A Paradise reminiscent of Middle Earth
Oregon / Idaho
Running along the eastern border of Oregon and the western border of Idaho, Hells Canyon is the deepest gorge in North America. Our unforgettable trip through Hells Canyon was all we needed to convince us.
With a name like Hells Canyon, this massive gorge has a reputation to live up to, and it certainly does! Hell’s Canyon is the deepest gorge in North America, running 10 miles wide along the eastern border of Oregon, and the western border of Idaho. Rising almost 8,000 feet, it is cut through by the Snake River, which originates in Wyoming and flows north into the Columbia River and Hells Canyon Wilderness totaling nearly 217,000 acres. This paradise started forming over 300 million years ago, when an arc of volcanoes started to emerge from the Pacific Ocean. Six million years ago the Snake River began carving out the canyon. Because of its mild winter climate, along with an abundance of flora and fauna, Native American tribes found their way here early in human history. The rock formations are filled with beautifully carved petroglyphs and vividly painted pictographs. It is a vast area and difficult to enter by road or trails. To access this remote and beautiful part of North America, the river presents the most lovely option.
Floating down a river allows us time to just be, to take time to see, listen to and hear what is around us. The sound of running water is innately calming, helping us breathe a little deeper and a little slower. Add to this fishing in waters that are more than generous to the fisherman and fisherwoman. And the best part of it all… no cell service for days!
Taking a multi-day floating trip down Snake River the last week of September was just what we needed to completely disconnect from the busy world around us and to connect with the energy and serenity that a river trip offers. Being guided and pampered by George Hauptman, the owner of Canyon Outfitters was a rare treat indeed. He is a legend on the river, having done this for 42 years. Needless to say, he has everything down to a tee, and he truly makes you more well fed than any 3-star restaurant! Whether you fish, hunt, hike or just exist, George is the man that you want by your side.
Flying into Boise, it took us a little over 2 hours to drive up to Halfway, Oregon. That evening George and his energetic and lovely wife Lynette hosted a dinner at their home, telling us anything we needed to know, and answering every question. We met some of the guides as well, making us feel a part of the team already. After dinner George sent us back to the hotel with the wet bags, one large for our duffel bags, and one small version for our daypacks.
The next morning, having organized our bags, we set out to drive up to Hell’s Canyon Dam, where the boats and rafts were waiting. It was a beautiful day, with a promised high in the low 80’s. We were seven clients and five guides altogether, and the big supply raft had already taken off with two of the guides while two other guides divided us into groups of 2-2-3, which was to make sure that the first night’s campsite was being set up by the time we would arrive. George and his team gave us plenty of space in the floating vessels and we were immediately given casting gear, so that we could fish whenever, however and wherever our hearts desired.
We had floated maybe 500 yards, going through a small class II rapid, when we were guided onto the quieter side of the river to cast for trout and bass. And immediately we were treated to a National Geographic moment…up on the steep hill we see a Mama Bear with her two cubs, slowly making their way up. Suddenly a male comes into view! Within a few seconds, Mama Bear charges the male, while the cubs stand perfectly still behind a big boulder. The male hesitates for a moment but seems to realize that this is not the time to engage. He turns and lumbers off. Mama bear stands her ground for a couple of moments, to make sure he got the message, before she returns to her cubs. Male bears are known to kill the cubs, to make sure the female goes into heat again. What a treat to see the maternal protective instinct in its full majesty!
Floating, fishing, catching and releasing, and just being – slowly leaving any feeling of “must, have to and should” behind. We stop for lunch on a pebble beach on the Idaho side. George, Hannah and Jake set up a lunch spread worthy of royals. There is even a carrot cake that tastes like heaven!
