The Teton Mountains rise up from the Snake River Basin like sharp steel fingers, ready to tear holes in the sky. Clouds that try to pass them get shredded in the process. Beneath the peaks, the river crisscrosses in channels that glint like strands of silver in the afternoon sun.
Not far from the Tetons, just below Jackson Hole, Wyoming, a small plateau stands guard over a bend in the river. There’s a camp there, the Teton High Adventure Base, run by the Great Salt Lake Council of the Boy Scouts of America. It was our first night at the base. We watched Explorers, Venturers, and Varsity Scouts unload their gear and stack it in the cabins.
“I can’t wait until we’re out on the river,” one of the Scouts yelled at some friends. “Can you imagine what it’ll be like to hit those rapids?” It was a quiet evening and sitting in the camp you could hear the water crashing in the canyon below.
While we all were eating the traditional first-night steak dinner, Bob Burk, one of the camp’s guides, reminisced about the first time he ran the river, nine years ago when he was a Scout. “It was the best summer I ever had,” he said. “You’ll be a little scared at first, but you’ll get over it.” Now a returned missionary and a college student, Bob said he had come back to the river to help others learn what he had learned there. It was a statement that would take almost a week to sink in.
By late afternoon the next day, 30 backpacks formed a long, brightly colored line that moved slowly up toward the clouds. We were with Varsity Scouts from the South Cottonwood Third Ward, Salt Lake Cottonwood Stake, and Explorers from the Granger 22nd Ward, Salt Lake Granger Central Stake. We were hiking in the Wind River Mountains, which are close to the Tetons and to the camp.
The weight of the packs and the slipping rocks underfoot kept heads bent toward the trail. Sweat streamed down everyone’s face. All of us walked one step at a time on a path that had started steep and was getting even steeper.
“We’re getting high enough to meet the angel Gabriel,” Robert Beeler joked. The rest of the group didn’t do much talking. Behind lay the valley floor, where we had started that morning. It seemed incredibly distant. But even though everyone was exhausted, the guides kept us all moving.
“There wasn’t just one big push,” Ron Wood remembered later. “The whole day was the push. A lot of us wondered if we were ever going to make it.”
“My pack was way too heavy,” Steven Aslami admitted. “So the other guys divided up some of my things and carried them for me. Next time,” he laughed, “I’ll leave my stereo home.”
Rest stops were kept short, just long enough for everyone to catch their breath and for our guides, Richard Jones and Greg Longson, to check maps. Both Richard and Greg are returned missionaries. Like Bob Burk, they had come to the base as young Scouts. Like Bob, they had now returned for the summer to share what they’d learned.
“How much farther do we have to go?” Kelly Crowther asked.
“Not too far.” The guides had been saying the same thing since the first hour.
The trail continued into the alpine zone, the highest region of the wilderness. A red-tailed hawk drifted in the warm evening air. The mountain was beautiful, but later, when asked about the scenery on the first part of the hike, Doug Tolman summed up what most of us had experienced: “Scenery? I don’t know. All I saw were my feet.”
The incline became less steep, dropped down, and finally ended at Coyote Lake. It was evening, and the sun was going down. Fish were turning in the water. We took off our packs, drank from an icy stream, and built our campfires. As a precaution against marauding bears, we hung our food in trees. Soon the rich aroma of stew mixed with the fragrance of mountain air. There was a relaxed feeling of accomplishment. All of us felt it, the kind of feeling that comes only when you’ve worked hard for something. Sleep came easily that night.
After a leisurely breakfast, we spent the next morning fishing. The lake was full of arctic grayling, only one of several types of fish in the region. We’d been told there were rare golden trout in some of the other lakes.
A few of the hardier souls even went swimming. “The water was so cold,” Clay Drake said, “that the fish were wearing wet suits.”
By noon the group was hiking toward another lake. The trail switched back and forth gently, dropping down the slopes. Sometimes a lower part of the trail would be only a few feet away.
“We thought it was crazy not to take a shortcut,” Mike Worthington said. Some tried it. Greg stopped everybody.
“Stay on the trail,” he advised. “You think you’re saving time, but you’re not. And if the trail erodes the wrong way, you ruin it for people who come after you.”
Minutes after reaching Lake George, the fishermen among us were catching good-size brook trout. They saved enough for a meal and let the rest go.
“How deep is the lake?” Mike Talboth asked.
Richard smiled. “Shallow at the edge and deeper toward the middle,” he replied.
“Dale Cox, our post adviser, told everyone how much he liked to chew pine gum when he was a kid,” David Chapman of Granger explained. “So while we were sitting by the lake, he got some from a tree and had us all try it. You might say it was tasty. You could taste it all day!”
