June 12 was like any other day for me. I had a tour planned so I woke up at 5am, loaded up the van, packed lunches and headed to the vacation rental client. I remember the forecast at the park calling for rain, but that was no reason to assume what happened, actually happened. Even when the park is looking for sun, 30-60% of the time, there is a storm in the afternoon.
But speaking to my guests on the phone, they wanted to go to the north end of the park. As a tour guide, we divide the park into two separate areas. Aptly named northern and southern 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 classic Yellowstone. One-stop shopping for all things tourism: hot springs, huge waterfalls and many of the trails in the park. The North Loop is nothing but wildlife and open views. Where rivers flow as far as the eye can see, where wolves roam, where bears feed, where native fish thrive, and where only a fraction of park visits happen. My favorite place in the world, without a doubt.
On the 12thth, our day was spent photographing a black bear with a cub, seeing hundreds of bison, and admiring the rivers doing their typical snowmelt flow. We were nearing the end of our day when I told my guests that I try to remember one thing from every tour I do, and that theirs was infamous for the windshield wiper blowing out completely 10 hours in. I apologized for the rain, but they didn’t care. I didn’t know much about the damage done until the next day.
On June 13, I had another tour planned. This time for the southern loop. I picked up my guests from their hotel and headed to the park. To enter the park, you must go through the classic national park kiosk and pay the entrance fee. On arrival, usually the guard’s first question is about the entrance fee. Today, it was all about what was closed.
With the wanderer showing a map of the park encased in weatherproof laminate, with large red markers outlining the literal roads I’d driven 12 hours before, my sigh and the exhaustion of frustration overtook me. Security at this park is one of the most exhausting things in my job, and the morons that enter the park every day don’t help make normal people enjoy it. But I stood my ground and mentioned to my guests that everything they planned to see would remain open.
We started walking along the Madison River through the west entrance of the park, until we came to a large area of meadow, or should I say, what is normally a meadow. We crossed a bridge and my guests turned to me and said, “Wow. What a beautiful lake!”
Anyone who has driven that part of the park knows that there is not a lake in that area. At that point, I knew the northern part of the park would have devastating effects, and the road closures on the map at the national park kiosk might actually represent what I’m imagining.
But I didn’t know about anything 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 spouting chocolate milk in its falls. Fallen logs and washed-up debris began to rush past us as we drove, and a young black bear came running from the river bank and blocked an embankment like I had never seen before.
From what was recorded, there was no loss of life during the flood event in the park. A heart attack was reported at a camp inside the park on the 13thth, but it is difficult to say whether the cardiac event is related to the flood. And as for the loss of wildlife, there seems to be nothing reported.
From 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 found out later through social media was that the roads from Gardiner to the park north as well as the Lamar Valley, famous for the Lamar River and its native Yellowstone trout and why I live in Montana in the first place, was gone. With access to remain locked without doubt for years.
June 22 rolled around and the park opened the southern loop, but the rivers were far from fishable. To be fair, the flood event only lasted two days. 12th it was the day of the crime and the 13thth, the day of punishment. But 14th henceforth, the rivers subsided dramatically. June 13th, Yellowstone River flows break records at 54,000 CFS. The next day the flows dropped.
News from around the country and even the world caught wind of the flood event and each had its own signature for the event. Everything from “100 to 1000 year storm to hit Yellowstone.” I looked at that comic, as even those numbers are not accurate. To be fair, science has no record of a flood event ever occurring on this scale, so no number should ever have been thrown at it, that’s its standard. But that’s what the news is for.
But the park stood firm and the recovery to repair took place immediately. With what I thought would be years to rebuild, the park speculates that the Lamar Valley will have access until October 15, 2022. Doubtful, I continued to take guests and slowly worked my way into the south loop for a week or two others.
But what should be mentioned is the damage that has been done. News coverage and social media milked everything they could and made sure the world knew about the damage that occurred 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 boundary of the park, at high elevations. That water fell on the melting snow and helped it rush down streams into rivers where they washed away everything in their path. But the water eventually left Yellowstone’s borders and rushed out into the small communities that dot the park’s entrances.
