Snowshoe Canyon

by Matt Fraker on August 12, 2012

So the alleged Black Swift sighting by a definite Black Swift expert took place on Jackson Lake outside the mouth of Moran Canyon. Last year, I taste-tested this remote area just to see if it would be possible to explore into here. My experience was that it was possible, but it was also ugly.During the last year, I spent a lot of time poring over Google Earth aerials from all angles and I was bothered by the fact that Moran Canyon just did not seem to have any obvious Black Swift breeding habitat. The best Black Swift areas have three things — waterfalls, greenery, and high relief. Moran Canyon is HUGE — it is the largest of the Teton Canyons. But it’s massive gentle glacially created classic U-shape left little in the way of dramatic waterfalls or high relief. But this was not true for the two canyons to the north.

Snowshoe Canyon sits just to the north. Midway up this smaller canyon is a bizarre feature beneath a nice-sized lake named Dudley Lake. This feature is a hard straight deep cleft with the canyon’s main cascade coursing through it. Although there are no waterfalls in this cleft, there is rushing water, high relief, and possibly greenery — it was hard to tell on Google, but the north side of the cleft sat in shadow. It had potential. But could we get to it?

Here is the Google view looking just south of direct west with Dudley Lake to the left and the canyon cleft to the right:

The other and probably better location was the next canyon north, the aptly named Waterfalls Canyon. This canyon harbored two large dramatic waterfalls — the lower one, Columbine Cascade, was likely accessible with a hike. The upper one, Wilderness Falls, would be a much hairier access. We will get back to this canyon later…

Here is an aerial of the three canyons with north to the top:

I met Seth at Colter Bay around 9AM only to find that the boat we needed had to be sent out that morning for some reason. It did return, but it set us back a couple of hours. Our captain was a young guy from St. Thomas who was the dudest of surfer dudes, and very entertaining, named Tre. We had a nice boat ride across the Lake and he dropped us off dry at our starting point. We set ourselves up for a 6:30 pick-up — that gave us about 7 hours in the Canyon.

Tre left, and Seth and I climbed up and over the lake bank to get our bearings. Seth looked at me —

“You did this alone last year, huh?”

“Yep. Took me awhile to leave the lakeshore.”

“Wow.”

It was hot when we set off across the decades old burn plain. The deadfall was immediate. Our plan was to go as far as we could into the canyon using the more open burn plain. Visibility was good, but progress was tedious. Here is a pic of Heeter taking a pic:

And here is a short video from early on in our bushwhack:

The heat and deadfall hurdling definitely took its toll. I started getting heat exhaustion chills which I tried to mend by dipping my hat into any little rivulet that we crossed and cooling off my skull. Seth kept questioning hitting downslope into the timber. The timber had several problems — deadfall combined with trees creating impassable jams; marshes and swamps; and bears. So we kept at our maybe 1/2 mile and hour pace through the more open deadfall until we started getting into the little gullies. These gullies started being an issue higher in — places where we had to downclimb into little waterway gullies, then upclimb out exhausted. We finally came to a particularly deep one opposite but near the rocky headwall where we were hoping to cross the cascade and scamper up to where Dudley Lake was. I finally bailed on avoiding the timber and we went into the woods. It was not as bad as I thought it would be, and we made it to the dry portion of the cascade channel pretty quickly. My camera was getting completely abused, so I put it away knowing Seth was taking lots of pictures that would be better than mine anyway. During further exploration while crossing a smaller channel, Seth slipped and fell downstream somehow managing to keep his skull off of the rocks, but sprained his wrist on the landing. We were now almost three to four hours in, and we had not gotten anywhere near where we needed to be. While he shook off his fall, he and I tried to find a way to cross the major cascade. Neither of us could find anything safe or not stupid. We had three choices — stay on the north side and attempt to cover an impossible amount of ground with the time we had left; risk very serious injury to cross to the south side and then make a mad scramble up some steep slopes against our clock; or admit failure and use the time we had left to try and make a comfortable and relaxed exit out. Pretty beat up and wiped, and knowing our way out was hardly any easier than our way in, we elected to exit Snowshoe Canyon.

We decided to follow the dry rocky portion of the creekbed as far as we could, even though this would plant us right square in the heart of the rough timber. For quite the while, it was a pleasant way out — with shaded protection, major water nearby, and little deadfall in the creekbed. The creekbed started holding water but we stuck to it anyway, wading calf deep. Here is a pic and a video of a spot where we stopped to do some water purification:

Shortly after this, the timber took control of the creekbed and we had to exit into the timber which was almost impassably swampy. We walked on top of deadfall down to deadfall, over and over, trying to keep out of the swamp. We finally made it to dryer ground, but the deadfall remained, and negotiating a path continued to tax us. But a small joy of our woodsy bushwhack was the huckleberries. We slowed down and began eating fistfulls of ripe huckleberries, knowing we would likely solicit a bear’s wrath eating their summer larder. It was a risk we felt worth taking. We finally made our way out of the timber and back into the open burn plain which was as hateful as ever.

By now we were both clumsy, falling and tripping over the deadfall frequently. As skies grew overcast, we eventually made it back to our drop off point, and Tre arrived shortly thereafter to pull us out.

Here we are at pick-up time:

The boat ride back was a mixture of humility in how badly we had just had our asses kicked, and yet a silvery lining of pride for going into a canyon that may have not seen humans in a long time.

Back at the Marina, we stiffly climbed up out of the boat and ran into a little blonde employee of the Colter Bay Marina. She asked us where we had come from. We told her. She gave us props and then mentioned that she was planning on going into Waterfalls Canyon in two days from now by herself. Seth and I looked at each other and made the childbirth analogy to our hike — at some point we would forget and forgive this pain and do it all over again — but not in two days. We discussed the backcountry over there with her, and then departed ways. Yes — this is foreshadowing…

Novotnys had food grilling and needed somebody to eat it. Proud as hell of our failure, we made the long drive to the Novotny abode and took in the embrace of civilization.

Here is Google aerial of our approximate route:

A fine warm closure to one hell of a day…

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