We all woke up freezing cold several times throughout the night. We had packed for a summer in America; though we had extra sheets and blankets, we didn’t have nearly enough for the temperature. Yellowstone has a dramatic temperature swing from day to night.
As we crawled out of our tents and warmed up in the sun, I threw something out there that, given the previous nights’ sleeping conditions, would get traction immediately: “I don’t know if we should go backwoods camping tonight.”
Tom, seeing his prized Yellowstone event—and the good time he was planning on showing Lela—in jeopardy, immediately disagreed. He used the “where’s your sense of adventure” argument as effectively as I had, back when insisting that we drive through the night to get to Carlsbad Caverns early. My “it was cold and we didn’t prepare with the right sleeping gear or camping backpacks” argument didn’t have any traction. The “lets take a long hike but camp in a parking/camping spot” suggestion did no better. Sarah, in the spirit of entertaining our guest, wanted to do whatever Lela wanted to, and though Lela didn’t ever come out and say that she was especially gung ho about backwoods camping, wanted to make the most of the couple days she was there. She deferred to the three of us for the decision-making even though we had told her earlier that her vote was as valid as any of ours.
So we were going backwoods camping. After we packed up our camping gear and loaded the car, we had to stop by the ranger station at the north entrance to the park. Tom and Lela watched the informational video on bears and scheduled our camping location, and jumped back in the car, informing Sarah and I that the site was three miles from the road. Having already aired all of my objections, I waited for someone else to say that this wasn’t the best idea. It didn’t happen.
I got over it. Sarah had picked up a whitewater rafting pamphlet the day before and we had made reservations; we were off to do one of the things that I wanted to do somewhere in America since the beginning of the trip. This was a top ten item for me, and we were all excited. We stopped at a camping store that was having their “end of season” sale and they were out of sleeping bags, an item that I was sure to need if we were planning on any real camping. The lady behind the register explained that these were the first thing to go every year at the clearance sale. It was the only camping store in town.
After a little questioning, she informed me of a supermarket that might have a sleeping bag. I was skeptical but had no choice, so we headed for the supermarket. I headed in. After having a clerk tell me where they might be and canvassing the majority of the market, I returned to the front. It wasn’t looking good. A manager directed me towards a corner. I looked for the bags; it was thirty degrees out the previous night, so that was the rating I was looking for. I went through the five bags that they had. The vast majority of the bags were mere nap sacks, but there was a single bag rated for exactly thirty degrees Fahrenheit. It was like finding the Holy Grail.
After driving for a bit to find parking, we realized that the supermarket lot that we had just left was the closest available parking to the white water rafting office. We circled back, parked, emptied our pockets of everything but a few keys and headed for Montana Whitewater.
Once there, we filled out some paperwork, waited for a bit, suited up in lifejackets, helmets, and for Tom and I, water booties (Tom had flip flops that would have gotten lost and Sarah borrowed mine). We jumped on a bus and headed upstream. The driver announced what we would be doing and seeing, went over some instructions and safety precautions, made the obligatory bad jokes, and then left us to chat. I was a little suprised that he skipped the cheer twice routine: the “Is everyone excited to be white water rafting today… You must not be that excited because I could hardly hear you! Is everyone excited to be white water rafting today?!” We arrived and I got over it quickly.
We helped carry the inflatable boats to the water and got a couple final instructions and we were off. Tom and I volunteered to sit up front, where you had to row harder than everyone else and keep time with each other, and Sarah and Lela took their places right behind us. We hit some rapids within the first few minutes and were immediately soaked but comfortable; the air and water temperature was agreeable during the day at this lower elevation.
The guide steered by dragging a stick on the shallow bottom to change the direction of the boat, and yelled “all forward!” to get everyone rowing and direct us towards the best rapids or away from the sides of the river or other hazards. The vessel was like a big, boat-shaped inner tube with floatable cylindrical seats. The bottom was a taught heavy duty tarp attached with gaps left in the corners so that water that got into the tube drained out.
Courtesy Montana Whitewater
There were two young sisters with one of the families in the boat. The guide and family were trying to get the girls to sit on the front round, inflatable edge of the boat and “ride the bull” through the rapids. They both shyly said no at first, but the younger sister was soon excited to be kneeling in the front. It looked like a lot of fun, and with more encouragement she was soon sitting with feet dangling in the water. While going over some rapids, the water was entirely over her head. Before long, the older sister took a turn and, on a larger rapid, was thrown into the boat on her back, her head to the left of my feet—this rapid was even over our heads so she didn’t have a chance. Tom and I wordlessly broke from rowing long enough to each grab a lifejacket shoulder and put the girl back in place. The sisters continued to rotate between the middle spot in the back and the best seat in the boat.
We kept going and had a great time. The whole trip was several hours and we were all happy and sore by the end. We stopped back at the supermarket to buy dinner, used our yearly national park pass to get back into Yellowstone at no charge—and headed towards our backwoods camping spot. Here are some pictures from the ride:
Once we arrived, we packed up our gear in the best way we could. We each were carrying different stuff and had a different strategy. Tom had a bunch of heavy duty bags and cloth coolers, for a total of five items strapped over his shoulders. I had a backpack with a stomach strap. Several carabineers held tents, covers, and other items to the waist level strap. Sarah and Lela had variants on these two themes.
Walking was awkward. The path was mostly even and easily navigable, but we had clearly not prepared properly to backpack three miles. It seemed like ten. Each step came with my thighs hitting bundles of covers. Tom belt, which we had used to bundle the covers together, kept coming undone. I had to stop three times to repack myself, and Sarah had to stop twice. Tom and Lela took off ahead of us. Sarah and I walked together but talked little. The hike had little social value and would have had no scenic value either if I had not insisted on walking at a pace that I could enjoy myself. This was not leisure. Once we finally got to camp, everyone more or less agreed that this had been a bad idea.
After collecting wood and starting a fire and setting up camp at dusk, we cooked dinner and drank the beers that we had brought, exactly three each, and had shots of whiskey. We had pasta and sauce to eat, a vegetarian option (for Lela) that everyone enjoyed.
While we were sitting around enjoying the fire and each other, we heard an animal lapping water in the lake next to our campsite. Tom got serious look on his face and said “maybe we should go in the tent.” Lela and Sarah immediately agreed. I laughed at all of them and said “I’m staying by the fire.” Chances are it wasn’t a bear, and all of my urban companions were overreacting, but on the small chance that their paranoia-inspired reaction was correct, there was no way I wanted to isolate myself and not see anything around me or have the fire as a last-resort defensive mechanism.
An hour or two later, we walked the leftovers and garbage down the trail and went to bed. It was warmer out this evening and we were sore and tired, so we all slept well.