California Literary Review

Yellowstone Drift: All of This Begins Here


June 22nd, 2009 at 10:04 am

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Yellowstone Drift by John Holt
Yellowstone Drift: Floating the Past in Real Time
by John Holt
AK Press, 275 pp.

[Editor’s note: John Holt has been one of the California Literary Review‘s writers since its founding in 2004. This is from the Introduction to his new book, Yellowstone Drift: Floating the Past in Real Time.]

Island camp in the Yellowstone River above Forsyth, Montana

Camping on an island in the Yellowstone River above Forsyth, Montana
[Photo by Ginny Holt]

Being part of the river is easy. You just settle into the canoe, push off from the sandy, gravelly shore and begin paddling downstream, often letting the current take you where it will over the course of miles and hours while the sun seems to soar east to west. Cottonwoods with thick limbs supporting golden and bald eagles that resemble stoic statuary slide behind. Willows rustle in a warm breeze. Herons perch motionless on grey downfall, eccentric extensions of the dead trees, figures patiently waiting for small trout or sculpin to move into range of long, pointed beaks.

The quiet slip of the flowing, living current through a long, wide bend in the river, the enormous trees lining the grassy cutbanks, thick tangles of exposed roots dipping into the water, is disrupted by the sound of rushing, breaking water like strong wind working through the leaves of these watching trees, the broken water perhaps a quarter-mile ahead. Soon the silvery white crests of standing waves are visible and tangles of deadfalls and limbs slammed together during spring runoff line the edges of the main stem of the river. In a few seconds the pace of the current begins to accelerate, slowly at first, now rapidly and the strength of the Yellowstone is palpable, a force that is basic, direct and potentially overpowering. All effort is directed towards gaining a line through this rough cascade of loud splashing, a line that will hopefully track safely to one side of the three and four foot high humps of water that look like the hair standing up on the back of a starving mongrel dog. Paddling is fast and hard as the canoe tries to leak towards the center line of broken water. Time stands still while sun-sparkled water, glistening rock and deep green shoreline runs past in a blur of motion and sound. Then the river arcs to the left down below and the relative calm of the inside curve is visible. Hard pushes on the side of the rapids with forceful J-strokes mixed into the action maintain the course to smoother going. Then, like none of this ever happened, ever existed, the noise and whirling water recedes and sound vanishes from the senses.

That’s being part of the river.

Becoming the river is not so hard, either. Those hours smoothly turn into days, weeks. The swirling and mixing determination of current leads inexorably downstream gradually, but sometimes abruptly, dropping through the country with still more splashing, crested waves and liquid sound and ever nearer to sea level. Paddling becomes second nature, repetitive – even Indian strokes and box-stroke pivots used to maintain course and position in the river are executed without thought. Muscles become routinized and mechanically perform their tasks without pain or fatigue.

Yellow cliffs along the Yellowstone River

Yellow cliffs along the Yellowstone River
[Photo by Ginny Holt]

Geese by the thousands honking with wild, natural insanity, are now almost subconsciously heard and appreciated, the shimmering vibrations of all those wings in the light have become part of the trip, the natural way of all of the motionless time, a part of the Yellowstone as all of this always has been.

The heat of mid-day, the afternoon upstream wind, the muffled grate of the canoe as it slips across a gravel bar covered with a few inches of water, the whisper of willow and Russian Olive leaves, the sound of a small fire crackling in the evening, the buzz of nighthawks feeding on insects and the yelps and howls of coyotes talking with the stars in the cooling air – all of this registers as elements of the river’s life on a subliminal stage that has taken over and dominates a clear, basic awareness.

Now the river asserts benign control and draws me into its flow, just moving in and within the water’s rhythms. I forget the enclosed, electronic life back home in Livingston. Everything is transformed to the elemental, second nature, happening without effort, without a need to learn or understand. The Yellowstone steadily flows down to the Missouri, then Mississippi and finally the Gulf of Mexico, always as gravity’s companion – this movement is the essence of all rivers. The repetitive nature of the day to day routine out here is hypnotic, rapidly washing away anxiety and, finally, useless ego.

An unaccustomed serenity and well-being pervades as the canoe tracks its own way with slight help from me.

Everything is now the river and its fertile, riparian corridor with all of the creatures who depend on this water to live moving in synchronicity.


The idea for canoeing the length of the Yellowstone River from below Gardiner on the northern edge of Yellowstone National Park down river to its confluence with the Missouri at Ft. Buford, North Dakota has been running around my head for a long time. Ever since I moved to Livingston from Whitefish a dozen years ago, During my daily walks on the levee along the river at Sacajewea Park I watch the water race and power its way to the east. Diverse currents rush around north and south sides of the 9th Street Island and merge in a foam crested series of standing waves and foam flecked eddies. The river pushes against the flood-control riprap before plunging over an erosion polished upthrust of charcoal grey stone. From there the Yellowstone bounces and laughs its way past Mayor’s Landing beneath ochre sandstone bluffs and then on down for several miles to the Highway 89 Bridge.

Powder River meets the Yellowstone River above Terry, Montana

The Powder River flowing into the Yellowstone River above Terry, Montana
[Photo by Ginny Holt]

I’d floated this stretch in an Avon raft or McKenzie drift boat many times casting to large, and not-so-large, browns and rainbows over the years and had canoed this run a couple of times. Whether walking or floating my thoughts inevitably turned to imagining what doing the entire river would be like. What would I see. What kinds of fish, birds, animals and landscape would I encounter? What were the people like over in Forsyth more than two-hundred miles east or were there hermits and madmen roaming the banks along the badlands around Terry still further east?

Finally I made up my mind to make the journey. Floating in Yellowstone Park is not allowed and the Upper and Lower Falls are a sure death trip anyway, so I’d cover the 520-plus miles beginning just below Yankee Jim Canyon at Carbella…

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