First Foray into the Canyon

Canyon Grass

On a rainy day in late December, I headed out to stretch my legs and to get a glimpse at last of a superlative piece of western geography. My lack of acquaintance with Hells Canyon has been something of a pebble in my shoe for years, and now that I finally live nearby, I’m looking forward to getting to know the canyon and its environs. December was not really the ideal time to begin that project, but one has to start somewhere. I started on the banks of the Grande Ronde River just north of the Washington-Oregon border and hiked uphill into golden grass, fog and rain squalls.

Cloud Ravine

Ravine, Outcrop, Mist

Looking down the Limekiln Fault: note the difference in rocks across the river, with tilted limestone to the right of the fault and horizontal basalt layers to the left.

Limekiln Fault

Hells Canyon mostly defines the Idaho-Oregon border, but a little piece of it extends into Washington. Just how to define the extent of the canyon is subject to differing opinions. My sympathies are with the geologic view, i.e. Hells Canyon extends through the region of sedimentary and metamorphic rocks derived from a series of island chains smashing into the west coast of North America back in the Cretaceous.  These rocks crop out regularly until the Limekiln Fault near the Grande Ronde-Snake River confluence. Downstream, they disappear under the massive layered stacks of Columbia River Basalts.  My hike actually took me directly up the ravine marking the Limekiln Fault on a set of old mining roads.

Lowering Sky

Weliwe Panorama

Lower Grande Ronde River meeting the Snake: Please view large!

Can I just mention how much the name Hells Canyon annoys me? In writing about it and titling photos, one constantly has to fight against cliched metaphors, metaphors which impose a disparaging (and if you’re a Christian, arguably heretical) symbolism on this spectacular landscape. Especially on a misty day: “A Cold Day in Hell,” “Heaven Descends,” that sort of thing. No thanks. I think back on a river passenger I once had who couldn’t wait to get out of beautiful Lodore Canyon. “All those red rocks,” she said, “that’s my idea of what Hell looks like.” It’s not how I want to think of the place. The name only dates to 1895 in any case. The Nez Perce tribe, who lived there a very long time and only left at gunpoint, called it Saqánma, which appears to mean simply The Canyon.

Rainbow Breakthrough

Grande Ronde Unveiling

It’s easy to get discouraged hiking in the rain and the ascent through gray mist felt very long. But photographers, at least, should always stick it out if possible. Sure enough, as I neared the ridgetop, brief gleams of sun started breaking through. Brief gleams are all it takes. A rainbow came and went, the dry winter grasses took on a warm glow and a few spotlights played on the fog banks and canyon walls. Wonderful views opened up the Grande Ronde Canyon, down to the confluence and across the Snake into Idaho.

Clouded Bend

One Last Gleam

This afternoon was a beautiful introduction that seriously whet my appetite to explore the Canyon more deeply!


16 thoughts on “First Foray into the Canyon

  1. These silly, superficial names are everywhere. Most prominent example of course: Death Valley..I recently learned the Shoshone in the area call it Timbisha. It sounds so much better and more authentic. Here in San Diego we have not just one, but actually TWO Hellhole Canyons…

    Anyway – the name doesn’t change the fact that your photos are giving the place a better representation than its name does. I particularly like the one photo with the snowy ridge peeking through at the top. It makes the landscape appear so vast and majestic. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thank you, Alex! Yes, they’re everywhere, all the Devil’s Gates and Satan’s Cesspools. At least in the case of Death Valley, I’ve spent so much time there that I no longer even hear it as separate meaningful words (rather like Star Wars). I think the visitor center there has a quote from a Timbisha Shoshone elder saying (paraphrasing), “If the Jayhawkers had just asked us, we could have shown them plenty of water and food. There was no need to name it after Death.” Oh well, I always have trouble with titles, I’ll just have to watch even harder for unwanted metaphors here.

      • Hahaha! You had me laugh out loud with “Satan’s Cesspool” – San Diego County had the Devil’s Punchbowl! :)

        I’m having trouble with titles too. It’s too easy to fall into the traps laid out by these silly names. I often just stick to basic descriptive titles nowadays.

    • Satan’s Cesspool is a rapid on the South Fork American. Yeah, I commonly go for simple descriptive too, but it gets hard in some of these sets. I also don’t want to hit the other extreme and end up with Hells Canyon Mist 5 and such.

  2. A very nice set. Love all the mists. I think you picked a great day. I am curious about the signs of civilization along the river in a few of the images. Is there a community down there?

    • Thank you! Yes, that’s Rogersburg and Heller Bar. Mostly residences, but Heller Bar is the takeout for Hells Canyon and Lower Salmon trips. Happily, a Washington State Wildlife Area allows for access to the slopes.

  3. That certainly was a beautiful introduction! I’ve looked at the place – I like Saqánma – on the map, and thought about fitting it into a road trip ut it hasn’t happened yet. You’ve given me the inspiration to make it happen. The photos are stunning. Perfectly processed, and making such good use of the contrast between the soft, cool cloud textures and the warm details of the grasses – wow. Thanks for mentioning the faults – I don’t think I would have seen that, so interesting. The images that excite my eye the most are the first, sixth, and eleventh. I enjoyed your narrative as well.

  4. Absolutely gorgeous photos. When you think of the name Hell’s Canyon, you think of desolation, but this place is incredibly beautiful. Thank you for this post and the wonderful photos.

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