Safety: Storm on Yellowstone Lake

I woke up in the front seat of my truck on Sunday morning at the Grant Village parking lot on the shore of Yellowstone Lake. Despite my penchant for making lists, I’d forgotten a couple of things, so I bought some Tang for breakfast and a hoodie in case it got cool.

I had breakfast in the restaurant by the boat ramp and went to the backcountry office for my boating permit and campsite reservations. The guy there looked at my itinerary and mentioned that I had a 20-mile passage and some long days between proposed campsites. Then he said that they don’t recommend traveling alone.

I asked, “Do you want to come with me?” He laughed and shook his head. Then he told me to stick close to shore, but the look on his face told me he knew that I wouldn’t. Of course in rough weather I would stay close to shore, if I went out at all, but with a favorable weather report and no clouds in the sky, I’d cut across the bays. The Park Service does a great job keeping people safe, but they know to let the more experienced boaters do their own risk evaluations.

My trip was going to cover the south end of the lake. The north end has a highway that runs along it—I didn’t go to Yellowstone for traffic noise. Besides, that’s the open part of the lake and weather can whip up quickly with a fair amount of force. I prefer the more convoluted path at the south end and the anticipation of what lies unseen around the next bend.

Yellowstone Lake is the largest lake above 7,000 feet in North America. It has 110 miles of shoreline and an average depth of 139 feet with a maximum depth of 390 feet. Half of it lies in the Yellowstone Caldera, an ancient volcanic crater approximately 34 miles wide and 45 miles long. The super volcano that created it erupted on three occasions, 2.1 million, 1.3 million and 640,000 years ago.

Sunday’s weather was perfect with barely a breeze. I cut across the West Thumb, a 3 ¾-mile-wide lobe of the lake on its western side, and paddled through the narrows to the main body of the lake. After 12.3 miles I reached my first campsite at the mouth of Flat Mountain Arm. Halfway there, I realized that I had forgotten one other thing. Bread!

I had scratched it off my packing list when I bought two loaves, only to leave them in my fridge. My sandwiches would be rolled-up ham and cheese and there would be no toast with breakfast.

At the campsite I had the option to place my tent on a slight, flat-topped hill overlooking the lake, or down by the shore. I chose the shore to be closer to water for cooking. Each park-maintained campsite has a fire pit. After I set up my tent, sleeping bag and pad, I got back in the boat to paddle the Flat Mountain Arm.

What little wind there was had died, and the lake was like a mirror reflecting the beautiful pine-covered mountains. I was told that the campsites at this end of the arm were not open because of the presence of bears at this time of year. I hoped to catch sight of one taking a drink from the lake, but I saw none. At the end of a six-mile loop I was back at the camp.

The following morning, I packed up, paddled across the mouth of Flat Mountain Arm and crossed over to the South Arm and headed south. At the end of the arm, as I paddled between two islands, a pair of eagles came swooping down, trying to hook talons in a courtship ritual. They missed.

The fire of 1988 was evident in many places. Tree skeletons, no more than bare trunks, rose far above the eight- to 10-foot-tall post-fire pines that were replacing them. The park  is making a remarkable recovery.

Coming back north on the east side of the arm, I found my second campsite. It had a sand beach that wrapped completely around the point, leaving me with lots of sun and a view of the entire South Arm. The fire pit and camping area was up on a small rise. After a bit of lunch, I went for a swim. The water was a bit chilly, but it was another perfect day in the 80s with blue skies and only a few white puffy clouds. My day’s mileage was 15.7.

My third day of paddling was going to be a short one, less than 10 miles, so I slept in and made a late start. I paddled up the South Arm, rounded the point and back down the Southeast Arm. Shortly after rounding the point I passed a beautiful campsite, but I continued on to where I had made a reservation. At the bottom of the arm, the lake widened and I found  my campsite.

It was off to the side with a long, tree-lined outcropping, creating a small protected bay. It was next to a huge open meadow with lots of purple, yellow and red flowers and a thick forested area with a fire pit and room for a tent. I had my choice of sun or shade, but I was concerned that the meadow would attract bears seeking berries.

Later that evening, I finished my dinner of chili and had pudding for dessert. As the sun went down, I crawled into my tent to read the issue of Sea Kayaker that I’d packed. About an hour later, I heard the sound of a thick branch cracking. The last time I’d heard that noise I was in the Minnesota Boundary Waters—and it had been a bear. Grabbing my can of bear spray, I began to consider my options.

