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From Eclipse to Kayak to Disaster to Salvation in Yellowstone

Luke Armstrong | Jan 6, 2022

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It was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime. For years my dad wanted to get back-country permits to take a wilderness kayak trip from Lewis Lake to Lake Shoshone in Yellowstone National Park. This year, he got them. 

My dad is quite the character, with a lot of travel and adventure stories. At 61, he is still living like a legend. He kayaks the Missouri River year-round, in any season. He met my mom in the Marshall Islands as a Peace Corps volunteer. He flew in prop planes over Mount Saint Helens' plume to broadcast live to a national radio audience.

He kayaks the Missouri River in summer and winter, to his daily routine of waking up early for a ski (in the summer, he uses roller skies)— Papa Armstrong is an interesting man to say the very least (so that Dos Equis guy better watch out!)

As my Uncle Nikki put it, "There's no one quite like your dad." Perhaps more explanation on him and his adventurous life merits a separate article.

For now, let's return to the trip at hand.

The Eclipse From Lake Jackson

A big chunk of my large family and some old friends set up a base camp in Grant Village in Yellowstone National Park. From there we took in the August 21 eclipse in the path of totality from kayaks on Lake Jackson, overshadowed by the Grand Tetons in Wyoming.

As we neared the moment of totality, a coolness snuck up on the summer's heat as daylight dimmed and the light slipped away. There was an implacable strangeness in the air.

"It's like we are in another world," said my mom, as sunsets appeared on both sides of the horizon. Then came the unforgettable moment— for two and half minutes, we remembered that this planet is part of a much larger world.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, he knew. The world would become religious overnight, he thought. But the stars come out every night and most people watch TV instead.

In many cultures throughout the world, eclipses are seen as a bad omen. Whether you buy into any of that or not, it certainly seems auspicious of what was to happen next.

From Surreal to Things Getting Real

Because of an old neck injury, I opted not to go on the wilderness kayaking trip. My neck wasn't bothering me, but I was worried that days of kayaking could bring a flare up—not something you want to have happen in the wilderness. So, I held down a base camp in Grant Village, Yellowstone while my dad, uncle, and Scott—a family friend—and his two sons, embarked on the Kayak adventure to Lake Shoshone in Yellowstone National Park.

The Kayak Adventure Begins

They first dipped their paddles in Lewis Lake, the last place where there is civilization. It was filled with the commencing elation that fills us at the beginning of an adventure. Such adventures start fresh, with the body energized and ready to take on whatever comes. 

At this point in the channel, the flow was barely detectable. All members of the party know they are lucky to be doing this—Paddling is barred on streams and rivers within Yellowstone, but allowed on Lewis Channel with a hard-to-obtain permit. (Though there is a movement underway to change this).

After the first few hours, the channel narrowed and the current picked up. A mile from Shoshone Lake, the stream became so shallow the party needed to get out and drag the kayaks through ankle-deep water the rest of the way.

My Uncle Nikki isn't as outdoorsy as my dad and the rest of the crew, so he gave it his everything to keep up.

After an hour of intense labor, the crew emerged from the channel into the shimmering waters of Shoshone Lake to make their first night's camp on its southern shore.

Shoshone Lake is a backcountry lake with the area of 8,050 acres elevated at 7,795 feet (2,376 m) in the southwest section of Yellowstone National Park.

"It was quiet," my dad recounts, "peaceful, and with a sky full of stars. You realize you are the only people for dozens of miles, which is hard to do these days."

The next morning they shove off toward their second nights camp past the Narrows. With camp set, they jumped into their kayaks sans gear to paddle to the Shoshone Geyser Basin on the West shore.

Unlike to boardwalks and crowds surrounding Old Faithful, in the Shoshone Geyser Basin you have a much more primitive setting—as it's been for thousands of years. There are 4 million visitors to Old Faithful every year, but only a few thousand make it here.

Sailing Back to Camp

Then the party caught a stiff wind back and effortlessly sailed to camp. It took an hour and a half to paddle to the geyser basin, but sailing they returned in twenty minutes. (Look for more on this in my upcoming article: "Everything You Need to know to Get into Kayaking" for information on sailing your kayak).

Disaster Strikes: Where's Nikki?

Heading back, everyone was filled with a the content joy of having embarked on the trip—All are aware that in this day and age finding yourself in such wild lands is a rare opportunity.

Remember the channel everyone had to drag their kayaks through on the way in? On they way back the current propelled them easily onward and everyone laughs out loud, enjoying the ride.

After crossing the Narrows, there was just three miles of Lewis Lake to cross to reach the point where they launched three days prior.

It was a windy day on Lewis Lake with four foot waves. For the first time in the trip, the group separated. My dad got in first, leaving Scott and his two boys with his brother. After loading up his gear, the trio pulled in sans Nikki.  With binoculars it first appeared the bright red kayak pulled into a cove to avoid the waves.

So the family friends packed up and decided to start their long drive home to Montana. My dad then wondered what was taking so long to round the cove and summoned for help at the Lewis Lake Ranger station.

What Happened to Nikki?

