A legendary trip was already obviously under way, and it had only been 48 hours. A quick recap: an awesome night in Laramie, a beautiful drive, a proposal in the mountains, and a hike to a glacial lake. One thing I had been clear about when talking to Elizabeth: I would not be going to Grand Teton and Yellowstone merely to hike every day. I wanted some variety in adventures. In fact, the one I suggested from the rip was kayaking. After working through it some, we had decided to kayak on Jackson Lake. Only one problem to itinerary-driven Nolan and Elizabeth: the 2021 drought. I’ve mentioned the impact the drought had on the awful wildfires out west, a standard fare of our current climate regime. What I haven’t mentioned is that Grand Teton itself was in the throes of drought, as was most of the nearby region. I’d feared a 1988-style wildfire shutdown of the parks almost until the moment we left. Fortunately, the numerous lightning storms in early August that rolled off the Tetons did nothing more than make for a pretty webcam view and jangled nerves. But nowhere was that drought more pronounced than its impact on the water level at Jackson Lake. At Grand Teton, I learned that Jackson Lake actually serves as a vital irrigation source for much of eastern Idaho, who gets a fixed volume of water each year. If the water level starts off lower than normal, then tough noogies to the fishes. Much to my horror, the marinas on the eastern shore started announcing their closure one by one by midsummer – first Colter Bay, then Leeks Marina. We’d planned on kayaking through Signal Mountain Lodge, who announced that they would be closing rentals for the season mere days after we planned on kayaking. A close scrape it had been.
So that’s how I awoke on August 15, annoyed at the shower that had come through the night before and dropped approximately 6 raindrops through our unsheltered tent. There hadn’t been any wind, so I just slid the tent shelter back on and went back to sleep. But still, I was annoyed that it had happened. The good news for me, exhausted and ever-so-slightly hungover as I was, was that kayak rentals didn’t open at the Signal Mountain Lodge until 9:00 a.m. Would we need to rush there to make sure we claimed them on a Sunday? I wasn’t sure, but in planning Elizabeth and I had been very overcautious in trying to beat the Grand Teton crowds. With that in mind, we needed to be to Signal Mountain to get breakfast at like 8:00 or 8:30. For Terri and Garrett, this was simply a bridge too far. Vacationing the Nolan and Elizabeth way the previous two days had left a mark, and they decided to sleep in instead of joining us.
It was just a quick 15-minute drive down to Signal Mountain Lodge, which we had already passed several times down Teton Park Road. Along the way, I once again marveled at how low the water level was along Jackson Lake. Everywhere you looked, there were wide expanses of beach, and rocky shoreline that obviously extended dozens of yards.
The Signal Mountain Lodge lies at the southern part of Jackson Lake, nestled along the shoreline at the foot of the eponymous Signal Mountain. When we pulled the Subaru up to the parking lot of the lodge general store, I was struck both by how empty the parking lot was, and how much smokier the sky was than 24 hours prior. The first was nothing but a relief, while the second was irksome, but couldn’t be helped. If anything, I felt blessed by the relative clearness of the prior day. My family was walking into the lodge at the same time as us, bound for the Trapper Grill. I’d read the menu online and thought that it looked like an awesome breakfast option. Unfortunately, for the first time the covid restrictions and staffing shortages that defined the latter half of 2021 reared their ugly head. Trapper Grill only had a grab-and-go breakfast fare. I tried to contain my disappointment, which was a bit easier to do when I realized they had breakfast burritos among the grab-and-go options. We paid for our food, I went to the bathroom to put my contacts in, and then I joined everyone else outside at a picnic table in the lodge parking lot.
No joke, this may have been the best breakfast burrito of my life. It was basically like an NWC breakfast burrito without the tater tots, but so much better. I acknowledge that my grimy, national-park-camping induced state probably ratcheted up how good the food tasted in my mind, but I will not apologize for my love of this burrito. Elizabeth agrees with me wholeheartedly, so I’m not completely insane. There was some vegan fare at the general store for Alex, so everyone was reasonably happy, or as happy as they could be expected to be. Rich and Alex decided to opt out of kayaking, so there would be just 5 people riding kayaks. As delicately as possible, I suggested that I would be willing to take one for the team and ride in the solo kayak. Pam tried to insist on taking the solo kayak, but after a little convincing I was able to avoid a repeat of the swamped boat incident on La Jolla Beach from a month prior. Taylor would ride with my mom while Pam rode with Elizabeth, and I would be a free agent.
The boat rental shed was a solid 100 meters away from water’s edge – inconvenient until you realize that normally it sits a lot closer. In the interim, a hodgepodge of rocks that normally form the lake bottom led ever further and further down the boat ramp to the very end of it, where the water starts. Whoever built the boat ramp had drought in mind. The guy at the boat rental kiosk was happy to help us, some of his last customers of the season. He acknowledged that the scene could be a little bleak, given that the lake was much less than 50% full and smoke had taken over the air. But, he promised that it would be well worth our time to get out there and kayak a little bit. Besides, with Signal Mountain basically being the only place left for brave souls to launch motorized boats, we would have much of Jackson Lake to ourselves. I had looked at Google Maps and plotted the course I wanted to take to Donoho Point, an island near the eastern shore of the lake that currently sat between us and the western, Teton-dominated shore. Not only did our rental guy approve of such an action, he encouraged us, saying that it was the standard route for kayakers to take. He asked us not to let our kayaks out of site if we put in on Donoho Point, and to keep an eye out for the moose that frequent the island. Duly noted. He also let us know that if we wanted to swim we were welcome to do so. I asked him what temperature the water was, not really believing that it could be warm enough to enjoy, and was surprised when he told me the lake was sitting in the mid-70s.