“The next lake has golden trout in it,” Greg announced. “If we hurry, we might be able to catch a few before dark.” Packs were repacked and lifted to shoulders again.
Even though they’d been warned once about shortcutting, some of the young men thought the route back to the main trail was too roundabout and tedious.
“It looked like we could just cut through the trees,” Clay Drake said. “But we got lost. It took two hours for us to get back together with the rest of the group, and they all had to wait while the guides went back to look for us. The next time a guide tells me what to do, I’ll listen to him.”
There are times, the Explorers and Scouts found out, when you have to trust someone else, times when your safety and well-being depend on it. The young men also learned a little bit about perseverance. They hiked more than five miles each of the four days they spent in the Wind Rivers. Every day it became easier and more enjoyable.
“It was rough the first two days,” Mike Talboth explained. “But I never felt like I’d quit. Well, never for more than a second or two. By the third day, you were too numb to feel it.” But they were also becoming stronger, more certain of their skills.
“You can’t really enjoy the mountains until you’re confident you can survive,” Richard explained one night at a campfire. A waterfall thundered in the distance. “I enjoy helping these guys gain that confidence. Besides, I love the mountains.”
Everyone came back dead tired. “I was never so happy to see a van,” Doug said. He ran the last quarter mile to the truck.
At the base camp that evening, director Bill Barnes must have noticed how fatigued everyone looked. “One of the things we try to teach people up here is to reach,” he said. “We want to show them they are able to do things they didn’t think they were capable of.” Thanks for the sympathy, Bill.
The next morning Granger, Cottonwood, and other groups from the base floated rafts through Teton National Park. The current was slow and easy. There was no white water to speak of, just a few bumps here and there in an otherwise lazy river.
It was a good chance to relax, recuperate from the rigors of hiking, scratch mosquito bites, and get used to the feel of a paddle in your hands. The day was spent trying to answer riddles posed by the guides. (“The music stopped and Johnny died. What happened?”) River sand scratched against the rubber boats and guides said the rafts were catching fire because of friction. Ravens flew by, cawing and cackling. The guides said the birds were Snake River black chickens and that the cooks were fixing some for dinner.
“The guides were crazy, but we had fun with them,” said Robert Beeler. “They only had to keep us in line once in a while. The rest of the time we could talk with them and ask questions. They really know a lot about the outdoors.”
Vincent Boothe, an Explorer from Parleys Seventh Ward, Salt Lake Parleys Stake, was riding in one of the first rafts. Looking at a marsh by the river bank, he noticed something large and dark. It moved. “A moose!” he yelled, and the animal lifted its head. As the raft drew closer, the animal ran away.
“That’s the first time I ever saw a moose,” Vincent said. “Man, they’re huge, especially the antlers!”
The rest of us kept an eye out after that. The guides explained that river runners usually see a few wild animals and birds. We peered up at a plateau hoping for a glimpse at antelope. We all pointed at an osprey nest in a tree, where three hatchlings glared at us with contempt and shrieked to their mother for protection. Osprey are fairly common in the Tetons but almost extinct in the rest of the world. We watched geese bathing in the shallows and dreamed of deer and elk in the woods. We spotted a bald eagle soaring overhead and cheered when it dropped like a rock to take a fish.
We even guessed the answer to one of the riddles. (Johnny was a blind tightrope walker. When the music stopped, he thought his act was over and stepped to the side of the rope.)
It wasn’t very late in the afternoon when we paddled over to an inlet, down a side stream to a pool, and stopped at the island camp that marks the end of the first day on the river.
Staff cooks already had a dutch oven dinner baking in the coals. But rafts had to be loaded on trucks and other equipment had to be taken care of. Everyone was exhausted. Once again the guides worked along with the groups and kept them going. When the chores were done, an impromptu volleyball game sprang up. Funny how people who had been too tired to stack paddles a while ago now had tons of energy for volleyball.
Just when the guides were finally outscoring the younger competition, the cooks hollered, “Dinner’s ready!” Everyone scrambled to be first in line.
“They didn’t tell us until we were already in line that the first five people were automatically assigned to cleanup,” moaned Dirk Roundy of the Brigham City 20th Ward, Brigham City Utah Stake.
The dinner was chicken—not raven—the best-tasting slow-simmered chicken-and-vegetables combo ever served in the wilds.
“It’s kind of sad,” Kaleen Kerr, one of the island camp’s cooks, said as she was helping the “volunteers” clean up. “This is the last time we’ll serve this meal this year.” Her job during the summer was to cook five days a week, and now it was the last week of the season. It wasn’t hard to tell she had enjoyed her work. Kaleen is part of a tradition. Her brothers, Brian and Darin, are both guides, and three more family members (including in-laws) plan to join the staff next year.