I didn’t want to leave a tent door open for a quick exit because of the mosquitoes. With a two-door tent, I could go out either way. I hoped I wouldn’t have to spray a bear while I was inside the tent. Ten minutes went by and nothing—then another loud crack and again it was quiet. Suddenly, I heard another crack; but this one was much louder and the sound kept going until I heard a very loud thud.

It was unmistakably the sound of a falling tree—but there was no wind. I was afraid that it was a bear pushing over one of the dead ones. The bear I saw in Minnesota had torn a tree stump apart to get at some ants. I heard nothing after that and later went to sleep. As I drifted off, it occurred to me that this was the first time I had ever known of a tree falling without it being cut down. I figured that I would likely never experience that again.

The next morning brought the first sign of a change in the weather. It was cloudy, but the sun was trying to peek through. After breakfast, I packed the kayak. On days like this, I leave the tent for last in case it starts to rain. It did. I crawled back into the now empty tent and waited. Ten minutes later it stopped, and I was on my way.

I headed across the bay, avoiding the Molly Islands bird sanctuary. When I got to the other side of the arm, I found a small river. I paddled up a ways, but I didn’t want to make this a long day because the next day I’d have to paddle close to 20 miles and cross some open water to get back to my truck—even longer if weather forced me to hang closer to shore.

I wanted to make that crossing as quickly as possible because you never know what the weather on Yellowstone Lake has in store for you, and I didn’t want to get caught out in the open. As I headed back out onto the arm, I saw a rain cloud moving toward me from across the lake.

A giant, thick bolt of bacon-strip lightning crashed down to earth. I thought about continuing but, reminding myself of the many foolish risks I’d taken in the past, I pulled over to the shore and exited the boat. The wind and the rain soon came.

It didn’t rain hard or long, but the wind was strong. I retreated to the cover of some tall, thick bushes and stayed dry and out of the wind. The waves kicked up and although they weren’t very big, I was glad not to be out there. A half hour later, the wind died. The lake was still choppy, but not bad, so again I
pushed off.

The waves turned to gentle swells coming from my left, but then the wind did a 180-degree shift and created small waves from my right. This made for a slightly confused sea, but I was more annoyed than worried. I would soon exit the wide area of the lower part of the arm and be in a lee of the land with only the gentle swells to contend.

As I made my way up the arm on the east side, the wind switched again and came from the south. The wind waves grew large enough to surf. This made the going fun and easier.

Then the wind picked up and the waves got up to two-feet high. I decided to cut across the arm hoping that the other side would be calmer. The change in plans would also allow me to stay at that beautiful campsite I’d passed near the point and cut off a couple of miles from my last day’s paddle.

The only downside was leaving the safety of the shore for a 2.2-mile open-water crossing. However, I could easily see the waves coming from my left and I could turn into the larger ones. It would be no problem if it didn’t get worse. It got worse.

The wind increased and the waves grew to 2½ to 3 feet high. The rough sea made my paddling more difficult; what should have taken 30 minutes took almost an hour, and I was getting tired. Near the other side, I discovered the land wasn’t protecting me at all.

The waves were going right down the coast, so I turned north and paddled slowly, letting the waves slide under me. With just 50 yards left to get to the campsite, the wind died as quickly as it came. By the time I turned around the point and beached my kayak, the water was completely flat.

I saw I had cell phone reception and called the backcountry office to let them know of my change of plans. They assured me that the site was available and thanked me for calling.

I made some soup for dinner and put up my tent. As evening came, I saw a storm cloud coming across the lake.

The first storm had come from the west, the second from the east and the third from the south. This one was coming from the north. As the storm approached, I could only see the edge of it. The rest was concealed by the trees on my left. Not recognizing the size of the front moving in, I thought, “At least this will be a mild one.”

I went to my tent early and within a few minutes the winds whipped up. I switched on my VHF radio and listened to the forecast: “Severe storms expected. If you see one of these storms approaching, move to a sturdy building immediately.”

I’d never heard that kind of advice on the weather radio. I laughed. What was I supposed to do? I’d been in some nasty blows, but I’d never heard such a warning before. The forecast was for winds stronger than anything I’d experienced, so I decided it would be wise to evaulate where I was and consider picking a safer spot.

