We heard the roar of the rapids before we saw them.
We knew they were coming, but just the sound of the churning water was enough to give us a jolt of adrenaline, and we could feel the Snake River pulling our canoe a little harder and a little faster downriver. It had grown cold and cloudy, and the last thing we wanted to do was to take a dip in the cold, swift water.
It was a stark contrast from that morning, which we had spent pleasantly enough on probably my favorite stretch of the Snake River. It was the most isolated stretch of our journey, between Grand View and Swan Falls Dam, and we had calm, cool weather, high clouds, intermittent sunshine and quiet, peaceful paddling, with no indication of the rapids that were in store for us that afternoon.
That ever-changing contrast in weather, current and landscape was all part of an eight-day canoe journey that my friend, Josh Lunn, and I took to complete the 206-mile Snake River Water Trail, from Glenns Ferry, Idaho, to Farewell Bend State Park in Oregon.
We put in at 1 p.m. on Saturday, April 10, and we took out at 1 p.m. on the following Saturday, April 17 — almost exactly seven days.
At certain times during our trip, particularly those cold, windy, flat, ugly times, I would think to myself, “Why would anyone do this?” At other times, those awe-inspiring, quiet, majestic, remote times, I would think, “More people need to do this.”
Before we set out, we weren’t really sure this trip was doable — 206 miles in a canoe in seven days, 30 miles per day, with unknown rapids, portages, obstacles, currents.
Now that we’ve traveled the entire length of the river trail, two things are clear: It’s completely doable, and more people should — and can — do it.
This was the year to do it
Josh and I have known each other through Boy Scouts for several years and have been on many adventures together. We both know parts of the river, and Josh has a farm in Indian Cove and farm property in Marsing and has led many Scout float trips on parts in between.
But neither of us knew the entire stretch of the Snake River Water Trail, and there were many unknowns — including rapids, open waters, downed trees or where to camp. Much of the stretch is populated with farms and houses, but much of it is isolated and remote.
I’ve known about the Snake River Water Trail since about 2013, when I first heard about it when I was the editor of the newspaper in Ontario, Oregon, through which the water trail runs. Josh and I have talked about doing the whole run — hoping to be the first — for several years.
This was the year to do it.
Day 1: Tough way to start
We did not pick the best day to begin our journey. Rather, I should say, Mother Nature picked the worst day to give us a serious windstorm that reportedly had gusts of up to 30 mph.
We were going to begin on Sunday, but we decided to get started as soon as possible and get at least some miles behind us on Saturday.
It didn’t go well.
We started at 1 p.m. on Saturday, April 10, and got only about 9 or 10 miles in hard, driving wind, all while we were trying to get our sea legs under us and get used to each other’s paddling cadence.
We stopped at a bend for the night for fear of tipping the canoe in rough waters.
Day 2: More wind
The next morning was a better start, but the winds picked up again shortly after.
At a couple of points, Josh got out and actually towed the canoe in knee-deep water because paddling against the wind in shallow waters was pointless.
The wind continued into the afternoon, and we struggled just to get a few miles. By 5 in the evening, we were both exhausted and reluctant to enter a canyon which was sure to have driving winds, so we stopped for the night.
Still, we had gone about 19 miles, so between Saturday and Sunday, we had done about 30 miles.
Our goal was to be off the water by the following Saturday, so if we went 30 miles per day, we would make it.
Without a headwind, and with a 2-3 mph flow on the river, we thought it would be doable, and at least by Sunday night, we were on schedule.
But we were going to need better days ahead.
Day 3: Unusual portage around CJ Strike dam
The wind was continuing to blow when we woke up that Monday morning, a discouraging start to the day, knowing we were heading into a canyon around the bend. But as soon as we got on the water, the wind stopped, and we even had a tailwind for some of the morning.
We got into CJ Strike Reservoir that morning and experienced some choppy waters, but not nearly as bad as the previous two days. We traveled 13 miles in four hours and made it to the dam by lunchtime.
Josh’s mother was waiting with supplies and lunch, and she helped with our first portage of the trip, a quarter-mile jaunt around the CJ Strike Dam. We slid our canoe into the back of her Subaru and held the back of the canoe while she drove to the boat launch on the other side of the dam.
