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Wyoming Winter Fun

It wasn’t a case of wanting to go paddling. The winter storm that shut down much of the US had been harsh in Wyoming. During most of the previous week, the daily high temperatures didn’t reach up to zero degrees F and it isn’t much fun paddling when it’s that cold.

When the mercury reached a few degrees above freezing Saturday, Jerod and I had to go paddling. Cody and the Shoshone River sit at the eastern base of the mountains of the Beartooth and Absaroka ranges. The weather fronts stack up against a wall reaching over 10,000 feet, then the winds blast over the mountains. Our sudden temperature increase was caused by air molecules being rubbed together as the Chinook winds roared into the canyon at over 25 mp with gusts well over 40.

One of the reasons that I love the Shoshone is that the flows are dam-release. Even in the harshest winters, there is flowing water at boatable levels and the water temperature is always at least a little above freezing. Our winter ice problems take on another form though.

During periods of extreme cold, the spray from the rapids begins to stick to the rocks and cliff sides. Ice shelves, several inches thick, begin to spread above the water with icicle fangs waiting for an unwary paddler. These ephemeral undercuts narrow already tight channels and are hard on paddlers’ ribs, spray skirts and anything else they touch.

The narrow upper gorge of the Shoshone is relatively wind-free so Jerod and I had an easy time packing our creek boats to the top rapids. Top (or Kop) Drop was unrunnable due to the ice bridges covering all the channels so we sealed our wetsuits and put our gloved hands inside poagies above the next rapid, Head Job. At these levels, Head Job requires precision paddling. The ice made it more so but we both made it clean, if without much margin.

The river settles down as it leaves the hard granite of the narrow upper canyon and reaches the softer sedimentary rocks below. We stayed warm catching eddies and surfing small features as we headed for the more serious water downstream.

A mile or so from where the softer sediments create a wide, relatively calm valley, some harder limestone layers squeeze the river into another tight gorge with some fun drops. The last of the three, Iron Curtain, is extremely tight. Today the ice has grown in on both sides, creating a very narrow set of white ice jaws. I slipped cleanly through the waiting fangs while Jerod bobbled the entrance. Only quick reflexes save him from some unpleasantness under the ice shelves.

About a half mile below Iron Curtain, we paddled into a warm spring and got the circulation back into our fingers. The pool is big enough to hold several kayaks and is a regular stop on the way down the river. In the winter, it’s a blessing!

Below the springs, the geology changes the river again. The near-vertical canyon walls shed masses of rock on a relatively regular basis. The rock erodes easily further changing the rapids but also creating numerous undercuts and sieves. The frequency in which rapids occur here is evidenced by the names like Pinball, Nintendo and Gameboy. The newest is X-Box (we were hoping for “Playstation” but it wasn’t).

The big winter attraction is Nintendo. At low flows, there’s a sharp drop that will launch a properly placed kayak. While it’s not really a hole, the feature is still fun. Earlier this winter when the flows were a little higher, Jerod looped his Rock Star here! Today we’re both in creek boats. No loops but lots of endo’s and pirouettes.

Unfortunately, head shots from the icy water cool our ardor. We only play for about a half hour before deciding to continue downstream.

The last rapids are back-to-back. Gameboy feeds directly into Pinball with a series of narrow slots that merge into one steep slide. Despite the tiny warming effect of the warm springs, many of the slots are narrowed beyond boatability. The only option is for me to ram my Hero up onto the ice slab that blocks the right hand entrance. The slab fractures under me, allowing me through and easing the way for Jerod.

A few twists and turns later, we float out of the tight confines of the main canyon into the soft and scenic red walls below. Here, several additional warm springs feed the river. We warm our hands one more time before paddling the last half mile to the takeout.

The town of Cody is close enough to the river that we don’t have to change clothes in the cold. Our addiction temporarily sated, we jump in the truck, complete the shuttle, and head home for some well-earned warmth.