Swift, powerful strokes carry the osprey and its meal away from
the river. Winging through the trees that line the Snake River, the
raptor carries a fat, protein-rich fish -- a trout, maybe a sucker
-- that its talons moments ago had plucked from the swirling river.
Somewhere the bird will find a roost where it can enjoy its meal in
peace. Now it simply is determined to flee the river and the other
ospreys and eagles that might want to steal the catch.
We had slipped our canoe into the water just a bit earlier, sliding it off the cobblestone beach below Jackson Lake Dam and into the churning current that draws its life from the flume of water being spit from the dam’s penstocks. The 65.5-foot-tall concrete dam, the successor to a 3-foot-tall log structure anchored with rocks that was built in 1906 to improve on a glacial moraine that had created a much smaller lake than the one that now exists, slows the Snake but can’t drown it.
True, gone are the many lazy meanders that crisscrossed the narrow valley framed by 11,355-foot Ranger Peak to the west and 8,274-foot Pilgrim Mountain to the east before the present dam rose up in 1916. But once it spills out of the dam the Snake returns to its former self. It lacks the force to scour the valley as its prehistoric ancestors did, but today’s Snake still more or less sticks to the course those watery predecessors laid down so long ago and is robust enough so as not to be confused with some tranquil backwater.
With channels braided by deadfall and shoals and the ever-present wildlife roaming its banks and flat pools, the Snake is almost as emblematic of Grand Teton National Park as are the park’s jagged mountains. Certainly, it’s not as dramatic as those ice- and snow-coated peaks that tower over the park. But it’s just as constant, and it’s definitely more vibrant.
A sinewy ribbon of life that is at the headwaters of the Columbia River system, the Snake River cuts both placid and tumultuous for about 50 miles along the park’s eastern border. From snowmelt that mingles with runoff from spring and summer rainstorms and the draining of lakes, ponds and springs, the river gains its mercurial temperament.
Also contributing to the river’s ebb and flow are Pacific Creek, Buffalo Fork, Spread Creek and the Gros Ventre River, a collection of streams that flush out the surrounding mountains in spring only to run gravy thin in late summer when there’s scant left water to drain. So meager is the water that trickles down these tributaries when cottonwood and aspen leaves begin to glow yellow and gold that you could, with some well-placed steps, walk upstream into the mountains much as you would along a trail.
Fish, raptors, mammals and vegetation give the Snake its personality, while the breath-taking setting -- horizon-stretching views of the three Tetons, Mount Moran with Skillet Glacier draped across its flanks, heavily forested Signal Mountain -- provides a flavorful and distinctive backdrop.
In a previous life I had been a white-water raft guide back East, and once I moved to Wyoming and saw the river that helps drain the western slopes of the Continental Divide to the Pacific Ocean I’ve wanted to dip a paddle into its currents. Having waited so many years to run this river, the quick glide of my boat in the river’s current is a welcome, almost delicious feeling.
Although born a Scorpio, there are times when I’m sure I’m a Pisces. I feel oddly at home on sparkling clear waters running off to the sea, regardless of whether they’re glassy smooth or a series of rapids lashed together by flat pools where trout lurk. The spray kicked up by rocks in mid-rapid, and the bronc-busting routine those rapids provoke, provide me with much more entertainment than any black ribbon of asphalt ever could.
It’s easy and comforting to watch rivers as they wind their way through the landscape with your two feet planted firmly on their banks, but it’s an earthier experience to drift on the currents and pass through that landscape as part of the river.
Early settlers to Jackson Hole at times referred to the Snake as the "Mad River," a moniker well-earned for the river's turbulent flows during spring runoff. But this late-summer day the river is nothing but peaceful as our paddle strokes take us farther from the dam and closer to the wildlife so synonymous with the river. Bald eagles perch in trees along the shoreline, taking a break from snagging entrees out of the river. Fat trout can be seen beneath our canoe, drifting in the currents. Moose, elk, deer and pronghorn are regular visitors to the forests and sagebrush flats that abut the river, and bear -- both black and grizzly -- and wolves are known to lap from its currents.
Mountain bluebirds, pine siskins, goldfinch and Clark’s nutcrackers and representatives of dozens of other bird species flit from tree to tree to tree in search of food and shelter. Verne Huser, a long-time river guide who shares his love for the river in Wyoming's Snake River, on ce counted 56 bird species during a day-long trip down the Snake, a number he calls typical.
Despite this abundance of wildlife, it still takes a sharp eye from time to time to notice all of the Snake’s residents. It’s with that in mind that we spot, cavorting along the grassy river bank, five otters in a romping, tumbling, and gamboling manifestation of the belief that life can indeed be bliss.
Lounging in the shade of cottonwoods shading the riverbank roughly a mile below the dam, the otters bound to life when we approach, as if it is their duty to entertain us. Leaping and rolling over each other in a frenzy to see who could be first into the water, the frolicking otters are like a gang of school kids suddenly freed from kindergarten.
Once in the water, each vanishes momentarily beneath the surface, only to reappear 10 feet away, bobbing briefly before scampering back up onto the bank. Quickly joined by his and her buddies, the otters mob each other in a tangle of wet, sleek fur, pausing only long enough to assess our distance from them before resuming their joyous antics.
