Hells Canyon, Snake River

Oct 14, 2019 - National Geographic Quest

The weather was a bit warmer and sunnier on our last full day of our journey up the Columbia and Snake rivers. We got off National Geographic Quest early this morning and loaded into three large jet boats. We spent the day on these specialized vessels, going more than 100 miles round-trip into Hells Canyon on the Snake River. At 8,000 feet from rim to river, Hells Canyon is the deepest canyon in North America.

The jet boat ride is an ideal way to see the depths of the canyon. The nearly treeless landscape is a geologist’s wonderland. Dozens of strata of Columbia River Basalt gave way to the deeper and much older rocks beneath as we zoomed further up the canyon. Some of the formations we saw were formed nearly 300 million years ago in tropical seas, far to the south. Tectonic forces brought them, millimeter by millimeter over vast spans of time, to the Pacific Northwest.

We also had great views of some wildlife. The most exciting animal encounter was with several groups of bighorn sheep. We were amazed at how well their tawny coats blend into the surrounding rocks. We also saw golden and bald eagles, an American dipper, common mergansers, cedar waxings, and the tracks of a river otter on a sandy beach.

The canyon has some rich human history as well. We got to examine a fascinating group of Nez Perce pictographs on a rock near the river. These drawings are at least 5,000 years old!

We enjoyed a country-style picnic lunch at a beautiful ranch by the river. Wild turkeys skulked around the property, as well as a few black-tailed deer. Some of us found great rocks to skip across the river surface.

After an awesome adventure on the churning waters of Hells Canyon, we returned to National Geographic Quest. In the evening, we were treated to a wine tasting and a wonderful presentation by a local Nez Perce storyteller.

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About the Author

Ivan Phillipsen


Ivan is a passionate naturalist with a background in scientific research. He has participated in studies of a diverse assortment of organisms: aspen trees, cactus wrens, aquatic snails, frogs, and beetles. He holds a M.S. in biology from Cal State San Bernardino and a Ph.D. in zoology from Oregon State University. The population genetics of freshwater animals was his area of focus. He has published a series of papers on the evolutionary biology of amphibians and aquatic insects. Ivan’s scientific work invariably involved backpacking into remote wilderness areas to find his secretive research subjects in their natural habitats.

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