Cooke City is just outside the park’s northeast entrance and gives access to both the Lamar Valley and the infamous Beartooth Highway, it was an island in a mountain sea with no escape. Red Lodge on the other side of the Beartooth Highway was covered with 2.5 meters of cobblestone. Gardiner is where the infamous house fell into the river and was washed away, but several large bridges were also washed away down the river and the town of Livingston had to close their high school due to the waters flooding the classroom.
Despite the damage, there was still not a single loss of human life. But one question I was often asked, both by clients after telling them about my love of fly fishing and by various news sources and media contacts, was whether or not the fishing was damaged.
I personally watched it from the sidelines, but I gave my rod a solid month’s rest before I considered leaving for anything. The rivers, despite their reduced flows since mid-June, were still far from fishable as the classic snowmelt was still taking place. The lakes were also cloudy so I decided not to do the casting. But what I noticed almost immediately were the insects.
With the amount of water coming down from the height, it created puddles and eddies found on the banks of freshly cut rivers, stream beds and even behind new obstacles such as fallen logs or even debris from bridges upriver. But these eddies created soft water for insects to thrive, especially mosquitoes. And with the abundance of insect life, the fishing was also some of the best I’ve seen in years.
This was indeed mosquito season. Regardless of the low in early summer or the high in late August, sales of bug sprays at local outdoor stores plummeted. But of course, everything else went on as planned, just three weeks to a month later than normal.
With the creeks and rivers all building up to their headwaters by mid-July, access became the real question. The park’s rivers were not opened until this time, and the Lamar was accessible only to those with a guide or a backcountry permit. There were still 100 feet of spots from where the original road joined the Lamar River.
Outside the park, many of the Forest Service roads are gone. Several hikers and backpackers needed airlifts from the trails, where their vehicles are still stranded as you read this. But when a gate presented itself marking the closure of the road, this is where being fit and having a bit of creativity happened. Shoulder the package and walk to the road. Fishing spots were usually hit aggressively, showing signs you’ve never seen a fly before. A spot that once showed years of consistently deep pools and quality trout is gone, but around the bend, a new hole with an equally impressive sign of a retainer.
The lakes began to take on fantastic shapes early on with abundant insect life and fish slithering into anything that had hatched. A large number of insects would infest your car and camp. And with the abundance of water, not only insect life flourished, but flora as well. Wild flowers bloomed along the rivers and valleys, unlike anything I had seen before. Even animal life was enjoyed in places they hadn’t been in years.
As the summer progressed one positive thing remained absent, the smoke. Wildfires strike Yellowstone and surrounding areas of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming every summer. A large fire in Idaho eventually showed up with smoke in early September, but it was a breath of fresh air, literally, for the season. Last year, during a drought, we had smoky skies in June. Even within the boundaries of the park, the fires were not only kept to a minimum, but also small and self-regulating.
Despite the horrendous damage, despite the presence of an obvious god or even of course a major climate event that sparked many conversations about climate change and global warming, the resilience of this park never ceases to amaze me. Last year, Yellowstone broke records for visits, reaching over four million people with one million visitors in the month of July alone. Where this year, 2022, visitation to Yellowstone National Park is down 45%.
Spiritually, I believe it is connected. Mother Nature saw what we did last year in the park. The record breaking visit with tourists doing stupid things like littering, going to thermal beds, petting the bison and of course not treating the fish properly. Where this year, she put it all together and made sure that such a year did not happen again. Sweeping roads, flooding our roads and closing rivers to fish until next season. Giving yourself a real break, from us.
I took this whole event as a sign. A sign, regardless of your view of god or global warming, that she; Mother Nature, Yellowstone and the Super Volcano, are responsible. And despite our craziness, despite our irresponsibility, despite our efforts to help, she will decide if what we are doing is in her best interest. And if she feels like giving us a window into her soul, she’ll tell us. But if she doesn’t, she clearly knows how to close the door. Reminding us all that a good woman takes patience and if we screw her up or show our desire to step before she lets her, she’ll beat us up and remind us who’s in charge.
Sean Jansen is a freelance writer for Flylords Magazine and spends his time in Bozeman, Montana, where he guides tours through Yellowstone National Park.
Check out the articles below:
Interview with Yellowstone Guide: Sean Jansen #fliesforfloodrelief
An ode to winter fly fishing in Montana