Saying Yes to Adventure in Hells Canyon

Headed upriver in Hells Canyon

To live a Risk Blossoming life means stepping out from the day-to-day to explore, discover and grow.  So when an opportunity comes around to jet boat down the whitewater rapids of the Snake River through Hells Canyon ….. you take it (even if it sounds terrifying).

Tim’s Story

Hells Canyon. I had heard of it, but I really didn’t know much about it or even where it was located. It turns out to be the nation’s deepest river canyon, averaging 5,500 feet below the rim for approximately 75 miles. It is also the border between Idaho and Oregon. On the Idaho side, the rim height reaches 8,000 feet above the river at the Seven Devils Mountains.

The landscape of Hells Canyon

The landscape of Hells Canyon

I noted that Hells Canyon wasn’t too far from Baker City, Oregon, one of our stopovers on the drift back to Phoenix. I thought we could drive to the rim for a view.

Don’t Miss it!!

As I was checking into The Mountain View RV Resort, in Baker City, Oregon, I inquired and was told “Don’t miss it” and handed a brochure from Hell’s Canyon Adventures. It was then I realized we were talking about a whitewater river trip, not a view from the rim. I hadn’t thought of that!

Deborah was all in, and we signed up for the all-day trip which would take us 27 miles down, and then 27 miles back up, the Snake River. Our whitewater river adventure would start just below Hells Canyon Dam. We were instructed to wear bathing suits. There was a good chance we would get wet or want to swim as deep in the canyon it can get quite hot. We were to arrive at 9:30 am for a 10:00 am launch. The 54-mile round trip, on the river, was estimated to take 5-6 hours, depending on the stops and the fun our group would choose to have.

Getting There

There was some confusion about the time required to drive to the boat launch. Our host at Mountain View RV Resort said it would take 2 hours and 45 minutes to make the drive. The tour operator said two-hours, but warned me to double check GPS instructions against a map because the launch site is very remote and some systems aren’t accurate. We decided to leave at 7:00 am, which meant setting a morning alarm — ugh!

A Different View

After spending the last two-months in the Pacific Northwest, our drive presented a dramatically different view. I was used to beautiful trees and thick undergrowth preventing any view other than the magnificent foliage right next to you or the canyon of the roadway the foliage creates ahead of you. This morning, driving toward Hells Canyon in eastern Oregon, we had the soft glow of morning light and majestic Western vistas. I instantly realized, as an Arizonan, how much I love these horizon to horizon views.

Road to Hells Canyon

It is just a 2-hour drive, but the folks at our RV resort seemed to know there would be photo stops when they suggested the extra 45-minutes. We were overwhelmed with the stark beauty as we moved toward the canyon. There were few trees on the large rolling hills ranch land.

We drove along the Powder River with the Wallowas Mountains in the distance. After driving for over 50-miles and only passing one very remote hamlet, we couldn’t bypass a short loop through Halfway, OR.


Welcome to Halfway Hells Canyon County

Rural America continuously presents so many wonderful and inspiring Americana images. Just before entering this small town, of less than 300-people, there was a somewhat broken down house that now serves as the meeting place of Veterans of Foreign Wars. The lawn was mowed and the sun was shining, creating a striking image of the flag, presented at half mast, in honor of John McCain.

Halfway VFW - flying the flag at half-mast in honor of John McCain's passing

Halfway VFW – flying the flag at half-mast in honor of John McCain’s passing

We had not had breakfast, and Deborah decided she wanted a pastry which seemed like a good idea to me. I had drank too much coffee this morning, so I obligingly stopped at the Old Pine Market. Deborah went inside where they suggested the pastries were better across the street at the bakery.

One would think “across the street” in a small town of 300 people, would be easy to find. We slowly drove a block north, flipped a U-turn and retracted two blocks South before asking a friendly local for instructions. Apparently, across the street meant a side street, not the main street. We finally found the plain white house, with a small “bakery” sign.

Halfway Bakery

As Deborah entered ‘the bakery’  she was politely greeted with “Are you lost, Honey? I saw you drive by twice.” Seems as though they’re not only friendly, but they are very observant folks in Halfway. She was also greeted with the wonderful aroma of cinnamon rolls in the oven.

Unfortunately, we did not have time to wait for the rolls.  But, I quickly devoured the fresh, homemade donut she bought for me. Back on the road, we wondered about Halfway. Were we Halfway to nowhere or Halfway to somewhere?

No Maps, No Signs, No Cell

When we came to the next junction. I wasn’t sure which road to take. I chose the wrong one. But, fortunately, quickly reversed course. There was no cell reception to check Google maps and the road signs were just arrows pointing toward names I didn’t recognize. I knew I was on the right road when we crossed the Snake River into Idaho just as instructed. The road turned parallel with the river and was posted — Private Road, Drive At Your Own Risk.

Photo Opportunities

Our road, the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway, hugged the river, whose flow quickly settled as a lake, 22 miles behind Hells Canyon Dam. I became overwhelmed with the mirror calm water which reflected the steeping walls as we began to enter Hells Canyon. I stopped, and stopped again, and again to look, absorb, and take pictures. There were no other cars. We had this majestic place all to ourselves.

