Our quest to visit all of Oregon’s federally designated wilderness areas eventually brought us to the Hells Canyon Wilderness, which encompasses a total of 217,497 acres: approximately 83,811 acres on the Idaho side of the Snake River and approximately 133,686 acres on the Oregon side. Hells Canyon is the deepest river gorge in North America: approximately 8,000 feet deep measured from He Devil Peak (in Idaho’s Seven Devils Mountains) to the Snake River (in comparison, the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River is “only” 6,000 feet deep). This wilderness is a subset of the much larger (652,488 acre) Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, which straddles the border of northeastern Oregon and western Idaho and is split into two distinct halves by the Wild & Scenic Snake River. Recreational activities in Hells Canyon include fishing, jet boat tours, hunting, hiking, camping and whitewater sports (like rafting!). Much of these activities rely on the Snake River, whose pre-dam erosive capabilities essentially created Hells Canyon. The river is home to numerous fish species, an abundance of class II-IV rapids (some of largest in the Pacific Northwest), diverse wildlife, and miles of trail systems.
While there are many excellent dayhiking and backpacking opportunities in this area, we opted instead to visit this wilderness via a rafting trip. That way we could see a whole lot more of it than we could on foot and also enjoy a float on a river we hadn’t previously visited. So we arranged for a 5-day/4-night guided raft trip with O.A.R.S. – based on our excellent experience with them on two trips on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Our decision to raft was based almost exclusively on the scenic wonders of this river, but we have to say that we remain enthralled by the beer-carrying capabilities of a raft versus our backs (as freeze dried beer continues to be a crime against nature).
Day 1: Lewiston, Idaho to Lower Granite Creek
We optimized the long drive from the State of Jefferson to this trip’s starting point in Lewiston, Idaho by punctuating it with visits to two other wilderness areas in northeast Oregon (details). After arriving in Lewiston, we met our 7-person group and trip leader (Trevor) for last minute organizing the night before our put-in day. The next morning all of us headed out to the Lewiston airport for our flight to Halfway, Oregon. Perversely, another cold front was rolling through, lowering temperatures, blocking the sun, and promising to make our flight perhaps more exciting than we’d hoped for.
We lifted off from Lewiston, had a few minor bumps, and then, thanks to the skill of our pilot, had a very smooth ride the rest of the way.
The LovedOne coped well with the fact that the “headphones” were only for deadening the sound of the engines and were not part of an elaborate in-flight entertainment system. Needless to say, there was no in-flight meal service either.
Instead, for amusement, we had some great overhead views of the river,
and a big view of the surrounding landscape.
After about 45 minutes flying, we arrived at Halfway, cleared the cows from the runway (just kidding?),
and landed on a gravel strip that was outstanding in its field (so to speak).
From Halfway, it was a fairly short drive over to our put-in below Hells Canyon Dam at about river mile (RM) 247. This is a concrete gravity dam that became operational in 1967 as the third and final hydroelectric dam of the Hells Canyon Complex – the largest privately owned hydroelectric power complex in the U.S. This dam has quite an impact on water levels in the Snake, causing it to rise or lower on a daily basis as much as 3 feet (or more).
Our other two guides – Jasmine and Sky – were waiting with the rafts and the dory at the put-in ramp and we were soon off on our way downriver.
It was still cloudy and overcast – and now and again it would threaten to rain (but never did) – however the air temp was mild and the river water surprisingly warm – so getting splashed wasn’t the shock it can be on the Colorado. After rolling through a couple of Class II rapids, we pulled in for lunch at Rocky Point, a gravel beach just below RM 244.
This section of the Snake doesn’t have numerous large rapids – most are Class II or less – but the Class IIIs and IVs it does have require skill and a careful reading of the waters to navigate safely. Wild Sheep Rapid (Class IV), just before RM 241, was the first of these we encountered and we pulled ashore so our guides could scout their line.
We rode the passenger raft through Wild Sheep and it was a very fun ride…
After that, we floated two miles further down to Lower Granite Creek (between RMs 240 and 239), where we set up our first camp and became acquainted with our sturdy, but heavy, tent. But, wait, it’s being carried by a raft, not us! So it’s all good!
There are some enigmatic petroglyphs just below this camp,
and a little further down, Granite Rapid, another of this river’s Class IV fun rides.
But that was for the next day. So, after a hearty dinner (salmon), we turned in for the night (but did get up in the middle of it to gaze at the spiral arm of the galaxy).
Day 2: Lower Granite Creek to Hominy Bar
By morning, the majority of the clouds had dissipated and the day was heading toward being bluebird perfect (as would all the days that followed). We’ve floated in rafts, kayaks, and canoes but this was to be our first chance to float in a dory. Wow! Long story short, a dory is the way to run a rapid! We’re only sorry that we didn’t know this sooner (like on the Colorado). Next time…dories!
After packing camp into the rafts and dory,
we blasted (yee haw!) through Granite Rapid,
and then floated on down the canyon,
and pulled-in to visit the McGaffee Cabin, just above RM 235. The cabin, on the bar above the river, was the second one built on the site by Bill Hiltsley, who homesteaded here in 1901. The place was sold to Fred and Iphigenia “Gene” McGaffee and Billy McGaffee in 1915, and they lived here until 1935, when they traded the cabin to Lenora Barton. Shortly after World War II, Lenora sold the cabin to George E. (“Bud”) Wilson, who lived in it until the 1970s, when the property was purchased by the federal government.
