The Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone

“Man must feel the earth to know himself and recognize his values…. God made life simple. It is man who complicates it.”

— Charles A. Lindbergh, Reader’s Digest, July 1972.

Calendar Falls on the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone. One of my favorite spots on the planet.

The sun sets rapidly over the high horizon of the deep canyon, and we do not know how many more miles of whitewater need to be traveled. In front of us is a Class IV rapid leading into a blind corner that cannot be scouted, and our food is nearly gone. But we have a comfortable camp, the scenery is awesome, and the weather is perfect.

We huddle around a small fire and share our remaining food, while we talk about the adventures of the last three days and speculate about what lies downstream. Our dinner is meager — a few pieces of fruit as an appetizer and half a PowerBar for the main course. Two chocolate bars, split five ways, make a great dessert, and we still have some dried fruit for breakfast, but there will be no lunch unless we finish our journey.

My late, great friend Paul Zirkelbach (Pablo) had paddled this river the year before with his buddies from Idaho, and he was eager to show the great treasure to his friends back home.  A trip was quickly organized, and twelve people showed up at the put-in on a perfect August day. This was one of my first self-support kayak trips, so my gear and packing skills were still rudimentary. I had an old Navy surplus black bag stuffed with a tent, stove, dry clothes, and all the other comforts I thought I would need for a three-day trip. But, luckily, I had a Prijon T-Canyon kayak, and the black bag fit.

“That boat’s gonna sink as soon as you put it in the water,” my friend David Neff joked.

“Na! These boats were designed for this,” I replied. It was a bit heavy, but the boat was balanced and actually performed quite well in whitewater. Years of practice (and Pablo’s coaching) have since taught me to travel a lot lighter, and multi-day kayak trips have become my favorite pastime. The large group spread out for safety and headed downstream, past the Class IV+ Honeymoon stretch and into The Box, which we nervously referred to as “The Gorge of No Return.”

Pablo had a passion for scouting rivers from the eddies above big drops, and he was a master at it. But occasionally this passion would get him into trouble. Actually, it was usually the people trying to follow him that got in trouble. The Green Monster, which is the first long portage, is fairly easy if you get out in the right place, but we did not. Pablo and Mark eddy scouted right into the brink of disaster: One more drop, and it would have been a 5.9 solo climb out of a box canyon, but they finally stopped. Then, all we had to do was drag our boats up about 300 vertical feet of steep terrain filled with dense brush and fallen logs. But our spirits were high, and the travel became much easier once we reached the main route.

The portages of the Clarks Fork are as famous as the rapids. Names like Green Monster, Ankle Breaker, and Last Gasp should be enough to scare any boater who doesn’t like to portage.

“Fooled you again, didn’t I?” Pablo joked, as we dragged our boats mostly downhill to a calm stretch of river and camped on a small island.

“Wow! What an amazing place!” I exclaimed, as I set up my tent. “We haven’t even gotten to the good stuff yet,”

Pablo replied. “Wait until you see where we’re going tomorrow.” A rainstorm was threatening, so I put on my dry clothes and cooked a warm meal in the comfort of my tent, while most of the group huddled around a fire in their wet river gear eating Powerbars. The next day was clear, so we started early and paddled into an incredible gorge. Huge granite walls towered above us as we traveled into a truly marvelous place where very few people had ever been. I was able to imagine how John Muir must have felt when he walked into the Yosemite Valley. The beauty and power of nature in this remarkable canyon were overwhelming and brought a few tears to my eyes.

The intensity of the whitewater rapidly increased, and the river became the main focus as we scouted and portaged our way through lots of Class IVs and Vs and a few sieves. We portaged some beautiful Class Vs that we didn’t feel like attempting with heavy boats in such a remote place. Anyone who lost a boat here would have a major adventure just getting out of the canyon, and even if they managed to reach the rim, they would still be a long way from civilization in the middle of grizz country.

If you want to survive the great rivers, you need to have the skills to run the hard rapids and the wisdom to scout and portage (if you can) the ones that you think you can’t. One bad judgment could leave you stranded without a boat in a very remote canyon (if you are still alive). Even a small error in planning can be dangerous.

Late in the day, we decided to run a Class V drop with a very large hole in the middle and a second significant rapid right below it. John Jaycox missed the line and got stuck in the hole. But it was somewhat friendly, and he had the presence of mind to surf the hole and catch a throw rope at the same time. He had a huge smile on his face as we pulled him out of the near disaster. The scene of the rescue was a good place to camp, and the day was waning, so we settled in and started to make plans for the next day.

“Tomorrow is going to be even harder, and the eddies are really small, so we need to split up into two groups,” Pablo advised. “Half of us will leave at dawn, and the other group can follow a couple of hours later.”

It’s a real bummer to be the sixth boat in a five-boat eddy and run a drop backwards that you really wanted to scout first. I’ve seen it happen, and the boater survived, but it’s not a recommended technique. I’ve never been that fond of putting on cold kayak gear before the sun comes up, so I decided to sleep in and go with the second group. I was just waking up from my dreams when I heard the first group packing their boats and heading out.

“We’re out of here. Good luck, be careful.”

“You too. See you back in Boulder,” I replied, as I drifted back to sleep. There was no need to rush, because we wanted to give them some space, so we enjoyed a very relaxed morning in an empty paradise. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and the great river roared past us as it snaked between the huge granite walls.

Everyone who had paddled the river before ended up in the first group, so we had to be a lot more cautious. Jon Hindman and Dave Pennington had tried to scout some of the rapids from the rim a few days before, but they did not have much success. They did notice that a very large waterfall entered the canyon right next to the last significant rapid.

