seemed earnest about it so I gotta report that “we” saw a bear. We practiced “bear safety” with a zeal bordering on religiosity. Sleep way over there, cook way over here, don’t allow any food mess to remain, and put everything, including our clothes we ate in, into the bag to pull up into the tree tops every night. A kayak rangerette named Jacki stopped by regularly to make sure that every camp on the lake was obeying the rules. She had to leave us a nice nasty note one day, as we had failed to string a bucket up the pole one day.) Once a bear tastes human food, then no one in the area is safe until that bear is removed far away or killed. Usually killed, eventually, because they will find their way back and resume a life addicted to marshmallows and top ramen.
Ready to head out, with a 2 days of sailing between us and French fries and hot showers, we had the boat packed for an early start, hoping to catch the remnants of the nightly east wind, which would have been perfect for sailing on a beam reach up and out of the Southeast Arm. We rowed out into the bay to hoist sail and drop the centerboard , and we discovered that our centerboard wouldn’t drop. Stuck up in it’s trunk! We had been dragging her up onto the pea-gravel beach over night, and pebbles had jammed the centerboard tightly inside the trunk, preventing it from dropping. ARGH!! Back to shore we went, and we careened her over, pulling on the main halyard to hold her on her side with her under-belly exposed, and I spent the next hour in waist deep water with a stubby screwdriver prying out the pebbles. Next time a long skinny metal hook will be in the tool kit. Because of the delay from the jammed pebbles, we missed the east wind and had to beat up against the north wind all morning. John and Alf passed us paddling in their 17 foot Tripper canoe. Later, out on the main lake, the “Elvis winds” caught us we were trying in vain to get around Plover Point. We spent a very frustrating hour getting nowhere in a hurry. John later told us they could see us from their camp and marveled at our patience. Tacking back and forth, then again and again, with winds changing to come from a different quarter, then they would change a gain. As the steady afternoon winds blew up from the south, we made quick westerly progress and pulled into the protection of Wolf bay before the gales came on, and we camped for the night. Now this camp was fraught with peril because we didn’t have a camping permit for Wolf bay. Yellowstone park requires all backcountry camping to be in designated areas, by permit only. Our permit for that night was out at Breezy Point, 5 miles along, but we couldn’t make it that far, what with the hurricanes and all, and we were told that the rangers didn’t cotton to folks camping where they aught not to, so we knew we were taking a big chances stopping at Wolf bay. Facing possible jail time or at least maybe a stern talking to, we camped there anyway. We dodged that bullet, as no one else showed up at the camp to claim it, and no rangers came to cite us. Don’t no one tell, OK?
The next day our watches must have stopped: the world was all out of kilter. No wind came up at all that morning, from any quarter, fair or foul. After 8 days, we were ready to be finished with it all, so we broke down and for the first time on the trip pulled out the little electric motor and powered our way back to civilization. A light breeze finally came up about 1:00, so we hoisted sail for that last mile and sailed on into the marina, displaying a very masterly approach to the dock under full sail. A perfect landing after a perfect week in a perfect place.