Passing them by, we float beneath Cattlemen’s Bridge and head on toward Oxbow Bend, a side channel to the main Snake. In this marshy backwater cinnamon and green-winged teals cruise like feathery flotillas with ducklings in tow among downed snags and willow thickets searching for snacks, while elegant trumpeter swans and white pelicans glide majestically atop the water's surface. Great blue herons, necks long and beaks sharp to snatch unsuspecting fish as they drift by, and double-crested cormorants, which spread their wings to dry them after plunging into the river after a meal, also are frequent visitors.
On this day we skim across the rippled reflection of Mount Moran and bypass the bend in favor of the main channel. Having started the day in Yellowstone National Park where we had spotted bison and elk, on the Snake we add to our wildlife bingo with the sightings of osprey, eagles, otters, white pelicans and trumpeter swans and begin to wonder whether we will see any moose. It's while recounting the day’s sightings that our question is answered by a tremendous crashing through the woods. Wheeling our canoe about to see what the commotion is, we are rewarded by three moose bolting from the woods and into the river.
What provoked their flight isn’t obvious, but it doesn’t matter; that we see them does. It’s not much farther down the river that the Snake’s personality begins to change, from a serene stream to something akin to a rambunctious youngster, one full of energy and impetuous behavior. Deadman’s Bar, a sandy spit that anecdotal evidence suggests was named in dubious honor of an 1886 triple murder spurred by a dispute among miners panning for gold, offers a clear line of demarcation.
Here the Snake’s comparatively sedate section is left behind upstream and replaced downstream by a decidedly more sweeping river, one that rushes through the landscape in a hurry as the increased gradient gets help in flushing the river downstream by a pinching in of the river banks.
Signs at Deadman’s Bar, a popular put-in for commercial trips that ferry park visitors past the Tetons, promise those continuing on down the river to Moose that the trip will be anything but lazy. There are no technical rapids along these 10 miles of river, but the signs caution that advanced boating skills are needed just the same for navigating extremely swift currents and cold, near 50-degree water that is not what you want to be splashing around in, not even in late-summer.
With the warming sun on my back, the swift waters pushing a slurry of suspended sands -- glacial silt? -- against the canoe that produces a rattling sound remarkably similar to aspen leaves fluttering in a fall breeze, and the snow-shrouded Tetons filling the western horizon, I feel entirely at home. That the Snake’s personality is changing is evident almost immediately after we leave Deadman’s Bar and cruise through a Class I rapid about 50 yards long and realize this is going to be a great paddle because of the swift current, occasional rapids (nothing above Class II) and gorgeous scenery.
Running cold and deep, just below Deadman's Bar the Snake skirts a glacial moraine that is the righthand bank. A remnant of the last ice age, the moraine offers a geologic side-cut of the landscape. The conglomerate of rocks, boulders, silts and sands of various shapes and sizes was pushed into place by one of the many glaciers that helped sculpt the Teton Range over the millennia.
Although the Tetons are one of the youngest ranges in the Rocky Mountains, their geology is one of the most varied among the world’s mountainous regions. Vast inland seas, periodic volcanics, deep glaciations and geologic machinations all played a role in defining the landscape that today captures those events in fossilized plant and dinosaur remains, thick sedimentary rocks, stunning peaks and U-shaped canyons.
It was a vast glaciation that arrived 150,000 years ago with rivers of ice 3,000 feet thick that sculpted the mountains with cirques and cols and created the Tetons’ defining pyramid-shaped peaks, or “glacial horns.” As the glaciers retreated, they left behind morainal lakes and kettles -- depressions created when blocks of ice calved from the retreating glaciers.
Skillet, Teton and Schoolroom glaciers remain today, vestiges of their “Little Ice Age” forefathers of 5,000 years ago. In 1998 I surveyed this landscape from a precarious perch atop the 13,770-foot Grand Teton, and as captivating as that sight was from the park’s roof, the view from the river corridor is just as spectacular as this time I’m looking up at the Tetons and seeing them as mountain men and Native Americans must have viewed them 150 years ago.
Quickly moving downstream, the river ferries us past sagebrush flats, short stretches of conifer forest that occasionally reveal bald and golden eagles roosted high atop snags, and occasional rapids of no consequence.
While the river’s pace continues to increase, requiring us to take care with our paddle strokes and be sure in choosing which of the braided channels we take, the payoff is delivered in the form of bison and pronghorn antelope grazing near the banks and the ever-present Tetons looming boldly on the horizon.
Our takeout is at Moose, just below the park’s visitor’s center, but it’s far from the end of the river. Its journey continues south past Jackson and Wilson and on to Hoback Junction, where it makes a hard right to enter the Grand Canyon of the Snake River. Kicking, bouncing and pounding its way through the canyon, the river seethes as it recalls its wild heritage, before losing its punch and fury as it’s corralled once again by another dam that confines the Snake in Palisades Reservoir.
No longer a wild river in the truest sense of the definition the Snake is once again harnessed, making that stretch that flows through the park all the more special.