Kayaking's Last Frontier: Yellowstone?

If you're going to break the rules at Yellowstone National Park, 4:30 a.m. is a great time to do so. The guard stations are closed and the roads deserted save for some shaggy bison and early-rising wildlife watchers. So it was in the wee hours of a July morning that a red Toyota van passed unnoticed beneath the Yellowstone Arch in Gardiner, Mont. The van carried three young men and their 11-foot kayaks, on their way to paddle a remote stretch of whitewater on the Yellowstone River.

If all went as planned, they would slip quietly out of the park's northern entrance a couple of days later without ever being seen by Park Service rangers.

For a while, things went smoothly, and Doug Ammons, Rob Lesser and Bob McDougall splashed their way down the churning world-class whitewater of Yellowstone's Grand Canyon. They camped, ate and got back in their boats to tackle the more challenging Black Canyon downstream. Then, as they scouted a class V rapid near the mouth of Hellroaring Creek, the distinct whup of helicopter blades emerged from the din of the crashing rapid. Glancing up, the trio saw men in Park Service uniforms glaring down.

"They looked like if they had machine guns they'd be shooting at us," says Ammons, who later wrote about the trip in his classic kayaking essay, "Counting Coup on the Yellowstone River."

Lesser—a former Yellowstone Park naturalist and Idaho-bred kayaking pioneer—had been arrested here before, forced to shoulder his loaded kayak and hike out of the canyon. Same river, same rapid. "Fuck off," Lesser remembers thinking. "I didn't want to be disrespectful, but I sure as hell wasn't carrying my boat out from there again."

The three jumped into their boats and the chase was on. At times, the helicopter flew deep within the canyon's walls, just 30 feet above the kayakers, whipping up a windstorm that threatened to tear the paddles from their hands. Commands blared from a megaphone. At one point, Ammons put his hand to his ear in a cheeky "I can't hear you" gesture and was blown over. He rolled upright and kept paddling.

In the end, though, there was no escape. The rangers arrested the men and locked their boats behind bars for two years. The kayakers got off with minor fines.

That was in 1986. Today, the high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse continues, because despite years of opposition from boating activists and kayaking's evolution into a mainstream activity, it remains a federal offense to kayak, raft or otherwise float any whitewater in Yellowstone National Park.

"Yellowstone has the largest block of rivers in the country that is prohibited to paddling," says Kevin Colburn, stewardship director for the paddling group American Whitewater.  "It's an anomaly in the entire national park system."

Now, paddlers hope a new river management plan for two designated wild and scenic rivers elsewhere in the park will provide the opening they need to spur a new discussion about Yellowstone's waters. But they face an upstream paddle. A decades-long battle over the issue has divided the conservation community, and the Park Service says Yellowstone's resources are already stretched thin. Kayakers aren't the only group clamoring for access. Stand-up paddleboarders, snow kiters, snow bikers and BASE jumpers—along with ATV riders, remote-control airplane enthusiasts and Segway operators—have all requested access to Yellowstone's iconic landscapes. Which raises a sticky question for national parks all over the country: Where do you draw the line?

Balancing recreation and conservation

Yellowstone's kayaking policy dates back to 1950, when a ban on boating was adopted as a way to cut down on overfishing. Since then, the only legal runs of Yellowstone's rivers have been search-and-rescue missions. A single week in 2009 saw two such efforts: One after a park employee accidentally drove her car off the Tower Junction bridge, and another for a Boy Scout who was knocked into the Black Canyon while playing near the river. Troy Nedved, a Park Service employee and class V kayaker, led both rescue efforts, eventually recovering a skull from the car wreck and a white tennis shoe belonging to the Boy Scout. Drowning is the leading non-vehicular cause of death in national parks.

Even so, only two parks in the country have what Colburn calls "blanket bans" on whitewater kayaking: Yellowstone and Grand Teton. Individual parks set their own policies regarding recreational activities, and in most, kayaking, canoeing and rafting are grandfathered in. Often paddling is "supported and celebrated" by park managers, Colburn says.

But though recreation is integral to many parks' identities, Yellowstone officials say they have to balance it with their primary goal of protecting and conserving the environment.  No one in the park knows this better than Chief Ranger Tim Reid, who worked his way up through the agency in the 1980s partly in hopes of landing a gig that would pay him to rock climb. After achieving that goal at Rocky Mountain National Park and Yosemite, Reid ended up as a ranger at Old Faithful before becoming Yellowstone's chief ranger. He's sympathetic to kayakers, but also understands the pressures on Yellowstone.

"There are more and more activities," he says, leaning back in a swivel chair in his office in Mammoth Hot Springs. "Then there are ... derivative spins on core activities. I think it's great. [But] our charter is not to accommodate everything that comes down the pipe."

For a new activity to be considered in Yellowstone, Reid explains, park managers must first be convinced that it deserves their attention: It has to "prove that it belongs" and won't impact resources, values or public interests in the park. Then it's analyzed, potentially subjected to environmental review and opened for public comment, a process that can take years. Snowmobiling proponents know this process well—their decades-long legal battle to maintain winter access to Yellowstone recently culminated in a new winter-use plan.

