At dawn, I set off on a short 17-mile hike up the canyon.
“Dawn” is a relatively subjective term in Hell’s Canyon. The canyon runs north and south, and the mountains that form the canyon walls block the sunrise and sunset each day. Therefore, though it was light enough to see by around 7:30 in the morning, the sun was not visible above the eastern rim until 10:30 a.m.—and it set about 4 hours later, at 2:30 or 3:00 p.m. The exact times depend upon where you are in the canyon, since the upper canyon walls are bathed in sunlight much earlier and longer than the gloomy river below.
I waited at my campsite until it was light enough to see, and then drove the short distance to the start of the trail. I then shouldered my backpack, filled with food, cameras, and every container of water I had, and started up the trail.
According to a sign at the trailhead, the Snake River Trail #102 covered at least 26 miles, one way. For most of the distance, the trail is little more than a cattle path: just a foot-wide track through the grass. It winds its way up and down the canyon walls, with the occasional series of switchbacks, always looking for the easiest route. The easiest route to build, that is; not necessarily the easiest or shortest or flattest route to hike.
I have not done all that much hiking in the past, and am not what you would call an experienced hiker. I figured that shouldn’t matter much. Hiking looks an awful lot like walking, and I’ve been doing that since almost before I could walk. And it is not like it should take much specialized equipment. Besides enough food and water, all you really need is a good walking stick.
I picked up a stick from beside the trail, and then later discarded it when I found a better one. After a couple of such trades along the first mile or so of trail, I had what I considered a good walking stick—good, considering that there were very few trees in the canyon.
What makes a good walking stick? The biggest factor is comfort, which comes from a combination of being the right length, weight, and having a good handhold. Or, ideally, three good handholds: one a bit lower on the stick for when you are walking uphill; one higher up on the stick for when you are walking downhill; and one in-between those two for walking on the level. At least, that’s my opinion; I’m just making this up as I go along.
Though it felt natural and somewhat Gandalf-esque to carry a walking stick, I wasn’t really certain that it helped with hiking. After all, it was additional weight. It also provided a third leg, though, and that added stability kept me from falling on the trail at least once—and one bad fall or leg injury on a remote trail like this could lead to serious problems. Plus, it is handy for beating off snakes, rabid mountain goats, or door-to-door salesmen.
I ran into none of these, or much of anything else. A couple of times I heard, and then saw, one of the infamous jet boats zoom by on the river below. One time I heard that same noise approaching around a bend, but was then surprised to see a small airplane fly through the canyon instead.
Somewhere past mile marker 5, I saw another jet boat zoom by below—but then it slowed down, and pulled in to dock at a flat field that seemed to have signs of human civilization. The boat did not stay there long, and I wondered why it had stopped at all. Was that perhaps a picnic site for those who pay to take the jet boat trips? Will the trail take me down to that field? I hoped not, because I was on top of a cliff overlooking the field, and that would mean I would have to go down, and later climb back up, said cliff.
On cue, the trail started down the cliff, using a series of steep switchbacks. Steep enough that this time, I did slip and fall on the trail, even with the walking stick. Luckily, there were no injuries to report.
When I reached the plain at the bottom of the cliff, I was greeted by the remains of an old fence and a homemade sign that announced “Kirkwood”. Whatever that meant.
A creek cut through the center of the long field, and around the creek I came across several old buildings. Some park service signs identified them as historical cabins and bunkhouses, and a non-historical outhouse. A small waterwheel spun in the creek’s current, functional but performing no function.
After crossing the creek, the trail turned toward the river and away from the silent remnants of Kirkwood. And there, on a large flat rock near the river, I could see the distant form of a human and a big black dog sitting quietly.
Ah, another hiker! And she brought her dog along, no less.
I walked toward the pair, curious about their story. Like any good guard dog, the big black dog jumped up and let out some deep baritone barks—after I had closed the distance to 100 feet, and had been in sight for a good minute or so.
Thus alerted, the woman looked up from her reading and hollered a warm welcome.
The woman’s name was Janet, and the long-haired retriever/black lab mix was named Raven. After the initial warning barks, Raven quickly warmed up to me—a 100-pound puppy dog.
