Amp Up the Adventure in Hells Canyon!


by Debbie Stone

On this episode of Big Blend Radio travel writer Debbie Stone shares her white water rafting adventure with Hells Canyon Raft. 

“Let’s paddle,” says our guide Barry, in a calm, relaxed tone. We obey, albeit a bit distractedly, as we’re busy chatting with one another. Then we hear that telltale roar – the one that signals some mighty big rapids are ahead. Soon, we see them in all their frenzied glory. And now Barry urgently yells, “Paddle hard everyone!” We immediately dig into the churning whitewater, whooping with unbridled enthusiasm. The noise is deafening, but somehow Barry makes himself heard, bellowing at the top of his voice, “Charge!” It’s all hands on deck now, as we head into a massive wall of green. We feel the power of the water, pitching our boat in every direction. Mother Nature’s reminding us she’s in charge.

Though I furiously keep paddling, I realize at one point that my oar is only grabbing at air. Before I can adjust, a massive surge hits the raft, walloping it in serious punitive fashion. I’m thrown off-balance and feel myself starting to topple overboard when suddenly a hand grabs me hard and I fall back into the boat. Saved for this round!

We all look like drenched rats after the waves finally spit us out, but we’re so stoked! We clap oars overhead to congratulate ourselves on making it through another hellacious rapid without losing anyone. Now we can comfortably sit back and watch the other boats navigate this white knuckle rollercoaster in Hells Canyon.

I had always wanted to see Hells Canyon. The name alone was enough to arouse curiosity. And I had heard one of the best ways to explore this infamous place was via a raft trip down the Snake River. I opted to do a four-day adventure with Hells Canyon Raft to assure I’d have ample time for the full experience.

Hells Canyon Raft has a stellar reputation in the industry and takes pride in its highly trained guides, top of the line equipment, attention to detail and exemplary safety record. The company has been family owned and operated for over thirty years, and consistently receives top ratings from travelers who view its raft trips as the adventure of a lifetime.

The Hells Canyon National Recreation Area straddles the borders of northeastern Oregon and western Idaho and contains over 650,000 acres of unparalleled scenic beauty. It’s a vast and remote region that is home to North America’s deepest and narrowest river gorge – deeper than the Grand Canyon by 2,000 feet. Carved by the steady erosive force of the great Snake River, Hells Canyon plunges more than a mile below Oregon’s west rim and 8,000 feet below the Devil Peak of Idaho’s Seven Devils Mountains.

To comprehend how deep the canyon is, imagine six Empire State Buildings; forty-seven Niagara Falls; four Yellowstone Canyons; or nearly two Yosemite Valleys. It’s been said that you could drop the entire Catskill Range into the canyon and still come fifteen hundred feet short of filling it.

As for the gorge’s name, no one can exactly trace its true origin, though, it most likely has something to do with the wild journey a boat endures through this stretch of the Snake River. The river, on the other hand, refers to the Native Americans who lived in the region. To identify themselves years ago, they used a hand sign that resembled the movement of a snake. Although it didn’t mean “snake,” that name was given to this group of people, now known as the Shoshone. The river that ran through their land was eventually give the tribal name. Today, a portion of the Snake River within Hells Canyon is designated as a Wild and Scenic River.

There were twenty of us plus six guides, who came together to raft Hells Canyon in early August. Our group consisted of multi-generational families, couples and solo travelers. And though we hailed from different places and backgrounds, we all had one thing in common – a shared desire to discover this fabled place of the Wild West.

We wanted to experience the thrills and chills of rafting impressive Class IV rapids like Wild Sheep, Granite and Waterspout. Hells Canyon boasts the biggest whitewater rafting rapids in the Pacific Northwest. Who wouldn’t want those bragging rights? And with Hells Canyon Raft, you can alternate the type of craft you want to use during your adventure – oared raft with a guide at the helm, rubber ducky or standup paddleboard. The duckies are single and double inflatable kayaks. The latter have been humorously coined, “divorce boats,” for the arguments they often provoke among couples.

