terra incognita 1

terra incognita 1Guest Blogger: Mike Cline, Bozeman MT
If you walk due east on Park Street in Gardiner, Montana to the end of the road, you’ll find a short trail down to the confluence of the Gardner and Yellowstone Rivers. In August and September, it is an easy wade across the mouth of the Gardner into Yellowstone National Park. If you enter the park on the North Entrance road, the Rescue Creek trailhead is just a mile to the south. The trail crosses the Gardner River at a small foot bridge and then strikes out southeast across the McMinn bench. The low Gardner is rough and tumble pocket water with large boulders and steep, brushy banks. It fishes well most of the Yellowstone season if you are willing to scramble over rocks, up and down rocky banks and through brush to access the best spots. The Gardner holds rainbows, browns, cutthroats and the occasional whitefish. In June big fish come up from the Yellowstone for the Salmon fly hatch and in the Fall, big browns enter the river to spawn. But this post is less about the fish and more about the experience of visiting the Gardner at dawn on a crisp summer or fall morning.
terra incognita 2I arrive at the Rescue Creek trailhead about an hour before official sunrise. In June the sky is bright behind the Absarokas by 4:30AM. After gearing up, making sure I have my small pack with the bear spray, I head off on the Rescue Creek trail. After a short uphill walk I reach the edge of the bench and leave the trail. A fisherman’s trail follows the edge of the bench above the river, but instead I head off in a beeline across the bench to the river’s month. Within 50 feet, the roar of the Gardner dims into silence as my path veers away from the river. In June, the ground may still hold some moisture and wild flowers, especially Bitterroots, are blooming everywhere. There are droppings everywhere from Bison, Elk and Pronghorn. Pronghorns and Elk, especially with calves, are routine sights on the bench, but by June the Bison have moved higher and farther into the park. It takes about 20 minutes to make the walk to the mouth. It usually takes me a bit longer as I am prone to stop and admire the view which at times can be spectacular as the sun strikes the top of Electric Peak (10,900ft) to the north.
About half-way to my destination, I’ll stop, turn my gaze to the southeast where the Rescue Creek trail veers southwest and away from the Yellowstone River and disappears behind Mount Everts. I am looking at Terra Incognita. In 1869, the three member Cook–Folsom–Peterson Expedition crossed the Gardner River at its mouth and began their exploration of the Upper Yellowstone. On the morning of September 13, 1869 they rode across the bench where I stand today headed into the yet unnamed Rescue Creek canyon. It was truly terra incognita for them as there were no reliable maps of this part of the Yellowstone Plateau at the time and no documented routes within the region. It would be two and a half years before the park was created and decades before any of the prominent landmarks surrounding them were named. They spent two weeks on the plateau exploring unknown territory, provisioned only with horses, blankets and tarps. Today, when I stand in the middle of McMinn Bench looking southeast I see nothing but grasslands, trees and rocky formations. There are no buildings or any sign of human intervention. I imagine that I am seeing exactly the same vista that Cook, Folsom and Peterson saw as they rode across the bench on that September morning in 1869. The bench and river aren’t as pristine. It’s easy to find remnants of the Army’s tenure in Yellowstone at Fort Yellowstone (1886-1917). The odd rusty can, the old firing range and various abandoned river crossings are easy to spot. But at dawn, on a cool Fall morning, it’s not hard to imagine the terra incognita that three intrepid explorers saw on that September morning.
terra incognita 1I finally make it to the mouth of the river, just opposite the trail at the end of Park Street. Civilization is on one side with millions of visitors every year entering the park at Gardner. On my side of the river, terra incognito lies at my back and I imagine three explorers crossing the river and heading into the unknown of the Upper Yellowstone on that September morning in 1869. I know I have crossed their path many times. It will take me 3-5 hours to fish the mile or so of river back to the Rescue Creek trail head. In June and early July stonefly nymphs and Salmon Fly patterns produce well. Matt Minch’s black and golden stonefly nymphs available at Park’s Fly Shop in Gardner are especially designed for season long use in this water. In the summer and early Fall hoppers and stimulators become the go to patterns for dry fly work. The Gardner will produce throughout the Yellowstone season if you are up to the strenuous task of navigating the waters of the lower canyon. But if you make the journey to the mouth of the Gardner River across the McMinn bench, take time to pause, turn and gaze to the southeast and imagine that this is what Cook, Folsom and Peterson saw in 1869 as they rode into terra incognito.

1 Comment

  1. Nice article Mike; thanks. I like the historical perspective and the pristine imagery. Whenever I get out into untamed land I at least try to imagine that I’m seeing it before the rest of the Euro invasion got to it. Sometimes it’s easy–like on a high snowfield or in a deep V-shaped gorge. But sometimes I have to squint pretty hard to eradicate the centuries.

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