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Hells Canyon Meditation

Experiencing the history & adventure of this wild upland destination by raft.

Hells Canyon Meditation

Experiencing Hells Canyon by raft and camping along the way is a once in a lifetime upland adventure. (Photo By: Nathan Ratchford)

Rock fragments scrambled beneath my boots. My heart pounded like a bass drum in my chest as I regained my footing, dug within my vest pocket, and looked at the buzzing Garmin handheld. I kept my center of gravity as close to the vertical slide of scree as possible, afraid that my weakened legs may send me backward down the side of the mountain. Ceder, my friend Matt’s wirehair, was on point at the top of the ridge. I relayed the news between huffing breaths to my friend Diana, who was just behind me.

We had ascended over 1,000 feet in a short period of time, and it had taken its toll on my lungs.

“Are you in?” I asked. I already knew her answer—it was the last day of our float hunt through Hells Canyon and we wouldn’t give up this opportunity.

We scrambled our way to the top. 30 yards. 20 yards. The scree stopped and the terrain flattened. I grabbed the Garmin and the dog’s location suddenly shot to 100 yards. Had the chukar ran? The GPS quickly recalibrated, indicating Ceder was on point just 10 yards away, towards the steep direction we had come up. I walked slowly up a slightly angled shelf of smooth rock, only to look down at him. He was frozen yards away from the cliff’s edge in the early morning sun. I could hear my heart still pounding as I called Diana up for a side approach. Suddenly, the covey burst and I shouldered my Benelli 828U without a thought and unloaded two shells.


Ancient History  

Hells Canyon was born in fire. Around 150 million years ago, a string of underwater volcanoes rose from the waters of the Pacific Ocean, and tectonic plate movement stuck these volcanoes to the North American continent. Over millions of more years, lava flows covered the area and hardened. The dramatic ups and downs of Hells Canyon resulted from ages of uplifting by basalt lava flows and erosion caused by the waters of the Snake River. The Snake still to this day carves the rock in a hiss some 8,000 feet down, making it the deepest gorge in all of North America.

Much is unknown about the Canyon’s earliest settlers, but if you look closely among the ancient rock, you may get a clue. Petroglyphs and pictographs date back some 7,000 years ago. According to the Nez Perce tribe, Coyote dug the Canyon in a day to protect the people on the west side of the River from the Seven Devils, a band of evil spirits living in the mountain range to the east.

Today’s aptly named Seven Devils Mountain range lies in west-central Idaho, and Hells Canyon and the roaring Snake River that runs through it, divides this mountain range from the Wallowa Mountains of Oregon to the west.

The Nez Perce, Shoshone, and Paiute nations were drawn to the area by its temperate winters and diverse wildlife. This abundance of game is what still draws hunters into its mysterious 215,000 acres of wilderness. Elk, mule deer, and bighorn sheep are all at home in this diverse ecosystem. California quail hide in creekside thickets; Hungarian partridge boom out of flat plateaus; and chukar, the red-legged devil soldiers, grey in uniform, “chuk” high on rocky outcrops among cheatgrass in this vertical world.

Native Americans living along the river in southern Idaho used a hand sign to identify themselves that resembled the movement of a snake. Although, it didn't mean ''snake,” that name was given to this group of people. The river flowing through their land was given their tribal name: the Snake River. This tribe would be later called the Shoshone.

The entire web of wildlife found in Hells Canyon all rely on the great Snake River that supported the Shoshone and other native tribes for thousands of years. In its rich waters run salmon, trout, smallmouth, and sturgeon as old as the Canyon itself that fight its white current and dwell in its pausing stillness.

four bird hunters in Hells Canyon
The author and his hunting party stop to take a photograph and take in the natural beauty of the canyon. (Photo By: Nathan Ratchford)

Gun and Rod  

Flying 2,400 miles from Pennsylvania to Boise, I was picked up by the Oklahoma gentleman, Daren Cole who was the organizer of this epic adventure. We were joined by my new Colorado buddy, Diana Rupp, as well as Ashley Thess, who hopped in shortly after me to inject even more excitement into the swelling conversation filling that white Ram pickup as we headed two hours north to the town of Cambridge—population 228.

We checked in to a roadside motel. It was dust colored, with its frame trimmed in navy, which helped my eyes identify its thin structure in the sunlight. Our party met up with hunter Matt Hardinge and his pair of German wirehairs, both of which would be an invaluable addition to the trip.

After a brief rest, we all made our way just across the road to meet our guides on the water, America’s Rafting Company. They informed us of the plan, fielded all questions and calmed any waters of concern. We then packed our jumbo-sized dry bags that would contain our week’s gear for our 34-mile float down the Snake River, where we would fish and hunt all along the way.

Jarrett and his team were meticulous in their planning, organization, and professionalism, which immediately put me at ease with the promise of class three and four rapids and the weather for the October week hovering in the mid 50’s. And did I mention this was my first western hunt?


The next morning, we made our ninety-minute drive to Hells Canyon Dam. After lots of organization and packing at our launch site, we paired off in twos on each large raft with a guide. Each of us had a rod and Benelli shotgun ready for the task. The convoy of rafts would float down the river together relatively close, with enough room for navigation and a few fishing lines. One oversized raft would float ahead of us with Jarrett and one guide, which would hold all of our camping equipment. The idea being they would set up ahead of us for lunch and then dinner, preparing every homemade dinner from scratch with an army of Dutch oven pans.

floating down the snake river in a raft in hells canyon
Floating the Snake River on raft is one of the best ways to get the full experience of visiting Hells Canyon. (Photo By: Nathan Ratchford)

Water and Rock  

The first day was mostly spent fishing and making good time on the water, and with a few good rapids ran in the process.