There are also some petroglyphs near the cabin, and we checked those out,
before heading back to the river.
After that, we (or more correctly, our guides) had to negotiate Waterspout Rapid (Class IV) – another one that was much fun in the dory.
After Waterspout, we ran several more Class II rapids and Class III Rush Creek Rapid before pulling-in for lunch at Johnson Bar Landing (RM 230).
After lunch, we hit some more Class II rapids,
while some of us maintained a low profile (and an air of mystery) in the back of the raft.
Along the way, we passed Pine Bar (just above RM 227), where an extensive clay deposit creates the proper soil moisture conditions for pine trees. This is one of the few places along the river where we would see such trees this close to the water.
After a few more rapids and some floating, we arrived at Hominy Bar (RM 223) our camp for our second night on the river.
Dinner that night was lasagna (yum!),
followed by moonrise and lights out for the tired rafters.
Day 3: Hominy Bar to Getta Creek
The next morning, we were greeted by a mix of sun and clouds, but the air temperature was good and any real chance of rain seemed to have gone away.
When Boise, Idaho doesn’t need a lot of electrical power, the Hells Canyon Dam reduces the river’s flow through the turbines, and the river level drops downstream. It must have been a dim night in Boise because we awoke to find the river down about two feet and the dory beached. It took some collective grunting and heaving to get it safely back in the water (dories being more sensitive to rocks than rafts…).
This was also the LovedOne’s day to refresh her inflatable kayak (“ducky”) skills, so she suited-up in anticipation of her jousts with the rapid waves.
A short ways below Hominy Bar, we stopped at Gracie Bar and climbed 400 feet up to Suicide Point, where we had a great view down to our former campsite at Hominy Bar and out south along the river. Why it’s called Suicide Point isn’t clear. Our guides had a story about unrequited love, with the man rather than the woman going over the edge. Factually, a Nez Perce man named Half Moon and his horse fell to their deaths near Suicide Point, probably in the 1870s. An 1866 silver dollar was found with the remains in 1892. Jumped, pushed, or slipped – who knows?
Then we made our way back down to the rafts, dory, and ducky, and headed down a series of Class II rapids that kept The LovedOne busy for the rest of the morning. She did great – making it all the way to our lunch stop with no spills! Her practice on the Rogue certainly paid off.
After a brief stop at the historic Kirkwood Ranch (between RMs 221 and 220) to replenish our freshwater from a side stream, we continued on down to a lunch stop at Fish Trap Bar (near RM 216). Here the LovedOne called it quits with the ducky.
After lunch, we hit long stretches of slack water, which the guides had to row – part of the job, but still tiring. Along here, we saw a whitish band of sediment formed of ash that was deposited about 6,800 years ago, when a huge volcanic eruption over 200 miles to the southwest blew up Mt. Mazama and formed Crater Lake. Rainfall washed the ash into depressions where it was concentrated in deposits from several inches to several feet deep.
Soon after lunch, we reached Pittsburg Landing (RM 215), the only place a road reaches the river between the dam and Heller Bar (RM 169). Here we dropped off Jim and Tina, who had opted for the 3-day/2-night version of this trip.
After that, the rapids were few and far between and the guides had to do a lot of rowing. Hells Canyon has its narrower sections up by the dam (but nothing as narrow, vertical, or tall as in the Grand Canyon) but begins to widen as you move down river. From RM 213 to 209, the river cuts through thick deposits – some 100 feet or more thick – of pillow basalt and breccia. These rocks formed on the sides of a giant undersea volcano about 230 million years ago. The different flows cooled at different rates, so some are very distinct basalt columns (think Devils Tower), while others are a jumble of different shapes (think a fruit cake). By now, the sun was firmly out, which really made the walls stand-out in relation to the sky and river.
After a long day with much rowing, the guides were more than happy to call it almost a day at Getta Creek, a delightful little campsite (4 tents) tucked behind a rock just below RM 206 where would spend our third night on the river.
The guides mustered the energy to fix us all a great dinner (teriyaki chicken) and then we settled the great s’mores versus spiced ginger cake controversy (who knew?) in favor of s’mores. Not as “classy” as cake but very tasty…
Having used up all of our energy either rowing, eating, or dueling over s’mores, we headed for our sleeping bags, and collectively called it a day.
Day 4: Getta Creek to Salmon River Falls
Today would be clearer than previous days, with only a smattering of clouds in the sky.
The dam had been at it again overnight and the water level had dropped precipitously (~4 feet), leaving the rafts and the dory well above the river. We again collectively moved the dory back into the water and then the guides pushed the rafts back in.
Then they fixed breakfast, packed up,
and we left Getta Creek, working our way through several Class II rapids before pulling-in at the Chinese Massacre site just above Deep Creek Rapid at RM 199.2.
