Navigating the post-flood Yellowstone.
The beauty of an undammed river cannot be seen all at once, but is experienced throughout its highs and lows. As a high-volume river, the Yellowstone can be challenging to navigate, even when the water is low. In a typical season, the river crests as high as 30,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) during runoff, a volume at which the water appears a turbulent luge of chocolate milk. On June 13, 2022, flows nearly doubled that amount.
The day prior started just as any high-water day for Wild West Rafting. The crew assembled in the boatyard promptly at 8am, full of adrenaline-charged excitement. The river was swelling above 25,000cfs at the gauge near Livingston. Boaters took to the enticing rapids, and on their way downstream noticed that it wasn’t going to slow down anytime soon. The water was rising rapidly—approximately 1,000cfs per hour. By morning, it would be a whole new river altogether.
Overnight, the surging had maxed out all meters, shut off electricity, and flooded roadways, isolating small towns and communities like Gardiner. Throughout the next day, houses, roads, and bridges were washed away with the current. Even to those who have lived here for decades, the scene was unfathomable.
The river remained in a flood state for the following three days. Businesses shut down as the community banded together to help clean up the wreckage, rebuild fences, and make a plan for how to get back on their feet again. For Wild West, this meant scouting the new river’s path.
When access to the river was finally allowed on June 22, the company set out with three boats to see what had changed over the past ten days. They deemed it the “First Descent of the New Yellowstone River.” Excited for the challenge, nervous for possible dangers downstream, and heartbroken for the land and homes lost, guides were overwhelmed with emotion. The descent was a success, and their initial observation included minimal hazards, but an increase in rapids and wave trains. Though the river is still being monitored daily, Wild West Rafting is back in business, running commercial trips daily.
The flooding has steered folks away from Gardiner, but the truth is, now’s the time to go. In Montana, we help our neighbors when times get tough, and times just got tough for those whose livelihoods were affected by this event. Go lend a hand, and have a ball doing so. Eat a meal, stay a night, and float the river—sound like what you were going to do anyway? A new Yellowstone River is flowing, and you could be one of the first to check it out.
Hayden Blackford was raised between Gardiner and Cooke City. He recently graduated from the University of Montana and spends his free time on the water and in the mountains.