BILLINGS — The evidence is in U.S. Forest Service reports and video captured by stunned hikers: Two beloved backcountry lakes nestled in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness are virtually gone, after historic June floods destroyed their outlets.
"The volume of water moving through there was significant enough that it basically eroded the outlets of those lakes over the course of a few days. No more outlet, and now it’s a stream," says Jake Chaffin, watershed project manager for the Custer-Gallatin National Forest.
Chaffin says the two most notable changes are in Elk Lake and Island Lake. Island Lake is above Mystic Lake and has been reduced significantly, exposing sandy beaches and jagged, destroyed banks.
Elk Lake sits near the beginning (or end) of the highly-trafficked Beaten Path, a 26-mile backpacking trail that carves through the heart of the Beartooths.
"Elk Lake in the East Rosebud drainage is almost completely gone," Chaffin said. “It’s a popular lake for fishing and things like that. You see those pictures online of people fishing on a rock on a lake and it’s just not there.”
Sebastian Petzing and his party of adventure-seeking backpackers saw Elk Lake change overnight.
“It was like it swallowed up the Earth," Petzing said.
Petzing and his friends hiked into Elk Lake the day before the floods hit in June.
“Our plan was to backpack to Elk Lake and set up our base camp and then day hike up the trail as far as we could," Petzing said.
The group expected wet, spring conditions but not a historic flooding event.
“Right when we woke up the next morning we noticed that Elk Lake had risen. The water had risen a couple of feet overnight. We thought 'all right, let’s pack up our stuff and mosey out of here, I suppose'—the trail was completely gone. We were witnessing trees falling into water, being swept downstream, large, full-grown trees, and that was the point we realized oh this is not your normal high-water," Petzing said.
Petzing and his friends made it out to Roscoe, where the community was preparing for flooding, and they sent a warning of what was happening upstream.
For Petzing, it's an important reminder to be very prepared.
“With natural disasters becoming more frequent it is definitely something you have to keep in mind. Thankfully we had a spot device with us. It’s incredibly important to have some kind of backup plan if your know-how and your experience isn’t enough to combat the effects for something like a natural disaster.”
Chaffin says the short-term change may stun people heading into the backcountry, but in the long-term new lakes will likely emerge from the floods.
“There’s some pretty big changes, but over the scale of hundreds of thousands of years, not really out of the question for what we might observe," Chaffin said.