Soon, Deborah became particularly concerned about time. I kept insisting, even though we were a little late, that we would make the boat. She didn’t seem to share my confidence.

Traveling the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway

Traveling the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway

Hell’s Canyon Adventure’s Launch Site

Finally we reached and crossed dam and were now less than a mile from the end of this private road and the Hells Canyon Adventurers launch site. Deborah said, “I sure hope they waited for us” before looking at her phone in amazement — it read 9:35 AM.   It was then that she told me that her phone had displayed 10 AM time, all the way along the lake while she was fretting and I was stopping.

Even though there was no cell service, her phone must have changed to Mountain Time, from Pacific Time,  when we crossed the river into Idaho and drove along the lake. It then changed back to Pacific Time as we crossed the dam, going back into Oregon! My $45 Momentum dial watch never changed.

Captain Dusty

As we pulled into the parking lot, most of the rest of the passengers were assembled and we were quickly lead down about 60 stairs to sign waivers and climb aboard.

Our watercraft for the adventure ahead

Our watercraft for the adventure ahead

Captain Dusty went over the rules and thoroughly explained the boat. It was very stable craft with a shallow draft — probably 30-feet long and 12-feet wide. It is powered by triple diesel engines connected to water jet drives. Steering and a forward-reverse are controlled by sticks rather than wheels and shifters. This allows the boat, if needed, to be spun, like a saucer, rather than just turned in a curve.

The Whitewater Rapids

Wild Sheep Rapids, the first of consecutive Class IV rapids on the Snake River

Wild Sheep Rapids, the first of consecutive Class IV rapids on the Snake River

The magic started almost instantly as we passed down through the Class II Cliff Mountain and Rocky Point Rapids.

Soon, we were approaching Wild Sheep Rapids, the first of consecutive Class IV experiences. Captain Dusty spun the boat around and held it in place, facing upstream. We were only about 50-feet directly above where the smooth river suddenly falls 8-10 feet into the beginning of some gnarly whitewater. It was time for lifejackets and the realization of why we had to sign the waiver.

Drenching rapid drop

Drenching rapid drop

I didn’t know what to expect as we dropped sideways angling steeply down into the deep whitewater. The downstream side of the bow disappeared into the rapids and the lead side of the boat, our side, got a 6-foot high wall of water drenching.

I wasn’t sure of Captain Dusty’s line until the second class IV drop into Granite Rapids. This time, he did the same side slide, but in the opposite direction. The customers on the other side of the boat got their equal opportunity drenching.

Hell’s Canyon National Recreation Area

The fun, the views, the wildlife and the education of the canyon were inspiring. We saw bald eagles, mountain sheep, wild turkeys, migrating salmon and a large brown bear.

Bear in Hells Canyon

Bear in Hells Canyon

We learned about homesteaders who forged upstream from Lewiston, ID to establish very remote ranches. The remnants of those ranches and their buildings remain today on private land, accessible only by the river or long hiking trails, within this large National Recreation Area.

Returning upstream, I wanted to absorb everything about this river and this canyon.

Going Up-River

Captain Dusty powered through a straighter line going up the rapids. The feeling was surreal. It was like moving in slow motion.

Deborah taking in the sights

Deborah taking in the sights

The current against us was fast and the engines were running powerfully. Still, we were moving slowly with a clear view of the water cascading over giant boulders. We smoothly powered up the waterfalls at the head of each of the Class IV rapids. I was enjoying our adventure, and didn’t want the dam to ever appear around a bend, which I knew would signal the end of this river fun.

Deborah’s Perspective

I think that Tim was a bit unsure what my response would be when he asked if I wanted to go on the Hells Canyon Whitewater Adventure. I didn’t hesitate. Yes, I wanted to go!!

As a coach, I will often hear people express more disappointment, as they look back at their lives, with the things they did not do, than the things they did not do well. I understand, and think nothing could be truer. When presented with a unique opportunity or experience, one should think long and hard before declining it.  The opportunity might never represent itself again! And, you never know what lesson you might get the chance to learn.

My perspective was;  we are here, if there is availability on this boat, then we are going.

Planning for the Adventure

Tim didn’t stick around to ask me a second time for confirmation, he immediately got on the phone and made the reservations. When Tim gave me the sign that we were booked,  our minds began to imagine and enjoy the prospects of our pending whitewater adventure!!

Getting ready was part of the journey. We filled Willy’s gas tank, packed an ice chest full of drinks and snacks, packed towels and extra clothes, and prepared ourselves for an adventurous day, off the grid.

Making Memories

Bald Eagle in a tree along Hells Canyon, Idaho

Bald Eagle in a tree along Hells Canyon, Idaho

For me, being on the water is always special. I also love seeing and watching wildlife in their own environs, and my imagination will run rapid when I think about the early explorers and adventurers who first experienced this beautiful river deep in this abyss called Hells Canyon.

Throughout the day, crew and passengers shared smiles and laughter. We took the time to look up and see the clear blue skies, breath in the fresh air, admire the spectacular scenery and feel the power of the biggest whitewater in Idaho.

We experienced our own natural high and euphoria from doing something unique and special to “risk blossoming.” Life continues to surprise us.


What new adventures are you saying “yes” to?

Tim and Deborah Bateman

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