Our intern, Cam Higgins, is pretty game for most things. Case in point: bear suit. With that in mind, we thought, "Why don't we send him through some big river rapids and ask him to report back on the experience?" As locals, we all have our own crazy Snake River rafting experiences, but since the 8-Mile whitewater trip is a bona fide Jackson Hole classic, we were looking for a fresh(water) perspective. Here's Cam's story:
Since I moved to Jackson Hole, I’ve become very good at falling down. I tumble off snowboards and barstools and bike seats and pop back up as if nothing has happened. So why is it that here, perched on the corner of an eight-man inflatable raft, my heart is thumping like a hippie’s bongo?
We’re in the sunny depths of the Snake River Canyon, where the mountains that border Jackson Hole join in a sharp V at the valley’s southern terminus to make way for the Snake River’s journey westward to join the mighty Columbia River, and later, the sea.
“All forward!” our river guide Everett Chamberlain hollers as he leans his raft-paddle into the quickening current. I stroke at the water in time with the family from Georgia that makes up the rest of our crew, and mentally rewind to the beginning of our river journey.
As we pushed off at the start of our float and the gravel lot beneath Jackson Hole’s Highway 89 receded in the distance, our group sized each other up. After all, my girlfriend, myself, our guide Everett, and our new friends from Georgia were, for better or worse, on the same team now. I noticed a range of ages sharing space on the raft, from kiddo on up.
Everett kicked off the day’s laid-back safety talk with a brief request: “Let’s all keep our teeth today.”
Just in case you were worried, this warning is more about not being an overzealous paddler than injuries incurred from the river itself. Our guide explains that rafting is a social activity that requires a group effort, and politely emphasizes that no one appreciates a weak link. He peppers us with jokes and assures us that falling out of the boat is no big deal due to the fact that we are all properly outfitted with lifejackets and are floating a fun, yet often mellow river.
As is usually the case when something important is being explained to me, I drift off into a daydream, wondering how well my companions from "the flatlands" would handle the coming rapids. Maybe, I thought, we should all stop ogling that bald eagle and pay attention.
Not likely. There’s too much scenery, sun, and conversation to soak in.
Everett dangles a foot in the easy-going waters, watches the flow ahead, and drops his paddle to the water at mysterious intervals. When the river’s easy chop turns to foam he calls for us to stroke. With paddles dipping in unison, we slide on down the Snake River, watching the green summits pass by while gobbling up the nuggets of river wisdom Everett tosses our way.
“See that steel cable?” Everett asks, motioning toward a taut steel line hanging over the river. “That’s for ferrying baby moose across the river.”
His nonchalance throws us for a loop, and it takes longer than it should for me to figure out that my leg is, in fact, getting pulled.
As we pass beneath the wire, craning our necks up, Everett confesses, “sometimes I tell folks this wire is holding the tectonic plates together. Or that it was the site of the 1987 tight-rope walking championship.”
The guy’s got jokes. Everett Chamberlain is a Colorado native who could have been sent down from central casting: he has the sun-washed hair and beyond-tan skin of those who consider the indoors a necessary evil. He’s guided river trips all over the West, but his intimate knowledge of the Snake River seems near supernatural to a rafting novice such as myself. He details the ups and downs of life in the mountains, describes the differences between ski guiding and raft guiding, and the allure of the Snake River.
“It’s awesome to go to work and not be scared,” he’d told me earlier, “no thirty-foot waves and Class Ten rapids like in the Grand Canyon.”
Speak for yourself.
On our left, beaches of river-smoothed pebbles segue into the impossibly steep pine forests coating the walls of the Snake River Canyon. To our right, the bald shale escarpments of Ferry Peak rise in the distance.
For a moment here, I forget that the growling noise I hear thundering ahead is from Lunch Counter, the biggest rapid on this stretch of the Snake River. Remembering where we are, I sneak a peek at everyone’s knuckles and can’t help but notice that mine are the whitest in the boat.
But why the nerves? After all, it’s just water, right?
Right. If I’d paid more attention during our orientation, I’d know that getting whacked by my neighbor’s paddle or catching a nasty case of sunburn are the day’s biggest potential dangers, and that really, the beauty of running rapids on a river like the Snake comes from the presence of big thrills and the absence of much risk. Yet, despite Everett's earnest reassurances, I can’t exactly blame my heart rate on the morning’s dangerous amount of dark roast coffee.
The hydraulic roar echoing in the Snake River Canyon increases in pitch, and I quietly tighten the straps on my life vest. Everett swivels his paddle to the opposite hip and beats into the small waves.
“Cool thing about this stretch is that at every water level there are at least two big hits,” he calls out cheerfully.
At Lunch Counter, the riverbanks narrow down to a rocky hourglass and waves churn from the high-volume of water. The shelves of rock that enclose the patch of whitewater serve as a resting spot for the kayakers and surfers who frequent this spot. Yes, surfers. Lunch Counter’s unique wave system features a single, standing wave that expert surfers can launch themselves on. Once the wave is caught, stamina is the only thing between the boarder and an endless ride.
In illustration of this, a head and torso bobbles in and out of view as a wet-suited surfer darts between furls in the whitewater. He looks over his shoulder and sees our raft approaching, then dives onto his board and lets the river carry him to back to shore.
“All forward! All forward!” There seems to be real urgency in Everett’s voice this time, and his jaw looks a little too set for my liking. The nervous giggling dies out.
We rock into Lunch Counter’s first wave and the boat rears up. For a moment I see only sky, but before I figure out where the foam stops and the clouds start, we lurch down into the trough of water churning on the wave’s backside. A spume of spray explodes over the front of the boat and soaks us all as we crest the next wave and surf back down. We wash, rinse, and repeat our way through this undulating stretch of rapids until the waves finally taper off in size.
“I thought I was getting sucked in back there,” a smiling Everett admits before instructing us to raise our paddles into the air together. “It’s hard to give high-fives on the river so we’ve got to do an oar-five!” he calls as we clack our paddles together in a rowdy, woo-hooing toast. It’s impossible to ignore the glow of relief that the lee side of any rapid brings.
As the river resumes its calmer flow, Everett points at a grotto in a nearby cliff face to set us up for a double-entendre disguised as mountain man knowledge.
“Hey guys, you know how I know that’s a bear cave?” he asks, and everyone sits up just a little straighter, imagining grizzlies pawing at fish just around the next bend.
“Because there’s nothing in it,” he deadpans.
“Keep your day job,” somebody groans.
“This is my day job.”
His entertainment takes on a different flavor while he identifies river features and rapids with names like Haircut Rock and Champagne. We learn that of the two largest rapids on the river—Lunch Counter and Big Kahuna—Lunch Counter runs the biggest in high waters, whereas Big Kahuna really brings the thrills later in the season when the river is running lower. Everett also points out an innocuous little bay on the far side of the river.
“This here is the Million Dollar Eddy, where some rich guy flipped his drift boat with pockets full of money, and for awhile cash was swirling around the eddy.”
A white heron sails overhead, and everybody smiles as we drift on in the sun. Some of the kids in our group leap off the raft to cool off. Only one of the grown-ups takes the plunge. On either side of us, the Canyon’s pine-covered steeps rise dramatically against the sky, their foliage broken only by the occasional crag or overgrown slide path.
The takeout appears just around the corner, conjuring up visions of dry clothes and half-melted Snickers. Everyone settles into a moment of contemplation as we see the dirt beach coming up to our left, and realize our adventure’s end is nigh.
“How cold is the water here, actually?” a non-swimmer asks. It’s a question that’s been on all of our minds.
Everett smiles mischievously. “Ultra fresh.”