Swimming and Water Safety on Guided Yellowstone Hikes

Yellowstone’s greatest danger for humans is driving through the park. Beyond that, the biggest statistical chance for your ultimate demise while visiting Yellowstone is not bears. Not by a long shot. No, the most likely thing to earn you a premature entry into the nitrogen cycle while backpacking in Yellowstone is water, the stuff that makes up about 70% of the human body and that covers three quarters of the planet (though that figure is increasing with climate change)! In Yellowstone, drownings are legendary.

Here is some simple advice: Don’t slip and fall into an icy raging torrent! And don’t stay in the lake so long that you succumb to hypothermia. Hypothermia is the lowering of the core body temperature usually to some combination of cold and wet. Hypothermia, which will be discussed in a future post, can reduce your brain function to the the level exhibited nowadays by the U.S. Congress! And in deep water, that can be deadly! Here is some more salient advice: don’t go canoeing with the Boy Scouts. If you must canoe on one of Yellowstone’s icy lakes, hug the shoreline and eschew the temptation to take that shortcut to camp by crossing the icy open waters of Shoshone Lake! Again, hug the shoreline!

On a guided Yellowstone backpack trip, though, stream crossings pose a particular hazard, especially early in the season when runoff is high. I have dealt with stream crossings in a previous post, so for now, I’ll simply repeat that folks should follow the instructions of the backpacking guide.

Yet many drownings have occurred simply by folks falling into rivers or drowning in a lake, either with or without a canoe. If swim you must, avoid deep water and always swim with a buddy, never alone! The rich, high altitude Yellowstone landscape is as much about water as it is about the land and wildlife. Shoshone Lake is the largest completely back-country lake (not accessible by road) in the lower 48 states. You will camp along its shore on our Southwest Yellowstone Bechler Waterfall Wonderland treks. Yellowstone Lake is our largest high altitude lake. Heart Lake is magnificent. And the Yellowstone, Snake, Gibbon, Firehole and Gardiner Rivers plus many more constitute the lifeblood of this magnificent land. Don’t reach for a Darwin award; don’t let these beautiful waters naturally select you out of our albeit excessive human population!

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