High in the mountains on the Shoshone National Forest near Togwotee Pass, the Wind River begins.
It builds strength as it descends, swallowing Deception Creek, Brooks Lake Creek, Dunoir Creek, Horse Creek, the Wiggins Fork, Jakey’s fork, Torry Creek, Crow Creek, Dinwoody Creek, Bull Lake Creek, the Popo Agie River, the Little Wind River and countless other named and unnamed tributaries. It passes Dubois, Crowheart, Kinnear and Riverton and crosses much of the Wind River Indian Reservation before pouring into Boysen Reservoir. Beyond Boysen Dam, the Wind cuts through the Owl Creek Mountains in Wind River Canyon where tight rock walls make the water surge.
Then, after 185 miles the Wind River, suddenly, invisibly ends.
The water keeps flowing. In fact the river widens and slows., But it is no longer the Wind River. At a spot, marked only by a roadside sign, it becomes the Bighorn River, the largest tributary of the Yellowstone.
This is the Wedding of the Waters, a place where one river becomes another.
Wayne Sutherland, with the Wyoming State Geological Survey, doesn’t know of any other place where a river changes its name midstream instead of at a confluence.
“It’s an interesting puzzle,” he said as to why the same river still has two names.
A puzzle no one quite knows a definitive answer to.
Both river names are english derivatives for Native American names, said Clint Gilchrest, executive director of the Museum of the Mountain Man in Pinedale.
“My personal belief is that the Indians — most likely Crow, but maybe Shoshone also — assigned the two names long before anyone came out here to record them,” he said in an email. “So any outsider, such as the trappers coming through the area, would have very quickly learned the names from the Indians.”
There was a certain logic to the assumption that the rivers were distinct. As John McPhee points out in his book “Rising From the Plains,” rivers don’t often cross mountain ranges. That’s not how gravity works. They do however originate in mountains and tumble out into basins via canyons. So anyone observing the Bighorn rushing out of the Owl Creeks would, without the benefit of further exploration, naturally conclude that it started up in the hills somewhere. About the last thing they’d think to do was going looking for a stream on the opposite side of the range that could be feeding it.
It didn’t take trappers — fond as they were of exploration and establishing navigable routes — long to realize the two rivers were actually one. The earliest reference Gilchrest has seen to the river and its names, was a journal entry from Wilson Price Hunt, who was part of the first expedition to cross the continent after Lewis and Clark in 1811.
In his journal he wrote: “By the 7th we went onto the plains, where we traveled until the 9th. We thus reached the banks of the Big Horn, here called the Wind River because the wind blows so continually that the snow never remains on the ground.”
Even back then, some found it odd that it had two names, Gilchrest said.
General William Raynolds, who named Union Pass and traveled with Jim Bridger, wrote in 1860:”Here I desire to state a fact of some importance with reference to the nomenclature of the Big Horn and its branches.The river which last summer we descended under the name of the Big Horn is formed by the junction of the Popo-Agie and the Wind River at this point, and should properly be called the Big Horn below the site of our present camp. By the trappers, however, it is always spoken of as the Wind River until it enters the caňon some 30 miles below here. There is no good reason for this arbitrary distinction, whereby the same stream passes into the mountains under one name and emerges with another, and it is necessary that these facts be known to avoid confusion.”
No one knows why a single name wasn’t eventually picked for the river.
The Owl Creek Mountains likely created a barrier between what people might have once thought were two rivers, Sutherland said. By the time people knew it was a single river, the names had taken root.
Once a name is established, it’s hard to change. People don’t want to adapt to a new name of a longstanding landmark. But it’s surprising a single name wasn’t picked when maps were made, or when Boysen Dam was built in the 1940s, a logical time to rename the river, Sutherland said.
“I tend to blame it on the USGS because they put the names on the maps,” he said.
An inquiry to USGS was forwarded to the executive secretary of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, who as of deadline hadn’t responded to questions about why one river has two names.
It’s also uncertain, who came up with the term, “Wedding of the Waters,” and when, but the Hot Springs County Museum shared a letter dated March 26, 1934, from the Thermopolis Chamber of Commerce to the manager of the state’s Department of Commerce and Industry, requesting a marker to denote where the Wind River became the Bighorn. The suggested copy included arrows pointing upstream in the direction of the Wind River and downstream toward the Big Horn, with “Wedding of the Waters” printed below it and the phrase “Where the Wind River Stops and Big Horn Begins.”
A plaque today at the Wedding of the Waters explains that the Wind River carves its way through rocks more than 3 billion years old and ends it journey where the Bighorn begins.
Water released from Boysen Reservoir, and a thermal spring downstream, keep the river open all winter and nourish aquatic vegetation that draws waterfowl by the thousands in winter to feed, it says.
Fish grow quickly, feeding on the insects on the river’s vegetation. Predators, like bald eagles, winter in the area to feed on the river’s trout. The rainbow, cutthroat and brown trout provide a blue-ribbon fishery of national fame.
The sign closes with the sentence: “To man and beast alike, the Wedding of the Waters is indeed a special place.”