There was some discussion over how many times we had rafted Hells Canyon. My brother has been running this stretch since the 80s. I think my first trip was in the mid 90s. We seem to get back to the deepest river gorge in North America every couple of years or so. This year was a simple trip with just four of us floating in a 14-foot raft and a tandem inflatable kayak.
Adventures used to come easy in a life before children. They are more rare now and far more cherished. I also miss sharing in adventures with those I love the most, but I think that time is coming to an end. I am pretty sure this is the last big adventure I am going on without my wife and kids. We were on the river for 5 days and I was out of the house for 7 with travel time. I have learned that is far too long to be away so I am taking measures to share this wonderful canyon float with my family next time.
One of the great pleasures this trip was getting to watch my nephew as an adult. He is now 17 and this was his second trip down the canyon. He has become a very competent boater and his confidence has grown with these experiences. I could not help but imagine my own kids in the future.
One surprise that kept me connected to my family came in the form of a hidden toy. The days before I left, I had pulled out my gear to pack. Included in this inventory was my rescue life jacket. I played games with the kids in the house to explain what I was going to do and share with the rafting experience. We traded turns wearing the PFD and rescuing each other. At some point in this process, my son must have hidden his favorite Bumblebee Transformer in the pocket of the vest. I discovered it at the river put-in as we were about to launch. I relished the moment when I found the toy. It had only been a few days since I had seen my kids, but it was a very tangible connection to them. I started to play with the toy myself and chronicled our experience in the river. I assembled the video into a format that I knew my kids could identify with. I tried to show how we lived on the river, where we slept, how we ate, and even where we poop. I saw this project as more than just a way to explain where I went but to prepare them for when they are big enough to join me.
Here is the video of Bumblee’s rafting adventure.
For a bit more detail and more mature representation of the trip, check out this admittedly too-long video broken into two parts, whitewater and everything else. The written story is below the videos (it is also too long).
I left Portland early on Saturday morning. I needed to get to my brother’s home in Lewiston, Idaho before noon. We have often gone on this trip with a large group, but this year was different. Being such a small contingent meant that planning was really easy. My sister-in-law had done a lot of food preparation, so we just needed to pack up gear and go. The ability to be so lax lead to some silly mistakes and some things left behind, but it was nothing of consequence. We left Lewiston in the mid-afternoon and traveled to Enterprise, Oregon for dinner and, we finally set up camp for the night on the shores of the Imnaha river. The next morning was cold and we were unprepared for the chill. After a period of alternating sitting in the truck to get warm and repacking, we were back on the road to finish our trip with a mandatory stop at Scotty’s (link) and then to the put-in at Hells Canyon Dam.
Hells Canyon is a permit only river during the summer. The permits are won in a lottery and it is nice to have such a restricted number of people on the river. Even better for us this year was that we lucked out to be on the river during a “motorless period” that restricted jet boats from rumbling up the river and disturbing the wilderness.
We checked in early and made it through inspection (they need to check our toilet system as packing out solid waste is required). The loading ramp had only one guided outfitter setting up and we even seized the opportunity to borrow their super powerful electric pump to inflate our boats. That saved us a ton of time and energy. In less than an hour we were floating down stream.
Having such an early start left us a lot of options for the day. The first was a great option to navigate the largest two rapids of the trip, Wild Sheep and Granite. After a brief stop to explore Barton Cabin one of several remnants from early white settlers, we came to the first big rapids, Wild Sheep.
Wild Sheep is rated class IV but is relatively straight forward, especially at the low flow we experienced, around 8,000 cfs. There are a few rocks at the top of the rapid that create holes or waves best avoided. The next obstacle to respect is a large set of lateral waves and a hole low in the rapid on the Oregon side. We scouted the rapid from the Oregon shore and made the decision that my nephew would row the gear boat with me riding along while my brother piloted the inflatable kayak (IK) with my nephew’s friend in the front. Both boats made it through the rapid with no incident, but everyone was very wet from the lower standing waves that easily washed over the boats.
