River runners: What you need to know before you put in

JACKSON HOLE, WYO – The Hoback is running hog wild and chocolate milk. The Snake is stupid fast, closing in on 29,000 cfs. The Gros Ventre is growling, knocking out bridges and punishing its banks.

With spring runoff as stupendous as could have been predicted after an epic winter and monster snowpack, Buckrail wanted to find out if anyone should be on a river right now and if so, what should they be prepared to encounter?

“There is no quick way out. If you put in you’re staying in,” said David Cernicek. He is the Bridger-Teton’s river manager who took time today while in the field (on the water) to describe what is going on with the creeks and rivers, and offer some advice for those about to rock. So, listen up before you put in. “Don’t go alone. Go with someone you really trust to have your back; someone who is very experienced. But also don’t expect your friends to be able to help you much. There simply are no eddies to hole up and wait in. Even if it’s 80 out, dress for 40 degree water and plan to be in it the whole time.”

Oh, and if you have an out-of-boat experience, you can probably pick up your kayak in the Palisades. “It’s not likely your friends are going to be able to help you much or grab your boat,” Cernicek said. “And if you lose your boat, please call the Sheriff’s Office to let them know you are okay and what boat to be looking for. Because if we find a boat with no one in it we are going to be looking for you. You might be having dinner and drinks that night, but we are still out there looking for you until we hear otherwise.”

Hoback River at Bryan Flat.

High water has pulled debris from banks that otherwise might not be caught in the wash. The flotsam is mainly trees, tree limbs, and the always-deadly root balls, but it also includes unforeseen and unseen strainers like barbed wire and other fencing materials, as well as jagged pieces of corrugated metal.

“Water hasn’t been this high in many years. That, plus avalanche activity over the winter and fires from last year, has a lot of wood in the channels,” Cernicek said. “Heavily braided areas of the Snake up in the Park, for example, are particularly challenging right now. It’s not about knowing what was there last year. It’s not even good enough to know what it looked like last week or yesterday. Things are changing every hour with every run.”

Most local boating and rafting companies continue to operate but Cernicek said that is to be expected for a couple of reasons. For one, these outfits are good. They know what they’re doing and they’ve been doing it a long time.

“These are skilled operators,” Cernicek said. “They are all likely only using their best and most experienced guides. They may be running two guides to a boat right now. They are operating with other tighter parameters like stricter minimum age limits, no history of back pain or heart trouble in who they are taking. They are doing a lot of behind-the-scenes screening in their trips. You’re not going to see a boat full of Boy Scouts right now like you will later in August.”

Buckrail contacted Mad River Boat Trips and confirmed they are exercising every safety precaution imaginable. They explained the whitewater sections of the Snake River and wider and often safer right now than some of the scenic stretches that tend to have multiple, changing shifting channels.

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