Ain’t Life Grand: A SUP Adventure Through Grand Teton National Park

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If enthusiasm is contagious, then I had full-blown, take-me-to-the-ER symptoms. My best buddy, Andy, stood on a paddleboard in the middle of String Lake, mouth agape. Behind him, the Grand Tetons towered above the lake; below him, fish darted through the shallow, gin-clear water; and above him, the crisp blue, late-summer sky radiated the appreciate-it-while-you-can feel that late-summer days exude.

“Greg, the fish are everywhere,” he gushed. “Look!” I was looking…at the fish, at the mountains, at Andy, at the hikers on the shoreline trail, at the other paddlers on String Lake. And I loved everything I saw.

Andy’s bubbly, kid-like joy wasn’t surprising. The setting was absolutely stunning. There’s a reason the Grand Tetons are considered some of, if not the most, scenic mountains in the country. Rising thousands of feet above us, their chiseled peaks dominated the brilliant blue horizon.

What was surprising was Andy’s level of stoked; we’d been paddling in Grand Teton National Park for three full days. Three view-filled, easy-camping, perfect-weather days packed with a diversity of super fun paddling. Andy’s continued stoke inspired me to let go of the nagging worries I’d had about how this trip might go. On paper, it seemed easy and chill: Two college buddies catching up over a week of paddling in a national park. But I’ve sandbagged enough friends to second-guess how things look on paper.

To be fair, Andy lives in Chicago. He doesn’t get Rocky Mountain views that often. I live in Missoula and get them every day. Andy doesn’t paddleboard, while I was deep into writing a paddleboarding guidebook and had practically spent my entire summer on a board. Andy has two young boys and a stressful job. I am not so encumbered, though a busy summer with our foster son had definitely added some new elements of structure to my self-directed lifestyle.

So here we were: The amateur flatlander who had done more paddleboarding in the last three days than throughout his 40-year existence and the grizzled, mountain-town semi-pro who’d chalked up hundreds of hours on a board in the last few months. Both super stoked, super grateful and loving every minute of it.

Grand Teton can do that to you. Spread across 310,000 acres of Wyoming, “GTNP” serves up iconic views, 1,000 front-country campsites, 200 miles of trails, and an efficient road system that makes it all accessible and easy to navigate. The Teton Mountains, which seem to explode from the sagebrush-meets-conifer-forest flood plain through which the Snake River flows, dominates the park.

When mountain-minded folks look at a map of Grand Teton National Park, they see iconic mountaineering test pieces and epic backpacking opportunities. When water rats study the same map, they see a lake- and river-packed landscape begging for a paddle. I enjoy a good backpack (mountaineering isn’t really my bag, though I’d love to climb a big, technical peak someday), but as a water rat, the blue spaces on the map pulled at me. When I proposed a week-long, front-country (read car-camping) trip focused on paddling GTNP’s waters, Andy was all in. Even though he hadn’t really paddleboarded—ever.

I knew the paddling wouldn’t be super technical, but I wanted him to have at least a few sessions on a board before we paddled for a week straight. Although Andy is athletic and has loads of camping experience, I worried that muscles used for paddling and not much else would get sore after the first long day. I worried about his feet cramping up or that the old injuries we all have after 40 years of living would reemerge. I immediately started hounding him to get some on-the-water experience before we met for seven days of paddling.

Grand Teton was part of the guidebook I was writing, and I needed a reliable partner along for the research and photos. I pigeonholed the focus of the trip on paddling to such an extreme measure, that when he asked if there would be any time for hiking, I didn’t even consider it. I gave him a hard no. This was a paddling trip.

He ended up taking one 1-hour lesson.

We warmed up on our first full day in the park with a paddle on Two Ocean Lake, an out-of-the-way lake in the park’s far eastern corner. The wind picked up as we paddled out, and Andy was obviously a bit nervous and shaky on the board. But he settled in, and we caught a fun downwind ride back to shore after paddling for of couple hours. Though it was Labor Day, we saw only two kayakers in this quiet corner of the park. We didn’t see many mountains either. Two Ocean sits below forested ridges that hide most of the Tetons (a few pocket views opened up when we got to the lake’s midpoint), but we did see a few leeches on our feet as we walked back to the car!

We spent the next two days pushing Andy’s limits on the Snake River. The first day, we paddled 15 miles, from Jackson Dam to Deadman’s Reach. We decided that I would hitch from the takeout back to the put-in before we launched. I caught a ride after about 30 minutes of waiting and met back up with Andy just below Jackson Dam, giving him plenty of time to read the aggressive National Park signs warning paddlers of the downstream hazards to life and limb.

As it turned out, the first few miles proved mellower than the wind-whipped Two Ocean Lake trip the prior day. The last ten miles served up mellow riffles and mind-blowing views of the Tetons. Andy enjoyed some of the best Type 2 fun he’d had in a while and built up his confidence. I ate up a few gigabytes of memory on my camera trying to capture it all.

