More Adventures Paddling the Land of Wow: Rivers of our National Parks
By Ben Long - continued from Part 1
Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Yellowstone is the granddaddy of all national parks. It's fabled for wildlife and geysers, but five percent of its 2.2-million acres is water. That includes some of the cleanest, wildest, and most storied rivers anywhere. Rivers like the Yellowstone-with its waterfalls and its Grand Canyon-and the steaming Firehole, but also the Madison, Lamar, Lewis, and Gardiner rivers.
Yellowstone Park is not welcoming to river paddlers. The rivers are cold and swift, and boats are generally prohibited. Still, there are many other ways to enjoy the park's running water. Most famously, there is fishing. Yellowstone's eighteen species of fish attract flycasters from across the world. The native Yellowstone cutthroat trout are the most prized, but there are also exotic browns and rainbows.
Flyfishing in Yellowstone suffers, though, from its own reputation. You can literally be shoulder-to-shoulder with other fishermen. The same trout may be caught-and-released dozens of times annually in the park's most popular waters.
The alternative to this zoo is simple: Walk. Most park visitors seem to be attached to their cars by an invisible rope, and the quietwater is just beyond the length of that rope. Another tip: Don't overlook the small streams and tributaries.
The other way to avoid the hordes is to visit in the fall or spring. September is my favorite month in Yellowstone: The fishing is the best and the bull elk are bugling their challenges through the high country. I hope Heaven is half so good.
Just to the south is Yellowstone's little sister, Grand Teton National Park. Here, the headwaters of the Snake River flow from jagged 12,000-foot peaks. The Snake coils through a cottonwood-forested bottom, each bend offering a gleaming new view of the Tetons. Driftboats bob past, filled with anglers casting for the Snake's fine-spotted cutthroat trout.
The thirty miles of the Snake that flow through Grand Teton are divided into 3 segments, rated from beginning to advanced. The advanced segment presents paddlers with logjams, sweepers, and braided channels. "It's a seemingly innocent river, but will hammer anybody from beginner to advanced on a given day," says one river ranger.
Wow Factor? Take your pick: Feeling the mist from the falls in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Watching bison ford the Lamar. Soaking in the geothermally heated Boiling River as snowflakes melt in the steam.
Contact: Yellowstone National Park Superintendent, PO Box 168, Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190. Phone: (307) 344-7381. Grand Teton National Park, PO Drawer 170, Moose, WY, 83012. Phone: (307) 739-3300.
C&O Canal and Harpers Ferry, in Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland
Harpers Ferry is a former federal armory saturated with American history. It also happens to be at the confluence of two of the East's most notable rivers, the Potomac and the Shenandoah. When Lewis and Clark explored the West, they carried guns forged at Harpers Ferry. When John Brown revolted against slavery, he attempted to take over the armory here. During the Civil War, the town was the scene of bloody battles.
And if you're visiting Washington D.C. and need a river fix, this is the place for it. "The passage of the Patowmac through the Blue Ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature," wrote one early visitor named Thomas Jefferson. The bluff above Harper's Ferry is the most westerly spot Jefferson ever reached.
Nowadays, the Appalachian Trail passes through town. The mountains flanking Harpers Ferry are still cloaked in hardwoods. If you catch the fall colors at their peak, consider yourself blessed.
Great Falls of the Potomac and the C & O Canal offer a natural diversion after a day of touring museums and monuments in Washington. The sound of the river drowns out the hum of traffic and the lush forest stands in contrast to the urban landscape hidden not far away.
The historic C & O (Chesapeake and Ohio) Canal is a 184-mile long greenbelt running along the Potomac. It runs from the posh Washington D. C. suburb of Georgetown, past Harpers Ferry, to the upstream community of Cumberland, Maryland.
Historically, mules pulled barges ferrying coal and other raw materials up and down the canal from a tow path along the bank. Now, the path hosts joggers, walkers, and anglers. The Potomac crosses the Washington Beltway near the Great Falls. Here, kayakers peel out of wetsuits, slip into suits and ties, and head back to work after a mid-day paddling break.
