Cold Days in Hells
|This trek began with casual conversation between Brian, Mountain West Wholesale Rep, and Kyle, one of our senior Shipping Associates. It involved fishing and probably a beer or two. Pretty soon it evolved into: sturgeon fishing is a lot of fun, there’s good sturgeon fishing in the Hells Canyon section of the Snake River and March is supposed to be a great month for sturgeon fishing.
A bunch of folks were invited and as in a typical river trip, the participant list waxed and waned in size until the last 2-3 weeks. The finalists consisted of Brian, Kyle, Brandon (our web master and another serious fisherman), Paco (Customer Service Rep and International Team member), Tyler (Wholesale Team Coordinator), Nate (a buddy of Tyler’s who came out from Colorado for the trip) and me. Many thanks to Brian for the perseverance to organize this gaggle.
With only seven of us, we were able to use the 15-passenger NRS van and our 16-foot double-axle trailer. We loaded three boats: my E-150, an older E-140 and a brand new prototype 15-footer. The factory had some excess white Hypalon they used to build the boat, so we quickly dubbed it the “Great White Whale” and Brian, who would be rowing it, “Captain Ahab.”
We loaded up ahead of time and pulled out of Moscow after work on Thursday, March 13. We stopped in Lewiston, Idaho to pick up the last of the gear and to top off with fast food burgers, snack food and gas. It all takes time and it was 7:00 p.m. when we rolled out of Lewiston on Hwy 95, heading south. A shout went out: “Yeah! We’re going Boatin’!” First trip of the year.
From the beginning it was decided this would be a “guys-only trip.” This seemed to be okay with all the significant others, with one exception, who will remain nameless – for the sake of domestic harmony.
Ladies, we do love boating with you. But sometimes it’s good to just get away with “the guys.” You know, so we can let loose that rude little boy who’s inside most of us. You remember him, that little fellow (we were usually smaller than you at that age) who teased you and told potty jokes to gross you out – while he was trying to figure out your mysterious otherness. We’ll go and be able to say inappropriate things and scratch inappropriate places. Then we’ll return and be even more appreciative of your fine qualities than we were before we left.
Brian volunteered for the driving chores and we all graciously accepted his offer. It was soon dark and we plowed on. We planned to stop in Riggins to “coffee-up” but they’d rolled up the sidewalks by the time we got there. Down below New Meadows, in the vicinity of Tamarack, we ran into a blinding snowstorm. Visibility dropped to zip and Brian had to slow way down to stay on the road. Ahhh, March boating in Idaho!
We pulled into Cambridge in the wee hours of the night. Brian had arranged with Jerry Hughes, of Hughes River Expeditions, for us to stay in their warehouse for the night. What a treat to walk through the snow into a warm building with foam padded bunks and flush plumbing!
Morning came early, with us not so bright; there was definitely a headache or two among the crowd. Brian called Jerry and invited him to breakfast. When he showed up we unloaded the two rafts we’d brought down for him, and then walked over to Mrs. G’s Café. Mrs. G was there to wait on us and whip up sumptuous portions of eggs, potatoes, sausage, bacon, biscuits and gravy – washed down with lots of coffee.
Jerry regaled us with stories of guides, rivers and the crazy happenings that come from over 40 years of guiding guests down the rivers of the West. We had such a good time visiting with him that we got a pretty late start on the day. Handshakes and heart-felt “thank yous” to Jerry for his hospitality, then one last stop for gas and fishing licenses before rolling out of Cambridge.
|As we headed down into the Snake River canyon, through snow covered hills and meadows, Brian reminded Tyler and me that our last time boating together, chronicled in Plan B – An Epic Journey, had begun with a similar drive through snow to the put-in. His comment was, “I’m gonna quit boating with you guys. Every time I do, there’s snow on the ground!”
Truckin’ to the river through winter’s snow.
© Clyde Nicely
As we approached the river, The Grateful Dead’s Truckin’ came over the radio. “Sometimes the light’s all shining on me. Other times I can barely see. Lately it occurs to me. What a long strange trip it’s been.” Reminded me of a favorite line of one of my longtime boating buddies: “I’ve only been on one raft trip; it’s just lasted a lotta years.” Seems that way to me at times. In over 30 years of boating, I don’t think I’ve missed a year without spending at least a few days and nights on rivers and river banks. The times between trips were spent thinking about and planning more trips.
