The Wind Rising

Is sailing on Jackson Lake the best summer activity Jackson Hole?

The Wind Rising

Is sailing on Jackson Lake the best summer activity Jackson Hole? 

By Molly Absolon

Laurie Thal and Dan Altwies sailing Thal’s 22-foot O’Day sailboat Pegasus on Jackson Lake. Thal says her boat, which has a retractable keel that allows her to beach the boat, is ideal for kids, family, wine, and cheese. Photo by David J Swift

THERE ARE ALL sorts of extreme ways to celebrate milestones around Jackson Hole. You can climb the Grand Teton, bicycle 110 miles “Around the Block,” run the Teton Crest Trail, or “Picnic,” which involves biking from downtown Jackson to Jenny Lake, swimming across the lake, climbing the Grand Teton, and then reversing your journey to end up back at the Town Square. And then there’s what glass artist Laurie Thal and two friends came up with to celebrate a 50th birthday: On a brilliant early summer evening, the three women, together with Thal’s partner Dan Altwies, sailed from Signal Mountain across Jackson Lake to Bear Paw Bay where they settled in for the night, enjoying a meal on board while the sun set behind the mountains. At 1 a.m., the women awoke, crawled out of their bunks, went ashore, and climbed the Skillet Glacier to the summit of Mount Moran. After snapping a photograph, they skied perfect corn snow back down to the lake’s shore before returning to the sailboat where Altwies awaited them with a sumptuous spread of food and wine. “I’ve wanted to do that for forty years,” Thal says. “It’s a unique twist on sailing on a mountain lake.”

Thal grew up sailing on Lake Huron, but when she came to Jackson in her twenties, it wasn’t sailing that drew her. She came to climb, hike, ski, and run rivers. Once here, however, it wasn’t long before she found herself itching to get back on a sailboat. For the last 18 years, she’s had a boat, a 22-foot O’Day sailboat named Pegasus. It’s moored at Leeks Marina on Jackson Lake. She says Pegasus, which has a retractable keel that allows her to beach the boat, is ideal for kids and family, and for wine and cheese.

“I grew up racing on the Great Lakes,” Thal says. “But that’s entirely different from Jackson Lake. Sailing here is not for beginners. It’s unusual to have a lake entirely ringed by high peaks. The mountains can create challenging sailing conditions. It’s really exciting and a little bit scary. I love the lake so much. It has so many personalities. I enjoy sailing in a light breeze, and I enjoy it when things get really exciting.”

“It’s not like ocean sailing where winds tend to be more constant. On Jackson Lake the winds change all the time. But it’s exciting. It keeps you on your toes, because you never know when all hell will break loose.”

—Sailor Joe Williams

JACKSON LAKE IS a natural lake that was first enlarged in 1906 by a dam across its outlet. That dam failed in 1910 and was replaced by a bigger concrete-and-earthen one built between 1911 and 1916. The new dam raised the lake 30 feet above its natural level. Primarily used to store water for downstream irrigation, Jackson Lake is 15 miles long, 7 miles wide, and as deep as 438 feet. It is one of the largest high-altitude lakes in the United States, and its western shores are wild—unreachable by road and with no boat ramps, docks, or facilities. The lake has always attracted boaters, especially anglers. Leeks Marina was established in the late 1800s before the first dam was built, and sailors have plied the lake’s waters for years, but their numbers have always been low. 

Sailing is not an obvious activity for Jackson Hole for several reasons. The sailing season here is short—the lake is usually frozen until early May and September typically marks the end of the season. Also, there are so many other mountain sports vying for people’s attention and time. The sailors who commit to the lake are a special breed. Many have sailing in their blood, and, after they raised their sails on Jackson Lake for the first time, found that, like most Jackson Hole activities, sailing here can be extreme.

