Seated next to me on the green vinyl seat, my nine year old son Andrew asks, “Why is the bus making that sound?”
He’s at an age when he takes squealing brakes seriously and I lay my arm across his shoulders and tell him the brake drums are full of dust.
He stares for a moment, then nods and asks, “How far is it to….” and here he hesitates before adding, “…. Hells Canyon?”
“Not long, a few more miles.” I reply. Andrew has a right to be confused about the H word. A week ago he could say Hell only at the risk of an immediate and severe censure. This morning he can say it fifty times in a row, as long as he adds “canyon.”
Tracing the state border between Idaho’s Seven Devils and Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains, the Snake River explodes over class four rapids, slides past Nez Pierce pictographs and pushes against towering cliffs as it rushes to deepen the deepest canyon in the U.S–7500 vertical feet from the top of Seven Devils Wilderness Area to the Snake’s cold, blue water.
Friends say I am crazy to take Andrew on River Odysseys West’s five day, thirty mile hike from the Hells Canyon Dam down to Pittsburg Landing. In my defense, he was born in Sun Valley, Idaho and raised on the ski runs and back country trails above the Wood River Valley. He can hike all day without complaint and though the coming five days will test him, they will also afford us time to camp, swim, fish, talk and fool with the fire. I reason if Andrew can hike Hells Canyon, school and athletics will offer minor obstacles. Should it become necessary, there is an escape route. Since ROW is floating our food, tents and gear from camp to camp, if Hells Canyon’s heat, climbs or distances prove to be too tough, Andrew can always hitch a ride downriver.
Of the twelve hikers who assemble below Hell’s Canyon Dam, the youngest is forty-eight, the oldest is seventy and professions vary as widely as their ages. Edith Eggenberger manufactures snowboard accessories, Richard Flynn is a butcher, Gary Barker is a controller while Jeanne Aiken is a retired violinist for the Los Angeles Symphony.
Because the Idaho trail climbs vertically two thousand feet from the Hells Canyon Dam over a sheer cliff, ROW’s supply raft ferried us four miles downstream to a point where the trail rejoins the river at Butler Bar. From there it turns uphill again through cheat grass, hackberry bushes, Ponderosa pines and mountain mahogany.
While I caution Andrew not to wander too close to a cliff edge or brush against the poison ivy, he soon discovers that J. Beal, ROW’s lead guide possesses an encyclopedic knowledge about snakes, falcons, deer, elk, mountain lions and Nez Pierce Indians. For the next five days Andrew’s skinny legs, sagging pack and small hiking boots will claim second in line.
The four miles to Granite Creek are not difficult, but the climb tests our wind, strength and balance. With the midmorning sun lighting the east facing canyon wall, the Snake River recedes to a blue ribbon winding between black rock and yellow grass. We gradually fall into a rhythm where we walk for a mile, then stop for water.
At those points, J. Beal reads from Carrey, Conley and Barton’s “Snake River of Hells Canyon” which chronicles the Canyon’s colorful, often violent past. Sitting in the shade of a crumbling foundation, we relive the hardships and tragedy of the Hibbs family who scratched out a living on Granite Creek.
Martin Hibbs took advantage of the Homestead Act of 1862, to claim 160 acres in Hells Canyon. He then moved his wife Ellen and six children to Granite Creek in 1902. Canyon life was hard and the Hibbs family subsisted on the cattle, fruit, and vegetables they raised. After Ellen Hibbs died in 1926 the children left the canyon leaving Martin Hibbs to live alone until 1935 when, in one of the region’s great unsolved masteries, he was found shot in the back next to the burned cabin.
Andrew is moved by the story and asks Beal, “Do you know who shot Martin Hibbs?”
Pausing on the rocky trail, the best the guide can come up with is, “A bandit.”
To which Andrew nods sagely.
