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June 2007

Hiking Hells Canyon, ID

This remote chasm boasts big views, craggy mountains, abundant wildlife, and staggering solitude.

Pfft…pfft. The sound barely registers inside the warm cocoon of my sleeping bag. It’s different—softer—than the anesthetic patter of rain that lulled me to sleep hours ago. Working slowly, like a cranky old PC, my brain powers up to identify the source: Snow. In April. I crack an eyelid to check for daylight. The tent is intensely dark, like the recesses of a cave. I shut down for a few more hours of deep unconsciousness, the gentle brushing of snowflakes on my nylon roof as effective a narcotic as the rain.

At daylight, I step outside on urgent business and discover a landscape that has changed radically overnight. Visibility is 50 feet, and 3 inches of wet stuff blankets the ground. Perfect fat flakes flutter down from a ceiling so close it’s almost claustrophobic. There’s no wind, no sound. I’ve been in many whiteouts, but stepping so abruptly into a space so blank gives me a disorienting rush of vertigo. After a few moments, my eyes and equilibrium adjust, and I begin to relax—and appreciate the emptiness. My little white bubble is as peaceful as the world gets.

When I hit the trail an hour later, the clouds lift enough to reveal the looming cliffs, deep side canyons, and steep, sage- and grass-covered slopes of Hells Canyon, all whitewashed by the storm. I chuckle to myself at the fickle notion of seasons. Here in North America’s deepest river gorge, weather ignores the calendar. I’ve seen snow on the 4th of July, and sunbathed the first week of March. The canyon is big enough to make its own weather, but its climate is mostly a function of elevation change, something the canyon has in greater measure than many U.S. mountain ranges.

This is a place defined by extremes—of scale, solitude, grandeur. Perhaps more than any wild land I’ve known, this canyon fills me with a sense of having dropped out of time, of diving, wide-eyed, into Alice’s rabbit-hole. The biggest disconnect? That a place so unblemished and diverse could attract so few visitors.
Which is exactly why I’ve returned for a four day, 49-mile spring hike, during which I’ll loop from the top of Hells Canyon down to the Snake River and back up again, sampling every part of the canyon’s geography.

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