Dan Heilig is one of the special breed. The senior conservation advocate for the Wyoming Outdoor Council, Heilig grew up messing around in boats: sailboats, rowboats, or whatever kind of watercraft he could get his hands on during his childhood summers on the New Jersey shore and later on lakes in New Hampshire. In college he discovered the mountains, and for the next couple of decades he spent his time hiking and climbing. Then his knees started to complain, and walking up and down hills wasn’t fun anymore. That’s when he rediscovered boats. He bought a Precision 23—a 23-foot sailboat that sleeps four—from a man in Salt Lake City. It was the largest sailboat he found that could be hauled around the West on a trailer. One of the first places he took it to was Jackson Lake where, he says, the mountain lake sailing took him by surprise. 

“You need to pay attention on Jackson Lake,” Heilig says. “The winds are erratic because of the topography. Once I was out there sailing and, in the course of an hour, the winds increased from zero to 35 miles per hour. I thought I could find shelter along the shore, but I couldn’t. It’s the one time I came close to running my boat aground. I saw the wind coming, but didn’t realize it was going to be that severe. I was having such a good time and didn’t act fast enough. But that’s typical of sailing on Jackson Lake. I’ve been on the lake when the winds are coming from three different directions at once. It goes from calm to chaotic within minutes.”

Jackson Lake’s erratic weather is notorious. The lake’s position—nestled in a bowl surrounded by mountain ranges—is unusual and creates conditions not found on many other lakes in the world. Wind is formed by pressure differences created by uneven heating and convective currents. This happens everywhere, but the orographic lift of air forced over a mountain range like the Tetons—where elevational changes alter temperatures dramatically—results in localized, strong, and unpredictable winds. On Jackson Lake, the orographic effect typically causes afternoon breezes. But those breezes are not constant; plus, they tend to get bent or funneled by the canyons etching the western side of the lake or recirculated by the mountains that surround the valley on all sides. On top of that, thunderstorms and squalls come up quickly and unexpectedly over the mountaintops, resulting in dramatic swings in both the direction and velocity of winds. It is this unpredictability that is the allure for many Jackson Lake sailors.

Thal, who has sailed all over the world and is also an accomplished whitewater kayaker and mountain athlete, says it took a while for her friends to understand just what it was that attracted her to sailing on Jackson Lake. A few times she brought a group of her Grand Canyon kayaking buddies sailing. The canyon is known for its big, exciting rapids, so friends knew Thal was an adrenalin junkie. They were surprised by their first sailing excursions with her because they were tame. “It was what I call ‘lounge sailing’,” Thal says—light breezes, wine, cheese, and gorgeous sunsets. On their third trip, things changed. “It got really wild,” she says. “And my friends, who’d been with me in kayaks in the Grand Canyon, said, ‘Now we know why Laurie likes to sail.’”

“I saw the wind coming, but didn’t realize it was going to be that severe. I was having such a good time and didn’t act fast enough. But that’s typical of sailing on Jackson Lake. 

—Dan Heilig, Jackson Lake Sailor

ALL BOATERS ON Jackson Lake, including sailors, launch from one of three marinas: Leeks, Colter Bay, or Signal Mountain. Colter Bay Marina, established in 1957, is the newest of the three. Leeks Marina was first used by boaters in the late 1800s, and Signal Mountain Lodge (and marina) was started in the 1920s to provide accommodations and fishing guides for wealthy outdoor recreationalists. Leeks Marina has 125 buoys for rent; Colter Bay has 86 slips and 38 buoys; and Signal has 45 buoys. Boaters without a slip or mooring trailer their boats to the lake each time they venture out. 

Austin Kritz, who has been a boat tender at Leeks Marina for five years, says most of the moorings and slips available on the lake are occupied by powerboats and cabin cruisers. He estimates that only five sailboats are moored at Signal, and fewer than 20 at Leeks. Powerboats also dominate Colter Bay. A mooring at any of these is difficult to get; Thal waited eight years for hers. When Heilig first looked into renting a mooring at Leeks, he was told his wait could be as long as 17 years. “I did the math,” Heilig says, “and figured I could be dead by that time, but it didn’t hurt to get my name on the list. Then, three years later, I got a call informing me that my name had come up.” Heilig isn’t sure why his mooring came up so quickly. Mostly likely, he guesses, others like him had their names on the waiting list just in case, but when they were called, circumstances had changed and Heilig’s name bumped up faster than anticipated. 

