March 24, 2014

A weekend run through Hells Canyon

Gorgeous views from the weekend’s 24.5-mile Hells Canyon Run

My running year is officially underway, although the first event was the unofficial Hells Canyon Run this past weekend. While I had a couple of problems, it wasn't a race and I had a great day overall.

On a March weekend, runners from around the Northwest arrive at Pittsburgh Landing on the Snake River, in the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area near White Bird, Idaho. There's a potluck dinner the night before, and you board the boat and pay the driver the next morning - the only parts appear even semi-organized. Runners then are ferried upriver to one of two dropoffs - at roughly 15 and 25 miles away - and make their way back along the Snake River National Recreation Trail. There are no aid stations, and you are responsible for your water, food, garbage and safety.

I heard about the run last year and decided to go after learning that this year's event might be the last. Friends let me carpool down with them and share a campsite, bringing the Missoula contingent to about 12 to 15. After the snowy winter at home, it was nice to find spring weather in the canyon - partly cloudy skies, warm days, chilly nights and the season's first wildflowers blooming.

Gorgeous views from the weekend’s 24.5-mile Hells Canyon Run

In the still-dark canyon at 6:15 Saturday morning, we boarded the first boat for the longer distance. About an hour later, we were dropped off on the rocky bank below Granite Creek rapids. After getting our gear organized, we started back down the trail in a line about 10 runners long.

The first 10 miles of trail steadily rose and fell through the trees and grassy fields, crossed the occasional creek and passed a couple of historic homesteads. At the first creek, a friend in the lead of our group made it across dry, a few others splashed a foot, wetting the rocks, and I slipped and sank both of my shoes. We kept moving - now in a group of three Missoulians - and after a few miles my feet warmed.

After occasional stops to eat and take pictures, we arrived at Sheep Creek, the dropoff for the shorter distance. A little more than five miles farther and we stopped again to eat and take pictures. Just after we started again, a Chinook helicopter came into view low over the river, which prompted another picture break. We would later learn it was part of a search for a missing man after a boat sank farther upriver.

Gorgeous views from the weekend’s 24.5-mile Hells Canyon Run

My real problem came with about nine miles to go, when I tripped and fell, bloodying my hand and knee and dazing myself. I've fallen several times during winter and gotten the occasional scrape, but this was the worst I've done. After a few minutes of collecting myself, we started again with the two bigger climbs of the day ahead.

A short distance later, we were standing on cliffs and looking down at the winding Snake directly below - one of the best views of the day. After dropping back to river level, we reached the historic Kirkwood Ranch and stopped to look in the small museum there that's accessible only by trail. Departing the ranch with about six miles to go, we made our steepest climb of the day up a series of switchbacks to a long traverse high above the river and watched as the search helicopter passed below us.

A couple of miles farther, we dropped to the river for the final stretch along the cliffs back to Pittsburgh Landing. My running partners graciously kept with me until the last two miles as I slowed after my fall, and I ran in with two other people we caught.

In the end we covered about 24.5 miles and 4,300 feet of elevation gain, although my GPS became disconnected from satellites a couple of times and logged a mile less.

Despite the problems, it was a beautiful day, and we followed it up with dinner back at camp in a group of about 10 Missoulians. The next day, we drove out of the canyon and headed for home.

Gorgeous views from the weekend’s 24.5-mile Hells Canyon Run

Here are more photos from Hells Canyon.