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River Running History

on the Snake River in Jackson Hole, Wyoming

Wyoming Rafting: A Rich Western History

A Timeline of River Running Through the Years…

While we’re proud to guide guests from all over the world down the rugged Snake River. It wasn’t that long ago that this wild part of America was mysterious and unknown.

Early 19th Century- Running the Snake River, Wyoming’s Rugged & Adventurous Past:
A group of trapper explorers were the first to investigate the stretch of the Snake River below Jackson. Deciding at the time that it was far too treacherous to boat, they called it “The Mad River”.

1842- Invention of the Rubber Raft:
Contrary to popular belief, the rubber raft was not actually invented in response to US Navy demands in WWII. It was invented in the 1840’s by Lt. John Fremont of the US Army and Horace H. Day for use in Fremont’s exploration of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain region. The first known whitewater use of the raft was in 1842, when Fremont set out to survey the Platte River in Wyoming for the US Navy.

1869- John Wesley Powell:
Major John Wesley Powell a Civil War veteran, scientist and naturalist, who had lost an arm in the Battle of Shiloh, led the first scientific explorations of the canyons of the Green and Colorado Rivers. With four decked, wooden oar boats – one of which was named Emma Dean after his wife – Powell and his team left Green River Wyoming on May 24, 1869 to explore the “great unknown”. In recognition of his national service, Powell was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

1896- Army Orders to Explore:
Under Army order to “make exploration of the Snake River from Yellowstone Lake to Columbia River”, Lieutenant Gustavus Cheyney Doane and his crew struggled downstream in mid-winter with a 22-foot wooden boat. By the time his party reached the whitewater section south of Jackson, they were out of supplies, nearly starved, and were patching their boat by pouring water over the cracks and letting it freeze. “Shot Warren’s horse for food,” wrote Doane on December 2nd, 1896. “Horse meat may be very fine when smothered with French sauces, but worn out US Cavalry plug was never intended for food.”

River runner Amos Burg began a canoe trip on the Snake River from its source to Portland, Oregon. Although he capsized near the mouth of Bailey Creek in the Snake River Canyon south of Jackson Hole, he continued on his journey and became the first person to run the Snake River form its source to its confluence with the Columbia River.

The first commercial whitewater trip though the Snake River Canyon, south of Jackson, was launched. Clyde Smith and sons Jacks and Don of Salmon, Idaho – a veteran riverman on the Salmon River guided the trip.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr. had constructed a modern resort hotel within Grand Teton National Park, and the Grand Teton Lodge Company began offering float trips. For a raft, a war surplus bridge eight feet wide by twenty-seven feet long was obtained and rigged with sweeps. The sweeps were made of galvanized pipe with wood blades and mounted on piano casters. Less than 500 people rode the river that year. The demand increased and more and more outfitters began “floating,” as they called the river business.

In the Snake River canyon began in 1967, when Denny Becker joined together with cantankerous John “Cookie” Cooke to create Becker-Cooke Expeditions.

1977- Beginning of Mad River:
After guiding for Denny Becker, Breck O’Neill started Mad River Boat Trips in 1977. Breck began his river running career in the Grand Canyon with Hatch River Expeditions. He ran his own company R&O River guides, during this year in Arizona, and then moved to Jackson, Wyoming.

Feature Films. Great Locations:
Since Mad River opened in Jackson, the company and crew has appeared in a number of feature films and commercials including the release of “The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper,” starring Treat Williams and Robert Duvall. For more information on Mad River’s involvement in the film industry visit the Hollywood page right here. We’re proud to have contributed in a small way to the Snake River’s rich history. Our small, one-boat operation is today one of Jackson’s largest and most respected whitewater rafting companies. We encourage you to visit our location in Jackson Hole and spend some time in the River Runner’s Museum.

Mad River Boat Trips is managed by Forever Resorts – with a company-wide dedication to green operations, who works closely with the US Forest Service and the Bridger-Teton National Forest in maintaining the Snake River area.