Lessons from Chief Joseph's Country

by Ian Reid

Snake River near Joseph
The Snake River

Growing up in Oregon, I often heard of the stark beauty of Hells Canyon, the deepest gorge in North America, with its bighorn rams, its historic steelhead runs and its mighty whitewater. Yet the true experience of the place – and the way it touched my soul–far outshone its reputation.

With my wife, Annie, and two friends, I spent several days running Class IV whitewater and swimming through placid pools. We slept out on sun-kissed sand under an endless tapestry of stars, serenaded to sleep by nighthawks and bats, awakened the following dawn by lazuli buntings and canyon wrens. We marveled at the rugged and complex geology and the amber bunchgrasses that undulated with the wind. We studied blood-red pictographs painted by the Nez Perce and admired the painstaking labors of early homesteaders who eked out an isolated existence here. We glassed bighorn and trophy mule deer among the rimrock, busted chukar coveys 20 birds strong, and feasted on freshly caught catfish tacos.


Despite the dams that have decimated the Snake's salmon and steelhead fisheries, quality angling experiences exist in Hells Canyon for rainbow trout, smallmouth bass, channel catfish, and white sturgeon. We managed to catch six fish species on our float (seven if you count carp) on tackle ranging from dry flies to stinkbait.

Indeed, Hells Canyon is a backcountry paradise. Yet few realize just how close it came to being forever drowned behind a mountain of concrete.

By the 1960s, dams above and below Hells Canyon had tamed most of the Snake River and extirpated salmon and steelhead from Nevada and much of Idaho. In 1964, private utilities were granted license to build a 535-foot-high dam that would have flooded 6,660 acres of wildlife habitat.

The dam proposal was eventually defeated 12 years later by President Gerald Ford and his signing of the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area Act. Others crucial to the dam's demise were a handful of politicians including Oregon Sen. Bob Packwood, Idaho Sen. Frank Church, and Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus. Also noteworthy was a grassroots organization, the Hells Canyon Preservation Council, which centralized local opposition and testified before Congress about what would be lost if the dam was built.

While it might seem unlikely today's society would ever consciously choose to destroy so much fish and wildlife habitat in one fell swoop, Hells Canyon received its death sentence and subsequent midnight pardon less than 30 years ago. Today, Americans face similar decisions regarding the conservation of our natural resources.

Across the West, the futures of crucial pieces of public wildlife habitat like the Colorado's Roan Plateau, Montana's Rocky Mountain Front, New Mexico's Valle Vidal, are being weighed. Our society is asking what is worth more – this land as it is or the energy underneath it? Are these the Hells Canyons of tomorrow, to be won or lost in our lifetime?

America's demographics have changed in 30 years. More people live in cities, with less contact with Nature. Younger people seem addicted to the instant gratification of text messaging, mp3s, and videogames. I sometimes wonder if the next generation will have anyone who cares enough to stand up for wild places and lament their disappearance.


Catfish Recipe

  • 2 12-16 inch channel catfish
  • cajun seasoning (cumin, cayenne and black pepper, and onion powder work in a pinch).
  • butter
  • fresh garlic clove
  • corn tortillas
  • lime
  • beans and rice
  • salsa
  • diced tomatoes
  • sharp fillet knife
  • cast iron skillet

Start beans and rice simmering in separate pot. Fillet and skin catfish. Dust w/ cajun seasoning. Add butter and garlic to skillet. Heat skillet until butter melts and is simmering. Add fish fillets--cook about 5 min per side. They should be crispy on the outside and white and flaky on the inside. Wipe lime juice over the top. Serve w/ a cold Corona or local micro.

I met an encouraging answer on our way home from Hells Canyon. Annie and I stopped to hike in the Eagle Cap Wilderness. On the trail we ran into three separate parties: a troop of ten exhausted yet enthusiastic Boy Scouts who had taken an eight-mile wrong turn but were ready for eight more; a family with a 9-year-old carrying a pack bigger than he was; a pack of six hiking-boot-clad high school girls eager to climb a mountain. All of these young-uns looked excited to share the woods with the Eagle Cap's abundant bighorn sheep, mountain goat, deer, and elk. Perhaps more importantly, all passed by without iPods. While it's great for the future of wilderness preservation these kids were getting out there, the real praise goes to the parents, relatives, and troop leaders who took the time to teach appreciation and respect for the backcountry in those young people.

For me, it's not enough anymore to simply hunt and fish and consume natural resources; I must speak up for them. Those who question the importance of public opinion should never underestimate the power of grassroots organizations and their role in protecting the special, natural places we love. Indeed, organized outrage from the people can move mountains. Or in the case of Hells Canyon, prevent them from ever being built.

Ian Reid is a fisheries biologist with the USDA Forest Service and a Founding Member of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. He lives in Talent, Oregon. Views expressed in this article are solely his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forest Service or any other government agency. He can be contacted at fisheater67@hotmail.com.

About Caitlin Thompson