by Lee Foster
Although the Grand Canyon of the Colorado is the best known “canyon” in the United States, it is not actually the deepest. That honor falls to spectacular, 7,900-foot Hells Canyon on the Snake River of Idaho.
A traveler can experience Hells Canyon, so named because it was a formidable crossing, by taking a jet boat trip up the river from Lewiston. Hells Canyon is a wild river area designated as a Wilderness and National Recreation Area, established in 1975.
A long, one-day trip up the river and then back to Lewiston gives you a good look at the area. Shallow-draft jet boats, which need only 8-10 inches of water, can navigate through the rapids and shallows at speeds of 40-55 miles per hour. Jet boats are a safe and steady platform that carry 20-40 people of all ages. Unlike float rafting, jet boating requires no physical prowess and carries little risk, making it an accessible river adventure for everyone.
Licensed outfitters with jet boats show Hells Canyon to thousands of people each year.
Part of the pleasure of a jet boat trip is that the licensed pilot provides a running commentary on the Snake River, its fish, the wilderness scenery, and the human story of the region, ranging from 7,500 years of Indian life to a colorful steam paddle-wheeler era. Several shore stops illustrate the discussion.
A traveler who can spend an overnight on the river will savor the solitude of the wilderness, complete with a star-filled sky and a clucking symphony of chukhar partridge at dawn.
The Snake River cuts powerfully through volcanic barriers on three occasions in geologic time as it pushed west to the Columbia River and the Pacific.
Denizens of the Snake include the giant sturgeon that lie in its deep holes. Some sturgeon reach lengths of eight or nine feet. Fishermen pursue the fish entirely for sport, carefully releasing each mammoth back to the river after fighting it. The fish are caught by harnessing a sizable bait fish with a hook and high test line, then casting the bait into eddies formed in deep water below rapids. Sturgeon wait in these pools for their food, which consists mainly of dead fish, to float by.
A Day on the River
On the day I took the trip, my guide, Wally, managed to hook a five-foot sturgeon.
“Sturgeons are so special because of their size and age,” said Wally. “They grow about six feet in the first 40 years. Then they continue to grow about a quarter inch per year. That means an eight footer is over 120 years old!”
Autumn steelhead fishing is popular here. Jet boat trips take anglers to the best fishing holes to catch these prized ocean-going rainbow trout.
Negotiating the rapids on the Snake and its tributary, the Salmon, is an art, even in the safety of a jet boat. Boat captains undergo extensive training before they become certified.
The scenery and wilderness environment of Hells Canyon is a further appeal of the trip. These steep gorges are part of the nine million road-less acres of public land in Idaho, of which three million acres is wilderness. (The state boasts almost three acres of wilderness per citizen!) Seventy-five percent of the state is public land. If you climb out of the gorge, as I did at Pittsburg Landing, you get an accurate perspective of its grandeur and the awesome power of the Snake River.
The desert environment at the bottom of the gorge gives way to a forested alpine world on the high slopes. Hackberry bushes, the dominant vegetation, provides fall color. Deer thrive throughout the region and are frequently seen.
Along the river, the Army Corp of Engineers almost managed to build a huge dam in 1976 at a narrows called High Mountain Sheep. The dam would have destroyed the scenic beauty of the region forever.
The narrator of each jet boat tour informs travelers of the human story of Hells Canyon, which stretches back some 75 centuries. At Buffalo Eddy or at Lower Cottonwood you can get out of the boat and inspect Indian pictographs, pit houses, and burial sites, some of which have been excavated by archaeologists. Over 100 major Indian village sites have been documented along 30 miles of the Snake River.
In 1877 the great Nez Perce Indian leader, Chief Joseph, in his final retreat, crossed the river with thousands of his people, with all their horses and cattle, despite the river’s force. Today a marker along the river documents this tragic matter. The main friction between Indians and settlers was that the settlers’ pigs thrived on wild camas bulbs, the main Indian food supply. Today the 3,000 Nez Perce in Idaho share their culture with visitors at a National Historic Park visitor center east of Lewiston.
Steam paddle-wheelers enjoyed a brief history on the river 1865-1904. The most successful of these was the Imnaha, which made 13 trips before succumbing to the treacherous rapids.
The Snake River Today
Isolated ranches continue to flourish in a few back-country locations. Some jet boats offer a Mail Route run to carry the U.S. Mail in and out of these remote homesteads.
The length of the river, 105 miles from Lewiston all the way upriver to Hells Canyon Dam, puts the upper stretches beyond the comfortable reach of the jet boats leaving from Lewiston.
Guides tend to know the local flora and fauna, based on years of practical contact.
“We keyed out 32 different species of wildflowers on my last trip,” said guide Wally. “As you climb from the river to the top of the gorge, passing several climate zones, the parade of flowers changes.”
Jet boats on the Snake River offer anyone in the traveling public a safe yet adventuresome opportunity to see wild and scenic Hells Canyon, the deepest river gorge in North America.
Make no mistake about it being both wild and scenic.
“I remember pitching camp one night along Hells Canyon,” added guide Wally. “As the sun set, we saw a beautiful sight. There were bear on the ridge to our right and elk on the ridge to our left.”
Idaho’s Hells Canyon: If You Go
Most of the jet boats depart from Lewiston. For information on the area, see the Lewiston Chamber of Commerce website at http://www.lcvalleychamber.org.
One prominent jet boat outfitter is Hells Canyon Tours at http://www.hellscanyontours.com.
The Idaho Travel Council website is at http://www.idahotravelcouncil.com.