Red has seen more abuse than most 17-foot Dagger Ventures her age, but never conditions like this. It’s the middle of January, and Jackson, Wyo., is in the midst of an unusually bitter cold snap. On the way to the river this morning the car’s thermometer read 27 below and a sign on the road into Grand Teton National Park warned that it was too cold to snowmobile. It didn’t say anything about canoeing, though.
Besides, Luke and I have our marching orders: To kick off Red’s relay to the ocean. The idea is to put in on the Snake River at the Jackson Lake dam, and, en route to the Pacific, investigate one of the country’s most important rivers. We’ll savor the parts that remain serene—including a National Park, Recreation Area, and Conservation Area—but not shy from it’s castrated stretches. The Snake is impounded by 21 dams, and there are spots where no water flows in the bed at all. In between, there’s America: potato farms, small towns, the gorge near Twin Falls, Idaho, where Evil Knievel attempted his famous rocket jump. We’ll do this trip one issue at a time, different writers lending their voices and perspectives. It may take a while.
The sound of the splintering ice rallies us;the difficulty of pulling the blade through the slushy waters warms us up. We pass by a coyote curled up in a ball beside the river. He lifts his head and looks at us nonchalalntly, then tucks it back into his chest.
But so far so good: we’ve crammed heat packets into our ski gloves, awkwardly pulled PFDs over our down jackets, and are slicing silently through fog. We’ve been backcountry skiing all week, and, despite the fact that it’s stupidly cold out, it feels good to be on the water, getting the journey started. We spook trumpeter swans, who somehow manage to look elegant even when they’re in distress, and ducks. Mergansers, mallards, and golden eyes, according to Luke.
I don’t know much about birds, but what I do know I learned from Luke. A few summers ago he and I and two other friends paddled Red—and her brother Yellow—across a good chunk of Canada. Eighty-six days after we started in Saskatchewan we reached the brackish mouth of the Back River, at which point we pulled out our sat phone and called for our shuttle—a 22-foot boat piloted by a few Inuit guys who live on King William Island. Which, because we were flying home, is where we thought we were going to have to leave Red.
But the only other Royalex canoe we saw on the island had been cut in half and, we were told, was now being used to tow supplies behind a snowmobile. And that just didn’t seem right. So we secured a spot for Red and Yellow—for 50 bucks, Canadian!—on the barge that resupplies the island once a year, and the canoes began their long, slow journey back to us: Across the western Arctic Ocean, up the McKenzie River, overland to Edmonton, and finally, with some help from friends, back to Luke’s house in Wyoming.
As we head into the famous Oxbow section in Grand Teton National Park, the current slows, and, just as we had feared, ice veils the river. We go Viking, and charge through. The sound of the splintering rallies us; the difficulty of pulling the blade through the splintered waters warms us up. We pass by a coyote curled up in a ball beside the river. He lifts his head and looks at us nonchalantly, then tucks it back into his chest. The ice just keeps getting thicker, though, and we ram Red up and over frozen ridges before finally, stubbornly, we come to our senses.
We know there’s open water further downstream—we’ve seen it—but Red won’t taste it today. We backtrack a few hundred yards, and start post-holing through the confetti-light snow.