There were fallen trees all over this part of Yellowstone. I had little idea which of those still standing were vulnerable to being toppled. A friend of mine told me that he was in a storm and only the live trees got blown over because they had plenty of leaves to catch the wind; the dead ones were bare and stood strong.

In Yellowstone, there are lots of dead trees from the 1988 fire. With that tree crashing down not far from me during the windless night before, I should have been more aware.

In addition to the countless fire-damaged trees around me, trees throughout much of the west have been damaged by beetle infestation. Many campsites have been closed until they can be cut down. Setting up my tent next to a downed tree might offer some protection, I thought.

I left my kayak tied to a log close to the water’s edge. I hung much of my food from a tree, but my kayak was still quite heavy, laden with cans of food. I was betting a bear couldn’t smell through metal.

[Not a winning wager. According to the National Park Service, bears can pick up scents from metal cans. See —Ed.]. I loaded them separately—rather than packed in bags—for better weight distribution, a tighter load and more storage. As a consequence, it’s inconvenient, though usually unnecessary, to unload my supplies.

A lot of it stays in my kayak when I’m in camp. I’ve been in some severe blows before that were so strong the tent completely blew over flat across my face, but my kayak, weighed down with the gear aboard it, didn’t budge. It was only after this trip that I realized the log it was tied to could have been washed away.

If I’d had more rope, I could have, if nothing else, tied my kayak to something solidly fixed on higher ground. There was the rope that I’d used to tie my food up in the tree—there wasn’t much chance of a bear foraging for a meal in that storm—but I didn’t think to repurpose it.

So, upon hearing the weather report, my attention was focused on what might happen to me in the tent, rather than on the vulnerability of my kayak.

The wind seemed to double in strength every 30 seconds. Soon, dirt was flying up under my tent’s fly, through the screen and onto the book I was trying to read.

The wind kept building, and I became concerned. Suddenly, that cracking sound that I’d heard at the last campsite came again, only this time much louder and much closer. With a powerful thud the tree came crashing down onto the corner of my tent, missing my foot by inches. The roof was pulled down slightly and it was difficult to unzip the screen door with its distorted shape.

A branch tore off another tree and landed right next to the tent on the other side. As I stuck my head out, thick branches blocked my way. A huge tree trunk pressed up against the side wall. I realized how close I’d come to injury or even death. I crawled out of the now small door opening and looked out onto the lake in absolute horror. There were five- and six-foot waves with the wind blasting the tops off into spray.

If I had gone with my first idea of paddling farther, I’d still be out on the lake. There was no way I could paddle in that maelstrom. It was then that I began to worry about my boat. It started to rain.

I crawled back into the tent to keep dry while I figured things out. The tree had landed on my can of bear spray. I wondered what would have happened if that thing had exploded with me in the tent. Just then, another tree crashed to the ground about 10 feet from me.

Luckily, it was downwind of the tent and fell away from me. I stuck my head out to see the damage and then I looked upwind. I saw four tall trees within striking distance. There wasn’t one live pine needle on any of the four trees. They were dead and had been decaying for 24 years since the fire. I couldn’t stay in the tent, and I also couldn’t move it because it was pinned under the
fallen tree.

My mind raced. If I had to abandon the tent, I’d have to find something to shelter myself. The only waterproof thing in my tent was my sleeping pad. My concern about leaving my shelter was hypothermia. Soaking wet in a 40-degree night could be serious.

I said to myself, “Think, Jim, think. What do you have? Where’s your stuff?” Even though I’d heard the warning on my VHF,  I had negelected to bring enough “just in case” stuff to my tent.

I had nothing to protect me from the rain. I’d thought that as long as I was in the tent, it wasn’t going to be blown away, and I could weather the storm safe and dry inside. I never foresaw myself stuck outside my tent hoping trees wouldn’t kill me.

I calmed myself and remembered that my rain jacket was in my kayak. I needed to check on my boat anyway, so I hurried to the shore. It was fine, but it had been blown sideways by the wind.

I pulled it as far away from the water as I could. I grabbed my multi-tool and jacket and ran back to the tent. Wind and rain sprayed my face as I knelt in the lee of the tent, staring up at these four giants and waiting to hear that awful cracking sound.

I was forced to stay outside the tent to keep an eye on the trees, but could I get my 60-year-old self out of the way in time? I looked around, but saw nothing that could give me any sort of shelter from rain or wind. I had to figure something out.

