Last weekend we went on a trip to the Tetons. Basically all we knew was that we were hoping to get a backcountry camping permit, and hopefully we could get canoes to take us there. So we loaded five people’s worth of gear (me, Colton, Bree, Ben, and our new friend Marcus) into my dad’s Land Cruiser and left on Thursday evening. We left fairly late in the day, so half of our drive was in the dark. The time was passed by Marcus asking us very thought-provoking questions about ourselves and each other. It was quiet interesting to see what new things I could learn about the people I’ve grown to know intimately in the last five years.
We arrived at Grand Teton National Park in the dark, found a spot to free camp, worried briefly about bears (don’t worry, we had bear spray), watched the stars for a bit, and settled in to sleep. It was a bit chilly at night, I believe in the upper 30s or low 40s, but it sure beat the 80 degree weather we were experiencing in Salt Lake.
We woke up to find ourselves surrounded by an Aspen grove, with the Tetons lighting up from the sunrise in the distance. We had a breakfast of crepes and Nutella, then set off toward the visitor’s center.
We were able to obtain both a camping permit and two canoes, so we parked by String Lake and set off toward camp. I was expecting to be freezing on the water, since it had snowed in the area only two days before. After paddling for a bit, I had to take off multiple layers, although I probably should have kept them on for the mosquitoes during the portage between String Lake and Leigh Lake. It was so incredibly beautiful. The water was crystal clear, the clearest lake water I’ve ever seen. The only reason we stopped seeing the bottom at any point was because the lake became too deep in Leigh Lake.
Only Marcus had been here before, and he told us how popular the swimming was at String Lake, as it was the shallowest of the lakes nearby and so the warmest. We didn’t see many people on the way in, but on our way out on Saturday evening, the lake was full of people kayaking, swimming, canoeing, and stand-up paddle-boarding with their families.
We ported the few hundred yards over to Leigh Lake, meanwhile being attacked by the largest swarm of mosquitoes I’ve ever encountered, and continued on our way. Leigh lake was immediately much deeper. The water became a deep blue from the overcast skies. I believe in total we canoed between 3 and 4 miles. Needless to say my shoulders were a little sore the next morning because I really need to work out more.
We were all in awe as we rounded a corner of the lake and saw where our campsite was to be: right at the bottom of a beautiful alpine and snow-covered canyon. Or, as Colton has been saying, “In the cleavage of the big tits” since the Tetons were named after such. I feel like the name of the Tetons was a funny joke the French explorers shared amongst themselves, and maybe while they were drunk wrote it down in their official journals so it stuck.
There are several campsites around the edge of the lake which aren’t particularly clearly marked, so we had to do some searching to find ours. But we did, and we set up camp and marveled at how secluded and beautiful our campsite was. We had a higher overlook to the lake than the other campsites offered, and as with the others we had an established fire pit and a bear box a ways from the camp.
As I explored our campsite, I came upon a massive pile of gray pine-needles. After more scrutiny, I asked, “Are these pine needles or… fur …?” And indeed it was an enormous pile of fur. Some animal had been slaughtered there, and it was disgusting. Then Marcus found two very large jaw bones and part of a leg bone and I was on full bear alert the rest of the time we were there. It was either an elk or a small moose. It didn’t help that we kept seeing more fur on the outskirts of the camp while doing our business, and finding tons of the largest piles of bear scat I’ve ever seen. Definitely a grizzly. But then there were so many that perhaps our camp happened to be a crossroads to the lake for many animals, and one just happened to die there… that painted a better picture in my head than the brutal tearing apart of an animal I kept imagining.
And if there had been a bear on the edges of our camp, we wouldn’t have been able to see it due to the lush foliage and huge pine trees that (beautifully) surrounded our campsite.
The rest of the time was spent in good company, canoeing around the area, killing as many mosquitoes as possible, and enjoying the gorgeous scenery. Even the sound was amazing. There was a constant cacophony of birds tweeting away. I recognized the call of robins, but there were many I’d never heard before. There were sounds of trickling streams all around us as the melted snow added to the volume of the lake. There was also a dull roar in the distance from a waterfall I’d glimpsed while canoeing. I wanted to see the source, so we canoed across the little cove and traipsed through the woods in search of a trail (no luck). For some reason the forest across our cove was much less scary than ours, maybe because none of us saw any signs of bears or killings.
The hike to the waterfall was relatively short, but since we were bush whacking, we got pretty scratched up. Ben even found us a log to cross the river in hopes we could find more of a trail on the other side. As we lined up to cross the log, I just pictured all the family campouts I’d been on, and my parents, aunts, and uncles getting after us for doing less dangerous things than crossing a log with loose bark 15 feet over rushing water, sharp sticks, and large boulders. But, since we were the adults here, there was very little hesitation. On our way back to the canoes, we found a better way down: finding the largest trees that had fallen and walking from trunk to trunk. This avoided the leg scratchings and was much more entertaining.
As with anywhere we’ve gone with water, Colton just had to jump in and swim. While String was a popular spot for its shallowness and warmer waters, we didn’t see anyone swimming at Leigh. It seemed much, much colder, and from what I could find out the water temperature was in the upper 40s or low 50s. Right where we’d tied off our canoes the water was cold, but Ben decided to jump in right where the snow run-offs were, which was basically negative a thousand degrees. But if he can take it, so can the rest of us, right? The good news was after standing in the water for one minute, you became completely numb. So for me it really wasn’t that bad. The other good news was that the water was so cold that the wind blowing on you was warmer than the water. So we spent 15 minutes jumping in and out of the water, trying to take pictures (I didn’t get any, but Bree did), and again marveling at how clear the lake was.
That evening we had our camping favorite, Bree’s tinfoil salmon dinners. While I was stuffing my face with my favorite type of food, we kept joking that we were for sure going to die now because salmon is also a grizzly’s favorite food. If you prefer another type of meet over ground beef in tinfoil dinners, this is an excellent substitute. Bree places the salmon over several pieces of lemon, so it doesn’t burn, then you put all the basics in: onions, carrots, potatoes, whatever else, and cook it like you would any other tinfoil dinner.
We spent the evening huddled around the fire eating s’mores and talking. The temperatures dropped drastically after the sun set. We were briefly worried we would be rained on because we saw lightening and heard thunder, but it passed right over us. We heard bats zooming around above us in the early evening, then settled in for one of the best nights of camping-sleep I’ve ever had.
The next day we paddled around some more, ate more junk food and then packed up to play at String Lake and have lunch there. For our lunches we’d been having freeze-dried food. We had bad experiences with the Backpacker’s Pantry, but all of the Mountain House brands were pretty good. It was an extremely warm day, so we all got sunburned while paddling back to String. Like I’d mentioned before, String was full of families out spending a day at the lake. It was a lot of fun to see, and even though it was more crowded I still felt a sense of tranquility there. I think part of it was there were no motor vehicles splashing up the lake water; every water vessel was man-powered. We played around for a while, then packed up our canoes to return to the rental place (Dornam’s, near the Visitor’s Center), drove through Idaho Falls to have a dinner of Cafe Rio, then continued on home. The time was passed again thanks to Marcus, who had us playing an “Awkward Song Game” with the iPods. We had to find a song that was dedicated to someone else in the car, but you had to try and make it as awkward as possible, or just super funny. For example Marcus dedicated, ‘I Just Can’t Wait to Be King’ from the Lion King to Colton. If anyone knows Colton, you’ll understand why. 🙂
Overall it was one of the best times of camping I’ve ever had. We decided to make this a tradition and come back each year. Whether you like just spending a day at the lake, or you’d also like to back country camp, this is definitely a fantastic place to be.