After a short lecture on safety protocols, our guy handed us our life jackets and paddles and led us down the steep lake bed down to the current shoreline. Given my lack of reliance on anyone else, I was able to quickly stick a paddle in the rocks and push off into the water. I bobbed among the tied-up boats for a bit while Taylor, Kris, Pam, and Elizabeth all got themselves situated. Then, once they were ready to go, we flipped the kayaks toward the opposite shore and paddled in a leisurely west-southwest course toward the southern corner of Donoho Point. It was far less than a mile one-way on Google Maps, and in reality thanks to the low water levels was probably even shorter of a trip than Maps suggested. In other words, this was the perfect voyage for a one-hour rental. I let everyone else paddle ahead of me while I took it all in.
This was kind of it for me. Of the whole trip, this was maybe the moment where I felt the most like I was out in my element? I don’t know that it was the most “among nature” I was (Elizabeth and I had a very lonely hike in Yellowstone that I will get to). I don’t know that the view would have been the most awe-inspiring even with a lower atmospheric aerosol load. It wasn’t even all that quiet – motorboats occasionally buzzed by, kicking up little swells that I steered into and bobbed over. But there was something about paddling through the dull morning light with those mountains out in the distance, en route to an island no other humans were occupying at the time, that just made me feel like I was a part of the Grand Teton ecosystem in a way that the crowded Delta Lake trail couldn’t. Honestly, if it hadn’t cost $27 an hour I could have kayaked all the way to the western shore and made a day of it.
As it was, even with the leisurely paddling it couldn’t have been more than 20 minutes before we were approaching the rocky shore of Donoho Point. There was a bit of a problem getting up onto the island – the slope of the exposed lake bed was so extreme, and the rocks so smooth, that it was tough to convince our kayaks to stay grounded. Besides, the rocks didn’t want to support the footing of any humans. All in all, it was weird and sort of a slog to get the kayaks placed, and then a slog to round the southern corner of Donoho Point and get an unobstructed view to the west. No amount of dehaze can rescue this:
But that was sort of besides the point, wasn’t it? The point was that the five of us were where we were, in a spot that few to no other humans would be that day. And to take it one step further, Elizabeth strapped on her life jacket (so she didn’t have to touch the slimy bottom), walked to the water’s edge, and jumped in. Well, she’d been smart enough to bring her swimsuit. I had not, and was in shorts. So I asked everyone to look away while I took off my underwear and shirt and put them on a rock, then threw my shorts and walked down to the edge. I also didn’t want the sliminess of the lakebed, so I did a back flop into the water.
Holy crap, it was warm! What the hell? Who would expect that from a lake sitting at the foot of the glacial Tetons? The water was like bobbing in a bathtub. I think my mom has a picture of the two of us in the water together, but I do not. So you’ll just have to take my word for it that it was quite comfortable to lay on my back, stare out at the mountains, and once again marvel at how cool this was that I was swimming in Jackson Lake *here*.
But it was only cool enough to want to stay in the water for a few minutes. Who knew what kinds of fishies were nibbling at my toes? Besides, these were my shorts for the rest of the day, so I needed to get them dried out a little bit. We slogged back up the quicksand-like rocky shore until we reached the more solid beach near the top (it was a very weird situation – there was a demarcation between lakebed and beach, and then a steep climb up to the vegetated part of the island from the beach proper). I got my underwear, shirt, and shoes and we walked back over to the kayaks. Almost immediately, one of the two person kayaks slid into the water when someone tried to set it up. It started floating out into the open lake. I had Elizabeth hold my kayak in place while I sat down in it, then she released me into the water to go get it. I positioned next to the runaway, grabbed it, and jammed my paddle into the water to get as much speed as I could to jam it back into the lakebed. Through this awkward arrangement, and with me physically blocking it from going back out to sea, we eventually all got loaded back up.
The return trip was also as smooth as glass. With the exception of the boat-induced ripples, nothing made a noise out on the lake but my own paddle in the water. The sun beat down, promising yet another record warm day. Over on the long beach at the Signal Mountain Lodge, I saw bodies staring out at us. It was Rich and Alex, with Michael and Irene there to boot. I called out to Michael to help pull my kayak up onto dry land as the shoreline approached, and he succeeded in fully grounding me so I could get out. Sick of everyone paying for me for everything, I ran up to the rental shed and paid for my solo kayak before anyone else could offer. Elizabeth, Pam, Taylor, and Kris trailed behind, bringing their own gear.
Kayaking Jackson Lake brought a sense of adventure that I’m not sure many other things on the trip did, maybe because of how independent it was from the crowds in the area. I’m not sure it was my very favorite part of the (non-proposal) trip, but it was definitely up there.