Then I saw the logs that were used for seating around the campsite fire pit. I grabbed a log and laid it next to my tent then I grabbed another and placed it across the first. I laced more logs across each other making a V-shaped wall up in front of my tent. If those trees came down, they’d crash onto the logs instead of me.

My fortress complete, I crawled back into my tent and lay down on the side closest to the wall of logs. Adrenaline was still flowing through my veins, but I was feeling safer now and I began to calm down. I heard two more trees come crashing down, but not the ones upwind of me. About 45 minutes later, the winds began to subside and I was able to drift off to sleep.

Dawn revealed a perfectly calm day with no wind, glass like water and blue skies. I got up and inspected the damage. The tent was still pinned under the tree and it wouldn’t budge. I decided to give myself time to figure this out while I went to see if I still had a boat. I found it upside down with its rear deck shoved up on some rocks.

My spray skirt and paddle leash had kept everything with the kayak, including my two carbon wing paddles. There was almost no damage to the kayak, just a few chips in the gelcoat. My expedition deck bag was gone. In it were my two cameras, binoculars in a waterproof case and a few more belongings like my toilet paper.

I looked around, and to my amazement found the deck bag washed up about 10 yards down the beach. Then I looked at my PFD and realized that in all that had happened, I’d never even thought about my PLB in the front pocket. Not that I would have needed to use it, but that’s not something you want to forget about in an emergency. If I had been pinned under a tree, I could have used it to signal for help. All that I lost from my boat were my cheap $10 sunglasses.

I returned to my tent. I looked at the pile of logs and thought I could use them to create a fulcrum and lever to move the tree off my tent. The idea worked. I pulled the tent free. I was surprised that there was no damage to either the fabric or the pole.

I was still shaken and thought to wolf down an energy bar and race across the lake back to Grant Village. Instead, I reconsidered and had an oatmeal breakfast and some orange juice and settled myself down before heading out. After a relaxed 19 miles of paddling I was back at my truck.

When I got home, I called the National Weather Service and asked what the highest wind speed was on Yellowstone Lake that night. The highest recorded wind was 87 mph, but she said it could have been higher because some of the weather stations hadn’t reported. I asked, “How come? Did they get blown away?” She said, “They might have.”

Jim McCann lives in Colorado and kayaks about 75 times a year on mountain lakes. He’s been at it for almost seven years. Before that, he was a canoeist for five years.

Lessons Learned

I lived in Yellowstone Park for six years in the ’90s and have paddled on Yellowstone Lake many times over the past 35 years, so I have come to know it quite well. In addition, I have come to respect it. Jim describes paddling on Yellowstone Lake with accuracy and detail.

It is, indeed, a very large body of very cold water where intense winds can develop quickly without predictability. Conditions can range from glassy surfaces to waves that would challenge and bring fear into the heart of even the most experienced paddler.

It is a mistake to paddle on Yellowstone Lake without being mentally and physically prepared for every possibility. When we leave land for water, even inland lakes, we have taken on significant additional risks.

Having said that, not every condition and possibility can be known, prevented or planned for.

There are always changing conditions and surprises that we must respond and react to. This is certainly part of the reason we find enjoyment in paddling our little boats to remote places.  The unknown challenges that lie ahead do pull us along.  It is clear to me that this paddler feels that pull, and I admire him for it.

The National Park Service does an excellent job of trying to prepare visitors for the realities of paddling on Yellowstone’s waters and for traveling into its backcountry.

I have listened to their checklist of warnings many times, and there have been times when I felt as if I knew more than the ranger. That can be a mistake, as the 100-plus deaths on Yellowstone’s waters attest to. Being humbled can be a good thing.

Complacency on Yellowstone Lake is not. The tendency to get going, to prove things, to power on can often overwhelm our deeper instincts, gut feelings and good sense—all qualities that can help keep us safe. Mindset is an important element in big-water paddling.

Heading off alone into backcountry of any kind also adds to the inherent risks, and the Park Service is correct in the warnings given to solo paddlers. I have had some of my most memorable and enjoyable trips with no one to share them with but myself.

However, it should be obvious that one’s risks go up when traveling alone on water in the backcountry, and one should behave accordingly by being hyperalert to possible dangers.

With all the warnings the Park Service outlines, one can’t be warned of every possible risk, and it is not clear to me whether the paddler was warned of falling trees.

