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Natural History is Human History on the Snake River

Too early in the morning to get splashed. Photo credit Mike Hanson, courtesy of the Wallowa Mountain Hells Canyon Trails Association.

On an early May morning I met a group of four other volunteers with the Wallowa Mountains Hells Canyon Trails Association in Joseph to load a trailer with rafts and dry bags full of gear, food and tools – everything we would need for the next five days as we floated 28 miles of the Snake River in Hells Canyon, from Dug Bar to Heller Bar. Our intention was to scout conditions and clear brush along several miles of trails that are now rarely visited.

A pair of older men recounted stories of vehicular recklessness from the front seat as we wound along the narrow dirt road high above the swollen and muddy Imnaha River. After a solemn pause, one pointed out what he remembered as a particularly good apricot tree. Unlike the apricots, apple trees were already in full bloom, showing that they too would be appreciated by bears later in the year.

We pulled aside to pass and exchange words with others driving the road. Bands of columnar basalt and the occasional fence line punctuated a green blush covering the horizontally striated grasses of the canyonlands. The slopes around us were in bloom with yellow balsamroot, pink phlox, purple brodia.

Phlox blooms in abundance. Photo credit Nat Farnam.

A group of motorists from Idaho met us at the Dug Bar boat ramp with their herd of side-by-side UTVs. They laughed and drank beer in the shade of a single large hackberry as they waited for their ferry to return. The tamale boat, as one of them called it, would shuttle them and the machines up and across the Snake River to Wolf Creek where they would continue their ride. We hurried to launch our rafts and load gear in the intervening time. The water was bracingly cold on my legs as we pushed off into the current. I glanced upriver at the monument marking the location where a band of Nimîipuu, led by Chief Joseph, were forced to ford the Snake in May of 1877. Exodus from their Wallowa Valley homeland had been mandated by contentious treaties with the US Government. Diplomatic appeals by dissenting groups had failed. The following months were marked by conflict and eventual surrender to the pursuing US army.

Along the canyon wall, a pair of radio collared bighorn ewes with lambs made an appearance. Our boat leader recounted his time as a sheep survey technician. A bald eagle watched closely over a group of otters, waiting to pick up any leftovers when their fishing turned to play.

Just an hour later we eddied out beside our prospective campsite, just downstream from the confluence of the Imnaha River. Here the channel ran with two colors, the deep placid green of the Snake on river right and the milk chocolate brown of the swollen Imnaha on the left. This division continued for a mile at least, as if the two rivers were reluctant to join completely until their waters were thoroughly acquainted.

Above us were the stone foundations of a small hotel and ill-fated stamp mill, the ruins of Eureka Bar. Low-grade copper ore and stories of gold brought hundreds of people to this mining settlement for a few short years around the turn of the twentieth century.

Two mature bighorn rams pause to check out the scene. Photo credit Nat Farnam.

Upon disembarking, we found that a cow had chosen the most inviting site as its final resting place. What remained of the animal’s rib cage lay propped beside the fire pit as if set out as some ghoulish dinner guest. We agreed that it had likely belonged to a fellow we had spoken to on the road earlier that day. As a Nez Perce tribal member, he retains the right to hunt, fish, gather, and graze livestock in areas ceded to the US government by the Treaty of 1855. The smell convinced us to move on to another nearby beach for the night.

A single lonely cow gazed over at me from across the river while I set up my tent. Around it, hackberries dotted a small alluvial fan surrounded by steep canyon walls. It was hard to imagine how it had even arrived in that place. “Hope you have better luck than your friend” I thought as the nightly winds started to blow up the canyon.

Volunteers discuss the day at the mouth of Eureka creek. Photo credit Pip Redding.

The next day, the crew and I worked our way several miles up Eureka Creek, trimming poison ivy, blackberries and hawthorn that grew quickly over the trail. Accustomed to hand tools and slow progress, I was happy that a gas powered-hedge trimmer was there to spare us from the worst of the thorns and urushiol. The local wildlife apparently wasn’t concerned because there was abundant sign along the entirety of the riparian corridor, especially in those places where erosion had exposed pockets of mineral rich Mazama ash. This section of trail will likely become an alternate route of the Blue Mountains Trail. The primary route currently follows the Nimîipuu Historic Trail from Dug Bar to the Imnaha and up to Buckhorn overlook.

On returning to camp that evening, I was surprised to look across the river to see the stray cow was now accompanied by a nursing calf. I must have missed it before.

A steep, grassy climb to find the trail to Cherry Creek. Photo credit Mike Hanson.

In the morning our party packed up and moved downriver. An hour later we passed the confluence of the Salmon River on our left, then pulled onto a long sandy beach below a grass airstrip. Above that was supposedly a trail, though the topography and vegetation revealed only the barest hints of where it might be. Eventually we found what we agreed must be the right track and spent the rest of that day climbing to its high point, a saddle on the northernmost section of Cemetery Ridge. I happened to be the first to reach the top and look over into Cherry Creek. There, I startled a herd of some 20 cow elk that had been resting near the trail. They fled north, down and out of view, only to appear on the grassy road cut 2 or 3 miles south. They had doubled back after breaking my line of sight. At my feet, directly in the trail, was the desiccated scat of a mountain lion and beside it, that of a wolf. On the way down, we built a few cairns to mark what remained of the trail. Everyone complained about their knees.

While packing the boats the next morning, a pair of single engine planes circled once overhead, then dropped smoothly to land at the small airstrip just beside our camp. The pilots must have had another destination in mind because they regrouped and took off within minutes. Meanwhile, we enjoyed another hour of float time to move on to Jim Creek, where we would do our best to clear brush. The upper section of this drainage is used as winter pasture for the USFS pack string, which consists largely of recaptured wild mustangs. Looking up the canyon we could see the grassy slope was bicolored. The upper reaches were the usual mottled tan with patches of green regrowth. The lower sections were a verdant neon monochrome. Last fall, a fire started by lightning had consumed all the dry grass it could reach. The weather turned and stopped it in its tracks, leaving none of the accumulated detritus but plenty of soil nutrients for eager spring shoots.

Fire left a dramatic line dividing the ridge south of Jim Creek. The fresh new growth after the burn is striking. Photo credit: Nat Farnam.

Our penultimate stop was the mouth of Garden Creek, the location of a now derelict sheep shed which still held the rusting remnants of its mechanical shearing apparatus. Workers collected many tons of wool here during the cooler winter months. Their herds were moved to higher elevations in the summer season. Now a stand of large, mature locust trees shaded the area and sheltered many wild turkeys, as evidenced by an abundance of feathers below the canopy.

The final day of our excursion was expected to begin with several slow miles of slack water and upriver wind, but the exuberant river was moving quickly. We were soon passing many precariously situated houses on the Idaho side, the product of unrestricted development and road access. Waterfowl congregated on shallow bars and along the opposite shore, including several great blue herons and flocks of common mergansers. We were even met by a group of thirty or so American white pelicans resting in the shallows across from our take-out at Heller Bar, which is at the confluence of the Snake and the Grande Ronde rivers. They had undoubtedly traveled farther than we had to arrive here and feed on fish. We unpacked our boats and ate some smoked salmon while we waited for the shuttle to arrive. As we pulled away, the pelicans took off, circled twice and flew out of sight.


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