Below the dam, the current was much faster, and we zipped past Grand View within an hour, without having to do hard paddling. This is what I was hoping for.
Up until this point, the landscape was typical high desert, sagebrush, dotted with farms, ranches and houses. But once we entered the Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area, the landscape turned to high cliff walls and narrower canyons.
We paddled for four hours that afternoon, from 2:30 to 6:30, and found a nice campsite on a flat just above the river in a canyon down the way from a lone, isolated house.
Day 4: The perfect morning
The morning of Day 4 was glorious, just as I had imagined the trip would be. We had cool, calm weather, with high clouds, intermittent sunshine, a slight but noticeable current through canyons and high cliff walls. This was also probably the most isolated stretch, with no houses, ranches or farms, very few pumps because of the high, steep cliff walls and only one or two boaters.
We stopped for lunch a little early, just short of Swan Falls Dam. It took only another hour to get to the dam, where we would have another portage.
At the dam, we scoped out pickup trucks to see if we might persuade someone to give our canoe a lift to the other side. No luck. We hauled our packs over first, then came back for the canoe, which is an old, heavy Old Town 17-footer that had been in Josh’s family since 1976. The only way to transport it was with two people carrying it by the rope handles at each end. We had to stop every 100 feet or so. We had made it about 100 yards when we heard a pickup truck coming our way and decided to flag him down. He was already rolling down his window to offer assistance.
Derek, from Kuna, formerly an avid reader of my former newspaper, the Kuna Melba News, drove our canoe down to the boat ramp and stayed to chat with us a while. As he was driving our canoe down, all I could think was, “God, I love Idaho.”
Derek was also kind enough to warn us, “You know, there are rapids down there,” and he told us to look out for the ventilation pipe from a vault toilet at Fisherman’s Point about 3 miles downriver because the rapids are right after a hard bend so not visible almost until you come right up on them.
Before then, though, there is a small set of rapids that we probably could have run with the canoe, but we didn’t want to risk it, so we carried the canoe a very short distance around those.
The next rapids, at Fisherman’s Point, though, were much more problematic. Not only were the rapids raging, they were long, and the portage over land would have been brutal, through reeds and rocks without a trail.
We spent about a half-hour scouting the scene before coming up with the idea to do a “wet-foot line-guided wet portage,” in which Josh held onto the bow line and I to the stern line, walked in the water near the shoreline and pulled the canoe through the edge of the rapids. It wasn’t easy, as the rocks were slippery and the current fast, but it was most definitely the best and fastest way to go. We were through in about 15-20 minutes.
By now, the river was moving pretty fast, and we made good distance. By 5 p.m., though, we hit another rapids. This is the witching hour. We were hungry and a little tired, not the best for attempting another portage. We decided to call it a day and set up camp above the rapids among a series of old placer mines that still had remnants of sluice boxes and metal sifters and grates. It felt fun to stay at a place that had a history.
The weather again turned cold and windy. We were hoping for better weather. More headwinds and rapids would kill our progress.
Day 5: Three more rapids
Our first order of business on Day 5 was getting around the latest set of rapids. This time, we knew exactly what to do and how to do it, so we made short work of it and were on our way downriver.
Shortly thereafter, we hit another rapids, rockier, shallower and possibly doable to run it, but we didn’t want to risk hitting a jagged rock at high speed. We slipped into a little side bay and lifted the canoe over some rocks that had been piled up at some point to create a water wheel, which was still there but long ago abandoned and not operating. This was just a little downriver from a well-known hermit’s cabin that’s on a bluff above the river.
About an hour later, we hit much bigger, wider rapids on a bend in the river next to a sandy peninsula just a short distance from Celebration Park. This time, the shore was rockier and deeper and would have been harder to navigate by doing a wet-foot portage. The last thing you want to do is break an ankle slipping off a rock. A well-developed trail runs right along the peninsula, and it was easier to carry the canoe along the trail and to the other side of the peninsula. We were on our way.
We hit Celebration Park shortly after and met up with Josh’s son Jacob, who resupplied and stayed with us for lunch.
