June 12th was like any other day for me. I had a tour scheduled, so I woke at 5 am, loaded up the van, picked up lunches, and headed to the customers vacation rental. I remember the forecast in the park calling for rain, but that was hardly any reason to assume what happened, to actually happen. Even when the park calls for sun, 30-60% of the time, there’s an afternoon thunderstorm.
But talking to my guests on the phone, they wanted to head to the northern end of the park. As a tour guide, we separate the park into two distinctive areas. Aptly named the north and south loops. The park is so big that no matter how hard we try, we won’t see it all in one day.
The south loop is the classic Yellowstone. The one-stop-shopping for all things tourism: hot springs, big waterfalls, and much of the roadways in the park. The north loop is nothing but wildlife and wide-open vistas. Where rivers slither as far as the eye can see, where wolves roam, where bears forage, where native fish thrive, and where only a fraction of the visitation in the park takes place. My favorite place in the world, arguably.
On the 12th, our day was spent photographing a black bear with a cub, watching hundreds of bison, and admired the rivers doing their typical snowmelt runoff. We were nearing the end of our day when I told my guests that I try and remember one thing from each tour I give, and that theirs was infamous for the windshield wiper going full blast for 10 hours. I apologized for the rain, but they didn’t care. Little did I know of the damage that took hold until the very next day.
June 13, I had another tour scheduled. This time for the southern loop. I picked up my guests from their hotel and headed into the park. In order to enter the park, you must go through the classic national park kiosk and pay your entrance fee. At the arrival, usually the ranger’s first question is about the fee to enter. Today, it was all about what was closed.
With the ranger pointing to a map of the park enclosed in laminate for weather protection, with big red markers outlining the literal roads I drove on 12 hours previous, my sigh and exhaustion of the frustration took hold. Safety in this park is one of the more exhausting things about my job, and the morons that enter the park on a daily basis don’t help to make normal people enjoy it. But I held in my frustration and mentioned to my guests that everything they planned to see will remain open.
We began to drive along the Madison River through the west entrance of the park, until we reached a big meadow area, or I should say, what is normally a meadow. We crossed a bridge and my guests turned to me and said, “Wow. What a pretty lake!”
Anyone that has driven that section of the park knows there isn’t a lake in that area. In that moment, I knew that the northern section of the park would have devastating effects, and the road closures on the map at the national park kiosk, may actually be representational of what I’m imagining.
But I didn’t know about any of it until I was eventually evacuated later that day from Old Faithful as the park was closing. The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, the Lower Falls of Yellowstone, was nuking out chocolate milk down its falls. Downed logs and washed away debris began rushing past us in the vehicle while we were driving, and a young black bear scurried up from the river bank and bolted up an embankment like I’ve never seen before.
As far as what was recorded, no loss of life took place in the park during the flood event. There was one heart attack reported at a campground inside the park on the 13th, but it is difficult to say if the cardiac event is related to the flood. And as far as wildlife loss, there seems to be nothing reported either.
June 13 to June 22, the park remained closed and was investigated for road damage and structural integrity. For all that was documented and what I later discovered through social media was that the roads from Gardiner into the park in the north as well as the Lamar Valley, infamous for the Lamar River and its native Yellowstone cutthroat trout, and why I live in Montana to begin with, was all but gone. With access to remain closed arguably for years.
June 22 rolled around and the park did open the southern loop, but the rivers were far from fishable. To be fair, the flood event only took two days. The 12th was the day of the crime, and the 13th, the day of sentencing. But the 14th onward, the rivers subsided dramatically. June 13th, the flows of the Yellowstone River broke records with 54,000CFS. The very next day the flows plummeted.
News from all over the country and even the world caught wind of the flood event and each had their own signature remark about the event. Everything from the, “100 to 1,000 year storm to hit Yellowstone.” I found that comical, as even those numbers aren’t accurate. To be fair, science has no record of a flood event ever happening to this scale, so no number should have ever been thrown onto it, it is its own benchmark. But that’s what the news is for.
But the park remained steadfast and the recovery to repair happened immediately. With what I thought to take years to rebuild, the park speculates that the Lamar Valley will have access by October 15, 2022. Doubtful, I kept picking up guests and slowly meandered into the southern loop for another week or two.
