A feeling of controlled fear grips me as the raft begins the freefall. In that moment the outfitter’s favorite quote pops into my head – “Tell me and I will forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I will understand.” Thunderous walls of big water surround me and instantly I understand I’m involved…
After breakfast we continued downriver to Kirkwood Ranch and another slice of history that the canyon offers. Occupied by a former Idaho governor in the 1930’s, today it’s a museum which includes a blacksmith shop and other remains of the ranching operation. It also holds a novelty in this wilderness: a flushing toilet. Regulations covering those who enter the canyon require all to pack everything out, including poop, and a portable stool is just one more item unpacked each night from the loaded gear boat. Each morning a mix of chemicals is added, the lid is locked, and the self-contained port-a-potty is re-stowed. I was happy to see that this entire trip was uniquely devoid of telltale markers warning you of a nearby campsite — swirls of half buried toilet paper waving in the breeze.
Kirkwood is just north of the spot where the Snake splits its designation between a wild and a scenic river. The difference sounds insignificant to my ears, but there’s a huge difference in practice. Upstream from this point to Hells Canyon Dam the designation is wild, but that’s only partially true. Unlike other rivers assigned this status, motorized boats are permitted here. During the battle to save the river one of the most influential lobbies to rise in protest was the river tour industry. Since they used jet boats, with victory these craft were grandfathered in. I found these noisy boats spoiled the contemplative peace a wild river should have, but then I centered my thoughts after the initial irritation and realized that none of what I’m enjoying would exist without their efforts. Since most jet boaters are civil to rafters I figure I can do likewise.
Millions of years of uplift, erosion, and volcanic activity in this corner of Oregon have created the rich mosaic of stone found here, and all along the canyon I’d seen the evidence the changes these geologic forces have brought. Fifteen-thousand years ago, at the end of the Pleistocene Era, cataclysmic changes hit the Pacific Northwest. As climatic conditions changed and the ice age retreated, massive lakes grew to hold the melt water. When an ice dam holding one in check failed, the resulting flood scoured Hells Canyon all the way to its confluence with the Columbia River. Rock deposits were left as a visible reminder two hundred feet or higher along the walls. Other examples appear at eye level; whitish ash from the eruption of Mount Mazama only sixty-eight hundred years ago streak the brown clay of the river bank, and in spots landslides have altered the river’s course and turbulence. These landslides are largely responsible for the rapids, and while there are Class II and III examples still ahead, the excitement experienced yesterday is behind us. But while the river excitement may have been left behind, other excitement is yet to come.
While our raft put-in after another four miles for lunch, Sam continued down the river with the gear boat to secure the choice spot at Tryon Creek. This camp is located on a flat high bench with a spectacular river view northwards up the canyon. By far this the most scenic spot yet. Because the crew had pushed on ahead they were able to get canopies set up and a full dining area awaited us. An appetizer of smoked salmon, capers, spinach and cream cheese wraps awaited us too, and the main course of pasta with chicken in a béchamel sauce appeared. I feasted with both my eyes and stomach. Dinner tonight was the best I’ve had here yet, but I tell you it’s hard to choose as the setting may have swayed my assessment.
All afternoon the cloud deck had been steadily thickening but by evening it cleared for an excellent sunset. Earlier Morgan had forecast rain, so he advised us to put the rain fly on our tents as we pitched them. “You can add them now or at two in the morning, it’s your choice,” he said. At this moment however, it didn’t seem necessary. After dinner we took turns hand cranking an old-time ice cream maker using the wild apricots we’d harvested from the homestead at Battle Creek. We ate the fruits of our labor, watching the clear twilight sky progress into nightfall as the stars slowly popped into view.
Read day four of this adventure soon…
Written by: Steve Smith
Photographs by: Steve Smith and Dennis Cornwell
For information about this trip plus related Salmon and Grande Ronde excursions:
Winding Waters River Expeditions
Steve Smith inherited the wanderlust and has always needed to see what’s around the next corner. Together with his wife and co-pilot Christine Johnson, their college days were spent enjoying many memorable (and cheap) forays into Mexico sleeping under the stars. Today these excursions are typically press trips and hotels, but gathering unique experiences by getting to know places and people rather than observing as tourists is still their approach to travel. After numerous journeys to North/Latin/South America, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, they believe this is the true way to experience different cultures.