Numb Toes In Hells Canyon
Sounds like a compatible pair eh? Well maybe not, considering the latest forecast called for overnight temperatures in the high 20’s. Nevertheless we licked our chops at the prospect of having the entire canyon to ourselves for the next week. A small trade off, we justified, numb toes, for total solitude in North America’s deepest river carved gorge.
There we were at the put-in below Hells Canyon Dam, facing 79 miles of whitewater and remote canyon scenery to look forward to. This “Wild and Scenic” Snake river was designated as such in 1975. The “Wild” part, 31.5 miles, means free of impoundments and uses descriptive words like inaccessible, unpolluted and primitive. Followed by the “Scenic” section, 36 miles below that, also free of impoundments and largely primitive and undeveloped yet accessible by roads. Thank goodness for the protection of these waters!
The three of us had two boats to navigate the challenges that lie dynamically below. We had a gourmet menu slated and extra calories planned for the expected low temperatures. The raft and canoe were all ship shape and ready to launch. The three of us looked at each other and then up at the monstrous concrete dam and without hesitation said, “Let’s get the heck downriver”. At that moment our transformation began. From leading our busy summer lifestyle and dreaming about a getaway, planning to make it a reality, and finally, to floating away from everything perceived as normal and comfy, float we did.This wasn’t the first time we had done this, you see, it had become a yearly tradition among a few close friends. Our annual “Numb Toe” trips had taken us along various stretches of the Green River in Utah, a similar, remote canyon with challenging rapids. Over the years we’d invite a friend of ours to join us on a Numb Toe trip. Great idea right? Most often we’d get a chuckle or an emphatic “NO WAY!”
This was our reality, yes, here we were, and our wandering conversation came to an abrupt end when we heard the first baritone groan of the infamous Wild Sheep Rapids below. This class IV is long and requires technical moves that we needed to see first. We pulled off on the left bank to scout. This stop was early, only 6 miles into the remote canyon, but it felt great to get out and walk around. We were already chilled and in need of a little cardiovascular action to warm ourselves before managing our boats through this monster of a rapid. It didn’t take me long to decide to line my canoe alongside the froth and spritz. The others were scouting to ride the 14 foot raft, starting right, working to the center, and finishing upright. Good goals to work towards. I’d set up below in my canoe as a chase boat, with a throw rope, if needed. While lining the canoe down Wild Sheep, I slipped and bumped myself several times making me wonder if it was really safer to do this or just run the meat? Slightly battered and frazzled, I got back into the comfortable open canoe and my familiar cockpit. I bobbed and braced in the boiling, big water eddy at the bottom. I waited for my friends and their hollering voices to overcome the high decibel whitewater, and tell me how much fun they had. The two emerged with joker-sized grins and laid it on thick. I missed out, I know. We were three again and I vowed to paddle the rest of this river!
Granite Rapids were just two miles below, more class IV, whew! I gazed up and took the chilly moment to think about where I was, really. Hells Canyon, so jaw dropping. This place started out as an island chain in the ocean until overwhelmed by the North American plate. Their geology meshed naturally, and the Snake began carving out layer after layer. The eons of rock layering crept its way up from the riverside to the Wallowa and Seven Devil mountains above, some 7,000 feet! It humbled me in a motivational way. I feathered my paddle, dipped it into the current, and ferried my way along. Soon below we stopped, again on the left, and scouted the way through this monster. More white than green, hmmm. I topped off my slowly leaking airbags, cinched down the thigh straps and put on the water. Like a thick and slick, green serpent, the smooth water above the chaos, was just like a snake. A couple of invigorating moments later we were paddle saluting while looking back up at what was to be the rowdiest section Hells Canyon whitewater.
After our third day we felt well into the rhythm of the river. Our senses adapted to the environment as we paddled along. We gained an intimate connection with one sandy beach after another. We spotted wildlife by day and built campfires to wrap up the night. Along the way were countless reminders of stunning beauty, and also signs of human history. The Nez Perce once lived on these lands, their pictographs are proof to that, numerous sites dot the banks of the river. The rock art has snakes, spirals, mountain goats, and scenes from a rich, native culture. A culture willing to over winter in the canyon here due to its mild climate and abundance of food. Remarkable to ponder living an entire winter here, while my numb toes could only handle a week!
We all were thoroughly enjoying the scenery of the canyon and as we ate a tasty dinner there was a wave across the river that caught our eye. It looked like a fluffy pillow of soft whitewater about four feet wide. With such tidy, clean edges to it we promised to explore it closer the next morning. So after some greasy power food for breakfast, I stuffed my cheek with sunflower seeds and ferried across the river. It took quite a bit of hard paddling to stay high enough as I slid across to the hole. This put me far on the river right side of the Snake, where I could see that the hyrdaulic was quite a bit larger up close. In I went, a few hard strokes got me to the recirculating froth and weightless for a bit…..I was side surfing and…I was over. What a way to start a day, I had just thawed out my wetsuit on shore and now I’m getting wet. I didn’t have time to think about these inconveniences though. The rapid started to suck me along and quickly. I tried to look around, saw the raft a few hundred yards above me before a drop of water got into my eyes. My instinct told me to get back in the boat, so I pulled and wound up smacking my lip with the paddle. O.K. I’ll swim it, I thought. I had my paddle in the boat now and a good grip on the canoe. The chill made me shudder and like a sea lion I slid and flipped my way back into the boat. The raft was quick to come over and offer help. I drank some tea and wrung out a couple layers, brrr. Then it began snowing. A grey flurry came through the canyon and my only way to stay warm was to paddle hard and fast, constantly.
We awoke on our sixth morning to some teeth chattering cold. I used some of our morning tea water to thaw out the air valves on the raft. It felt good to pump the raft, jumping up and down, staying warm. That day we were on the water for about an hour before the snow came. Looking at one another really drove home the point to us that we really were an odd group. To want to come out here in November when you can’t see the other side of the river because the swirls of snow were in your way? We kept paddling, tapping our feet, wiggling our fingers, shrugging our shoulders. We kept paddling.
Despite all of our cold moments out there, I mostly remember the fun times and great camping. The whitewater couldn’t have been more fun. It was big water with a different face around each bend. We saw few people, but they all had motors and they were only out for a day trip. As civilization crept nearer, the gorge slowly gained in it’s breadth. The Grande Rhonde river joins the Snake at an awe inspiring confluence.. Just another remote canyon river carving it’s way through the Great Basin. Shortly below we took off the river at Heller Bar feeling good inside. After we parted directions and therefore life paths, the three of us had all gained a special connection with another beautiful and wild place.