Getting to the Tetons
When is a friendship more important than a great hike? Always. A great hike can become a nightmare if you don’t take into consideration the person(s) that you are hiking with. Those are things I needed to consider, but really only so briefly, as I got the chance to hike out west on the Teton Crest Trail.
Sweetly my wife agreed to let me go on this journey and stay home with the kids while she was on her summer break from teaching. She is my best friend and my favorite hiking partner as we actually met while she was thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail and I was out there for a couple of months. I never not go hiking because I can’t get anyone to go along with me. But as I talked one night with a good friend of mine about my plans for my trip and asking him about the area as he had lived out there as a ski bum for a few years, I suddenly asked him if he wanted to go. He was not a hiker. An outdoorsman, yes but covering lots of miles on foot with necessary supplies on his back was not something he had ever done much of, and I knew that when I asked. He said, "Yah." I was slightly surprised but I had asked and if I didn’t really want him to go I shouldn’t have asked him in the first place. Despite any hesitation I may have had about any of his hiking abilities I was very glad to finally have a friend for the first time in many years actually agree to go on a hike with me.
The genesis of this trip was sometime in February with plans to hike in early July. So plenty of time to get gear together, acquire permits, reserve plane tickets and hotels, get in shape etc..... The get in shape part I wasn’t too worried about as I ha
d been running regularly with plans of a 50K trail race in late May. I just didn’t want to get injured. My friend, Eric, however was not in peak shape. Still with plenty of time he was worried about keeping up with me. I assured he would be fine, I would put him in the lead and we would move at his pace, and really there was plenty of time to get more fit. He certainly was not someone who couldn’t see the number on the bathroom scale and was really in better shape than he realized but certainly could benefit from a couple extra bike rides a week or some long walks in the woods.
I do love planning out a journey, and there was so much to do getting ready for this one. Eric left all the map work to me, he took much of my advice as to gear selection and together we worked on transportation. This was a little complicated as I would actually be flying in from Indianapolis as I helped bring my family out to my wife’s hometown for a visit. We actually were getting together for a week to an island in Lake Michigan with some family members before traveling back to Indy. So Eric and I worked to coordinate flights and seats as he would be coming in from Portland. We spent way much more time doing this than we would have liked but finally things came together and we would be meeting up in Denver and flying into Jackson, Wyoming together and flying back together to Portland.
We booked our flights actually before we got our permits, as these are required by the Teton National Park for overnight camping. I didn’t get upset about having to acquire permits as I knew they were intended to minimize impact upon areas. Unfortunately our permits didn’t quite match the dates I wanted but not so bad that we wouldn’t be able to hike the entire Teton Crest Trail. I was hoping for a couple extra days of hiking but as that didn’t work out it gave us a couple days before our hike was to begin .
Now what to do with a couple extra days? There were plenty of possiblities such as mountain biking, driving to Yellowstone, hanging out in cowboy bars but finally we both agreed a whitewater rafting trip would be cool so I booked one. We would be in Jackson the week of the Fourth of July so just a day of doing nothing but celebrating America’s birthday would be good enough.
Now with all this planning we still actually didn’t have a place to stay in our non hiking days or a way to get around. I had looked at staying at a hostel in the local ski resort which was far cheaper than any hotel I could find in the area. We knew we would probably have to rent a car but were a little bummed to have to do this as we would have to end up paying more days for it to be parked as we were hiking than actually driving it around.
But then I took a chance. Many years ago I actually had a chance to move out to Jackson. A friend of mine decided he was tired of Maine and wanted to move to Jackson and asked me if I wanted to go along. Well, I had just taken a varsity soccer coaching job less than a month before and even though I didn’t have any other great reasons for staying in Maine I had to say no. A bit of an excuse on my part sure, but I would have offended a great number of people who put a lot of faith into me if I had hightailed it out West. So, I sent off a message via Facebook to my friend who after over fifteen years was still in Jackson. I merely mentioned to him that I would be in the area and what my plans were and I would probably be staying in a hostel. I got a message back from him saying he should stay with him and his wife, that they had an extra car and would be happy to help us out on our journey. It is so good to have good friends.
