- Historic Sites
Man, Land, and History in the Deepest Gorge on Earth
April 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 3
Hells Canyon is awesome. There is no other single word that can adequately describe it. Incredibly deep, austerely magnificent, it slashes between the states of Oregon and Idaho like a raw and gaping wound. To stand on the rim and gaze into that vast hole is to know humility as few places can teach it; to venture into it is to enter a place apart, a separate world-within-a-world where the old scales and comfortable concepts of size and distance fade into irrelevancy. “The grandeur and originality of the views presented on every side,” wrote Benjamin L. E. Bonneville, one of the canyon’s earliest explorers, “beggar both the pencil and the pen. Nothing we had ever gazed upon in any other region could for a moment compare in wild majesty and impressive sternness with the series of scenes which here at every turn astonished our senses and filled us with awe and delight.” Little seems changed since Bonneville’s time, nearly a century and a half ago. Though whole towns have lived and died in those scorched depths, though mines have been punched through the walls, though the white river has known all types of craft from canoes and rubber rafts to stern-wheelers and jet boats, so much space is caught between those beetling rims, so much emptiness and sheer, overwhelming size, that it is still easy to repeat the experience of the old woodsman quoted in Life magazine in the summer of 1969: “I spent three weeks in there once. Didn’t see a soul. Do you understand? Didn’t see a soul.”
Hells Canyon of the Snake River, as the Oregon Board of Geographic Names has officially defined it since 1970, begins at a natural feature called the Oxbow near the tiny hamlet of Homestead, Oregon. For most of its 104-mile length downstream to the mouth of the Grande Ronde River the canyon’s course is slightly east of north. But about two thirds of the way along, it bends to the left and from that point down it runs generally north-northwest. This lower portion, which includes the mouths of the Salmon and Imnaha rivers, is spectacular enough; but it is the upper section, from the great bend southward, that has given the gorge its awe-inspiring reputation. It is here, between dark brooding walls as little as five miles apart at the top, that the most profound depths are found. How deep? Six Empire State Buildings; four Yellowstone Canyons; nearly two Yosemite Valleys; 47 Niagara Falls. From He Devil Peak on the east rim to the surface of the Snake the drop is 7,900 feet, more than a third of a mile greater than the maximum 6,ioo-foot depth of the Grand Canyon at Point Imperial. The lower west rim is still more than a mile high. The late Richard Neuberger once pointed out that you could drop the entire Catskill Range into the canyon and still come fifteen hundred feet short of filling it. How deep? The deepest. Not just in Idaho or Oregon; not just in the United States; not even just in North America. It is the deepest known river gorge on the face of this planet.
The first historical record of the great gorge is found in the journals of Lewis and Clark, who passed that way in the fall of 1805 and again in the spring of 1806. Outward bound, they had been warned away from the canyon by the Indians and had carefully avoided it, bypassing it over the LoIo Trail to the east and north; going home they intended to follow the same route, but there was a hitch. Snow in the Bitterroot Mountains was deeper than they had expected, forcing them into a month’s encampment on the upper Clearwater River. During that month, three expedition members—Sergeant John Ordway and Privates Robert Frazier and Peter Weiser—seeking a salmon fishery they had been told of on what they called the Lewis River (today’s Snake), penetrated the north end of Hells Canyon as far as the confluence of the Snake and the Salmon. Meriwether Lewis recorded their impressions of the place as a “high broken mountanous country” where the river banks were “in most places solid and perpendicular rocks, which rise to a great hight.” How great a height was not yet suspected; the expedition moved on.
Five years later a Pacific Fur Company executive named Wilson Price Hunt, acting under the orders of fur magnate John Jacob Astor, led an ill-prepared party of sixty-four men into the south end of the canyon looking for a route through to the Pacific Ocean. Unhorsed, hungry, cold, and divided by an earlier disaster into three separate groups, all of which had lost track of one another, the Astorians trudged hopefully into the south portal of the great gorge late in November, 1811. Four weeks later the recombined expeditions, shaken and starving, staggered back out. One man, Jean Baptiste Prevoste, had been drowned; the others had been saved from starvation only by the fortuitous circumstance of having been able to steal some horses from a canyon-wintering band of Shoshoni Indians. Dubbing the Snake “La Maudite Rivière Enragée”—the Accursed Mad River—they abandoned it on Christmas Day, 1811, striking out westward over the snow-covered but much more hospitable Blue Mountains.