Our campsite on Leigh Lake in the Tetons stands out among our many outdoor destinations as one of the most beautiful, serene places we've ever visited. For my husband and I, canoe camping always provides a wonderful escape from everyday life. It allows us to get to scenic, remote campsites without the back-breaking work of backpacking. Enjoying the ease of canoe camping against the backdrop of the gorgeous Tetons makes for an unforgettable experience.
On this particular trip, we set up our base camp at Jenny Lake Campground in Grand Teton National Park for a week, after spending the previous week at Yellowstone National Park, just to the north. After a few days of day hikes and relaxing at our beautiful Jenny Lake campsite, we were ready to leave the summer crowds behind. With a quick stop at the local ranger station for a boat permit, fishing license, and campsite reservation, we were all set to enjoy two days of canoe camping. From the Jenny Lake campground, we drove three miles north to the String Lake Picnic Area, where we launched our canoe into String Lake and were on our way.
We paddled the canoe north up the narrow, calm lake that offered easy and enjoyable paddling, even for novices. The weather was perfect as it had been throughout our stay in the Tetons with clear, blue skies and warm sunshine. At the northern end of String Lake, we easily managed a brief portage to Leigh Lake.
Leigh Lake is a much larger lake, so we had to contend with some wind and small waves. We had chosen the closest campsite on Leigh Lake (there are eight, plus a group campsite), so we spent some time along the way exploring the southern end of the lake and paddling around a small island. At one point, as we were paddling along the eastern shore of the island looking for wildlife hiding among the vegetation, the winds became stronger and threatened to blow us against the trees and rocks along its shores. We managed to pull away from the island and, with a concerted effort, steered the canoe closer to the lake's western shoreline, where the water was calmer.
We made our way up the western side of the lake to our designated campsite, number 13, and were delighted with what we found. We pulled our canoe up onto a sandy, private beach and explored the surrounding woods. The site is on a small piece of land that juts out into the lake and comes complete with a grate for campfires and a "bear box" to help prevent any close encounters with the area's many ursine residents. We pitched our tent on a small rise in the woods, just above the beach.
After unpacking the canoe, we once again set out on the water, this time focused on fishing in its clear waters. We paddled farther up the lake, checking out some of the other designated canoe camping sites along the way. All looked private and serene. Just off shore from our own campsite, we relaxed and fished from the canoe, enjoying the warm sun and cool breezes across the lake. The entire afternoon, we only saw one other person another canoeist out fishing. He told us not to get our hopes up, as he hadn't caught anything all day. Fortunately, our luck was a little better. Not ten minutes later, my husband felt a tug on his line and brought in a good-sized lake trout.
Apparently, we hadn't had much faith in our fishing abilities, since we hadn't packed any oil or other supplies for cooking fish. We used the tried and true forked-stick method and spent the evening around our small campfire, savoring the fresh trout and enjoying the beauty and solitude of our own private retreat. We sipped on hot cocoa and watched the dying embers of our campfire before crawling into our tent. The breezes up on the rise kept the tent comfortably cool, as we looked out over the quiet water and fell asleep.
It rained during the night, but by daybreak the sky was once again blue and cloudless. We savored a simple breakfast on the beach, looking out over the quiet, deserted lake. This kind of solitude is so different from what one experiences in a crowded campground. Our trip was made the first week of July high tourist season in the Tetons yet we encountered few other people on our two-day canoe camping excursion. By contrast, the Jenny Lake campground was completely full all week, with campers arriving every morning at dawn, circling the campground in their cars like vultures, waiting for someone to vacate a spot.
Having spent so much time in the water the previous day, we now explored the area around our campsite on foot and took a short hike through the woods. There are hiking trails that run all the way around Jenny Lake, String Lake, and Leigh Lake, although a lengthy hike wasn't on our agenda this particular day. Finally, we returned to our campsite and prepared to leave this peaceful place.
However, we couldn't stay away for long. We loved this area so much that we returned later in the week for a late afternoon/evening paddle. This time we were prepared with a bit of oil and breading for any fish caught, two folding camp chairs, and two fresh Teton Ales from the local Otto Brothers Brewing Company in Jackson. These are the kind of luxuries you can't even consider when backpacking! "Our" site wasn't occupied on this particular evening, so we returned to the sandy beach to relax in our chairs, read, and prepare our dinner. The fish weren't biting this time, so we enjoyed some homemade dehydrated chili, cooked over our backpacking stove.
The canoe ride back in the evening twilight was an experience I'll never forget. As we paddled silently down String Lake, we admired the perfect reflection of the Teton Mountains in the still water. The lake was a smooth mirror, reflecting the rocks, trees, and even a mule deer on the bank perfectly. The air was cool, fresh, and crisp and smelled of pine. Most awesome was the silence. As we rested our paddles across our laps, the only sounds we heard were the slight breeze whispering in the trees, an occasional bird call, and the rustle of an osprey's wings as it flew overhead. The peace and beauty were breathtaking. We barely moved, as we watched and listened and tried to memorize every detail of these moments. Finally, as darkness settled, we reluctantly paddled back to shore and our waiting truck. We've vowed to return.
© Suzan Jackson, 2000