50 Mile Canoe Trip on the Snake River

I work with a group of young men through my church and as a Boy Scout unit. Every year we try to do a “high adventure” activity where we do something outdoors, fun, and challenging for a few days. Last year we went on a ~25 mile backpacking trip in the White Cloud mountains. This year we did a 50 mile canoe trip on the Snake River. It did not disappoint.

The preparation for a canoe trip is much more difficult than a backpacking trip, and I also had zero experience. For backpacking, a group just needs to pick a good route, plan food, pack well, and drive there. For a canoe trip a group has to do all of that, plus gather enough canoes, life jackets, and oars for the group, get trailers to pull them, and get people to drop you off and pick you up (for a one way trip on a river). Packing is also more difficult since gear must be packed in dry bags and most people don’t have dry bags. Plus, there is added risk being on the water.

This meant that much more preparation was required. Fortunately we had some people chip in and we were able to gather enough gear for everyone. We got 12 big dry bags from one acquaintance, and that was a huge help. We also had a couple parents and leaders donate time to drive us back and forth.

The water flow on the Snake varied a ton this year. To verify its safety, another leader and I did a 1.5 mile test run right below Swan Falls. We felt much better after this.

Then the week before we left, flows were increased by 100% compared to our test run. This freaked me out but fortunately flows were taken back down by the time we hit the river.

Note how the flows were down in late May when we did our test run, then they spiked up right before our trip

Day 1 – Canoeing on CJ Strike Reservoir

Our canoe trip commenced on Tuesday, June 20. We were dropped off at the north camp ground right on CJ Strike Reservoir in the morning. Immediately we were swarmed by these pesky flies or moths. They didn’t bite, but they flew right into your face and ears. We set up some tents and dropped gear in the shade and got out on the water away from the bugs.

This was our first significant time on the water, so I wanted to do it on the reservoir where we wouldn’t have to battle strong currents. We rowed about 1.5 miles across the CJ Strike to the bank on the other side. It was fun and relaxing. It was also hot, so when we got across most of us jumped into the water. It took about a half hour to get back when we had a slight headwind (and I was in the slowest canoe).

We spent the rest of the day messing around the reservoir. We played on a dock, did some fishing, and had a fireside. It was quite hot and the bugs were relentless, so we were happy when a breeze picked up in the evening.

Day 2 – Canoeing from CJ Strike on the Snake River

On Wednesday, we needed to portage the canoes from the reservoir down past the dam to the Snake River. This was a distance of about 0.6 miles (one way) down a decent hill. We had 13 people, 7 canoes, and all our gear. We packed all our gear into our canoes and then started lugging them with 5-7 people carrying a canoe at a time. This was not easy. I think I ended up making 4 trips up and down the hill. It took about 1.5-2 hours to get all the canoes and gear down, at which time we were all ready for lunch.

After eating and refilling our water bottles it was go time! I was nervous as this would be my first time on a river with a bunch of young men in canoes. I assigned the pairs of boys to try to put some stronger boys with weaker ones so that the canoes would be fairly even. This resulted in some whining, but I think they understood why it was necessary. I was going solo in a light aluminum canoe.

We lined up all the canoes on a little boat ramp and then pushed off one by one in a pre-determined order. I was near the back, and watching 6 other canoes being steered down the river was a great sight.

I figured the river was flowing 3-5 miles per hour and we had about 15 miles to go. That would put us there in ~4 hours. I came to realize that it was actually about 18 miles and we would not even hit 3mph. That meant over 6 hours, which is quite a difference!

As we canoed down the river, we started noticing the wind picking up. Of course it was in our face. This made for some choppy spots. But the real problem with the wind is that it would force the canoes towards the bank. Once the wind was a steady 15-20mph (and it was), it would turn a canoe and then the paddlers would fight to point it into the wind while moving sideways across the river.

Going solo was a mistake for me. I thought it would give me a little versatility, allow us to pack more, and I wanted to try it out anyways, but I would have been much more useful as the third person in a canoe with two weaker paddlers. I was able to manage solo OK, although it was very strenuous and tough to keep up sometimes. The issue was that there were one or two boys that were very weak paddlers. I tried switching them with other partners, but we always seemed to have at least one canoe that was way far back and trying to pull itself out of the reeds on the side of the river.

This made for slow progress and some frustration. It was also a risk as there were times when we would get way too spread out and the slow canoe was way behind with no one to help if they were to get swamped. With the wind, swamping was definitely a concern. I had a couple close calls when I hit a swell sideways and got startled as my canoe rolled to the side.

