Wyoming's Snake River carves both lazy oxbows and braided channels with swift currents through Grand Teton National Park. It's a great float, but as a 71-year-old Indiana woman discovered the hard way, you have to make sure you hit your takeout point before the current pushes you downstream. She didn't and ended up spending a cool night on a sandbar in the river.
Fortunately, Jane Dukes kept her wits about her, endured the night, and was rescued Thursday morning by rangers.
Park officials say the Colfax, Indiana, woman was spotted by rangers and members of the Teton Interagency Helitak crew about 8:15 Thursday morning. She was in good shape, medically, although taken to a Jackson hospital as a precaution.
The woman had headed down the stream from the Pacific Creek boat launch Wednesday evening about 6:30 p.m. in her "rubber ducky," an inflatable kayak, with intentions of taking out at Deadman's Bar some 10 miles downstream. Unfortunately, her plans didn't exactly work out.
According to park officials, Ms. Dukes was unfamiliar with the Snake River, and "although she has experience canoeing on lakes and small streams, she lacked experience with both a kayak and a swift flowing river—the Snake River is currently flowing at approximately 4,300 cubic-feet-per-second below the Buffalo Fork confluence."
When darkness blanketed the river around 9:30 p.m., the woman beached her kayak on a sandbar in the middle of the river and stayed put, rather than continuing to float downstream on an unknown course, according to park officials. "She also turned her kayak over and took shelter from a cold breeze," they added. "Overnight temperatures on the Snake River reached 35 degrees Fahrenheit, and Dukes had no supplemental clothing or equipment to protect her from the elements."
Shortly before 10 p.m. Wednesday family members reported Ms. Dukes overdue, and rangers searched quickly organized a wide-spread search that included checking several river locations. Rangers also used night-vision goggles to attempt to detect her in the dark conditions before the moon rose, but were unsuccessful in their efforts.
Although Ms. Dukes was wearing a sage green life jacket that blended in with her surroundings, rangers spotted her Thursday morning when she waved her arms at the sight of the helicopter. Two additional rangers were able to launch a raft from the west bank of the river and reach her shortly after she was spotted from the air. They then floated her to a location near the old Bar BC Dude Ranch, where a park ambulance was waiting. Emergency medical personnel assessed her physical condition and determined that she should be transported to St. John’s Medical Center for additional medical care.
Rangers credit the woman with keeping her wits about her and for beaching on the sandbar rather than continuing through the braided and debris-strewn river channels beyond. Although this incident had a positive outcome, it could have resulted in serious injury or worse for Ms. Dukes because of the late hour of the day and her lack of river knowledge, park officials said.
In the aftermath of this search and rescue, park officials pointed out that "the Snake is a natural river and its current and water temperature can be deceiving. Novice boaters should never underestimate the river and should consult with rangers before beginning their trip. Anyone planning to float the distance from Pacific Creek to Deadman’s Bar should get an early start to avoid fading light and reduced visibility as dusk sets in."
Not only does this mark the second significant search-and-rescue operation of the season involving ill-prepared boaters on the Snake River, but it's the second in less than a week. Last Friday a father and son who thought they could negotiate 25 miles of the Snake River on an inflatable raft better suited for a swimming pool and armed with sticks for paddles had to be rescued by rangers several miles into their journey when the raft sprung a leak.