A return to the Snake River

Taking a trip down the undammed section of Hells Canyon.


Sometime back in February, shoveling three feet of snow off a friend’s barn roof in Lostine, Oregon, I began dreaming about water. Not the cold clear water I stand in all summer as a fly-fishing guide, but the brown ever-surging water of runoff that pounds its way through many a dam all the way to the ocean.

A few days later a chinook blows through, and snow begins to melt. Barns collapse. Ditches fill. Basements flood. Local rivers turn from frozen iceboxes to off-color wave-trains of whitewater. Then I receive an email from Kendrick Moholt, biologist by profession and photographer by trade. “How would you like to take a river trip down the Snake in Hells Canyon with one of the people who helped first conserve it?” Yes, I immediately reply. “I’m still putting some things together, but if all goes well, we’ll be heading down in May.”

With steelhead season shot and mud season never-ending, a river trip seems like just the thing to look forward to. Especially in the Hells Canyon Wilderness where in the late 1960s engineers for Pacific Northwest Power were surveying for several proposed dam sites and core sampling was underway. During this time photographer Boyd Norton, along with a magical rag-tag crew of river-folk including folk singer Pete Seeger, ran the river. Norton published photos of the trip in the January 1970 issue of Audubon Magazine and took his images to the desk of Oregon Sen. Bob Packwood. Soon after, the Hells Canyon Wilderness was created. What better thing to do in May, when river flows are high and wildflowers are out, than return to the Snake River with one of the original people who has been instrumental in conserving it? 

  • Pete Seeger serenades the Snake River in Hells Canyon in August 1972.

    Boyd Norton
  • The first day on the Snake River in May 2017, and Boyd Norton sits ready for the waves.

    Kendrick Moholt
  • A view down on the Snake River from the hike up to Hat Point in Oregon, 1968.

    Boyd Norton
  • First light looking up the Snake River at Tryon Creek.

    Kendrick Moholt
  • Running Wild Sheep Rapid on a raft trip with Pete Seeger in 1972.

    Boyd Norton
  • A ride down Wild Sheep Rapid in June 2010.

    Boyd Norton
  • Rafters take a hike up an Oregon hillside above the Snake River in 1972, left. Colors of the evening sky reflect in the water at a camp at Tryon Creek, right.

    Boyd Norton
  • Morning light shines on the Snake River near Pine Creek in 1968.

    Boyd Norton
  • A river expedition launches just below Hells Canyon Dam in May 2017.

    Kendrick Moholt

Granite. Wild Sheep. Rush Creek. Sheep Creek. Kirkwood. Pittsburg. Deep Creek. The names and places of Hells Canyon ingrain themselves — as do people. I shake hands with Norton at the Winding Waters boathouse for our pre-trip meeting. Norton’s grip is strong, his hair curly, his skin tan and glowing. He is surrounded by six professional landscape photographers, the president and vice president of the Hells Canyon Preservation Council, and a handful of successful multi-genarians.

We gather in a circle of chairs to discuss trip logistics before sorting out dry bags and wet suits. “The good news is the weather doesn’t look too bad this week,” Moholt says. “And flows are down from seventy thousand cfs to fifty-five.” My heartbeat rises. Now that the time for rafting is upon us my water dreams have disappeared, replaced by a solemn fear of what-ifs. Most of the rivers I’ve dealt with as a fishing guide have a mere fraction of the Snake River’s flow. They say that age is only a number. As I watch people collect gear, I hope that river levels are just a number, too. But the next day, as we pull into the boat ramp below Hells Canyon Dam, I can’t take my eyes off the thundering spillway.

There is nervous anticipation among all of us as we push out into the Snake. Stories flit through the air like sparrows. Someone spots mountain goats high up on the canyon wall. Another, a bald eagle. Not fifteen minutes into our trip, a lateral wave surges and breaks against the trip leader’s boat, tipping it up on edge. There is Norton, feet in air, pitching over the side. When he is hauled back in, his spirits are still good, though the river water is icy, and he has cracked a rib.

“What a tough mo-fo,” a traveling companion says. “The Snake must have missed you, Boyd,” someone else offers later as we set up our first night’s camp. “Wanted to welcome you back home.” The air in camp, set among towering ponderosas, is soft and gentle and warm. The sound of a propane burner promises dinner. Somewhere nearby a canyon wren can be heard above the thundering river. Just out of sight the river boils and pushes its way to the sea.

Tonight as we laugh over salmon, asparagus and corn cakes, we are a different group than the wet-suited, rain-whipped crew that will pull into the Grande Ronde take out five days later. Before us we have legendary green rooms and boils and eddies which will throw our boats around like leaves in the wind. When we meet up with the Salmon River, the Snake will jump to 126,000 cfs as we navigate our way through floatsam longer than school buses. A storm front will flatten our tents like pancakes. Ticks will find us. But we’ll also find ourselves unfolding in the beauty of wilderness.

Thanks to Norton and other conservationists before and after this deep powerful river will carry us on. Tomorrow. The next day. For all the days of our lives. This is the dream of water.  

Note: This story has been updated to correctly identify the wilderness area near the Snake River as the Hells Canyon Wilderness. An art exhibit at the Josephy Center for Arts and Culture featuring Norton’s original work and the work of other photographers on the trip honors the role of photography in conservation runs through the end of Sept. 2017. For more information, visit www.josephy.org

Cameron Scott was recently awarded The Blue Light Book Award for his second book of poetry, The Book of Cold Mountain. He has been a resident/writer-in-residence/teaching artist for Colorado Art Ranch, Chiloquin Visions in Progress, Playa and Fishtrap. In the summers he is a fly-fishing guide.