Yellowstone Towns Had Big Summer Plans Until Floods Struck

GARDINER, Mont. – Ominous gray clouds have disappeared after flooding Yellowstone National Park with floodwaters over the weekend, leaving sunshine and blue skies as the park’s eponymous river and its tributaries recede . The weather would have been perfect for the tens of thousands of tourists who normally start their summer holidays this week in the country’s oldest national park.

But the storm has left residents of tourist Yellowstone towns like Gardiner, Montana suddenly wondering if they can still make a living now that the park’s popular north entrance is closed indefinitely. A few days ago, such thoughts were unfathomable, after a pandemic boom in nature tourism that saw Yellowstone set a visitation record in 2021.

Lined with fishing guide businesses, restaurants, motels and shops that cater to the hundreds of thousands of people who flock here each summer, the only road between this town and park headquarters has been obliterated by floodwaters. unleashed. The timeline for reconstruction remains uncertain; as of now, the National Park Service said the north entrance will likely remain closed until around Halloween.

This makes local traders fear the worst.

“There will be no fishing in North Yellowstone this year and next year and hopefully won’t extend into a third year,” said Richard Parks, owner of Parks’ Fly Shop, a longtime Yellowstone establishment located a few hundred yards from the park entrance station. “Seventy-five percent of my stuff was cut at the knees.”

When visitors leave Gardiner and head into the interior of the park, they take a five-mile, two-lane road that winds along the Gardner River – spelled differently from the town, though 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 high country last weekend, the result of unusually warm temperatures and an atmospheric river that swept through with a fury residents said they had never seen before . The Gardner River – usually small enough to throw a stone easily – became a torrent, turning rocks and logs into wrecking balls that ripped up large sections of road.

Yellowstone officials did not say for sure how long the road replacement might take and were unavailable for comment Thursday. Scientists have warned that climate change will cause similar destruction in years to come in US national parks.

This route was Gardiner’s economic lifeline. While the city has access to Bozeman and other communities to the north, the park is its raison d’être.

Living intimately with the extremes of nature – several feet of snow one winter and drought the next; forest fires threatening homes; and grizzly and bison attacks – here spawned a philosophy of rolling with the punches.

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

The West is full of boom-bust stories, from the California Gold Rush to cattle ranching in Wyoming. Commercial operators here have experienced their own mini cycle in recent years. When Covid-19 forced closures in March 2020, many struggled to survive.

“Then July came around and people realized they could be outside and boom, things took off,” said Sami Gortmaker, director of Flying Pig Adventures, a white-water 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 locked the door of the Wonderland Cafe and Lodge before getting into a motorhome. The county shut down its business because the town was running out of clean water after flooding shut down the water plant.

For now, she viewed the forced closure as a bit of flood-induced serendipity and enjoying the free time — a 180-degree reversal just as she prepared for the summer onslaught.

“It’s awesome,” she said. “We never have two days off in a row in the summer.”

She said she would reopen if allowed. “We thought Covid was the worst that could happen,” she said, “but the road closure is potentially the scariest.”

Native Americans, including members of the Crow tribe, lived here until they were forced into reservations in the mid to late 1800s. After Yellowstone was declared the first national park of the country in 1872, a hotel, restaurant and other amenities were built within sight of the towering peaks of Yellowstone. The railroad arrived here in 1902 and Gardiner became a starting point for expeditions.

Gardiner is clustered at the entrance to the park surrounded by mountains, an unincorporated area with many streets that only extend one or two blocks. The Yellowstone River runs through the center of the city.

For a long time, Gardiner felt like a windswept outpost with faded buildings and poor roads. But over the past two decades, new businesses have opened up and the town has taken on a more prosperous turn. Wild bison sometimes congregate on the football field of the new high school.

At the Flying Pig, several river guides and other employees lounge in the log cabin office or on brightly colored rubber rafts outside. Others petted the company dog ​​or tossed beanbags in a rousing game of cornhole.

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

Despite the current respite, the damage may not be over. Forecasts call for warmer temperatures and rain this weekend, which could once again bring water to the area.

“If there’s one thing, we’ve learned of his resilience,” Mr Sipp said, vowing to continue his business. “It’s the best career I’ve ever been in.”

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