Editor's note: From time to time we receive invitations to explore national parks. Recently we received one from Far and Away Adventures, a company that this year started offering kayaking trips into the South Arm of Yellowstone Lake. Contributing photographer Deby Dixon traveled on one of the trips to sample the company's hospitality, and returned home with the following report and images of her adventure.
If you have ever stood on the shores of Yellowstone Lake and looked way across the water to the southeast, into that area of the park where few visitors go, and wished to experience life in the backcountry without hiking with a heavy backpack, go glamping!
That's right, glamping, the ultimate backcountry experience for anyone who doesn't want to sleep on the ground, eat freeze-dried food in foil packets, and drink filtered water. Glamping is all about camping in luxury, and all you need to pack is your clothes, toothbrush, camera and a good book.
Last month I had the great fortune to go on a two-night kayaking trip with Far and Away Adventures out of Sun Valley, Idaho, to the South Arm of Yellowstone Lake, and am excited to tell you that it was the highlight of my summer in Yellowstone.
The adventure began at Bridge Bay Marina where a Xanterra Parks & Resorts boat took us and our luggage, camera gear in my case, across the lake to the top of the South Arm, where we were met by our guides and a table set for lunch, complete with table cloth. At each seat was a stainless cup, engraved with Far and Away Adventures, along with silverware and cloth napkins. We dined on pulled pork sandwiches, coleslaw, beans and watermelon all the while sitting beneath a tree and watching the lake lick the shoreline.
The kayaks were waiting for us to slide into the water while a motor boat was standing by to carry our luggage to camp. Nothing to worry about.
I had never kayaked before, but took to it like a duck in water, to be absolutely corny. Well, my partner might have disagreed, as we never could get in sync. But, being out there on the lake, under our own power, with no other sounds than our paddles hitting the water and the droplets falling back to the surface, was as close as it gets to nirvana. Or, so I thought, because this trip just kept getting better.
We arrived at camp, which happened to be on the south side of the arm, directly across the water from the Alder wildfire, to find everything ready for us.
"Go pick a tent," I was told.
Our tents were large and roomy and we didn't have to crawl on the ground to get inside. One person to each tent! A large rug covered the floor, and a comfy sleeping bag was spread out on top of a cot and a pad. We even had a pillow! A nightstand with a lantern sat next to the bed, and a bottle of water hung in the pouch.
The best part? Our tents were lined up along the lake, looking directly into sunrise, with sunset out our back windows.
A large kitchen was set up and already busy with preparations for our evening meal and hors d'oeuvres. A table, complete with table cloth and comfortable chairs, gave us a stunning view of the lake and the surrounding forest while providing a comfortable place to visit or watch the fire. A nearby fire pit provided seating and a place to get away for some quiet reading if anyone chose to do so. And, if we forgot reading material, even that was provided for us. Absolutely every detail was taken care of.
We visited with one another while fresh vegetables were being chopped and prepared for our gourmet meals. All foods were sustainable, organic and locally grown. My mouth watered when they opened the ice chest to reveal fresh lettuce, fruit, and vegetables. Specially selected red and white wines were poured into glassware, while brie, apples and fresh bread were brought to the table. Skewered prawns cooked on the grill and were passed around as kind of a second course appetizer. Later the duck thighs and legs were grilled to perfection.
What I didn't know was that a cake was baking in the dutch oven, on top of the coals that were carefully placed in the dirt. I am a picky kind of eater, preferring fresh food always, and can honestly say that a fine dining restaurant would have been hard-pressed to serve the meals we had during our adventure.
Dinner consisted of a spinach salad with raspberries, feta and freshly ground pepper, grilled duck, rice and vegetables, great conversation and watching the Alder fire grow. The cake was moist and cooked to perfection in a way that few can accomplish.
The wildfire had been a tiny plume of smoke when we had started down the lake that morning, but had grown under the forceful flow of winds that had kept us cool and pleasant on the hot summer day.
The fire and its smoke provided a surreal ambience to our evening and before long the sky was filled with millions of bright stars. All food and scented items were hung high above the ground and one by one we took our full bellies to bed in the backcountry of Yellowstone.
Now get this! The next morning there was a knock at my tent and a voice asking if I wanted coffee and a warm cloth. Well, yah! I am never one to turn down a hot cup of coffee, complete with cream and sugar, but the warm cloth on my face was heavenly. What a way to wake up in nature!
And the trip seemed always to be about the food. Breakfast came with a large, delightful bowl of fresh fruit followed by bacon, eggs, pancakes, butter and syrup. And, the bottomless cup of coffee in our Far and Away cups.
(Now, no one has asked but I'd better mention this anyway: the only thing about this backcountry camping and kayaking trip that wasn't luxury was the bathroom facilities. Funky would best describe our wooden box that was sitting in the thick forest about 300 yards from the campsite. The lid on that thing was spring loaded and required fast movements. My biggest complaint about these facilities, however, was that they were turned into the forest instead of towards the lake and the better view.)
After breakfast some of us loaded camera gear, sunscreen, jackets and sandals into a kayak and took off on a long paddle to the end of the arm where we beached on the Promontory, where we ate lunch before going on a hike. Others took a shorter kayak trip and had some quiet time around camp. Both options sounded good to me but I chose the longer paddle, which turned out to be a good workout, and hike. (On some of their other adventures, Far and Away provides longer guided hikes or fishing.)
Back in camp, solar showers were provided by the guides, but a couple of us decided that the best option was a dip in Yellowstone Lake.
Yep, I had to do it - had to be able to say that I swam in the cold, cold lake this summer. Though "swimming" is a term that should be used loosely, because both times that I dove into the water, I just as quickly rose to the surface, and without adjectives to describe the experience.
I highly recommend the dip over the solar shower and rank it right up there with all of my other top events of the trip, except the food. Nothing beats that cuisine. Dinner on the second night turned out to be equally as wonderful, beginning with smoked salmon, cheese, crackers and a special tasty sauce. Grilled steak, cooked perfectly, with real mashed potatoes and vegetables were the main course and once again we had freshly baked cake, this time with real hand-whipped cream. I ate every bite of everything that was served to me.
That night I awoke to the Milky Way arcing over our tents and wandered outside to photograph the stars and the Alder fire. All was quiet, as it should be in the dark of night, and I felt perfectly at home and already dreading the end of this perfect vacation.
The following day began with another wonderful breakfast and then we made preparations to leave. Our guides had their hands full, packing everything that made up our luxury camping trip. After everything was packed and camp was spotless, we got into our kayaks and paddled back up the arm to meet the Xanterra boat that took us and our gear back to Bridge Bay Marina. Why do the good things have to end?
In addition to the luxury camping/kayaking trip on Yellowstone Lake($850 per person, all inclusive), Far and Away Adventures offers three-, four- and six-day river and lake trips from May through September on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River and the Bruneau/Jarbridge River.
I can't recommend these folks enough. They will provide you with a vacation to remember. For reservations, call 1-800-232-8588.