Where The Mountains Meet the Sky

By Kellan Hatch - Salt Lake City, Utah - USA

Jackson Lake 2009

Setting sail

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 way:

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?)


Thanks to Michael Jackson for XCR sailing photos



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