My wife took me to the Indianapolis airport before anyone in our family or her mom’s were awake. We had spent a great week together out on Lake Michigan, very relaxing not doing much besides enjoying the company of my wife’s family and watching my kids play with their older cousins. After being around them almost constantly for a week, except when I and my nephew would sneak off in the morning for a run, it would be difficult not to see them at all. It was also tough to say good by to my wife as our anniversary was actually on the Fourth of July and this would be our second year apart on that day as she was in Indy while I stayed home to work the year before.
Fortunately, my anti-anxiety medication made me oblivious to all my worries as I got on the plane headed to Denver. I was a little bummed not seeing any mountains on my way into the Denver airport, as it seemed located in the middle of well, Indiana. I was surprised when my phone rang while I was waiting for the connecting flight, as I am one of the last people in the civilized world who seldom uses a cell phone. It was Eric. And he didn’t have good news. He had overslept his alarm and missed his morning flight out of Portland. He was lucky enough to be able to get on some new flights and would arrive in the early part of the evening but that was about six hours or so after my friend Dan was going to pick us up at the Jackson Airport. At least he was going to make it.
The flight coming into Jackson was much cooler than the Denver one. Luckily all the flights I had booked Eric and I on, I was always assigned the window seat and we figured we would be able to switch it from flight to flight. Seeing the Teton Range from my seat really made the journey feel real for the first time. I couldn’t believe that I was going to have the chance to hike around these incredibly massive and beautiful mountains.
I was greatly surprised when we exited the plane that it did not lead directly into the airport. It was actually really nice to step immediately outside and take in the view and the relatively fresh airport air. I stepped into the airport which was amazingly smaller than the Portland Jetport and spotted my friend Dan waiting for me. It was good to see him, it had not been fifteen years as I had a few chances to run into him back in Maine as he was making visits to his family. He asked where Eric was while I was picking up my bag. I told him what had happened and asked what he should do about getting back to his place later that night. Dan graciously agreed to come back to get him despite the fact that he actually lives just over the border in Idaho a little less than an hour away. Even though Dan had found good work after all these years in Jackson, he still found it to be much more affordable to live elsewhere.
We got further reacquainted at a local brew pub. I ordered a sampler of about four. Dan’s wife Laura met up with us as we were eating. I had only met her briefly before but after sitting down with her for a short while I instantaneously felt like she was a good old friend. Dan showed me around Jackson a little, a town that was swarming with tourists. I thought the ski season would be the busy part of the year but Dan said many more came in the summer to visit Teton National Park and nearby Yellowstone. I had thought it might be cool to go to Yellowstone but I didn’t want to spend a few hours to drive to a spot that was going to overwhelmed by tourists during the fourth of July week. I did pick up a couple supplies I did need for the hike while in town, like fuel for my stove which I obviously couldn’t put on the plane.
Dan took me back to his place for us to chill out until we had to go back to pick up Eric. There was only one road between Jackson and Idaho and it was quite the road. It wound up and down some hills starting at six thousand feet up to nearly nine thousand before it dropped back down to six thousand in the plains of Idaho. Coming from the east, I was concerned about the massive change in elevation. The flat areas was an elevation that would be at the top of some of the biggest mountains I had ever been atop. It hadn’t been but a few hours since my arrival but really I didn’t notice any shortness of breath or other struggles with the elevation change. Not that I was exercising or raising my heart rate. Dan stopped at a scenic overpass allowing me to be further amazed with the beauty of this place.
The place where Dan and Laura lived was on the backside of the south end of the Teton National Park with those mountains looking at them over their backyard which had plenty of fields and room for them to have a couple of horses, a couple of dogs and some chickens who were more interested in sneaking onto their back patio then taking advantage of all the open space afforded them. Back to the east and from the front of the house were more mountains still but much farther away. The plains that lay between them allowed for an unobstructed view and even to the north farther away were more glorious mountains. Dan smiled a lot when he talked about where he lived, and I could see why. He said the winters were very harsh, and he was raised in Aroostook County, and he showed me a picture of his UPS van that he drove from a couple winters ago that had snowbanks extending above the roof of the van. He was no longer a skier as he had suffered some serious back injuries and felt like he had gotten in his share of the slopes. Laura had been a skier at one time too but also scaled back now. I never was a downhill skier but who knows if I had moved out here while I was in my twenties I might have been eventually found my way to the slopes.