“She gets attention-starved down here,” Janet apologized. “We don’t get many visitors.”
That’s right. Instead of another wandering hiker, Janet and Raven lived down there, in the bottom of the canyon, at Kirkwood. At least, they lived there for one month. Janet explained that the park service had volunteers who would live in Kirkwood for a calendar month, as a sort of house-sitting program. The volunteers did not pay and were not paid to live there, other than a small per diem. “For entertainment,” I joked.
“Exactly,” chuckled Janet, who was well-acquainted with the fact that there was absolutely nothing you could spend money on down in the canyon. January was her month at Kirkwood, and she had already spent over 3 weeks there, alone except for her dog. Their only visitor, besides myself, was the boat I had seen stop briefly near the rock where she was sitting.
“Weekly mail boat,” she explained, indicating the envelopes and packages laid out on the rock, and the letter she had been reading. I mulled over the term in my mind. A mail boat? A weeklymail boat?
Such is the existence at Kirkwood, if you ever want a house-sitting job that allows you to really, really get away from it all.
Janet invited me into the house for tea, “and I just made some cookies,” she added, “if you like cookies.”
The back door of the house opened into a half-basement, which contained the kitchen. The kitchen was equipped with light bulbs in the ceiling, but none of them were turned on, despite the somewhat gloomy darkness of the basement. “So, the place has electricity?” I asked, somewhat surprised that it did.
“Yes, but the pipes are frozen right now, so we’ve been out of power for a couple of weeks,” she replied.
I was confused, but resisted saying anything. Electricity, frozen, in pipes?
Janet went to the ancient stove and set about boiling some water for hot tea, and I sat down at the nearby table. She talked about the history of Kirkwood, as Raven tried to sit in my lap.
“Kirkwood was once a ranch,” Janet explained. “It might surprise you, but there used to be several ranches down in the canyon, and there are still a few people who have ranches that extend down here.”
“Now all of the buildings here are historical landmarks. That log cabin was the original house, and was moved down here from a spot farther up the creek.”
“So, there’s a road down here?” I guessed.
“Oh, sure. In fact, you would have passed it on your way to Pittsburgh Landing. Remember a spot where the road split, and there was a sign for ‘Cow Creek Saddle’?”
“Yeah, actually, I wondered where that went.”
“It goes over the saddle and comes down here. But, it’s closed during the winter. You can’t even make it over the saddle with a four-wheel-drive. The only way in here now is on the mail boat—or the way you came.”
I asked her about a couple of pieces of antique farm equipment I had seen, and she confirmed that, yes, they used to farm the flat field along the river. This impressed me mostly because it would have been so hard to get the crops back out over the saddle. Or, perhaps, they just had a weekly grain boat.
As she carried the teapot to the table and sat down, we talked about where we were from and what had led to each of us being in the bottom of Hell’s Canyon on a late January morning.
Janet was from Oregon, which, as she pointed out, was right there on the opposite bank of the river—though she lived about 50 miles farther into the state. She is a biologist, which was a big reason why a month in Hell’s Canyon appealed to her.
So, we talked about biology for a while. She was especially interested in the tallgrass prairie where I am originally from. I told her as much as I knew about the ecosystem there, and the different plants and animals I could identify as being native or populous. She seemed especially interested in birds, such as the large groups of wild turkeys I had seen.
Personally, I was more interested in predators. It had occurred to me, about a mile or two into my hike, that the river below was probably called the Snake River for a reason; and that reason may or may not have anything to do with the way the river snakes through the canyon. Then I remembered that it was January, and hoped that meant any rattlers would be asleep for the winter. Janet had assisted some rangers with studying the wolf population in the canyon.
“You might be able to see their tracks, if you are lucky,” she said. “They look like dog tracks, but are much, much bigger.”
Wolves did not really concern me, since wolves are essentially dogs, and I seem to have an uncanny ability of dealing with dogs—which is why a timid Australian once accused me of being the Devil. I am more concerned about cats. Cats are sneaky, and are more likely to pounce on you before you see them.