The canal path has 34 primitive campsites, right along the river. In theory, a canoer can float between campsites. Check your map carefully, though, because the campsites are not always visible from the water. The paddling is Class II, and the major danger is a series of small dams that must be portaged.
Wow Factor? Standing in the footsteps of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, pondering how the nation they founded 223 years ago treats its rivers, both for work and for play.
Both Harpers Ferry and C & O Canal Headquarters can be contacted at, PO Box 4, Sharpsburg, MD, 21782. Phone: (301) 739-4200.
Congaree Swamp National Monument, South Carolina
When Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto marched through the territory of the Congaree Indians, South Carolina had perhaps a million acres of old-growth floodplain. After four centuries of exploitation, a mere 13,000 acres remain. Fortunately, 11,000 of those acres are protected in this national monument.
This is the largest old-growth floodplain east of the Mississippi River. A visit is akin to time-travel. The Congaree River floods the monument 10 times a year. The floods replenish the soil and grow some of the biggest trees in the East. Loblolly pine, cypress, and cherrybark oak tower overhead.
The 87 species of trees here support a broad array of wildlife, from native otters and bobcats to exotic wild boar. Birders are drawn by Congaree's eight species of woodpeckers and the Swainson's warbler. In summer, a dense canopy of leaves arches over the river. In places, canoers paddle through a lush, green tunnel. Warblers sing and frolic overhead while the river gently pulls your boat downstream.
Canoe travel along the Congaree can consist of short outings or overnighters. The paddle from Cedar Creek to the Highway 601 bridge is a 20-mile route that lends itself to a primitive overnighter. On land, the Park Service maintains a trail network, with hikes ranging from short boardwalks to 10-mile treks. Fishing for catfish, black and striped bass is allowed in most of the monument under state regulations.
The river fluctuates with upstream rains. Rising water can swamp camps and falling levels can leave your boat stranded. The main water trail is periodically cleared of debris, but a wrong turn can force you to drag your canoe through a field of downed logs. Also, beware of copperheads, cottonmouth, and other venomous snakes, mosquitoes and deer flies, and poison ivy.
Visiting the monument is free, although donations are accepted. Primitive camping is also free, although a permit is required. "This is a four-season park," said one official. "It can be enjoyed every month of the year."
Wow Factor? Joining hands with your paddling friends, trying to measure the girth of a giant cherrybark oak tree that somehow survived decades of logging and 1989's Hurricane Hugo.
Contact: Congaree Swamp National Monument, 200 Caroline Sims Road, Hopkins, S.C. 29061. Phone: (803) 776-4396.
Yukon-Charley River National Preserve, Alaska
If you're the kind of paddler who has longed all your life for a true wilderness paddling experience, Yukon-Charley in interior Alaska may be your destination. It's the kind of place that requires long planning and plenty of experience, but it offers rewards that only comes from wilderness adventure.
The 1,800-mile long Yukon is one of our nation's mightiest and most legendary rivers. This preserve protects 100 miles of that river.
Moreover, the preserve protects the entire Charley River drainage, from source to mouth. That's a 108-mile river and a 1.1 million-acre watershed. The drainage has no roads. It doesn't even have any maintained trails. Because of its clear water, bold whitewater and untouched vistas, Alaskans consider the Charley one of their most spectacular rivers.
The preserve was created in 1980 and encompasses some 2.5 million acres, the size of Yellowstone Park. It is home to wolves, caribou, and Dall sheep and has the continent's highest concentration of nesting peregrine falcons. Technically, Yukon-Charley is a national preserve, not a national park. The land is managed by the National Park Service, but is open to some uses that are barred in traditional parks, such as hunting and trapping.
Boats and airplanes, often in combination, are the two most popular ways to visit Yukon-Charley. Floaters load rafts on bush planes and fly to the upper reaches of the Charley to float downstream. But planes cost money. A bush plane from Tok to the headwaters of the Charley runs $1,200. The downstream run includes a steady course of Class III whitewater.
