Jackson Hole Paddling the Snake in Wyoming's brutal winter historically has been regarded as the height of foolhardiness. That reputation was forged in 1876, when Lt. Gustavus Doane and six soldiers set out to explore the entirety of the Snake, from Yellowstone to the Columbia. The expedition was a disaster. Travel was slow in the deep snow, their wooden canoe capsized, and the men were forced to kill their pack animals for food. By the time the frostbitten party staggered into an Idaho mining camp in late December, he was so late that orders had been issued for the party to be arrested as deserters.
So when I was enlisted for the second leg of Red Canoe's relay, along the same route as Doane and during the winter, I was a bit wary, especially when the crew that paddled the first leg made it only two miles—in twenty-seven-below-zero weather—before reaching impassable chokes of ice. I envisioned full wetsuits, thermoses of hot beverages, and snowshoes to drag the canoe to the water. The thought made me shiver, but ultimately I was seduced by the prospect of seeing the Snake in snowed-in serenity—something I had never experienced in eight seasons of guiding raft trips on this stretch.
Call it luck o' the Irish (or warming o' the globe): When my friend Randall and I launch Red from Moose Landing in Grand Teton National Park on St. Patrick's Day, complete with Kelly green tam o'shanter, the thermometer tops 60 degrees—nearly 90 degrees warmer than when Red first started its journey to the Pacific.
We bask in the sunshine as we glide past the snow-capped shark fins of the Tetons. A black ouzel, which Doane called a "water canary," pipes from the bank. We see a half-dozen bald eagles, two moose, and hundreds of waterfowl. We see no people, though all summer, these waters are packed with rafters and fly fishermen, tourists and locals alike—some 225,000 people float various stretches of the Snake through Jackson Hole. Besides the skiers we can't quite see sliding around at the resort off to the West, the only reminder that Doane has been dead for 115 years is the thunder of jets roaring in and out of the airport just south of us—the only commercial airstrip set inside a U.S. national park.
For lunch we eddy out in a wind-sheltered cove. The warm sunshine reflects off the melting snowfields, gathering warmth and, eventually, enticing Randal and me to indulge in a brisk late-winter swim. It's a far cry from the hardships of Doane's expedition, which included using axes to chop layers of ice from the hull of their boat.
While this section of the river is still largely as Doane saw it, the imprint of modern man becomes more glaringly evident just a few miles downstream. To protect valuable real estate, the Snake is choked by levees. If an earthquake were to topple Jackson Lake Dam upstream—not a far-fetched scenario in this temblor-prone area—the walls of riprap would be pebbles before the floodwaters, and the second homes of many of America's illuminati, including Dick Cheney and Harrison Ford, would be inundated, if not flat-out swept away.
Juxtapositions like this, and guys like Doane, are what make the Snake such a
fascinating artery. It's one that Red will have plenty of occasion to explore in the coming months, though for our part, we'll only share in her journey for a few more hours. We decide to savor them, enjoying our St. Paddy’s Day beers here in the sun for just a bit longer.