Hells Canyon National Recreation Area - A bald eagle perched atop a riverside snag appears nonplussed as eight rafters hellbent on having a good time drift past. Apparently we're a lot more excited than the bird of prey; our intrusion into this magnificent raptor's domain doesn't ruffle a single feather.
We're agitated, apprehensive even, about the upcoming fast water on this stretch of the Snake River in the heart of Hells Canyon. Cliff Mountain Rapids are less than a half mile ahead, followed by the Class II roller coaster waves of Rocky Point Rapids. A couple miles farther downstream, Wild Sheep and Granite Rapids are both rated Class IV - "long rapids with powerful, irregular waves, dangerous rocks and boiling eddies," according to my Snake River boater's guide, which I carry packed in a waterproof nylon bag. Beyond are Lower Bernard Creek Rapids, with a six-foot-high standing wave and Waterspout, where a huge submerged rock creates an unexpected hole in the river that's been known to temporarily "swallow up" rafts and their occupants.
Fortunately, our group is the capable hands of Fearless Freddy, a bronzed, late-40s river guide who commandeers the two oars providing leverage for our self-bailing 18-foot craft as it navigates the tumultuous current. After less than a mile, we've learned that rafting the river is the preferred way to soak up the Hells Canyon scenery, dominated by ruggedly sculpted rock walls towering thousands of feet above us on either side of the Snake, even if the trip downstream means enduring what Freddy has promised everybody - a good dousing.
The latter is inevitable if you're seated in the front of the raft, which is precisely where Knappa resident Jennifer Caisse and I are after our group stops for a lunch of sandwiches, chips, carrot sticks and killer homemade brownies at Bernard Creek, just above the rapids of the same name and site of the century-old McGaffee homestead cabin. We weather Upper Bernard Creek Rapids, but the Class lV lower section of white water provides a thorough soaking. Good thing the water is a pleasant 72 degrees, warmed by Hells Canyon Dam.
Coaxed forward by Fearless Freddy, Michael Bunch changes places with his partner Jennifer just before we encounter Waterspout. "OK everybody, now we're going to get Michael wet," Freddy announces. Lurching down in the raft's bow just above water level, I watch Waterspout explode thousands of gallons of water as we pass over, but Michael gets even more drenched than I do. Turns out Freddy knows how to maneuver his raft with precision, even in this tricky current that's flowing at 16,000 cubic feet per second.
After our crew negotiates Sheep Creek Rapids, Freddy nudges the raft onto a rocky beach. All eight of us help depress the air from our craft and neatly fold it into a manageable size. When a jet boat arrives a half hour later, Freddy hauls it aboard. Everyone follows except Jennifer, Michael and me; we're spending the night on a bluff above the riverbank.
The next day we hike the Idaho side of the Snake River Trail nine breathtaking miles - sometimes at river level, other times high above - to Kirkwood Ranch, where Michael's sister Judy and her husband Gene are caretakers for September, volunteers for the U.S. Forest Service. Three whole days at Kirkwood, I'm thinking after being introduced to the ultra-friendly couple who treat me like family from the get-go.
Lounging around the ranch, now just a small lodging, a log bunkhouse that houses a museum and a couple other structures, I feel like I'm a guest at a smorgasbord of fabulous treats. Nothing gets cold, stale or spoils, so I can enjoy every offering at my leisure.
Jennifer, Michael and I luxuriate in our free time. We help welcome the daytrippers - "dudes," Gene calls them - who ride jet boats to Kirkwood upriver from Lewiston. We feast on the yummiest peaches imaginable, plucking them at will from a nearby tree while the resident deer trot in and out of the back yard. We skip stones across the Snake's glassy surface, then wade into the refreshing water to slake off the heat of a canyon day.
We eat Judy's huckleberry pancakes for breakfast, cheese sandwiches and pickled beet salads for lunch and grilled salmon for supper, then drink tea and wine and play cards until dark. At night we watch in silent awe as the moon rises and illuminates the canyon walls on the Oregon side of the river and listen as owls hoot and coyotes howl.
Much of the time I let my mind wander, sometimes for long stretches of seemingly timeless bliss. "Isn't that how vacations should be?" Michael asks while munching a peach.
Richard Fencsak is co-owner of Bikes and Beyond. His column appears the second and fourth Thursday of each month in The Daily Astorian.