Luckily Eric did arrive on time and Dan and I were there to greet him and welcome him back to the spot that he so dearly loved at one time himself. He was thrilled to be there and very apologetic to Dan and me for messing up earlier this morning. Being around eight in Jackson it was nearly eleven according to our clocks and I was getting a little wiped out. Up and over the pass again to Idaho and to Dan’s where we saw a glorious full moon rise up over the Teton Range. I know you probably expected me to say sunset there but the moon was astonishing and my point and shoot digital could not do any justice. A case I would find to be true for many shots I took of this area, and although you the reader may think some are fantastic, really nothing can beat being a part of this landscape.
Fun Before the Hike
Sweetly Dan and Laura let us use their extra car the next day so that we could explore the area a little and go on our white water rafting trip. Dan had a motorcycle that he would use most of the time to get to work, so Laura let us take her car and her use Dan’s. She gave us a quick tutorial on the car and the GPS unit.
We decided to do an easy hike that morning on some trails just off the pass between the states. Most of the views were back into the Teton Valley and the trails were nice and easy. I still wasn’t sure how the elevation would affect me, so as much as I wanted to do more hiking this felt just right by taking it easy. I felt great, even better when we were nearly back to the car and ran into a family that was already huffing and puffing from coming downhill. I was already looking forward to the day that I would bring my own family to this area, and I was determined that we would not be like them.
We were on the trail only for a couple hours, if that, and Eric made conversation with a guy who was taking a break after biking up the pass. He looked in good shape and probably should have been drug tested for looking so good. After a lunch down in Jackson we drove out to one of the visitor’s center for the Teton National Park in order to pick up our permits and bear canisters. Those were required as well as the permits. This bummed me out a little as I am still one of those hikers who actually keeps most of my food still in my tent out east, but that is out east where there is not as big of a threat of bear attacks as there is in the west. Still, as much as I worried about the elevation I did worry much more about the bears.
The park was extremely busy and there seemed no easy place to park so I told Eric to just wait in the car for me as it wouldn’t only take a minute. No problem getting the permits and I chose to borrow two full sized bear canisters as the half ones didn’t seem to be big enough for four days and three nights of food. Nicely the park does not charge to use these canisters. They were clearly marked with numbers and I had to sign off on them assuming I would be charged if I didn’t return them but I’m sure I did not want to keep this large plastic tub that could practically house two bowling balls. I also asked about snow levels as we had been advised to bring ice axes, which we had managed to borrow some from our place of work. They had not had much of a winter just like us back east but there still would be snowfields with the largest and most dangerous of them at the end of our hike.
Now it was time for Eric to go in and ask a few questions as he had brought a piece of equipment I did not advise him to bring. Back home he had asked some people at work about bears and was advised by some of the big game hunters to bring a gun with him. I was pretty stunned when he showed up and told me about the handgun that he had brought. I was quite disappointed with this choice for a number of reasons but most of all because I thought it would be unnecessary weight. I am not a total lightweight backpacker but try my best to keep my weight down and bring only the equipment that I felt that I would use everyday. Eric found out that he could indeed bring a gun into the park but that if he discharged it there would be a fine that he would pay. I guess it would be worth the money if one was actually to shoot a bear but upon hearing this news Eric finally decided that he would not be brining the gun with him into the park.
Next stop, the rafting company. I had never been in white water before so I was greatly looking forward to this adventure. I began to get a little worried though after Eric had told me about a friend of his who had died on this same Snake River while he was living out here. Granted, this friend was alone in a kayak and had gotten forced into some low lying branches and then pushed underwater, and that was not how we were going to be traveling down the river. We were going to be in big inflatable rafts with about a dozen other people and I hoped very competent guides. A little bit of a bus ride lead us out of town and to a launch location that was seemingly used by other guide companies. Our bus was full, so I had been wondering just how we were all going to fit into a boat, but we were quickly divided up into three groups, keeping those who wanted to travel together, together. In no time at all we were outfitted and ready to launch.
