By Jason Rackley

Location: Snake River, Oregon-Idaho border
Class: III-IV, depending on flows. Flows range from 8,000 to 45,000 cfs
Length: 30-70 miles
Nature: High desert wilderness river flowing through the deepest river canyon in the continental United States
Character: Warm water, rugged canyon walls.

Torture Factor: Low

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Hells Canyon is the deepest river canyon in the continental United States, with the canyon walls towering nearly eight thousand feet overhead at its deepest point. The section of the Snake River that flows through Hells Canyon is beautiful, entertaining, and ultimately very satisfying to paddle. Hells Canyon is informally divided into two sections. Section one is the thirty-one mile section from Hells Canyon Dam to Pittsburg Landing, which is classified as 'Wild and Scenic' ( free of roads, accessible only by trail or by floating ). Section two is the thirty-six mile run from Pittsburg landing to mile 180. This stretch is thirty-six miles long and is designated as 'Scenic' which means it is more settled and accessible by roads.

Rumors about the origin of the name 'Hells Canyon' abound, but it most likely stems from the early experiences of pioneers in the canyon. Apparently in the early 1900's there were many attempts to send wooden boats downstream with supplies from the area upstream of Hells Canyon Dam but none of the boats were ever heard from again. We now know that there is a massive cataract between vertical walls that is now underwater behind Hells Canyon Dam. This cataract was unportagable and took the lives of all of those early river explorers.

Hells Canyon is not packed with difficult whitewater, but there are two rapids on the first day which pack a wallop at the flows we had ( ~ 20,000 cfs ). The real reason to do this section is the scenery, the great camping, and the warm water in the summer.

Our trip was organized by Portland kayaker Paul Bunce and had ten people on three rafts and three kayaks. I ended up riding over with Brian Davies because we were both limited to three days on the river and we were planning on only floating the Wild and Scenic section from Hells Canyon Dam to Pittsburgh landing ( section one ), while the rest of the group was going to do the whole seventy-plus miles ( section one and two ).

The drive over from Portland wasn't too bad, headed out I-84 up the Columbia Gorge. Eastern Oregon is very dry and is high desert for the most part, which is very different from the rain-soaked coastal region where we live.

Nice eastern Oregon scenery on the drive over.

After many hours we arrived at the far reaches of eastern Oregon and could see the Stein mountains to the south and the Wallowas to the North. After driving for another hour or so we arrived at the sleepy little town ( more of a village, really ) of Halfway. We called ahead to the shuttle service to ensure everything was still set and then ate dinner.

The little village of Halfway, where we stopped to eat. We were within an hour of Hells Canyon at this point.

After dinner we called Paul and found out that the rest of the group was still far behind us, so we continued on to the campground near the put in. I don't know the name of the place where we camped, but it is along the river just upstream of Hells Canyon dam with a chain link fence along the road that is hard to miss. I think spots were ten dollars a nice if I remember correctly. There is plenty of room and we found a nice grassy spot on the hill that would accommodate everyone and set up camp. After an hour or so the rest of the group arrived, and we crashed out for the night.

The next morning we got up early and drove to the put in, which is located just downstream of Hells Canyon dam. The sun hadn't yet quite crested the canyon wall, so we hurried to get everything unloaded and rigged before the put in turned into a furnace. We didn't quite make it and the last half hour of rigging was done in the blazing sunlight, very hot but it was easy to cool off!

At the put in for Hells Canyon.
Brian and Sandy cooling off in the river after rigging in the blazing hot sun.

The view downstream from the put in for Hells Canyon.

Below the put in there were some small rapids and everyone warmed up and got the kinks out. One word of advice for this run: Bring a fast playboat! Almost every rapid on day one featured at least one big, fast green wave..

Five and a half miles below the put in is Wild Sheep, the first big rapid on the trip. Scout this one on the left side, following a well-worn trail downstream. The line became obvious during the scout and after fifteen minutes or so everyone was back in their boats and ready to go..

We had nearly twenty thousand cfs when we arrived at Wild Sheep, so it was definitely rowdy in there. I hadn't experienced flows like this since the Grand Canyon. Everyone had clean lines, but I remember being very impressed by the power of the river and the size of the waves and holes, I felt VERY small in my Jackson Fun!

Paul Bunce ( rowing ) hits the last big wave in Wild Sheep rapid.

Pete Giordano ( rowing ) and Lisa Blum power through the last big wave at the bottom of Wild Sheep rapid.

After Wild Sheep everyone was definitely wide awake and buzzing a bit. What a great rapid! After a mile or so we passed a group of rafters on the right that were hiking back up a trail and I soon saw why: there was a large horizon line just around the corner with a crazy waterspout shooting water up into the air. I quickly pulled out on the right side and signaled the rest of the group to stop because this was almost certainly Granite rapid.

It should be noted that you should not approach this rapid too closely if you are planning on scouting it. The right side is best for scouting, and has more eddies. The last eddy upstream on the left is about fifty yards upstream. The rafters we saw on the right had opted for the most conservative scout, stopping on the right side campground about three hundred yards upstream and doing the long hike. Our group stopped much closer on the right side, maybe a hundred yards upstream. Even at twenty thousand cfs there were still eddies there.