It was fun to try out all the options, and yes, initially, there were plenty of spills, or as the guides colorfully called it, “carnage,” on the duckies and paddleboards. This is par for the course, as it definitely takes a bit of practice to achieve a level of comfort and an understanding of how these boats and boards function in rapids. Hint: a strong core is helpful!

Rest assured, the guides give a thorough safety orientation at the start of the journey, with much attention paid to what to do if/when you accidentally fall into the river. Throughout the trip, they also take time to explain how to read the water and use the current to your advantage. They point out the obstacles and discuss the best path around these hazards. 

Several times, we scouted the more extreme rapids before riding them, which provided an excellent view of the situation from the cliffs above the river. Having this perspective and knowing the plan of attack is essential, as once you’re in the water, everything happens quickly. Rafting a class IV rapid is like being on an extreme version of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. The water packs a fierce punch and it knows no boundaries. It’s a life force with a heartbeat and mind of its own, and you learn to give it the respect it deserves.

There’s immense satisfaction in mastering the rapids. It’s a personal, yet also shared accomplishment. On a raft, teamwork is key and each person needs to commit to doing his/her part in the process. Everyone becomes conscious of the responsibility they have for each other’s well-being and safety, and for the group as a whole. As a result, a strong sense of camaraderie develops and bonds form quickly.

Though rafting is the obvious focus of the trip, you’ll discover there’s so much more to the experience. This is a multi-faceted vacation where the rewards are many.

You’ll gain a greater understanding and appreciation of the geology and history of this national showcase. The first thing you’ll notice about the canyon is that its austere, brooding beauty is so vast, it’s hard to capture on camera. Every part of it is massive, making hikers and boaters feel minuscule amid such rugged and awe-inspiring landscape.

Rock aficionados will appreciate that most of the older rocks in the canyon came from underwater volcanoes, formed around 150 million years ago, as a result of tectonic plate movement. Uplifting formed the Seven Devils, while the canyon itself is a result of the processes of uplifting and erosion. Over time, enormous boulders and rock slides have rolled into the river, generating formidable wave action and creating notorious paddle-swallowing holes.

As far as human presence in the area, evidence in the form of Clovis points suggests that people may have lived here as far back as 15,000 years ago. The Nez Perce lay claim to the canyon, regarding it as their ancestral home. According to a tribal legend, the mythical figure, “coyote,” dug Hells Canyon with a big stick to protect the tribe’s ancestors living in the Blue Mountains of Oregon from the “Seven Devils” across the gorge in Idaho.

The first historical record of Hells Canyon is found in the journals of Lewis and Clark, who passed nearby in the fall of 1805 and then again a year later. They had been warned to avoid the canyon by the Native Americans and had carefully skirted it, bypassing it on their outbound exploration. But, on their return journey, snow forced them to camp in the vicinity. Three members of the expedition, looking for a fishery on the Snake River made it to the north end of the canyon. Lewis recorded their impressions of this mountainous country, noting that the rocks of the river banks rose to great heights. Little did he know the true extent of this height.

Ranchers and prospectors started coming to the area in the late 1800s and early 1900s after copper and gold were discovered in the Seven Devils Mining District, on the Idaho side of the Snake River. They began eking out a living in the harsh conditions of this remote wilderness.

Exploring the canyon is like taking a trip back in time. You’ll hike to abandoned homesteads with dilapidated cabins and the remains of old farming equipment, and you’ll also tread Native American trails to view prehistoric pictographs. Thanks to the canyon’s dry air, such evidence of human history has been preserved over the years.

One of the best examples of early pioneering days is Kirkwood Ranch. Though no longer a working ranch, the place is open to the public and includes several structures that help tell the story of ranching in Hells Canyon. One building, the Sterling Cabin, serves as a small visitor center with displays of artifacts and photographs reflecting the history of the area. The center is manned by volunteers, who live on the property for various periods of time. When our group passed through, Chuck Hawkins was in his sixth year of volunteering at the site. He typically spends the month of August at the site, sharing his extensive knowledge of the place with rafters and hikers.

