Border crossing: Whitewater Rafting in Hells Canyon, US

River journey

by Mary Caperton Morton, The Guardian, March 23, 2016

A hole in the ground called Hells Canyon sounded like a place to avoid. And avoiding it is easy: it is the deepest canyon in North America, on the border between Oregon and Idaho, and all but inaccessible except by boat or raft. Which, for somebody with a fear of water – such as me – should have been even more reason to stay out of it. But when I was offered the chance to spend five days whitewater rafting the Snake river through the heart of Hells Canyon, I said yes.

I had never been on a multi-day river trip and I had never rafted class-four rapids. But the invite came the day after I survived a spectacular car wreck and I felt compelled to say yes, because rafting Hells Canyon scared the hell out of me – and I thought it may help me deal with my new-found fears at the wheel.


the ROW Adventures’s group take a rest stop during their rafting along Hells Canyon, US

All together … the ROW Adventures group takes a breather

My Hells Canyon trip began at a boat ramp just below the Hells Canyon dam. The 100-metre-high concrete dam looked almost dinky next to the canyon’s precipitous red, grey and black walls, which are over a mile high for most of the canyon’s 40-mile length. The canyon was tunnel-like, deep and narrow, but the bright desert sunshine that reflected off tufts of golden grass and shimmered across the always-moving water made it a magical place.

At its lowest point, Hells Canyon is 2,436 metres deep, even deeper than the Grand Canyon. But for all its depth, the Snake river hasn’t been at work for that long: geologists think the canyon began forming around six million years ago and most of the carving is thought to have taken place during the last two million years, when melting glaciers and catastrophic floods from large lakes upstream boosted the river’s erosive power.

Around 15,000 years ago, spillover from prehistoric Lake Bonneville, in what is now north-west Utah, sent a flood through Hells Canyon 1,000 times greater than present day maximum river flows. At the peak of the flood, an estimated 715,000 cubic metres per second of water gushed over the Snake river plain at speeds over 60 miles an hour, widening and deepening the canyon and leaving massive terraces of loose flood deposits above the high-water line.


The Hells Canyon dam is one of three hydroelectric dams in Hells Canyon

The Hells Canyon dam is one of three hydroelectric dams in Hells Canyon

Our guides soon had our fleet ready and we shoved off in three rafts and a small wooden fishing boat. From here we floated and paddled for 82 miles and five days down river. Along the way we careered through dozens of rapids, most of which fall into the class one, two and three categories on the International Scale of River Difficulty. Two – Wild Sheep and Granite rapids – earn a class-four rating. These two wild stretches of river broiled within two miles of each other on day two. In the sections of smooth water before each rapid, we readied the rafts and steadied our nerves.

Before the biggest rapids we pulled over and scouted the whitewater from the safety of the banks and our guides expertly talked us through the safe routes between the rocks. I found that their river confidence trumped my own fear. We were in good hands.

The river was a wild ride but every time I got splashed, I found myself laughing and I never did take an unplanned swim. The water was chilly but felt good in the warm summer sunshine. A few of our group did take a dunking, falling from the paddle raft and the single-person kayaks, but each swimmer got to their feet downstream and their life vests did their jobs – and they all got pulled back into the boats, thoroughly drenched, but usually grinning.


The writer and fellow travellers on the Row Adventures Hells Canyon trip stop off to explore a rocky outcrop in the canyon.

Rock in the row … a stop for exploring

Our group of 17 included 12 guests – three families and myself – along with four guides and a trainee. Among the guests, river experience ran the gamut from two women who had taken dozens of rafting trips together to myself and a few others, who had little-to-no whitewater experience. One woman, and her 15-year-old daughter, claimed to hate camping, but the roomy tents and picturesque campsites on the sandy shore of the river gave them little to complain about.

The meals were by far the best backcountry gourmet I have ever tasted. After dinner, we bugged the guides for river tales, played horseshoes, and explored the shoreline. And each night, I slept outside my tent, under the astonishingly bright slice of Milky Way that was visible between the canyon walls.

By day three, I figured out the major difference between hiking trips and river trips: my wilderness experiences on multi-day backpacking trips have been physically exhausting and socially isolating. But on the Snake I’m sitting on a boat all day, barely even paddling, surrounded by people at all times. So, after a sumptuous breakfast of blueberry pancakes and bacon, I asked the lead guide, CJ, if I could go for a solo hike and meet the boats a few miles down canyon.


Campsite along the Hells Canyon where the Row Adventures travellers stayed in single- and double-occupancy tents.

The trip includes accommodation in single- and double occupancy tents.

I was prepared for him to say no. To be allowed to go wandering off alone in this rugged wilderness seemed like a long shot, but I am an experienced solo adventurer and was curious to see if the guides would trust my abilities as much as I trusted theirs. Sure enough, CJ found me a whistle (to use to flag down the boats, in case they didn’t see me on shore) and showed me on a map where to meet the group at a sandy beach a few miles downstream. Those miles alone on foot in Hells Canyon – following a faint bighorn sheep trail through hip-deep grass, feeling at home on my own two feet, overlooking the snaking river down below – were my favourite of the trip.

When I rejoined the rafts, CJ said: “If you can hike Hells Canyon solo, you can paddle Hells Canyon solo,” and he handed me the double-bladed oar that went with one of the single-person inflatable kayaks. He assured me that the stretch of water between here and our lunch spot was no more exciting than class two. I didn’t love the idea of captaining my own boat, but I rolled a Land Rover roof-over-wheels down a mountain and walked away unscathed. So I said yes and took the paddle – and my life – in my own good hands.


Writer Mary Caperton Morton on a solo hike on the land surrounding Hells Canyon, US

Going solo … the writer’s hike with the snaking river below

Captaining the single kayak was an exercise in keeping calm and paddling on. I watched each wave roll up to meet my boat and kept the nose pointed perpendicular to the crests. Up ahead, one of the other kayaks was being piloted by Tuku, a trainee guide from Baja, Mexico, who was, apparently, a pro at standup paddleboarding. He stood tall in his kayak, balanced lightly through the riffles and small rapids, and I drew confidence from his straight spine. If he could paddle this section standing, I could certainly handle it sitting. As the river slid by, I found myself moving forward, in more ways than one.

How to raft Hells Canyon

The Hells Canyon national recreation area is in western Idaho and the closest major airports are in Boise, Idaho, or Spokane, Washington. A three-day, 32-mile trip with ROW Adventures from Hells Canyon dam to Pittsburg Landing costs from $990 (adults) and a five-day, 82-mile trip from Hells Canyon dam to Heller Bar costs $1,565pp (adults), including meals and transportation from Boise to the canyon, and to Lewiston at the end of the trip. Hells Canyon is considered a moderate-level trip, with no prior river experience required (as long as you go with an experienced guide). Children must be at least seven years old. Accommodation includes single- and double-occupancy tents and three meals a day. The rafting season runs from May to October.


This article was written by Mary Caperton Morton from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.