Into Hell's Canyon ... Enter a world of scenic solitude

Posted: Wednesday, May 29, 2002

LOWER HELL'S CANYON, Idaho (AP) -- Rocky walls that form almost vertical cliffs hem in the tumbling waters of Snake River in the deep canyon below. Dropping down off the ''Divide'' that separates the Salmon and Snake River near the town of Whitebird in north central Idaho, the snow turns to rain halfway down the switchbacks leading to the valley floor.

Pittsburg Landing on the Snake River in lower Hell's Canyon is another six miles from the base of the ''divide'' foothills. The mail boat passes here once a week going upriver to deliver the mail and news of the outside world to those who choose a life of solitude on the remote ranches scattered along the banks of the Snake River below Hell's Canyon.

Climb aboard the mail boat at Pittsburg Landing and you are riding with Captain John Jones who presides over the 28-foot jet boat with 28 years of experience along this waterway. Thirteen of those years he has been bringing in mail to folks who live life at a little different pace than those of the outside world. The other 15 years of his experience was spent as a river guide.

The first mail delivery stop upriver from Pittsburg Landing is the Kirby ranch. Then on upstream through the spring runoff water of April aboard the powerful jet powered canopied boat that shakes off the rise and fall of the rapids with ease. A short 15 minutes of ploughing through rapids and whitecaps brings the Kirkwood Bar into view on the east side of the river. The jet boat cruises easily into the dock and the ladder is let down for passenger deboarding. A momentary flashback to 70 years ago would show the ''Chief Joseph,'' a 1930s mail boat struggling against the current to dock at Kirkwood Bar with mail and supplies. An analogy of the two boats would be comparing a Model A Ford to a Taurus sedan.

Len and Grace Jordan spent seven years here, beginning in 1932 operating a sheep ranching operation with partner, Dick Maxwell. Grace wrote of their difficult years here raising their three children, home schooling, cooking for ranch hands, and visitors and canning most of their food from their own vegetable garden.

Len, who later became a U.S. senator and governor of Idaho tended bands of sheep and supervised herders on the hills along the Snake and Salmon river leaving Grace to anchor the ranch headquarters at Kirkwood Bar. Len was often gone several days tending sheep that ranged to the top of the ''divide.''

The only time he was sure to be home was at shearing time. Once he lay near death in a Grangeville nursing home with Typhoid Fever while the youngest son was suffering the same struggle at home with Whooping Cough. Grace was torn between tending son or husband.

The tiny ranch house was enlarged twice to accommodate expanded operation of the sheep ranching during and immediately following depression years. A concrete bath tub and sink made by the Jordans and their hired hands can still be inspected in the original building, now part of the historical register of Idaho history. Propane lights and heat have been added to the structure since the days of the Jordans. An automotive type alternator generates electricity to charge batteries that power florescent lights in the kitchen area. The alternator is turned by water power from a nearby fast flowing stream. Many of the old tools and implements used by their family are on display in the meadow and log museum constructed on the spot where the original bunk house stood.

A long half mile up and through a small canyon east is the old Carter Mansion constructed of vertical logs where a ''moonshine'' operation lasted until shut down by law enforcement in the early days of the region.

Husband and wife, Don and Dawnie James, volunteer hosts, met us when the boat docked at Kirkwood Bar, acting as tour guides. This couple spend a month and a half of their retirement here each summer and are history buffs who know all the secrets hidden here from early days. Pick their brain if you are curious about past events along the river or historic landmarks.

If you want a short visit here the mail boat will drop you here and pick you up on it's way back down in about an hour. A longer stay will require other arrangements.

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