The weather was warming up and the wind dying down, which was a good thing. We had lost a lot of time that morning because of the three rapids, and we needed to get much farther down the river to stay on pace.
We ended up paddling six straight hours that afternoon, from 12:30 to 6:30, to get to Josh’s farm property in Marsing. It wasn’t particularly difficult paddling. We fortunately had good weather the whole way, but it was still a long afternoon. It made me wish we had pushed through a little farther the day before.
As it was, though, we had done our requisite 30 miles that day and we still had a couple of hours of sunlight left to set up camp, build a fire and enjoy some whiskey.
By my calculations, we had just 89 miles left to go over three days remaining. With no rapids and good winds, we could actually do this. I think that was the first day that I thought we might be able to run the whole thing.
Day 6: Back into civilization
The next day, Day 6, we found fast currents and little wind. We flew down the river, making 16 miles in three-and-a-half hours before lunch. By my calculations, we needed to make Fort Boise Wildlife Management Area by the end of the day. We made it there by 4 p.m.
We made it all the way to Nyssa by 5:30. We decided to take out at the city park boat launch to stretch our legs. Feeling good about being so far ahead of schedule (we had gone 37 miles relatively easily that day), I suggested we go into town, get a burger and even stay in a motel.
We stowed the canoe, grabbed our bags and started walking down Main Street. We quickly realized this was a fool’s errand, that Nyssa didn’t even have a motel and that the nearest burger joint was too far of a walk.
So we headed back to the canoe and back on the water to find an island to sleep on for the night.
The first island we stopped at was something from a nightmare, littered with nesting geese. After briefly considering finding a spot somewhere, we wisely high-tailed it out of there to the next island, where we found a wonderfully pleasant beach to camp on for the night.
We knew we were still in civilization, though, by the sound of barking dogs, jake brakes rattling from the nearby highway and the occasional passing train.
Day 7: Deceptive distances
Traveling by canoe through a populated place that you know can be deceiving. When you are used to driving, Nyssa, Ontario, Fruitland, Payette and Weiser are all close by, just a few minutes drive from each other. By canoe, though, the distances are deceptively large. We only got to the Ontario State Recreation Site by lunch. Half a day and we’re still only in Ontario? Still, it was a nice park to stop at.
The afternoon seemed lazy, as we trudged slowly downriver, past Fruitland, past Payette on toward Weiser.
Our friend Bob Hunter was meeting us in Weiser, and we asked him to bring us burgers and a resupply of whiskey. I can’t recall a time I so much looked forward to getting to Weiser.
There is a nice but undeveloped boat launch in Weiser that is tucked away from town behind some onion packing sheds, where we waited for Bob. After (an amazingly delicious) dinner from Brewski’s in Ontario, we paddled over to a nearby island and camped for the night.
By our calculation, we had just 18 miles left to go to get to Farewell Bend.
But the river wasn’t quite done with surprises yet.
Day 8: Final stretch
With the excitement of finishing our trip, we headed out that final morning, our eighth day on the river. We were disappointed that the early stretch of the river was relatively slow and flat. We probably had a 2 mph current, but it didn’t seem like it.
After a couple of hours, the river sped up, entered some twists and turns and became much shallower. At one point, we had to get out to walk the canoe out of some shallow gravel beds. At another point, we had to dodge sharp rocks sticking out or dangerously just below the surface. “Right!” Josh, who was in the bow, would shout. “Left!” “Left!” “A little more to the right!”
At this point, the river is swifter, so it was pushing us along and speeding us up. Just when we breathed a sigh of relief, we came into another part of the river that had bedrock, with jagged edges sticking up, threatening to puncture a hole in the canoe. With this, as well, it would have been difficult to just get out and walk the canoe downriver, because the bedrock was slick and sloped sharply down and away. The best we could do was ride the current and steer clear as best we could.
The previous night in Weiser, while waiting for Bob, we talked to a gentleman who jetboated the river quite a bit. He looked at us kind of funny when we told him we had started in Glenns Ferry in the canoe.
We told him we were finishing in Farewell Bend, and he said, “You know about Cobb Falls, right?”
We did not know about Cobb Falls, which sounded ominous.
