My alarm jolted me awake. Grey dawn light filtered through our un-rain-flapped tent. I lay on a mostly-inflated air mattress, trying to reconcile myself to life. After a few moments, I remembered where I was, why I was up so early, and the fact that I probably had 4 other people to wake up. Or… I could just go back to sleep.
A minute or so of internal deliberation later, I remembered the painstaking methodology that had gone into creating my perfect itinerary. I couldn’t just throw the itinerary out the door this fast. So I rolled over and managed to rouse myself and Elizabeth. After calling out softly a couple of times, Pam confirmed that she was at least somewhat awake. Terri and Garrett emerged from their tents one site over. Improbably, we were slowly on the move.
It was startlingly cold out at Colter Bay. For all the sweat I’d produced at Jenny Lake the day before, the heat had leaked right out of the evening and left us with a 40 degree morning – perfect camping weather. For someone who had been baking in Oklahoma, it was a downright pleasure to put on a sweatshirt and sweatpants. But, remembering the sweltering afternoon prior, I layered those things in anticipation of stripping down later.
Pam, Terri, and Garrett were slow out of the gate. This is why we plan accordingly, and the 5:30 alarm had been planning accordingly. When Terri pulled her rental car behind me, it was basically exactly when I wanted to go anyway. We drove off to the Meister cabin to pick up whichever members of my family had chosen to wake up in time for sunrise – unsurprisingly, this turned out to be Rich and Taylor. The two of them were going with us straight from Oxbow Bend to Delta Lake, so they were kind of forced to. Kris and Alex would be doing their own thing for most of the day instead of joining us on one of the more strenuous hikes of our trip, so they chose to sleep in. That meant there was room for Rich and Taylor in the backseat alongside Pam. The sky was lightening from grey to pale blue. We were off, bound for one of the most famous sunrise spots in the country – Oxbow Bend.
Unlike many sunrise locations you have doubtless been to, one does not face east to see the sun rising at Oxbow Bend. Instead, the Snake River winds by you to the south on its circuitous route down Jackson Hole. As the name suggests, there is an oxbow lake forming along one large loop in the river course, but at the moment the river hasn’t fully cut off from the longer route, leaving a placid Oxbow that looks almost due west at Mount Moran. As the run rises, the mountains are perfectly reflected in the glassy waters, often frontlit to purple or reddish colors.
Of course, its beauty and location also makes Oxbow Bend a very popular sunrise spot. After the hordes at Jenny Lake the day prior, I wasn’t surprised to see cars crowding the little lot off of the John Rockefeller Parkway. So I improvised by placing Elizabeth’s car as far off the road as I could without sending it all the way down into the riverbank. The car still teetered at a heady angle, but it was off of the route. Everybody clambered out and I scrambled ahead to get a look. The mountains to our east had a golden halo starting to show behind them. It was sunrise time!
I scrambled down the riverbank, where a sort-of path existed from people who had cut away the vegetation to allow access to the Snake. I only barely slowed up to keep cameras and tripod safe. We definitely were not the first people down along the riverbank, and a lesser being may have had to settle for an inferior spot to view the sunrise. Not me. I am persistent and possibly annoying. I asked two women if they didn’t mind me parking my tripod next to them on a little landing. They misunderstood me, thinking I was asking them to move. I would never be that rude at a national park, but apparently they would not be rude enough to deny a request at a national park, because they moved! Now we had a landing for me, my tripod, and 6 other people to share the view. Off in the distance, the sun was beginning to alight upon Mount Moran. It would warm from a dull dawn blue to a brilliant reddish-purple while we watched. I set up my GoPro to timelapse mode and left it pointed in the direction of the mountains. Then it was just me, family, my camera, and a crisp August sunrise. The water was as smooth and reflective as if someone had just Windexed it. A hint of fog drifted just above the surface on the opposite bank. And the true miracle: the smoke layer over Grand Teton was as thin as it would be in our entire stay. Right when I needed it the most, we got the best visibility.
The next shot is definitely in my 5 favorite pictures I took the entire trip:
The wildlife, too! I haven’t mentioned it much yet, but one of my big goals for this trip was to see as much wildlife as possible. Oxbow Bend wasn’t really one of the places I’d been planning on scouting it out, but it turned out to be a perfect appetizer for some of the wildlife I’d see over the following week. Ducks swam over the surface of the Oxbow back behind us. A catfish drifted by the riverbank in no particular hurry go anywhere.
Most exciting of all was the presence of bald eagles. One in particular was feeling frisky this morning, and while the sun slowly came out we were treated to the sight of the eagle fishing in the river right near us. For the first time, but not the last time, I found myself wishing I had better photography equipment.
After a while, the sun appeared over the mountains in our rear. Conscious of the likely madhouse parking scene at Delta Lake, I packed up my timelapse and got ready to direct Terri to the Lupine Meadows access. To my chagrin, Terri and Garrett were unready to go hiking at the moment and needed to go back to Colter Bay to get their hiking gear. Swallowing my annoyance and my Pop-Tart breakfast, we followed them back. One of my big Grand Teton goals – see the mountains at sunrise – had been accomplished, and had gone better than I dared hope.