GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK — In 1911, James Manges laid claim to 160 acres inside what eventually would become this park, and when he left his small cabin to fish cutthroat trout in the Snake River, he’d tack a handwritten note to the door:
“Gone fishing,” he scribbled. “If I don’t come back try to make a living off the place.”
Manges was only the second settler to pony up $15 for a plot of land in the shadow of the Teton Range, following passage of the Homestead Act of 1862. Other stake claimers followed. But 50 years would expire before 400 titles were let in Jackson “Hole” — the name trappers gave to valleys surrounded by mountains.
The other day, as we launched a drift boat into the Snake River, its wide sweep of clear, moving water bore the same invitation it must have rendered to Manges, and some 11,000 years earlier to the forebears of modern American Indians who visited here to hunt and gather plants in spring, summer and fall.
One of the West’s great waterways, along with the Yellowstone and the Missouri, the Snake, unlike the latter two, eventually flows west, into Idaho and ultimately into the Columbia River, before emptying into the Pacific Ocean.
“We’ll try these,” my older son, Trevor, said, selecting large foam-bodied attractor flies to tie onto our leaders.
Trevor lives in Missoula, Mont., where he is a fly-fishing guide, and had traveled to Grand Teton National Park to spend a few days with his mother, Jan, and me.
“Remember the first time we were on this river?” Jan said from the bow. An eager fly angler, and a good one, Jan, on a given day, will match me fish for fish.
Her reference was to a trip we had taken perhaps 10 years earlier. Trevor and his younger brother, Cole, were still in high school, and I, trusting soul that I am, had bought a drift boat over the internet from a man who lived in Idaho. The four of us took possession of the craft in Jackson, Wyo., while vacationing in our pickup camper.
We christened that double-ended boat on the Snake River below Jackson, a float that surprisingly came off without incident, and during which, as a bonus, we caught plenty of fine-spotted cutthroat trout, a species veritably unique to the Snake.
Now, absent Cole, who also lives in Missoula, we were on the Snake again, this time much farther upstream, inside Grand Teton National Park.
Anchoring us alongside a rock-and-pebble bar, Trevor looped the first cast of the day to a side channel that bore a riffle and below it a counterclockwise eddy.
Drifting into the eddy, his fly on its initial pass tempted an 18-inch cutthroat that corkscrewed up from the stream bottom and inhaled the fly, tightening Trevor’s line and bowing his rod against the current.
Bringing the fish to hand, Trevor soon released it, its spotted sides glistening.
Measuring 310,000 acres, Grand Teton is a relatively small national park. Yellowstone, by comparison, is 2.2 million acres, and Glacier more than 1 million.
A geologic freak, the park’s namesake mountains jut stunningly from the valley floor absent the usually accompanying front range. Multiple earthquakes beginning 10 million years ago gave abrupt rise to the Teton Range, while more or less simultaneously dropping the valley floor. Glaciers as thick as 3,500 feet subsequently conferred the region its peaks, lakes, rivers, wetlands and vast sagebrush flats.
Headquartered in an RV campground along the shores of Jackson Lake, we were, it seemed, among an endless stream of park visitors. Some arrived in buses, others motorhomes and still others on motorcycles or bikes.
Cellphone coverage was sketchy, and Wi-Fi was available only at the village store. Near these, in evenings, as the setting sun backlit the Tetons, campground visitors gathered like lemmings, their phones and laptops in hand.
Different as such scenes were from the encampments the Shoshone made here hundreds of years ago, and after them the beaver trappers, homesteaders, cattlemen and, ultimately, the dudes from back East who came to play cowboy and cowgirl, the Tetons, it can be said, have seduced indiscriminately over time, people to people. And still do today.
Whatever eye candy the Tetons provide, with their craggy granite peaks and rock-strewn glaciers, the Snake is the park’s lifeblood. Grizzly and black bears depend on it, also moose, wolves, antelope, beavers, otters … and anglers.
On this day, the river wasn’t busy. A few kayakers moseyed downstream, and an occasional raft of sightseers. Also beneath Wyoming’s summer-blue sky, its gauzy clouds untethered, a few drift boats of anglers materialized.
Continually in motion, rivers can be a gateway drug to a life lived obsessively. Lakes entice. But rivers intimate continuums on which existence itself rides, with the backwash of disappointment ever disappearing down river, yielding to new water and better days.
“Dad, I’m going to hold us right here against the current,” Trevor said.
This was just after we had eaten lunch. A remuda of horses, some spotted, grazed in the distance, while overhead, an osprey, ever the opportunist, eyed the same river we did, for the same fish.
“It’s a tight cast. But put your fly as close as you can to shore, between the two branches of that deadfall.”
I might not have made the cast a second time. But I did the first, and when my fly settled onto the water as directed, a 17-inch cutthroat tipped up its nose, mouth agape.
“Set,” Trevor said.
Were it not for President Teddy Roosevelt, who in 1908 established the 2 million-acre Teton National Forest; President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who in 1943 leveraged the 1906 Antiquities Act to create the Jackson Hole National Monument; President Harry Truman, who in 1950 signed the bill launching the park; and John D. Rockefeller Jr., who donated 33,000 prime acres to help form the park, the valley lying beneath the Teton Range might today be a hodgepodge of fast-food joints and neon signs.
Perhaps then I wouldn’t have had a chance to hook that fish.
And bring it to a net. And release it.
But I did, its sides glistening.
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