The tents, sleeping pads and tables with hors d’oeuvres are waiting when we reach Granite Creek’s sandy flats and following a swim in the Snake, we dine on grilled salmon steaks, fresh salad, pasta, dutch oven desert and coffee. The evening is cool, but not cold and by the time the dishes are washed, stars fill the serpentine slash of sky between the black canyon walls. We watch bats dart in the fire light, hear an owl hoot and are laying in our sleeping bags when two coyotes howl from the opposite banks.
“What is that?” Andrew whispers in the darkness.
“Coyote…” I yawn.
“Will they come into the tent?” he wonders.
“No, they’ll stay far away,” I reply and when the silence settles ask, “What do you like best, the old cabins or the pictographs. ”
He thinks about it for a moment then replies, “The Indian paintings.”
“Me too,”I agree. “And the heat hasn’t been too tough on you?”
“No, not too bad.” he confesses.
A faint pink light above the canyon’s east wall signals dawn and while the guides break camp, we double knot our boots and breakfast on cowboy coffee, fruit, eggs, sausage and French Toast then load our personal dry bags onto the rafts.
Granite Creek to Johnson Bar marks the trip’s longest day but we have only covered a half mile when guide Mike Ardnt pauses beneath a smoke stained overhang. Above us Nez Pierce pictographs reveal a series of geometric patterns, stick figures and big horned sheep.
Known as the Snake People and dependent on the spring and fall salmon runs, the Nez Pierce both lent their name to the river and left behind a strong physical record of their life. Painted on protected walls above the river the pictographs might have served as petitions for hunting luck or fertility, a rite of passage or simply finger doodles. Predating our own Revolutionary War, the red figures now bear silent witness to the passing river and our own curious, upturned faces.
Despite the allusion to Hell, the canyon was not named for the 100 degree afternoon temperatures but the Class 4 rapids which boil below the trail. Averaging seven miles and 2000 vertical feet per day requires a base conditioning. While shadows blanket the eastern shore, the trail is cool and the climbs and descents are not difficult. But once the sun reaches its zenith (around 11:30 a.m.) the black basalt holds the heat and during lunch at Bernard Creek, J. Beal uses a filter pump to refill our water bottles.
On this second day, one member is suffering. Hiking in new hiking boots, she gradually blisters her toes, arch and heel. By mid-day she has wrapped her feet in a sock of mole skin. I assumed that, at the first sign of foot trouble, the less committed among us would retreat to the raft. In an emergency, the limping wounded can ride the raft but ROW believes that a sense of accomplishment rewards those who hike the entire distance and blisters are quickly attended to and miscellaneous pains are doctored with ice, ace bandages and Advil.
Hells Canyon’s tributary creeks are choked with netleaf hackberry, aspen, willow, bitterbrush, bittercherry, service berry and bartonberry. And while it is true that poison ivy flourishes in the upper canyon, by September 20 the color change is well along and the low bushes brighten the yellow cheat grass with splashes of red, orange and purple. Wearing shorts, at first I attempt to avoid each leaf, but quickly gave it up as a lost cause and ignore all but the worst thickets. Thanks in part to the dry year and late date, though I’ve suffered mightily in the past, no screaming rash flares across my legs.
The second day we stop for lunch on the porch of Bernard Creek’s McGaffee Cabin. Fred and Gene McGaffee occupied the two room cabin from 1915 to 1935, but following sixty five years of neglect, the hay fields and cattle have given way to cheat grass and mountain mahogany. The large Monarch wood burning stove Fred McGaffee travoised up from Johnson bar remains and ripe apples still brighten the ancient orchard. Leaving Bernard Creek, we pause above Waterspout Rapids then marvel over a stone caldron where an high water eddy ground a stranded boulder in endless concentric circles to form a huge, stone bowl.
