Hells Canyon

Oct 06, 2018 - National Geographic Quest


It’s fun to envision how Lewis and Clark would have responded if jetboats and a state-of-the-art expedition ship were suddenly made available some two hundred years ago. Their voyage of western discovery would undoubtedly have looked much different. One thing is for certain, though: learning about the perils and triumphs of their exploration from aboard the luxury of National Geographic Quest – and with the added bonus of a roaring river trip up the Snake and into Hells Canyon – is preferable to re-creating the original expedition’s en masse food poisoning following a poorly-timed packing out of Snake River salmon.

History and legend, cloud-swathed canyons, and elusive wildlife: this set the stage for the first day of our expedition westward along the Snake and Columbia Rivers in Lewis and Clark’s path. A trio of jetboats arrived shipside this morning to whisk our group away from the sister cities of Clarkston and Lewiston and up into the heart of the Hells Canyon wilderness. We straddled state lines and bounced between Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, passing from suburban development into the basalt-lined heart of a rugged and narrowing valley. By the time we entered the gates of the canyon, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep and coyotes had already been spotted perusing Idaho’s high brown hills. We were stepping back into the land that greeted the first European explorers two centuries before.

After visiting a historic Forest Service site and enjoying freshly-grown – and hand-hammered – walnuts from its volunteers, we sped deeper into the canyon and towards the confluence of the Snake and Salmon Rivers. The Salmon is the longest free-flowing (undammed) river in the lower 48 states, fluctuating as much as 40 feet in height between its flood stage and late-summer levels. Around the confluence, volcanic cliffs soared over boiling rapids. We looked longingly upriver in the direction of the distant Hells Canyon dam and the true terminus of the canyon run, but at close to 50 miles out from Clarkston we had reached the end of our day’s journey.

Yet the adventures were far from over. On our return downriver, we stopped at Garden Creek Ranch, a Nature Conservancy riverside oasis, for a barbeque picnic lunch. The grounds outside were a sprawling green blanket in the middle of golden hills, and fruit trees dropped their harvest for mule deer and turkeys to enjoy. We wandered the lawns, watching the deer graze amidst rusting farm machinery from a forgotten haying operation, slipping slowly further back into time.

Hells Canyon’s local wildlife provided us with one last show beneath the aptly-named Whale Rock. A small herd of bighorn sheep were lazing near the river and allowed us to cruise in close to shore for a better look. As we approached, a disgruntled great-horned owl burst from the trees and perched on the overhanging rock, and a peregrine falcon began shrieking loudly at the new intruder to top off the performance! True, the jetboat came back a bit delayed after watching this unfolding of events – but who could blame us?

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About the Author

Lauren Buchholz

Naturalist/Certified Photo Instructor

Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, Lauren’s wanderlust has taken her from the Appalachians to the Rockies to the Southern Alps.

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