Eric suggested, actually encouraged that he and I sit at the very front of the raft. I didn’t fully understand when he told me that we could ride the bull, as I thought that was something we may be able to do later back at the Cowboy Bar in Jackson. Our guide finally started to give us all directions once we were actually out on the river floating along. I guess it was best practice just to get people out there and not give them a chance to ask any dumbass questions before you go. I listened to all instructions very carefully even though I didn’t have a paddle in my hand, but kept wondering about riding the bull.
We hit some easy rapids and it was a lot of fun bouncing along while holding onto the rope circumfrensing the raft. Finally our guide told Eric that it was now okay to ride the bull if we still wanted to. Eric quickly got off his seat and sat on the tubing at the front of the raft. "Come on!" I followed kicking my feet over the front and took a firm two hand death grip on the rope that I was now mostly sitting upon.
I continued with my death grip although the river was flat. Eric began playing around with his camera as I stared straight ahead into the river, I thought he was crazy for letting go of the ropes even for a moment. And then we hit some rapids. The boat rose a little then slapped back down into the water similar to the start of a roller coaster ride, except as far as I could see there was no coaster, only rollers ahead of me. It was too thrilling to be surreal, as I didn’t seem to be apart of anything although my hands were holding so tightly onto the ropes the nylon fibers were deeply impeded into my epidermis. We came out of the rapids screaming for more. It was one of the funnest things I had ever done.
There were more and more rapids ahead of us. Nothing more than a class four I was told, and nothing much longer than a minute or two but all the same very thrilling. Eric was managing to video most of our rides as his camera was secured to his life vest. I was having such a good time that when given the opportunity by our guide to jump in the river and just float along I didn’t hesitate. It was cool just to glide along but became slightly nerve racking as it came time to swim back to the raft and I really wasn’t getting that close until I broke into my overdrive doggie paddle.
I had picked this particular trip as we would be fed about halfway into our trip. It only cost about ten dollars more, and that certainly seemed like much less than going out for a burger and some fries, and of course some beers back in town. We feasted on some steak and the fixins’, even some dessert but no beer, oh well life isn’t perfect. Back to the boats and Eric kindly asked other people if they wanted to sit up front but everyone passed, I guess we either scared them out of it or they just kindly let us to continue to enjoy our fun. Because that’s exactly what we did!
It had taken us a little over an hour to get to our dining area and we knew there would be another good hour or so left, and I really wished that every moment would be white water. Our guide made it fun even when it was flatwater as he played the Wheel of Fortune game. That is when someone volunteers to stand on the bow while everyone paddles the raft in a circle trying to unbalance the volunteer so that he or she falls into the water. I volunteered. I would have volunteered to charge the Germans on the Russian front at this point as I was having so much damn fun. Try as they did, I could not be knocked into the Snake River. Eric also volunteered and had similar success. No one else on our boat volunteered and we could see that on the other two boats only a couple of other people dared to stand on the big, yellow rubber.
Sadly our trip came to an end after a few more rapids still with Eric and I ‘riding the bull’ and enjoying it just as much as when we had started. Our bus took us back to rafting headquarters where we made sure we left our guide a good tip and Eric got some e-mail addresses to send people his video of our ride on the Snake. We headed back into Jackson for a little tourist shopping before we headed back over the pass to Idaho. The route was very easy to follow back but once back in Idaho we finally relied on the wisdom of the GPS to find Dan and Laura’s place. Still, it took us to a couple other houses that even we thought looked like their place as they were all ranch style houses with barns next to them lying in the same field. Luckily, we did find the right place and found our beds trying to be quiet as our hosts were already out for the night.
Happy birthday America, from Idaho! A lazy morning was spent around the ranch as we shared our adventures with Dan and Laura. A neighbor of theirs came by and we found out that her place was one of the houses we had pulled into by mistake the night before. She was very forgiving and actually gracious enough to lend us one of her bear spray cans. Laura had already lent us one, and although the expiration date on all them were slightly past we decided it would be worth the risk of using these one versus spending fifty bucks a pop on ones for ourselves that we would only have to surrender before our flights. In fact, these canister were from a friend of theirs at the airport who had to confiscate them from people and had so many that either he or she simply passed them on to friends.
