Thursday, April 9, 2015

Backpacking in Hell's Canyon

This, my friends, is Hell...

(Photo courtesy of Paul's camera.)

Well, to be more exact, this is technically "Hell's Canyon." Maybe you're thinking what I'm thinking. "If this is Hell, I wonder what Heaven looks like!"

We'll come back to Hell in a second. For now, let's rewind a few months...

Earlier this year, I made a vow to myself that I would make better use of my downtime when I'm in-between housesits (where "better" equals "more adventurous.")

In honoring this vow, I did a solo, overnight bike ride the first weekend in February. I rode The Rectangle Ride, which you may recall from my Bloated Fish & Butt Raisins post. Although this was the fifth time I've ridden The Rectangle Ride, this was my first ride since the devastating landslide that hit the small town of Oso last spring, killing 43 people. The southern side of the Rectangle, which traverses Highway 530, passes through the slide area. The mud and debris from the slide has long since been cleared. The slide area now looks quite barren, and so it's hard to believe that the mud and debris were nearly 75 feet high in some places!

The hillside that slid in Oso.
It's hard to imagine the magnitude of the slide.
Notice the toothpick-like trees in the middle of the slope.

My favorite serenity photo from my bike ride -- Moon, Sky, & Trees.

Okay, now we can get back to Hell...

The first week of April found me with some additional downtime, and so I decided to make the best of it. I had planned on taking Shirley (my Surly) down to The Beaver State to explore eastern Oregon.

But then I had a little chat with my friend, Paul. Paul told me about his plans to backpack Hell's Canyon during his spring break. I had heard of Hell's Canyon and was curious to explore the area. When we discovered that our "spring breaks" coincided, we decided to backpack together.

I was fine bowing out on the bike trip, as I knew I'd be doing plenty of biking this summer. Plus, the last backpacking trip I did was way too long ago. My last backpacking trip, as described in Great Weekends are Memorialized by the Knees, was back in September 2013!

The original plan was to backpack along the rim on the Oregon side of the canyon. Alas, the forecast for the rim was looking less-than-pleasant: snowy and damn cold. Instead, we decided to backpack along the base of the canyon, in Idaho.

And so it was that Paul and I set out for our little trip. The drive took forever. Fortunately, we had plenty of memory-provoking music to pass the time.

Paul's tape collection.

On the drive out to Idaho, we did some day hikes in eastern Washington. As a lover of everything mountainous, coniferous, and green, the rolling hills, sage brush, and dunes of the east were...okay. Fortunately, I was able to find a few things that really piqued my interest, such as this...

A rotting cow.

You may recall from my bike trip posts that I have a somewhat morbid fascination with roadkill. This cow, though likely not a roadkill, was really interesting to me. I was particularly intrigued by the fly-infested cow's empty eye sockets and his perfectly Colgate-white smile.

Somewhere along the route, we made a stop at Palouse Falls State Park.

Palouse Falls.
(Photo courtesy of Paul's camera.)

Do these falls look familiar to you? You may recall that my friend, Eric, and I stopped here a few years ago on my Portland, OR-to-Portland, ME bike trip, In Search of the Green-Tailed Towhee.

Me, enjoying the view from above the Palouse Falls.

Turned off by the not-so-pleasant camping offering at the State Park (but mostly because we prefer "cowboy camping"), we found a nice little spot on the side of the road to pull off and set up camp. Our makeshift home-for-the-night was decorated with stormy blue skies, accented by a ribbon of rainbow colors. Beeeeee-utiful!

My Shadow & A Rainbow.

After some more driving, we finally made it to Idaho. We dumped the car at the Pittsburgh Landing trailhead, we strapped our packs to our backs, and off we went!

Me, at the trailhead.

We stopped to chow down our lunches at the Kirkwood Ranch, six miles into the route. As we ate alongside the Snake River, we noticed a boat pull alongside the ranch. Paul and I looked at each other while saying with puzzled looks on our faces, "US Mail? Is that boat really delivering the mail?" Our curiosity won the best of us, and so we headed down to talk with the boat's driver. Surely enough, the jet boat was delivering the US mail.

The "US Mail" boat.

