By: Tony Cross
Years before I moved to Wyoming, I read about Shoshone Lake and what it takes to get out there by boat. It’s a backcountry trip that many say is one of the best boating excursions in the U.S. Located inside Yellowstone, Shoshone Lake has a rich history and was visited by some of the first settlers in the region in the early 1800’s.
To get there, you have to first cross Lewis Lake, then turn up the Lewis River Channel, which connects Lewis and Shoshone Lakes. You paddle upstream until the current is too strong, then you get out and walk up the river, dragging your boat behind you. Sounded simple enough.
This was my first real trip with the Oru Bay+ Kayak, and I was surprised by how much stuff I could fit inside it and on top of it. I’m prone to over-packing on camping trips and I was traveling with my friend Sam, whose motto is, “There’s no kill like overkill.” It was nice to see that I could fit several unnecessary camp lights and a Pendleton blanket inside the Oru.
Sam and I packed and left early in hopes of getting across Lewis, up the channel and settled into our first campsite on Shoshone Lake before the wind kicked up in the afternoon. As soon as we hit the water, we realized we hadn’t left early enough.
In retrospect, the wind on Lewis Lake wasn’t bad - gusts up to 15 mph, maybe. About halfway across the lake, we encountered 5 river otters, who followed us all the way to the channel. Animals are a part of daily life in this part of the world but it’s incredibly rare to see river otters, so it’s a huge thrill for those of us who geek out on animal sightings.
After an hour we were at the channel and we turned into relative calm. The channel starts wide and narrows as you paddle up it, with rock walls and lodge pole pine forests closing in on you. Your world becomes small and intimate, the water quiet and burbling. In contrast, when the channel deposits you in Shoshone Lake it feels like walking into centerfield at Yankee Stadium, with all the accompanying scale and noise.
On the lake, the wind was gusting up to 40 mph. There were times when I was giving it everything I had just to stay in place – trying just to not go backwards. Even though I had read that Shoshone Lake is the largest backcountry lake in the U.S., I hadn’t understood exactly how enormous it is. Every estimate of distance and time Sam and I had made seemed to be double; and the wind quadrupled that. Later, I looked up the square mileage – turns out this lake is over half the size of Manhattan.
We hugged the shore as closely as we could and battled against winds that flattened the water, leveling any waves and creating a swirling spray. After a couple of exhausting miles, we reached our first camp.
Sam was in charge of food and that worked out really well for me. On our first night, my overkill-loving friend made tuna poke and sushi. After dinner we sipped gin and tonics and watched the sun go down.
Camping in Yellowstone can be stressful. This is one of the only places in the U.S. where there’s an animal that might actually predate humans: the grizzly bear. Somewhere in the back of your mind is the fact that you can do everything right and be completely prepared, but you could still end up as some bear’s dinner and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. That’s part of what makes Yellowstone special, but it doesn’t make for good sleep.
The next morning we had to cross the lake to a campsite on the other side. Our bad wind luck continued as we carved through swells up to 4 feet. As much work as it was, I had a blast maneuvering the Oru and felt lucky that it’s as much an ocean kayak as it is a river or lake one. After a few good soaks I was across.
Shoshone Lake is one of the most visited backcountry areas in Yellowstone, but it’s still virtually empty. At the far end of it is the largest concentration of backcountry geysers in the park. If you’ve ever braved the crowds at the roadside geyser basins, seeing them in the backcountry is other-worldly. After another not-so-good night’s sleep, Sam and I hiked out to the area and walked among pools of boiling water, bubbling mud and a geyser that we saw go off every minute or so. We were alone there - no tourists, no boardwalks. It’s impossible to be in a place like this without imagining what it would be like to just stumble on it a couple hundred years ago.
On the hike back we looked for signs of bear and the signs were everywhere, primarily in the form of claw marks on the trees. Bears scratch tree trunks to mark territory and sometimes just to sharpen their claws. It seemed like every lodge pole for miles had been marked.
After our third night we got up at the crack of dawn, had breakfast and packed up. The lake was like glass, and our 10 mile paddle home took us less than half the time it took on the way out. We sliced through open water with ease and instead of fighting the current, we floated down the channel gently, watching fish skitter by and golden eagles overhead.
We could see to the bottom the whole way, whether it was 2 feet down or 20. It was a quiet moment of pause in the wilderness before returning home.