Hells Canyon on the Snake River is home to a diverse habitat, odd weather and a dramatic canyonscape that, depending on who you ask, is only bested by the Grand Canyon. This was my first time rafting the canyon, and I was giddy.
The route from Hells Canyon Dam on the Oregon border to Pittsburg Landing is not particularly difficult to navigate. Just 33 miles in length, it represents one of the shorter and more accessible--albeit still remote--multi-night stretches in the state. However, it is prone to much higher water than other rivers because of the fact that it is dam-fed and takes on water from several other sizable Oregon and Idaho tributaries.
We camped near the put-in the night before our departure in order to get an early start. The temperature deep in this low-elevation canyon was hot, and the water was surprisingly pleasant. The next morning, we secured our permits through the Forest Service office, arranged vehicle shuttles, rigged our boats and were on our way a little before noon.
After a short float down to a rocky bar we were ready to scout our first big rapid. With flows fluctuating between 18,000-27,000 cfs throughout the day, timing is everything in picking the correct line through Hells Canyon's big rapids.
Thankfully, Wild Sheep rapid was blown out, making for an easy line through an enormous wave train just left of river center. A 10-foot standing wave knocked the glasses and earrings off of one of our party but everyone made it through.
A quick lunch stop along a shady, petroglyph-laden alcove and we were on our way through the Granite Creek rapid and its infamous Green Room. This wave was also blown out at these flows, but made for a rocking rollercoaster ride in our little 13-foot paddle boat.
The first night out, we stayed at Saddle Creek Campground, a shady and comfortable old homestead with ample space to set up tents and a proper kitchen. After eating pot roast and potatoes, the stars and crickets lulled us to sleep.
Rested, we pushed down river the next morning. Some in our group rigged fishing gear for a shot at an elusive sturgeon, but nobody had that kind of good fortune. With other species, our luck was significantly better. Out of the six people who threw in a line, the average catch (and release) was 20-30 fish during the final two days of the trip. Two friends brought in more than 100 small mouth bass--literally every other cast.
Our second to last night, we set up shop on the sandy beaches of Lower Hominy Camp. The fishing continued into the evening, as we chatted with the occasional curious jet boater.
Our final night was spent down river from historic Kirkwood Ranch. We cooked up wild rice, bean and steak wraps, as strange clouds passed overhead, but short, infrequent bursts of rain and heavy wind did not sour the good times.
After a big bacon breakfast, we solemnly made our way the final few miles down to Pittsburgh Landing and the take-out. Returning to reality and turning my cell phone back on has never sucked so bad.