We checked in with Diane, at Scotty’s Hells Canyon Outdoor Supply, to get our vehicle shuttle set up. She said we were her first shuttle customer of the year. Hmm. We had the ramp below Hells Canyon Dam all to ourselves and tore into getting rigged. We were working away when a black cloud loomed up the canyon. We stopped rigging boats and bolted into our drysuits. By 3:30 (lordy, we had been leisurely!) we were ready to go. Tyler led off the safety talk and then we were waterborne. Brian, Brandon and Kyle in the Great White Whale, Tyler and Nate in the 140 and Paco and I in the 150.
Black cloud approaching; view of Hells Canyon Dam.
© Paco Echevarria
Getting everything dialed in.
© Paco Echevarria
Five miles down to the first biggie, Wild Sheep Rapid. We scouted it and Tyler and I chose to go in left, then pull back hard right to square up for the big lower waves. Brian decided on the trickier center route and had a wild ride. He said he only missed the entry on his line by about five feet, but that was enough!
Checking out Wild Sheep Rapid.
© Paco Echevarria
Brian pointing the way, Nate in the foreground.
© Paco Echevarria
Down to Granite Rapid. Paco and I pulled over to the right to scout; the rest looked from the left bank. The rapid is formed by a huge boulder in the center of a rather narrow section of the river. At that time the water level was high enough to cover the rock, creating a big hole. Paco and I looked at it and the hole looked runnable. Lots of speed entering it and no real back curl. We decided to go for it.
Cruising though the Canyon. Lots of snow on the hillsides. © Tyler Harris
|While we were walking back to the raft, the others ran the smoother left side. Paco took the oars and we hit the hole dead center. My-my, the hole was deeper than it looked from the bank! From downstream, the others reported that the 15-foot boat disappeared completely. It was a perfect elliptical trough – down at a 45º angle, then a swoop up the other side, back down into some shallower waves. A real thrill ride!|
We checked out a couple of campsites below Granite that got rejected by Kyle and Brandon, our star fishermen. The eddy at Saddle Creek Camp, about 11 miles below the dam, looked promising so we grabbed it. We hauled the kitchen gear up to the upstream side of the creek and set up tents on the high grassy bench downstream. We’d just finished with the tents when it started to sprinkle. We raced to put up the River Wing.
|Dinner was a fine chili con frijoles (chili w/ beans), made by Brandon and Kyle with moose and deer meat. Between showers, the fishermen rigged up sturgeon poles. Ah, but then it began to rain; not just rain, it began to pour. Since no one wanted to stand out in the rain and wait for a sturgeon to discover the bait, we stayed under the Wing, told stories, laughed and got stupid. Well, not too stupid, we all made it safely across the rain-washed footbridge to our tents.|
Footbridge over Saddle Creek.
© Clyde Nicely
Day dawned overcast, with fresh snow on the hillsides. Brian whipped up a wonderful breakfast of Huevos Rancheros – spicy chorizo and chicken/apple sausage, cheese, black beans, avocado, sour cream, salsa, and egg cooked to order, on a corn tortilla. Two of those warm, heaping treasures were a most memorable meal!
Master Chef Brian whipping up breakfast. © Clyde Nicely
Order up! Your Huevos Rancheros are ready.
© Paco Echevarria
Proudly does it wave. Way to go, Paco!
© Paco Echevarria
|More sitting under the Wing, drinking coffee, visiting. After breakfast, Paco did a mighty deed. From an earlier trip he remembered seeing a U.S. flag flying from a pinnacle above the camp. He climbed to the top to see if it was still there. It was indeed, but had fallen over during the winter. So, he raised it again and proudly did it wave! We teased him that he needs to include the deed, with photo, on his citizenship application.|
We had such a leisurely morning that it was 1:45 before we got on the water! Down through the Bernard Rapids to Waterspout, where we stopped to scout. The big hole at the bottom of the rapid was washed out, so the run was without drama.
Lots of wildlife so far on the trip. Early on, some saw a mountain goat. We saw four bald eagles in one tree and several single eagles soaring along the river. The white rumps of mule deer were commonly visible and large herds of elk spotted the hillsides. A large flock of goldeneye ducks swirled up and down the river above us. Smaller groups of mergansers floated in the eddies. Canada geese were already paired-up and regularly seen and heard throughout the trip.