Granite Rapid was next up an also rated class IV. This rapid is very dependent on river levels. Lower water can make a set of huge holes that are very difficult to float through successfully. The water had thankfully been rising all morning and the middle wave was huge and vertical, but not a hole. We scouted the rapid from the Idaho side and made the decision to have the boys run the rapid through the center in the IK and we would try to sneak between the big wave and a hole on river left. Flipping a gear boat on the first day was just not a risk we wanted to assume. We did not expect the IK to make it through the rapid upright, but it is a relatively safe swim after they get tipped over.
We lined up a bit to the left of center and the IK went too far left too. I guessed the lateral action of the wave would be a sure flip for them, but it turned out they had luck on their side and as soon as they were smashed from the right, a left pillow bolstered them and kept them upright. From our viewpoint just behind them in the raft, we were flabbergasted that they made it through. It was a great ride.
.Having the big rapids behind us, it was time to focus on fishing. We had been slaying the small mouth bass since we started. Most of the fish were released immediately, but a few unlucky ones were kept for sturgeon bait. We stopped at a sturgeon hole that has proved successful for us in the past. My brother has gotten pretty good at catching these huge fish and today would be no exception. Out of the years of doing this, I have always helped others land fish that they would never get a chance to catch again. I knew I would be back, so it has been easy to give the rod over to others less fortunate than I. This year was different, the first fish was mine and it happened quickly. Ok, so it was not huge at just around 4 feet in length, but I was no longer a sturgeon virgin. The next fish the hole produced was fought by my nephew and came in at a much more respectable 6 feet and change. It was a beautiful fish and produced a long fight with a lot of chasing.
It was really too bad that this sturgeon hole was not a good campsite. We would have loved to fish all night, but the shore was littered with large slippery boulders and any route to a suitable place to sleep was covered in poison ivy. Amazingly, we still discussed trying to sleep there. It was getting late and we chose to set up a kitchen and eat dinner there while we fished. I grilled up steaks and heated mashed potatoes (premade with bacon and cheese in vacuum packed bags that just need to be heated in boiling water). A side salad and cold beers rounded out the meal. As darkness started to become eminent, we pulled our lines and headed for the next decent campsite (Dry Gulch) and settled in for the night.
We only covered about 10 miles the first day and we needed to put some miles under our boats on day two. After a good night of sleep under the stars, we woke to a herd of big horn sheep descending a steep couloir on the far side of the river. Breakfast was scrambled egg “omelets.” Through the day we worked our way down river fishing for bass and sturgeon along the way. The river flows easily through this part of the canyon and is dotted by many small rapids that are fun and simple. But there are a couple that remain a challenge.
We stopped at Bernard Cabin for a quick look around. This homestead is small but totally livable. Every time I come here I think that I could set up a pretty good life in this location, which is actually saying a lot as I think most of the settlers in this canyon must have been totally off their rockers. Shortly downstream from the cabin is a set of rapids that deserve a bit of respect. Upper and Lower Bernard are a couple of drops with some pretty big waves and a couple of holes that are not likely to keep you, but certainly can take you out of a boat. I had a good time filming the Transformer toy as we went through these rapids. As I panned upstream, I noticed that the kayak had flipped and the boys were in the water. Both were still holding on to the boat and when they noticed lower Bernard (the much meatier of the two drops) was coming up, they were extremely motivated to get back in the boat and did so only moments before the next wave hit them. They may have lucked out of a swim in Granite, and Bernard bit them lightly, but the big dousing would happen in Waterspout Rapid.
With my brother on the oars, we entered Waterspout in front of the boys in the IK. The rapid is one of many confused waves from multiple directions. Even the raft got stopped by a steep wave and nearly flipped and that same wave easily devoured the IK to leave the boys in the water for the second time that day. This swim was much longer. My nephew managed to keep hold of his paddle, but lost the boat and ended up swimming through a hole on the lower stretch. His friend was still with the boat, but lost his paddle. After a few minutes in the water, all parties and pieces were reunited and ready to continue boating.
Rush Creek is the last of the big rapids in the canyon. It is also a random and tricky stretch with a huge hole at the top. All craft made it through successfully and all that remained below us would be splash and giggles and a long stretch of flat water called “The Great Snake Lake” to any boater without an engine.