Anyway, getting good look at this rapid is somewhat difficult on the right, but after some scrambling we saw that the far right side dumped into a large, retentive-looking hole. The middle plowed through an enormous exploding wave, and the left was doing something we couldn't quite see.

So, after some discussion we decided that the middle looked like the line, at least at the flow we had ( Note: According to the guidebook the middle should be avoided at lower flows because of the hole that forms there ).

Finally the rafts started coming down and I started shooting photos. Up to this point I had some idea how big the exploding wave was in the middle of the river here but it wasn't until the first raft came down that I grasped the scale of the wave.. It was really big!

A sequence of Brian Davies ( rowing ) and Sue Giordano running through the huge exploding wave in the center of Granite.
Note the big hole river-right in this photo. At this high flow the hole looked very retentive!

Brian and Sue, through the exploding wave, minus one oar but still upright!

Don't go in the hole! Bryan enters Granite rapid.

When I was hiking back upstream I noticed a raft on the last small eddy on the left that had been there for a long time, ever since we started scouting anyway. I decided to wait around and see what they were going to do, and I was glad I did because I ended up getting this photo, my favorite of the bunch..

Yee Haw! Another group tries their luck at Granite..
This photo was taking slightly upstream of the big hole on the right, it isn't visible in this photo.

Now it was my turn. I put my camera away and squeezed into my tiny playboat, acutely away of the crushing, stomping, roaring beast I was about to grapple with. I peeled out and dropped in and.. wow.. I remember entering the main flow and feeling the river surge as it rushed downstream and the riverbed narrowed. I could see the horizon line, water flying into the air, and not much else. The river was very wide, so it was somewhat difficult to line up, so I slowed down a bit before I dropped in to make sure I got it right.

My line was similar to Bryans in the photo above, I chose to ride the big curler and punch the shoulder of the hole on the right. Dropping over that last big green face was an awe-inspiring experience.. I have to say that at just shy of twenty thousand cfs Granite was one of the most fun big-water rapids I've ever run. Only the biggest rapids on the Grand Canyon can rival this one!

Below Granite everyone was super stoked and grinning from ear to ear. What a rapid! The river wasn't done yet and continued with many smaller, fun rapids and surf waves. Eventually the sun started to drop in the sky and we found a nice beach across the river from a gauge for our campsite.

Sue Giordano and Kurt Shute filtering water at camp the first night. Thanks guys!

We got a late start the next day, which is what multi-days like this one are all about! Brian cooked an amazing breakfast of course and after stuffing ourselves we loaded up and were on our way.

Mmmm.. Brian, Sandy, and Kurt enjoy breakfast on the morning of day two.

Brian's dutch oven 'Mountain Man Breakfast', the main course on the morning of day two.. This was sooo good!

After the aforementioned late start the river continued to deliver spectacular scenery and fun rapids. The whitewater was definitely better on the first day, but day two did have some nice rapids and a few good playspots.

Getting started the morning of day two

In the afternoon we arrived at the Hells Canyon historical site, which has some of the original settler buildings and a small museum showcasing the pioneer history in the canyon. This spot was definitely worth visiting, and we probably loafed around for about an hour before getting back on the river again.

Checking out the old blacksmiths shop at the Hells Canyon historical site.

Below the historical museum we stopped to hike for a bit and ended up wandering up a ridgeline then back down and up a creek bed.

On my way back from our hiking side trip on day two.

We ended up camping a couple of miles above Pittsburg landing, which was just fine as Brian and I had a long day ahead of us the following day.

After another excellent dinner I decided to go for a hike and ended up climbing up the steep ridge next to our camp. I was hoping to see some wildlife but ended up being quite impressed with the view upstream and downstream, so I shot some photos of our camp and the view looking upstream. It was a great way to spend an hour or two, watching the sun go down slowly over the mountains.. It doesn't get much better than this!

Upstream view from our camp on the second night.

Our camp on the second night.

The crew.. from left to right: Bryan, Kurt, Pete, Lisa, Paul, Jesse, Sandy, Brian, Sue.

The next day was very short, a quick float down to Pittsburg landing and then Brian and I took off for the long drive home.

The Author, enjoying another day on the water..

The rest of the group kept going and had a good time. Pete told me later that he saw a bear, and I was very envious. I haven't seen a bear in the wild for four or five years, since the Selway trip I think..

The Columbia Gorge is always a welcome sight after a long road trip.. almost home!!

The blue box shows the flows the days we were on the river. The level dropped to around 9,000 cfs in the evening, then in the morning as electricity demand rose it would shoot up to just under 20,000 cfs by noon.

For shuttle, we used Scotty's Hells Canyon Outdoor Supply, they have a well-established shuttle service.

Point A on the map is the put in with a purple line showing the road into Hells Canyon.
Point C is the take out located at Pittsburgh Landing, with a purple line showing the road out of the canyon.
The Snake River through Hells Canyon is the dashed while line between point A and C.

For more info, pick up a copy of Soggy Sneakers, Fourth Edition.