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Floating on the Snake River

[Grand Teton National Park, WY]

For our final day in Grand Teton (and on this trip), we had booked a 2-hour floating trip on the Snake River. We met in the hotel lobby at 8:20 am and got on a bus, which took us to Pacific Creek landing. There, our group of about 40 people boarded two WWII pontoon rafts. These were used in WWI in Europe, when all the bridges were blown out – that’s how the US military got from one bank to the other.

Laura and I were miffed that our life vests ruined our cute outfits although I, as the only non-swimmer on this floating trip (the pontoon lead had asked who’s a non-swimmer before we boarded, and I was the only one to lift my hand, guiltily) was glad to have one on.

We had just about 20 people on our boat. The biggest group was a family who were celebrating the 50th wedding anniversary of Conny and Harry Fox (we knew this from the matching shits with this information printed on the back, together with a wedding photo of the couple). Our pontoon was staffed with two guys, one on the back and one in the front. The one in the back, Gabe, was doing most of the steering, while the guy in the front, whose name i’ve already forgotten, gave us info on this area and answered our questions while we were looking around for wildlife.

No bears or moose materialized on this trip, but we saw some otters and a bald eagle. We added this to our list of wildlife we’ve seen on this trip, together with the fox that ran in front of us as we were heading to the lodge for breakfast this morning. We were surprised to see a predator like this around the cabins, but it was neat.

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Of the many things we learned on this gentle float along the Snake River, several stand out. We learned how these pontoon boat tours came about. There was a tradition to float down the rapids of the Colorado river down at the Grand Canyon in wooden boats. Only 2 passengers would be taken along on each trip, and because the Colorado river has class 10 rapids, the requirements for these 2 passengers was that they could swim and were quite physically fit, as in the wooden boat would inevitably fall apart at some point and all aboard would have to be able to swim out of the Grand Canyon. In the 1950s, an entrepreneurially inclined woman saw this and thought of ways to make this trip better. She bought some pontoon boats for dirt cheap from a military surplus store, tied three of them side by side and navigated down the Colorado successfully, with the pontoons intact. A pontoon by itself is pretty sturdy, but when you tie three of them together, they’re like a ship. She started taking large groups down the Colorado, and it didn’t matter if they were old, young or could swim. The men in the wooden boats resisted at first – they stuck to “tradition”. But as she became more and more successful and made money, they decided to jump on the bandwagon (on the pontoon?!?!?). When they tried to get their hands on some of these boats, however, it turned out that she had gone around the country and bought them all! She took great pleasure in reselling these for hundreds or thousands of dollars, depending on how much she disliked the competitor she sold to (she bought them for $20 a piece – they were of no use to the military after WWII).

Another story explained where the name Grand Teton came from. Apparently, the frontier men who first came upon this mountain range (over 40 miles in length), were mesmerized by the tallest peaks, and, being men, thought they looked like boobs. Grand Teton literally means “Big Boobs” in French. We were warned about wearing any Grand Teton paraphernalia if ever in France.

We were quite intrigued about the lifestyle of our pontoon leaders – after all, this is a seasonal job. Gabe, the guy steering in the back, told us he works here in the summer as much as possible, then goes to Baja. Mexico in winter to surf. He initially did this immediately after college, giving himself a year to figure out what to do with this life, and has now stretched that to four years. The guy in the front, who was just a couple of years younger than us, said he also works as much as possible in summer, then heads to Breckenridge in Colorado to work the ski resorts as little as possible and snowboard as much as possible. He said that he’d done many things before he stumbled on this – he sold cars, etc. For me, it was fascinating to try to imagine their lifestyle. This place is remote and you work a lot (often 60-70 hours a week), and while these guys still have to adult (do laundry, etc), it seemed like a much simpler way to live. Laura and I wondered if that would feel freeing or boring after a while. These guys seemed pretty happy with their setup though. They both live in the park – on in an RV parked at Colter Bay, and the other one in employee housing for the Grand Teton Lodge Company, the company that runs the lodge we’re staying at and all related activities. They said that housing in Jackson is tough to find – most of the land in the area is federal land and cannot be built upon. This has created a housing shortage. The town had recently approved car camping in certain parking lots, with monthly charges for a parking spot like this going for about $400. Can you imagine living out of your car for $400? I am sure this makes it hard for local businesses to hire help, since people either can’t find housing or can’t afford the little housing that’s there. On the other hand, I am glad that federal ownership of the land around here keeps this beautiful place from being over-developed.

We also learned more about the elk antlers at the town square in Jackson. We already knew about the antler shedding and the boy scout auction. What we didn’t know is that the National Elk Refuge just North of town had been created because the build up of the town of Jackson was right on the elk migration path. Elk were trying to get to lower elevation for winter, but they were too afraid to cross over the town and stayed farther North in the valley, dying by the hundreds in winter. A local hunter saw the need for a solution, and that’s how the elk refuge was born. It feeds more than 7000 elks in winter, and it’s completely funded by the aforementioned elk auction run by the Boy Scouts. The last auction made $250,000!

The final story I’ll share will give you a little glimpse into what Wyoming is like. In order for Wyoming to become a state, it had to do a couple of things – it had to increase its voting population, and it had to show Washington, DC, that it upheld the rule of law and brought criminals to trial. To solve the first problem Wyoming gave voting rights to women long before this became the case nation-wide. Shortly after Wyoming became a state, men tried to take this right away, but they were dissuaded by Wyoming women holding a gun to their crotch. The second problem, demonstrating that it could bring criminals to trail, happened after a local man killed three Germans looking for gold in the area. He killed them right here, on the Snake River, in what is called Dead Man’s bar. This is actually where we disembarked from our pontoons and had lunch along the river bank.

Our 10-mile, 2-hour gentle float on this river was quite enjoyable and relaxing. After we got back to the lodge, we continued the R&R by the hotel pool, huckleberry margaritas and books in hand. We dined at the Texas BBQ by the pool, then went back to our hotel to pack and get ready for our early-morning flight to LA the next day.

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Another trip in the books! Laura and I had planned this over 6 months ago and it was nice to see everything come together rather nicely, what with ground squirrel poop and inclement weather at times. When I visited Glacier two years ago, I couldn’t have imagined I’d be back again so soon and I’d be able to also see other amazing parks such as Yellowstone and Grand Teton. 11 national parks done, 48 to go! 🙂

 

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