Kritz’s duties as boat tender include transporting people and supplies between shore and their boats, as well as serving and supporting the boats at the marina. “The sailors are probably the craziest [of the boaters on the lake],” he says. “They go out when the power boaters come in. There is such a thing as a sailor species, no doubt. Unlike others, they want the wind. They go out in conditions other boaters would call crazy. I get that. I used to love going out in storms when I was a kid. Anytime I’d hear a severe thunderstorm alarm go off, I’d sneak out and take out a boat.”

But sailing on Jackson Lake isn’t only about the adrenalin. Joe Williams, an instruction coach for the Teton County (Wyoming) School District and a Jackson Lake sailor since 2014, says he likes sailing on the lake because of its serenity and solitude. Seven years ago, while driving past Palisades Reservoir, he saw a sailboat on it and for the first time thought that he could have a boat in the Tetons. Williams, a California transplant who hadn’t thought much about water sports since his move to the mountains, bought a 19-foot sailboat. It’s big enough to allow him and his wife and stepdaughter to sleep on board, but small enough to trailer. His family spends much of the summer on Jackson Lake, as well as on other mountain lakes in the region. “I like the idea that I can travel in my boat with just the wind alone,” Williams says. “I like that sailing is low impact. That there’s no rush to get anywhere. It’s okay to be moving at two and a half miles per hour across the surface of the water. It’s meditative, and it gives you an opportunity to slow down in a world that’s outpacing itself.”

Williams says one of his favorite parts of being out on Jackson Lake is pulling up his boat’s keel and beaching the boat for the night on the lake’s undeveloped western shore. He’s seen bear, elk, and his favorite bird, the kingfisher. Once he watched as an eagle hopped over and dropped part of a fish carcass in front of a group of ravens that had been eyeing the eagle for several minutes while it ate the fish. Williams is convinced the eagle was intentionally sharing with the corvids. Still, despite the serenity and calm the lake has given him, Williams treats Jackson Lake with a great deal of respect. “It’s not like ocean sailing, where winds tend to be more constant,” he says. “On Jackson Lake the winds change all the time. But it’s exciting. It keeps you on your toes, because you never know when all hell will break loose.” JH

Photo by Rebecca Noble

Lisa Johnson and Ben Hammond
“There’s an expression that sailing is about hours and hours of boredom punctuated by moments of terror,” says Lisa Johnson, who with her husband, cabinetmaker Ben Hammond, has had a sailboat at Leeks Marina since 2015. “I must confess, I like the calm,” she says. “I’ve been scared sometimes. You’ve got to be ready out there.” She adds, however, that even when it’s calm on Jackson Lake it’s not boring. The beauty of the Tetons, and the quiet of the lake—where seeing ten boats on the water on a given day feels like a crowd—makes even the tamest excursion a welcome respite from busy lives. 

Johnson says that she had to send photos of their sailboat to an insurance agent to secure coverage. The photos showed images of the couple’s sons swimming by the side of the boat with the mountains looming overhead. The agent called Johnson back, asking, “Where was that picture taken?” She had to pass it around the office because she thought it such a stunningly beautiful place.

The Johnson-Hammonds have had two sailboats on Jackson Lake. Their first, which they purchased in 2013, was a fixer-upper from 1968 that they got for almost nothing from someone who was moving and desperate to unload it. The second, the Rita, bought in 2015, is a 23-footer built in 1972. Johnson says her husband needed a project when their boys grew up and lost interest in hanging out with their parents at the lake: an older boat requring work was the perfect thing. “There’s a joke in the sailing world that a sailboat is a hole in the water that you pour money into,” Johnson says. But, she adds, it’s a hole that also brings them pleasure and joy.  

Laurie Thal furling the mainsail on her boat Pegasus. Photo by David J Swift

Thal sailing with daughters Alia and Sarina. Photo by David J Swift

Jackson Lake is one of the largest high-altitude lakes in the country. Its sailing season is short—the lake is usually frozen until early May and September typically marks the end of the season—but exciting. “You need to pay attention on Jackson Lake,” says local sailor Dan Heilig. “The winds are erratic because of the topography. Photo by David J Swift