Special watercraft allow anyone to ride the wild Snake River through North America’s deepest canyon.
WHITE BIRD, Idaho — Hells Canyon might be God’s best-kept hideaway if you’re a hiker seeking solitude, a hunter pursuing game or an angler hoping to catch smallmouth bass, steelhead and sturgeon until your arms are numb.
Jet-boat operators provide the divine intervention to answer your prayers.
The Snake River is the freeway to the canyon experience. Starting from Hells Gate State Park in Lewiston, Idaho, boaters can navigate 104 miles of wild country upstream to Hells Canyon Dam. They can, that is, if they have the skills to negotiate rapids that range to Class 4-5.
The International Scale of River Difficulty defines Class 5 whitewater as “Extremely long, obstructed, or very violent rapids which expose a paddler to added risk. Drops may contain large, unavoidable waves and holes or steep, congested chutes with complex, demanding routes.”
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But with a skilled pilot in a properly outfitted jet boat, with no propeller to strike rocks, Class 4-5 is defined as family fun.
“We just had our first trip of the 2015 season (on a recent Thursday),” said Heather Killgore, who started Killgore Adventures with her husband, Les, and son, Kurt, in 2002.
“It was part of a spring break trip for a family that has a goal of exploring the highlights of Idaho,” she said from their lodge in White Bird. “Hells Canyon is definitely one of them.”
Canyon between states
The 652,488-acre Hells Canyon National Recreation Area generally straddles the Snake where it forms the boundary between Idaho and Oregon.
The Killgores also raise longhorn cattle, guide deer hunters and host long-range shooting events. But they are best known for their year-round jet-boat tours in the canyon’s wilderness core — the 32.5 river miles from Pittsburg Landing upstream to Hells Canyon Dam.
“The whitewater is just part of the experience,” Kurt Killgore said during one of his popular tours through North America’s deepest canyon, about 8,000 feet if measured from the Snake River’s Granite Creek Rapid up to the summit of He Devil Peak, elevation 9,393 feet.
“Elk, deer and even bighorn sheep are especially visible as they winter along the river. The fishing in particular is world-class during summer, and we take care of steelheaders and hunters in fall.”
Jet boat tours might involve stops at historic sites along the river, including Kirkwood Historic Ranch and Museum. Lunch might be at Hells Canyon Dam with a visit to the Forest Service visitor center.
Kurt Killgore, 35, started taking the controls of a jet boat in Hells Canyon whitewater for the first time in 1999 on practice runs with his family.
“I’d go a little farther upriver each weekend,” he said. “It’s shell-shocking the first time you take a wave to the windshield and can’t see. You need time and experience to be comfortable with that.”
About six months of running the rapids both directions is needed to get the river down as a pilot, he said.
“A rock can’t hide from you in swift water. It’s the calm water where they can hide. The middle of the river is your friend for the most part, but certain places go against all the rules. In those places you have to be taught by somebody with experience.”
About 15 jet-boat operators are licensed to operate in Hells Canyon. During summer, jet boats are allowed to run Thursdays-Sundays while other days are reserved for nonmotorized boating, primarily rafters and kayakers heading downstream on multiday trips from the dam.
“The jet boat opens the experience to everyone,” Killgore said. “If you can sit down, you can run whitewater.”
Remote ranches, giant fish
Heading up the river, Killgore pointed out numerous landmarks including Rush Creek, Bills and Water Spout rapids as well as
Kirby Creek Lodge, Kirkwood Ranch, Temperance Creek Ranch, Sand Creek Fish and Game Cabin and Sheep Creek Ranch — all remote and most accessible only by boat or trail.
Slowing the 30-foot jet boat to a purr on a stretch of smooth, deep, dark water, Killgore baits a rod and casts it out with enough weight to knock a black bear silly.
Guests barely have time for a snack before Erika Holmes is summoned to do the heavy lifting. A sturgeon has taken the bait and the fight is on.
About 20 minutes later, Holmes — muscle weary and dampened with sweat — reeled up a 6-foot-long sturgeon.
“Think what it would feel like to land one of the 9- or 10-footers,” Killgore said before they released the gentle giant.
“Our most popular thing with customers is the Sturgeon Bass Trout Trip we do in summer,” he said. “Families come with the kids and grandparents and everybody is happy.”
The trip includes seven major rapids that must be negotiated up and downstream, including two Class 4s that can range to Class 5 — Wild Sheep and Granite Creek.
Although he has two 550-hp engines at his service, Killgore doesn’t just roar up the frothing waves of Granite. He gets partly into the deafening rush of current, eases off the throttle, side slips off a pillow of water and then eases down on the lever to power tons of aluminum and eight guests over the top.
“All of a jet-boat operator’s money is made or lost in the big rapids,” Killgore said. “This boat is so expensive because it has the pumps and motors set up for running the big rapids. Some boats aren’t.”
He cut the power for everyone to enjoy seeing a group of elk on a ridge above.
“There’s something special about a place where you see elk,” said Jeremy Harris, a guest on the trip. “There’s something whole and right about it.”
If you go
• Hells Canyon jet-boat tours of 5-6 hours, $175, with Killgore Adventures: killgoreadventures.com
• Details about Hells Canyon National Recreation Area: 1.usa.gov/1zmoEKI