A newspaper article inside the museum at Kirkwood Ranch provided further information about the US Mail boat. As much of the canyon is inaccessible by road, the boat delivers mail, food, and other items to folks living along the Snake River. The boats runs once-a-week. Traveling as far as 195 miles up the river, it can take as long as two days to deliver the mail. According to the newspaper article, "...[this mail] run is among the last of its kind in the nation."

In order to pass through the Kirkwood Ranch and continue along our backpacking route, we needed to cross a Toll Bridge. Providing April Fool's entertainment for the caretakers of the ranch, we needed to perform one of three tasks to pass through the makeshift toll. We needed to: 1) do a Snake River dance, 2) tell a joke, or 3) recite a poem.

Our payment options for passing the Toll Bridge.

At one point in my life, I had committed Billy Collin's poem "Forgetfulness" to memory. (Refer to Poetic Resuscitation for a recap of my love for Billy Collins.) But, in ironic fashion, I had forgotten the words to "Forgetfulness." Instead, I shared a joke from my extensive repertoire of kindergarten-friendly jokes. This extensive repertoire includes:

Question: What did the fish say when he swam into the cement wall?
Answer: DAMN!


Question: Why did the scarecrow win an award?
Answer: Because he was outstanding in his field.

[Insert laughter here.] Yeah, I know, those are real hoots, aren't they?

I followed up my joke with a bonus Snake River dance, as evidenced by this photo:

My toll payment, in the form of a Snake River Dance.

What I most enjoyed about the Kirkwood Ranch was learning that the caretakers are volunteers! Cool beans! These volunteers, who spend up to two months at the ranch, represent the Forest Service and are responsible for greeting visitors as well as sharing history and information about the ranch. Wow, this is like housesitting on beautiful-nature steroids! (A shout-out to my friend, Bob Sturgeon -- I think you might enjoy this volunteer opportunity. More info here.)

A ways after leaving the ranch, we came across an old, stone homestead.

Me, at the old homestead.

An old Bible and an ink-well, sitting on a rat-infested table in the homestead.

All in all, I really enjoyed backpacking through Hell's Canyon. Although we experienced a few bouts of drizzle here-and-there, and though the nighttimes were cold, I can't imagine a better time to have enjoyed the canyon. For one, by backpacking early in the season, we avoided the unbearably hell-like temperatures that plague this region in the summer months. For two, we managed to successfully miss the rattlesnakes and ticks that will soon make their appearance. For three, aside from a few sightings here-and-there, the poison oak that covers the canyon floor in the summertime was mostly at bay. And, lastly but not leastly, for four, the canyon was far more green then it will be in summertime. As a girl who likes green, I was a happy camper.

I'll leave with you some final photos from the backpacking trip.

Me & The Canyon.

Paul & The Canyon.

Our home in Hell.
(Thanks, Paul, for the photo.)

Enjoying some post-lunch R'n'R in the sun.

A man fishes along the Snake River.
Can you spot the fisherman in the lower right-hand corner?
Does this not scream, "A River Runs Through It?"


  1. YAY!! A Sarah post and a great one!

    I agree completely with you on trips to Eastern WA. Even though I went to WSU for 5 years I still miss the green within a day or two of being on that side. Somehow, though, I’ve never been to Palouse Falls. I need to rectify that soon!

    I’ve never noticed your, ummm interest, in road kill in previous posts….. I learn new things about you all the time…

    GREAT photos and trip to Hells Canyon (I did laugh at the fish joke!) How cool would it be to be the jet boat delivery guy! Shoot I quit PEMCO in heartbeat, well if I knew how to drive a boat…

    As always thanks for taking me aloing!

    1. Ah, thanks, Tony! :)

      My fascination with roadkill may have been mentioned in the pre-Tony days. Here's one post, for example, from my Portland-to-Portland cross country trip that mentioned roadkill (complete with a photo!):

      Yeah, the jet boat delivery guy has a sweet deal. As I understand it, the guy has a touring company in the area and then has the delivery contract with the USPS as a side-business.

    2. I could see you fitting in perfectly with something like that. Cycle tours and jet boats. I can see you hair flowing in the wind now!


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