Hells Canyon Through the Eyes of an International Student
A German College Student Gets a Taste of American Adventure on the Snake River
“I’m not sure your dad accurately prepared me for the trip,” Robin laughed somewhat nervously as the rain pounded emphatically and determinedly on the roof of the picnic table shelter we were huddled under at the Hells Canyon put-in. It was October and the forecast was rain, rain and a bit more rain after that.
Robin is from Germany; he traveled to Idaho to study education at Boise State University and my dad was his sponsoring professor. Dad did his best to give Robin an American experience during his semester abroad: they carved pumpkins on Halloween, they went to Broncos football games, we ate a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, and hunted for a Christmas tree in the national forest outside of Idaho City. But in my opinion, most important to his American education was his Hells Canyon rafting trip down the Snake River.
“He made it seem like a fun family adventure,” Robin mused with a smile and a side of apprehension. Rivulets of water ran off his soaked hat. Thunder rumbled in the distance. The rain kept pounding.
“That’s what it is,” Sarah piped up. She paused before adding, “for them.” I laughed because it’s true. An October trip down Hells Canyon is a tradition of ours. We don’t manage every year, but we’ve got a pretty good track record going back to sixth grade for me. There’s been snow, snakes, and swims.
This year, it was wet. It poured and it never let up. Plus, it was absolutely frigid. The trip had all the trappings of misery, to be sure, yet, that landscape doesn’t allow for too much discontent. The sumac dusted the hillsides with fiery red vibrance, the bright yellow willows vividly dotted the shoreline and the low hanging clouds created a misty sense of mystery about the cliffs. The solitude rang off the canyon walls, and the stillness filled us.
I did worry that we’d thrown Robin to the wolves. I watched him shiver in the downpour, and I crossed my fingers that the rain would let up so we could dry out and warm up. Despite the bitter cold and the relentless rain, he looked upstream as we bobbed in the tailwaves of Waterspout Rapid, squinting into the sun that had finally appeared and said with a smile, “Not many international students are getting this experience, I know that for sure.”
Later, after the trip, Robin told me, “Germany does not feature that many rivers suited to do this type of rafting. I could not really imagine what the trip overall was going to be like.” He said the most foreign part was, “without a doubt going ashore and just setting up a camp right then and there. From my experience in Germany, you are not allowed to just camp in nature like that…I have never heard of anything like that before.”
So much of my youth was spent setting up camp on the side of the river, I sometimes forget that this access we have is a privilege that makes the American West what it is.
Robin is no stranger to mountainous terrain, having visited the Alps many times, but he said “Hells Canyon offered something completely new and different, which I feel is not really fathomable unless you go there and see it with your own eyes. All the mountain ranges besides the river and also Snake River itself literally slithering through these mountain ranges were a truly unbelievable sight. I would even go as far as to say something the likes of which I have never experienced before and will be tough to replicate.”
He’s right, too. This world is full of wonder and grandeur, from Germany to Idaho. But there is something undefinable about the Snake.
Yes, Robin ate apple pie, and carved a pumpkin; he watched football and student-taught in a public high school, but he also did something even more American: reveled in the majesty of a wild space.
Hells Canyon Photos – Jasmine Wilhelm, Erik Boomer