Thursday, August 18, 2011

Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone

There is nothing better than self support kayaking. The beauty lies in the simplicity, and the versatility. While camping out of a kayak I've seen some of the most beautiful and inaccessible places in the world. The Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone in the northwestern corner of Wyoming is such a place. It has everything one could wish for - brutal portages, blind rapids, and tall committing canyon walls. In places the granite walls rise straight out of the river offering no escape - hence the 3rd deepest canyon in the United States is commonly referred to as "The Box."

As the rivers drop at the end of summer plans for multi day kayaking trips come together quickly. In a few days a perfect crew of good friends and gifted kayakers were en route to Wyoming.

The Cast of Characters . . .

Kurt Braunlich

Ryan Casey

Xavier Engle

Ben Luck

All good adventures begin at Grandma's house.

Driving North

View of "the Box" from the Chief Joseph Highway

The Nez Perce, during their flight to Canada, hid in the canyons of the Clarks Fork from the US Army. The Army camped at the canyons mouth but the Nez Perce made their way across the river and into the Bitterroots. They were forced to surrender a few months later.

Its hard to imagine their struggle in modern times but fortunately the Clarks Fork still requires plenty of suffering. The first day consists of some great whitewater and huge portages. Plenty of downed timber and scree fields take their fair share of skin and the horseflies were quick to feast once the blood started oozing.

Xavier and Ben contemplate the full jars of mayonnaise, mustard, and tartar sauce in their boats.

Ben below the second big portage of day 1, Ankle Breaker.

Ben with his boat off his shoulder. Double Suck.

Of the 6 mandatory portages in the Box - this one is the easiest. Kurt gets ready to launch off the rock and into the cave.

Camp Day 1.

Boxed In.

Full Moon.



Ben Luck. Balls to the Wall.

Ryan Casey. Balls to the Wall.

Ben Luck. Snollieguster

Ben Luck

Kurt Braunlich

The Box was first descended by a group of kayakers in the early 80's that were argurably better climbers. They were drawn to the granite cliffs and climbing potential in the canyon. They used plenty of rope trickery to portage rapids that were too challenging. But the Box lives up to its name about 3/4 of the way into the run when you reach Deliberation Corner. One can portage the biggest part of the rapid, but at the corner you are forced into your kayak. An 8 foot spout with a sticky hole is mandatory. 

Kayaking is often a mix of personalities and ability levels. It is common for one or two people to see a line in a rapid when others choose to walk. At its core, especially on multi day wilderness trips, kayaking is a group sport. The goal is to travel safely and watch out for one another. But often those you are with inspire you.

Upper Deliberation Corner is a long rapid with pushy, technical moves. It's intimidating and the consequences of a mistake would be dire. Success requires that you link complex moves right above three doors (slots between rocks), only two of which are acceptable to paddle through. Your goal is to make the right hand door - the 8 foot spout that everyone is required to run.

It was late afternoon when we arrived at this point in the river. After a long involved scout we fell into the rhythm of the day. Ben and Ryan laid down some inspiring lines and the rest of us fed off that energy. With total concentration and confidence we each paddled off the big rock above the 3 doors and made it right.

Ben Luck. Upper Deliberation Corner.

Ryan Casey. Middle Deliberation. The Mandatory part.

Lower Deliberation follows immediately after and we all rode over the big seam and down the slide into the walled out gorge below.

Soon after we were amongst the scree fields with our boats on our shoulders, portaging down to the blind must run rapid on the Clarks Fork, Leap of Faith. The only view you have of this 15 foot waterfall is the lip. We paddled off and into the boulder garden below.

Xavier Engle. Leap of Faith.

The last mandatory portage of the Clarks Fork is just below. In 2003 a group of 7 kayakers accidently paddled into this portage. Unbelievably, only one of them drowned. My good friend Kyle was one of the survivors. This portage will always be humbling.

We made camp just below the portage. Just downstream Sunlight Creek falls into the Clarks Fork over a 60 foot waterfall. It is an immense place.

Relaxing with bellies full of whiskey and trout.

Kurt paddles one of the last rapids as the river exits the canyon.

The Canyon Mouth

The Team at the Take-Out

All too soon we were back on the road. Kurt and I heading south to our respective jobs, while the rest of the team drove straight to California and the next river on their tick list - the ultimate multi day kayaking trip of the lower 48, the Middle Kings. Flows depending the boys are set to drop into Devils Postpile afterwards before driving straight north to British Columbia for the Grand Canyon of the Stikine. Over the next few weeks Ben, Xavier, and Ryan could paddle the greatest wilderness kayaking trips in North America. It was a tough drive back to work but Kurt and I took solace in the fact that the rivers will be there next year and all it will take some inspiration and the right people to follow in their footsteps. Good luck boys!

The Drive Home


  1. What a trip! So glad you're finally blogging about your adventures!

  2. hooray for grandma-blessed adventures! nice photos and historical tidbits. keep it coming!

  3. well done OD! love the pics .. & the words!
    hope to see you out in the NW again before too long.