IT’S LATE IN THE SUMMER OF 2021, and I’m midway through day two of our four-day trip down the Yellowstone River. There isn’t another
boat in sight. It’s calm enough to ride a stand-up paddle board, and the waters’ glassy surface bounces a reflection of our rafts up into my camera.
I’m familiar with the Yellowstone River, but not this Yellowstone River. I live near Livingston, Montana, where the Yellowstone flows out of the Paradise Valley about 200 river miles west of here, and I can’t believe this is the same river. Where are the flotillas of tourists on guided raft trips? Where are the college students drinking beers in inner tubes? Where are the decked-out anglers in their drift boats?
Here, it’s quiet enough to hear the oars in the water and the chatter of bald eagles sitting near their nests. The riverbanks are lined with towering old cottonwoods on either side, and snaking, wide side channels are full of their own sandy forests.
I’ve joined a working float trip with the staff of Montana Freshwater Partners (MFP), an organization that works with landowners to restore and protect natural river movements like these connected side channels (among many other things). Wendy Weaver, director of MFP, and her team have pioneered an innovative instrument for this work, the channel migration zone or floodplain easement. This trip is a monitoring expedition to a stretch of the Yellowstone that MFP has held such an easement on for five years.