Mark Yates makes his living in the deepest gorge in America. He’s a 12-year veteran river guide who loves to share his vast “backyard” with folks eager to see an unchanged piece of Oregon from a different point of view.
We met Yates at the Hells Canyon Creek Recreation Site, the put-in point for a his company’s (Hells Canyon Adventures) jet boating trips on the Wild and Scenic Snake River in the deepest gorge in North America called Hells Canyon.
He told me that most folks are wide-eyed and awestruck by the canyon before they’ve even touched the water:
“We’re in the deepest part of Hells Canyon right now and will be for about six miles downriver. You can see the shadows are longer here from the surrounding cliffs--not surprising when you consider we’re thousands of feet deep in the canyon right here.”
We’re on the eastern edge of Oregon on the border with Idaho – deep in a wilderness river canyon where risk and danger are easy to come by. It’s a wild river where a rugged and remote landscape is always by your side.
Plus, there’s a certain rush of adrenaline that hits you after you realize there are many really big white-water rapids waiting just around the bend.
The names conjure up images of frothy, foamy moments of terror: Wild Sheep Rapids, Granite Rapids, and Rush Creek Rapids. Each is unique, but all seem like brewing cauldrons of white water--and they deserve respect.
We joined Mark aboard his 40-foot jet boat named, “Calebra,” who explained the boat’s name: “It is a Spanish word for ‘Snake,’ said Yates.
He added, “This is quite an unusual western river for it travels on a 1,056-mile journey from its headwaters at 9,800 feet in Yellowstone Park to its confluence with the Columbia River at Pasco, Washington at an elevation of 340 feet. That’s a lot of drop – with lots of fast-running whitewater rapids along the way.”
Hells Canyon of the Snake River forms the border between Oregon and Idaho with a maximum depth of over 7,900 feet.
Congress preserved 652,488 acres of it for all and forever by forming the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area and designating the river “Wild and Scenic” under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The river is managed to preserve its free-flowing character and unique environment while providing for continued public use.
“The big water is the draw,” Yates noted. “It’s not really technical white water with lots of rocks or obstacles to avoid; just gigantic waves every couple of miles.”
Visitor Mike Lawrence of Richland, Washington described it succinctly: “It makes you feel mighty small!”
As Yates motored his 40-foot jet boat – at first glance, Calebra’s controls seemed simple enough. He handled a steering ‘stick” on his right and double throttles on his left. The stick offered direction, left or right, while throttles controlled speed, slow or fast.
Powered by two Cummins diesel engines with a combined 800 horsepower output, Yates said it’s plenty of power to pass thru the foamy, churning rapids. “This boat pumps about 10,000 gallons of water a minute as we move along,” shouted Yates. “The river water is pushing me around all of the time so I’m always reacting to what the water is doing to me.”
Yates, his Calebra and the Snake River are in constant motion through the dozens of Hells Canyon rapids.
“You have to react quickly so that’s why I am constantly on the move; that’s something you learn over time.”
Yates has been guiding Hells Canyon for a dozen years, so he knows every twist and turn, every treacherous rock in the powerful currents.
He also knows the quiet times! The places in between the rapids where wildlife are easy to spy – we enjoyed views to plentiful deer, soaring eagles and many big horn sheep; some so close to the river, it seemed you could almost reach out and touch them.
There were also signs of the former human lives that lived in the remote canyon. You see, there was a time--a slower, quieter era—when the Snake River offered a hopeful future for homesteaders eager to scratch out a life along the rich river bottom land.
Those days are long gone for sure - and yet today, in the heyday of easy travel to hard-to-reach spots, solitude and solace remain easy to come by in Hells Canyon.
In Hells Canyon few roads, phones, radios, or televisions add up to remoteness by any standard – just as it did a century ago.
Some might call it desolation at its worst, but for one married couple, Hells Canyon offers isolation at its best.
A century ago, Hells Canyon offered a hopeful future for homesteaders eager to scratch out a living according to Robin and Russell Whittington.
They’re “volunteer hosts” at Kirkwod Ranch, a US Forest Service Museum in Hells Canyon. Kirkwood was home of former Idaho governor Leonard Jordan, who raised a family here.
The Whittington’s have been “regulars” of a sort having served as hosts for the past seven summers. During their time in Hells Canyon they’ve learned great respect for the earliest people who carved out a living in the desolate location.
“These people who first lived in here were hearty souls,” said Robin. “Many of the homesteads started during the depression and it was a hard, demanding life – you had to make do, fix whatever broke – there no were hardware stores around.”
She added that the isolation had its rewards in lessons of self-sufficiency and working together as a family.
“For one thing you learned to be self-sufficient and how to survive. You learned to depend upon yourself, and I don’t think people do that much anymore. There’s also a feeling of constancy in here.”
“Visitors can learn much about the local history when they stop in,” added Russell. “People moved out of the cities to places like this to survive the depression. It’s a real chunk of American history and it rolls back time if you stay here for any length of time!”
Back on the water - the Snake River rolls on to a rhythm not lost on the visitor and soon, the canyon opens up as the terrain changes to benches or terraces in contrast to the sheer vertical walls of the upper run.
“It’s just gorgeous the way nature has carved such a deep canyon with a beautiful river running through it,” added visitor Mike Lawrence. “It is wonderful to get a chance to see it. There are many beautiful spots throughout the northwest but this is very rugged and adventuresome with a lot of adrenalin.”
“And part of the adventure is not knowing what’s around the next bend,” added Yates. “We we‘ve spectacular scenery, wildlife and offer the ability to find remoteness, a natural environment and we make it time accessible.”
Hells Canyon of the Snake River is a place that captures your heart and never lets go.
Travel Interstate 84 to Baker City, exit 302 (Hells Canyon) and go seventy miles east on Oregon 86 to Oxbow (allow two and a half hours from Baker City). Follow signs to Hells Canyon Dam, cross the dam, and follow signs to the Hells Canyon Creek Recreation Site visitor center parking lot. A paved road leads to the dam that gave this canyon its name. Just beyond is the boat ramp where Hells Canyon Adventures begins their daily trips.