Monday, January 12, 2009

Excursion Article Series 10.25.08: Heron Pond and Swan Lake Loop

Caption: My wife AmberLynn watches the sunset over Colter Bay on Jackson Lake on the trail to Heron Pond.

Excursion: Heron Pond and Swan Lake Loop
Length: About two hours
Distance: Three miles roundtrip
Difficulty: If my nine-month pregnant wife can do it, so can you (Easy)
Directions: Go to Colter Bay and park as close as possible to boat launch ramp. Trail starts near ramp.

Some spots are so ridiculously post-card perfect that even a highly creative individual such as me can’t think of a way to improve on them. The lily-strewn Heron Pond is one of those places.

A craggy reflection of the Tetons is often broken up by the many lily pads that dot the pond. Swimming at this time of year would be best left to the Polar Bear Club. However, if it were still swimming season and the lily pads were still in bloom, I wouldn’t recommend swimming in Heron Pond anyway, as perfect as it may seem.

This is for a couple reasons. First, it’s just plain creepy drifting through the slimy forest of underwater lily pad stems. Just trust me on that one.

Second, leeches abound in the stagnant water. Though gorgeous, the mucky and murky water is host to those nasty little critters which are just a little bit too friendly. When I was about eight and unaware of pesky pond pals, I went swimming in the muddy shallows of Jackson Lake. The water where I was swimming reminds me a lot of Heron Pond. I swam for maybe a hundred yards before I noticed a piece of muck stuck to my left hand that was tenacious enough to stay glued with each stroke. I vigorously swept my hand underwater to free myself from the pond scum.

When I raised my hand I was amazed to find it still clinging. So I got my right hand involved and flicked at the vicious slime. It moved, but it didn’t whiz off my hand like I expected. Instead, it kind of jiggled like Jello dropping out of a pineapple cake pan. After that it oozed at me indignantly and continued chowing on my hand.

That’s when I finally realized the muck was alive. Then I got aggressive – the kind of aggressive that only comes with the horror of realizing something you don’t understand is eating your tender eight-year-old body. I pinched the black goo – yes it did feel gross – and ripped it off my hand with some effort. The black was immediately replaced by red. My new “friend” left a leech-shaped red hole in my hand. All these years later I still have a raised scar to prove it.

Let me reiterate though: you can’t find many places on earth more ideal than Heron Pond. The sunsets are often spectacular, even after the lilies have disappeared for the season. I watched on my most recent trip as the reflective water morphed from blinding yellow to brilliant orange to searing pink to placid purple before fading to dull silver.

It was at dull silver when my nine-month-pregnant wife suggested we skedaddle for the car, skipping the Swan Lake portion of the loop. Though Swan Lake is also beautiful, it holds nowhere near the kind of appeal that looking west over Heron Pond has. Its draw can probably be guessed by its name. Elegant trumpeter swans and other large birds like pelicans and herons can often be found here. You’ll see many of the same birds hanging out at Heron Pond, if you could guess by its name.

The hills that can be seen from Swan Lake, though not as majestic or obvious as the Tetons, give just enough dimension to the lake to make it quietly eye-catching. The silvery blue lake is worth seeing, even though it might be forgotten next to the roaring beauty just over the hill.

I don’t know what the bird situation is like at this time of year, but I do know the people situation. We went this Saturday evening when it was an unseasonable 50 degrees outside. We parked in a deserted parking lot. We saw no one on the trail. We enjoyed the silence. This kind of solitude is not hard to find in the park at his time of year, so get it while you can.

Even the bears packing it on for winter left us alone.

Caption: In the Tetons, every sunset has the possibility of being spectacular. Colter Bay is a great place to watch them.

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