But what needs mentioning is the damage that took place. News coverage and social media milked all they could and made sure the world knew about the damage that took place within the park’s boundaries. But the real drama from the flood happened outside the park. The epicenter of the rain fell in and around the northern border of the park, up in high elevation. That water fell on melting snow and helped it rush down the creeks into the rivers where they took out everything in their path. But the water eventually left Yellowstone’s boundaries and rushed outward towards the small communities that lay around the park’s entrances.
Cooke City is just outside of the North East entrance to the park and grants access to both the Lamar Valley and the Infamous Beartooth Highway, was an island in a mountain sea with no escape. Red Lodge on the other side of the Beartooth Highway was covered in 2.5 feet of cobble. Gardiner is where the infamous house fell into the river and washed away, but down river several major bridges also washed away and the town of Livingston had to close down their high school from waters flooding the classroom.
Despite all the damage, once again not a single loss of human life took place. But a question I was asked frequently, both by customers after I told them of my love of fly fishing, and of various news sources and media contacts, was whether or not the fisheries were damaged.
I personally watched from the sidelines, but gave my rod a solid month long break before considering casting out to anything. The rivers, despite their subsidence of flows since mid June, were still far from fishable as classic snowmelt was still taking place. The lakes were also murky so I decided to not cast. But what I did notice almost instantly, were the insects.
With the amount of water that rushed down from elevation, it created pools and eddies found in newly cut riverbanks, streambeds, and even behind new obstacles like downed logs or even left over debris from bridges up river. But these eddies created soft water for insects to thrive, mosquitoes in particular. And with the abundance of insect life, the fishing was also some of the best I’ve seen in years.
This was indeed the season of the mosquito. No matter at low elevation in early summer or up high in late August, the bug spray sales at local outdoor stores were stripped bare. But of course, everything else proceeded as scheduled, just a solid three weeks to a month later than normal.
With the creeks and rivers all shaping up to their prime flows by mid July, access became the real question. The park rivers didn’t open until this time and the Lamar was accessible only to those who had a guide or a backcountry permit. There were still 100-foot drops from where the initial road used to be connecting to the Lamar River.
Outside the park, many of the Forest Service roads are gone. Some hikers and backpackers needed airlifting out from trailheads, where their vehicles are still stranded as you read this. But when a gate presented itself marking a road closure, this was where being in shape and having a little creativity took place. Shoulder the pack and walk up the road. Fishing spots usually hit aggressively, showed signs of never having seen a fly before. A spot that once showed years of continual deep pools and quality trout are gone, but around the bend, a new hole beckoned with just as impressive of a holding.
The lakes began to show fantastic shape early on with abundant insect life and fish slurping at anything given the hatch. Huge numbers of insects would engulf your car and campsite. And with the abundance of water, not just the insect life flourished, the flora did also. Wildflowers bloomed all along the rivers and valleys unlike anything I had seen before. Even the animal life frolicked in places they hadn’t in years.
As summer progressed one positive thing remained absent, smoke. Wildfires plague Yellowstone and the surrounding areas of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming each summer. A major wildfire in Idaho eventually presented itself with smoke by early September, but it was a breath of fresh air, literally, for the season. Last year, during a drought, we had smokey skies in June. Even within the park boundaries, fires were kept not only to a minimum, but also were small and self-regulating.
Despite the horrific damage, despite the presence of arguably god or even of course a major climate event sparking many climate change and global warming conversations, the resiliency of this park never ceases to amaze me. Last year, Yellowstone broke records for visitation, towering over four million people with a million visiting in the month of July alone. Where this year, 2022, Yellowstone National Park visitation is down 45%.
Spiritually, I believe it’s related. Mother Nature saw what we did last year in the park. Record breaking visitation with tourists doing stupid things like littering, walking out onto thermal beds, petting bison, and of course, not handling fish appropriately. Where this year, she swatted all that and made sure a year like that was not to be repeated. Wiping out roads, flooding our own streets, and closing down rivers to be fished until next season. Giving herself a literal vacation, from us.
I took this whole event as a sign. A sign, despite your view on god or Global Warming, that she; Mother Nature, Yellowstone and the Super Volcano, are in charge. And despite our lunacy, despite our irresponsibility, despite even our efforts to help, she will decide if what we are doing is in her best interests. And if she feels like granting us a window into her soul, she will show us. But if she doesn’t, she clearly knows how to shut the door. Reminding us all that a good woman demands patience, and should we disrupt that or show our eagerness to encroach before she allows, she will swat us down and remind us who is in charge.