Both Josh and I admitted to each other later that we had a sense of impending doom as we headed out that morning. We had gone 200 miles, and wouldn’t it be something if our last few miles screwed up the whole mission?
We had no problem seeing Cobb Falls coming up. We knew it was Cobb Falls, because we couldn’t see the river on the other side. It must have been only a foot or so drop, but it was enough to make it look scary.
It’s also in an odd position on the river, in a wide section on a sharp, left turn, with three islands after it, a big, ugly rocky mess to the right and a shallow channel off to the left.
We kept going left, deciding to aim for a beach on the shore to take out and assess the situation.
Unfortunately, through some strange optical illusion, the beach we aimed for was actually after the falls. By the time we realized it, it was too late. We were going to have to go through the rapids. There was no turning back; the current was too swift and there was nowhere else to go.
“Aim for the green tongue!” Josh shouted nervously, referring to the rafting technique of aiming for the section of river where two currents converge, like an inverted “V”.
All I could think at that moment was that we are probably less than 3 miles away from the end and this is where we’re going to dump it?
Here we go.
I could feel the canoe tilt downward as we headed into the rapids. At first, it wasn’t bad. We sped up dramatically, but we were heading straight. The biggest threat is getting knocked sideways or angled just enough for a current to hit the side of the canoe and tip you sideways. As we entered the second part of the rapids, waves and currents were hitting us from multiple angles, and as I felt the canoe getting turned to the right, I pulled the paddle to the left behind me to keep us in line, only to get jerked back to the left, forcing me to push my paddle hard to the right. All the while, we were speeding up with every foot and we took another downward dip and a bounce, making us even more susceptible to a side-glancing wave.
The whole thing must have lasted maybe just a few seconds, but it seemed like a long time. We eventually came out onto flat water, unscathed — and dry.
As an indication of how fast the water was flowing here, we tried to beach on an island, but the current pulled us too fast and we missed it. We finally settled on shore for a quick break before making the last unremarkable mile to Farewell Bend State Park and the end of our journey.
Wildlife, other sights
During the trip, we saw several species of duck, including mallard, redheads, wood duck, as well as coots, pelicans, blue herons, osprey, red-tailed hawks, a bald eagle, bass, carp (including one that hit my paddle so hard, it nearly knocked it out of my hands), several deer, muskrat, beaver, quail and pheasant. Of course, we saw Canada geese, which would become our mortal enemies on this trip, with their incessant honking.
We chatted with a couple of competitive fishers one day, and we talked to two men who said they had caught a 7-foot and an 8-foot sturgeon.
We also paddled past what must have been a long-range shooting group and wisely decided to change course to go on the west side of an island, just in case someone’s calculations were off.
The river is populated with various old abandoned shacks and cabins, mysterious concrete pads and structures, placer mines, remnants of old ferry systems, junk cars used as anti-erosion riprap, old water wheels and old irrigation systems. New pump stations litter the shores, piping water from the Snake hundreds of feet up cliff walls to irrigation projects on the flats above.
The landscape varied from flat, ugly brown high desert dotted with farms, ranches and houses to gorgeous canyonland with 200-foot high cliff walls.
The river is wide in many parts, as much as a quarter-mile. In many places, particularly before the CJ Strike Dam, it felt more like a lake than a river. In other parts, the river narrows, and currents are swifter.
Tips, practical matters
When doing a trip like this, plan on having “wet clothes” that you wear in the boat and a complete set of “dry clothes” that you wear in camp and are protected in a dry bag.
I learned the wet-foot portage method at Northern Tier Boy Scout camp in Boundary Waters. Wear non-waterproof boots that go up around the ankle in case your foot goes deep in mud. Wear quick-drying smart wool socks, quick drying pants, and a polyester shirt. I have a polyester fleece that’s almost like neoprene that is pretty water resistant and warm, then I usually put my rain jacket over that as a windbreaker and hood up as sun protection.
Always wear a life jacket.
Hook your dry bags to the thwart in case you tip. Everything in the boat should be connected to the canoe in some way. I like to clip my two Nalgene water bottles together with a carabiner, then clip that to one of the bags to keep it up off the floor of the canoe, where dirty water tends to collect.