Other parks have also been challenged by adventure-sport enthusiasts. In 1999, five BASE jumpers in Yosemite staged a jump off El Capitan in hopes of demonstrating their sport's safety. One died, and another declined to make the leap. BASE jumping remains illegal in Yosemite and in most other national parks.

The diversity of recreational policies in parks can be frustrating for visitors who don't understand why their sport is any less deserving than the next. Montana State University professor and kayaker Jerry Johnson speculates that Yellowstone's kayaking ban might have more to do with economics than the challenge of managing a new activity. Towns like Cooke City, Mont., are dependent on snowmobilers' tourist dollars, he notes, while kayakers' economic impact is so small it's barely noticeable.

For some environmentalists, though, it all boils down to Yellowstone's legal obligation to preserve its natural resources. Mark Pearson, conservation director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, is a staunch opponent of both snowmobiling and kayaking, and he doesn't see how allowing any new activity in Yellowstone will help protect wildlife.

"There's no conservation benefit," he says. "It's nice for the national parks to be this one last bastion of places where it's not a sort of anything-and-everything-goes kind of playground—which is the way a lot of our other public lands are headed."

A "wild and scenic" opening for kayakers

Despite opposition within the environmental community, American Whitewater has pushed for decades to reverse the Yellowstone ban. The group's last serious attempt was in the late '90s, when it suggested that the Park Service allow kayaking on limited sections of river on a trial basis. The Park Service immediately shot the idea down.

"They've simply not been very flexible in learning about new paddling technologies, paddling skills and the impacts—or the lack of impacts—that kayakers have on the river corridor," says Johnson, an old friend of Ammons and Lesser who has himself been arrested for attempting a Black Canyon run.

"Put a permit system on it," suggests 27-year-old Ben Kinsella, a Bozeman kayaker who made a short film of his own illegal but successful Black Canyon run. "People go backcountry skiing in there all the time—they get a permit and they're good. It's not the Park Service's job to baby everyone that goes in."

Over the last decade, kayakers have continued to covertly smuggle their boats into the park while largely avoiding a public battle. But in 2009, Congress provided a new opening: It declared the Snake and Lewis rivers, which flow through the southern part of Yellowstone into Grand Teton, "wild and scenic"—a federal designation created to protect free-flowing rivers with outstanding natural, cultural and recreational values. The Snake and Lewis aren't quite the world-class whitewater of the Black Canyon, but paddlers hope they'll create the leverage needed to wedge open the door to kayaking in the park.

Wild and scenic status has worked in kayakers' favor before. In Yosemite, the Merced River's designation compelled park officials to ease restrictions on boating there earlier this year. And in 2006, American Whitewater sued the U.S. Forest Service to reverse its ban on kayaking on the Chattooga River, which flows through Georgia and South Carolina. The ban was enacted in 1976 to protect trout habitat, but American Whitewater argued that it lacked justification and violated the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. In 2007, a U.S. District Court agreed, opening the Chattooga to its first legal descent in 30 years. The decision has since been appealed, but Colburn believes it provides a legal precedent that ought to compel officials in Yellowstone to reconsider kayaking on the Snake and Lewis rivers.

"[Kayaking] provides people a really beautiful, powerful way of connecting with rivers and with nature and with the landscape," he says. "The experiences people would have are exactly the kinds of experiences that the National Park Service and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act were set up to promote."

But the agency's first draft of a new river management plan for the Snake and Lewis, released in May, includes no plans to study the impact of opening new stretches of water to paddling. The possibility of kayaking, pack-rafting, canoeing or otherwise floating the off-limit portions of the rivers is listed under the heading "Considered but dismissed from detailed evaluation."

Unfazed, Colburn has solicited comments from American Whitewater's 4,500 members and submitted a 23-page response that he hopes will convince the agency to do a substantive evaluation. The next draft of the management plan could surface by the end of the year. But after working unsuccessfully for three years to get kayaking considered in the current draft, few boaters are holding their breath.

In the meantime, kayakers who want to tackle the Black Canyon will have to face more than just steep boulder gardens. Kayaking on closed waters in Yellowstone National Park remains a class B misdemeanor carrying a maximum penalty of six months in jail, a $5,000 fine and five years of unsupervised parole—and that's not all. "We usually request a five-year ban [from Yellowstone] for the individual," says Deputy Ranger Nick Herring. "The ban is probably more important than the fine."

For Rob Lesser, who received the relative slap on the wrist of a $25 fine for his 1986 escapade, today's punishment has reached the point of absurdity. A kayak is "a hollowed log," he says. "That's all it is. It's so simple. [This is] about access to wild places."

Editor's note: It is illegal to kayak, canoe or raft any whitewater in Yellowstone or Grand Teton National Parks; however, there is a calm stretch of the Lewis River that's legal to paddle. An earlier version of this story misstated that it is illegal to kayak, canoe or raft any river in the two parks.

This article originally appeared in High Country News.