In May of 1887, a band of outlaws tortured and murdered 34 Chinese gold miners at the mouth of Deep Creek for the gold believed to be hidden in their camp. Three men stood trial for these atrocities but none were convicted. No one was ever punished for the crime.
The miner’s camp is a short distance past the commemorative stone. Two stone walls against a rock outcrop are all that remain of the Chinese camp. The wall of the outcrop holds several petroglyphs which likely pre-dated the miners.
Then it was back to the river, for some more fun in Class II rapids,
before we hit slack water,
and began floating (and rowing) between bluffs formed of huge Columbia River Basalt flows, with large, well-defined columns. The distinctive columnar joints formed during the cooling of the molten lava.
We had lunch across from Dug Bar (RM 196), looked for unusual rocks along the shore,
and then kept on floating and rowing. In the spring of 1877, the Nez Perce bands from the Wallowa Valley were ordered by the U.S. Government to leave their homeland and go to the reservation in Lapwai, ID. They crossed the river safely with their families, all their belongings, horses and cattle at Dug Bar (RM 196.7) in full spring flood .
One has to apply “Wild and Scenic” to this river with some caution. In addition to it going up and down due to the hydroelectric needs of Boise, it is also open to jet boat traffic, both commercial and private. We saw a few of these during our first two days on the river but they began to increase in number and frequency as we got closer to Heller Bar (and closer to the weekend). All the ones we encountered were careful when passing our rafts and dory so we didn’t have any issues with them – which is good because they are a reality on this river.
Just below RM 192, we passed the mouth of the Imnaha River, and then dove into Imnaha Rapid (Class III), almost missing the old stamp mill foundations on the east bank (arrow).
In the early 1900s, the upper end of Eureka Bar was the location of the joint Fargo and Eureka company mining camps and a town site was established at the lower end of the bar. The stair-step foundation of the stamp mill/smelter and the foundation of the hotel/bunkhouse can still be seen on the east bank adjacent to Imnaha Rapid. The steamboat landing used by the Imnaha and Mountain Gem mines was on the bar just below Eureka Creek. Copper and iron were the metals being mined here but eventually proved to not be present in economic quantities. We kept on and soon passed the mouth of the Lower Salmon River just before RM 188.
The Lower Salmon is another popular rafting destination, which can be done alone or in combination with the Middle Fork and Main Salmon River. The Salmon is free-flowing from its headwaters to its confluence with the Snake. Some geologists believe that, about 2 million years ago, the Salmon was the major river and the Snake was its tributary. Just past the confluence, we turned into the big eddy in front of Salmon River Falls (RM 188), where we would make our last camp on the river.
We soon got our tent up, and I headed for the river to sit in the water and watch the jet boats zoom by – there being quite a few of them by this time. Given the amount of beer available on the raft, it became increasingly easy to just wave and smile as they roared past. The folks on the jet boats seemed to be taking a lot of pictures as they flew by, so who knows how many web sites will be hosting photos of a near naked guy clutching beer cans? 15 minutes of fame…
After a great dinner (steak) with massive chocolate brownies for desert, we called it quits for our last night on the river. The jet boats don’t run at night, so they weren’t around to lull us to sleep (as if we needed lulling after all that chocolate…).
Salmon River Camp to Heller Bar
The next morning, the sun rose, and The LovedOne contemplated our last day on the Snake.
Meanwhile, critters were stirring. We had seen bears, chukars (lots of chukars), osprey, bald eagles, geese, ducks, mink, river otters, kingfishers, and deer from the boats but were surprised when bighorn sheep circled past the groover and headed south above our camp. One wore a tracking collar. Later we would see 14 more (2 with tracking collars) at a seep on the hillside directly across the river from camp.
While we were running around gazing at the wandering wildlife, our guides were concocting breakfast.
Then we piled into the boats and got back on the river. The section from Cache Creek (RM 177) to Heller Bar (RM 169) is slack water known as “Snake Lake.” The guides used to dread rowing this boring, flat section, particularly if there was a head wind (we bet the clients were bored too). The company finally relented and got them a small outboard motor, which they mounted on one of the rafts at Salmon River Falls. So soon after we left our last camp, the guides knit the dory and the two rafts into a motorized barge that required no rowing, which allowed time for intellectual pursuits as we motored along.
We un-barged to pass two rapids – and at the take-out – but otherwise cruised along tied together. Along the way, we passed a pile of granite slabs and blocks which had been quarried in the early 1900s for use in the building of Lewis and Clark State College in Lewiston, but were never used.
We stopped at a beach near RM 172 for lunch,
and then continued on toward Heller Bar. As we approached the Heller Bar Boat Ramp, the barge was disassembled and the dory and the rafts headed for shore.
Once there, we helped unload the rafts,
and then posed for our final group shot.
And then it was back to Lewiston by van. Despite the early vagaries in the weather, we had an excellent trip, with very companionable fellow rafters, great guides, a plane ride, fun rapids, and tasty meals. Guiding is hard work no matter what but having three guides for seven (later five) people seemed to make their work a little easier than usual – as did that motor. So thanks again to Trevor, Jasmine, and Sky for their professionalism and for making this a wonderful and memorable trip (and to O.A.R.S for supplying the motor)!