We typically avoid whitewater adventure. Danger, deprivation and discomfort are not on our bucket list. A rollicking 174-mile jet boat ride through Hells Canyon on the Snake River seemed like a good compromise.
You’ve never heard of Hells Canyon? Based on our random sampling of Coastside friends and Pacific Northwest relations, you’re not alone. MontaraManDan discovered it on a map about a decade ago while pondering the mystery of what exactly lies east of the Central Oregon Eden known as Bend. How metaphorically appropriate that the highlight happens to be the Snake River.
The primary approach to the canyon is Lewiston, ID, which was sort of on the way home from our visit to the Canadian Rockies. Located 104 miles from the nearest interstate at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers, Lewiston and its twin city, Clarkston, WA, aren’t exactly on the way to or from anywhere.
Tourism aside, the metro area of roughly 40,000 is best known for making paper and .22 caliber ammunition. And perhaps for the “kabooms” at Roosters Waterfront Restaurant. (Go ahead, click on the link.) We speculated that an anxious elk we spotted stranded in a tiny city park surrounded by busy streets might have been less than thrilled to be the center of attention in a town know for manufacturing ammo.
Our day on the Snake River dawned early and hot, with a triple-digit high in the forecast, just what you might expect from the home of Hells Gate State Park. Our captain, Eric, appeared equal parts highly competent and confidently glib as we pulled away from the Snake Dancer Excursions dock with his teen son and the son’s buddy riding shot gun as deck hands.
Jet boat engines propel the craft by drawing water and then pushing it out the back and above the water line. The inboard propulsion system allows the boat to ride high in the water with maximum maneuverability, making it perfect for a river run featuring Class III rapids and shallows as low as 18 inches. It also makes for a spine-rattling eight hours on the river. The silver lining? Our fitness apps recorded more than 8,000 steps as we sat on our bums most of the day. Awesome!
Eric, who has been running the river since he was a boy, holds court high in a padded chair replete with shock absorbers, giving him a comfortable yet commanding view of the river ahead. His job, aside from getting us up river and back safely, is to talk a little geology and fluid dynamics, share a bit of history and folklore, spot wildlife – raptors, pelicans, mountain goats and a six-foot sturgeon on this trip – and slow or stop for sites, such as petroglyphs, that illustrate his narrative. Lunch, snacks and potty breaks included.
Eric also stoked the passengers by challenging his very willing deck hands into feats of adolescent daring do, such as swinging into the river on a rope suspended from a downed tree snagged in a riverside rock. The golden eagle perched just above the rope as we pulled close added some impromptu drama. On the way home, cheered on by the passengers, the deck hands lept into the river from a middling cliff at the scene of the Hells Canyon Massacre. Fortunately, they fared better than the gold miners who were ambushed back in 1887.
So, did we get wet? We stayed bone dry on the way up to our turn-around at Kirkwood Historical Ranch, even as we veered and leapt our way upstream through a series of rapids and slalomed through the shallows. And that was fine with us. The Geek, who had brought along her Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM Telephoto Zoom Lens (the one with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time) was really kind of hoping to keep her camera equipment dry. M-Man hates sitting in wet clothes.
But then, encouraged by the whispers of a camera crew who rode along to film promotional video and the revelry of back bench riders who had dressed for a drenching, Eric swung the boat around in an unanticipated power turn. Somehow, the geek and her gear were spared, but the wave absolutely nailed MontaraManDan. Only the left hip pocket where his I-Phone resided was spared. Good thing. If the wave had fried his I-Phone he would have missed out on 8,000 free steps.
We certainly weren’t the only travelers enjoying the Snake as it wound through America’s deepest river gorge. Other day-trippers, fishing charters, solo watercraft and rubber rafts full of hearty adventurers who would spend up to five days on the river variously jetted and floated by our boat.
We also noticed occasional lightly populated rafts loaded with mounds of duffel bags and camping equipment. Turns out paid advance crews for many of the “hardened” river rafters float ahead to pitch tents, fluff sleeping bags, prep the camp fire and even whip up “gourmet” dinners each evening.
So much for the thrill of danger, deprivation and discomfort. still, wWe’ll stick to the jet boat.