*Solo in Hell's Canyon*
By: SlimJim
10 February 2006

Solo trips are kind of a unique experience. Personally, I have to be in a particular mood to enjoy the solitude. If I have that mood, a solo trip can be fantastic, but if I loose it, the trip goes sour. All I experience is cold, wet, lonely, miserable, etc. Usually the trip is aborted and I go home, it is a vacation after all.

The four days in Hells Canyon were great! For starters, the weather was supposed to be rainy and cold. Cool and overcast is what happened. It never rained the whole time, though I could see it snowing in the high Wallowas and Seven Devils about 7300 feet above me. Hells Canyon is the deepest canyon in North America.

The Hells Canyon trip started Monday morning with a 5 hour drive north. The bowl of frosted-stupid-flakes I had for breakfast was kicking in when I made a wrong turn and ended up 20 twisting, turning mountain miles from where I wanted to be. By the time I hit the trail there were only two and a half hours of light left and 7 miles to go. Normally I am a pretty high mileage hiker and 7 miles is a morning warm-up, but I had to really hump myself to get to Kirkwood Creek by dark.

The first night I stayed in an abandoned cabin called the "Carter Mansion" built by "Whisky Dick Carter" back around the turn of the last century. Carter had to leave abruptly when the Treasury dept. took notice of his bootlegging activities during prohibition. His 5 room, plastered-walls, log cabin stands up Kirkwood creek surrounded by Poison Oak and Stinging Nettles. I could hear the rats rummaging around in the roof at night.

Kirkwood creek empties into the Snake River at a long, grassy bar, which was settled around the turn of the century. Today it is operated by the USFS. They maintain a cabin and some outhouses there. Since the camping area had some people in it, and people were not really on my to-do list, I slept in the Mansion. The next morning I took off up river along the well-worn trail. Originally worn in by local Indians, the trail had been blasted out of the living rock in places to accommodate pack strings during the heyday of canyon life, ending in the late '30s.

People have lived in Hells Canyon for at least 7,200 years. There are large rockshelters that housed many families where the debris has been carbon dated. There are rock carvings old enough the Nez Pierce and Shoshone tribes can't decipher them. There were people living in the canyon when Mt. Mazama in Oregon blew up creating Crater Lake. The Carter Mansion has a root cellar dug into the layer of Mt. Mazama ash. The layer is 5 feet thick.

I saw the remains of 9 pit houses. These are depressions in the ground about 3' deep and 20' across. Dated to about 2000 yrs old, they were winter shelters for the local tribes.

To escape the wind for a short snack, I ducked behind a rock wall, under a slight overhang. Sure enough, burned cactus chunks and a discoidal knife lay like they were placed there yesterday.

I dangled my legs over the gut-clenching Suicide Point and watched the Snake River writhe 300 feet straight below me. The story is that a Shoshone brave from the S. end of the canyon fell in love with a Nez Pierce girl from the N. end. Their two tribes were constantly at war, the Shoshone usually loosing, being the poorer of the two. He couldn't afford the bride price, and they were forbidden to marry. So the two met at this point and leaped to their everlasting peace. It is an old story, but it sounds a lot like Romeo and Juliet to me...

Crossing Big Bar, I stopped for a lunch of Prickly Pear cactus. While I sat under a thorny tree that reminded me of southern African savanna, I noticed the remains of an eaten MRE. The entree was still sealed, and I packed it and the trash out, but I would rather bite a cactus than eat an MRE. Unfortunately, I am so cheap, I can't bring myself to throw the thing away.

Where Meyer creek crosses the trail, I noticed an abandoned cabin peeking out around the corner of some rocks. Most people wouldn't have seen it, and I was just lucky. I battled my way through an elderberry thicket to inspect. The smart thing to do would have been to just keep to the trail, since I could have been injured and would have been impossible to find, but that didn't enter my mind at the time. The cabin was in pretty poor shape. There were no door or windows, and the roof was completely gone. I doubt it ever had a floor. The contents were strewn all over. There were bottles, cans, pots and pans. Even a pair of rotten rubber boots. I picked up a slightly rusty file and dropped it in my pack. It was still sharp, and I will find some use for it. Whoever lived in this shack was a complete sloth, because they had created a knee-deep midden of tin cans between the cabin and the creek, where they would have gone to get water. Evidently they just threw them out the front door when they were done eating.

The next cabin I came across was of much better construction. It was stone mortared with concrete, roofed with tin, and dug into a hillside. It would have taken many horse-loads to build such a hovel. This one was entirely different inside. There was an old Coleman lantern, the usual kitchen stuff, and even a Gideon Bible (like from a motel) sitting on the rusted wood stove. Strangely, there is no water available to this cabin. It is a substantial hike to the river, and no sign that the local gully carries water but for a very limited time of the year. I can't imagine why someone would have built there, but they built for durability.