Just before reaching our camp for the night, we stopped by Sturgeon Rock located in the middle of the river by Pine Bar. We enjoyed some time jumping into the river and swimming. Our camp was just down stream at Quartz Creek.
This is a camp we have used before because of great sturgeon fishing. It is not the best sleeping beach with more rocks than sand, but it works. This trip we found that Shelob’s whole family had taken up residence. Every weed and rock was covered in spider webs and HUGE spiders. They were beautiful, but a tad creepy in that dense of a population. The boys actually decided not to sleep on land at all and figured out a great way to make the boat work out for them. I have to admit to waking many times through the night thinking I had spiders crawling on me and wishing I was sleeping on the boat too.
Dinner that night consisted of grilled pizzas that were nothing short of amazing. The sun tracked its last path up the canyon walls and the stars began their reign. The boys were comfy in their beds on the boat and we still had three sturgeon lines set. It was late and my brother and I headed to our respective sleeping bags. As we all said our good nights and headlamps turned off, the clicking and squeal of the reel split the dark canyon and I hear one of the boys yell “fish on!” After a long fight, my nephew’s friend landed a huge sturgeon in excess of 8 feet long. Not bad for his first sturgeon. We all decided we had a long enough day and we did not reset the lines for any more fish this evening. Sleep came easily, even while surrounded by giant arachnids.
The day broke and breakfast of bacon and potato hash was devoured. The third day on the river would be a long one with anticipated 25 or more miles to cover. We stopped at several places to fish and had a couple of fun excursions too.
We stopped at the requisite established camps along the river like the Kirkwood Ranch, but mostly to use a toilet that does not require us to pack out our own shit (literally). One such stop was at Temperance Creek where I wanted to search for a geocache (link) that had been hidden back in 2010 and never found. We worked our way up to the ranch that is leased from the forest service by a company that is taking great care of the place (link). As I talked with the manager it was apparent that she was aware of the treasure we sought. We eventually found an old cabin and discovered the cache that had been hidden. It has been there for 3 years with no visitors and I was happy to be the first to find it.
The first possible take-out is at Pittsburg landing, but our rig had been shuttled an additional 50 miles downstream. We still had a lot of river to cover. We stopped at the Pittsburg boat ramp to use the bathroom and my brother used his charm to convince another boater to haul our trash out with him. We have done this before and it is really nice to be able to get ride of rubbish half way through the float. The only thing better is to find someone willing to give up any remaining ice they have, but we would not be lucky on that particular front this trip. It was nice to have an empty trash load though.
Downstream from Pittsburg the canyon closes up again and becomes a really fun ride for a few miles. We were hoping to stay at the Tryon beach that night, but we found boats there already. We decided to stop at the top of the huge Tyron eddy and sturgeon hole for a makeshift camp. There was hardly enough room for my sleeping bag. By brother slept in the IK and the boys slept on the boat. It was not ideal. Dinner that night was pulled Kahlua pork with coleslaw and applesauce. No big fish for the night but we did get a good sleep without spiders.
The next morning had a breakfast of bacon and eggs that were much needed to power through another long marathon day. We really wanted to get below the confluence with the Salmon river, but that was over 20 miles away and there was a fair amount of flat water in between. We continued to try for another sturgeon and had some decent nibbles but no real hookups.
We saw some research boats on the river that were setting trotlines for sturgeon. My brother is a fish biologist in this region and was familiar with the people and research that was happening. We stopped at one boat that had a big fish on board and watched them work. They had the fish in a sling that ran water through the fishes gills, they measured and took DNA samples, bit did not stop at just that. They did minor surgery on the fish to check its development of reproductive organs and sewed him back up. Then he got an x-ray to determine if he had any fishing tackle in him that he swallowed. Indeed, there was a large hook inside and they are using this research to determine the ability for fish to pass gear like this or have it corrode away. It was particularly amazing to see huge fishing hooks that were straightened out from large fish hooked on the set research lines. Proof that there are some really big fish still in the river, perhaps as big as 18 feet in length.
