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The best way to see the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area is from the water.

“My favorite time is when the lake is so smooth that the canyon walls are reflected in the water and you can’t tell where the waterline is,” said Christy Fleming, chief of interpretation for the recreation area.

Unfortunately, not everyone has a boat.

But starting last year and expanding this summer, the National Park Service, which manages the recreation area, is offering sit-on-top kayaking courses for free.

“The kayaks are a way for people who don’t have money to take a boat trip to see the lake,” she said.

Beautiful Bighorn

Bighorn Canyon NRA is a 120,000-acre canyonland that surrounds and includes Bighorn Reservoir — a 71-mile-long waterway that crosses the Wyoming-Montana border. Views from the water rival those of more popular spots, like Lake Powell in Utah, for desert beauty. And the sheer 1,000-foot high cliffs that climb from the water’s edge add to the awe-inspiring nature of the place.

A tour boat provides scheduled or chartered rides on the lake, which is also popular with power boaters pulling water skiers and wakeboarders and anglers looking to hook into smallmouth bass, walleye, catfish, sauger and the occasional trout.

Yet for many, the canyon is an unknown despite its amenities, and maybe even less well-known among human-powered boaters like kayakers, stand-up paddleboarders and canoeists.

“People who think about Bighorn Lake think about power boating,” Fleming said. “They don’t think about paddle sports. But during the middle of the week when the power boaters aren’t around, this is a great place to paddle.”

Foundation grant

Last year, Bighorn Canyon received a $20,000 grant from the National Park Foundation through its Active Trails program. Now in its sixth year, the Active Trails program promotes healthier living by encouraging people to recreate in national parks. The group funds projects that help restore, protect or create land and water trails.

This year, the National Park Foundation awarded 37 grants totaling $700,687 to national parks, one of which was Bighorn Canyon NRA.

“Through the Active Trails program, people across the country are connecting with their national parks, discovering more ways to lead active and healthy lives, and giving back to the places they love,” Neil Mulholland, president and CEO of the National Park Foundation, said in a statement. “These grants are critical to helping with ongoing efforts to maintain and enhance the 17,000 miles of land and water trails across the National Park System.”

Put to use

Bighorn Canyon used the money it was awarded last year to purchase six kayaks, a kayak trailer, paddles, seats and straps for the south end of the lake near Lovell, Wyo.

A safety guide and a backcountry camping map and trail guide also were created using the funding.

This year, the recreation area received an additional $8,450 to fund the purchase of six more kayaks and associated gear that can be kept at the north end of the reservoir near Fort Smith, Mont.

Fleming said the plan is to use those boats in a program with schools on the nearby Crow Reservation. She said the students would hear a presentation from one of the recreation area’s rangers, then do a research project that would be presented to that official. The third part of the program would get the students out on the lake to connect with the resource.

“The kayaks are one of the many different ways we’re trying to figure out how to get them into the resource,” Fleming said.

The recreation area also received a separate Ticket to Ride grant from the National Park Foundation that will pay for busing the children to the NRA.

“We’re really lucky, the National Park Foundation has taken good care of us this year,” Fleming said.

Summer trips

Last summer the recreation area sponsored outings for 10 individuals and always had a waiting list. Up to five boaters with their own kayaks can also participate. On one trip they paddled about 6 miles from Horseshoe Bend to Crooked Creek and back. But on a long trip they stroked from Barry’s Landing to Devil’s Canyon and back, about 20 miles.

“That was an epic all-day adventure,” Fleming said. “I’m not sure we’ll do that one again.

“This year we’ll keep it small and short.”

Fleming said she’s not very comfortable on the water, always afraid of tipping the boat over. But the sit-on-top kayaks are stable, making the activity more enjoyable for her.

“It’s fun, even though I’m a little weird around the water,” she said. “And it’s nice for me who’s not super comfortable around those things that I can tell other people that.”

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.