Frankly Yellowstone

Ruby, a golden retriever, watches the sun rise at Land's End on Yellowstone Lake.

Ruby, a golden retriever, watches the sun rise at Land’s End on Yellowstone Lake. (Dewey Vanderhoff — click to enlarge)

By Dewey Vanderhoff

Over 3 million people visit Yellowstone National Park  each year, yet only a small fraction ever venture out onto Yellowstone Lake itself , instead skirting the western and northern shorelines by paved road on the way to other attractions.

Sunrise over Sylvan Pass

Sunrise over Sylvan Pass. (Dewey Vanderhoff — click to enlarge)

Yellowstone Lake is a world unto itself, the largest freshwater high-elevation lake in North America. I have come to know the big lake well these past two seasons by virtue of several boating treks with my good friend Jeff Shrin of Cody, a musician who has a production studio to pay for his habitual boat-based fly-fishing avocation. Jeff lives to tie magical flies then use them to skillfully hook native Yellowstone Cutthroat.

I’m more than willing to come along as a deck hand on his 22 foot Bayliner Trophy boat. Yellowstone Lake is a crown jewel of the American outdoors, one which I feel greatly privileged to enjoy intimately, its natural history and ecology and aesthete.

Morning on Frank Island

Morning on Frank Island. (Dewey Vanderhoff — click to enlarge)

Double rainbow

Double rainbow puts a scrim on distant Mt. Doane, an Absaroka Range peak on Yellowstone’s eastern boundary. (Dewey Vanderhoff — click to enlarge)

In June 2011, Yellowstone had a record mountain snowpack and voyages on the lake were like trips back to the Pleistocene or coastal Alaska. This year, a record drought year, the snowpack vanished in unnatural early summer warmth. The character of the lake and islands were as different as could be from one year to the next: different species of waterfowl and shore birds, different assortments of flowering plants. Same planet but different worlds it seemed.

Yellowstone Cutthroat

A native Yellowstone Cutthroat, caught and released near Eagle Bay on the west side of Yellowstone Lake in clear shallow water. (Dewey Vanderhoff — click to enlarge)


An American pelican accustomed to following boats circled the boat five times. We believe he was after some lunch, a behavior he may have learned from the commercial gill netters trying to remove all the Lake Trout (Mackinaw) from Yellowstone Lake one net full at a time. Any Lake Trout hauled in are killed and thrown back in the water, a situation that the pelicans most surely have picked up on. We had no eviscerated fish parts for this fine bird, so he flew over to the next available boat about a mile away. (Dewey Vanderhoff — click to enlarge)

Sitting astride the Continental Divide at the headwaters of two great river systems, Yellowstone Lake is the pumping heart of North America, feeding the Pacific ocean via the Snake and Columbia drainages, and the Atlantic Ocean via the Yellowstone-Missouri drainages.

Absaroka alongside the Promontory

A full moon rises over the Absaroka alongside the Promontory as a thunderhead recedes to the east at sunset. (Dewey Vanderhoff — click to enlarge)

In not so distant times, water from Yellowstone Lake made it to Hudson Bay and the southern Arctic before the advancing Ice Age glaciers diverted the Yellowstone and upper Missouri Rivers back southwards.

Yellowstone’s main concessionaire Xanterra Resorts offers a wide range of services for boaters and anglers on Yellowstone Lake from its two marinas: Bridge Bay near Lake and Grant Village near West Thumb. Xanterra provides guided tours, fishing  trips , rental powerboats and rowables, drop off/pickup service etc., from mid-June to mid-September. Private boating and some backcountry shore camps or dock berths are allowed in Yellowstone. Reservations are required and  users need to be well versed in the regulations, which vary, and mandatory safety protocols. Yellowstone Lake requires the utmost respect from users, since it can create its own harsh weather and challenging surface conditions with little warning.

Stars over Yellowstone Lake

Hanging over Yellowstone Lake is Venus and Jupiter, the Pleiades and Hyades star clusters, and a small Perseid meteor at left center at about 3 AM. (Dewey Vanderhoff — click to enlarge)

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Published on September 14, 2012

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