2005 Rafting Hells Canyon - Terror and Tranquility
Text and photography by JEFF KUECHLE
It's not a comfortable feeling, that frozen moment perched at the brink of the deep ‘hole" behind a huge boulder, knowing that the roaring, 6-foot-high standing wave behind it, fueled by 20,000 cubic feet per second of emerald- green water, is about to crash down on the boat, and maybe take a few of the occupants with it. Like a 55-gallon drum of cold river water in the face, the wave breaks over the bow of the 15-foot ‘ rubber raft, lifting 12-year-old Zachary Beach from his sear and nearly washing him out of the boat. Somehow he hangs on, shakes his wet hair with a goofy grin, lets out an involuntary whoop, and dips his paddle in the water once again. A minute r two later, the bright-blue raft shakes free from the tail of Class 4 (on a scale of 1 to 6) Granite Creek rapids on the Snake River, and enters a glass- smooth eddy between two sheer rock walls. Propelled by lazy sweeps of Zoller's Outdoor Odysseys guide Marq Box's oars, the boat twirls like a leaf in the slow current beneath ramparts of rock rising thousands of feet to an impossibly blue desert sky. ; The sum heats down so fiercely that steam rises from wet T-shirts and shorts. It's 106 degrees in the shade, hut here on the canyon floor, in the middle of the Snake River, shade is a scarce commodity. Cricket songs and birdcalls fill the air. From a dead snag at the water's edge, a bald eagle watches regally as the human intruders float by The sibilant roar of another rapid approaches. ‘Let's start a slow forward paddle," calls Box, squinting at the white water ahead. The other occupants of the raft — David and Donna Beach of Gainesville, Fla., and their grandsons Nicholas, 14, and Zachary, obediently dig their paddles into the water. It's time to get wet again. River rats The Beaches have come to Hells Canyon, one of the wildest, most pristine Spots in the lower 48, as part of an annual ritual. Every summer since their grandsons were toddlers, David and Donna have taken them on a weeklong adventure. During a 2004 trip to Oregon, they booked a day trip on the White Salmon River through Zoller's Outdoor Odysseys. For the past year, Nicholas and Zachary have talked of little else. So this summer, when they learned that Zoller's also offers guided four-day raft trips through Hells Canyon, the Beaches decided to try something a little more adventurous. "We took the boys to Alaska a few years ago," Donna Beach said. "‘We thought the trip was a disaster — the weather was just rainy and horrible. But talking to Nicholas and Zachary later, they loved it —to this day they remember every detail. They'll likely remember this day, as well — nine river-miles of alternating terror and tranquility in a setting of cataclysmic grandeur. Around 4 p.m., the three Zoller's rafts stop to set up camp at the lower Oregon Hole campsite, a sand-carpeted, tree—shaded shelf above a rocky beach, reputedly used by Native Americans since prehistoric times. As Box and fellow guides Mark LeSage, Russ Cole and Zach Zoller unload the boats and set up the cooking area, the Beaches deploy outfitter-sup plied dome tents, sleeping pads and bags.