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Archive for Sunday, July 30, 2000

Hells Canyon

Barreling through America’s deepest river gorge

July 30, 2000

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— A white wall of water smashes against the 40-foot jetboat as it zigzags across the mighty Snake River, sending it careening toward a rock the size of a bus.

Go left! The pilot cuts the boat against the rushing current -- this time in the other direction.

The Snake River, dividing Idaho on the right and Oregon on the
left, heads north through the steep canyon walls of Hells Canyon as
seen from Black Point, Idaho. The Snake River begins in Yellowstone
National Park, and meanders for 1,035 miles through Wyoming and
southern Idaho, then north to form the boundary between Idaho and
Oregon. Finally, it enters Washington and turns southwest to join
the Columbia River.

The Snake River, dividing Idaho on the right and Oregon on the left, heads north through the steep canyon walls of Hells Canyon as seen from Black Point, Idaho. The Snake River begins in Yellowstone National Park, and meanders for 1,035 miles through Wyoming and southern Idaho, then north to form the boundary between Idaho and Oregon. Finally, it enters Washington and turns southwest to join the Columbia River.

Look right! A giant curl of icy water hits the deck.

"Eeeow!" yells Mary Naylor, one of 20 passengers hanging on for dear life as the jetboat slams against the white swirls -- sending it up and down, up and down -- until the boat cuts left again and returns to calmer currents.

Naylor -- grinning -- wipes water from her face.

"That went just the way I planned," laughs veteran pilot Bret Armacost.

Welcome to Granite Creek -- one of two of the most treacherous rapids along the lower Snake River in North America's deepest river gorge, Hells Canyon. This out-of-the-way stretch of river is a haven for lovers of the rugged outdoors willing to take the time to get there.

Respect for the rapids

Boats are launched just north of the Hells Canyon Dam -- about a 2 1/2 hour drive from Baker City, Ore., and 3 1/2 hours from Boise.

The Snake River begins in Yellowstone National Park, and meanders for 1,035 miles through Wyoming and southern Idaho -- then north to form the boundary between that state and Oregon. Finally, it enters Washington and turns southwest to join the Columbia River.

The river's name is said to have come from the Shoshone Indians, who painted snake heads on their weapons and used a wavy hand sign to identify themselves.

Hells Canyon is the section of the Snake stretching from the Hells Canyon Dam northward for 74 miles to Cache Creek on the Oregon-Washington border. It is largely inaccessible except by river raft.

Measuring 1 1/2 miles from the river bottom to the tallest peak of the Seven Devils Mountains, the canyon's shoreline widens and narrows, alternating between huge, half-submerged boulder and grassy beaches.

Deep canyon walls, strikingly barren, rise up almost vertically from the water. Where the river is wider, the bluffs are green and rolling. The water thundering through the canyon is mostly white -- rapids following rapids.

Armacost, who has run this river thousands of times over the past 22 years, knows every twist and turn, every treacherous rock and current.

"You need to have respect for these rapids," he says.

Armacost and his German-born wife, Doris, own and run Hells Canyon Adventures, the only jet-boat operation licensed to run Hells Canyon. They say they take about 7,000 passengers down that stretch of the Snake each year.

During the summer, the Armacosts run two-, three- and six-hour jetboat rides, as well as an overnight trip. They also offer a daylong white-water rafting trip. During the summer, the water is warm enough for swimming.

Other commercial riverboats on the Snake run out of Lewiston, Idaho, and Clarkston, Wash.

A haven for wildlife

It's worth the drive from Boise -- the latter part on a narrow highway fraught with hairpin curves but offering views of the sheer rock drop into the canyon.

The largest -- and most treacherous -- rapids are in Hells Canyon. And the Armacosts regularly navigate through two of the most perilous -- Granite Creek and Wild Sheep, both rated level-four rapids.

According to the book "Hells Canyon: The Deepest Gorge on Earth," by William Ashworth, Granite Creek is exceeded only by Lava Falls on the Colorado River. The river itself, he writes, is more than three times the length of the Hudson River and almost twice the volume of the Colorado.

The Armacost's passengers are treated to views of wildlife climbing along the canyon's steep slopes -- bighorn sheep, deer, lynx, river otter -- and now and then, even a bear.

On Naylor's trip down the river, a pair of Bighorn sheep sparred on the rocks. The herd scrambled up the cliffs as the roar of the jetboat neared. But Armacost cut the engine -- letting passengers listen to the clacking horns as the sheep rammed together.

The Armacosts also take passengers on a short hike up to a niche in the rock decorated with ancient Indian pictographs.

Rafters also stop at an isolated old homestead, tucked away above a swift stream feeding into the Snake River. The tiny home -- which at one point housed a family of 11 -- is built entirely with short planks hauled in by packhorse.

Infamous past

These waters are seeped with tales of the Old West.

In 1887, a group of Wallowa County men -- apparently jealous of a group of Chinese miners who had found gold -- killed and mutilated more than 30 men. They loaded the bodies of the murdered Chinese in a boat, which they sent down the river.

As the story goes, the bodies began to wash up upstream within days.

Local newspapers called it the "crime of the century." Six men were tried for the murders, but were acquitted

The book "Snake River of Hells Canyon," by Johnny Carrey, Cort Conley and Ace Barton, documented a story that originally appeared in an 1895 edition of "McMurdy's Marine History of the Pacific Northwest."

According to the story, the stern-wheeler Norma was in the mouth of Deep Creek when the boat "bounded off, swinging into midstream, and, like a racehorse, shot into Hells Canyon, where the river winds like a serpent and the wall rocks tower to such a height that they almost shut out the sun."

For the Armacosts, this rugged river is a way of life.

They bought the boat business in 1992. Since then, their fleet has grown to three custom-built boats -- 28-, 36- and 40-feet long.

"We love the river -- and we want to keep it the way it is," Doris Armacost says.

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