Float on River

Ian, Fletcher and June rest in their parents’ car at the Pritchard boat ramp after a long day on the Snake River on Saturday.

The pilot of a giant, inflatable dinosaur, eager to show off the reptilian ride, cried: “Its name is Monica!”

The dino bobbed down the river Saturday afternoon along with other weekend revelers making the most of a hot and sunny Fourth of July weekend.

Along with parades and other pomp and circumstance, the nation’s birthday can be one of the busiest periods on this stretch of river between the South Park boat ramp and Astoria and Pritchard takeouts. A Jackson Hole Daily reporter and photographer joined the Bridger-Teton National Forest’s Wild and Scenic River Coordinator and Ranger David Cernicek to survey the scene. Cernicek talked river safety amid the bustle of dogs sporting life vests, plenty of people in tubes and a short rescue near Astoria.

Cernicek urged rivergoers to be responsible. He also said the dinosaur wasn’t the wildest thing he’s ever seen in his 20-plus years on the river.

“I’ve got a great picture of a unicorn about eight feet in the air above Kahuna, with the guy on it, from a couple months ago,” the ranger said, referring to some early season hijinks near the Big Kahuna rapid farther south along the river. “He got launched.”

Antics aside, Cernicek stressed that the river, including the stretch from South Park to Astoria, which is commonly floated (and imbibed upon) over the Fourth of July weekend, is not to be messed with. There are strong eddies that can suck a tube under, some people have been tossed from their boats on that waterway, and, despite the risks, people frequently mix copious amounts of alcohol with currents, which is dangerous.

“It’s fine to imbibe a little bit, but a lot of times we’re having people that are drinking too much,” Cernicek said, adding that he’s seeing more and more hard alcohol on the stretch from South Park to Astoria, which he feels “doesn’t belong on the river.”

“You can do what you want once you’re safely off the river,” he added. “But alcohol and water don’t mix very well.”

As the river patrol boat Cernicek piloted Saturday came around a bend just upriver of Astoria, there were two women floating down the river. One was in her tube, wearing a life vest. The other was floating in the water, with waves occasionally coming over her head. Her life vest was floating about 15 yards downstream. All signs indicated she was intoxicated and, after the boat picked up the life vest and threw it to her, she didn’t put it on.

Then the duo floated past Astoria, their take out.

They called for help and the patrol boat again intervened, having to grab the swimming woman’s hand — in part to keep her from grabbing the oars, and fouling the maneuver — to keep her afloat and get the duo to the eddy just south of the bridge, where they could safely exit the river.

“It’s just that quick,” Cernicek said afterwards, talking about how accidents happen on the river, especially when alcohol is involved. “Right next to the shore.”

River patrols like the one Cernicek piloted Saturday aren’t always present, though, so people shouldn’t count on immediate help.

The ranger said that, on busy weekends like the Fourth of July, putting a ranger on the river means they’re tied up. His focus is on major accidents.

“We’ll sometimes put people out there, but it’s real difficult,” Cernicek said. “When something bad happens, we need to be able to respond to it. And if I have people who are out on the river, they can’t help, necessarily. They’re committed to the river.”

The Snake River Fund, a nonprofit that advocates for public access throughout the river corridor, teamed up with Teton County Search and Rescue and Backcountry Zero, an organization that aims to eliminate fatalities in Jackson Hole’s open spaces, to run a full-page advertisement in a series of Daily papers last week. Among other things, it urged people to “be prepared, be practiced, be present” on the Snake — advice that’s true past the Fourth of July.

At the top of the list is wearing a life vest, especially for people on tubes.

Cernicek also stressed the importance of proper clothing.

He pointed to the river’s temperature, which was roughly 65 degrees Fahrenheit over the weekend. With temps like that, well below a normal body temperature, people’s internal heat can dissipate, leaving them cold and lethargic — and potentially hypothermic — even on a 90-degree day.

Cernicek also stressed that the South Park to Astoria stretch is not the river’s mellowest. If he was going to take someone out kayaking for their first time, he said he would take them from the Pritchard to Elbow boat ramps — not the stretch popularly floated on the Fourth.

Currents on the South Park stretch, Cernicek said, can be dangerous, particularly in the eddies just south of King’s Wave.

“This section of river right here has these really hardcore eddy lines,” Cernicek said. “People think this is a fun-and-games piece of river. It’s not. It is very, very strong and it will pull bodies down without lifejackets.”

Bryn Christensen, who was floating the river in her packraft and towing her friend on a tube, said she accidentally tipped over in one of those eddies.

“There’s like a wave right there and then an eddy right next to it, and then I went sideways,” Christensen said.

All told, Saturday on the river wasn’t terribly busy, with flotillas of tubes, plenty of people in rafts and others drifting downstream fishing. Some were partying, and others were out with their families. The river patrol passed one woman in a driftboat with one child asleep on the bow, and another right behind her as she oared.

In contrast, Cernicek said the river Sunday was “probably the busiest I’ve seen it.” The Von Gontard’s Landing boat ramp was overflowing, as were the Astoria and Pritchard ramps. Jackson Hole Fire/EMS was called out to help somebody with a badly cut foot.

Cernicek said he hadn’t heard of anyone in a condition like the woman the patrol boat pulled out of the river Saturday, though there were “quite a few folks coming out of Astoria that had a very good time.”

When he spoke with the Daily around 5 p.m. Sunday evening, he said the jumping rock north of Hoback Junction was still raging.

Contact Billy Arnold at 732-7063 or barnold@jhnewsandguide.com.

Teton County Reporter

Previously the Scene editor, Billy Arnold made the switch to the county beat where he's interested in exploring Teton County as a model for the rest of the West. When he can, he still writes about art, music and whatever else suits his fancy.

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