The Historic Spring 2017 Runoff

Bench in Flooded String Lake

This past winter was a record-setter. Snow poured in more consistent and heavier amounts than usual. Kids had snow days for the first time in decades. Avalanches occurred north of Jackson along Highway 89 for the first time in anyone’s memory. Much more was detailed in a previous blog post. And so, eventually, all that snow had to melt. It melted. And with it came extraordinary damages around the valley unlike anything I’ve seen since being here, and many others would agree.

The Gros Ventre River Gets Noticed

The Gros Ventre River is a locals-favorite tributary of the Snake River. It’s the largest river in the valley just behind the Snake River, so it’s often overlooked by visitors. Yet it’s responsible for some of the most breathtaking scenery in the valley when looking away from the mesmerizing Teton Mountains. Above its waters and the forest of cottonwood trees that line its shores for miles, the Sleeping Indian rests in his eternal slumber above the valley. I’ve always loved finding new photos and compositions merging the Sleeping Indian and the Gros Ventre River. I would travel down Gros Ventre Road during colorful sunrises and sunsets and see the river reflect a fire in the sky above the Sleeping Indian. I’ve watched meteor showers while listening to the Gros Ventre River rush peacefully below. I’ve even hiked along its shores to find golden eagles, elk, moose, bison, and bald eagles, all in one short mile. And now that’s on a hiatus for an indefinite amount of time.

Flood Stage on the Gros Ventre River

Thanks to the immense amount of snow that came melting off in record time after two weeks of refreshing temperatures in the 70s, the creeks and rivers around the valley began to swell. In normal years, they rise, and then they subside. This year, they rose, and then kept rising. The beloved and quiet Gros Ventre River revolted into a raging roar of a river. Its first victim was the road that hugs its banks on the way to the town of Kelly. The force of the river eroded the sediment out from underneath the road, making it impassible to even pedestrian feet. One of my favorite scenic drives will now be forever altered, if it ever even reopens in some rerouted form.

This was also one of only two roads to access the town of Kelly. Residents of the small community now have an extra 45 minutes to an hour added onto their commute each way to Jackson. The road is now closed to all traffic, including foot traffic, from the Gros Ventre Junction to the Gros Ventre Campground, a 4.5 mile stretch with very little redundancy. Popular moose and wildlife watching spots have been returned to the wildlife.

Gros Ventre River Flood Waters

Next, the river spilled over multiple banks, closing six campsites in the Gros Ventre Campground. Farther downstream, along Highway 89, the river crested over another bank to spill into the National Elk Refuge. This gave everyone a personal view of how severe the flooding had gotten. To the surprise of many bicyclists enjoying the warmer weather, a section of the popular bike path was now submerged in several feet of muddy water. And still the damage wasn’t done.

A bit farther downstream along Spring Gulch Road, a local’s secret for bypassing town, the river compromised the integrity of the old bridge passing above it. Another road is now shut down indefinitely due to the incredible currents of the Gros Ventre River.

Much farther upstream, deeper into the Gros Ventre Mountains, the popular and secluded Crystal Creek Campground rests near the confluence of the Gros Ventre River and Crystal Creek. At least, it did. The flood waters washed away the entire campground.

Gros Ventre River Flooding

These are already major problems since there’s no immediate solution, nor can any solutions even begin to be drawn up until the runoff subsides much more substantially. But when it’s combined with the fact that in just over two months Jackson Hole will shatter its visitation record for the Total Solar Eclipse, the urgency is exponentially amplified. How will over 50,000 people react and behave when there’s only one road into town? How will be able to manage traffic with only one road going to and from Antelope Flats? No one has an answer yet.

Snake River Waves During Flood Stage

A late winter storm came in just in time to break up the rapid melting, so only time will tell if all the damage for the season is done yet.

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