Editor’s note: Whether it is paddling (or surfing) the local water of Jackson Hole or buzzing around the lower atmosphere via kite, Will Taggart succeeds in creating his own brand of Jackson Hole adventure. Also a passionate photographer and videographer, Will’s Vimeo channel offers an intimate look into the sports that make him tick. Story and photos below by Will Taggart.
After a great high water spring season here in Jackson, Wyoming and paddling every day the summer kicked in at Rendezvous River Sports. 12 hour work days ensue for three straight months. Getting out on the water after the longest days of work is the only thing keeping us sane. Thanks to the long days and a great river surf season we manage to keep in shape through the summer.
Rivers are rated by difficulty from class 1 to 6. 1 is easy, 5 being the most difficult and class 6 is the limit of possibility. We have a handful of class 4+ and 5 runs in the area during high water in the spring. At the end of July, we all start watching the water levels for the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone River, also called The Box. From my desk job here at the kayak shop, it tends to be a hint of light at the end of the tunnel. It’s certainly one of the best multi-day class 5 runs in the US, and it flows usually in August during the peak of the summer rush. The run isn’t for every kayaker out there, but for the guy who loves hard expedition style paddling? Yes.
5 to 7 arduous mandatory portages climbing up and down a 1000’ gorge around precipitous un-runable cascades rapids adds a level of difficulty and intensifies the whole experience. The river bed is made of giant boulders that have fallen off the vertical walled cliffs. These boulders create spaces, called sieves, where water can travel underground. Sieves are the main cause for dangerous incidents in this gorge and many groups have had to perform complex rescues because of them. Every paddler that paddles The Box carries a dyneema throwbag, carabiners, pulleys and some webbing specifically for rescue. Setting up rope systems and rescue techniques are common knowledge for whitewater kayakers, and they come in very handy in a gorge like this, where hiking out is often not an option. Paddling with a strong group of paddlers and knowing the river well both play an important role in safely making it through The Box canyon. One of the main dangers is rolling into rapids without recognizing them as portages or must-scout rapids.
After watching the water levels and weather diligently for 2 weeks, approximately 33 texts, 17 phone calls, and 9 emails later a team came together. 7 of us friends and class 5 paddlers namely Eric Seymour, Eric Jones, Aaron Pruzan, Ben Dann, Risto Beaty, Daniel Abraham and I were all keen on the trip. It will be Eric Jones and Ben Dann’s 1st trip while the rest of us have been through the gorge before. Aaron Pruzan has done it upwards of 15 times and likely knows it better than anyone. With the portages, remoteness, and sieve dangers scattered along the river his experience is more than welcome.
It all starts with the Honeymooner section of river. With only one portage and one rapid to scout, it’s a great section to get warmed up and get used to paddling a boat loaded down with multi-day gear. There’s still a hard move or 2 and at one point we all had to squeeze by a fallen tree with about 10 inches of space barely edging through.
After the Honeymooner, the next tribulation is the Green Monster portage. It’s a mean slog bushwhacking through deadfall up to a steep ridge. On this portage, you can see over the canyon wall to where the river disappears underground. It gives me chills every time I see it. This portage is utterly exhausting. I heard someone say, “These blisters on my feet sure feel good compared to my shoulder.” Kayaks loaded down with overnight gear weigh around 80lbs. The weight is all the way in the back of your boat and there’s no real padding for carrying it all on your shoulders. Every time you set your boat down, you have to heave it back onto your shoulder. The terrain is awkward and crumbles under your feet quite often. For me, it’s a lesson in controlling frustration. I was never really a fan of seemingly endless pain as it was. The first time I ran this river, I think I said I would never come back about five times during the Green Monster portage. This trip, I only said that three times.
After the Green Monster portage, we made it to a nice camping spot: a huge relief for throbbing shoulders and feet. The camping is one of the ultimate treats on this adventure. There’s plenty of wood for fires, sandy beaches, and a beautiful view no matter where you look. We had a super moon while we were in the Box this time and it lit up the night. Hanging around the campfire after you survived the day makes camp that much sweeter. Camping with class 5 whitewater downstream often makes it hard to sleep because you can hear the low rumble of the water reminding you of what’s to come. With perfect weather, we slept under the stars and moon each night.
The next day brings some read-and-run rapids and Ankle Breaker Portage. Ankle Breaker is another long shoulder-destroying portage with some steep climbing. Dropping the boat here will result in a challenging boat recovery mission.
The main rapids that make the suffering all worth it start to come into view here. With the first class 5 rapids leading into the gorge you start to feel the power of the constricted water at Double Suck and Deep 6. Deep 6 specifically is a little creepy for paddlers. Once I saw Aaron disappear under the water for 15 or so seconds popping up 30 yards downstream. Brenden Cronin went for it and disappeared underwater for a few seconds, then finally popped up. Ben ran it next and managed a nice boof move keeping him from going deep. The rest of us walked around. Following Deep 6, there is a nice section of read-and-run class 4 whitewater that comes to the Balls to the Wall rapid. Balls to the Wall is pretty intimidating. With a guard rock right in the entrance, the rapid then rolls you through some tight slots right against a vertical granite wall. Looking up, you can see a Half Dome size of rock with some webbing and ropes scattered around. Some climbers are obviously working their way into the gorge from the top.