“Oh, sure, there are mountain lions around here,” Janet assured. “They won’t mess with you if you don’t mess with them.”
OK, but a mountain lion once messed with a woman in her own backyard, not all that far from where I grew up. But, it was useless to worry about any of that. I had already walked 6 miles, and would have to walk at least 6 miles back. And any wolves or cats would probably not be a danger until after dark.
To be sure that wasn’t an issue, I decided it was time to get moving again. Janet and I had been chatting for at least an hour—which she apologized for, even though I was the one who did most of the talking.
On the way out, she quickly showed me the small museum housed in the log cabin next door. In its two rooms, it contained everything from farm relics to an arrowhead collection. And, it is free to visit. Considering its location, though, it is probably one of the least-visited museums in the world.
Oh, and the frozen electricity pipes: power for the house was provided by a green box that housed a hydroelectric generator, powered by water from a pipe. Frozen pipe = no electricity. Though, it seemed the unfrozen creek nearby, with the working water wheel, might have been a better source of power.
Janet had advised me to check out Suicide Point, which was supposed to be 8 miles from the trailhead. It would provide some of the best views up the canyon without walking the 26 miles to Granite Creek, which is where the actual deeper-than-the-Grand-Canyon part of Hell’s Canyon was located.
I passed mile marker 8 without seeing anything that looked like a suicide point. I continued walking for what seemed like close to another mile, wondering if I would even recognize Suicide Point when I saw it.
I sat down on the rock for a short lunch break. As I dined on peanuts and the most stale one-day-old Snickers bar I had ever encountered—the most stale candy, period—I considered that I was not at the nicest of addresses: Suicide Point, in Hell’s Canyon, on the Snake River, Idaho.
I didn’t sit too long, since I had to retrace my steps. My watch said 3:30 p.m., which means it was 1:30 locally, and it had taken me 4 hours of walking time to reach that point. Once I did get back to the pickup, it could easily be an hour before I was back out in cell phone range, and I had promised someone back on Central time that I would call when I made it out. That way, if I did not make it out, the rescuers would know where to look.
So, I double-timed it, as best I could, back down the trail. I jogged in any places where it seemed safe to do so—which was not very often on this rocky trail.
It was now a fairly warm day, though it had been freezing when I started out in the morning. I had at least done one thing right by dressing in several layers, including a sweatshirt, long-sleeved T-shirt, hooded Carhart jacket, vest, gloves, and even some sweats and a windbreaker that I could put on over my jeans. So, I found multiple ways of staying a comfortable temperature, from having everything on; to everything on but hood down; and then gloves off; coat unzipped; vest off but hood and gloves back on; coat and gloves off but vest back on; T-shirt and vest off but coat back on; naked; etc.
By mid-afternoon I had all but one layer stuffed into my backpack, which started to feel heavy for some reason.
I passed Kirkwood without seeing Janet or Raven, made the climb back up the cliff on the other side, and convinced myself to keep going without a break.
Two or three miles from the end, I noticed another jet boat stopping at the edge of the river below. 15 minutes later, on a downhill section of trail, I saw two men walking quickly up the trail towards me. One man carried only a white three-ring binder, and the other man carried nothing.
I stepped off the trail to let them pass, and greeted the first man with a warm “hello”. He walked by without even acknowledging my existence. The second man, at least, gave me a single-word “thanks” for allowing them to pass on the trail. I was given no other clues to what they were doing.
I’ll admit, I was hating life by the time I reached the last mile of trail. Perhaps going directly from 0 to 17 on the “miles hiked” meter was pushing it a little bit. I started telling myself that I can “at least make it to that rock”—the one about 100 feet ahead—without stopping. Then, still without stopping, I would “at least make it to that bend in the trail”, or “totally be able to make it to that tree”. I owned making it to that tree. I was absolutely the best at making it to that tree.
And, in such a manner, I totally owned making it back to the trailhead before dark.
I left my walking stick near the edge of the trail, in a spot where someone starting their hike might be able to see it, but not where it would look like it was placed there specifically for that purpose. After all, if you’re going hiking, you need a good walking stick.