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Fusion Summer – Part I: Hells Canyon

Below: Adam Goshorn by John Kern
Early in the spring I really thought I had my summer plans all figured out.  A friend had won a permit for a June launch on the Middle Fork of the Salmon and I had accepted the invitation to join her for a 5-day, self-supported run.  I planned to extend my time out west by following the trip on the M.F.S. with another self-support run with my brother the following week.  My brother had been learning to kayak over the past few summers and was very interested in doing his first self-supported river.  Wanting him to have a low-stress trip for his first overnighter, we set our sites on obtaining permits for a couple different easy multi-day runs in Utah. 
Below:  Roadtripping by John Kern
Things seemed to have come together nicely, but then they fell apart.  A couple weeks before our departure, the permit holder for our Middle Fork of the Salmon trip had an irresolvable work conflict.  Without the permit holder, the trip was off.  In addition, neither of the permits my brother and I applied for in Utah had panned out and we realized we had just missed the two-week deadline for obtaining a permit for Cataract Canyon, our back-up plan.  Everyone involved had already scheduled their time off from work and some had even bought plane tickets.  So, we spent the next week scrambling to put together a plan for creeking trip in CO in the same timeframe.  However, last winter’s extremely light snowpack left outlook for quality creeking in Colorado looking pretty dismal. 
Below: Clouds by John Kern
A mere six days before our departure, our plan made another dramatic about-face.  I had been monitoring the Four-Rivers-Lottery website in hopes of a cancelation opening up a launch date for the Middle Fork of the Salmon.  No launches became available for the M.F.S., but one did pop up for Hells Canyon of the Snake River.  I didn’t know much about Hells Canyon, but after a couple minutes of internet research I decided to snatch it up while I had the chance!  Hells Canyon is not as much of a wilderness trip as the M.F.S., but four days of big water class III-IV sounded like a good time to me!  Only a couple hours later, my brother called me to say a cancelation opened up a launch on the San Juan for the following week and he quickly obtained that permit for us!  It was quite the rollercoaster of events with-in only a few hours and now that we knew exactly what we were going to do, we hurriedly made our final preparations.

Below: Sunset by Matt Jones

After making the long drive to Idaho, Matt, John, and I found ourselves to be somewhat of an object of fascination at the Hells Canyon put-in. People seemed a bit surprised and a little skeptical that there were only three of us and that we were self-contained in our kayaks. It is a skepticism I have grown accustom to after self-supporting other traditionally raft-supported runs, including the Grand Canyon in January of 2011. As raft groups sorted their mountains upon mountains of gear and organized their crowds of participants, I was quite happy with our small group and the simplicity of our set-up. After receiving our gear check by the ranger, we set off downstream, planning to cover the 78 miles to Heller Bar over the next four days.

Below: Adam Goshorn by John Kern

Despite the name, Hells Canyon is not an especially difficult river.  The rapids are large, but not overly complicated and avoiding huge holes is the main concern.  The biggest rapids come early in the run and not wanting to blaze all the best ones on the first day, our plan was to paddle down past the first big rapid (Wild Sheep) and camp above the second big rapid (Granite).  Wild Sheep was big, certainly on par with the biggest of the rapids in the Grand Canyon.  We almost ran it blind because floating on 29,000 CFS we covered the first seven miles so quickly we almost didn’t realize we were already arriving at Wild Sheep.  We paddled very close to entering the rapid before realizing the steepening river and roar of the rapid was much larger than anything we had encountered up to that point.  As we eddied out on river left, the well worn scouting trail confirmed for us that we must be at one of the biggest rapids on the run.
Below: John Kern by Adam Goshorn
We scouted Wild Sheep from a trail high on river left.  We all agreed on the preferred line and ran the rapid one by one, snaking our way between the holes and crossing the boiling eddy line to exit the current at the bottom.  Everything went well at Wild Sheep and after a few more miles we camped just after Granite Creek entered on river right and a little ways upstream of the rapid of the same name.  Granite was the second biggest rapid on the run and would be our after-breakfast treat the following morning.  We set up camp in the middle of the afternoon and spent the rest of the day relaxing, fishing, and enjoying the awesome landscape around us.
Below: Matt Jones by Adam Goshorn
Breaking camp early on day two, we packed our boats and paddled a little ways towards Granite before getting out on the right to scout.  Due to the size and length of the rapid, scouting required exiting the river almost a quarter-mile upstream and hike down to a large rock about twenty feet above the main part of the rapid.  Matt and John were hanging out on the rock, scouting the feature known as the Green Room.  I hung back on the trail to take some photos of some pictographs on a cliff above the rapid.  As I approached the scout rock, I also paused to shoot a few photos of John and Matt scouting.  I finally joined them and just as I started scout, John’s boat suddenly appeared upstream, unmanned and heading right for the meat of Granite! 

