Hells Canyon: Washington | Oregon | Idaho

Dave Katz, Video Chronicler

  • Daily Expedition Reports
  • 16 Sep 2019

Hells Canyon: Washington | Oregon | Idaho, 9/16/2019, National Geographic Sea Lion

  • Aboard the National Geographic Sea Lion
  • Pacific Northwest

Hells Canyon, carved by the Snake and Salmon Rivers, is a ten-mile-wide canyon along the borders of eastern Oregon, eastern Washington and western Idaho. It is part of the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area and is North America's deepest river gorge at 7,993 feet. This is today’s destination.

Jet boats are the optimal mode of transport. Our captain, Butch has decades of experience navigating the many rapids running through the great chasm. We make our way about fifty miles up the Snake River to the confluence with the Salmon River, one of the longest free flowing (undammed) rivers in the forty-eight contiguous states and – the longest river system contained entirely within a single state (i.e. Idaho). Butch brings the canyon alive with his commentary, ranging through areas of natural history and human history alike. The breadth of his information is expansive.

Sublime scenery is expected, and expectations are fulfilled. As we proceed into the canyon, the walls become steeper and the gorge becomes deeper. Spectacular examples of columnar basalt are in good view.

In addition to scenery, our hope is to spot wildlife. Our hopes are not dashed. Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep are in especially good position for us to watch, photograph and enjoy. This time of the year, the sheep come down to the river for water and to forage on the fresh vegetation.

Yet another highlight is the sighting of ancient petroglyphs. The Nez Perce people have lived in Hells Canyon since time immemorial, or nearly so. Their historic lands included northeast Oregon, southeast Washington and the southern portion of the Idaho Panhandle. Hells Canyon was at the heart of their lands and they left their mark in many ways, including ancient rock paintings (pictographs) and carvings (petroglyphs). The fact that even today’s Nez Perce elders do not know the meaning of these rock works adds a level of mystery and allows each of us to imagine just what the artists wanted to convey.

Once back to Lewiston, we have the great pleasure of being joined by JR Spencer, a member of the Nez Perce peoples. His extraordinary presentation is compelling and uplifting.

Wait, the day is not yet over! We proceed to the Clearwater Canyon Winery where winemaker Coco Umiker and her staff share how they create their wines and offer an opportunity to taste a variety of their offerings. On to Mystic Café for a fine dinner that will end a full and rich day.

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