It was yet another stunning Tetons day – brilliant blue sky punctuated by a few puffy cumulus over the highest peaks, 80 degrees and dry. I’d been looking forward to a chance to float a river with the family since well before we started the trip, and the previous day’s play session on String Lake had worked some of the kinks out with respect to inflating, using, and re-packing our kayaks.
I’d spent quite some time planning what stretch of river we’d float as our requirements were pretty narrow… Tacco and I would be going tandem with a girl each, and Keeper would go solo. Some current but not too much, very little actual paddling required, a couple gentle rapids, good scenery, an easy put-in and take-out… and I’d found it. It was to be a 10 mile stretch of the Snake that cut through the heart of the National Park. Of course there was also the logistical issue – several ways to skin that cat, but the friendly ranger at the Visitors’ Center had assured me that I’d get picked up hitchhiking within about 5 minutes (or at least, she always had), so I decided I’d unload everyone / everything at the put-in, inflate the kayaks, then drive down the road to the take-out by myself, leave the car there, and hitchhike back to them, at which point fun would commence.
And commence it did. The entire evolution went like clockwork, I was picked up and dropped off by a carful of cheerful college women doing one last summer outing before heading back up to MSU, and we got on the river just after a picnic lunch on the beach.
The water was crystal clear and just cool enough for the occasional dip to cool us off, and we saw trout darting beneath us over the entire route. We saw otters, ospreys, even a moose or two on the side of the river. Keeper took to his kayak as if he’d been paddling rivers his whole life, and couldn’t contain his excitement for the next rapid, and afterwards, the next float. The girls were equally enthusiastic and said they wanted to do something like this everywhere we go. All three kids informed me that they had inherited my love of rivers, and that this experience would make them more confident, independent, and high functioning adults.
THAT WAS THE STORY I REALLY, REALLY WANTED TO WRITE.
HERE IS THE REAL ONE.
We awoke to an overcast day. Though there was no rain in the forecast, the skies to the West over the Tetons were a bit ominous. We were a little sluggish in the camp that morning, so didn’t really get moving until after we had planned, but we weren’t really on a timetable, so figured we’d catch lunch (and a few minutes of cell phone coverage) in Colter Village, I’d talk to the rangers one last time, and we’d head out.
The rangers were my first buzzkill. Which isn’t to say that anything they said to me was incorrect or unhelpful, it just wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear. First they told me that I’d be required to buy permits for the float. I’d read that inflatables under 10’ were exempt, but apparently I’d read that incorrectly. OK, no problem. Then they informed me that I’d need to get all my boats inspected for invasive creatures (i.e. mussels). Yet another thing I thought I’d been exempt from, and what seemed like a massive time-suck – finding an inspection station, pulling all of the inflatables out of their bags, inflating them, deflating them, re-packing them… and for what? I’d had them on exactly two bodies of water – our pool and String Lake the day prior. Hard to imagine I’d have picked up mussels in either of those places. Plus that exemption I’d read about. When I asked about it they explained that I was exempt from getting the sticker for the inspection, not the actual inspection. Wait, huh?? So I should get the inspection but no proof that I’d had it done?
The two rangers had begun to assume good cop / bad cop personas, at least slightly, over the course of our conversation, and the bad cop was clearly taking offense at my line of questioning, so I let it go and told them I’d “get an inspection.” (after she stepped out, the good cop let me know that if she were me, she’d just go float, given that we’d not had the kayaks elsewhere) Thirdly, when I told them my plans, they shook their heads and tut-tutted at me. “That’s a bit much.” Yeah? “Yes. For a family? Yes. Lots of braided channels, lots of ways to get stuck in a section of river with protruding obstructions, etc. You want no part of that with a 5 and 8 year old.” Really? I’m pretty good at this. [actually I’m not – I’ve only done guided trips in the past] “Really.” Well shoot. So I took their recommendation and opted for the 3 mile stretch with no rapids instead. I was told there might be some paddling, but it shouldn’t be too much as long as there wasn’t a headwind. And they were right of course, but already this float was deviating uncomfortably from the vision I’d concocted.
Permits purchased, family re-grouped, we headed to the Jackson Lake Dam and the put-in. Skies were looking ever more ominous, but Keeper chimed in with “who cares if we get wet on a river?” That’s my boy. Though it wasn’t exactly warm out, nor was the water. Never mind though, we inflated all the kayaks, packed the snacks and I left the family behind to find the take-out, which was easy enough.
Shoot, that’s gotta be rain out there over the mountains, headed our way, isn’t it? Nah, don’t look at it, we’re fine.
But then I had to hitchhike. I’ve never hitchhiked. It was awkward.
Where do I stand? Do I look them in the eye pleadingly or pretend I can’t be bothered? Arm straight out with thumb up or more of a sideways thing? Would tooling around on my phone make me look less creepy (“hey, he’s solid enough to have a phone at least, I say we take him anywhere he wants to go”)? Should I stay near the parking lot or walk down the road? Many, many questions, and I’d thought of none of them until I was In It.
Ten minutes in, I realized that I was facing the wrong way; doing it with my back to the people I was hoping to catch a ride from was an almost guaranteed show-stopper. I could’ve turned around and displayed a hideous monster-face once they stopped. Maybe I had an axe in the other hand. So I turned around to face my potential ride-givers. It felt weird in a way that’s hard to describe to not know how to hitchhike. Twenty minutes and several dozen tearing-past-me cars into it, and I started mulling over the idea that a young, attractive female ranger (“I get picked up within 5 minutes any time I hitchhike”) might have better luck than a solo middle-aged dude with a questionable hat. At thirty minutes I texted Tacco (fortunately I had one bar of signal, as did she), only to find that it had started to rain and they were huddled under one of the kayaks, though she assured me it was “all good.” It didn’t seem all good, and I’d gotten not as much as a friendly look from passers-by. I’m a truly crappy hitchhiker.
So between my lack of thumbing skill and the rain, I opted to admit defeat and return to the car to pick up my stranded family. Fortunately it had only sprinkled, so they’d made an adventure of it and hadn’t gotten too wet.
As soon as I pulled into the parking lot next to where they were squeezed together under the kayaks, however, the sky opened up. Wind, heavy (cold) rain falling in sheets, total mayhem. One kayak caught a gust of wind and went airborne down the river bank, sending Keeper after it (in bare feet, on semi-sharp rocks) to keep it from going solo down the Snake and never seeing us again. The girls ran for the car and piled in to try to warm up.
I spent the next half hour collecting all the kayaks and kayaking gear in the downpour, deflating them, and wrestling them back into their carrying cases, all the while trying not to think of the mildew that was going to grow on them if I left them this way for more than a day or two.
Right about the time I’d got them more or less packed and shoe-horned with the other wet gear into the car, the rain stopped. “Wanna try it now? We could just float down and all hitchhike back to here instead. We might have better luck with five of us! Never mind that it’s pushing 4PM!”
Shoot. So that was our river kayaking day. In the interest of silver linings, no one was especially dispirited and I was probably more disappointed than anyone, which I kept in check when I saw that the others were playing up the “adventure” part of it. We’ll try again another day, on another river. It’ll be cool. I’m certain of it.