Currently in Rocky Point, Oregon Partly Cloudy and 45 degrees F
Funny, as crowded as the state park campground was, at night it was quiet and dark and I slept great. We decided that there was no need to go to Imnaha on this trip. Mo had been there before, and after reading Laurie and Odel’s very funny account about their trip there, we figured fried gizzards weren’t a big enough draw to get us to take the back way north to Imnaha. Another time.
Instead, we followed the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway on the northern loop from Joseph, east and then south to Hells Canyon Overlook. The scenic byway is worth the drive if only to stand high above the layers and layers of ridges and imagine the Snake River far below. Of course, you can’t see the river from the Overlook, you have to go to Inmaha to actually see the river from above. You could do as the women we found out there who had traveled from Portland to camp on the Imnaha River and then bike to the overlook. Not me! It was a lot of very steep uphill, and we saw one of the women walking her bike about 3 miles short of the top.
You could decide as we did to take the byway all the way to the mighty and magical Snake River and then turn north and drive the 20 plus winding miles to Hells Canyon Dam. In addition to the magnificent drive and the river that flows north through the deepest canyon in North America, we had a destination, a river trip.
We had a great time at the overlook, me trying to discern which ridge I camped on back in the 80’s when we were mapping the canyons. Then of course we had to try out the delay shutter feature on my camera, but it was too far down for me to get in the picture quickly enough. Made for some good laughs until the women on their bikes offered to take a photo of us together.
Hells Canyon Adventures does several different versions of a jet boat ride on the river, and we chose to just get a little taste with the 2 hour tour. We had called a few days in advance to be sure they were still running, and as luck would have it, we got a reservation for the 2PM run.
I have rafted a few rivers, and even did the Colorado River in a paddle boat a few years back. Six days from Moab to Hite Crossing, and a lifetime of memories. That is me in the purple hat, back in 1993, getting ready to paddle through “Five”, the one that dumped us. But that is another story. Being on the river in a jet boat isn’t quite the same, of course, but it was still a river, and still an amazing canyon.
Approaching the dam from the south, the road follows the eastern shoreline of Oxbow Reservoir, with several launch sites and a couple of small campgrounds. The campground at Oxbow was full, but farther up the lake there was plenty of space at another camp about midway to the dam, again with hookups and nice access to the water. The Original Hells Canyon Adventure Tour, South Entrance, leaves from the river just below the dam and downhill from the Hells Canyon Dam visitor center at the end of the road.
It was pretty hot, and shorts were the perfect choice for the day. I also brought along the Pelican Case to carry the camera, just in case something happened and we went down. Jet boat accidents are extremely rare, but I still didn’t want to lose my camera to that river. I needn’t have worried. There was only one Class 4 rapid to get through and our captain was an expert at negotiating the big rocks and holes trying to suck us up.
Hells Canyon is almost a mile and a half deep from highest wall to the river, deeper than the Grand Canyon, although the canyon walls are actually stepped and farther apart, so it doesn’t seem as deep when you are down in it. Still, no matter how I tried, it was impossible to get photos that depicted the immensity of the towering walls above us.
Our guide explained the rapid level rating system, talked about the building of the dam, and the fact that salmon don’t get past this dam. Built in the mid sixties, the dam has no fish ladders, and the salmon are stopped here. This entire issue of salmon and steelhead on the Snake River is controversial and if you are interested in reading about the complexities of the 3 Hells Canyon dams on the Snake River, this link is fascinating. The permits for these dams will expire shortly, and Oregon is still not on board for re-licensing because of the lack of fish passage.
The run through the rapid was fun, but not at all scary in the high powered jet boat. Three big Cummins diesel engines are underneath the deck, and when one of the engines had an electrical problem, we still had two working well enough to get us back home.
We heard stories about settlers trying to make a life on the high benches along the canyon and above the river, and saw evidence of some abandoned homesteads. At the farthest point on the tour, we disembarked and hiked along the river to some pictographs that were supposedly created by the Nez Perce. Again, the pre-history of these images is a bit controversial, and there are several different stories about the people who made them and the time frame when they were done. I only heard what the guide said, “The Nez Perce did them more than 1,000 years ago”. Were the Nez Perce even a tribe 1,000 years ago?
The Nez Perce say their ancestors have been here for 15,000 years. Unlike some of the larger pictographs on the Columbia River near The Dalles, I couldn’t find much information on these images. Still, it was delightful to walk along the river and find them. Of course, once again I had on the Oofos instead of decent hiking sandals. Sheesh! I was planning a river trip and didn’t know it included a hike!
We didn’t see any bighorn sheep or mountain goats on this shorter tour, but we did see two different bear sows, one with a single cub and one with twins. Watching the young cubs frolic and jump around on the rocks was fascinating. As usual, there was one bigger cub who was more adventurous, and a smaller one who lagged behind.
Because of the time we spent watching the bears, and the bit of engine trouble, our trip lasted half an hour longer than the two hours allotted. That was fine by me, except we knew that we had that long climb back up the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway to our waiting motorhome.
Forgot to mention what we did with Abby on this tour day! Another reason for giving ourselves an extra day in Joseph before we went on the boat trip was that we needed to find a dog sitter. A bit of searching and a call to the vet in Enterprise yielded good recommendations for the Lin Lee Kennels in Joseph. They are only open in the morning and evening, but when we picked Abby up the next day she seemed completely happy. The owner said Abby just followed her around the entire time she was there. IF you are in the area and want to do something that isn’t dog friendly, this is the perfect solution.
Since it was getting late, we decided to stop at the one open establishment that was between the canyon and Joseph on our route. Hells Canyon Inn is anything but fancy, but we landed on the Thursday taco night so dinner was OK and the price was bearable. When we pulled into Joseph in the dark at nearly 9PM we were glad we didn’t have to try to find dinner in Joseph or cook something up at home.
More photos of our Hells Canyon Adventure are on google linked here
Tomorrow: the Wallowa Lake Tram