Just as Parks and Rec is poised to redesign the Wilson boat ramp, some boaters worry that the wild Snake River could shift course, undercutting the goal of making the launch safer.
“The wildcard in the whole deal is the river,” said John Wasson, a Wilson boater who floats the river recreationally.
Sandwiched between a highway, a new pedestrian bridge and tracts of private land, the boat ramp’s location is generally recognized as poor — but unavoidable.
There’s no natural eddy, for one, meaning boaters generally have to load and unload in a current.
As gravel and silt flow downstream with spring runoff the channels that boaters use to drop their vessels in the water can fill and often have to be dredged come spring.
And, when the ramp is crowded, as it frequently is during morning hours in the summer, rafts are dragged upstream to get out of the way and into the main current. That requires commercial outfitters’ guests to cross a field of riprap — stones stacked to keep the bank from shifting.
That’s part of why river runners are hoping that, with $700,000 in county funds budgeted for the project this fiscal year, the Wilson boat ramp will be improved.
But there’s also concern, not necessarily new, that the river could run away from the ramp.
Reynolds Pomeroy, a river guide with Barker-Ewing and former co-director of the Snake River Fund, said the ramp debate has been ongoing for decades.
“This is just tongue-and-cheek, but we should’ve built the damn ramp facility 20 years ago,” he said. “We would’ve gotten 20 years of use.”
The plans for the ramp
The new design features rigging zones; parking for people with disabilities; a staging area for commercial clients; hardened but removable concrete planks for backing watercraft in; a new, paved loop intended to circulate trailers; and a paved path connecting the boat ramp area to the access point for the southwestern levee. The area where people typically park to reach that levee is set to close when the Wyoming Department of Transportation replaces the Snake River Bridge and completes other projects in the area.
“I didn’t see anything to jump up and down and get worked up about,” Wasson said of the plans. “They definitely simplified it, and I think that looks good. They simplified the bike paths, they put in the circle, which presumably a bus could make, and I think it looks all right.”
Jared Baecker, the current executive director of the Snake River Fund, which advocates for public access along the Snake River and raises funds every spring for the county to plow the ramp, also endorsed many parts of the plans, including the derigging zones and pathway alignments.
“We definitely had several elements that we were advocating for that finally got included after several years of public comment,” Baecker said, “but some key pieces are still missing.”
For the Snake River Fund, a key piece is access in and out of the river over the uneven rip rap.
Boaters “are literally having to drag their boats up riprap, twisting ankles,” Baecker said, adding that people have broken legs on commercial trips.
“We need to see that bank modified. It needs to be terraced or more smoothed out, and you can do that whilst still protecting and armoring the levee,” he added. “And that has clearly been omitted from all plans.”
In response, Teton County/Jackson Parks and Recreation Department Director Steve Ashworth told the News&Guide that the Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the levee system, “basically has said they would not support that.”
“If terracing and that type of work was to be done, we as Teton County would take the liability for flood mitigation and flood liability,” Ashworth said. “That’s obviously not something that we can do or would be appropriate to do and so we really are deferring to the Corps of Engineers.”
Baecker pushed back on that, saying boat ramps across the country have similar designs.
“The Army Corps has the ability to do it,” he said. “It requires permitting and thoughtful design. The easy answer is they don’t want this to happen.”
A river that won’t stay put
This summer has been particularly busy and the hustle kept some outfitters, like James Peck, who owns Lewis and Clarke Whitewater Expeditions with his wife Karen Youngblood, from going to Parks and Rec workshops in mid-August. That’s where the department was unveiling and taking comment on its plans for redeveloping the ramp.
Peck hadn’t had a chance to look at the plans when reached by the News&Guide in late August.
“I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t even looked at it yet,” he said, though he agreed with Baecker that the access over the riprap needed to be improved.
But he, like others, pointed to the changing course of the Snake as a worry for the future.
Pomeroy said he thinks the western current that passes by the boat ramp is weakening.
“We’ve been fortunate that the main stem of the river has swung to the west side forever, but now a couple hundred yards upstream, it’s diverting to the east,” Pomeroy said. “The current that flows to the west is now probably less than half of the volume.”
Other river runners shared those concerns and, if a river realignment comes to pass, the change could complicate use of the boat ramp once the redesign is complete.
“The hardening of the boat ramp is good,” Wasson said, “but the river could be 50 feet away from the ramp in two years and people will be driving out on the rock bar at the bottom.”
Ashworth and Wasson said that’s happened before, with Ashworth pointing to a period a few years back when the Snake River Fund helped excavate a 60- to 100-foot-long channel from the boat ramp all the way to the main current of the river.
There’s also been periods in Snake River history when river runners have had to drive way out from the Wilson boat ramp onto the gravel to get their boats in the water. Ashworth said changing flows are somewhat inevitable.
“That kind of goes to the challenges of a hardened ramp and all of those things,” Ashworth said. “It’s going to move. So we just have to be adaptable to it.”
In 2018 Parks and Rec contracted with Jorgensen Associates and Biota Research and Consulting to determine feasible alternatives for stabilizing access to the river. One of the alternatives, deemed infeasible, was to build a ramp on the east bank as well.
Ashworth and Baecker both agreed that would be complicated.
“They’ve come up with several alternatives for placing an alternative boat ramp across the river,” Baecker said. “But that’s a huge investment, and do we want to be building structures to bounce back and forth between sides? I think that’s a real challenging question to answer.”
In the meantime, designs for the Wilson boat ramp improvements are available online for public comment through Thursday.
The survey link is: TinyURL.com/ParksProjectsJH2021.