GARDINER — The Friday before flood waters turned the small town of Gardiner into a dead end at the end of a mountain road, the town was pulsing with visitors, adventurers, rafters and fishermen.
In essence, the town was full of its economic lifeblood and gearing up for a season of "normalcy" after years of COVID-19 effects and changes. But just one week later — as the governor last Friday flew over the damage done by a historic flood — the heart of Gardiner’s economy, Yellowstone National Park, had stopped altogether. The town was drained of life with uncertainty about when that heart might reopen.
Along the town’s main drag, gift shops, restaurants, café's and so on were closed. Signs posted near Yellowstone explained it was closed due to flooding. Lights were off in windows and signs everywhere said flooding had closed Gardiner indefinitely. But a flashing neon sign declaring “open” lured passersby to a little fly fishing shop and outfitter on Second Street.
Inside, owner Richard Parks and his staff were frantically calling dozens of would-be anglers to cancel nearly 85% of his planned business for the summer. His year-round employee, Cody Marr, was also trying to set up an online retail store so they could sell merchandise digitally to the world.
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Parks' Fly Shop has adorned downtown Gardiner since Parks’ dad, Merton, set up shop in 1953. Richard Parks — 10 years old at the time — has been a boy, guide or owner in the shop ever since. He guided his first fishing trip in 1961 at age 18 and took over ownership in 1970 after his father died.
“Well, it’s a wild ride,” Parks said of the week following flooding, “and right now, we, like just about every other business in the region, is dealing with the flood after the flood — the flood of cancellation calls.”
Still, with the potential for future revenue evaporating, Parks wasn’t about to hang his crew out to dry. He had hired four plus himself for the summer. He was keeping his two regular guides as long as possible. His most junior guys were helping in the meantime but lining up work elsewhere as well.
“My two most junior, we’re going to have to get along without 'em this summer and hopefully we’re not too bored,” Parks said. “But my two, Cody and Trevor [Robbins] here, are core people and I’m gonna pay 'em.”
Parks added that he would stay open for 2022 and was planning to guide and outfit as soon as possible, but if the park wasn’t open going into 2023, he wasn’t sure he or any other business in town could weather the downswing that long.
“I’m less concerned about trying to survive this year, but next year is potentially a killer for just about everybody,” Parks said. “If we don’t have general public access to the park from the north entrance during the '23 season… I don’t think anybody’s reserve extends to trying to survive two years of being out of business.”
It didn’t take decades of experience to know that a lot of water was falling in the mountains around Yellowstone, Parks said, and when he fell asleep Sunday night he fully expected to see the river swollen the next day.
“In the time I’ve been here, I’ve seen four times when the river equaled or nearly equaled the alleged record flood of 1918, which suggests that calling that a hundred-year flood was probably not quite right,” he said. “And I fully expected to see the river up in that territory Monday morning. I did not expect to see 51,000 cubic feet coming down the river when the previous record had been 33 [thousand cfs].”
The levels were so unprecedented Parks said he searched for the rock he's used for decades to judge the water flows without having to check the gauges. He couldn’t find it, and “it wasn’t until Tuesday that the rock started to appear.”
“At that point, it was certain damage was being done,” Parks said. “How much damage? We didn’t really guess.” It wasn’t until the park service released aerial footage of the roads that Gardiner’s residents learned how dramatic the damage had been. At the same time, the park evacuated tourists within a matter of days and countless people were stranded in Gardiner with high water blocking their egress to the north via Yankee Jim Canyon and washouts cutting off the way to the south through the park.
“The park was pushing people out of the northern end of the park starting Sunday,” Parks recalled. “We had all the people that planned to be here plus a bunch of people that hadn’t planned to be here… so Monday morning all those people are looking around for something to eat and a way to get out of town. So that was out of hand, but what can we do except the best we can do?”
The damage was widespread. Not only had the road to Mammoth washed out but trails, bridges and roads across the region had vanished overnight. The sewer from Mammoth to Gardiner had been severed at the river’s edge and countless properties had been threatened, washed away or inundated by water. Even park employee housing had been swept away by the Yellowstone’s massive flow.
As images of the washed out road to Mammoth made their way to residents, the extent of the damage was beginning to sink in, along with uncertainty.
“We had no reason to believe Yankee Jim Canyon wouldn’t look the same way,” Parks said of learning about water covering the main highway out of Gardiner to the north. “I’d seen water up to the [Yankee Jim Canyon] roadway, but I’d never seen a current with waves in it overtop the roadway.”
But as water began to recede, the assessments of infrastructure to the north were becoming clear and by Parks’ understanding they were “something you could deal with.” By Tuesday afternoon, a way out of Gardiner had been established and those trapped inside were able to return home.
The town was emptied in a matter of hours and the once bustling tourist hub was a ghost town.
By the end of the week, the public safety concerns of Gardiner residents were behind them and those worries shifted to their economy. Reopening the park and the river were their primary needs, they told Gov. Greg Gianforte. Cutting red tape to disaster recovery was a must. And promoting Gardiner as a destination, regardless of Yellowstone’s status, was key to the town’s future.
“Yeah, it's a dead end," Gardiner business owner Jeff Gingrich told the governor Friday, "but it's a great dead end."
And Gianforte wasted no time telling the media that the state was still open for business and people should keep their reservations and planned trips to the area regardless of Yellowstone's status. But much remained in question about openings and closings.
Back on the water
The sound of phone calls being made in Parks’ shop Friday and the closed signs on stores and eateries painted a conflicting picture of Gardiner’s business status. On Monday, the city water system was still on a boil advisory. Some businesses were open and others were closed. Roads in and out were not readily usable as repairs continued. Most of the town’s restaurants were still closed. Employee outlook, which had been an obstacle for many seasonal businesses leading up to the summer months, was now a complete unknown as some hourly workers sought work in other areas.
“It’s taken us two days to call through our reservation book and tell people they can’t come,” Parks said, “and run their credit cards backwards.”
Some of Parks’ prospective clients expressed interest in supporting the shop in other ways by buying merchandise or looking to reschedule later on.
Parks agreed that Gardiner has way more to offer than just access to Yellowstone National Park. Once the water recedes and the river is fishable, he plans on guiding and outfitting anglers again. That would likely come after the various boat ramps along the river were cleaned up and rebuilt. The only thing left for his guides to do after that is find the fish and discover the new features where the trout will lay in wait.
“There’s no reason to believe that once the water drops, which it will do, that we won’t have fishing on the Yellowstone River outside the park,” Parks said. He highlighted some damage to the insect populations that may have been decimated by the flood, but he didn’t think there would be much impact on the fisheries themselves in the long run. “But fortunately bugs being bugs, they breed like flies so it won’t take too long to refurbish that.”
Asked about his plans for the long-haul, Parks replied with a chuckle, “Well, you can wonder how long long-haul is when you’re looking at your 79th birthday next week, but I wasn’t expecting to go anywhere.”
For Marr and Robbins, the future of guiding on the Yellowstone following changes made by the flood was exciting.
“I can’t wait to see this brand-new river,” Robbins exclaimed, “It’ll be brand-spanking new.”
“Yeah, we got a brand-new river installed,” added Marr. He said he told his dad on the phone, “There are brand-new waves under that bridge; I don’t even know what I’m looking at.”