Other potential floats don't require aircraft. One option is the Yukon, between Eagle and Circle, which is a 150-mile trip. Just outside the park, the Fortymile River also affords whitewater floating and has road access. But take this trip seriously. The Park Service brochure is blunt: "Novice boaters have no business...on these wilderness rivers."
The Yukon tends to run silty and is not known for its fishing. Several tributaries, however, are clear and sport grayling and other species. Start dreaming.
Wow Factor? The moment the bush plane leaves you at the put-in when you become aware of the total silence and know your party is utterly on its own for the next hundred miles.
Contact: Yukon-Charley National Preserve, Box 167, Eagle, AK 99738. Phone: (907) 547-2233.
Big Bend National Park, Texas
The Rio Grande River is a border between Mexico and the United States, but also is the life-blood of Big Bend National Park. Technically, the dividing line between nations is the center of the main channel, but the border once fought over by nations is ignored by Nature.
Ironically, most of the water in the Rio Grande flows in from the south, from Mexico. The American tributaries of the Rio Grande are tapped so heavily for irrigation they offer just a trickle to this landmark river. This is tough country, long inhabited by tough people.
Big Bend National Park offers desert adventure for paddlers willing to venture to the remote park. The Rio Grande-or the Rio Bravo del Norte, as it's called in Mexico-carves through 118 miles of Big Bend. The park itself is 800,000 acres but sees a mere 300,000 people a year, making it one of the largest, yet least visited, parks in the National Park system.
The park includes the canyons of the Rio Grande, a sweeping desert plain rising to modest, isolated mountain ranges. All of it lies under a vast, blue sky. As you might easily imagine, summer temperatures in Big Bend can be blistering. Daytime highs can surpass 100 degrees for weeks. This makes Big Bend a prime off-season destination.
The banks of the Rio Grande form an abrupt contrast between desert uplands and the lush riparian corridor. Both are rich habitat, but are strikingly different. Because of that variety, Big Bend hosts some 450 species of birds and more than 1,200 species of plants. That's more varieties of birds and cacti than any other national park. Whoever said a desert is lifeless? There are even a few black bears living in those isolated mountains.
Besides the living creatures, Big Bend visitors ponder fossils from the dinosaur eras. Paleontologists have found enormous, fossilized pterodactyls here. With a little imagination, it's not difficult to transform circling black vultures into flying dinosaurs.
The Rio carves through limestone, cleaving steep-walled canyons 1,500 feet deep. River trips can be one-day, 10-mile trips, or longer journeys of 33 miles or more.
Just outside the national park is Big Bend Ranch State Park. Access to the river can be arranged on neighboring ranches as well, with a few phone calls and a little diplomacy.
Wow Factor? Reading Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses by flashlight, after a camp dinner and a cold beer along our nation's southern border.
Contact: Superintendent, PO Box 129, Big Bend National Park, TX, 79843. Phone: (915) 477-2251.
No wonder the rest of the world thought America's national parks were such a good idea. But National Parks are victims of their own popularity. Crowds of people have resulted in long lists of rules to protect the parks' wonders for future generations. The Land of 'Wow!' is also the Land of 'No!' Rules vary from park to park and it's the visitor's responsibility to know and follow them.
Fees and permits also vary widely. Congaree Swamp, for example, charges no fees for boating and camping. Yellowstone Park, however, requires a park sticker on every "floating craft," including a float tube.
Thanks to some recent legislation in the United States and Canada, both the US National Park Service and Parks Canada have gone on a fee-spree. The bad news is that services like backcountry camping permits that were free a few years ago may now cost money. The good news is that the money goes toward projects that better serve visitors and the park.
But who can complain? Our National Parks are still the best adventure value in the world. Where else can you experience wonders like this? No where but the Land of Wow!
Ben Long is a regular contributor to RIVER Magazine, a national magazine dedicated to moving water and the activities surrounding it. For more information on Paddling the Land of Wow and a list of more National Parks that feature outstanding rivers, look for the June 1999 issue of RIVER in Barns & Noble, and specialty outdoor shops in your area, or contact RIVER at 877-582-5440.
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