Plenty of wildlife call the canyon home, including wild mountain goat, bighorn sheep, cougar, elk, deer and black bear. There are also 106 species of birds, making the destination a bird lover’s paradise.

The raft trip gives you a chance to disconnect from civilization for a few days and get in touch with nature on a personal level. Think of the canyon as a separate world-within-a-world. There are no cell phones, no computers or other technological devices demanding attention. You’re off the grid and out of communication with the rest of the world. It may take a day or two to get into the river routine, but once you adjust, that nagging need to check your phone disappears. You’re on canyon time now. Tune in to your surroundings and let your senses run as wild as the landscape. 

Decisions are few and far between, as your guides tend to all the details. These hard-working folks are more than just experienced boatmen and women, who can read the mercurial water and navigate boats through the gnarliest of rapids. They juggle multiple roles throughout the trip, from rustling up meals to setting up the campsites each day before your arrival. So, instead of spending time putting up your tent, you can go for a hike, swim, fish or relax on the banks of the river.

Hells Canyon Raft guides are truly dedicated to ensuring their clients have the most memorable and safest journey while under their care. And they are passionate about their surroundings, acting as nature interpreters, historians and storytellers, who gladly share their knowledge and connection to this special place with others.

You’ll have the opportunity to make new friends. Strangers at first, your fellow rafters will soon feel like family, minus the emotional baggage! You’ll be among kindred spirits, who are adventurous, fun-loving and out-going individuals, with a shared respect for the environment. They also understand the importance of cooperative effort and pitch in to help without being asked.

The trip offers people the chance to try something different and possibly step outside their comfort zones. For some, this might be their first rafting experience, and learning to paddle efficiently is the main objective. Others, may want to attempt kayaking or standup paddle boarding, or hone their skills in these sports, particularly in whitewater conditions. Jumping off of Sturgeon’s Rock into the river was a challenge for one woman in my group, but with our support and encouragement, she managed to make her goal a reality.

Then there are those who set their sights on catching the “big one.” Hells Canyon is well-known for its bounty of trout, bass and steelhead, as well as the elusive sturgeon, and the guides know all the prime fishing spots. It’s the perfect place to put your talents to the test and enact a scene from “A River Runs Through It.” During my trip, one family caught (and released) a whopping ninety bass in a day.

Another definite plus to the trip is the food. You’ll get to eat plenty of delicious grub, and you won’t have to step inside the “kitchen” once! Meals are a highlight and everyone gathers in the vicinity of the outdoor cantina to see what’s cooking. In the morning, you’ll awaken to the aroma of bacon and eggs benedict or blueberry pancakes hot off the griddle. Lunches are a buffet of sandwich fixings, accompanied by fresh fruit and veggies, while dinner is where the guides perform true culinary magic. One night, we started with an appetizer of baked brie topped with huckleberry, followed by trout, asparagus, beer bread and salad. Another evening, we had a choice of salmon or pork tenderloin with apricot chutney, accompanied by Brussels sprouts, pasta with pesto sauce and pineapple upside down cake for dessert.

Bellies full, you’ll sleep like a baby under a star-studded sky with the river as your lullaby, dreaming of running the rapids over and over again. And if you keep having this dream long after you’ve returned home, you’ll know for sure that Hells Canyon has claimed a bit of your soul.

If you go:  Hells Canyon Raft runs three, four and five-day trips on the Snake River, between mid-May and late September. The company also offers four and five-day trips on the Salmon River. 

Debbie Stone is an established travel writer and columnist, and regular contributor for Big Blend Radio and Big Blend Magazines, who crosses the globe in search of unique destinations and experiences to share with her readers and listeners. She’s an avid explorer who welcomes new opportunities to increase awareness and enthusiasm for places, culture, food, history, nature, outdoor adventure, wellness and more. Her travels have taken her to nearly 100 countries and to all seven continents.

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