When we got to Caribou Creek Camp, where we had our Luau Night on last fall’s Two River Bag Boogie trip, Brandon and Kyle approved the eddy, so camp it was. Since we’d done 11 miles in only two hours, even stopping to scout a rapid, we knew we’d have no problem covering the 10 miles from there to the take-out the next day. Another eagle soared by as we set up tents and the Wing.
It was a nice, comfortable afternoon. We leisurely set up the kitchen and chairs under the Wing and got the fire going in the Firepan. Hells Canyon regulations require boaters to carry in all their own firewood. Kyle and I had each brought a 3.8 Bill’s Bag full. Kyle and Brandon baited up the sturgeon rods and Tyler rowed them up the eddy to drop the weighed hooks. Pole stands were fabricated with driftwood and rocks and bells attached to rod tips to alert that a fish was taking the bait. Tyler and Nate hiked up the ridge above camp.
Even though it’s sunny now, the Wing goes up. © Paco Echevarria
We heated up supper – another fine chili, with beans, cooked up by Paco, accompanied by some jalapeño/cheese cornbread I’d baked ahead. We started out with a bowl of hot-and-sour soup I brought. Another fine river meal. A herd of elk grazed on the hillside across the river and a pack of coyotes serenaded us.
And, of course, it began to rain. It was starting to feel like we were in Camelot. This time our Wing was near the water and within earshot of the sturgeon rods. Several false alarms sent fishermen dashing out into the wet to check the rods. Then, late into the night, it was no false alarm. Fish On! Brian got the pole and in an excited melee of shouted encouragement and instruction, reeled in a five-foot sturgeon. All sturgeon fishing in the Canyon is catch-and-release, so after photos it was released to grow bigger. This catch energized the fishermen and propelled them on into the night, long after I went to bed. But alas, no more fish were caught.
Brian fighting the sturgeon, with lots of coaching
from Kyle and Brandon. © Paco Echevarria
“Wow, this thing is big!” © Paco Echevarria
We were up and moving, if slowly, by 8:00 Sunday morning. Tyler and Nate served up some delicious breakfast burritos – filled with egg, potatoes, bacon, cheese, veggies and…black beans. They rounded it out with sliced melon, sour cream, avocado, fresh salsa and pineapple juice.
We chuckled at the fact of a fourth meal that included beans. We hadn’t coordinated menus before the trip, just assigned certain meals to certain people. Reminded me of my buddy Dave’s story of the infamous “Chicken Meal Trip.” Seems they neglected to coordinate menus for a multiday trip and five of the six evening meals featured…chicken. One of them was chicken grilled over coals, in the dark, that came out half raw. Dave says after that trip it was a long time before he could again face a bite of chicken.
On the water by 10:30. We stopped at the Kirkwood Historic Ranch, a site maintained by the Forest Service and staffed year-round by volunteers. The most famous residents of the ranch were Len Jordan, who later became Governor of Idaho and its U.S. Senator, and his wife, Grace, who wrote the classic book, Home Below Hells Canyon.
The bunkhouse/museum is just beyond the fence, with the ranch house further back.
© Clyde Nicely
|The volunteers stay in the ranch house and the log bunkhouse is used as a museum and interpretive center. Some of the exhibits were prepared as part of a school project by Brian’s wife, Jenni, who is one of the NRS Purchasers. When chatting with the volunteer manning the site, he shared that he’d seen no other rafters since arriving the first of March. So, possibly we were the first rafters to traverse the canyon this year.|
We arrived at the Pittsburgh Landing take-out at 12:30 and quickly broke down the Great White Whale and the E-140 and their gear. The rest of the crew couldn’t take extra time off, but I wasn’t through boating and had decided to float down to the next major take-out at Heller Bar, 47 miles below Pittsburgh.
|The crew prepared to eat some lunch before pulling up the long grade out of the canyon. They were a bit nervous because the shuttle driver had left a note saying they’d had to turn back on the way in to get tire chains…and of course they had taken their chains out with them.|
I had lunch food with me, so I decided to push off at 2:15 and make some miles. As the crew drove up the road, they looked downriver and saw a dense black wall of weather looming up the canyon. They all thought and some said, “Clyde’s gotta be getting hammered right now!”
Clyde pulling away from Pittsburg Landing to
continue the journey. © Paco Echevarria
To be continued…