Sail The High Alpine

By Stio Mountain on

Field Guide Chapter 5

By Britt Ziebell & Katrina Belle

Photos by Peter Lobozzo

It was Valentine’s Day 2018 when Katrina Belle and I first laid eyes on our sailboat parked in an alleyway in downtown Jackson. I could say something cliché here about how it was love at first sight, but if I’m being honest we peered inside an ice-encrusted mess of lines, hiking straps, and poorly maintained wood. We laughed nervously, but the boat made our hearts race; it was a metaphorical handshake, a pact, a promise friend-to-friend, we were doing this. We were buying a sailboat in a landlocked state, so long as it floated and carried us—and occasionally our skis—across glacial lakes towards new destinations.

“You know a boat is a hole in the water you throw money into, right?” our friends would joke. They weren’t wrong. Our 17-foot Thistle was built in 1964 and travelled all the way from Illinois to Jackson, Wyoming covered by shredded tarps on a trailer with bald tires. On a warm afternoon in May, we unrolled her sails in the backyard of my apartment and discovered they were peppered with stains, cobwebs and chew holes. With another nervous laugh we scratched our heads, then began drafting a list of necessary repairs. Our list grew to 30 bullets as the inspection continued. When we unrolled the main sail, we gasped to find it was in near-perfect condition with a beautiful, purple and green Thistle sewn at its tip.

Winter melted into spring which transitioned into summer and post-work evenings were spent on the boat, just like we’d planned… except we weren’t on water. We sat on the trailer in a storage lot surrounded oh-so-fittingly by shoulder high Thistles. Our spring dreams of sail-to-ski missions on Mount Moran had faded into hours of scrubbing dirt off the hull and learning to run rigging. The boat was previously owned by a quirky, old man named Dick who struggled to hear us on the phone, but patiently answered all our questions. Dick rigged the boat himself and had everything systematically calculated in his own way. Let’s just say it wasn’t intuitive. Any spare moment we had that spring was spent hypothesizing the system in place or figuring out how to step a 25-foot mast without harming ourselves or others.

The process was a never-ending series of trials and triumphs. We spent one afternoon in June nervously learning how to tow the boat trailer by driving around the streets in west Jackson. Another moment was spent jumping up and down in my kitchen when the name Juniper just simply fit.

Juniper’s christening at the Signal Mountain Boat Launch was a fumbled bottle of Cooks champagne that slipped out of its paper bag, bounced off the bow and popped open at our feet. We pretended it didn’t happen, denied any superstitions, and nailed it with our backup bottle. The moment we launched Juniper onto the crisp, dark water of Jackson Lake, her light blue hull reflected the backdrop of glaciers and our impulsive decision to buy a boat was validated. From that moment on, post-work evenings were spent sailing into the sunset through Grand Teton National Park. On weekends, we filled the boat with sleeping bags, floats and hotdogs then sailed to remote island campsites with friends. One night, with Juniper beached beside us, we skipped rocks into the lake as the sun dipped below the Tetons, then cheered under a meteor shower as trails of light scarred the black sky. 

These moments culminated into one particularly special late-August sail. Like a dream, gentle waves rippled across Jackson Lake and Juniper cruised confidently at a comfortable 10 knots. The jib moved back and forth in the wind, reflecting the crimson sun through the haze which matched the telltales fluttering above. The abrupt silhouettes of the Tetons framed the wake behind us as we tacked in and out of their shadows. The centerboard carved through the water as the trimming mainsheet clicked rhythmically. Hawks circled high above in the final minutes of late-day thermals. As the sun disappeared behind Mount Moran, I didn't feel disappointed that we hadn't made it to its shore. Instead, I thought back to the trials and triumphs that had enriched our summer. I thought about the countless moments of nervous laughter, always followed by head scratches before buckling down to figure it out.  It took one hazy, late-August sail for me to realize that if an adventure was what we sought, we’d already achieved that before hitting the water… and Mount Moran wasn’t going anywhere.

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