Our Little Patch of Hell
The area known as Hell’s Canyon between the border of Oregon and Idaho is aptly named. Without the lifeline of water running from the Snake River and filling large man-made reservoirs between man-made dams, this place would be a good place to go if you wanted to test your personal stamina in harsh conditions. Which seems perfect for an extended family camp trip. My Dad, a true outdoorsman for life, doesn’t live far from the area on the Idaho side & for years he has made camp there just North of the Oxbow Dam on a stretch of land called Big Bar.
The Best Produce For Miles
What was once a thriving fruit orchard (circa 1910), to which people would travel from miles around during the summer months, is now a bit of an recreational oasis in the canyon. Unlike a few campsites that you pass on the road, there is no current irrigation in Big Bar. Which means a lack of the color green to help convince your body’s thermometer that you aren’t in something akin to a Dutch Painter’s (circa 1650) interpretation of Hell. And unlike the complex imagery of Hieronymus Bosch, Big Bar is a simple affair of a campground, boasting only vault toilets and few other amenities.
For what it lacks in lushness & potable water, Big Bar makes up for in a still thriving fruit crop of plum, apricot, apples and wild blackberry & wildlife sightings. When in season, it can feel downright paradisiac with all the fruit hanging around. It’s easy to get excited about a camp breakfast when it includes a fresh picked, fruit drizzled with a quickly made fruit syrup.
It’s not uncommon for people to come totally prepared to preserve fruits while in camp. One year we met a father and son team who came down with a ladder, a dehydrator and a complete canning set up. They didn’t even bother with a tent, but reserved any available room in their vehicle for the jars and bags of fruit they would bring home.
They chose wisely, since sleeping out under the stars in Hells’s Canyon pays big dividends in stargazing and overall personal comfort. The temperature doesn’t really dip below 55 degrees on a warm, summer night and the lack of electricity leaves a light pollution free sky viewing experience.
Although, the fruit, when ripe, does tend to bring a sizable population of small, brown bears to Big Bar, this is merely a side note and won’t require any Alaskan reality show skills. They are only interested in the fruit. Our timing for harvest was a bit early and our group had to make due with a handful of barely ripe apricots. But, that doesn’t mean we went without.
Fish Fry Here Too
The waters of the reservoir are teeming with fish that jump and pretty much skip about. A constant background noise that delights the young and old alike. My family enjoys fishing for bass and some trout while down there. A fish fry can pretty much be a nightly thing. Many folks bring boats to access the water’s various areas, allowing them to take in more of the canyon and fulfill a need for speed via watercraft sports.
The Water is Fine (most of the time)
On a drought year you can be disappointed by the water’s plague of blue-green algae. Which, as you may know, is considered unsafe to swim in. A real bummer when your sitting in Hell’s Canyon summer heat. This year, water a plenty, we happily swam, floated and cliff jumped into the waters. It’s a good idea to check water quality annually before you make the drive.
One thing about being in that hot, dry environment is that you don’t really crave a campfire. In fact, some days it’s about the last thing you want to get going. Which makes it hard to cook over fire or enjoy a toasty smores dessert.
This year, I came prepared with our dutch oven and a plan for making a sweet, layered treat that didn’t require a campfire. With a little home prep, it was surprisingly easy to whip up a batch of a tula favorite: Chocolita Bars. Although, I omitted the cinnamon and cayenne that these bars always had sprinkled over the top in the bakery. We used to call it “the tula cinnamon challenge”. When I thought of how dry and parched everyone already is in that canyon, it just seemed like unnecessary torture. Kinda like a Dutch Painting circa 1650.