We eventually passed the confluence of the Imnaha River that we had camped on days prior, then the Salmon came in from the east, and we finally settled on a campsite with a nice spit of sand and some really cool rocks that were varnished and looked coated in metal.
We set our sturgeon lines like we did every night and dinner was prepared; lasagna, garlic bread heated on the grill, and the last of our salad supplies. The lasagna was homemade and precooked. We reheated with the same method as the mashed potatoes; just drop the vacuum packed servings into boiling water to warm up. After such a long day on the river, a calorie dense meal was devoured and enjoyed.
This camp was in a very tight section of canyon and the steep rock walls towered above us leaving only a sliver of night sky. I usually take note of the stars as the sun is going down so I can determine time through the night (I don’t have a watch). I woke around midnight to the water levels rising and our raft had floated off shore. I had tied it down, but didn’t like it making its own choices. I pulled it further up the beach. I repeated this ritual 3 more times when finally my brother woke up. His bed had been overtaken by the waterline and he nearly lost his life jacket. After he relocated higher on the beach, he stood sentinel over me as I slept and finally alerted me to move when the river was only about 4 inches from my head. That night the river rose nearly 5 vertical feet and receded by morning.
Hells Canyon Dam controls the river levels heavily. They fluctuate depending on need for electricity. When people need power for air conditioners or TVs the dam is opened up and more water is allowed to pass. At night, the dam is closed off and the river drops. But at this camp we were 60 miles downstream, so the flood of water comes in the middle of the night. This constantly changing river flow is something that is an annoyance to boaters, but can greatly disrupt fish behavior. The power companies work closely with fish and wildlife manager to compromise on what can be done to mitigate damage to native animal populations. Think about that the next time you turn on a light bulb: somewhere someone makes a river rise to light your house.
It rained lightly in the morning and we quickly set up a fly over camp to protect us for a few more hours of sleep. The wonderful meals we had been enjoying were a thing of the past and on the last day we scrounged up whatever we wanted to eat that was left over in the coolers. Shortly after putting on the water we stopped at Cherry Falls.
Cherry Falls is a cute little cove that is often passed entirely and is rarely visited to its full extent. There is a nice waterfall on the river’s edge, but if you are willing to hike up a steep section of rock, you will find a beautiful twin falls cascading into a little pool. The brave can climb into the pool and stand under the water. The cold pummels into the top of your head in a way that makes you forget about everything in the world and cleans your soul.
We made a quick stop at Geneva bar just down stream from Cherry Falls. There was a new geocache hidden there that had never been found and I was anxious to nab it before anyone else did. We found the cache pretty quickly and we were happy to discover it was full of really nice swag. We signed the log, left an offering, and took some prizes and moved on to paddle the Great Snake Lake.
There were about 17 miles of river left to the take-out at Heller Bar. The problem is that the river slows to a crawl for most of it. To compound the issue, the wind picks up through the day and howls upstream. If we didn’t get most of it covered before the afternoon, we might not be able to row against the wind. Inflatable whitewater rafts are not known for their ease of rowing. My brother and I took turns on the sticks and we covered the worst five miles of flat water in about an hour. In between the small rapids we often struggled just to keep making headway. If we stopped rowing, we would be blown upriver. Eventually we made it to Heller Bar just as the sky was darkening with a possible storm.
We found our truck and worked quickly to disassemble the boats and gear, then loaded it into the back of the rig. We were in the protection of the cab the moment rain started to fall.
The drive back to town is always something that is a real clash of lives for me. The blast of air-conditioning on my sun-baked skin is insulting. I turn on my cell phone and start to feel the buzz and hear the beeps in a way that is really unwelcoming to civilization. However, the running clean water over my body in the shower is refreshing and rejuvenating. Eating pizza from the store is really easy. Doing dishes in the washer is speedy. Pouring a glass of clean water without having to carry it in jugs is convenient. Flushing a toilet to make that mess someone else’s problem.
And I guess that is the whole point of going to the wilderness, to remind you of the ease of living we experience on a daily basis and that floating in a raft at 2 miles per hour is far preferable over a car on the highway at 60 mph.