Hells Canyon



The twin 350 Chevy engines purr as the 30-foot jet boat eases out of the harbor at Hells Gate State Park in Lewiston and into the broad main channel of the Snake River. As Captain Nate Luther, of Snake River Adventures, throttles up against the stiff current, we can feel the power that will take us 80 miles upriver into the deepest gorge in North America and, hopefully, back again.

It’s late July, and although the Snake is not running at its peak, it is far from tame. In fact, Nate tells us, this is the lowest the river has been in 11 years, which means rocks and boulders normally well under water have now become hazards. Worried looks exchanged by the dozen or more passengers are soon forgotten as Nate launches into the first of a nearly endless string of stories about this magical, and somewhat mystical, place known as Hells Canyon.

“The columnar basalt formations that make up the canyon walls are the result of lava flows that occurred as far back as 15 million years ago,” he says. “Many of the holes created by the rapid cooling are now home to cliff swallows.”

This is truly a place touched by history.

A few miles further on, Nate pulls up next to a rock outcropping to show off some of the better preserved petroglyphs that are testament to the Native Americans who lived in and around the canyon. These particular drawings are around 2,000 years old.

Around mid-morning we dock at Cache Creek Ranch, once owned by a millionaire who flew into its tiny airstrip to hunt bighorn sheep and turkey, both of which are plentiful in these parts. Several mule deer linger like pets, hoping to share our snacks. The rustic ranch house contains a visitor center with photos and artifacts from early settlers.

We plunge deeper into the canyon enjoying the eclectic collection of summer cabins that dot the wider sections of shoreline. Flocks of turkeys scurry up the riverbanks as we roar past, and a black bear snorts at us for disturbing his bath. A young mule deer swims determinedly across the channel as a coyote watches from shore, no doubt disappointed at the loss of a meal.

We pass the confluence where the Salmon River and the canyon narrows, its sheer walls closing in, making our boat seem like a cork bobbing in a turbulent ocean. The swifter current creates more rugged rapids, but Nate navigates them flawlessly. An occasional dousing only adds to our fun. He points out an iron ring driven into a giant boulder that was used as a cable anchor to haul paddle boats up through the dangerous rapids in the late 1800s.

“In 1903, the Imnaha got the cable wrapped around its paddle wheel,” says Nate. “The boat got sideways, rolled over and broke in half. Everyone made it off before it went down, but the load of equipment they lost caused every mining operation in the canyon to shut down.”

We pause at the spot where Chief Joseph led his entire Nez Perce tribe across the river in 1877, in what would be the beginning of a legendary running battle with a U.S. Army bent on sending them to a reservation.

Lunch at Kirkwood Ranch, a few miles below Hell’s Canyon dam, gives us a glimpse into the early life of an Idaho icon. Before he became a U.S. Senator, Len Jordan raised his family in this remote canyon oasis. An excellent bunkhouse museum gives us a pretty good idea of what life was like here in the 1930s.

Heading back downriver, Nate stops at Sheep Creek to show us a plaque commemorating a group of Chinese miners massacred in 1887 by a bunch of horse thieves who heard they had gold buried there.

“They just showed up one morning and killed them all,” Nate tells his rapt audience, “then loaded them in their boats and shoved them out into the river. A couple of weeks later some of the bodies started floating into Lewiston, so they sent the sheriff up to investigate. Eventually all the cowboys were caught, but anti-Chinese sentiments being what they were at the time, they all got off with a slap on the wrist. No gold was ever found.”

Several miles further downstream, our crew is dropped off at Garden Creek Ranch where we’ll spend the night. The 100-year-old ranch was originally owned by Chinese gardeners who grew and sold produce to settlers in the 1920s. In the 1980s, the Nature Conservancy bought 1,500 acres next to the river, including the house and barn, in part to preserve the rare mariposa lilies that grow there.

Joe and Glo, the proprietors, are quick to offer a cold drink and a tour of the place. We make our way up from the river through an extensive orchard that includes apples, pears, plums, cherries, apricots and Italian prunes. A herd of mule deer have made the ranch home, as have a large flock of wild turkeys, but they don’t pay us much mind.

Glo cooks up a sumptuous dinner. And after a beer or two, we’re all ready for some shuteye. The next morning we hike up Garden Creek to inspect the settling pond built to create a steady flow to drive the 17-inch Pelten Wheel hydro-electric pump that supplies enough electricity to run the entire operation. We still have time for a swim in the cool, clear waters of the Snake before Nate returns to pick us up for the ride downriver to Lewiston.

It’s a tired but happy crew that disembarks back at the Hells Gate launch site. Nate’s expert piloting has avoided any mishaps, and his excellent stories will leave us all with wonderful memories of Hell’s Canyon and our Snake River adventure.

By: Doug Copsey/Photography by: Benjamin Powell


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