Yellowstone towns had big plans for the summer until the floods hit

GARDINER, Mont. — Ominous gray clouds have faded after inundating Yellowstone National Park with flooding over the weekend, leaving behind sunshine and blue skies as the park’s namesake river and its tributaries recede. The weather would have been perfect for the tens of thousands of tourists who normally kick off their summer vacations this week in the country’s oldest national park.

But the storm has left residents of Yellowstone resort towns like Gardiner, Mont., suddenly wondering if they can still make a living now that the park’s popular north entrance is closed indefinitely. Days ago, such thoughts were unfathomable, stemming from a pandemic boom in nature tourism that saw Yellowstone establish a Record of visits in 2021.

Packed with fishing guide companies, restaurants, motels, and shops catering to the hundreds of thousands that flock here each summer, the only road between this town and the park’s headquarters was washed away by heavy flooding. The reconstruction schedule remains unclear; as of now, the National Park Service has said the north entrance will likely remain closed until around Halloween.

That makes local business owners fear the worst.

“There will be no fishing in North Yellowstone this year and next year and hopefully it won’t extend into a third year,” said Richard Parks, owner of Parks’ Fly Shop, an old Yellowstone hangout about two hundred yards from the entrance station to the park. “Seventy-five percent of my business has been cut off at the knees.”

As visitors leave Gardiner to head into the park, they drive along a five-mile, two-lane highway that winds along the Gardner River, which is spelled differently from the city, although it is derived from the name of the same fur trapper. Bison, bighorn sheep, elk and pronghorn are often seen on this stretch.

Heavy rain fell on melting snow in the Yellowstone Highlands last weekend, the result of unseasonably warm temperatures and an atmospheric river that swept with a fury that locals said they had never seen before. The Gardner River, usually small enough to easily fling a rock, became a torrent, turning rocks and logs into wrecking balls that tore out large sections of the road.

Yellowstone officials haven’t said definitively how long the road replacement might take and weren’t available for comment Thursday. Scientists have warned that climate change will cause similar destruction in the coming years in US national parks.

That road was Gardiner’s economic lifeline. While the city has access to Bozeman and other northern communities, the park is its reason for being.

Living intimately with the extremes of nature: many feet of snow one winter and drought the next; wildfires threatening homes; and attacks by brown bears and bison, has generated here a philosophy of dealing with blows.

Parks, whose business has survived the vagaries of Yellowstone conditions since 1953, when his father opened the store, said he thought some places might not survive road closures.

The West is full of stories of boom and bust, from the California gold rush to ranching in wyoming. Traders here have experienced their own mini-cycle in recent years. When Covid-19 forced it to close in March 2020, many struggled to survive.

“Then July came and people realized they could be outside and boom, things took off,” said Sami Gortmaker, manager of Flying Pig Adventures, a whitewater rafting company in Gardiner. “So you never know. We have learned to take each month as its own season.

On Wednesday, the streets of Gardiner were deserted and Stacey Orsted was closing the door of the Wonderland Café and Lodge before getting into an RV. The county closed his business because the town lacked potable water after the flood shut down the water plant.

For the time being, he viewed the forced closure as a bit of a flood-induced fluke and was taking advantage of the time off: a 180-degree turnaround just as he prepared for the summer onslaught.

“This is great,” he said. “We never get two days off in a row in the summer.”

She said she would reopen when allowed. “We thought Covid was the worst thing for her to go through,” she said, “but the road closure is potentially the scariest thing.”

Native Americans, including members of the Crow tribe, lived here until they were forced to live on reservations in the mid to late 19th century. After Yellowstone was declared the country’s first national park in 1872, a hotel, restaurant and other amenities were built overlooking Yellowstone’s towering peaks. The railway arrived here in 1902 and Gardiner became a starting point for expeditions.

Gardiner is clustered at the park entrance surrounded by mountains, an unincorporated area with many streets that are only a block or two long. The Yellowstone River runs through the center of the city.

For a long time, Gardiner felt like a windswept outpost with faded buildings and shabby roads. But in the last two decades, new businesses have opened and the city feels more prosperous. Wild bison sometimes congregate on the football field of the new high school.

At Flying Pig, various river guides and other employees lounged in the log cabin office or on brightly colored rubber rafts outside. Others were petting the company dog ​​or tossing bean bags in an exciting game of cornhole.

Its owner, Patrick Sipp, said the floodwaters also ripped apart and rebuilt the Yellowstone River in a different way. “It’s a whole new river,” Sipp said. “We’re going to have to relearn it.”

Despite the current respite, the damage may not be over. The forecast calls for warmer temperatures and rain this weekend, which could send water gushing through the region again.

“If there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s resilience,” Sipp said, vowing to continue his business. “This is the best race I’ve ever been a part of.”

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