Photos: A Whitewater Adventure Through Hells Canyon

Rafting, fishing, and camping through one of America's great public lands

A debate over the value and management practices of federal public lands has burned hotly this summer. So hotly, in fact, that a critical point has seemingly become lost in the policy haze: public land is meant for us to enjoy.

But if anybody does know how to kick back and enjoy a little adventure on America's public land, it’s the folks at YETI Coolers (after all, their main job is to keep beer cold) and O.A.R.S., an adventure guide company out of California. They recently hosted a group of outdoor writers and photographers on a whitewater rafting trip down the churning Snake River. The trip promised big waves, feisty smallmouth, cold beers, and gourmet cooking. The point was to test out some new YETI gear and enjoy a little piece of paradise that we all own—the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area.

Tucked along the border lines of Oregon, Washington and Idaho, the Snake rushes through the Hells Canyon—a 652,488-acre expanse of wilderness that’s managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

Once the home of the Nez Percé Tribe, the canyon holds big game like black bear, elk, and bighorn sheep and the river runs thick with smallmouth bass and the occasional sturgeon.

Our group was a mishmash of hardcore fly fishermen, skiers, surfers, and whitewater rafters. And all of us were equally excited to hit the river.

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Loading bags at the Lewiston–Nez Perce County Airport for the flight to Halfway, OR. Travel to the put-in spot included a flight to Spokane, WA, an hour-and-half drive to Lewiston, ID, a jumper to Halfway, and a two-hour drive to the Hells Canyon Dam.Stephen Maturen
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Photographer Matt Jones looks around Scotty's Hells Canyon Store during a final pit stop on the way to the put in at Hells Canyon Dam. Our trip would take us 32 miles downriver from the Hells Canyon dam to Pittsburg landing, and there would be no chances to pick up more gear or rations.Stephen Maturen
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The team unloads YETI packs filled with personal gear at a campsite on the Oregon side of the Snake River.Stephen Maturen
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Morgan Mason, a fly fishing guide and writer from Park City, UT, casts into a pool cut by the Snake River. The river was high and running fast, so many of these little pools and pockets were flooded up to the brush line and full of bass.Stephen Maturen
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Hooked up: a smallmouth bass surfaces.Stephen Maturen
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Joe Koehly drifts a fly near our first night’s campsite on the Snake River.Stephen Maturen
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Thacher Stone pulls in an ambitious smallie.Stephen Maturen
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Running the border of eastern Oregon and western Idaho, the Snake River cut a deep gorge known as Hells Canyon. The terrain in this photo is relatively gentle, as the canyon plunges 8,000 feet below He Devil Peak in Idaho, making it the deepest river gorge in North America (yes, it's even deeper than the Grand Canyon). In the cooler months bears, elk, and bighorn sheep dot the river banks and craggy ledges.Stephen Maturen
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OARS lead guide, Peter Dykes, gives a brief geological lecture on "Suicide Point," a steep outcrop several hundred feet above the river. Stories vary on how the outcrop got its name, just like any wilderness lore. Our guide told a story of a Nez Perce tribal chief flinging himself off the cliff in dishonor after being pushed off his land during the Trail of Tears. But another story tells the tale of a Shoshone native who killed himself after being overwhelmed by his unrequited love for a woman in a different tribe.Stephen Maturen

We mostly ran class II and class III rapids, but we hit two class IVs on the first full day in the raft. One of these class IVs, the Wild Sheep Rapids, gave us a run for our money. I was in the paddle boat, the heart of the action, with our guide Kale and five other's from our crew. We hung back and waited for the dory boat to chart its course through the giant crashing waves. The big fiberglass dory would always go through first and the rafts would follow; if that thing got loose you definitely didn't want it at the back of the line clobbering everyone in front of it. When we saw the dory slip through unscathed, we took off into our first set, and I turned on the GoPro strapped to my chest. We successfully made it through the first two sets before getting absolutely crunched by a big wave curling laterally. Our timing was off so instead of gliding over the top, the boat immediately seized and rolled over to its left, flipping some into the water and trapping others underneath the boat.

I was flung overboard and got dunked repeatedly through the rapids. Eventually I made it down to the dory boat parked on the shore below the rapids (We edited the GoPro video shorter to spare you from some of the underwater thrashing). They pulled me up unto the deck and I lay there heaving for a second before turning to our trip leader and joked, "Hey Peter...I think I drank some unfiltered water, am I gonna be okay?"

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Trip guide, Kale Cimperman, had to chug down a PBR after flipping a boat in the rapids. The rafting tradition dictates that everyone who dunks in the river has to chug a beer off a sandal. It’s a way to make light of a tense situation. But it’s also a way to celebrate making it to the next camp safely.Stephen Maturen
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Trip leader, Peter Dykes, rows the dory boat at the front of the pack.Stephen Maturen
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A high view of the second night’s campsite.Stephen Maturen
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There were no mosquitos or flies in the canyon and most everyone on the trip slept under the stars at the second campsite. And skipping the tent was worth it as clear daytime skies turned into an epic starry view from the bottom of Hells Canyon.Stephen Maturen