Paddling the Tetons’ Turquoise Necklace

Exploring the lakes of Grand Teton National Park by canoe

The boat leaves the shoreline in a lurch, its stern tracing a line in the sand until it launches into the clear water. String Lake stretches forth, a crystalline, glassy plane that seems to support the entire Teton Range.

In the calm morning’s light breeze and still water these piedmont lakes are at their finest: Jackson, Leigh, String, Jenny, and Phelps lie strewn like a necklace of turquoise beads at the foot of the impossibly jagged Teton Range. As ancient glaciers scraped out the valley bottom almost 2 million years ago on their thoughtful journey southward from the Yellowstone Plateau, they left the earth pocked and pitted. The Jackson Hole valley retains, and boasts, the glorious scars of this age — scars apparent in the wide canyons, sharp ridges, moraines, and deep piedmont lakes.

The inlet stream at String Lake bubbles forth under a low wooden bridge, continuing its slippery southbound journey to Jenny Lake, the next of these shimmering liquid emeralds. Although most visitors are drawn, understandably, to the seemingly endless (and epic) hiking opportunities in the area, accessing the Tetons by boat offers a unique perspective into the quieter corners of the park. While it is impossible to paddle all the lakes successively, short portages make exploring clusters of them a rewarding endeavor. From the canoe, quietly sliding across the water, the mountains reveal subtleties not visible from the forested intimacy of the hiking trails.

Each stroke of the paddle westward propels the little vessel past the fir-lined shore, closer to the mountains than before. The paddlers fall into an easy rhythm, correcting their course every few strokes. In the tranquility even the gentlest shifts of light are startling as the stern Cascade Canyon cliffs become sharper and more pronounced. As our steady paddling passes time along, the morning imperceptibly blossoms into daytime; the lake water takes on a new hue of blue as the sun intensifies.

A series of white sand beaches stretch between clusters of lodgepole forest. A perfect picnic spot. The canoes coast toward the beach: not a sound aside from a breath of wind and the calm dropping of water beads falling from the glossy wooden paddles. Being on the water does that. It eliminates excess and distraction. The sand, warm to the touch, welcomes the watercraft as we haul them ashore. Our tidy beach spot frames the lesser-known Moran canyon, sparking talk of potential adventures, logistics, and future days of pure exploration.

On the water, time seems to slow down, just a little bit, and maybe just for a morning. The Tetons’ piedmont lakes, when explored patiently, offer a unique and unforgettable perspective of our majestic range. All that matters is to keep the bow straight and take another paddle onward.

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Images © Taylor Glenn