As we looked down at the rapid I was thinking it was bigger than I remember and I thought I might walk around. The thought of shouldering my boat again was a bit of a deterrent for me. I decided to go for it and I really wanted to be at the bottom of the rapid with my camera first so I could film looking upstream. I bumped off the guard rock at the top and rolled through the slots pretty smooth. Some of us ran through and some shouldered the boat and walked around. There’s an interesting psychology to running a river like this. Sometimes you’re feeling good and sometimes you’re thinking about all the things that can go wrong. A balance of the two is ideal. Sometimes you’ll have a history with a rapid that will cause you extra concern; sometimes it’s how the first run goes for the first paddler. If he slips right through, then you’ll think you can slip right through. If he gets tossed around and hits some rocks, you’ll think that might happen to you. Sometimes you’re just feeling tired and weak, or it looks harder than you thought. Being in that gorge really makes your mind dwell on the possibilities and causes you to over-think the line at hand.
After Balls to the Wall and many other rapids, we came to Russ’s Underworld where we ran into an unexpected challenge. We all scouted the rapid and ran safety for each other. I went first, followed by Cronin, Dan, and Eric Seymour. Eric Jones went next. He lined up a little too far river right and braced into a hole that redirected his boat into a powerful sieve. The current was flowing right into the back of a rock and threatening to push him down. Eric bounced around in the rock cavern for a minute and managed to position himself in his boat still with his head up. Stuck there he had to simply wait for help since there was nothing else he could do. Cronin ran up the shore and was there quickly. He reached over the rock to grab Eric’s PFD and hold him until Seymour and Dan got there. Then after clipping the boat, they pulled together and Eric was yanked straight up out of the water to safety. “It was like The Hand of God” Eric said after being lifted straight out His boat with brute force. His kayak had to be rescued from the other side of the river where we managed to swing it over and get it out with multiple ropes. Needless to say, everyone else walked Russ’s Underworld.
Dilworth rapid was next and we were all a little on edge after the rescue. Dilworth went without a hitch as we ran it one at a time. Eric spotted a bag that broke out of his boat from the high canyon wall and was able to get it back.
It was getting late and we were looking for Calendar Falls to camp, take a breath, and sleep. The camp at Calendar Falls has a big sandy beach with huge boulders spread around. The next rapid is right down stream and you can hear its rumble all night.
The next day, we started our run with some great class 4 read-and-run rapids that lead us into the Box Canyon. The walls got steeper and steeper the closer we got to Deliberation rapid. Deliberation looked so much harder than when I first ran it 10 years ago. There are usually two possible lines though Deliberation, but a log in the alternative drop was extra concerning. We all walked the first part of Deliberation and then everyone ran the slot. There’s no scouting or walking around the slot between Upper Deliberation and Lower Deliberation; you simply must run it.
Lower Deliberation is the next class 5 rapid we faced. I decided to go for it myself and had a pretty clean line. A couple of us walked it feeling on edge in the tightest part of the gorge. Occasionally at the end of the run, you’re starting to feel better and better about the whitewater and the feeling of a loaded boat. On the other hand you’re even more physically and mentally exhausted. The more lines you run clean, the better you feel when you’re faced with another line.
After Lower Deliberation you go through a super tight canyon. It can’t be more than 30’ wide with vertical walls on each side. As you near the end of the canyon you can see mist rising up from the churning rapid and the Gates of Mordor. Because the water level was low enough, we were able to dodge a portage and squeeze under this boulder that usually blocks the entire river leaving you at the Leap of Faith rapid. Leap of Faith is unique because it’s a must-run, no-scout rapid. You can’t see what it looks like and the line is hard to imagine as you peer at the first move. From the eddy, it looks like you’re going to drop right onto rocks, but instead you land on a pillow of whitewater that pushes you river left immediately. You’ll get pushed right into a wall on the left, through a rock garden on the right, and you just go with it on faith. Back in the day when the first paddlers came upon this rapid there was a super long portage that went thousands of feet up out of the gorge and took half a day or more. Since Leap of Faith has been discovered it’s the new standard on how to run this rapid and really saves some time and effort.
After Leap of Faith there’s just one last portage. Sunlight portage is hard because of the rolling rock slope near the end. It’s like being in a wet slide while skiing, but it’s made of 12×12 boulders that all insist on sliding together. Once you suffer past that with your numb shoulder and burned out thighs, you reach the last drop and Sunlight Falls. Sunlight Falls is not the end of the Box, but it is the end of the stressful river running and gnarly portages. You’ve got class 4+ read-and-run all the way to the truck. Celebrating and relaxing at Sunlight Falls is now a tradition for Box runners, and is a glorious moment reflecting on the adventure.
After it’s all said and done, I feel a real satisfaction successfully navigating a seemingly impossible gorge. I may have cursed under my breath on the portages and swore I’d never come back numbers of times. However, the unique experience of starting in the mountains, floating through micro climates in the bottom of the canyon and then out to the Wyoming desert is really a grand experience. As much as it’s mentally and physically stressful, I find the reward twice as great. The Box Canyon on the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone River is not for everyone and is undoubtedly restricted to class V paddlers. It differs from other class V in remoteness and complexity. All the factors add to the experience. I’ll be back again.
Thanks to my team Eric Seymour, Eric Jones, Aaron Pruzan, Ben Dann, Risto Beaty, Brenden Cronin, and Daniel Abraham.