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Snake River Kayaking Exploration for All-Levels

By Dr. Eric Larsen

In my last blog post, we explored the paddling possibilities of several of Grand Teton National Park’s (GTNP) moraine lakes at the base of the Teton Range.  Jenny, String, and Leigh lakes are fantastically beautiful and great padding destinations for you and your Oru, but if you’re like me your eyes will soon turn to the Snake River and its tributaries, the lifeblood of GTNP and Jackson Hole.  Lake paddling is serene and peaceful, but the navigation of rivers is more a more complex undertaking and brings a certain level of interesting uncertainty as you work downstream contemplating the challenges around the next bend.

The magic of gravel-bed rivers like the Snake lies in their powerful swirling currents, pushing you ever downstream and forcing you to navigate the sweepers, driftwood piled corners and channel deposited boulders.  The National Park Service posts stern warnings at all Snake River access sites within the park, but each of the four floatable sections of river below Jackson Lake Dam has a different character and degree of paddling difficulty.  Roughly speaking, each succeeding downstream section from Jackson Lake Dam presents a more complex paddling adventure, though none are overly difficult for the experienced kayaker.

A good starting point to introduce yourself to Snake River kayaking is the Jackson Lake Dam to Pacific Creek run. The first few miles downstream from the dam feature an exhilarating but forgiving magic carpet ride of strong current sweeping you over a wide shallow riverbed. As you glide over the crystal clear water marvel at the darting cutthroat trout, diving osprey, perching eagles, cedar waxwings on streamside cottonwoods, inquisitive river otters, or simply the dazzling reflections of sunlight glinting off the river bed gravels.  But never forget you’re in Grand Teton National Park and around any given bend there could stand a moose, an elk, wolf or grizzly bear!  The wildness of the country defines the Snake’s exalted status in the river pantheon of the United States.  Don’t miss putting your Oru on the water when you visit, the Snake is a paddling gem.

 

Visiting friends and I put on the Snake below Jackson Lake Dam on an August morning, intent on a fun and interesting day of paddling and picnicking. Two young women were part of the assembled crew and they alternated in the Oru, successfully navigating the rivers currents, corners, and gravel fans.  We swept along downstream with the backdrop of the Teton Range rising off to the west, alternately visible and blocked by the riverside cottonwoods.  A riverside lunch, a beaver lodge, rafts of white pelicans, and beautiful blue-green water were the highlights of our day.  No navigational difficulties issues presented themselves and we had a relaxing and carefree float down a beautiful river in an iconic National Park.  There really is no better destination for the Oru paddling community than the rivers and lakes of Grand Teton National Park.

GTNP’s Pacific Creek is #237 on my carefully tendered “Lifetime Rivers” list.  Within that list lie memories of all the watery bends of my days - the overhanging branches of the silver maples shading the Menominee, the Black Spruce sweepers of powerful Alaskan rivers, the class 5 chaos of the Nile just down from Lake Victoria, the deep shadowed canyons of the Broken Skull, South Nahanni, Colorado, and Whanganui – and on this day the waters washing down Pacific Creek in Grand Teton National Park.  I’ll be paddling my Oru solo today, so before I start I work my way along the road paralleling the creek to check Pacific Creek’s character, water level, and degree of difficulty from several vantage points. It’s low so I decide on the lowermost section with my take-out at the Snake River confluence and choose as my put-in a lonely intersection of road and river heading up towards Pacific Creek Campground.

What will a day’s solo paddle bring?  Wood, for sure. Wood in the channel, wood piled up on the streamside gravels by spring floods, wood of all sizes and in every possible location. Massive root wads of cottonwoods undercut and toppled by the creek’s currents both in the channel and in jams extending out from the banks.  Lots of blind corners, sweepers, and undercuts. Rivers are complicated, but the creek is low in this late summer season, which is good for a solo run because it won’t push so hard. 

I launch off the gravels into the current and my day’s journey begins. I drift a bit, set a backferry angle and backpaddle to gauge how the Oru responds whilst looking ahead to scout the first sharp bend in the creek.   The inside of the corner is shallow, and I scrape a bit but I am pleased how my Oru holds the ferry angle as I backpaddle into the eddy on the inside of the bend.  No sweepers on this first corner but they will come with other bends in the creek. A murder of crows take flight from the gravels ahead and I think to myself “How many crows make a murder?” But there’s another bend coming up with a high cut bank on the outside and a tangled pile of driftwood on the inside – can’t see around the bend so I beach my Oru to see what’s around the corner.  I observe nothing of difficulty as I scout down past the log jam, so I jump back in and backferry around the bend and on down the creek.  So goes my morning, alternately backferrying and boat scouting, jumping out for a quick look around a corner, and a couple short portages around channel blocking sweepers.  I’m pleased how my Oru ferries back and forth in the current, better than I would have guessed for my Beach LT model.  I’m pleased that I’ve chosen to spend this August day paddling Pacific Creek.  My mind wanders as I drift silently downstream, thinking back to a bush pilot story about paddling solo down the North Fork of the Koyukuk River in Alaska.  How he came around a corner and found himself in the suddenly close company of a grizzly bear standing in the only passable portion of the channel.  Hmm, that could happen here! So I’m careful, but joyous, my kayak transporting me through the Tetons in a simple world of water, wood, and stone.