By late afternoon the heat has settled on the trail and seeking shade in a crumbling foundation at Bill’s Creek, J. Beal recounted the story of Silas Bullock, an asthmatic brick layer who settled in the Canyon for the dry air. A picture in “Snake River of Hells Canyon” shows Bullock was a roughly dressed, white haired man who thrived on sturgeon, deer and a lush garden filled with strawberries and watermelons. The story took our minds off the final three miles hike to camp and when Beal closes the book, Andrew rises to lead the group across the sweltering flats toward Johnson Bar.
From Johnson Bar the miles grew progressively shorter. Our third day covered eight miles, the fourth five, the last three. By now the major climbs are behind us, the river rapids have grown smaller, the pools are deeper and that afternoon, Suicide Point appeared through the shimmering heat above Long Bar.
One popular myth claims two Nez Pierce lovers hurled themselves off this towering precipice. “Snake River of Hell’s Canyon,” however insists the name was a whimsical choice. From a distance the point resembles an outlaw’s weathered face. Disfigured by the trail’s gray scar running across nose, cheek and jaw, in September’s 100 degree heat, its 800 vertical feet serves as the last major barrier to Gracie Bar. Stopping only long enough to refill our water bottles we place one foot in front of the other, lean into a hot wind and count the steps.
Half an hour later, the trail tops out on a towering cliff. Below us the serpentine Snake stretches upstream to the foothills through which we had just walked and with sinking sun casting long shadows across the river, we slowly descend to camp.
It was my fault Andrew fell into the cactus. Sitting around the fire on Gracie Bar, I was enormously proud of him. He had weathered Hells Canyon’s distances, climbs and heat with a stoicism, even joy and I impulsively whispered to him to give me a high five.
“Dad….” he shook his head with embarrassment, glancing at the guides and hikers.
“Just one,” I insisted. Seeing my open palm bearing down on him, Andrew jerked his hand away, the three legged camp stool sank in the sand and arms flailing, he fell backward into one of the cactus which flourish on Hells Canyon’s dry, southern exposures. He yelped once and when I pulled him free, his left elbow, forearm and hand bristled with spines.
“Let’s just shake instead,” he replied tentatively holding out his unhurt right hand.
Starting at ten a.m. we made Kirkwood Bar by noon where we met Bonnie Sterling who, with her husband Dick had built the log bunk house that now serves as a museum.
Dozing with Andrew beneath Kirkwood’s large English Walnut tree, I realize that life in Hells Canyon revolves around simple pleasures. It is the hint of lemon in filtered water and collecting walnuts in the green grass, the flush of a chukar partridge and the Snake River’s cool embrace at the end of a long walk.
Dozens of rafts and jet boats had passed below us and though I occasionally coveted their coolers brimming with cold water and soft drinks, I loved the solitude of the trail, the play of light on the canyon walls, and time with Andrew. As we traced the trail downstream, I sensed the years between that moment and the day my son graduated from high school would pass with frightening speed. And watching Andrew fall in behind J. Beal I wanted to remember each minute of the past five days.
A light rain was falling when we reached Pittsburg Landing. My Vertech altimeter recorded that we had climbed and descended 7200 vertical feet through thirty miles of the northwest’s most spectacular river canyon. And boarding the River Rat Express for the ride back to civilization, to a person, the group only regretted that the trail wasn’t longer.
1) River Odysseys West will offer seven start dates for its 2009 Walking Tour of Hells Canyon. Beginning in the spring, the five day trips will embark on May 22, 29 and Sept 2, 10, 17 . Groups meet the night before the trip in Cambridge, Idaho to organize gear and listen to a basic orientation. ROW supplies sleeping bags, self inflating air mattresses, cots, tents, dry bags, all food, a selections of wines, a library and first aid supplies. Guests are responsible for their personal clothes, rain gear and any liquor. Despite the name, this is not a hike through hell. Full assault foot gear is not necessary, better to bring a well worn pair of sturdy hiking shoes/boots. Cost for the 2009 season exclusive of airfare is $1315.
For more information;
River Odysseys West
P.O. Box 579
Coeur d’Alene, Idaho