A Backstage Pass to America’s Premiere Park

Jan 28, 2013

A Backstage Pass to America’s Premiere Park

Exploring Grand Teton National Park By Kayak

You’d be hard pressed to find a prettier campsite. We’re on a cobblestone beach on Jackson Lake in Grand Teton National Park. Rising behind our beached sea kayaks is 12,605-foot Mt. Moran, showing its might in 6,000 feet of relief rising straight overhead. We’re so close we have to raise our heads to take in both the Black Dike, a giant basalt intrusion scarring its massive face, as well as its towering summit. Book-ending the vista are Bivouac, Eagle’s Rest and Ranger peaks to the north, and the Middle and Grand Teton to the south. Like a backstage pass to a concert, we feel like we’re getting VIP treatment.

We’re here in the heart of one of America’s premier national parks thanks to a unique O.A.R.S. itinerary allowing first-time kayakers, families and more to sea kayak where few people get the chance. With more than 2.5 million visitors annually, the 24,000-acre park is one of the top 10 most popular parks in the nation. But while most visitors rely on drive-by vistas, we’re getting them from the seat of a kayak for two days before continuing on through Yellowstone.

Grand Teton National Park

We arrived at Jackson’s Snow King Resort the night before, just in time for a quick alpine slide, and an under-the-antler-arch photo and Western shoot-out reenactment at the town plaza. The next morning we met our guides, April Pocorus and Will Cushner, at the Signal Mountain boat ramp 45 minutes north. They gave us drybags filled with sleeping bags and camp pillows, to which we added our own apparel, as well as smaller personal drybags, PFDs, paddling tops and spray skirts. Then we adjusted the footpegs of two 17.5-foot Perception Carolina tandem kayaks so the sternsmen—my wife, Denise, and I—could steer them via retractable rudders. Our daughters, Casey, 10, and Brooke, 13, would command the bows.

A quick safety and basic skills talk saw us push off into semi-choppy water straight toward the spine of the Tetons, Will following in a motorized raft with the food and gear. Our destination: Grassy Island, about six miles away, at the foot of Mt. Moran.

“Whee, this is fun!” exclaimed Casey as we paddled into the chop. “It’s like a roller-coaster!”

Grand Teton kayaking

An hour or so later, Casey giggling with each splash, we made landfall on tiny Marie Island for lunch. While the guides prepared our meal—fruit and vegetable appetizers with a scrumptious, build-your own sandwich buffet—we skipped rocks, explored the island and loosened our limbs for the next leg.

Putting back in and wavering our bows across the silhouette of Grassy Island in the distance, we marveled at our surroundings. The lake runs 15 miles long, paralleling the backbone of the Tetons. Paddling to O.A.R.S.’ secluded campsite, you head straight toward them, including Skillet Glacier clinging to the face of Moran.

Moran gobbling up more and more of the sky, soon we rounded a point and arrived at Grassy Island, named for a fire that deforested it a hundred years earlier. But now the Lodgepole Pines have regrown into a tight stand seemingly made for hammocks and, as Casey pointed out, Capture the Flag.

On longer trips—O.A.R.S. offers three- and five-day options as well—guests camp at different spots, hiking along the way on some of the park’s 200 miles of trails. One classic is Moran Canyon right across the bay from us. Now, however, its sheer walls are enveloped in clouds.

After relaxing for a spell, Brooke busying herself with a teenie-bop book and Casey balance-beaming on fallen logs, we head out for an evening paddle around the island. The water has turned mirror smooth, reflecting everything from our blades to the tops of the peaks. Back at camp, Will, soon heading to his fall job guiding elk hunting trips in Montana, has whipped up salmon with fresh dill, garlic-laced asparagus and artichoke-augmented salad. A short time later, a storm gathers intensity, causing us to batten down the hatches. Gathering our gear on the beach, I hold Casey up prone into the wind, where she flies as if she’s on the bow of the Titanic. Hot chocolate sees us to our tents, where the pitter-patter of rain lulls us asleep.

April’s 6:30 a.m. coffee call drags us from our cozy slumber to a breakfast of egg, cheese and Canadian bacon sandwiches. Then we pack our gear and head out, the peaks waking up behind us, rubbing their eyes to dissipate their shroud of clouds. We cross Bear Paw Bay, where an eagle traces our every stroke from his perch atop a fir, before stopping for a swim on an island littered with moose tracks.

Then we point our bows back toward Signal Mountain, craning our necks behind us for final views of the majestic range. “Too bad we don’t have rearview mirrors,” chimes in Casey from the bow. Indeed it is, I muse, happy that our rear-view memories of the trip will last a lifetime.

Eugene Buchanan
A member of New York’s Explorer’s Club, Eugene Buchanan has written about the outdoors for more than 20 years, from working the Beijing Olympics for NBC to writing for ESPN.com. A former business reporter and publisher of Paddler magazine, he also enjoys a successful freelance career, with articles published in the New York Times, Men’s Journal, Sports Afield, Outside, National Geographic Adventure, Forbes Life, Skiing and other publications. His first book, Brothers on the Bashkaus was released by Fulcrum Publishing in 2007; his second book, Outdoor Parents, Outdoor Kids (www.outdoorkidsbook.com) won the gold medal from the Living Now Book Awards. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.