Snaking through Hells Canyon
Heavenly times on and off the river
Story and photos by Lee Juillerat
High on Adventure, September 2014


It's called Hells Canyon, but the nearly 100-mile section of the Snake River that wriggles through North America's deepest gorge is definitely a generous slice of heaven.

Hells Canyon Snake River rafting


Rafting the Snake River


I had seen snippets of Hells Canyon from high above while flying in airplanes, but a five-day rafting/kayaking trip provided a water ouzel-eyed view of the river that's mostly inaccessible by road.


 A great time was made better because the crew from OARS, the outfitter that organized the trip, included a geologist-anthropologist well versed in the canyon's cultural history, a chef who prepared sumptuous gourmet appetizers and dinners, and the owner-winemaker of a boutique winery who provided nightly commentary and generous samples. It was promoted as a wine tasting trip, but I found myself more intoxicated by the sights and sounds, from the river's raw, rugged setting to the morning trills of canyon wrens.


Hells Canyon rafting instruction  by Morris Uebalacker

Lesson time with Morris Uebelacker


Hells Canyon chef Cristan Vargas     hells Canyon bottles of Hatchery wines

Chef Cristan Vargas                                         Bottles of Hatchery wines


Getting from the meeting place in Lewiston, Idaho, to the put-in site below the Hells Canyon Dam was a trip itself, literally and physically. Our group of 14, along with two of the eight staff from OARS, flew an hour from Lewiston to the Oregon community of Halfway in three small aircraft. We savored eagle-eye views of the Snake River and Wallowa Mountains before landing—surprise—on a dirt airstrip. Less than an hour later, shuttle vans deposited us at our armada of ready-to-go rafts and inflatable kayaks.


Things began quickly with a pair of deceptively thumpy Class 4 rapids, Wild Sheep and Granite. They made swimmers out of most of the paddlers in the bouncy inflatables, appropriately nicknamed “Duckies.” More challenging rapids – Waterspout, Rush Creek, Tyron, Wild Goose – soon followed.


Hells Canyon rubber duckie boat   Hells Canyon paddlers on the Snake River

Rubber duckie                                                                       Paddlers on the Snake


Unusually, there was more than one way to travel the river. The duckies were the most active way to travel the river, but the options also included a paddle raft, oar-powered rafts (where passengers did nothing more than enjoy the scenery) and a dory, a small, shallow draft boat that provided rodeo rides through large rapids. During the five river days, I tested all four conveyances.

Hells Canyon Snake River paddling

Paddle time


Whether paddling or sightseeing, there was much to enjoy. The canyon is gorgeous, often squeezing through passages with steep, narrow and towering walls. Other times it's wide and broad, barely deep enough to avoid scraping bottom. The Snake literally snakes a watery path with Oregon on its western flank and Idaho on its eastern side. Flowing north on our final day, Oregon eventually gave way to Washington.


Hells Canyon Snake River rest stop   Hells Canyon Snake River rest stop

Rest stop                                                                                       Nap time


Traveling the Snake is traveling through history. The history of the Nez Perce and Shoshone-Bannock tribes is remembered at places like Battle Creek, where the tribes fought each other, and from the abundant but seldom seen pictographs and petroglyphs on canyon walls. The Snake also figures in the history of the Lewis and Clark expedition, gold miners, homesteaders and battles over controversial hydroelectric dams.


Hells Canyon Snake River old-time farm equipment   Hells Canyon Snake River historic ranch house

Old-time farm equipment                                                                Historic ranch house 

Hells Canyon Chinese Massacre Cove sign

Remembering the Massacre


Thanks to Morris Uebelacker, a retired cultural anthropologist, each day's travel was supplemented with side excursions. Sometimes we visited riverside Indian sites, another time we rambled about the Kickwood Historic Ranch and Museum, a preserved homestead ranch. More sobering was the Deep Creek Massacre site, where outlaws murdered up to 34 Chinese miners in 1887. We earned the best views by hiking to a wow-inducing river overlook at Suicide Point. According to a legend that Uebelacker discredits, Suicide Point gets its name from a heart-broken Nez Perce who, some say, rode his horse off the cliff, killing him and the horse.


Hells Canyon Snake River view from Suicide Point

View from Suicide Point


Good fortune allowed us to view fisheries biologists measuring and collecting data from a captured sturgeon. It was 72 inches long and weighed 94 pounds, making it a relatively young, small fish for a species that can be 15 to 18 feet long and live more than a hundred years.


Along the river we viewed a trio of deer with massive racks that impassively watched us from the shade of a tree. Several times we saw bighorn sheep, including massive horned bucks lazing in the sun. At one campsite, other bighorns grazed above us on steep sloped walls. We saw many bald eagles, including one that flew less than 20 feet above us carrying a big-eyed fish in its talons.


Hells Canyon Snake River camp cooks

Cristian at work


Hells Canyon Snake River cevicjhe for dinner   Hells Canyon Snake River duck confit for dinner

Yummers, ceviche                                                                   Duck confit


The eagle ate well that night, and so did we. At our nightly campsites, chef Cristian Vargas prepared appetizers and dinners. The first night included one of my favorites: ceviche, followed by halibut in a shrimp sauce. Drool. Over the nights that followed, the entrees included duck confit, slow-cooked and grilled lamb, steamed vegetables, marinated strip steaks and more.


Hells Canyon Snake River rafters' dinner on the beach

Wine and dine, with no whining


Rough it, we didn't. All four nights, with a satiated belly, I spent under the stars, waking to a sky bulleted with millions of points of light.


Traveling the Hells Canyon of the Snake River was a hellaciously great trip, on the river and off.


Hells Canyon sunset

Sunset from the Snake River canyon


If You Go

OARS offers a wide variety of river, hiking and other adventure trips worldwide, including several one- to eight-day wine tasting tours in the U.S. and Canada. For information visit their website at Under special interest trips, check out wine tasting tours. Wine tasting trips are offered on several rivers, including the Snake, Middle Fork of the Salmon, Rogue, Tuolumne and American.


Hells Canyon Snake River paddlers

Ready to paddle


Hatchery Winery, which has a tasting room in the foothills of the California gold rush country, provisioned wines for my trip, with owner-winemaker Matthew Hatcher providing the wine and information. For more about Hatchery visit their website at


About the author

Lee Juillerat writes and photographs for a daily newspaper in Southern Oregon and does freelance work for a variety of magazines and newspapers. He's the author of books about Crater Lake National Park and a frequent contributor to historical journals. Juillerat can be contacted at


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