WHITE BIRD — Hells Canyon might be God’s best kept hideaway if you’re a hiker seeking solitude, a fit hunter pursuing game or an angler hoping to catch smallmouth bass, steelhead and sturgeon until your arms are numb.
Jet boat operators provide the divine intervention to answer your prayers.
The Snake River is the freeway to the canyon experience. Starting from Hells Gate State Park in Lewiston, boaters can navigate 104 miles of wild country upstream to Hells Canyon Dam, built in 1967. They can, that is, if they have the skills to negotiate rapids that range to Class 4-5.
The International Scale of River Difficulty defines Class 5 whitewater as “Extremely long, obstructed, or very violent rapids which expose a paddler to added risk. Drops may contain large, unavoidable waves and holes or steep, congested chutes with complex, demanding routes.”
But in a properly outfitted jet boat with a skilled pilot, Class 4-5 is defined as family fun.
The 652,488-acre Hells Canyon National Recreation Area generally straddles the Snake where it forms the boundary between Idaho and Oregon.
Heather Killgore started Killgore Adventures with her husband, Les, and son, Kurt, in 2002. The Killgores also raise longhorn cattle, guide deer hunters and host long-range shooting events on their 1,600-yard range. But they focus their outfitting operations in the wilderness core of canyon — the 32.5 river miles from Pittsburg Landing upstream to Hells Canyon Dam, as well as the nearby Salmon River.
They organize a Memorial Day weekend ATV riding tour that attracts about 200 people, but the company is best known for the year-round adventures they deliver by jet boat.
“The whitewater is just part of the experience,” Kurt Killgore said during one of his popular 65-mile round trip tours to the dam and back.
“Elk, deer and even bighorn sheep are especially visible as they winter along the river. The fishing in particular is world-class during summer, and we take care of steelheaders and hunters in fall.”
Sometimes hikers book a jet boat ride upstream so then can follow all or a portion of the trails that run along Snake River from Hells Canyon Dam back downstream. The trail on the Idaho side is well-tended. The trail on the Oregon side is more rugged, with a good spur up the Imnaha River.
Jet boat tours might involve stops and historic sites along the river, including Kirkwood Historic Ranch and Museum. Lunch might be at Hells Canyon Dam with a visit to the Forest Service visitor center. Idaho Power’s three Hells Canyon hydropower projects — including Oxbow and Brownlee dams upstream - produce 70 percent of the company’s power output.
Kurt Killgore, 35, started taking the controls of a jet boat in Hells Canyon whitewater for the first time in 1999 on practice runs with his family.
“I’d go a little farther upriver each weekend,” he said. “It’s shell-shocking the first time you take a wave to the windshield and can’t see. You need time and experience to be comfortable with that.”
About six months of running the rapids both directions is needed to get the river down as a pilot, he said.
“On the other hand, some guys never learn it,” he said. “You have to read the river and understand how it changes as the flows go up and down.
“A rock can’t hide from you in swift water. It’s the calm water where they can hide. The middle of the river is your friend for the most part, but certain places go against all the rules. In those places you have to be taught by somebody with experience.”
About 15 jet boat operators are licensed to operate on the Snake in Hells Canyon. Most of the guides based in Lewiston come upstream only as far as Dug Bar, since a marathon trip to Hells Canyon Dam would be uncomfortably long.
During summer, jet boats are allowed to run Thursdays-Sundays while the other days are reserved for non-motorized boating, primarily rafters and kayakers heading downstream on multiple-day trips from the dam.
“The jet boat opens the experience to everyone,” Killgore said. “If you can sit down, you can run whitewater.”
Killgore tries to customize the trips to the group and the weather.
“We can stay dry, but we might run one rapid multiple times on a hot day in a way that soaks the passengers if they’re up for it — and they usually are. They dry out in no time.”
Heading up the river, Killgore pointed out numerous landmarks including Rush Creek, Bills and Water Spout rapids as well as Kirby Creek Lodge, Kirkwood Ranch, Temperance Creek Ranch, Sand Creek Fish and Game Cabin and Sheep Creek Ranch — all remote and all but Kirkwood accessible only by boat or trail.
Some attractions are not so obvious to the unacquainted.
Slowing the 30-foot jet boat to a purr on a stretch of smooth deep, dark water, Killgore baits a rod and casts it out with enough weight to knock a black bear silly.
Guests barely have time for a snack before Erika Holmes is summoned to do the heavy lifting. A sturgeon has taken the bait and the fight is on.
About 20 minutes later, Holmes — muscle weary and dampened with sweat — reeled up a 6-foot-long sturgeon.
“Think what it would feel like to land one of the 9 or 10 footers,” Killgore said before they released the gentle giant.
“Our most popular thing with customers is the Sturgeon Bass Trout Trip we do in summer,” he said. “Families come with the kids and grandparents and everybody is happy. We can stop in some areas where the kids can catch a bass almost on every cast and then go after a big sturgeon, enjoy a good boat ride and run the rapids.”
The trip includes seven major rapids that must be negotiated up and downstream, including two Class 4s that can range to Class 5 — Wild Sheep and Granite Creek.
Some rapids require banking around rocks and positioning into the right angles to climb the river stairsteps.
Although he has two 550hp engines at his service, Killgore doesn’t just roar up the frothing waves of Granite.
He gets partly into the deafening rush of current, eases off the throttle, side slips off a pillow of water and then eases down on the lever to power tons of aluminum and eight guests over the top.
“All of a jet boat operator’s money is made or lost in the big rapids,” Killgore said. “This boat is so expensive because it has the pumps and motors set up for running the big rapids. Some boats aren’t.”
Hells Canyon is the deepest canyon on the North American continent, about 8,000 feet if measured from the Snake River’s Granite Creek Rapid up to the summit of He Devil Peak, elevation 9,393 feet.
Article provided by The Dalles Chronicle, The Dalles, Ore.