Sunday, December 19, 2010

Navigating the Snake River - Hell's Canyon Addition‏

In my ever-broadening quest to enhance my outdoor experience, I recently (this spring) bought an aluminum jet boat. I decided to do this for a couple of reasons.

First, my wife got very tired of me using our ski boat for hunting and fishing. It worked fine for most hunting and fishing that I wanted to do, but I was always worried. The carpets in the ski boat were prone to mud, blood, and dog hairs – all of which were brought on board during a good waterfowl hunt or on a hunt to one of the many really good pheasant hunting locations on the Snake River that are only accessible via boat. Also, fish scales, slime, and blood were degrading the carpets and upholstery, no matter how careful I was. Also, no matter how careful, I almost always inadvertently left behind a hook or two, which really suck to find with bare feet the next summer. Finally, the fiberglass hull was taking a beating from being beached on the rocky shores of my hunting sites. All of this added up to the decision that I needed to get another boat for hunting and fishing, and leave the ski boat for skiing.

Second, I decided after a few trips up Hell’s Canyon on friend’s boats that I totally wanted in on that action, because it is truly the most beautiful place I’ve ever been, and without a doubt is the most awesome boating experience I’ve ever taken part in. To navigate the often shallow, rapid, treacherous waters and class 4 rapids, you need a jet boat – a prop wouldn’t last past the first day of beating off rocks and the bottom.

My wife, God love her, insisted that I get a fishing boat. A nice, big, safe one with high sides and plenty of horsepower, too, so it was safe for me and our eventual family. Yes, you totally read that right. My wife insisted that I get a fishing boat. I love that woman so much.

The only problem was money. A good Hell’s Canyon jet boat is expensive. Brand-spanking new, you are talking in the 60K to 100K range. No kidding. They are also fuel hogs. One day of fishing up Hell’s Canyon can cost 300 to 400 bucks in fuel. Even an old, used, early 90’s jet boat is still in the 20K range. So, I searched for alternatives.

I found my alternative in what is called a “sport jet.” This is a boat powered by an outboard power head, that is mounted inboard and attached to a jet pump. They are smaller, cheaper, and way more fuel efficient than the big automotive V8 powered jets, and can still accomplish everything that I need it to do (for now).

Hell’s Canyon is something like 150 river miles. The rapids start even before you enter the canyon, just south of Clarkston and Asotin. However, none of the rapids are big enough (for most of the year, anyway) to really justify the big, 20 plus foot, 450 horsepower jet boats that people use down there, until the last 30 to 50 miles or so before the dam, where all the big class 4 rapids are. I do not think that I would attempt to take my small 18 foot, 200 horsepower sport jet up waterspout, Bernard Creek, Granite Creek, or Wildsheep rapids. Could it do it? Probably, under the right conditions and water flows, but I don’t think I will ever want to, for a couple of reasons.

1.) There isn’t any better fishing above these rapids than there is below. In fact, the further upstream you go, the less fish will be in the river, as you lose a certain amount of fish at every tributary you pass.

2.) The amount of time it takes to get to these rapids from the bottom end of the canyon is prohibitive. You are talking a trip of about 100 river miles to get there. Cost of fuel, and time on the river, this doesn’t make sense, especially since I’d be motoring right past the best fishing water to get there, meaning that the only reason to go would be to run the rapids.

3.) Learning to run these big rapids is a process that takes time and effort. I plan to spend my time and effort learning to run the lower rapids, and can’t really figure out how learning to run the upper rapids would really benefit me at all.

4.) it is dangerous as hell. Watch this video of a boat running Granite Creek Rapids. See how he goes right up against the far shore, literally so close that people in the boat could touch the rock wall? That is because that is literally the only way through there. There are boulders everywhere in that rapid. Testament to that is the way he came back down. Notice how he flipped around in the rapid, motored out away from the far shore, and then flipped back downstream to run it out? That is because downstream of the only channel in the rapid deep enough to allow a power boat to pass, there is another rock that you have to maneuver around, against the river’s current. Granite Creek is the one spot on the river where everyone, even the drunkest, stupidest people around, stop to put on life jackets before tackling it. If you go through these rapids, you have to be ready to lose your boat. Period. If you touch a rock, even light enough to do no damage to your boat, the current will overtop the gunnels instantly, and roll the boat out from under you.

So, I plan to spend my time in the lower rapids, some of which are still class III, which is still pretty gnarly. Next time I go up, which will be next week, I’ll take a video camera and try to post some videos. I expect I’ll see bighorn sheep, elk, mule deer, and a bunch of other stuff like turkeys and pheasants and eagles. I also plan on catching fish, but that is just a bonus.

To date, I’ve run my boat from Clarkston all the way to Cache Creek, which is considered the entry point to Hell’s Canyon (you need a permit to go past that point and into the scenic portion of the river). Even getting there, you have to negotiate a bunch of shallow rapids, some are class III at high flows, and even at low flow have standing pressure waves of 6 feet or better. I went up in mid-november with a guy that knows the river, and he took me up past Imnaha all the way to Dug bar, and I think I’m good to try that on my next trip. Wish me luck.

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