Yellowstone River is the lifeblood for Yellowstone Raft Company which depends on this waterway in Gardiner, Montana, for its summer business.
“It’s a huge part of our town, not only for the scenery and beauty of it and the fact it does come out of Yellowstone Park, it’s also great recreation,” says Sarah Ondrus, a Yellowstone Raft. Co. Owner.
Ondrus relies on tourists who visit nearby Yellowstone National Park. In fact, that’s how Gardiner, which bills itself as nature’s favorite entrance to Yellowstone, survives and thrives.
“Some people have compared it to a cul de sac, and not much business has been brought to town after the flood.”
Back in June, days of heavy rains on top of snowmelt wiped out large sections of roads in the park. All of Yellowstone was closed for nine days. The park’s only year-round entrance at the north end remains shut down.
“Yeah, my life changed at six o’clock in the morning on June 13th,” says Terese Petcoff, the Gardiner Chamber of Commerce Executive Director.
Petcoff estimates the flood cut business and profit here in town by 90 percent. A number of establishments closed for the season.
“Ever since that day, there’s not a day we don’t feel that impact. You can see it too when you walk around and there’s essentially not very many people on our streets.”
It’s the kind of calamity that could affect towns like Gardiner more and more in the future.
“Absolutely. There’s no question that we’re seeing across the national park system, across the country in many areas, the impacts of changing climate,” says Cam Sholly, the Yellowstone National Park Superintendent.
Fire, drought, rising sea levels, extreme weather of all kinds, all have or likely will affect parks in various ways in years to come.
Tom Bellinger, a Metropolitan State University of Denver Hydrology Professor says, “Up in the mountains like Rocky Mountain or even Yellowstone you’re seeing maybe at the mid-mountain range it’s getting warmer, so beetles might now move up and kill more trees at higher elevations. Whatever species have been living there might not do so well.”
Yellowstone’s flood recovery efforts, now underway, are aimed at creating a more resilient infrastructure. Important, the park superintendent argues.
“As impacting as this has been, that we look at this as a bit of an opportunity to rebuild for what we know will be coming which will be more events like this,” Sholly says.
Yellowstone is preparing to finally open a public road to Gardiner…
This is how park employees and contractors leave the north of the park. A couple times a day, cars line up to make a very brief journey.
An elk provides a momentary diversion for convoy members. This town of 900 year-round residents has gone from catering to folks looking to get outside during the pandemic, to now.
“It’s just a ghost town. Frozen in time,” says Ondrus.
For them, the flood is yesterday’s news.
“I think that we will recover,” she adds.
“One of our biggest challenges here is honestly just communicating the right information that Gardiner is open,” says Petcoff.
That the Yellowstone River is back to much more normal levels, with lots of room for floating.
“You’re experiencing Gardiner like it probably will never be able to be experienced again, so come on down,” Petcoff adds.