Below: Matt Jones by Adam Goshorn

We knew that when the dam upstream started generating power we would get a big pulse of extra water and we had all pulled our boats up on shore what seemed like a reasonable amount, but obviously it wasn’t enough.  An instant after we spotted John’s boat, it flipped as it hit the first huge wave as we took off running upstream in a full sprint.  I was running with my video camera in one hand and my still camera in the other.  I tried to keep up with Matt, but he quickly expanded his lead.  When I caught up to him he was shoving my boat back onto shore and he told me later that it was floating in the eddy when he arrived at the put-in.  Matt and I leaped into our boats and took off downstream toward Granite.  I hadn’t really scouted the rapid thoroughly, but the left side looked easiest and Matt went first with me following him; paddling full speed into the second largest rapid on the run. 

Below: Adam Goshorn by John Kern

We both emerged from Granite upright and continued in a full sprint for the next couple miles until we finally caught up to John’s boat floating in an eddy.  We towed it to shore and despite having run several large rapids unmanned, the gear inside the hatch was still nice and dry.  Unfortunately, there was no sign of John’s helmet or the Go Pro camera that was mounted on it.  He had left the helmet in the seat of the boat when we went to scout and it was nowhere to be found.  As we had shoved off to run Granite, a rafting trip was just pulling over to scout.  Luckily, John was able to catch a ride with them.  Eventually they caught up to us and had a helmet they were willing to loan John so he could continue.  Disappointed to have not found the helmet, but happy to have found the boat, we continued downstream scanning the shoreline the whole way hoping to find the helmet, camera, or both. 

Below: John Kern and Adam Goshorn by Matt Jones

About twenty miles later we pulled over to check out an old ranch on river right.  After exploring the ranch for a while we were back at the water and about to continue downstream when a boat pulled up and one of the occupants asked, “you guys missing a helmet?”  Amazingly enough, the boat’s occupants had found John’s helmet, with the Go Pro camera still attached, in a eddy just below Granite.  They had been rushing downstream all day trying to catch up to us to return it.  On top of their good deed in returning the helmet and camera they also insisted on sharing their generous supply of cold beer, solidifying their good karma for years to come!

Below: Matt Jones and Adam Goshorn by John Kern

After the excitement of the second day, the third and forth day went by without a hitch.  We continued to enjoy the superb scenery, camping, and fishing.  As we continued downstream, we passed the confluences of the Rondo River and then the Salmon River.  Combined, the flow that these two rivers added basically doubled the total volume and we found ourselves floating on over 50,000 CFS by the time we approached the take-out.  As we rounded a bend on day four, still easily a half mile or more from the take-out, we could see my truck being dropped off by the shuttle service.  It was perfect timing.  We were ahead of schedule and luckily our shuttle drivers were as well and we arrived at the take-out just a few minutes after them. 

Below: Adam Goshorn by John Kern

It has been said that a trip is not a real adventure until something goes wrong. I’m just glad in this case that our little adventure ended with all the people and gear that we started with. A big thank you goes out to the group that found and returned John’s helmet. An equally big thank you is also due to the group that gave John a ride on their raft and loaned a helmet to a stranger in the middle of no where. It is a special thing that the river community shares and it is great to feel the love of the wider river community even when far from home.

Until Next Time…

Adam Goshorn

Below: Matt Jones, John Kern, and Adam Goshorn after Hells Canyon.