Hells Canyon

Oct 16, 2019 - National Geographic Quest


The jet boat reached 145 miles from the Snake River mouth. Lewiston, our port of call, was Idaho’s former capital and westernmost city. The neighboring city of Clarkston, Washington (once called Jawbone Flats) lined the western shoreline. Further upriver lay the town of Asotin, Washington (named for the onetime plentiful lamprey eels in the river). The Grand Ronde River at Heller’s Bar marks the 30-mile point southward. Sparse evidence of human activity is seen after this point. We were on a wild river for the rest of the exploration.

Our exploration took place within Hells Canyon National Recreation Area and our turn-around was the mouth of the Salmon River. Wildlife emerged on both shores. Guests saw big horn sheep, a bald eagle, wild turkeys, the proud great blue heron, varieties of duck and coot and osprey nests, the latter having migrated south).

Origins of the name “Hells Canyon” abound. However, the most reliable story involves the wild downriver ride of an 1890s steamboat that bounced off every rock – i.e. a “ride through hell,” the boat captain stated.

Vertical basalt columns loom over the river, including entablature on top, multi-sided columns in the middle, and talus around the base. These accidental scenes include a Chinese fan, Moby Dick, and a hilltop piano player. Between the basalt scabs and cliffs gently rounded hills of loess dominate the skyline. Abetting this natural architecture was foliage of red, orange, yellow and deep purple; much of it from hackberry, mulberry, mahogany, and willow trees.

The Nez Perce people have lived, fought, fished and traveled in the canyon for over 10,000 years. Petroglyphs, rock carvings, old trails and oral histories describe this historic symbiotic relationship. Our boat captain frequently referred to Nez Perce stories and tribal elders who came aboard his boats to see and describe ancient native sites.

One Lewis and Clark story survives: Sergeant Ordway’s trek to find fresh salmon. This event has a disappointing end – the salmon obtained from the Nez Perce did not survive the return trip. Spoiled fish caused members of the corps to become violently ill. No further ventures into Hells Canyon are noted in their journals.

After a fulsome ranch lunch at Garden Creek, our three-vessel flotilla dubbed The Nature Conservancy returned to the boat in time to hear Nez Perce storyteller and musician J.R. Spencer give a presentation. The evening program included a geology talk, titled “Fire, Ice, Flood” by Grace Winer.

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About the Author

Junius Rochester

Historian

Junius Rochester was born and raised in Seattle, Washington.  He graduated from Seattle’s Garfield High School; Whitman College, Walla Walla, Washington; took graduate courses in history at the University of Washington, Seattle, and attended Harvard Business School, Boston, Massachusetts.

About the Photographer

Linda Burback

Naturalist/Certified Photo Instructor

Born in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Linda and her Air Force family moved extensively throughout the U.S. when she was a child. Linda continues to travel and explore a broader spectrum of the world as a naturalist with Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic. Linda earned her B.Sc. in horticulture from the University of Arizona in 1985 and worked with this degree in the commercial cactus industry for sixteen years.

About the Videographer

Sarah Culler

Video Chronicler

Sarah was raised on a multi-generational family dairy farm, established circa 1815 in Lucas, Ohio. Consequently, her first paying job was milking cows! Rewarding as it was to get paid for the first time, she found her passion behind the lens of a camera. Growing up on the farm gave her not only a strong work ethic but also the love of nature and being outdoors. 

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