The fishing is truly incredible and the bass were biting on almost every cast. Well, maybe not on my casts, but definitely on our new friend Kevin’s. Kevin is a charming outdoorsman from Reno, and fishing is his passion. Watching him makes me realize that there truly is a skill to this sport. I am mesmerized by his feeling, his watching the line, and moving his rod just enough to hook the fish. He is gentle in his release, aware of the gift he is given. He is teaching us all valuable lessons in how to catch more and lose less! Even more spectacular scenery brings us to our first camp site. Everything is already setup, all we have to do is find a tent, where there are cots waiting in each tent. Our bags are there, and making our beds consists of spreading our sleeping bags on the cot. We know there is some weather coming in, so the tents are secured with the flies already in place. We choose to take a plunge in the river, water temp is near 70 F, so its quite lovely. After putting on warmer clothes, we sit by the mess tent, watching the guides cook, and sipping drinks of our choice. Dinner is perhaps the best fried chicken I have ever had! After the table is weighted down with food, George and the guides join us. This is story time, when we can ask questions and hear about the many adventures that have been had on the river. George tells the stories with a warm sense of humor, charm and a never-ending wealth of knowledge. The history of the homesteaders is so fascinating, we become children who want just “one more story”!
After dinner we sat and watched the Milky Way above us slowly becoming a little more fuzzy by the incoming storm. The wind picks up, and we all agree that it’s time to bed down. By the time we have said our goodnights, the wind is howling. The tents are well secured and not lifting, but no tent will be silent in a storm. The first part of the night, I am pretty sure that we might just leave Hells Canyon and wake up in the land of Oz. But then the rain comes, and thankfully the winds stop. Its a quiet rain, the kind that lulls you to sleep. A deep sleep!
Waking up in the morning, rain gear was donned, and breakfast served. Hot coffee, tea, chocolate, whatever we desired was there. Breakfast was just what we all needed…a mountain of pancakes, easy-over eggs, freshly cut fruit. We are forewarned, today is the day we will inevitably be soaked! Several class III and IV rapids are on the agenda. The weather has changed with the rain, so it is a little cooler and overcast for the day. Today Hannah and Jake maneuver the big supply raft, and Nick and Kevin join George in taking us down the river. They are fantastic at guiding the boats and raft through the white water, and many laughs and hollering can be heard throughout the morning. Lunch is served once again on a beautiful beach, looking up on the very steep sides of the gorge. We see deer on the other side, just quietly grazing uphill. After we have finished, they take us on a small hike, to see beautiful, well preserved pictographs painted thousand of years ago by the Native American tribes that resided along Snake River. We also found a large fossil imprint, from when this whole area was covered by the ocean. Once again, George is sharing his amazing knowledge of the area’s history.
After lunch, a jet boat coming up the river leaves a message to George from Jake and Hannah…we will have to add miles to our float today, since the campsites they had their mind set on were taken. It is a “first come, first served” policy on the river. This takes us down White Water Alley, adding more rapids, and more fun. The last couple of hours on the river brings more action, and more laughter, but less fishing. Not to worry, since George has already filleted all the small mouthed bass we could possibly eat for tonight’s fish-fry! Arriving into camp, we are all soaked and maybe a little cold, but in good spirits.
Everything is set up and ready, and we know just how hard Jake and Hannah worked today – first bringing the extremely heavy loaded supply raft down all those rapids, and then hauling all of this up the river bank. Setting up tents for us, the mess tent, the kitchen. It is impressive how hard these guys and gals work for us. They even offer a hot shower!
Before dinner, my husband and I go for a hike up the river. It is stunning in the late afternoon light, and we enter that stage of complete satisfaction and happiness. The sound of the running river, the Oregon and Idaho sides competing in today’s beauty pageant. We come across the site of an old homestead, “Johnson’s Bar”. The remains are just a sign, and broken up fencing. But you can see how the fields had been plowed and prepared, even if rocks and shrubs had taken over. We see a fair amount of fairly fresh cow patties, which surprises us both. There is absolutely no sign of cattle, or anywhere anyone could possibly keep a herd. Definitely a question for George!
The fish-fry dinner is just so amazingly delicious! Imagine the most fresh fish possibly, cooked with the expertise of George’s years of doing this – we get creamy scalloped potatoes, and salad along with it, and we are all very happy, very full, when they present freshly baked brownies out of the Dutch oven. What more could one possibly ask?
We very appropriately wait until everyone is done, before asking about the signs of cattle. The answer? Feral cows! Just how they have found their way out here, with no roads even close, is a wonder. But they are here, and supposedly getting more and more feral every year. So if we see a cow along the river, run!!!!!