Pablo was right! The river suddenly became even steeper and more spectacular as we entered a box canyon with very sheer walls. But the whitewater was reasonable, and there was a very friendly eddy above one of the first big drops. This drop was about eight to ten feet, but there was a clean line and a beautiful backdrop, so we all grabbed our cameras and took our turns at Calendar Falls. There was a beautiful camping spot just below the falls, and we wished that we had the time and food to spend a few days. But we did have time for a quick lunch, and we savored every second of it.

Just downstream, the whitewater became very serious, with a long Class V+ leading into a big S turn that could not be scouted. We portaged as much of the drop as we could, but a sheer wall eventually stopped our progress. Next to the sheer wall was a ten-foot drop with a really bad hole at the bottom. It looked possible, but it was absolutely necessary to get a really good boof in order to miss the hole at the bottom. There was a small eddy just below the drop, and then the river disappeared into what looked like a very big rapid.

Jon Hindman volunteered to be the probe, and nobody was willing to challenge him for the role. He carefully lined up his boat and paddled at the necessary speed. But just as he was about to boof, his boat hit a shallow rock, which stole most of his hull speed. The slow-moving boat slid over the edge and right into the bad hydraulic, which turned out to be every bit as bad as we had thought. He put up a gallant effort to escape, but it was a terrible ledge drop, and the only water escaping was at the very bottom of the channel. He finally pulled the ripcord, but the hole still held him in its grasp. As his energy faded, he struggled desperately to breathe. In a last ditch effort, he dove to the bottom, kicked off a submerged rock, and freed himself from the hole. He managed to swim to a tiny eddy, where he lay half-conscious for a couple of minutes while his boat bounced around in the hole. All we could do was stand helplessly on the bank, so we were very happy to see him catch his breath and pull himself out of the water. His boat was still in the hole, but the strong hydraulics had worked one of his dry bags loose from the kayak.

“Hey Jon! One of your dry bags just popped out of the hole,” we yelled. He reached in vain for a small bag that drifted by him only inches away from his hand. It was his camera and all his film, but the practice grab gave him a chance to adjust his stance and catch his boat when it finally exited the hole. It was full of water and very heavy, but he managed to drag it to shore.

“I don’t care how big that hill is, I’m portaging,” I declared, as I walked back to my boat. “I don’t think Dave ran that. There’s got to be a way to portage.” I started to pull my heavy black bag out of my kayak. “I’m going to leave my boat here and look for a route.”

As I started to scramble up the very steep bank, I could see evidence that someone else had taken this route. It was a bit like mountaineering, but we managed to get above the cliff band, where we found a somewhat airy traverse over to the ravine that had shaped most of the rapid. From there, it was a steep scramble on loose rock back down to the river, where Jon was reviving and pulling his dry bags out of his boat.

“How you doing Jon? That looked nasty.”

“It was! I thought I was toast for a second there. It looks like my sleeping bag is dry, but I lost my film and my camera.”

“Bummer. We’ll share our shots. Glad to see you alive. I gotta go back and get my boat, but maybe we should camp here,” I suggested, as I headed back up the steep ravine. By the time everyone finished portaging, it was nearly dark. And, as an ominous box canyon awaited us, there was no motivation to move onward. After a nervous sleep, we awakened to the same scene that had greeted us the day before. There was a Class IV rapid leading into a box canyon that could not be scouted, but we could see the footprints of our friends, and we really didn’t have any other choice. It was my turn to be the probe, so I found a good launching spot and nervously slid back into the raging river. The whitewater quickly eased, and I was elated to see that the box canyon was very short and not very difficult.

“Yow! It’s no problem,” I yelled jubilantly upstream to my friends, who quickly followed. But the jubilance did not last very long, because just downstream was another really big drop. There was a very large eddy just above it on river left, but as we climbed out of the river, we made a somewhat shocking discovery.

“No footprints! I wonder where they went,” remarked Dave.

We searched the right bank for portage routes, but it looked insanely steep, and we couldn’t get back to that shore now anyway. The drop below us was a long and nasty sieve filled with huge boulders and lots of gradient. So we threw our boats on our shoulders and headed up the boulder field. The portage ended at a sheer cliff about halfway through the rapid, just above a fifteen-foot drop that could not be scouted.

The situation was starting to feel a bit desperate. Our food was gone, the river seemed to go on forever, and we were stuck at the top of a large, blind drop.

“I think it’s my turn to be the probe,” John Jaycox volunteered. “It should definitely be someone with a T-Canyon, and you guys have already had your turns.” He slid nervously into his boat and carefully stretched the spray skirt over the cockpit. The canyon was quiet except for the constant sound of the rushing water, and we all held our breath in apprehension as he disappeared over the edge of the big drop. When he finally reappeared, he was upside-down and against the wall on the left, but he quickly rolled up and signaled us onward. It was my turn next, and his run hadn’t been very reassuring, but at least he had made it. I followed his line and paddled slowly toward the brink. Just as I dropped over the edge, I could see a clean line, and I was lucky enough to be close to it. There was a big rock at the bottom, but I managed to miss it and stay upright. The rest of the group had reasonable runs, and we decided to christen the rapid “Leap of Faith.”

“Wow! That was intense! I sure wish that this canyon would end,” I said hopefully. But the whitewater kept on coming. Just downstream was another huge horizon-line drop, so we stopped to scout again. We stared in awe (and trepidation) at another long sieve, but this one had a portage route. It had been a long time since breakfast, and we were hungry and very tired, but we shouldered our boats one more time and headed up the boulder field. We didn’t know it at the time, but this portage was called “Last Gasp”, and as we finished it, we saw a majestic waterfall tumbling down on river right. I kissed the flat water, and we paddled downstream through an ever-widening gorge with only a few class IVs. This river had left me completely spellbound, and I drove north toward Montana in a state of pure euphoria.

Dancing on the Edge of an Endangered Planet

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