How to Avoid Drowning in the Yellowstone Wilderness

Wait a minute. You’re going backpacking, not canoeing with the Boy Scouts. And it’s not a whitewater rafting trip, either. So why worry about drowning? Well, for good reason!

Although water is an important landscape feature on nearly all of our trips, guided Yellowstone backpack trips are particularly well-endowed with rivers, streams and lakes. Sometimes, we must cross rivers, and occasionally the crossings are challenging. Nearly always, even in summer, the waters are cold. And one slip in a fast-moving creek or river can get you submerged! Or swept downstream. In fact, while most folks, particularly on their first Yellowstone backpack trip, are understandably concerned about bears, statistics show that falling and drowning are much more likely to help alleviate the human overpopulation problem.

When it’s time for a stream crossing, the most important advice we can give you is to follow the guide’s instructions. No two crossings are alike, and it is beyond the scope of this brief essay to cover all of the nuances and techniques for fording rivers and streams in the wilderness. Again, and we can’t emphasize this enough: follow the guide’s instructions! When the group approaches a stream, don’t begin to look for a place to cross on a rock or a log in order to keep your feet dry. Let the guide analyze the situation; that is, let him do his job. If there is a safe place to cross with dry feet, he’ll find it. But remember, wet feet are preferable to a broken leg! The guide may appear to be doing nothing, simply standing at water’s edge, when in fact he is considering many different factors and options. Please don’t interfere, because our guides are good at this, and their primary consideration is safety!

Even when you’re not actually fording a frigid rocky stream, drowning is still possible. I love the book Death in Yellowstone. It describes a number of instances in which people simply fell into rivers from the shoreline and were swept away. So if our group is camped next to a river (or a lake), be careful! Don’t fall in. Be particularly cautious when filling your water bottle. And if your children are along, be especially vigilant and never allow them to even approach a river shoreline without holding the hand of a parent.

OK, it’s a hot summer afternoon. You just hiked 8 miles and are sweaty, covered with trail dust. And Shoshone Lake sure looks inviting! I completely understand. Consider, though, that even in mid to late summer the water temperature of this and other high altitude lakes remains very cold. So plan for your swim or dunk to be brief, because you could begin to get hypothermic before you realize what’s happening! Always go to the water with another person. The “buddy system” is mandatory. Never go swimming alone! Never go out into deep water that’s over your head; wear your crocks/water shoes and have warm dry cloths to put on as soon as you are out.

One more thing. Mountain lakes often include big rocks along the shore. These are rocks, not diving boards. Do not jump off them. Even if the water looks deep, there might be hidden rocks in the water that will radically hasten your demise if you jump or dive.

Again, we do not mean to belittle hazards such as bears or lightning. But water is more dangerous. Yes, our bodies are 70% water. We must have it regularly to sustain life. Water is beautiful. Wilderness water is delicious. It produces fish, otters and bald eagles. But unless you are exceedingly careful around water in the wilderness, the stuff of life can quickly become the facilitator of death.



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