With the large waves that day, Nikki's Kayak was taking on water.

As the kayak became more water logged, Nikki decided to pump it out some, this was a mistake, as he stopped paddling into the waves directly and got side-swiped by waves and more water.

Once the kayak was too swamped to paddle he gave up and entered the water, losing hold of the paddle as it drifted away.

Because of the wind and waves, the others could not hear his initial shouts for help. He did not have a whistle to signal his distress. It was two miles from shore. The water was 57 degrees. A person can only last 1-6 hours in water that temperature.

As he was deciding what to do, Nikki remembered a picture he took as we put in at the Lewis Lake boat launch.  That sign said, among other things, to stay with your boat if you capsize. He thought it was counterintuitive, but decided he better follow the advice. This decision likely saved his life.

He kicked his legs, figuring he needed to stay warm and swam with the kayak toward Highway 191, visible in the distance two miles from where he capsized. He could see the back up of cars from the construction to his east.

Nikki said it was the first time he thought he was really going to die.

When he floundered he stayed with his red kayak—that decision likely saved his life.

Meanwhile, Back on Dry Land...

My dad continued to wait. He looked through his binoculars, but failed to locate his brother's kayak. Wherever Nikki was, he wasn't where he was supposed to be. So my dad took action—another decision that likely saved my uncle's life.

He found a ranger who came with higher powered binoculars. She was able to just make out a red Kayak without its rider in the middle of the lake.

"Can't confirm if rider is with boat," the ranger said.

"He must be," my dad said, "Because it is heading towards the highway and that is not the way the current flows, so I am sure someone is  swimming with the kayak."

A ranger heading south from the parallel Highway 191 to the east saw with binoculars the red and black hat on Nikki’s head holding the kayak with his right arm. He radioed the first confirmation that Nikki was with the kayak. My dad prayed he'd get to see his brother alive again.

The rangers speed boat  dispatched and sped out it was out of view around the east cove.

On the two way radio again, rangers confirmed a waving hand from the other side of the kayak as they approached.

Meanwhile, Back at the Capsized Kayak... 

By now Nikki had been spent three hours in the 57 degrees water temps of Lake Lewis.

He saw on the highway an ambulance go by. "That ambulance must be for me," he thought,
"Or someone is in worse shape than I am right now!"

The two rangers in the rescue boat confirmed Nikki was not in serious shock or hypothermia and got him on the boat.  

"What about the Kayak?" Nikki asked.

"We'll come back for it," the ranger said, we gotta get you to an ambulance."

Nikki protested, "My brother will kill me if I don’t it back”…

"Normally we leave the kayak and speed the patient back and come back for the kayak later," the ranger said, "but if your good enough to tell jokes, I'm determining your condition is not overtly serious."

They side-towed the kayak, put blankets on Nikki, and came back in about 30 minutes to the landing at Lewis Lake.

There was a reunion of relieved greetings and hugs. Then Nikki spent an hour inside the super warm Yellowstone Park Ambulance. My dad preheated his van and loaded all the gear, minus just the lost paddle, loaded both kayaks and strapped everything to his trailer, while Nikki enjoyed hot soup in the ambulance.

The rangers wrote up an incident report and followed by handshakes, hugs and warm thank you’s to all the rangers.  

"What an incredible job they did!" my dad said.

"Your tax dollars at work," The supervisor responded with a big smile. This was a good day for them—they got their guy back alive.

Sunset in Cody: One of the Prettiest of Nikki's Life 

Two hours later, as sunset lit up the skies of Cody, Wyoming. We all enjoyed hot showers at the Holiday Inn and a
final dinner together.

Nikki seemed a much different man than the guy he was a week ago. He was in a tough period on life's road before the trip, but his brush with death gave him time to be grateful that he was still among the living.

The experience has given him a new raison d’etre, as the French would say—a story to tell about survival in the Yellowstone backcountry.

The important takeaway for Seven Corners readers is where things went wrong and how you can do things better to avoid such mistakes.

"As the trip leader, I take full responsibility for going across Lewis Lake solo and not staying together." My dad says. "I rationalized it would be fine and everyone knew where we were going and the conditions to avoid if need be, by following the shoreline. Also, we had been through rougher conditions on day one, so after nearly 30 miles of paddling, floating or sailing, in wind, waves, fog and calm, I thought it was be easy to get to back.  I was wrong.

"We should have all waited for that squall to pass by and then proceeded as a group.  We didn’t and that is on me."

"We learn lessons in life," my dad continued, "I think we all did and we will remember this one, with the Eclipse, as two very special, pivotal moments of time time for us in our time on earth."

Also remember to follow the advice of signs, and warning of authorities like rangers—such people and posters are there to protect you, so heeding the advice might just save your life.

What insurance products should you consider when going on a camping or Kayak trip?

If you are traveling to the US from another country, you'll want to look at Travel Medical Insurance for visitors and  Explore North America.

Also, whenever you're booking things out in advance (gear rental, plane ticket, hotel, etc.) trip cancellation insurance is advisable, and Seven Corners has a CFAR (cancel for any reason) product.

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