The second night I stayed in a rock shelter between two huge boulders. It was large enough to stand up in and about the size of a king-size bed. Upon looking around inside, I found burned cactus pads, fire marks, and a few broken bone fragments. Perhaps some canyon native was hiking along here with night coming, the down-canyon winds whipping, and rain threatening. He came inside and spun up a fire from the pile of dried driftwood down by the river. I could imagine him eating cactus and camas bulbs just like my meal and sleeping on the only flat area of the cave; the same spot I chose. Quite a timeless experience. I reclaimed the site the way I had found it the next morning. Perhaps the next person will find no sign of my presence, but some of the Paleolithic.

This time of year Hells Canyon is a supermarket of edible plants. I used about one third of the food in my pack, mostly because I was too lazy to forage for breakfast. The Camas was just beginning to bloom, greens of all types, dandelion, miner's lettuce, cleavers (catchweed), cactus pads, nettles, thistles, shooting star, all kinds of stuff.

I learned how to safely eat a prickly pear cactus without getting the prickles in my lips and tongue. Break off the pad with your walking or digging stick, flip it into the trail. Scuff your foot back and forth over it to break off most of the long spines. Slit down the edges from the butt to the tip. Peal the pad in two halves like the pages of a book. Use a spoon or knife to scrape out the yummy flesh from inside. The other way I used was to break off the spines, then pick off the hairs as I walked. Then just chomp down on the whole thing. Burning off the spines and hairs works well too. Most wild foods are not too great, but Prickly Pear is delicious! They are also a superior dressing for burns than even Aloe Vera.

Morning in the rock shelter: I woke up stiff and a bit cold as I had to sleep curled up to stay under the sleeping bag. Corn grits and coffee started the day. Grits aren't my favorite food, but they cook fast, are light, cheap, and really provide a noticeable burst of energy for most of the day. With some brown sugar, they don't taste bad.

Started on the return trip. This time, I felt like getting into the walking groove and hardly stopped for 6 miles. I camped again at the carter mansion. This time, I was a little short on solitude, since a large group from a central Idaho high school was camping at Kirkwood bar just 3/4 miles away. I think all 20 of them made it up to look at the mansion at one time or another that afternoon.

There are elderberry bushes/trees growing all along Kirkwood Creek, and elderberry has hollow stems. I cut a couple pieces about a foot long and dug out the pith with a pointed stick. I don't play the flute, so there is no surprise that I couldn't get any sound out of the one I made. That's not strictly true; it tooted once. Of course by that time in the trip, "tooting" wasn't uncommon.

I had better luck with the "Saxophone" I made. It used a blade of grass held in the crack of a split stick for a reed. There was a hollow stem behind that with holes to change the pitch. You blow on the blade of grass (like when you hold it between your thumbs and make it squeak) and the sound goes into the tube. It didn't work too well, but Mary Hadda Little Lamb only has three notes. The thing never worked again. The dinner music came from my worn-out harmonica.

While foraging for dinner, I came across some poison oak stems that looked like something form the age of tree ferns and cow-sized rodents. These nasty things were a full 5 to 6 feet tall! Luckily, they had no leaves, so were a little easier to avoid (they are quite potent without leaves anyway). Through hard experience, I know that I am immune to all but a massive dose of Urusheol oils, but when I do get it... oh MAMMA! Dinner Wednesday was a stew of Camas bulbs, dandelion greens, miner's lettuce, a handful of rice and chicken bullion. It was so good, I am thinking of making some here at home. A warm 1L bath followed dinner. There's no reason to be uncivilized when away from civilization.

Not only was this trip going to be a test of my skills, it was also a test of some gear that I hadn't had the opportunity to evaluate properly. I was using a homemade pack that weighs about a pound and a half and a homemade sleeping bag that weighs just under two pounds. The pack worked awesome, but the sleeping bag was about a foot too short. I measured myself lying on my back, and I usually sleep on my stomach. That leaves my feet sticking out straight and the bag ends up around the middle of my shoulders. Other than that, it was plenty warm, packs small, and dries out faster than any synthetic bag I have used before. The pack held much more than I needed it to, and even though it is made of pretty lightweight nylon, it survived extensive bushwhacking without any wear. At one point I was in brush so thick that I had to scoot it along in the dirt ahead of me. If you want plans to make the pack and sleeping bag, buy Ray Jardine's excellent book, Beyond Backpacking. These plans are included as are several others. I was also using running shoes instead of boots. Some would say that Hells Canyon is too rough a terrain for trail runners, but I have hiked it before in traditional boots, and had blisters and sore feet. This time, my feet were cool, comfortable, blister-free, and as stable as ever. In short, the runners lived up to the billing that Jardine gives them. I also tried out an Esbit stove for any meals where I didn't want to build a fire. There really isn't anything special about the stove, but the Esbit fuel is NOTHING like the cheap trioxaine bars you get at surplus stores. Each one burns for about 12 minutes and they are half the size of trioxaine. In 4 meals, I used 5 tabs. For a longer trip, I would have packed my homemade alcohol stove.

Thursday I completed the hike back to Pittsburgh Landing. All in all, I only traveled about 28 miles in the whole trip. I have walked almost that far in a single (desperate) day, but it was still a great trip. I can't wait for the snow to melt in the higher country so I can get back to the mountains, but for now the rivers will suffice.

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