I can’t recall that I’ve ever been warned of “widow makers.” It appears to me, however, that the park does make an effort to cut down limbs or entire trees that may pose a risk at campsites.

As I read Jim’s narrative, there were a couple of red flags at the start of his trip. He had forgotten warm layers when going into the high-mountain, cold-water conditions of Yellowstone Lake.

Substituting a good synthetic layer with a gift-store hoodie, most likely made of cotton, is not the ideal—as I trust he knew. Also, forgetting somewhat important food items made me wonder a bit at Jim’s method of preparing for a trip.

No matter how many trips you’ve been on, there are a lot of things to remember, and to forget things is natural. Relying in any part on your memory when preparing is inviting omissions. The creation of a personalized and detailed checklist of equipment is essential to the safety and enjoyment of your trip; though even Jim, with a “penchant for making lists,” prematurely checked off “bread” and forgot it in the fridge.

Make sure you’re constantly updating your checklist and don’t ignore any item until you’ve put it in your boat. From my own mistakes, I know it’s not unusual to bring a necessary item to put in, only to leave it in the vehicle. While paddling in Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park, I came across a couple who had experienced several miserable nights in the rain, hunkered down in a tent without poles which were left at the launch.

So, use your list when preparing and packing for the trip, double-check it at the launch point, and update it both during the trip and shortly after. Updating it after will help you benefit from your experience by eliminating the items that turned out to be superfluous, and adding new ones that will improve your next adventure.

An equipment list should be continually revised. This list can also include such additional items as: Have you left your float plan with someone? Is your mail being taken care of?

Have you checked weather forecasts? Is your vehicle locked and do you know where the key is stored? Your wallet? In other words, your list should address every detail so you can relax knowing you are completely prepared.

When you are traveling in a group, be sure to double-check the items others are responsible for both at home and again before launching. You don’t want to be at camp the first night and find out the food, the stove and pots, or the tent poles are still at home.

It does appear clear that Jim used adequate caution in assessing the water conditions, thereby arriving safely and without incident at each of his camps. Though luck sometimes plays into our successful outcomes more than we care to admit. Ironically, terra firma was where his risks increased to a dangerous degree—and this can so often be the case.

There’s a strong tendency after a long day of paddling, perhaps out of relief or weariness, to just get camp set up, get some food in our stomachs and sit back and relax. It may simply have to do with the security of being firmly ashore. The risks are over. Or are they?

At times I’ve paddled in some challenging conditions, whether on the coasts of British Columbia and Alaska or on a big freshwater lake like Yellowstone, where the last thing I did was consider my safety.

For example, even on land, winds can be a problem and, in some cases, even life-threatening. Gear and boats can be blown away, leaving you in a precarious situation at best. While canoeing in the Boundary Waters region in Minnesota, my paddling partner and I were forced to camp on a small and exposed island due to increasing wind and waves.

Once camp was set up and we felt relatively secure hunkered down in the tent, the wind really picked up, blew cooking gear into the lake and rolled our 18.5-foot canoe well into the island. The lost pot was a nuisance, but what if the wind had blown the canoe toward the water rather than inland? Should we have tied it down even if it was high and dry? Most certainly!

While that remote island we were forced to bivouac on was treeless, trees would have surely added to the risks.

It turned out this storm was one of those that flattens square miles of trees like stalks of corn, complicating camps and portages for the remainder of the trip.

Camp is where new risks replace the ones left behind on the water, and these deserve the same degree of attention. Camp becomes the place where burns and cuts can occur, where ankles and knees get sprained, where contact with wildlife takes place, where rocks can tumble from cliffs and where trees can fall. Dead trees combined with high winds was exactly the very serious situation Jim found himself in. Could he have eliminated the risks? That’s hard to say, but there are some things he could have considered that may have
reduced the danger.

As Jim describes, parts of the Yellowstone Lake region were burned in 1988. That’s a long time ago, and most of those dead trees have fallen over the years. But some remain standing, and you can be assured that their root systems have decayed, leaving them poised to fall when the wind comes up.

Weather reports that include high winds should always be cause for evaluating your situation and taking steps to assure your safety and secure your gear.

While forecasts will help you assess general and potential risk, alertness to specific conditions at your location is what can save your life. How strong are the winds, what direction are they coming from, how are my camp and my tent situated within this reality and, in the context of this article, are there trees nearby (or limbs overhead) that could pose a threat?