Away from the eating area, over where the guides had pitched their tents, Ray Hunt, 17, relaxed on a foam pad. Ray is from Mesa, Arizona. He was the youngest guide on the staff.
“My older brothers, Darcy and Kyle, were both guides,” Ray explained. “They’d tell me stories about it. It sounded so good I wanted to do it too. If they would have taken me when I was 14, I’d have come then.” Camp directors told him to try again when he was older. He did.
“They kept me in mind,” he said. “This is my first year as a guide, and it’s been what I expected all the way. It’s like having 20 brothers up here.” Being with the other guides had helped him learn about priesthood leadership, about fellowship, and about planning for his future as a full-time missionary.
“Four years ago, when I started working here,” said Matt Laver, another guide, “I wasn’t the least bit interested in a mission. But because of the companionship of the guides and the experience of taking boys down the river, I felt the desire to serve.” Of the 28 staff members, 15 are returned missionaries, three have received their calls, and others, like Ray, plan on going when they turn 19.
The sound of guitars playing lured everyone back to the campfire. The universal language of folk songs drew us all together. During choruses of “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain,” we sang out that we would “chase an armadillo when she comes,” “eat peanut butter and bologna when she comes,” and that we’d “all be nice and sunburned when she comes.” By then, the coals were embers.
The river is a poem, a rune, a mystery. The water flows deep with rhythm and verse and beauty. But beneath the beauty, beneath the constant silk flow and tranquility, there are teeth.
“If you aren’t afraid of the river, if you don’t respect it, it will get you,” Bill Barnes said. But he reassured us that all of the guides are expert swimmers and are trained in lifesaving and first aid.
We started quietly, two to a boat, a zigzagging line of canoes desperately pursuing our guide’s course downstream. The current coaxed us away from the shore and slapped us back and forth in the choppy waves. We knew we had experts leading us, but a wariness gnawed at us just the same. The sheer power of the current increased rapidly, pulsing and coursing with a raw anger that could snap a tree trunk. Soon paddles seemed almost useless, but paddles were all we had.
“They had warned us not to run into trees,” David Black of Cottonwood said. “But we thought we could push against one. We tried to push away and it didn’t work. They had told us not to lean the wrong way, but we leaned the wrong way. We went under.”
Thanks to his life preserver, David popped to the surface, grabbed his paddle, and this time following instructions, clung to the canoe. A guide raced up alongside, made sure Dave and his partner were safe, righted their canoe, and coached them as they climbed back in. It was a scene repeated often, sometimes several times for the same partnership. “I’m wetter than a wet dog,” one frustrated Explorer yelped after he had swamped for the fourth time in a row.
“I tipped over nine or ten times,” said Steven Allred of Brigham City. “It demoralized me. But after a while you got used to cold water. And you figured out that if you didn’t want to spend all day swimming, you’d better pay attention.”
As the day wore on, confidence grew. We learned that there were difficult times and times to recover. At a smooth place in the river, everyone was relaxing.
“King Rapids is next,” one of the guides shouted. “Get ready!”
The guides had been talking about King Rapids for two days. It was the biggest, meanest, orneriest, most grizzly rapid on this stretch of the Snake. There were stories about it throwing canoes clean out of the water.
We were close to the base. We could stop and carry out our canoes if we wanted to and avoid King. But none of us did.
“I knew if I quit I’d regret it,” Doug said. “I’d look back later and say, ‘That would have been fun.’ I knew I could make it if I’d just keep trying. I’d already made it through a lot of tough things.”
The water sprayed. It pounded our canoes. We lost our breath, but this time from exhilaration. Even though many of us capsized, we didn’t panic. We glided on down to a smooth basin where the current eddied and fished ourselves and our boats out of the water. Then we all returned to the base to head for home.
For the Cottonwood and Granger groups, coming to the Teton High Adventure Base was something they’d planned for all year. “We power raked lawns all summer to make money for the trip,” David Black explained, “so that everyone could go.” The Brigham City Explorers even paid for their leaders’ expenses as well as their own by pouring concrete for several months. For all the groups, the trip would be a source of memories for a long time. Like guide Bob Burk, they would remember it as the “best summer ever.” As they loaded equipment into their leaders’ cars, there was a difference in them. They’d grown from being here. When they left they were still laughing and talking about the trip.
The guides were stacking canoes and getting the base ready for winter. But they were already talking about spring, when the base would be opened again, when more Varsity Scouts, Venturers, and Explorers would come here for the best summer ever.