We took a break in Grand View, a little less than half way to our destination. We just pulled out under a bridge, had some snacks, and swapped some partners. I also looked up the actual distance on my map and realized we had a couple more miles than what I’d led everyone to believe.

I also encouraged everyone to reapply sunscreen. This was very important given that we were totally exposed on the river and would be all week. The most burned body part ended up being the top of the thigh (above the quads). Boys would apply sunscreen while wearing shorts without thinking that their shorts would ride up while sitting in the canoe, exposing some very white skin.

We pressed on and the wind continued to be relentless. It was nice to be wearing a GPS watch so I knew approximately how far we had gone and how far we had left.

We finally rounded a turn with about a mile to go. It was protected by the wind thanks to Jackass Butte, and it made for a pleasant last mile. That was until we made another turn and discovered a few huge eddies in a big flat area right before where we wanted to pull out. Some canoes couldn’t get through at first and one almost got swamped.

This was right next to the area I planned on camping, so I powered through the eddies and dragged my canoe up a bank with thick shrubbery. A couple of the boys and I searched for a better spot to pull all the other canoes out. We eventually settled on a spot that was barely accessible and ended up taking the next 30-45 minutes pulling canoes and gear up a steep bank to a dirt road.

Exhausted, we ate dinner at 9pm and camped right on the dirt road. A couple boys shed some tears and I went to bed worried about the next day.

Day 3 – Another 17 Miles on the Snake River

We awoke to a breezy morning and had breakfast. We assigned canoes and started loading gear.

Everyone was rejuvenated by the arrival of two additional, energized leaders. I was praying (literally) that they would be able to find us and would arrive without issues. They pulled up at 9am and I rejoiced. They brought some treats, extra muscle, and great attitudes which lifted everyone’s spirits.

This meant that I would no longer be solo and we could have one 3-man canoe. We could see the swells and white caps in the river, so this was a big relief.

We set out before 11am and started making our way down the river. Even though the wind was still strong, we now had more power and expectations that were more aligned with reality.

The river becomes very wide and a little slower as it approaches Swan Falls Dam, so the swells were fairly large, with white caps and waves that must have been >2ft tall. However, it was more fun and felt safer with the extra leaders and experience gained the day before.

This stretch was much more scenic: vast canyon walls, fish jumping, and even some deer swimming from an island to the shore.

We arrived at Swan Falls at about 6pm and we were able to secure a decent camping spot right on the river with easy access to grab our canoes. Everyone had a much better day than the day before.

Day 4 – Canoeing from Swan Falls to Celebration Park

Our final day on the river was great. The water was flowing relatively fast, there was no headwind, and we got to hit some fun rapids.

First we had to portage past the Swan Falls dam. On the left side of the river/reservoir there’s a nice takeout area with a trail for portaging. We loaded our gear, rowed our canoes across the reservoir, then parked them at the bank. This portage was much easier than our portage past CJ Strike dam. We had more people, it was a shorter distance, and a smaller hill.

Once past the dam we put our canoes in and enjoyed faster flowing water. I knew there were some rapids and I was slightly concerned about them. Sure enough, about 2-3 miles downstream we experienced our first swamped canoe in one of the rapids. The canoe that tipped was known to be the least stable, but the two boys that were in it managed to stay with the canoe and their gear was tied down enough that they didn’t lose anything. I believe they hit a rapid sideways somehow.

We pulled into an eddy and transferred some of their gear to more able canoes to lighten their load. It turned out to be kind of a fun experience and I think the boys that were dumped actually enjoyed it.

This also made everyone a bit more careful on future rapids. We didn’t have any more problems.

We arrived at Celebration Park in good time, only taking ~3 hours to travel the 11 miles (including stops).

We played at the dock for a few hours and had a lot of fun while we waited for dinner. Some parents met us at Celebration Park and we celebrated our 50 mile canoe trip with a delicious Dutch Oven dinner. We also had a spiritual discussion and talked about lessons learned on our trip, which was fantastic.

Overall the trip was great. I think that everyone involved will remember it fondly for the rest of their lives, myself included. If I had known the waves and wind we would encounter, I might have had second thoughts about going beforehand. However, in hindsight I’m glad we went and I’m glad we were challenged. I’m also glad our last day was smooth and enjoyable, since it’s always nice to end on a very positive note.

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