“The grandeur and originality of the views presented on every side beggar both the pencil and the pen. Nothing we had ever gazed upon in any other region could for a moment compare in wild majesty and impressive sternness with the series of scenes which here at every turn astonished our senses and filled us with awe and delight.” Benjamin L. E. Bonneville, an early explorer of Hell’s Canyon, wrote about the place I was getting ready to spend two weeks camping and hiking.
The area has seen much since white men entered its waters, from its early days of exploitation for copper and gold ore to inciting national division in the 1950s and again in the 1970s on damming the river to present-time recreational pursuits. For many years Hell’s Canyon was hailed as the deepest canyon but that is now contested. Regardless of the numbers, I was about to walk into a place of no outside contact. Not that this is a new experience as I have been solo hiking sections of the Continental Divide Trail for a number of years, but this time was different. I was heading into the area with three mules, three dogs, my friend I call the don and his brother. Would Hell’s Canyon live up to its name and reputation? What hellish fate might await, i wondered?
Obviously I have lived to tell the tale. And share some photos…
Monty had never been around mules so it was with some slight trepidation that he was introduced to them. He did live through the two weeks but only through the grace of God who looks out for little white dogs.He was disbelieving these creatures were not just big dogs thus he continued to try and befriend them by getting too close to their feet. He would also try to insert himself in the mule train between two mules if I was riding a mule so I ended up in the saddle about 100 yards and then walking the remaining 18 miles into camp the first day. Monty did finally learn, mostly anyway, not to get underneath the mules and would walk very close to the back of the last mule. Thankfully the mules were very patient with this city boy who was just learning the ropes when it came to mule packing. Monty and I had that in common on this trip. One mule was particularly patient with me as I learned to halter and saddle and lead the mules and even let me braid his tail.
Hells Canyon will extract its pound of flesh, no doubt ’bout that. Just so you know, there are TWO different manifestations of poison ivy in these parts. There is the normal, vine-trailing-on-the-ground type found in moist areas like near creeks and under trees. Then there is another type that does not resemble a vine or a bush. This nasty and tricksy mo-fo is a stick about three feet tall with lovely white to cream dried-looking berries on it. At least that is how it looks in early spring, maybe in June it gets leaves or hairyness or something but in April it is just a lovely berry-topped stick with delicate red undertones hanging out with all the other grasses that looks like it is begging to be in a floral arrangement.
DO NOT BE FOOLED BY IT
Another tip, if you are traveling with animals or some companion that goes tromping pell-mell through the grasses, DO NOT LET THAT BEING INTO YOUR SLEEPING BAG, even if it is a skinny puppy shivering in the cold night. That shivering puppy will run through the tricksy poison ivy sticks ALL DAY LONG and then, in the wee hours of the darkness, will bring all that urushiol into your bag and onto your skin. Just imagine what the results of hours and hours of laying in the poison oil will do to your skin as she cuddles up so sweetly to you. All the weight you have lost from so much lovely exercise will not be evident due to the horrible sores and swelling from the blisters and your new trail name will be Scritchers.
This concludes my public service announcement.
Now for the good part, and if you heed my advice above, you can skip the icky and go straight to the good part. People tried to settle the canyon years ago and planted gardens. Most of the people and settlements did not last but some of their food-stuff is still there. If you go in early spring (as for this area, not the early spring of Houston) you will be fed well from the coffers of the canyon. the don knew of several spots where yummies were growing and shared them with me. Sadly I did not get photos of the morel mushrooms the don gathered and then cooked in butter on the wood stove (yes, for real. this is my life now) but i promise they were exquisite. The same day as the mushroom gathering, he showed me where asparagus would grow. Only a few stalks were showing then but when I went back a week later, JACKPOT!
I gathered a quart ziplock bag and nibbled on quite a few stalks as I gathered and only took about 20% of what was showing. There is also an area where watercress grows and we enjoyed fresh greens pretty much every day of the trip.
Can you imagine a two-week camping trip with fresh asparagus and watercress and mushrooms? and all cooked over campfire or woodstove. Hard to believe yet I offer photographic proof.
Monty was his usual majestic self and struck a pose on every rock formation he saw. Truly, I do not pose him and rarely do I even try to arrange a photo. Mostly he gets his vogue on and waits until I finally realize I should take a picture. He even photo bombs and, as usual, his version is much more interesting than my own. Do you think Ansel Adams might come back as a photogenic master in a dog body?
I’ll put more photos at the end of this post. At the time every single view was breathtaking and so I have tons of pictures of Monty posing with some dramatic view.
As you may know, I am a former city girl who has decided to try a completely different lifestyle. I am learning so much every day! For example, do you know where the antlers for those awesome chandeliers in hunting-themed lodges come from? Out here it is a hobby to collect the ginormous antlers that are shed naturally every spring by the elk. the don and his brother engage in antler hunting and I began a little hunting myself. I was better at finding asparagus.