Spring is the right time to be in Hells Canyon. Between the mud and silence of winter and the inferno of summer (it’s called Hells Canyon for a reason, remember) is a brief window of soft warm rain and rapid greening. The green flushes first in the seeps and along the waterways: miner’s lettuce, biscuitroot, non-native pasture grasses on the big benches, and brodiaea lilies and chokecherry beginning to leaf out and bloom blue and white. The sky this time of year is gray or piebald and the creeks are high. Like this one, for example: Corral Creek, which I had to cross early in my trek from Pittsburg Landing to Kirkwood Historic Ranch on April 8th. This water was up to my thighs. Or like Kirkwood Creek itself: luckily there’s a bridge at the ranch, but that creek was was running so high and mightily that I could hear the rocks in its bed being forcefully tumbled and pounded in the white water—it sounded like thunder.
No trip I’ve ever taken to Hells Canyon has quite gone smoothly. Usually I forget to look carefully at the map and I take a wrong turn or lose the trail or the trail is a lot longer than I thought or I take the right route but end up snarled in a knot of invasive Himalayan blackberry. This trip, about four miles up the trail, I descended 300 feet or so to the first handful of buildings I saw—wriggling with my big backpack through a blackberry thicket, sure enough, to the noisy tune of a diesel generator—only to find that this was not the right settlement. This was Kirby Creek Lodge. Whoops. Looks like a nice spot to hang out, provided that’s where you’re heading.
I did eventually get to Kirkwood, where my friend Garik is the volunteer caretaker for the month of April. The ranch is managed by the Forest Service; the caretakers dead-head the daffodils and tulips, prune the fruit trees, look after the historic buildings and horse-drawn farm equipment, get mail by boat (the Snake River Route; you put up a flag), and greet the backpackers and rafters who stop at Kirkwood bar for a bit of civilization (i.e. flush toilets). The creek was so high when I was there that it busted the water system, though, so no plumbing after all, and no other guests, either—probably because of the rain.
Garik and I did some more hiking on Tuesday, upriver to Suicide Point and back, and the sun peeked out in time for my hike back to Pittsburg landing. Following are a few more photos of the bunchgrass and the light and the river and the rocks—the principal elements of Hells Canyon—briefly captioned, clockwise from upper left.
1. I spotted this guy right away. Garik said my spidey sense must be highly engaged.
2. Two Corral Creek, or Slaughter Creek
3. The first swallowtail of the year. So new she wouldn’t move—she was drying her wings.
4. Here there were hundreds of cliff swallows and an osprey sat about a hundred feet below me on an outcrop, preening and keening and eyeballing the river. Note the snowy peaks visible in the crook of the canyon,to the south. Note the sunshine!
5.The long view.
6. And, finally, the earliest of Balsamroots, a welcome glimpse, near Pittsburg Landing. Happy Spring!