Go to Hells Canyon - Page 2
As we approached the river, a flotilla of rafters dropped into the Upper Bernard Rap- ids. We thumbed a ride on the rafts into Oregon, 100 yards and 15,000 cfs away.
“Where’d you boys come from?” Our guide was a seasoned river traveler with a nicotine-stained mustache and a Chaco tan—he’s been calling rivers his home since ’78. I’m sure he’d seen or heard it all.
“The top ... Seven Devils,” I said and pointed. The guide strained to follow my finger to the skyline above. He shook his head.
“You boys have fun,” he said, as he eddied the boat and we stepped into Oregon.
The Oregon side of the Snake is paralleled by the historic and sacred Nee-Me- Poo Trail, the route that Chief Joseph led his people on from Wallowa Lake to Montana while fleeing General Howard in 1877. We followed it southward until we saw the sun-weathered Hat Point Trail sign, which marked six miles to the Oregon highpoint.
The Hat Point Trail quickly disappeared up a stringer can- yon, rotten with volcanic scree. The canyon’s broken earth took back half of every step. Route finding and the afternoon heat stifled our pace to a crawl.
Eventually the canyon broke into mellower ground then slipped into forest where it resumed the climb toward the boreal rim. Five hours later we climbed out onto the crest and up the lookout tower we had spied earlier in the day. With only a few hours of light and thunderheads on the horizon, we quickly retreated. The return miles clipped by quickly but as we slipped over the final series of grassy fells before the river, darkness eclipsed our intent.
“No sense trying to swim it in the dark,” I said. “We should bed down and rest.”
Mike’s entire right side was studded with cactus spines from his fall so rest was an easy sell. We spent 45 minutes extracting barbed quills from his back, shoulder and legs ... some buried deep, past fascia and into muscle. We agreed we didn’t know each other that well and I left Mike to pull the spines on his back- side on his own.
I pulled my sleeves over my calves and draped the map over my torso and drifted into sleep as the glow of the Sheep Fire illuminated the sky behind the cresting ridge to our north.
I woke to chukar rallying the morning light. “I guess we should get moving,” I suggested to Mike, still harvesting quills. He shaved the rest off and bufferd the stumps from his compression shorts with a pair of gloves and we left.
We hoped the dam-fed Snake would drop overnight, but the early morning river level still had massive water for two lone runners with ballasting packs. We care-fully selected a broad stretch, well above objective hazards, battened down the packs and dove into the flow. What appeared to be mild eddies were fraught with current.
Exhausted and separated by 200 yards, we pulled ourselves onto the Idaho side, organized our gear and began the slow climb up the canyon walls toward flatter ground, quietly reveling in snagging this plum.
We entered the canyon as strangers, tethered by a line slung between two high points. Thirty-six hours later we walked out as friends, having shared the adventure of a lifetime.
A week passed before I reached out. I was curiously looking for the deepest documented river canyon, and posted a link to Mike’s Face- book wall.
He commented, “I don’t even need to read it ... when?!”
... And the next adventure begins.