One of my most memorable vacations was a raft trip on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. It gave me an appreciation for the beauty and power of river rapids.
The Middle Fork’s rapids pale, however, in comparison with those of the Snake River before it was dammed in the late 1950s and 1960s. The late river-running guide Georgie White Clark, the first woman to run commercial rafts through the Grand Canyon, called it “the only major whitewater river in the Northwest.”
Boisean Cort Conley, who has worked as a river guide throughout the West, agrees:
“Before the dams, the Snake in Hells Canyon was one of the Northwest’s most spectacular stretches of whitewater. It had incredible beaches and huge rapids, some of the best river running stretches in the West.”
A writer and publisher as well as a river guide, Conley recently received a manuscript for a book about a raft trip through Hells Canyon just before it was dammed. It had been rejected by other publishers, but Conley found the story irresistible and published it. The result is “Barefoot in Hells Canyon,” by Bryan Gould.
I’m not a river runner or a book reviewer. But, like Conley, I found Gould’s tale of derring-do on a legendary stretch of Idaho whitewater that no longer exists too compelling not to write about it.
“Barefoot in Hells Canyon” is the story of two teenagers, Gould and his friend Glen Burns, and their unlikely trip through Hells Canyon in 1958. Unlikely because they had never run a whitewater river before. Unlikely because there are bathtubs bigger than their raft was. Unlikely because they didn’t live in Idaho, or anywhere within hundred of miles of Hells Canyon. They were from San Francisco.
“We just wanted to run the wildest river we could,” Gould said in a phone interview. “A lot of people told us we were crazy, and they were probably right. But you know, we were 19. We’d live forever.”
Burns, sadly, died last year without ever seeing the book. Now 83, Gould looks back on their trip as one of the great adventures of his life, and the bedrock of a lifelong bond with his late friend.
The adventure began not on a raft, but in a railroad yard in Oakland, Calif. The boys didn’t drive to Hells Canyon; they hopped freights, hobo-style, and hitchhiked. But for a sure-handed fellow “passenger” who caught him, Burns would have been killed when he fell asleep and nearly fell off of a tanker car.
Riding the rails was tame, however, compared with rafting the Snake pre-dams. Veteran river runner Blaine Stubblefield warned the boys that the river through the canyon was “deceptively calm, punctuated by steep drops and half-mile rollercoasters over boulders and whitewater runouts.”
They were to experience the potentially deadly rollercoasters time and again. The danger was compounded by a lack of gear that contemporary river runners would deem all but suicidal. Their undersized raft was almost comically unsuited to the challenge. Their “helmets” were baseball caps.
“We flipped faster and harder than a flapjack,” Gould wrote of their passage through one set of rapids. “The dump was so immediate that we never saw its cause. We swirled helter skelter in chaos. I was plunged six feet below the raft, helpless as a rag doll. My knees scraped rocks.
“… The raft was upside down and, for now, there was no righting it. We both surfaced, fighting for air, clinging to the raft, which was intent on dragging us through endless rapids.”
At another rapid, “the river descended sharply. It was like being heaved down the treads and risers of a long, steep stairway, and I wondered if our raft might toss me directly into a boulder instead of sliding around it. The river sank into another hole, then bounced me to the surface in time to grab another frog breath and then go under again.”
As if the river weren’t enough of a challenge, the boys lost their shoes in one of the rapids and spent the duration of their journey barefoot while negotiating the canyon’s rocky river banks and prickly pear.
They could have come close to starving as well. They didn’t have fishing poles, they only had enough money to buy three days worth of canned food, and the passage through the canyon would take a week.
They were incredibly lucky, though. Not only did they survive multiple rapids that could have killed them in a heartbeat, they chanced upon a cabin where they sheltered from a storm and feasted on its comestibles – canned hominy, chili, pork and beans, Campbell’s soup and sardines.
Their luck held for the duration of the trip. At the landing where they left the river, they met a fisherman and his son, who gave them a ride to within walking distance of White Bird. There they met a telephone operator who knew exactly who they were, told them Gould’s father had been calling and connected the two of them on an ancient switchboard.
Sixty-plus years later, I asked him if he felt lucky to have survived.
“Yes, I do, he said. “I most certainly would have drowned if I hadn’t had a rope to hang onto when I was dumped. I didn’t know how to swim.”
He still doesn’t.
On the back cover of “Barefoot in Hells Canyon,” Conley noted that he could not recall, “since the steamboats, a Snake River journey that quite rivals this one for interest, mettle and fortuity.”
How to get it: “Barefoot in Hells Canyon” may be ordered online at firstname.lastname@example.org, $23.95 plus shipping. Also available at Rediscovered Books, 180 N. Eighth Street, in downtown Boise.