Jackson Lake is large; about 18 miles end-to-end, and it is amazingly
clean and untouched by the world, especially considering that
half the world has rolled right past it on their way to Yellowstone
National Park. It sits at the base of the spectacular Teton mountain
range about midway between Jackson Hole Wyoming and Yellowstone.
Apart from the three developed campgrounds on the eastern shore,
camping is restricted to a handful of primitive permit-only campsites.
It’s the ultimate leave-no-trace environment. You’re
even required to pack out human waste. Our goal was to cover as
much of the lake as possible in three days, so we had planned
a big loop that would start and end at the Colter Bay marina,
tour some of the islands, plunge deep into the farthest reaches
of Moran Bay, and explore the entire remote western shore. Friend
and colleague Michael Jackson and I had been planning this trip
even before he was a boat owner. Lily decided to join us since
the boys were out of the picture for three days of pulling handcarts
along the pioneer trail.
Dwarfed by majestic Moran
Michael under pedal power
We had phoned for camping permits months in advance of our three
day August sojourn, only to discover that all of the primitive
camping permits for the year had been snatched up before the end
of February. Undaunted, Michael decided to head out a day early
to be on hand when the permit office opened Monday morning, in
hopes of jumping a claim. It turned out that he was able to poach
reservations for the two campsites that we were most hoping to
visit: Elk Island, roughly in the middle of the lake, and Warm
Springs in the far north.
Lily and I began the five-hour drive at 5:00am Monday morning,
to ensure a full day on the lake. Michael had spent the night
in the Colter Bay campground and had already snagged our permits
by the time we arrived. We hit the water with ideal weather, which
is always a relief, since the season is so short at this altitude.
It starts in June and ends in August, with a merciless mosquito
feeding frenzy right in the middle. We knew all too well how quickly
the weather could turn on us. The forecast showed a chance of
overnight snow. Lily and I loaded all of our gear and a few of
Michael’s things into the XCR. I’m always amazed that
a few days of camping requires as much stuff as a few weeks. Michael’s
boat is a bright red Hobie Adventure Island. It’s a terrific
little boat but a bit short on stowage space, so he makes good
use homemade trampolines loaded with drybags.
Motoring away from Elk Island
En route to Moran Bay
With Lily on Moran Bay
The five-mile sail to Elk Island was delightful. We arrived to
find a powerboat in our spot, with a half dozen twenty-somethings
hoola-hooping (that's right, hoola-hooping) on the beach. Michael
said, “You wouldn't happen to know if you have a permit
for this campsite, because I’m pretty sure I do.”
They graciously surrendered the campsite and eventually moved
on. We set up camp and stowed our food in the bear boxes that
are provided at all of the primitive campsites. We had decided
to spend at least one night on an island so we could be certain
of a night’s sleep without being gnawed on by bears. Of
course it turned out that Elk Island was where we had our only
bear sighting. Lily and I missed it but Michael came back from
a hike just in time to catch a black bear rummaging around camp.
It sauntered off, leaving no trace except for Michael’s
mysteriously vanished bag of snacks.
Dawn brought bright blue skies and a glass-smooth lake. We broke
camp and cast off for Moran Bay under motor and pedal. Once we
had rounded the island and gained open water the wind picked up
and we cruised leisurely into Moran Bay, gliding silently past
Little Grassy Island. Looking up at Mount Moran from this vantage
point was an almost overwhelming task. The sheer grandeur of it
evoked an emotion that I have no name for. Not just awe, or insignificance,
although there were large helpings of those, but something akin
to terror. A sort of wonderful terror.
We explored the mouth of the river at the deepest point of the
bay and then set sail again on the first leg of the long sail
north to Warm Springs. After an hour or so of beating out of the
bay we pulled up onto a rocky spit and stopped for lunch. Lily
sliced tomatoes for sandwiches and Michael heated water for a
backpack meal while a couple of deer nudged close, unalarmed and
curious. We saw deer everywhere we stopped and they were always
more curious than afraid. Each campsite seemed to have a friendly
deer assigned to it by the Parks Service. As we ate we surveyed
the wilderness shorelines and thanked whoever had been wise enough
to make this place a national park, imagining what it might have
looked like crowded with condos and casinos.
A change in the weather
Under reefed canvas
The wild West Shore
As we packed up lunch the wind shifted and strengthened. I walked
the boat around the spit to take advantage of the new wind direction.
Whitecaps were forming, so we set out under reefed sails and hugged
the shore for a while. Reefed against gusts, with the waves starting
to build around us, we were dry and comfortable. Lily, who is
usually not very comfortable on the water and is especially uneasy
aboard a heeled monohull, sat in the forward seat of the cockpit,
dry and comfortable, reading a book. The wind shifted, gusted,
settled and then gusted some more. Clouds came and went. We stayed
about a half mile offshore averaging five to eight miles per hour.
Michael, our wingman, pulled alongside close enough for conversation.
“Does it get any better than this?” he asked. Here
we were skimming across the crystal water in the most beautiful
place on earth with everything we needed for the good life stowed
on our little ships. The XCR was finally doing what it had been
designed for. Hugh Horton once compared canoe sailing to a magic
carpet ride and that was exactly what we were experiencing.
Here's a couple of minutes of video that Michael shot along the
As we glided along the western shore, with the incomprehensibly
gargantuan peaks towering over us, it was almost impossible to
stay in the real world. I found myself keeping a subconscious
eye out for Bolrogs and Nasgul. Later, as we huddled around the
campfire at Warm Springs, the smoldering glow of the long-gone
sun added a volcanic menace to the silhouetted mountains. Michael
commented about feeling uncomfortable so close to Mordor.
A home at Warm Springs
Warm Springs beach
Packing up for the final leg
A cozy beach
Lily and Michael - and food
The Warm Springs campsite was in a grassy meadow atop a bluff,
with a steep hike up from the rocky beach. We arrived under clear
skies and calm air, but an abrupt weather change loomed just behind
the hills. We never actually found the springs that gave the place
it its name so Lily and I found a secluded spot for a shivering
bath in the icy water. As the sun set we huddled around the fire,
watching lighting flash in the south. It crawled slowly closer
until a sudden blast of cold air and rain brought a quick end
to dinner and sent us scattering for our tents.
The next morning we bundled up for the long beat back toward
Colter Bay. The rain was gone but it was cloudy and cool. The
wind was coming from the wrong direction, but it was steady and
we had a glorious sail across open water under threatening skies.
We made several long tacks across the lake, coming within a stone’s
throw of the eastern shore and then falling back into open water.
We finally ducked behind a small island for lunch on an idyllic
gravel beach. The wind died as we polished off the last of the
lunch meat. The last few miles were made under motor and pedal
with some ghosting on occasional zephyrs.
It was all smiles as pulled up to the Colter Bay ramp. I said
to Michael, “you know what George W. would be saying right
now don’t you?”
He nodded, “Mission accomplished!”
Making for home under threatening skies (can
you spot the boat?)