CODY, WYO. — More than a century has passed since the Shoshone River was known as the Stinking Water River, thanks to a sulfuric smell from thermal activity that still lingers today. But for river advocates organizing an inaugural festival celebrating the river and its benefits, that occasional sulfur smell translates to outdoor fun, tourism dollars and irrigated crops.
A wide range of sponsoring groups led by The Nature Conservancy are organizing the Cody Wild West River Fest, scheduled for Aug. 23-24. Among the activities planned are a fishing contest, boating competitions, a film festival and concerts.
“The idea is to promote Cody as a destination for river recreation,” said Katherine Thompson, northwest Wyoming program director for The Nature Conservancy. “Cody has got some amazing resources available for river users year-round.”
The same hot springs and thermal features that sometimes yield a rotten-egg smell just downstream from the Buffalo Bill Dam also warm the river, keeping sections of it largely free of ice and open for boating and fishing, even in the depths of winter, when many other rivers in the greater Yellowstone area are frozen or closed in by ice and snow.
The festival will include events that draw attention to water quality and conservation issues, but the main goal is to celebrate the diverse role the Shoshone River plays in commerce, recreation and community health from the eastern edge of Yellowstone National Park across a vast drainage that is home to farms, critical wildlife habitat and growing economies, Thompson said.
“The Shoshone River and rivers like it across Wyoming are the life’s blood of our human communities. They may provide our drinking water, irrigate our yards and gardens and farms,” she said. “So they’re critically important to our communities, whether we realize it or not.”
Thompson said that in Cody, the Shoshone River isn’t always recognized as a great fishing or boating destination as much as the Snake River is near Jackson, Wyo., for instance, or the Gallatin River, near Bozeman, Mont.
“The Shoshone might just be a well-kept secret because we want it to be, so we don’t always try that hard to promote it,” she said. “But I think we all want Cody’s young people to be engaging in river sports and caring for the resource.”
While the Shoshone may be less famous—and is certainly less crowded—than some other rivers in the greater Yellowstone area, that’s changing, said whitewater enthusiast Andy Quick.
“It’s definitely an undiscovered gem, but I see more and more people out on the river every year,” said Quick, owner of Gradient Mountain Sports, a River Fest sponsor which offers canoes, kayaks, gear, lessons and guided trips.
Quick said the Shoshone River just below the dam offers a variety of water from mild to wild, and that flows from the dam mean the whitewater is more consistent and high-quality year-round than many other more acclaimed rivers.
Upstream from the Buffalo Bill Dam is a 12-square-mile reservoir of the same name fed by the North Fork and South Fork of the Shoshone River.
The North Fork flows some 50 miles from the edge of Yellowstone National Park, while the South Fork has its headwaters in some of the most remote and rugged backcountry in the contiguous U.S. The short and steep Middle Fork (or Middle Creek) flows out of Yellowstone Park, starting just below Sylvan Pass and running right past the East Gate before joining the North Fork near Pahaska Tepee Resort.
That’s near where whitewater rafter P.J. Schneider, 14, has put in a few times earlier this summer for white-knuckled runs through rapids near Mormon Creek, Goff Creek and other swift and rocky spots along the Upper North Fork.
“It’s my favorite part of the river to float, because there’s so much great scenery and lots of animals,” said Schneider, who also was among a group of students who tested river water quality during an excursion led this summer by the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, a River Fest sponsor.
Thompson said water quality will be a key topic at a planned roundtable discussion during the festival, and that residents will have a chance to learn about voluntary measures they can take to help ensure river health.
Though water quality on most of the Shoshone is good, its lower sections suffer degraded quality after passing through miles of ag and grazing lands, where farming runoff contributes to contamination from sediment and E. coli bacteria.
“We have a great opportunity to make a positive contribution to water quality, and this river is obviously very important,” Thompson said. “So we’ll be working to look at funding that’s available from various agencies that will help improve water quality for everyone.”
Other improvements The Nature Conservancy has been pursuing include upgraded picnic areas and other facilities at Cody’s main river access where Highway 120 crosses the Shoshone at the north edge of town. The group has also helped post new road signs guiding motorists to in-town river access points.
Thompson said the festival will feature a packed line-up of contests, races, gatherings, performances and other activities, with an updated schedule available at codyriverfest.com.
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected].