Through rain, snow, sleet or gloom of night, the mail must get through, as the saying goes. But through the rapids of the Snake River? That's another story. And...
HELLS CANYON, Ore. — Through rain, snow, sleet or gloom of night, the mail must get through, as the saying goes.
But through the rapids of the Snake River? That’s another story.
And yet, postmaster Gary Henderson, 54, does just that, piloting a jet boat down the treacherous waters of the Snake, covering 130 miles and nine customers in a typical two-day run.
Henderson and his two deckhands work for Beamers Hells Canyon Tours in Clarkston, Wash., which holds a contract with the U.S. Postal Service. The once-a-week run is among the last of its kind in the nation, serving ranchers, cowhands, caretakers, miners and assorted recluses from Heller Bar south of Asotin, Wash., to Johnson Bar beneath Oregon’s Hat Point lookout.
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This time of year, Henderson comes bearing holiday packages and cards for the hardy residents who live on the Snake River’s banks.
“In the wintertime,” Henderson said, “we are the lifeline to the outside. I take pride in my job.”
Mail customers often ride for miles on their ATVs to meet Henderson at an appointed time. One of them is Gary Bullock, 48, who lives in a ranch headquarters at 4,200 feet elevation, where he cares for 500 cows with his wife, Joni, 48, and their two teenage sons.
The mail boat also brings the Bullocks fresh milk and eggs and library books from Clarkston.
“It’s a unique breed that lives up here,” Henderson said.
He doesn’t always have an easy ride, either — a rock lurking below the surface can easily punch a hole in the hull, and Henderson must read the changing river constantly.
The boat passes long-abandoned mine shafts, the ruins of mining stamp mills and the foundations of frontier-era hotels and long-vanished towns.
Iron rings remain in some rocks, used long ago by sternwheeler paddle boats to winch through rapids. Remains of the 125-foot steamboat Imnaha, which sank Nov. 9, 1903, still rest at the bottom of a whirlpool in Mountain Sheep Rapids, Henderson said.
The Hells Canyon mail boat is a tradition extending to the first mail contract awarded to Ed MacFarlane in 1926, who used a propeller-driven, 65-foot river boat called Prospector.
Dick Rivers had the mail contract from 1958 until 1982 and became a legend for building one of the first large jet boats on the Snake and waging legal battles to stabilize minimum river flows.