“Ah, civilization.” said Benelli representative Daren Cole while cresting the last slope of our vertical return hike into Hell’s Canyon. I nodded in agreement as we approached a string of tents at least 50 miles from any sane person’s definition of civilization. No roads cross this historical and wildly beautiful canyon, carved by the Snake River 6 million years ago.
The sun was setting on our second night on the river, and we had a base camp set up on the Idaho bank, Oregon sitting just across the water. I returned to camp with no birds, but I was still in high spirits from the hike’s incredible views when a crisp bell jingled 20 feet to my left. Our guides sprinted towards the sunken sturgeon line stretched taut off the back of one of the rafts. Kevin grabbed the oars while John began reeling in the dinosaur fish hooked 60 feet under.
Sturgeon have existed for 200 million years, with some specimens dating back to the Cretaceous period (when Tyrannosaurus Rex roamed the earth). Although it’s illegal to remove sturgeon from the water, Kevin was able to pull the nearly 6-foot-long fish up against the boat so that I could get a Jurassic Park petting zoo experience. Not everyone can say they’ve pet a dinosaur!
The possibility of blasting chukar (a bird from the pheasant family) brought us into the canyon and swiftly humbled us as the small coveys we did kick up managed to give us the slip. However, the group’s morale never suffered, no matter how wily and quick the birds were. The beautiful terrain, amazing fishing and challenging chase kept everyone in a good mood, not to mention the gourmet food our guides packed and prepared for every meal.
Benelli provided its legendary 828 U Shotguns in various barrel lengths to our hunting party. They were lightweight and sturdy hiking companions. One experienced chukar hunter in our group did manage to take down four birds. Although I didn’t get the chance to fire the 828, it felt balanced and maneuvered well. The functions were quick and decisive, ideal for upland hunting. The guns also put up with quite a few gnarly hikes through thick brush and jutting rocks. Benelli’s 828 is as rough and tough as it is beautiful.
On one hike we saw 8,000-year-old pictographs that pre-date even the Native American tribes that once lived there. Among the rust-colored paintings were black smoke marks stained on the prehistoric rocks, indicating a lean-to structure built by the native people. One of our guides, Kevin, taught us that the plant "horehound" only thrives in soil rich in organic matter. This herb is a great indicator of where historical settlements may have been because composting organic waste is indicative of the presence of people. Now I know to keep an eye out for horehound, just in case ancient signs of human life are waiting to be discovered!
We were also able to visit a cabin built in 1905 featuring a newspaper article about the couple that built it hanging on the wall. The main photo’s caption reads, “The Allen Wilsons of Granite Creek. She is the only hunter who will match his pace. He sometimes sleeps out in blizzards without blanket or tent.” Although plenty of remains from homesteaders’ farms still dot the river, a few locations are still inhabited and feature mail boxes only accessible by USPS jet boat. (I’m absolutely jealous of the postal worker who gets that novel route.)
Deeper than the Grand Canyon, Hell’s Canyon is a special place to visit, but if you’re interested in making the trek, the best way to experience the river is on a raft. We traversed bass-filled pockets, riffles hiding hook-shy trout and class four rapids. The guides at America’s Rafting Company were knowledgeable, attentive and friendly. They made the time on the water just as amazing as the time off.
If nights eating salmon caught the same day around the campfire while watching the Milky Way materialize above is your idea of a perfect trip, shoulder a shotgun and chase those devil birds through Hell’s Canyon. You’ll be tested, as well as treated, in this hunting and fishing heaven.