Moving camp can be an option, but it’s not always a realistic one. In Yellowstone, you may only use a site if you’ve reserved it. Of course, I can’t imagine the Park Service would quibble over a camper’s decision to avoid an apparent risk.

(I once had a family ask to share my camp on Yellowstone due to inclement weather and, of course, I made room for them.) If there’s a safer spot to pitch your tent, that’s an option to consider.

Jim had already made his camp and retired for his third night when he heard a cracking branch that caused some concern. I’m puzzled that the cracking and thud of a falling tree came without wind and a flapping tent, or the sound of waves coming ashore.

I have to wonder whether the absence of wind was in the primitive realm of nighttime imagination that we naturally carry with us. But sometimes trees do fall of their own accord, and maybe this was one of
those times.

At this point, it would have been both wise and helpful to exit the tent and take a look around with a flashlight (and his bear spray—just in case) to assess the situation and conditions. While I can understand the hesitation to exit a tent when bears are in our thoughts, especially at night when our fears may be distorted, a tent provides no real safety if a bear is present.

If it was determined that conditions were worsening, he could begin to assess the risks and his options. Whether or not the weather was responsible for the tree falling, a tree did indeed fall. That’s cause for concern, and some action.

The following day’s lightning, rain and wind brought some changing conditions that Jim responded to by wisely heading to shore to wait it out. As he headed off again, conditions on the water may have been fun, but also noteworthy if waves were getting to two feet.

A crossing of over two miles with these changing conditions, in my mind, is taking an unnecessary risk—one that increases as the paddler tires. While weather systems passing through the region may have somewhat predictable conditions, the uncertainty and possibility of localized strong winds and high waves should be taken seriously.

Many people have died of drowning and/or hypothermia on Yellowstone Lake after their watercraft capsized on open-water crossings during both predicted and unpredicted afternoon storms. Jim was lucky he made it through the deteriorating conditions to a beautiful, albeit unplanned camp.

Jim used his cell phone to call to the backcountry office to inform them of his changed plan. That was the right thing to do, and one of the many benefits of today’s technologies. Jim was also equipped with a VHF radio, and the weather report he describes was an ample warning of things to come. With that warning Jim should have secured his camp, the kayak and its contents.

This should have been part of the preparation for the upcoming storm, not done after the fact. When we are on the water during deteriorating conditions, the increasing dangers cause us to seek safety by getting ashore or to a protected place, but when the same conditions take place on land, we are often lulled into complacency by the apparent safety of land, only to find different risks and dangers looming all around us.

This was therefore the time to assess the risks of falling trees, especially since this had happened the night before. Conditions were becoming ripe for this and sure enough, soon after, a falling tree came close enough to raise the greatest of concerns, losing one’s life. Then a second tree came down. His situation was worsening, but the risks to his well-being could have been lessened by assessing them ahead of time. The time to notice four dead trees directly upwind is before a storm hits, not in the midst of it.

Under the seriously deteriorating weather conditions, Jim ultimately jumped into action, attending to his boat—but not securing it—and trying to remedy the pinned tent situation. Hypothermia was a realistic concern, especially considering the hoodie layer and the fact that his rain gear was not with him in the tent, but left in his kayak.

Building the protective log fortress was probably better than nothing, especially under the circumstances, but I would be suspicious that logs light enough to be moved by hand wouldn’t offer adequate protection from the extreme force of a falling tree.

The new day brought clearer weather and perhaps a clearer mind. Jim was very fortunate that his kayak was still there and undamaged. Wondering and worrying about its safety could have been eliminated if he had properly secured it earlier.

Getting a good night’s sleep is always important. It helps you recover from the rigors of the previous day and better prepares you for the day to come. A restful night is more likely if you prepare for the worst before turning in.

For a calm and confident mind, make sure that your kayak is safe and secure, that gear won’t blow away, that food has been properly stowed and that emergency and rain gear is at hand.

Jim was fortunate; he came away from a severe storm—with perhaps record-breaking winds—with minimal material losses. It could have been far worse. Could he have prevented the worst-case scenario?

That’s difficult to determine, but I hope his story now promotes a greater understanding and respect for the forces of nature and the risks they impose. Look up, down and all around whether you’re on water or land.

Don Nelson has been kayaking since 1993 and lived in Yellowstone Park from 1991-1997 as the Director of the Yellowstone Institute. He is the author of Paddling Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.

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