For years I've been visiting Grand Teton National Park in western Wyoming, hiking its trails, gazing at the snow-capped Tetons, even climbing to the top of the Grand Teton. Since I resumed my paddling career a few years ago one of the rivers I definitely wanted to tackle was the Snake River that runs along the park's eastern boundary.
That trip finally materialized early in June 2001 when a group of 11 of us arrived at the park's Signal Mountain Campground on the shore of Jackson Lake. We had a blend of paddling skills -- In college I had been a white-water raft guide in West Virginia on the Cheat and New rivers. I finally returned to the water in a Mad River Explorer in 1998; my buddy Joe has owned rafts for about 14 years and has experience on the Middle Fork of the Salmon and several other Idaho and Montana white-water rivers; my other buddy Jim is primarly a flat-water/lake canoeist trying to decide whether white-water rivers are for him; the rest of the group had negligible paddling experience and primarily was along for the ride.
For this trip we rented a Wenonah Spirit II Royalex boat to add to our small flotilla -- my Royalex Explorer, Joe's cataraft and Jim's Wenonah Odyssey. We also decided to break the river up into day trips, with the Signal Mountain Campground our basecamp.
The first day we floated 15 miles from Jackson Lake Dam, through the river's famous Oxbow Bend, down past Pacific Creek to the takeout at Deadman's Bar. This is an incredibly scenic paddle, one where the views are filled with the three Tetons, Mount Moran with Skillet Glacier draped across its flanks, and the river with its trout population, river otters, osprey, bald eagles and occasional moose sightings. For the most part this stretch of river is tranquil. We did run through a few riffles from time to time, but nothing above a Class I.
The real excitement came on Day 2, as we planned to paddle the 10-mile stretch from Deadman's Bar to Moose. Signs at the put-in warn that this section of river requires advanced boating skills. The skills are needed because the current along this section is extremely swift and the water pretty cold, around 50 degrees, but there are no technical rapids and we had little trouble sorting through the braided stretches of river.
Because we didn't know whether we'd run across any rocky stretches, we decided to leave Jim's Kevlar Odyssey behind and run the two Royalex boats down first. If things went well, we'd shuttle the canoes back to the put-in and four more folks would run the river.
With myself and my brother, Eric, in my Explorer along with my 12-year-old son Sean, and Jim and Joe in the Spirit II with Joe's 7-year-old son Jake, we paddled away from shore under a bright blue, cloudless sky about 10:30 or 11 in the morning with a plan to meet the rest of the group at the takeout around 1:30 p.m. We immediately cruised through a Class I rapid about 50 yards long and realized this was going to be a great paddle because of the swift current, occasional rapids (nothing above Class II) and gorgeous scenery. All along this section the Tetons are in your face. It's a magnificent perspective you can't obtain from land. We quickly moved downstream, passing through sagebrush flats, short stretches of conifer forest, and occasional rapids of no consequence.
About halfway down we decided to pull over to shore for a short break and to finally toast the River Gods. We all remarked on how beautiful the river corridor was.
After about 20 minutes we put back in, with me and my brother leading the way. About 15 yards down from where we shoved off a snag was leaning out over the river, but it didn't present any problems for us. However, after we passed it, and while I was marveling in the scenery, I heard Joe shouting my name. Turning around to see what the commotion was I saw that they had rolled their canoe, apparently while trying to avoid the snag. Jim was holding onto the bow, Joe was at the stern, and Jake was nowhere to be scene.
The water was very swift here, and the riverbanks high, about 3 feet above the river, so there was no way I could easily and quickly land and commence a rescue from shore. Instead I swung my boat around to face upstream. By then Joe had found Jake, who had surfaced under the canoe into an air pocket. Somehow Joe lifted Jake to my brother, who pulled him into our boat. About this time a river ranger came along, and while Joe clung to the gunwales of my boat and Jim swam to shore, the ranger maneuvered the Spirit II to the opposite shore.
After regrouping, the ranger ferried the Spirit II to our side of the river and offered to take the two boys downstream to Moose in his raft, an offer they accepted.
Following a short break, the four of us shoved off once again and headed downstream, along the way passing bison and pronghorn antelope grazing near the banks. There was one rapid near the end of the trip that approached Class II in size, which provided a great ride to end the trip.
In hindsight, the capsizing incident was a relatively small blip on an otherwise wonderful trip. Those who paddle white-water rivers are bound to end up in the water from time to time. It could have been disastrous, though, if we weren't all wearing PFDs and if we didn't have a second canoe for rescue purposes.
I'd paddle this stretch of river again in a heartbeat; in fact, I hope to do it again this summer. But for those thinking about this trip, make sure you've got experience to match its swift currents, know how to swim white-water rivers (feet upright in front of you) and wear your PFD, don't sit on it. Amazingly, the ranger told us he comes across an incredible number of river runners who don't wear their PFDs.
The park has lots of campgrounds, but they fill early in the day during the height of summer, some by 10 a.m., so plan accordingly. Jackson has lots of motels. Jackson Lake Lodge on the lake's eastern shore is a great place to stay and comes complete with restaurants and shops.
The park requires a boating permit -- $5 for seven days or $10 for the entire season.
From Jackson, Wyoming, head north on U.S. 191 to the Moose Junction turnoff. At Moose, stop at the visitor center to buy a boating permit. From there, the Signal Mountain Campground is about 20 miles north along the Teton Park Road. Jackson Lake Dam and a put-in are a five-minute drive away. The turnoff to Deadman's Bar is roughly nine miles north of Moose on U.S. 191, or about nine miles south of Moran Junction on U.S. 191.
Verne Huser's "Wyoming's Snake River" provides great historical context to the river, as well as insight on geology and wildlife, but little technical guidance in running it. There are river maps in the book, but they show relatively little detail.
Falcon Press also has a guidebook to paddling in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, but does not discuss the Deadman's Bar to Moose stretch of the Snake River.