The sky is clear this night, with a forecast of a lovely day in the upper 70’s for the morning. The stars are so bright you need sunglasses with the inky black of the sky making them pop even more. The space station floats by along with numerous satellites…the very few reminders of life back home.
The next morning, another incredible breakfast! Five of us are choosing to hike down to lunch as we set off after breakfast with two of the boats following. My husband brings the gun, in case we see some chukars, the bird that is hunted here. It is a beautiful trail, paralleling the river, we come by beaches, which are perfect for taking a dip. At times the trail goes high up, and with the sun to our backs, we can see the fish hiding in the eddies and behind rocks. After a couple of miles, Jake comes to shore and walks us up to an old homestead, which now belongs to the Forest Service. There we meet Bill, who is the caretaker. He is the most gracious host, immediately volunteering to take us on a short hike through the homesteader’s world. He points out Italian plums, domestic plums, several apple trees, the potato field, creating a picture of a life long gone. He takes us to an ancient Native American village, helping us to see how and where they lived.
Then he regals us with stories of his grandmother’s oldest sister, who was the homesteader right there. A story of a willful woman, who killed her own father for the inheritance, who stole another woman’s man, married him, then roped him and dragged him behind her horse until he agreed to a divorce. She supposedly met her destiny locked in her son’s cellar. Karma? Most likely!
Scrambling downhill, we realize that this is our last night on the river. It is easy to forget about time here – there is no reason to check your watch or your phone. We have been living on river time, when the clock ceases to matter. A lovely way of living, if only for a couple of days!
Coming back down to the river, a washing off is definitely needed after a day of hiking. Dusty and sweaty and armed with Dr. Bronner’s Castile soap, we jump into the water, scrub off, and feel simply awesome. Finding the last clean clothes for the evening, and it’s off again to another delicious meal. George is serving steak, asking each and every one of us how we prefer our meat cooked. Creamy Fettuccine Alfredo goes along with the steak, and of course some veggies. Again, freshly baked brownies with raspberries for dessert! As it is our last evening together, we all express our gratitude for the most lovely moment in time.
George shares some more stories from all of his years on the river, having us in stitches. He also shares his concerns about the future of Hell’s Canyon. As always, we humans make imprints on Mother Nature, and we don’t always consider the consequences.
After a wonderful night of rest, again the smell of breakfast awakens us. We pack up one more time, and before breakfast we put our gear by the riverside. A jet boat is picking us up after breakfast, to take us up river, back to where we left our car. I am contemplating asking George just to leave me here for a couple of weeks. I don’t feel ready to give up this peaceful place just yet.
Once again after having filled up on a delicious morning feast, the jet boat announces its arrival, and it’s time to say goodbye to our guides. Many hugs and warm thank-you’s are shared, and a generous tip is given to all of them along with exchanges of phone-numbers, hoping that our paths will cross again. Kevin and his wife Lisa are staying until midday, as they don’t have a flight until next day. Then it’s time to board the boat, and watch in awe how the young captain maneuvers the rapids going against the stream. It is impressive! I face backwards the whole trip though, to say my words of gratitude to this most special part of the US. George is with us in the back of the boat so of course we are still asking him questions, not ready to give up on the opportunity to learn more. He is pointing out interesting facts and places along the way, adding to what we had heard floating down. So much knowledge from four decades on the river! We see four bald eagles, majestically watching us from the trees and I take it as a sign that we will be back.
Our friends call this “ A Trip of a Lifetime”. I agree, but I am not willing to let it be A trip. I intend to come back here, many times. It is soothing for our souls, to be able to dis-connect. The beauty of it all, is that you are not roughing it at all! You are taken care of, fed like a royal, pampered and looked out for. George and his crew make you feel there is nothing you could be wanting, they make you feel welcome, safe, and so very comfortable.
Hell’s Canyon is truly a Paradise on this earth, and hopefully it will be here a long time, if we are diligent and careful, as guardians of our planet. This is a place where anyone can come, to be what we are supposed to be…not a Human Doing, or a Human Having, but a true Human Being.
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