Monday, March 7, 2011
We Found Heaven in Hells Canyon
Remote and wild, Hells Canyon is ruggedly striking. Skimming over the water on a jet boat river tour, we were awed with the canyon’s beauty and unbroken wilderness as the Snake River slices through steep canyon walls in broad, bending curves. I loved knowing that it looks much the same today as it did when Lewis and Clark made their way 100 miles up river during their expedition of 1806.
Nearly surrounded by national forests, Hells Canyon is bordered by three states: Idaho on its eastern rim, Oregon on the western border and Washington to the north.
Hells Canyon covers a 74-mile portion of the Snake River as it flows from Hells Canyon Dam to Cache Creek on the Oregon-Washington border. The Snake River’s 1,038-mile passage originates in northwest Wyoming and ends when it meets the Columbia River in southeast Washington.
Several outfits offer river tours of Hells Canyon and we chose a three-hour jet boat tour. After briefing us on the boat—a 26-passenger, 33-foot welded aluminum boat with twin inboard jet drives—the captain instructed us on safety procedures and we began our tour, entering on the Washington side. We first drew in close to Hells Canyon Dam which, as we fought the turbulent waters, proved what a powerful boat we rode. Then, with Idaho on our right and Oregon on our left, we began our journey down the Snake River.
Almost immediately on a bluff high above us, we saw a mother brown bear and her cub, rummaging for food. Around a bend, a bighorn sheep stood so still it looked as though he were posing to have his picture taken. Other wildlife commonly seen in the canyon are elk, cougar, mule deer and mountain goat. The area is a bird watchers’ favorite with many species of owls, hawks, eagles, falcons and songbirds of every description. The habitat is varied in Hells Canyon because of the extreme differences in elevation within a short distance, from 7,000 feet at Hat Point in Oregon, down to 1,500 feet on the Snake River, and back up to 9,393 feet in the Seven Devils Mountains in Idaho—all within a 10-mile horizontal distance.
Hells Canyon, the deepest river gorge in North America, has history dating back to prehistoric times. Geologists claim millions of years ago, lava or basalt formed bold cliffs, then later Hells Canyon was created by erosion as the Snake River cut its way through rocks of a rising mountain range. It is still being cut and is probably deeper and more rugged today than at any other time in its history. At the present time, the gorge measures up to a mile and a half from mountain top to river bottom.
Traces of human existence in Hells Canyon date back as far as 8,000 years, from prehistoric Native American tribes, to Chief Joseph’s band of the Nez Perce Indians, to the 1860s gold miners and late1800s homesteaders.
We stopped at one clearing on the Idaho side that was at one time a transient Native American camp. We viewed Indian pictographs with painted scenes, now a faded red but still visible, a cave believed to have sacred spirits, and the remains of a pithouse, a structure used before teepees.
In places along the river, traces of gold mining operations are evident where the miners sluiced water from the river over the ore.
Early homesteaders were as rugged as the surrounding terrain. Due to the difficulty in travel, most families left the homestead to make the journey back to civilization for supplies only every one to three years. Supplies reached them via floating river rafts. Mostly, they caught or grew everything they needed and traded with neighbors.
Jagged cliffs go straight up on either side. Some cliffs are basalt, many shiny with manganese, others, made of pillow lava, are lumpy. Where trees could grow, we saw sumac, a few pines and low-growing brush. At times the cliff flattened out to patches of meadow grass. The Forest Service maintains the Oregon side and some of the Idaho side; other parts on the Idaho side are private land. The Snake is the deepest river in North America and is popular for fishing sturgeon, small-mouth bass, steelhead, trout and catfish.
Hells Canyon—there’s nothing like it to get back to the basics of nature and unmatched scenic adventure.