peak runoff on the Snake River, June 1997

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(originally published in the Jackson Hole News on June 18, 1997)

A ride on the wild side
down the mighty Snake

By Jim Stanford

Sagacious Snake River boatman Verne Huser prefaced his anthology of river stories, entitled River Reflections, with this pearl from writer Loren Eisley:

“If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.”

Hoping to experience moments of high-water magic, a slew of guides and a few clients converged last Thursday at the flooded Pritchard Creek boat launch area.

With nearly 38,000 cfs of chilly water rushing through the Snake River Canyon, river-running disciples and high priests alike were eager to witness and float atop an historic peak flow.

More water was flowing down the canyon than anyone had ever seen. While accurate readings have been kept only since 1954, it’s probable that this year’s run-off exceeds that of any year dating back to 1918, and perhaps even further. Antique measurements make extrapolation difficult.

Excitement and anticipation glowed on peoples’ faces; everyone sensed it was a special day.

Forecasts had called for stormy weather, but the sun shone brightly as an armada of boats glided past the marvelous Dog Creek Slide. The barrier of Bear River-formation instability continued to maintain peace and quiet for those who passed downstream.

Being swiftly swept along like the crackling rocks and gravel on the river bottom, one was cut loose from the strings of society. This was how a river trip was supposed to be — an uncertain exploration of nature, wild and free.

A delighted, yet subdued crowd shared lunch together at the still-deserted West Table Creek parking lot. An aura of reverence for the raging river’s power pervaded the scene.

Looking downstream one could see dark, forboding, blue-gray skies lingering above a snow-capped Ferry Peak. With the scenic stretch behind and eight miles of frothy rapids yet to come, everyone appreciated the calm before the storm.

A few rain drops began to fall as the fleet shoved off the bank.

Rocks and ledges that stand five to ten feet above the water’s surface in August drowned in the giant bath, getting polished smooth for future re-appearance.  Swirling boils surged and swayed, trying to swallow the rubber rafts whole.

The tempest hit at the usually placid Gaging Straits. Ferocious wind whipped a spray of water off the waves. Sheets of rain and and a machine-gun barrage of hail made it nearly impossible to look downstream.

Deafening alarums of thunder clapped and resounded like cannons blasting throughout the canyon. Wisps of fog lingered like smoke above the forest.

Lightning bolts completed the fireworks show, which now seemed choreographed with the rhythmic ride.

Drenched and freezing despite wet suits and dry gear, the passengers huddled together and hung on for repeated rodeo rides over and through the breaking waves. The turbulent wrath of Cottonwood resembled water some had seen only on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

This was ugly, this was heinous, this couldn’t have been any worse, yet it was all so powerfully beautiful. Screams, smiles, and applause erupted from the participants, awed by the surreal fury.

This was pure, soul-stirring nature, and could not have been embraced any closer.

Wild and free, the way a river trip ought to be. Magic.
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A writer, photographer and Snake River guide, Jim Stanford felt like King Lear in the midst of the storm, laughing like a madman.

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