The next day, we paddled another ten miles of the Snake, from Deadman’s Reach to Moose, Wyoming. Although it’s considered one of the most difficult stretches of water in the park (more NPS signs!), Andy crushed it. Later, over campfire beers, he admitted how gripped he felt the whole day, but you couldn’t tell watching him. On the river, I would pull ahead of him in fast water to get some shots, barking orders at this newly minted SUP model: “Can you hug the far shore? Hold there, paddle backward if you have to! Your other left!”

“No!” he invariably yelled back, nervously laughing but following my every direction and even on-sight reading the bouncy water for hundreds of yards as I fell behind, swapping out lenses and snapping away. Maybe he was aided by the stable and responsive Quiver 9.6 I’d lent him, but he didn’t even drop to his knees.

That night, I managed to convince him to head to Jenny Lake for a sunset booze cruise. We stuck a couple of beers in cozies and slipped onto the quiet lake as the sun dipped behind the Tetons. A small powerboat cruised the far end of the shore, but we basically had the lake to ourselves. Andy paddled out away from me a bit, now totally comfortable on the still water, and I realized maybe I’d overestimated the potential difficulties of this trip. Andy was paddling proof that if you have reasonable balance, have held a paddle a few times in your life, and are confident enough to give it a try, paddleboarding isn’t that hard.

And that’s how we found ourselves on String Lake with a cobbled-together backcountry camping kit lashed to our boards, en route to a backcountry campsite on Leigh Lake. I’d built a loose itinerary for the trip, cataloging paddles I wanted to do, but not setting a specific schedule. I knew I wanted to paddle String and Leigh Lakes, but the overnight was something of a lark, devised over beers on the third night of the trip.

“You know, we could hit the ranger station in the morning and see if there’s a backcountry campsite available on Leigh Lake. We can just bring food we don’t have to cook since we don’t have a backpacking stove.”

“Hell yeah, let’s do it. I’m pretty much an expert paddler now. An overnight ain’t nothing to me.” He was joking, but he was right.

That backcountry night was the highlight of our front-country trip. After finding our campsite and setting up the tent, we hiked up Leigh Canyon, following Leigh Creek and game trails peppered with bear scat. We watched the evening light play out on the flanks of Mt. Moran, huge and imposing and close. We ate cold Thai peanut noodles that we’d made the night before and that rivalled any we’d ever had. No one walked past our campsite; no camp host checked in to confirm that we were leaving the next day; no diesel truck rumbled by towing a house on wheels. In the morning, the skies cleared long enough for us to eat hard-boiled eggs and dry out the tent before closing back in again as we paddled back across Leigh, portaged the short walk to String, and then paddled back to the truck in a growing drizzle.

Disinterested in sitting in the rain at our campsite, we hit the John Colter’s Ranch House Restaurant and Bar. The restaurant boasted a western theme, but it felt more like a cowboyed-up Denny’s circa 1997. Our bartender, a tall Bulgarian goth rocker with perfectly coiffed long black hair, served us impeccable cocktails, graciously dealt with his other customers, and spoke highly of the food, all while heavy metal ballads blasted from the speakers. It was an oddly perfect ending to our mini backcountry adventure.

When we finally headed to the nearby Colter Bay Campground where we found a campsite for our last night in the park, the skies hadn’t dried up. With some effort, we got a fire going and did our best to drink the last of our beers while we recounted the week. Maybe it was the booze, or maybe just the lingering stoke, but Andy even talked about getting a board of his own to explore Lake Michigan, which was only a few blocks from his house in Chicago. I felt like a proud parent.

We slept in enough for the rain to stop. Andy’s plane didn’t leave until late afternoon, and I had plans to drive to another paddling destination a few hours away. That left enough time for a last-day photo session on Jackson Lake. If the Tetons dominate the park’s skyline, Jackson Lake dominates its earthly plain. At nearly 15 miles long and 7 miles wide, it’s a big piece of water and wind and powerboats can make it dicey for novices.

I set up my camera on a tripod, programmed the interval timer, and we paddled out into the calm waters under a clearing sky. As we did our best to stay in the field of view I had marked by a distant point on the far shore, I realized that although we’d paddled hard over the last five days, hitting four lakes and running 25 river miles, we’d barely scratched the water’s surface. A week’s worth of backcountry campsites dot Jackson Lake’s eastern and southern shore. Many of them sit at the base of epic canyons that cleave the mighty Tetons. One could easily (pending campsite availability) plan an epic, multi-day trip on Jackson Lake alone.

There were hike-in lakes we didn’t have time for, and a sweet-looking whitewater run on the Snake River north of Jackson Lake as well. And those were in the park proper. Almost 2 million acres of public land surround GTNP. Not to mention, visitors need only head a few miles north to find Yellowstone. South of GTNP, the Snake River serves up solid Class III runs and the famous Lunch Counter wave. Everyone from a novice like Andy to a seasoned expedition paddler could find interesting water in this wild corner of Wyoming.

“Hey Greg, check this out! This board is way more stable than I’ve been treating it all week,” Andy’s words broke my reflective reverie. “I don’t know why I was being so careful all this time, you can really lean this thing over.” He demonstrated with abandon, churning waves as he rocked the Mayra back and forth.

“Yeah, you’re a real pro now,” I laughed already thinking ahead to next summer and where we could meet for another week of paddling.