The smallmouth fishing was nearly spoiling along underwater rocky shelves and caves. A few healthy rainbow trout were also caught in the mix to add a color of palette on the overcast October day. We kept one fish for our evening sturgeon bait and a salmon for dinner. The wind was steady at our faces as we made our way down river.

A bit past mid-day, we pulled over along a rocky beach and made a hasty ascent up the rocks in hopes of finding chukar. We climbed higher and higher, until the red and blue rafts below looked like tic-tacs. I struggled to keep up with Matt and his two dogs as the clouds cleared and sun beat down. But there was little to be found at our elevation other than an old, very rusty shotgun shell.

It was a gentle reminder that although we had left all roadways behind, we were not the first people to climb these hills.

Native tribes hunted Hells Canyon successfully for thousands of years before any white man saw its towering cliffsides. In fact, it wasn’t until 1806 when three members of the famous Lewis and Clark expedition approached Hells Canyon. They turned back in fear, after warnings from local tribes.

In 1811, another group of white settlers encountered the canyon while trying to find a shortcut to the Columbia River. They, too, turned back due to its tricky terrain.

In the 1860s, another slew of settlers arrived in search of gold—but found very little. Two decades later, the 1880s saw a flock of hopeful homesteaders who, unable to farm the land, also gave up. But through the years, a select few endured the Canyon and made it their home.

Hells Canyon certainly has a tendency of testing your willingness to stay. As I descended a series of barely navigable cliffs and sliding rock back to our rafts, my aching legs told me I would have to work even harder in the coming days if I hoped to shoot my first wild chukar. But the red sun was dropping below the sand-colored mountains now, and it was time to get to camp.

The Magic of Hells Canyon

Night at camp was spent under stars unbroken by light—stars how they were always meant to be seen. Nearby, old farming equipment was rusted from promises unfulfilled. The Canyon endures—seeing all come, go, and shaping those who stay with every heatwave and bend of the Snake. Coyotes howled in the distance while we finished up a meal of elk tenderloin that I am convinced is still the best dinner made on a riverbank.

The next day we floated in sunshine, caught even more fish, and pulled over frequently in hopes of finding birds. We found some sign but did not flush any chukar. My legs were tired, and I was shocked by the challenge of the terrain. Following game trails, I often would suddenly cliff out, and have to backtrack in order to move higher. I took a few slides, and a cactus to the hand. There were more than a few situations where the exposure needed to be mentally blocked out, with the possibility of an endless slide down the mountain just one foot slip away. Even the experienced chukar hunter, Matt, was a bit puzzled by the lack of birds. He hypothesized birds may be even higher up with the recent precipitation.

The third day proved to be more productive. Set on going even higher, we climbed hard from the river’s edge, and I had the opportunity at a single bird after following Ceder, the German wirehair, who tracked in big loops around massive boulders—one of which the chukar was unexpectedly resting on before it exploded into a wild flush. I missed. But right before sunset, Matt broke off from the party for a detour and was able to bag a brace of birds in an action-packed window. Exhausted and beat up, I still regret not following him.

german wirehaired pointer
Time spent in Hells Canyon is hard on both hunters and their dogs. (Photo By: Nathan Ratchford)

We pulled into camp for the night, and our guides set their nightly sturgeon bait. It consisted of half a rainbow trout, with a large rock to sink the bait to the bottom of the river. We ate well, as we always did, and talked about our plan for the last day of our trip.

Breaking a pausing silence, the bell attached to the huge rod for fighting sturgeon rang out and the guides began rushing down to the tied rafts at the shore. A dinosaur was on the line. One guide grabbed the rod while the other jumped in the raft, paddling out and then in circles while the other reeled and fought. We all looked on from the shore’s edge in excitement. Suddenly, the fish breached in a prehistoric splash. Eventually, the guides put us on a few rafts to paddle next to them as they had the sturgeon calmly now alongside their raft. It was over six feet and incredible to be close to.

Come and Gone

Waking up in the soft morning light, we heard chukar calling in echoes through the Canyon and felt very optimistic, especially after a strong cup of coffee and an extra serving of breakfast. Matt stayed behind that morning, but generously offered to let me handle his dogs, placing the Garmin tracking device in my hand.

We made our way out of camp following a creek uphill when suddenly Ceder locked on point outside of the blackberry thicket choking the sides of the creek. Valley quail burst out the back end unexpectedly, but there was no shot to be had. We then started the long ascent of the rocky hillside, following a well-worn game trail. I felt more motivated than ever, and my legs finally felt strong beneath me. Ashley and Daren took a lower trail, while Diana and I pushed on, following the dogs higher and higher, until we reached a wall of scree. The Garmin alerted me Cedar was on point at the top of the ridge.

I turned to Diana. “Are you in?” I asked. I already knew her answer.

Those two shots echoing through the Canyon never did connect with that covey of chukar before they dove underneath the rocky cliffside—but the image of Ceder on point at the edge of the cliff, still as a rock in the early morning light, will forever be carved in the walls of my memory.

It was time to head home. Bighorn sheep lay resting on the water’s edge as if to say goodbye. I may not have been able to seal the deal on a chukar, but that’s why they call it hunting. And for my first western hunt, I was happy in simply knowing I gave the Canyon all I had, and it gave me even more in exchange.

chukar partridge standing on rock pile in desert
The elusive chukar partridge calls the canyon its home. (Photo By: Lefteris Papaulakis/Dreamstime.com)
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