Gloves are vital to protect you from blisters, to keep your hands warm in cold and windy weather and to protect from sunburn.
Speaking of sunburn, put sunscreen on your lips. You have sun shining not only from above but reflected from the water below. I used one of those chapstick-type sunscreen dispensers that you turn the dial to raise the sunscreen up. It worked very well on the parts of my face that were exposed as well as my lips.
Make sure you’re camping only on public lands. There’s a lot of private land along the way, so look out for “no trespassing” signs and obey them. We had no problem finding an abundance of public land.
For water purification, we did it two ways. I used a Sawyer Squeeze filter, pumping out of the river, and Josh used purification tablets.
A quick note about our canoe: “Old Blue,” as we called it, is an Old Town canoe made of Royalex that Josh’s parents bought new almost 50 years ago and has been in the family since. At 17 feet, 2 inches long and 74 pounds, it proved solid and steady.
The Idaho-Oregon Snake River Water Trail is a coalition of partners of federal and local government agencies, nonprofit organizations, private businesses and citizens with an interest in the Snake River that started in 2009.
“The main goal of the water trail is to get people out on the river, traveling from point to point,” Laura Barbour, assistant director of Canyon County Parks, Cultural and Natural Resources, said in a phone interview. “It’s to give boaters, whether it’s motorized boaters or non-motorized boaters, some destinations and resources where they’re not just traveling on the river but they’re able to kind of plan their trip.”
Canyon County Parks was awarded a National Park Service Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance Program grant to plan the water trail.
The Snake River Water Trail today is a loose conglomeration of dozens of partners, including several local, state, county and federal government agencies, chambers of commerce, Idaho Power and several nonprofits, with Canyon County Parks leading the way. A steering committee meets regularly, Barbour said.
If I were to do it again — and we’re already talking about doing it again — I would plan out our stops much better.
As it was, we didn’t do a lot of planning for this trip. We just set off and tried to just go as far as we could or felt like going each day, with little regard to where we were stopping each night. As it turned out, we stayed in some fantastic undeveloped spots each night. But doing it again, I would plan it out to stay at Celebration Park or Swan Falls for one night. I would try to plan on being in Adrian for a burger for lunch or Marsing for a pizza dinner. If we took more time, I would even plan on staying in a motel one night, if possible.
Now that we’ve done it and we know the lay of the land and how long it takes to run each stretch, we could do a better job planning those stops.
That said, the cities along the trail could do a much better job of trying to capture such travelers, with developed campgrounds specifically for the Snake River Water Trail, vault toilets, better signage, gear lockers and places to secure canoes and kayaks for the night, so that travelers can “go into town” without worrying about their belongings being stolen.
“One of our goals as an organization is to start doing a better job with that marketing information,” Barbour said. “So how do we connect people from the river into the towns and the communities and how do we give them a better idea of what resources are out there?”
Because also, now that we’ve done it, I’m convinced that the Snake River Water Trail could become a destination for paddlers, both canoeists and kayaking enthusiasts, from all over the world, similar to what the Green River in Utah has become.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, though, the Snake River Water Trail can — and should — become a destination for people locally.
Even if you don’t do the full 206 miles like we did, pick a couple of stretches that you could do in a weekend or a Friday after work to Sunday.
The Snake River Water Trail coalition has put together an “Adventure Guide,” with details about various stops and a decent “reach map,” laying out distances and points of interest along the way. You can find more information at snakeriverwatertrail.org.
One of the things that struck me as we were on the river was that none of this was that far from civilization. It will take you five hours to get to the Bighorn Crags, but it will take you about an hour to drive to CJ Strike Dam, be in the canyon that night and take out at Swan Falls Dam the next day.
“I think we want it to be something that’s fun and enjoyable and accessible for a family from Nampa to come and do,” Barbour said. “But you also want it to be one of those things that gets on people’s lists, one of the things to do when you’re in Boise, whether they’re doing just like a day float or coming from far away with that plan of doing the whole trip.”
However you do it and however much of it you do, just get the Snake River Water Trail on your list.
Scott McIntosh is the opinion editor of the Idaho Statesman. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 208-377-6202. Follow him on Twitter @ScottMcIntosh12.