Nearly 200 years ago the Snake River and its many tributaries were flush with beaver, which lured the mountain men to this strikingly wild corner of Wyoming. These days, it’s the river itself that lures me and thousands of other wannabe whitewater cowboys anxious to ride the Snake’s swirling, heaving and churning pockets of air and water. The eight miles of seething river that flows in a ragged cut between the Snake River and Wyoming mountain ranges south of Jackson earns top grades for its waves, “holes” and chutes that test paddlers’ skills.
For at least 43 years, rafters have been floating the Snake River, both its calmer waters inside Grand Teton National Park and along this stretch that leaps, jumps and bounces southwest towards the Idaho border.
Between our “put in” at West Table Creek and our “take out” at Sheep Gulch stretches an 8-mile-long ribbon of liquid bareback bronc, a frothing rope of water broken on occasion by mellower stretches that don’t demand as much attention as do the true rapids. As our paddles churn the water, we think of the rapids that await us. The initial assault will be on Station Creek, S-Turn, Cutback and Little Kahuna, rapids that carry Class 2 designations. Beyond those beginner rapids are others more often categorized as Class 3.
Taco Hole can at times fold unsuspecting rafts in half. Three-Oar Deal commands the utmost respect at high flows. Big Kahuna, a schizophrenic patch of whitewater, provides a bigger kick at low water than at high. Lunch Counter offers a nice shoreline for taking a break but ridiculously huge standing waves at high flows. Rope, with its wave train, can buck the unsuspecting out of their raft. Cottonwood is one of the river’s most technically challenging stretches at low flows thanks to the rocks that are revealed.
Although it typically takes less than two hours to run through the canyon, at times it seems like an eternity for us to navigate some of the bigger rapids. We beach the raft at Sheep Gulch and we’re ready to regain our footing on terra firma. Behind us is a river that has cut through granite, one with a rambunctious reputation that we’ve managed to tame, if only this one time.