No one came up with any big plans for the day other than to attend the local parade which was to take place only a short walk away from their place. I wasn’t seeking out any great adventures that day as I knew we still had much prep work to do to get ready for the hike starting the next morning.
All the floats, vehicles and other parade members were all lining up and getting ready very near Dan’s house so we got to meet a few neighbors who would be in the parade as we walked to the main street of the town. I was surprised by the number of people who were gathering on the main street but glad to be there and a part of it, and still feeling like this was a hometown affair more than a corporate event. The parade itself was rather good, and one of the longer hometown parades I had been to in sometime, except for one in Bristol Rhode Island that I attended back in my college days. That parade was crazy long but still kept a great hometown feel to it as well.
After the parade was over Dan asked if anyone wanted to get a milkshake pointing at a store across the road which had painted on the side of the building that it had the world’s greatest milkshakes. How could I pass that up as I loved milkshakes and was feeling a little rundown from standing out in the hot sun with very little breakfast in my system. The store with the milkshakes was awesome. They had some really great outdoor gear inside, as well as tacky tourist items, some cool apparel, funky toys and oh yah, the world’s greatest milkshake!!!! There were many flavors to chose from but I kept it simple with chocolate in order to judge if the shake was really that great or whether people were getting fooled by funky flavors. Nothing funky, just pure deliciousness. That milkshake alone was enough to fuel my systems for the next few hours. If I didn’t have family back for me in Maine, I just might have stayed in Idaho for the milkshake alone.
Dan drove Eric and I a couple towns up along a very straight and flat road in order for us to go to a grocery store for our food supplies. We had both brought along some freeze dried dinners in a bag but now the fun part came, picking out munchies. Pretzels, beef jerky, candy bars, pop tarts, etc... I made sure we bought more than we really needed as we didn’t want to make another run to a store on the Fourth of July, and if we had too much we could just leave some behind. Dan was amazed, and really couldn’t get over that we weren’t buying any coffee. I too am a coffee drinker but I only like to break out the stove to cook dinner and that’s it.
Back at Dan’s we really began packing, as we unpacked food from their wrappers put them in ziplocks and then into the bear canister. It was quite a process that had us realize that we did have much, too much food but then we slowly scaled back. I kept asking Eric if he was really going to eat many of the things that he was choosing to bring. I guess it was really a matter of taste as I was not fond of his food choices and when it came time to reduce pack weight I knew that I was not going to be very helpful in helping him chomp down his tuna fish or almonds. But that was on me. Somehow we did finally figure out a way to balance our needs and fit what we thought we needed into the two containers.
It was also at this time that Eric asked Dan and Laura about leaving his gun behind at their place as he was sticking to his decision not to bring it with him. They were very gracious about the situation, and he assured them it was completely locked up and that no one would be able to accidentally fire it off. It was also around then that Eric started to contact a fellow sea kayak guide that he had worked with in the past back in Maine who happened to be working as a temporary park ranger at Teton. Turns out that she had the day off and would be willing to drive over to Idaho to meet up with us all for dinner.
I had managed to finally talk with my wife in the afternoon as she had a busy day with our kids and her family celebrating our nation’s birthday, and our anniversary. In chatting about our events, she told me that woman, Elaine, that was meeting us actually had resigned from the teaching position that my wife had taken over. Small worlds.
Elaine arrived and we all went out for Thai food that night. A great restaurant, and I really wanted to order at least three stars in my Pad Thai but I knew I wasn’t going to have much access to a toilet the next day so I took it a little easy but was thoroughly satisfied. We all really wished there would be fireworks but it had been an extremely dry spring and start of summer so everyone in the area had cancelled. Colorado was in the midst of extremely dangerous forest fires, and some of Wyoming was suffering as well. At least we were treated to a great sunset that night looking west into the mountain of Idaho. But all my thoughts were to the mountains that lied to the east of our location and the mysteries of them that I was to discover finally starting the next day.